The Male Gaze in Arab Cinema: Youssef Chahine between Voyeuristic Pleasure and Male Exhibitionism

Introduction

In her infamous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, written decades ago, Laura Mulvey concluded that to absolve traditional, classical filmmaking of its masculinity and misogyny, one should annihilate voyeurism as one of the basic pleasures to be extracted from the narrative cinema. Mulvey’s essay saw the light in the 1970s and was met with a stir on both the film critique and feminist levels.

Mulvey pointed out how patriarchy helped shape classic filmmaking, in making women the abstract object the “to-be-seen”, ensuring that women are usually the object used by a male director, and thus filtered and seen through his lens; whether a warrior or a suffering lover or a prostitute. With a man behind the camera, choosing certain angles forces us as spectators to focus on certain female body parts and watch the female body through the male gaze. 

In Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, viewers watch the slow-motion murder scene of a woman in her underwear, where they are given the voyeuristic pleasure of punishing this sexy, dangerous woman who represented a threat to the male protagonist and thus deserved punishment on his hands. The male substituted this sacrificial death for the lack (fear of castration) and thus returned home safe and sound after fetishistically satisfying his fear of the other i.e. women. 

Behind the Scenes of “The Emigrant”

One of the problems with Mulvey’s essay culminates in ignoring the queer gaze and how powerful it would shift the narrative or the film experience “en totale”. Throughout this essay, we explore the queer gaze through the lens of an internationally acclaimed Egyptian queer director; Youssef Chahine who revolutionized male representation onscreen as well as visually, aesthetically and thematically counterbalanced the mainstream machismo that has been the norm in Egyptian filmmaking whether behind or in front of the camera.

Chahine’s anti-patriarchal gaze

Youssef Chahine has always been the king of swiftly using homoerotic subtext in his films. His filmography is most prominently defined by themes of queerness and male fetishism where male objects have become the center of the lens and thus defied the patriarchal gaze. 

In the Arab mindset, queerness is an obscure theme. Many Arab viewers confuse queerness with homosexuality and do not fully comprehend how queerness compiles or nurtures any sexuality that is non-normative such as lesbianism, sadomasochism, transsexuality, and bisexuality. In the eighth chapter of his book “The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema”, Lebanese Professor Dr. Malek Khouri sheds a light on the construction of queerness in Arab post-colonial cinema, specifically in Chahine’s cinema, highlighting how “Chahine’s characterization of queer sexuality in Alexandria Again and Forever stands as a complex amalgam of his signature politics of change with the subtle politics of sexual liberation.”

But does Chahine’s characterization of queerness as part of his self-commentary evoking a certain reaction from the viewer?

Still from the movie “An Egyptian Tale”

Not according to Janet Staiger, who states in her book “Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception” that:

“I believe that contextual factors, more than textual ones, account for the experiences that spectators have watching films and television and for the uses to which those experiences are put in navigating our everyday lives. These contextual factors are social formations and constructed identities of the self in relation to historical conditions. These contexts involve intertextual knowledges (including norms of how to interpret sense data from moving images and sounds), personal psychologies, and sociological dynamics.”

So a Western spectator could view Chahine’s work in a different light and from a different angle perspective-wise than his/her Arab peer, making Chahine’s interpretation of the male object unclear to the Arab mindset. On the other hand, the Arab mindset and conscious -immediately programmed to detect female fetishization and objectification- would notice the fetishistic sexual nature in which Chahine shows his female subjects onscreen. A Western viewer might be perplexed since Chahine’s vision equally objectifies men and women alike -think of Tom Ford- however, the Arab viewer is not accustomed to watching males as sex objects; not even the most desirable and seductive males in Arab movie history such as Roushdy Abaza and Ahmed Ramsey were more or less treated like sex icons from a dominant, patriarchal male perspective and never the other way round. 

In an interview with The Guardian, American fashion designer and director Tom Ford stated the following,

“I’ve been criticized for objectifying women. But I’m an equal opportunity objectifier – I’m just as happy to objectify men.”

For a Western viewer, this statement is an introduction to the multilayered cinema of Youssef Chahine. 

