A few years ago, I saw a big studio movie that left me feeling dirty. Not in the fun kind of way, but in a way that made me feel squicky and devalued as a woman. It wasn’t so much the way the main female lead was treated by male characters (though that was problematic), nor even how she was dressed (though that was also an issue). Even those two elements, demeaning as they were, I could have dealt with. No, what tipped me over the edge was the unrelenting and overt male gaze of the cinematography. Lingering body shots of her breasts and butt, permanent placement of her booty-shorted rear facing the camera in near every group shot, an egregiously unnecessary wet t-shirt scene; anything the camera could do to reduce her to an object, it did. But while that movie was one of the worst recent offenders, it’s hardly the only movie with a pronounced male gaze.
It’s why I found myself marveling as I watched Ari Aster’s Midsommar, for the exact opposite reason: I’ve become so accustomed to the vast majority of studio movies being centered on the male gaze that to watch one, even from an indie studio, that utterly lacked it was astonishing. And yet, rather than detract from the film, Midsommar‘s lack of male gaze made it that much stronger.
On the surface, the story of Midsommar is a strangers in a strange land horror fable; underneath, it’s a tale about the deterioration of an unhealthy relationship that should have met its end long ago. As a gal who has previously lived with someone whose instability and mood swings created a stressful quagmire of uncertainty, I initially empathized with Christian (Jack Reynor). Dani (Florence Pugh) is A Lot with a capital “A” and a capital “L,” and conversations with the other characters let us know it isn’t a recent thing. Even Dani’s own conversation with her friend, worrying she’ll push Christian away because of her neediness, informs us of this. Dani is a partner who demands constant emotional labor.
Yet over the course of the movie, I found my sympathies shifting allegiances to Dani, and it was in large part thanks to the lack of male gaze. Dani easily could have been framed as a stereotypical “hot girl” nag, but, all due respect to the lovely Florence Pugh, there is nothing hot about Dani in Midsommar, not even in the “Hollywood ugly” sort of way. You know what I’m talking about. That tired trope where we’re supposed to believe an unequivocally attractive female character is unattractive simply because she wears glasses or dresses in a more conservative manner. That’s what suffices for “unattractive” in Hollywood terms, because Hollywood is generally run by men who still want their ugly ducklings to be conventionally hot, or, at the very least, conventionally hot-adjacent.
Not so Dani. She spends the entire movie in shapeless t-shirts and mom shorts, sweats or moth-eaten sweaters, everything meant to obscure the female form rather than enhance. Half the time her hair is dirty and lank, pulled up in the messy half-ponytail of a woman neither trying to impress nor seduce anyone. The clothes, the hair, they’re the mark of a woman in deep depression, sure. But everything about how Dani is visually portrayed pulls double duty in also being completely uninterested in catering to the typical male fantasy. She’s not sultry. She’s not sexy. She’s not put together. Men who have ever lived with a woman will confirm for those who haven’t that Dani is more realistic than any fictional hot girl overlooked by men because of a pair of glasses. The minute I get home from work, cotton shorts or sweats go on, the bra comes off, and I grab a ratty old t-shirt or tank top. On the weekends and especially when I’m single? Even worse. I’m not trying to impress anyone and neither is Dani. It’s relatable, a refreshingly real look at a female character that, for once, has absolutely nothing to do with what men want to see in a woman, but what women recognize in ourselves.
The background women of Midsommar continue this subversion of what we normally come to expect of the physical portrayal of women on screen. There is a scene where Christian is drugged and stripped naked and pushed into performing ritualistic sex, a forced submissive role usually reserved for female characters. More interesting, however, are the naked women in the room with him chanting a fertility spell. There are no smooth and sylphlike figures, few nubile young bodies. Aged, withered, generous fat and cellulite, scrawny and sinewy, pubic hair and dimples, it is an honest look at female bodies without a glossy filter, all the natural, unphotoshopped flaws exposed for the camera. A distinct line is drawn between sex and sexy, between titillating and functional. Their bodies are not meant to be a seductive display but a primal one displayed for their pagan fertility gods, not the male audience watching.
It’s not just what the cinematography chooses to focus on that subverts the male gaze, however, but also how it chooses to do it. When the camera lingers on Dani, it lingers on her face, not her form, concerned with the empathic response evoked by her emotions rather than a physical one evoked by her body. Credit to Ari Aster, he is a master at pulling emotionally ravaging, heightened performances from his actors, particularly his lead women. Even in this, Dani’s responses undermine the male gaze. In keeping with “Hollywood ugly,” actresses are expected to cry but somehow still look put together and cute doing it. But Florence Pugh is an unleashed powerhouse of emotion, screaming like a banshee, red-faced and wailing in a way that cuts right to the bone. Her rawness is astonishing, her unbridled emotion transcendent, the kind of pure female emotion that, quite frankly, tends to unnerve lesser men. It’s a bit of acting that Hollywood rarely likes to portray lest the attractive spell of its female characters be broken.
It’s exactly this lack of expected catering to the male gaze, whether purposely or subconsciously, that leaves such an impact. Midsommar digs deep, getting straight to the raw, heartbreaking, tumultuous depths of a woman’s grief. Depression is ugly. Pain – real, lived, all-encompassing pain – is ugly. Grief doesn’t care how attractive you are while it’s ripping you apart, and every single shot of Midsommar underscores this truth. No male gaze, but rather a two-and-a-half-hour unblinking stare directly at Dani’s anguish. It gets its hooks in you and lingers, all because of where it doesn’t look rather than where it does. It’s all the more memorable for it.