With this month's arrest of revenge porn mogul Hunter Moore, the on-going debate about female representation in video games continuing to rage around GTA V, and growing concerns about the sexualisation of under-age models in fashion campaigns, the media representation of young women and girls is becoming more and more provocative. In film, however, the evidence has been there all along, and in the light of these recent political developments I decided to return to the roots of the male gaze and its apparently inherent tendency to sexualise youth and innocence.

The sexualisation of youth and innocence is a sinister force in the history of film, found perhaps most memorably in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), or most recently in Park Chan-wook's Stoker (2013). An enduring concern of filmmakers since the dawn of the moving picture, the earliest examples of the male gaze and its corruption of innocence surface from both Western and Eastern silent cinema.

There is a striking tension between women cast as children and children cast as women in these early films, and as a result the boundaries between sexual innocence and sexual maturity are distorted on both a physical and psychological level.

Film criticism has contextualised the development of the innocence of women and the sexualisation of children; the suggestion is that actresses such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish are unintentionally and innocently alluring, and that over time the child or young woman becomes more intentionally provocative and sexual. In fact, this commonly-received development is not a result of a change in the behaviour of young women, but a change in the perception of young women. Over time, the male gaze has adapted to account for adolescent girls as a threat to their sexual integrity. Once the act of sexualising youth and innocence is no longer an innocent act itself, these young women become sexually charged by the male gaze. The woman's behaviour less affects the fabric of the film than the male narrative through which the events of the film are witnessed.

It is both interesting and important to note that the directors who deal with the sexualisation of youth are predominantly male; DW Griffith and Yasijuro Ozu make up a large part of the silent cinema that this discussion deals with, while Stanley Kubrick and Park Chan-wook are instrumental in bringing the concern into the present day.


Object and Perception: "You are what you wear"

In DW Griffith's early silent short The New York Hat (1912), he uses Mary Pickford to act out the story of a girl as she develops from a naive innocent consciousness into a pubescent sexualised consciousness. This development relies upon the use of objects; objects become a vehicle through which certain ideas are realised - in this case, a hat.

In this film, objects dictate the perception of the girl, and not the girl herself. After her mother dies, the mother leaves the pastor with a secret sum of money in order to buy her daughter the finery which is forbidden by her father. When the young girl requires a new hat, the pastor goes to buy her the most expensive hat in town. It is not only this act, but the object of the hat which scandalises her: the father rips up the hat in an act of redemption, a desperate sacrifice in order to restore her sexual innocence. Ultimately, it is the hat - both in itself, and as a gift from the pastor - that casts the young daughter as a sexual being, not her inherent physical or emotional development throughout the short drama of this film. It is the development of both society's and the pastor's gaze, and not the development of the girl, that initiates her into scandalised adulthood.

The scandal is proven wrong, when the pastor produces the note from the mother and justifies himself in the giving of the hat, but it does not prevent the premature sexualisation of the daughter. The hat ultimately behaves as a vehicle through which Mollie Goodhue's sexual maturity is realised, and her sexual innocence permanently lost, which is affirmed by the act of marriage proposal by the minister at the end of this short film.


When Little Girls Go Bad

DW Griffith's later feature film Broken Blossoms (1919) stars film history's most enduring actress, Lillian Gish. The heroine of the silent era, in this film Gish is cast as the little girl, victimised physically by her father, and yet innocently seduced by 'The Yellow Man'. In the opening titles, Gish is cast as a young victim, when they describe the 'striking [of] the helpless with brutal whip'. She is as young and provocative as, say, Lolita, but her perceived innocence and young girls' own unrealised sexuality belongs to the era, making her less threatening.

The male gaze, however, remains the same. 'The Yellow Man' sexualises and covets our heroine's innocence to the same extent as Stanley Kubrick's Humbert Humbert, and yet Lolita's sexuality is perceived as much more threatening. It is only once these young girls are made aware of their own sexuality through the male gaze that they become, in turn, provocative. In Broken Blossoms, different kinds of over-sexualisation pervade the fabric of the film, often in the form of symbolic duality. The character of Lucy (Lillian Gish) clings to her dolls for security, but do they represent her immaturity and naivety as a child, or her loss of innocence and sexual maturity? Is she cast as child or parent? Despite her inviting body and oft-sexualised pout, Lucy's ultimately physical and emotional weaknesses are enough to cast her as the victim, and for the male gaze to remain preying, but unthreatened. 'The Yellow Man', however, is threatening. He is cast as her saviour - his love remains 'pure' compared to the physical and emotional torment that Lucy's father causes her - but when he emerges from the shadows and she lays in his bed, he forces her to recoil with his hard stare. The fear is present and detectable in her melodramatic eyes. He is an emotional, rather than a physical predator, and his voyeurism, however innocent it is perceived to be, is evocative of Humbert Humbert in Kubrick's later and more provocative film Lolita.

However, where Lolita (Sue Lyon) is allowed to run wild, and is rarely disciplined, she lacks the counter-part male role that so effectively casts Lucy as victim and 'The Yellow Man' as innocent lover. As a result, Lolita is cast as the predator: it is her own naive, over-sexualised behaviour against Humbert Humbert's harmless, yet sinister voyeuristic narrative. Ultimately, Lucy relies upon 'The Yellow Man' for protection from her father. As physical violence becomes a very real threat to this adolescent girl, sexual and psychological voyeurism becomes much more a tangible means of victimising and violating her youth. Ultimately, it is the similarity between the father's gaze and the lover's gaze that results in the physical, emotional, and sexual violation that Lucy falls victim to.


Exoticism and the East: Sexualisation and Empowerment

An understanding of the male gaze unravels very differently in Eastern cinema. One of Japan's most cherished directors, Yasijuro Ozu, produces his silent short The Woman of Tokyo in order to demonstrate a very early example of film narrative explored through the eyes of a woman.

The film's heroine Chikako is entirely unconventional: she is a sister simultaneously adopting the roles of mother, wife, housekeeper, money-earner, and provider, single-handedly supporting herself and her brother, who studies in Tokyo. In this rare reversal of roles, where the brother is ultimately cast as weak and the woman provides the main source of familial support and income, the film provides a basis upon which the 'women as victim' stereotype can be challenged. In Ozu's film, it is the sexualisation of this young girl that empowers her. In a curious twist of fate, it is the brother who falls victim to his sister's practices as a seedy club hostess and alleged prostitute, while for Chikako it allows her to be self-sufficient and provide financially for her brother. The shame of being sexualised, however, is as acutely felt in Ozu's work as it is in DW Griffith's. Chikako's brother commits suicide out of shame for his sister and his own humiliation. Chikako brings disgrace to her brother's fiancé's family by being associated with them. And despite using prostitution for her own self-empowerment, her financial affluence and independence ironically rely upon the male gaze and her own objectification by the male sex.

However, despite every reason Chikako is given to feel shame for her actions, it is her brother who is verbally cast as the 'weakling' and Chikako who emerges somewhat strong and triumphant, standing fast in the face of adversity.

Ozu, then, challenges the male gaze, presenting his viewer with a gender-balanced narrative and empowered female roles, while DW Griffith entirely caters for the male gaze. By diverting attention from a sinisterly voyeuristic Western male gaze, DW Griffith ironically and actively implicates it in the tragedy itself. And the echoes of such tantalising and tragic narratives are still felt in Hollywood today...