Still from the movie “Cairo Station”

Undeniably, Youssef Chahine is a director infatuated by his female subjects’ bodies. His female sexual representation onscreen might not deviate from the traditional, sexist male gaze. In one of his earlier films, pre the self-reflection, semi-autobiographical narrative phase; Chahine centers “Cairo Station” around the male gaze as a vessel for sexual obsession; a modern retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” where the beast was not kind nor sacrificial but possessed with his obsession. He uses Hind Rostom, one of Egypt’s most prominently seductive sex icons back in the 50s, as his object of desire and thus the viewers’ desires as well. He promotes the viewer’s active participation in making the man protagonist a disabled man -played by himself- to share the inability of the male viewer to reach this voluptuous body. Not only that, but Chahine also challenges the average man buying a ticket to watch the sex bomb Rostom onscreen by coupling her with one of the Egyptian golden age of cinema’s hero; Farid Shawky. For the Western audiences who are a little unfamiliar with Shawky, you could resemble him to a Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger of the 1950s.

Shawky in all his all-Egyptian hero masculine glory gets the girl Rostom at the end of the movie. This was how things worked in classic Egyptian cinema; the perfect guy usually won the perfect girl. In this film, however, things were twisted a bit. The love triangle of Sabaa’wy, Hanooma, and Qinawy -played by Shawky, Rostom, and Chahine respectively, were ploys in Qinawy’s scheme. Chahine’s main aim was to incite feelings of incompetence and impotence in the average Egyptian man who went to the cinema. Instead of walking out victorious after watching the hot Rostom taking a shower, he walks out feeling slightly irritated at how things went for Qinawy, who not only was not able to get the girl, but his sexual obsession went awry and he was admitted to the mental hospital. 

Chahine ahead of his time: “Blazing Sun” and the emasculate male hero

Chahine had been manipulating the gaze ever since his 1954 classic Blazing Sun, starred by Egypt’s sweethearts in the 50s Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif -undoubtedly America’s sweetheart in the golden age as well- alongside Shawky as well and a bunch of other Egyptian veteran actors. In one iconic scene, Chahine blurs the line between lusting after the male vs. the female body, subverting the attention from the beautiful lady (Hamama) to the topless man (Sharif) whom she nurses. In the scene, Chahine toys subtly with the homoerotic subtext, polishing his male object’s body and features like a pro; making it all more confusing for the average viewer to focus on the beautiful actress with the décolleté. Sharif is shot as a sexual object of desire, not only for the confused audience; assumed by production companies to be an all-straight, male dominant audience but also for the actress in the scene. Hamama has always been an Egyptian sweetheart, playing roles of good girls resisting seduction by Egyptian lead men, rarely indulging in an onscreen kiss. In this scene, Hamama shares a passionate kiss with the wounded Sharif, feverish, and weighed down by a bullet that he received earlier in the film. News from behind the scenes broke that Hamama, the conservative actress that she was became smitten by Sharif that she agreed to her first onscreen kiss. Although the laws of attraction are purely cosmic, Chahine’s auteur-ish omniscient manipulation of the gaze drove the actress into kissing the actor in-character; out of infatuation by his objectified state as a vulnerable, semi-nude, wounded man. Breaking the 4th wall, Chahine places the audience in a state of confusion as to what make of this steamy kissing scene; should they lust after the boy, or the girl, or both?

Still from the movie “Blazing Sun”

In classic Egyptian cinema, survival is usually dictated by the hero’s machismo. Rarely do we see the emasculated hero winning; although in “Blazing Sun”, Chahine creates opposites of alpha straight male archetypes on both sides of the conflict; the macho hero Selim and the macho villain Riyad -played by Shawky- while the protagonist is the -by comparison- effeminate Ahmed. This contradicts the narrative map in classical Egyptian cinema; which targeted the average Egyptian man of the 1950s; with all the predisposing patriarchal expose of superiority, machismo, and willingness to dominate. 

