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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Objectifying Spartacus!

Updated: May 5, 2023

Re-watching Spartacus today in remembrance of Jean Simmons who died on this day (22 January) in 2010, I was reminded that I'd written an essay on the film at University for a module fabulously entitled, Mainstream Media’s Objectification of the Male. I leave it here exactly as submitted 20+ years ago. I haven’t even re-read it!

Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ claims that men are the subject of the look whilst women are the objects to be looked at. However, her argument doesn’t take into account the many films where men are objectified. Males on screen can either be objectified through the eyes of the characters or through the look of the camera. However, unlike objectification of women, male objectification is often disavowed. He is being displayed for the characters/spectator to look at, but he is not just an object - our objectification is for a reason. There are a number of ways this process of disavowal can be achieved.

Within the extract from Spartacus there are many men on display, particularly Kirk Douglas who plays the title role. However, these are not just near-naked men for the spectator to look at, they are there for specific narrative reasons – we, as spectators, are given legitimate reasons for our looking. Our objectification of them is disavowed through the following visual references:

1. The activity of the men For the first minute on this extract we see the Gladiators in training as a collective mass. We are invited to look at the men’s skill and prowess in particularly active and masculine pursuits, such as fighting, co-ordination skills and agility. We are not invited to look at any one particular man (although Spartacus is the most heavily featured). And we are not seeing from a character’s point of view as many of the shots are from oblique angles, or aerial shots. The men are wearing loose fighting tunics which expose their legs and arms, however this is disavowed as being the most practical clothing for Gladiators in training. 2. The men’s position in society As slaves, the men within this extract have no power, and are passive to their owner’s desires. Their passivity and acceptance of their objectification, is brought about through their powerlessness - they have no other choice. Spartacus has been singled out for humiliation and he is required to strip down to shorts thus exposing his chest (hairless, tanned, muscular and glossy). Although they are all slaves, Spartacus has been made an object, as the rest of the slaves are sitting in a circle, watching the trainer paint across Spartacus’s exposed chest. 3. The film’s setting The film is set in a ‘mythical’ past and audiences are expected to accept that the clothes the men are wearing (loose fitting tunics or shorts) are what slaves training to be Gladiators would have worn.

4. The Weather The baking hot sun also adds a further reason for the slaves wearing few clothes. 5. The Genre The Epic was a popular genre in the Technicolor 50s and 60s. Audiences were used to, and accepted seeing masculine stars wearing few clothes, or unusual costumes, which revealed bare legs, chests and arms i.e. togas, tunics and tights. 6. The Star Kirk Douglas (the film’s star and producer) was a popular star, known for his masculine tough guy roles. The audience knew him to be an active masculine star, who for this film only is rendered passive to objectification within its narrative. 7. Female gaze within the mise-en-scene The insertion of a female gaze within the extract (in this case Varinia’s), legitimises his objectification by restating his desirability towards women and emphasising his heterosexuality. The spectator also gets the feeling of relief that he is Varinia’s object not theirs. 8. Diegetic Spectacle Within this extract Spartacus has been singled out for objectification. As part of the narrative he has had to remove his tunic, thus making him more vulnerable and exposed than the rest of the slaves. The rest are asked to look at him - as the trainer paints on his muscular chest. He is therefore being objectified by the slaves (who are of the same status as him), the trainer (who takes pleasure in his voyeuristic and sadistic treatment of Spartacus) and Varinia who as a woman traditionally should be the object not the subject of the gaze.

He is passive and accepts his fate (a typical feminised position) of being painted. He does, however, look away from the camera/characters - not acknowledging that there are spectators. This use of visual references to the men’s status and in particular Spartacus’s role within the narrative, and this extract, all combines to a disavowal their objectification.

______________________ There are three examples of the “looking relations” between Spartacus and Varinia within this extract. All serve distinct purposes in creating connections between the two characters as well as highlighting the social ‘right to gaze’/loss of that right and masculinity/’unmasculine’ powerlessness dichotomies. Spartacus and Varinia are both slaves, they have both lost the social ‘right to gaze’. As the male traditionally holds that right within the mise-en-scene, Spartacus’s loss can be seen as greater than that of Varinia. The first example of their exchange occurs after the one minute training montage. Spartacus, no longer an active participant, is sitting on a bench in the background. The camera moves from the foreground, through three pairs of men fighting, to the seated Spartacus. He looks about him to ensure that he is no longer the object of anyone’s gaze and looks in the direction of the Varinia, who is working in the kitchen. Once he catches her eye, he stares at her without changing his expression - he is actively asserting his masculine ‘right to gaze’. Varinia acknowledges his gaze, but then glances away before exchanging a final glance - smiles and moves away. Thus showing that although he initiated the gaze, she is in control of it as she is able to walk away and break the gaze. Whereas he has lost the traditional masculine power of controlling his own actions.

In the second example, whilst being the object of the all the men’s gaze, Spartacus attempts to reinstate his masculinity by being the possessor of the look, i.e. looking at Varinia. He has been forced into the object position, by having to remove his tunic, and stand passively whilst the trainer paints the marks of vulnerability on his torso. The slaves, sitting around him in a large circle are looking at him from all angles - the usual feminine position. His attempts to reinstate his masculinity by looking and exchanging the look with Varinia are thwarted by the trainer who forces him to look at her. Once the trainer has asserted his aggressive control of Spartacus’s gaze and demanded that he “go ahead and look”, Varinia breaks the gaze and Spartacus no longer wants to look as he is now, once again, powerless. The third example is in Spartacus’s cell, he is alone, and the lighting casts dark shadows over the cell, with only his shoulders and head lit. He is looking up through the grate in the ceiling when Varinia is brought in. They look longingly at one another, which is underscored by gentle romantic music. However, this looking is abruptly ended by the entrance of the trainer, who comes and takes Varinia away, stating that “This one goes to the Spaniard”. Neither Spartacus nor Varinia have the power to continue their looking. All three examples emphasise Spartacus’s ‘unmasculine’ powerlessness through his loss of the social ‘right to gaze’. The first through Varinia’s breaking of the gaze, the second through the trainer forcing him to gaze at Varinia against his will and the third through the trainer’s removal of Varinia - the desired object of his gaze. ______________________ There are few examples in this extract of the camera becoming the point of view of a character. The look of the camera is usually directed at Spartacus, but changes to his point of view on the three occasions when he looks at Varinia and when Spartacus is looking up through the grating in his cell, looking, we presume for Varinia. At these points both the spectator and Spartacus are looking at Varinia conforming to Mulvey’s male/female, subject/object dichotomy.

For the rest of the extract, the spectator is given privileged views of the action, from a variety of angles: aerial, close-ups, tracking shots, ground level shots, long shots and in amongst the action. You see people looking, the trainer and the gladiators, but the cutaways are not representative of what they would have seen. For example in the training montage we see the trainer looking at Spartacus dodging the blades. Where we expect the next shot to be his point of view, the angle is an oblique one looking up from the ground to Spartacus accentuating his active body and physique. The lack of control the slaves and Spartacus have over where the spectator is looking from results in their powerlessness to control the situation. The spectator however does not have the comfort of being able to disavow their looking, through the knowledge that they are not doing the looking that it is the character and they are seeing from their point of view. 1,494 words


MacKinnon, Kenneth Uneasy Pleasures: the male as erotic object, Cygnus Arts, 1997

Mulvey, Laura ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Visual and Other Pleasures, Macmillan, 1989


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