‘Creative Control,’ Virtual Reality, And The Male Gaze

By Noah Berlatsky

The male gaze is everywhere — perhaps in real life, but definitely in cultural criticism. And not just in criticism, either, but art, and film itself. The idea that women are presented, or constructed, for male viewing pleasure has become such a meta-theme that it’s on the verge of turning into a meta-cliché. Films like Her and Ex Machina use the male gaze as deliberate self-reference. The main female characters in the film are literally artificial intelligences; they’re images or representations of women created at male whim to serve male needs. The movies are about the way movies (and other art) package artificial women.

That’s the conceit behind Creative Control too. The film’s selling point is Virtual Reality exploitation: what sexy, decadent things will happen in a future with better virtual reality programming and better drugs? But it’s also very much about the male gaze. David (Benjamin Dickinson) works at an advertising company on an account for Augmenta, which creates new awesome virtual reality eyeglasses. David becomes obsessed with the glasses at the same time as he becomes obsessed with his co-worker Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen.)

Inevitably, he uses the glasses to create a sexually compliant Sophie-avatar/image — a woman literally wished into existence by the gaze of his male eyeglass. Soon (with the help of fistfuls of pills) real-Sophie and fake-Sophie begin to blur, and David’s relationships with his girlfriend, friends, and job disintegrate. The moral, as with Ex Machina and Her is clear; the male gaze is creepy at best and destructive at worse. Treating women as things rather than human beings is ugly. Guys who do these things will suffer for it.

But will they? The moral here is perhaps a little pat — especially considering that the actor playing David, Benjamin Dickinson, is also the director of the film. Once you know that, it’s hard not to notice that David and Dickinson are doing the exact same thing with their male gazes at the exact same time. David programs the image of Sophie to prance around nude and mime sex with him — and Dickinson, as director/lead actor, orders Alexia Rasmussen, as the image of Sophie, to prance around nude and mime sex with him. Is Creative Control an examination of the male gaze? Or is it just a rehashing of it, with the self-awareness serving less as a critique, and more as self-aware, smirking excuse?

In answering that question, it helps to turn back to the article which inaugurated gaze theory in its current form: Laura Mulvey’s classic “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” published in 1975.

What’s interesting about Mulvey’s essay is that it isn’t primarily concerned with image, but with narrative. Yes, Mulvey argues that cinema is structured around gender and visual pleasure: “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly,” she writes. Men look; women are the object of the look.

But for Mulvey the look occurs, or takes on meaning within, a story. The male gaze isn’t just about the gaze; it’s about the male. Male characters control the action of the film in the interest of the visual pleasure of an iconically male viewer. Mulvey says:

“[T]he split between [female] spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen. The man controls the film fantasy . . . As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his life, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.”

In other words, for Mulvey, the male gaze is not just focused on women. Instead, the male gaze is importantly focused by men on men. It is the look that identifies men with the active, powerful, gazing character on screen. The male gaze doesn’t just turn women into objects. It also places men within the film narrative as the primary point of identification. Male gaze does not just render women as passive images; it turns men into active protagonists.

And this is precisely what happens in Creative Control. David is the focus of narrative attention and interest for virtually the whole film, with only brief detours to the point of view of his girlfriend Juliette (Nora Zehetner). On the other hand, Sophie, the object of the gaze, is never much more deeply examined than her computer generated avatar; “You barely even know me” she tells David, and that’s true of the audience as well. Sophie is mostly just a thing in David’s mind; a body at which he and the camera stare with a mixture of admiration, lust, and confusion. It’s David who has adventures; it’s David who we’re supposed to root for, and/or pity, and/or despise. And it’s David, at the end, who is ironically, ambivalently, but still, told that he is a creative genius for making Sophie into an avatar. Sophie’s a fashion designer herself, but in the economics of the film, it turns out she is worth much more as (sexualized) muse than she is as artist. No one cares about the clothes she makes, but her naked image is to be used in a major marketing campaign without her consent. David has creative control; Sophie not so much.

Ex Machina and Her are both more self-consciously feminist than Creative Control, but they too struggle to break out of the male/male gaze. Both films insist that women are more than the image men make of them — but they still see those women primarily from the perspective — and the narrative — of the men who made them. In Her, the main male character grows as a person; in Ex Machina, the main male characters are destroyed. But whether they experience transcendence or revenge, the narrative focuses on the experience of men. They’re the ones with the most screentime; the stories are framed as their stories.

When Mulvey wrote “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she wasn’t hoping for more films that were self-conscious about women’s commodification. She was hoping for the death of narrative cinema, with its reliance on male/male identification and voyeurism — or, in her words, for “the decline of the traditional film form.” Instead, looking a few years up the timeline, films like Creative Control simply reimagine old genre conventions with slightly updated technology and marginally more self-consciousness. The new films look much like the old films. If you want a different future, Mulvey believed, you need a different story, and a different gaze.

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Lead image: Creative Control Trailer/ YouTube