Patriarchy in Salah Abu Seif’s Cinema

Sharif has always been the example of the effeminate, less macho hero. Yet in Chahine’s example, he is the main protagonist and he gets the girl and resolves the conflict in the plot at the end. However, in another film by one of Egypt’s most prolific realist directors –and also one of the most misogynist-  Salah Abu Seif titled “The Throes of Love”, Sharif is the one kicked out of the love triangle consisting of husband-wife –lover where Egyptian audiences had to deal with intricately complicated casting choices. The protagonist was played by Ahmed Mazhar, one of Egypt’s less macho actors, a leading man in the romance film genre or as the iconic hero Saladin in Chahine’s “Saladin the Victorious” where the male lead is an iconic, asexual war hero as opposed to the enemy Richard the Lionheart of England who represents the epitome of male machismo and is played by another of Chahine’s alpha male favorites; Hamdy Ghaith, who was one of the alpha males in Blazing Sun. In The Throes of Love, Mazhar plays a sexist, vulgar train operator married to a sensitive, 1960s stereotypical leading lady played by famous singer and actress Shadia. The third side of the love triangle is played by Sharif, who is the assistant train operator falling for the suffering wife who is emotionally and verbally abused by her insensitive, coarse husband. Typically, the love affair between the wife and the erudite assistant would blossom, leaving the husband behind. However, Abu Seif clearly understands the dangers of societal risque by demoralizing the Egyptian societal structure of the family as a nucleus for development, economic, and social stability. If the wife runs away with the lover, Abu Seif might lose his target audience: the average male moviegoers who secretly cheer on the vulgar train operator and are afraid of having their comfort zone ruptured by making the train operator lose to his second-in-command, merely an emasculate version of what manhood should be. Abu Seif would not stand the chance to lose his male audiences who are probably more relieved that even a man as bad and vulgar as the train operator -whose character is an exaggeration of how patriarchy and sexism dominate a marriage- still gets to keep the girl by his side. In a lame attempt to make the train operator a more likable winner, a 360 character transformation is pushed to the front, with the train operator showing kindness towards his wife after she gets pregnant. Twisting the plot by making a rogue character go unconvincingly good seems a more convenient Deus ex machina for Abu Seif than sacrificing the nuclear Egyptian familial structure. 

Still from the movie “An Egyptian Tale”

In Chahine’s narrative, the homoerotic subtext is a key element in the plot. In his movie, “An Egyptian Tale” homoerotic subtext is represented through Mahdi’s character, who is an alter ego of the main protagonist; famous director, and fictional mirror of Chahine’s, Yehia Shokry Mourad. Mahdi freed himself from the narrative context and living a life of his own. This life represents the homoerotic line of the narrative, through a complex, Milan Kundera-like relationship that connects Yehia and Mahdi throughout the decades. In a particular scene where Mahdi is imprisoned and Yehia talks to him from behind bars highlighting the barriers causing their sexual tension to rise; the shot is a close-up of both characters’ profiles; yet in the shot where Yehia’s face appears behind bars; Chahine’s use of lighting and color makes it much more prominent than when the camera shoots Mahdi. In a way, it is as if Yehia is the one behind bars, imprisoned by his own repressed sexuality and secret love for Mahdi, as opposed to the latter, who came out with his sense of freedom and sexual identity, thus appears more hopeful and empowered. 

In another intimate scene, Yehia shaves Mahdi’s beard, with Chahine highlighting the intensity of the moment through his use of medium close-up shots. Dialogue shifts to Mahdi addressing Yehia “Let’s make a film and say what we want…” so Yehia interrupts sarcastically, “I do not have the balls!”

Many critics of the time interpreted the ambiguous line of dialogue that Mahdi and Yehia shared to refer to Yehia’s closeted queerness and the nature of his relationship with Mahdi. In another sensual scene, Yehia and Mahdi attend legendary singer Umm Kulthum’s musical concert. Whereas everyone’s emotions were heightened by her sensual singing, a mutual friend of Yehia and Mahdi asks the latter if the famous director could openly talk about him; to which Mahdi intervened that Yehia was “scared”. What is everybody talking about?!

