One article describes Ti West’s movie X as a hard movie to watch for anyone with a female body, another spoke of yet another portrayal of older women’s naked bodies as a source of fear and repulsion and more than once I read that X‘s geriatric villains are its weakest link. Dated horror tropes that should be left in the past, damaging to women.
Is X damaging to women?
X takes place in the seventies. It is about three guys and three girls who plan to film a dirty movie ‘Farmer’s Daughters’ in Texas. Their motives vary; the film student wants to prove a dirty movie can be a good movie, one girl Maxine dreams to be a star, some just want to make money. For the shoot they rent a barn from an elderly couple, Howard and Pearl, unaware of their plans. Then the action unfolds. Visually it hits the right spot, it looks grainy, colorful, warm. The fashion, the make-up, the ideas, it all oozes the atmosphere of that decade. The seventies is also the exact time of Laura Mulvey’s famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, where she introduced the concept ‘the male gaze’ to the public. She demonstrated the way gazing in cinema uncovers the unconscious structures of patriarchal society. Her plan was to analyze (male) visual pleasure and by doing so to destroy it.
Laura Mulvey’s Seventies Male Gaze
Mulvey states that the world is ordered by sexual imbalance which splits visual pleasure into active male looking and passive female being-looked-at. The role of the woman in narrative cinema is to be displayed and looked at. When a woman pops up on the big screen she is a visual spectacle, she freezes the flow of action. ‘In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.’ She is on display, an erotic object for the characters in the story and for the spectators in the audience. The man is the active one, he drives the story’s narrative forward. He creates the action (and gets or saves the woman in the end). He is the bearer of the look, he is the one who gazes.
The Gaze in X
Who is looking at whom in X? The characters are evenly split in men and women, so there is no in-balance in that regard.
All six of the dirty movie group are possible objects to-be-looked-at. The guys are just as skimpily dressed as the girls. Two guys are in production of the movie, one acts. For the girls it is the other way around, two are acting, one is in production but at one point she wants to be an actor too. That might make the girls quantitatively more ‘to-be-looked-at’ objects but X portrays the filming of the dirty movie in a way that interferes with visual pleasure from looking at naked bouncing bodies. The footage of the dirty movie is shown via a different format, a square screen, and these footage is mixed with images from the people filming it. You see these two layers from the start, but soon a third is added. Images from what happens in the house of the elderly couple are mixed with the shooting of the dirty movie, with the effect that those stories influence each other. In one scene the acting of erotic tension in the barn spills over to the scene between Maxine and Pearl, but in spilling over it turns scary, eerie. When Maxine looks over her shoulder filming a dirty scene, we see Pearl looking over her shoulder. Via split screens the dirty scenes become scenes where they are unaware of the grander picture. Their actions are intimately tied to something sinister. Something will happen. They become vulnerable. The naked bodies become vulnerable.
The visual pleasure of porn is transferred to a different type of visual pleasure, the visual pleasure of horror. The audience gaze is aimed towards visual spectacle of violence, towards violent spectacle that freezes the time, and freezes the narrative. The objects to-be-looked-at from violence in X are mostly men and the killings of the men win quantitatively as objects for spectacular visual pleasure.
However, the most important active gaze is in X is without a doubt from Pearl. She looks. Often. And she is far from passive, she takes action. Pearl is a the biggest force driving the narrative.
In the beginning she looks from her house to Maxine, who notices someone is looking at her. Later when Maxine takes a swim she is again being looked at by Pearl but this time she doesn’t notice her. Pearl beckons her inside when she walks back from swimming. Pearl looks at Maxine unnoticed when Maxine is acting a dirty scene in the barn. Pearl looks at Maxine sleeping, and creeps up naked besides her in bed to touch her.
In X there is no active male gaze pushing the narrative forward. It is a female gaze.
But what about the fear and repulsion looking at Pearl’s aged body?
Who exactly is repulsed by her desire and aging body? Maxine shows disgust when she wakes up and sees Pearl lying naked next to her. I think that she would have been disgusted too if Howard would have been there, it is deeply disturbing to find someone in your bed.
Overall the characters on screen do not seem disgusted by Pearl nor her nakedness. The only one who has been called ugly is Howard. Until Pearl grabs their bodies she is treated friendly. They are nice to her, even when she walks around seemingly confused and half naked. (‘Ma’am, be careful.’ ‘Ma’am, can I help you.’) It is Pearl who wants nothing of that friendliness.
What does Pearl want? Sex? She seems not so much to desire sex but the power she once had with her body. In her own words she says she misses that most. She says that Howard used to do anything for her, but she doesn’t notice that Howard still would do anything for her.
Howard gets quite annoyed that the young lads might incite his lady, he himself at an age where he can’t give her what she wants anymore. Not because he finds her unattractive, let alone disgusting, but because he wants to stay alive, it has become too dangerous for his heart.
Pearl doesn’t want love, she wants power over others. She has lost that passive and automatic power by being-looked-at, now she has to take it actively. A different type of power. Power by force. By death. And with help from her loving Howard. He gives her what she wants, and in the end ‘that’ too, and his heart can’t take it.
In the barn the crew discusses love and sex. Someone says that one day you’ll be too old to fuck, so better make use of it now. This remark is not about society’s pressure on women to look young and beautiful (she doesn’t speak only about women), but a memento mori. And with Pearl around that end might come sooner that you think.
I do not Accept a Life I do not Deserve
‘I do not accept a life I do not deserve’ is Maxine’s mantra, spoken to herself in the mirror. It sounds like a phrase from a self-help book. In a conversation she says she wants more out of life than where she came from. Later we learn that her phrase is not something she picked up herself, but a phrase she must have heard a million times from her father, a televangelist. In these words she is tied to her past, but she wants to change the meaning of the words she heard so often, to make them work for her. ‘I do not accept a life I do not deserve.’
Her mirroring with Pearl also seems to reflect this mantra. Pearl’s fate is inter-weaved with Maxine’s. Pearl surely is not planning to accept a life she does not deserve. These two are the last women standing in X‘s slashing: the one’s who take their lives in their own control get to be final girl. One feminist message.