Chahine did not spare a taboo of the patriarchy. His muse Mohsen Mohieddin played his fictional alter ego Yehia Shokry Mourad in two of his most iconic semi-autobiographies “Alexandria…Why?” and “Alexandria Again and Forever” and in the former, Chahine perfectly uses his muse as a vessel for seduction and arousal for one of the film’s female characters. In one scene, Yehia stands topless in front of the smitten woman, after being slightly injured in a demonstration against the British occupation of Egypt. The beautiful woman who watches Yehia’s semi-naked body was merely a mirror of the audiences -mainly queer, with a keen interest to include straight women- and the voyeuristic pleasure with which Chahine provided them through spying on Yehia’s youthful, lean body. In a rare scene of the Arab culture, a man undresses to please a watchful woman. The male’s body becomes the fetish. On the other hand, most films with a straight male behind the camera showed scenes of male eroticism through a dominant form of nakedness; men expose their chests to the camera as an act of machismo, and not as fetishistic vessels. 

Still from the movie “Alexandria Again and Forever”

Chahine’s films are overflowing with dance scenes, mostly using male dancers. Among the most prominent are in “Alexandria Again and Forever” when the muse Amr -playing a fictional version of Chahine’s real-life muse Mohieddin- dances to one of Umm Kulthum’s songs and The Sixth Day when real-life muse Mohieddin mimics Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain” in striking contrast to the sophistication of the dance scene with the impoverished street performer’s life in the scene. Chahine, the openly francophone, is heavily influenced with Umm Kulthum, in part probably to the mystery which shrouded the Egyptian legendary singer’s sexual identity; whereas whispers of her queerness clashed openly with how the public viewed her as a political, social and even religious pinnacle of the 1950s-1960s Egyptian society. 

Both dance scenes are opposites; Amr’s semi-erotic scene in “Alexandria Again and Forever” is an abstract expression of pained defeat after losing the best actor award in an international film festival. In “The Sixth Day”, Oukka the street performer dances jovially in an attempt to seduce Siddeqa the poor laundry woman whose grandson is infected with cholera during the 1947 cholera epidemic which took the lives of millions of Egyptians. Chahine playfully reverses roles, and where most of the Egyptian films boast scenes of women dancing seductively to pull voyeuristic men into their sexual nest, Oukka is the one who tries to seduce the clueless Siddeqa into his intense map of emotions.

Still from the movie “The Sixth Day”

Chahine has always been in love with male beauty. His male muses usually follow a similar mold – young, genteel, emotional boys with thick dark hair, sensitive almond-colored eyes, theatrical attitude, and charisma- whereas his female muses vary in age, physique and acting styles from Sanaa’ Jameel –veteran Egyptian theater actress- to Yousra –Egyptian diva, glamourous fashion icon and one of the most influential women in Arab film history- and Menna Shalaby –an Egyptian acting chameleon who has aptly transformed herself from sex bomb to a great actress. 

Chahine’s use of technique and the Queer Gaze

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey further described how close-ups of actresses’ legs, hands or faces integrate “a different form of eroticism”, thus eliminating the rest of the actress’s body and focusing on a certain body part which objectifies and fetishizes the female body thus dehumanizing the woman. In “The Graduate”, a film –directed by Mike Nichols- about the coming-of-age of a young college boy who becomes infatuated and seduced with a sexually adept older woman, an iconic scene shows Benjamin’s face under the triangle of Mrs. Robinson’s leg as she pulls up her sheer black nylons. She is objectified into a leg while we are left with Benjamin’s stunned face as he reacts to her seduction. 

Still from the movie “An Egyptian Tale”

Chahine as a prominent queer eye icon objectified the male body in one of the more stellar scenes in his film “An Egyptian Tale”. In this over the shoulder shot, we see the back of the young teenager Yehia Shokry Mourad and a close-up on the face of the older, more sexually experienced woman who watches him lustfully. In “The Emigrant”, Simihit kisses Ram’s hand in an eroticized manner with a close-up on her face and his hand only. This scene is the antidote to “The Graduate” where Mrs. Robinson is marginalized into an object of Benjamin’s sexual fantasy because Ram is objectified into a fetishistic pleasure while the camera shows us Simihit’s reaction to his body parts that merely represent his sultry manhood. Chahine defies patriarchy by objectifying men more than he does with women, his voyeuristic pleasure does not depend on femininity but on sexuality at large, fluid as it may seem. His Oedipal complex could be the main plot –as in “Dawn of a New Day”- or hinted at throughout the multiple narratives of films where he pairs young men with older, more sexually experienced women in ways that show the women as the interesting characters, with eyes that linger on budding male bodies that embody the perfect female sexual fantasy. Through the lens of his queer gaze, Chahine does not treat femme fatales in his films with the same vengeful purpose that other Egyptian directors –such as Abu Seif- choose to. Despite his infatuation with femme fatales and dangerous women, Abu Seif usually ends the narrative with those women meeting their doom through murder, abandonment, or ostracism, Chahine does not provide us with a resolution for the fate of his heroes. His main priority is that love prevails, even if only as a memory like in the scene with Mohsen’s –Yehia’s friend- queer uncle in “Alexandria…Why?” who visits the El Alamein War Cemetery after his lover –a foreign soldier- dies in the war. 

In an article titled “How Our Brains Turn Women Into Objects: There is, it turns out, more than one kind of “objectification”” published in Scientific American magazine by Piercarlo Valdesolo, Associate Professor and Chair of Psychological Science at Claremont McKenna College, a study included two sets of males. The first set was shown a group of headless female bodies, and the second was shown a group of female heads without bodies attached to them. The first set of men negatively judged the women whom they were shown, calling them less smart, less ambitious, even less cute, or likable by men. Does the same apply to men whose heads have been cut off from pictures? According to a blog post titled “Male Bodies and Objectification” by American blogger and editor Sally McGraw, objectification is objectification and describing photos of beautiful, athletic naked men’s bodies as “male candy” on social media platforms such as Pinterest is a form of reverse sexual discrimination that deepens the derogatory, misogynistic view of objectifying women as mere bodies and not human beings.

Still from the movie “Destiny”

In more than one shot, Chahine flaunts topless male bodies for no dramatic purpose other than displaying them for his visual pleasure in sexually and aesthetically charged scenes that surround the male hero with an aphrodisiac aura. In one scene from “Alexandria…Why?” Mohsen’s uncle kidnaps a soldier during WWII and keeps him in his bed wearing nothing but underwear. Another scene from “Destiny” took place in a public bath while actors Abdullah Mahmoud and Hani Salama sensually –almost erotically- were seen flirting as their respective characters. Abdalla jumped on Borhan in a simulated sexual position, playfully gagging his mouth with a scarf using BDSM –a taboo territory in the Arab world- as an innuendo for seduction. Despite Abdalla being “on top” and Borhan lying under him with the gag over his mouth, bondage is treated in a coy manner, unlike the multiple bondage scenes of female damsels tied up erotically for the voyeuristic pleasure of male viewers or comedic purposes. 

In “The Emigrant” Yousef Chahine explores controversial territories by making a film inspired by the biblical tale of Joseph whom he names Ram and who would also be a reflection of Chahine himself, just like he did with Averroes, the famous Muslim philosopher in Destiny. Ram’s tale was adapted from the biblical representation of Joseph as a beautiful and sexual religious icon. Chahine was faithful to the spirit of the biblical tale, sexualizing Ram to great length, from the camera angles to scenes of bondage where he was betrayed by his brothers, bound and thrown at the bottom of the ship. His scene when he first met Simihit, the high priestess of the Cult of Amun are shot fetishistically using close-ups on his neck, waist, and feet. Chahine revels in his adoration of the perfect male body using a woman’s inspection of a man she fantasizes about as his armor. It does not come as a surprise that Chahine sexualizes his male and female subjects alike –sometimes his males are further sexualized and fetishized- through positioning the camera, choosing the right angles, and perfecting the art of “close-up”. 

Mulvey previously discussed the heterosexual male’s fear of women and how behind the camera –as a director- he tries to project his fear as the bearer of the look of the threatened spectator by sexualizing and objectifying the female subject to a marginal object or actively converting the woman into a mere angelical icon that does not actively participate in her representation in the imaginary existence of the film. She elaborated on the continuous representation of women as fetish objects through the conventional close-ups of women’s gadgets such as their long stockings, big hats, sunglasses, their sexy outfits, or even how a woman holds a cigarette.

Still from the movie “The Emigrant”

Chahine used this fetish objectification while shooting the male protagonist through minor details. In “The Emigrant”, Ram’s accessories were fetishized on par with Simihit’s. In one iconic scene where Simihit fantasizes about seducing Ram, he is seen with black paint, with close-ups on his gold chain, in contrast with Simihit taking off her jewelry in a previous scene that symbolizes her liberation from emotional burdens. In James Bond’s iconic third film “Goldfinger”, Bond is knocked out and wakes up to find the hot blond “Bond girl” –with whom he just had sex- dead and gold-painted. The scene fascinated and aroused many viewers that the actress who played the gold-painted Bond girl appeared on the 1964 Life magazine cover similarly painted in gold hiding her naked breasts and looking upward in a seductive manner. However, it frustrated feminist critics who saw how it objectified and demeaned the feminine body to sexually stimulate the male spectator’s erotic gaze. In comparison black-painting Ram –which in today’s mindset would be a wrong, racist move- for the erotic pleasure of the priestess Simihit. Chahine toys with the gaze to make it from the female perspective who manipulated this luscious male body for her narcissist voyeuristic pleasure.

Chahine boldly tried breaking the patriarchal taboo of male sexuality representation on the big screen by showing an ambiguous relationship between two males where sexual tension plays a subtle role in redefining chemistry and erotic subtext. Till this day critics of Chahine in the Arab world rarely bring up the taboo subject of his queer characters or queer love stories. Conservatives are confused by his queer gaze which was never “explicit enough” and Chahine himself could have been perplexed at the way he wanted to express himself in a world where art is merely a tool of metaphors and subtexts, nothing too overt or tables would be turned.

Still from the movie “Alexandria…Why?”

Youssef Chahine in the eyes of conservatives

In an article by one of Egypt’s most revered pop culture writer(s) turned political novelist Ahmed Khaled Towfik, he blatantly criticizes Youssef Chahine as an auteur and not as a director from a technical standpoint. In an article titled “Only because he is the Master”, Towfik pans Chahine for demoralizing religious stories, promoting homosexuality as the ultimate answer to political conflicts, and fighting religious extremism with dancing. He states that the Egyptian censors are biased toward Youssef Chahine films, passing on his gay-centric relationships, incestuous relationships –which Towfik described as a maniac- in every movie. Towfik claimed that Chahine only did this to brag to the Western world that he was the only Arab capable of queer representation in his films.

Analyzing this article, it would be easy to discern how critical pan can be a tool of acclaim for one of Egypt’s most creative, non-conforming, non-heteronormative auteurs. Here he is defying patriarchy –which oozes from Towfik’s article- by queer, Oedipal, and non-radical representation of manhood throughout his filmography. Through his subjective, individualist artistic expression, Chahine liberated himself from the cattle. This man should be celebrated, not through the “National Egyptian icon” lens of propaganda which harmed his creative process more than it benefited –the creative curve declines miserably in his later films- but for how he was among the few male directors who refused to be molded into the casual box of “manhood” and virility.

References:

“How Our Brains Turn Women Into Objects: There is, it turns out, more than one kind of “objectification” -By Piercarlo Valdesolo on October 11, 2011”

“Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating Goldfinger -By Zina Hutton, April 20th, 2015”

“The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema -By Malek Khouri, American University in Cairo Press, 2010”

“Male Bodies and Objectification –By Sally McGraw”

“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema -By Laura Mulvey, 1975”

“Youssef Chahine -By Ibrahim Fawal, British Film Institute, 2001”

“Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception –By Janet Staiger”

“Egyptian film censorship: safeguarding society, upholding taboos – By Dina Mansour”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.