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A Star is Born - Laura Mulvey - Bradley Cooper Lady Gaga

Remaking Sexism: Female Representation in A Star is Born

When the 2018 movie A Star is Born is analyzed through Laura Mulvey’s feminist lens described in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema it becomes apparent that Bradley Cooper failed to update the narrative of an old story to be progressive and feminist.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on stage

In the past few years, it seems like Hollywood has been obsessed with producing remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, and while people have criticized the film industry for a lack of creativity, there are bigger issues that come with reviving old movies.

A lot of the stories recently revived contain inherently sexist themes that need to be updated into the twenty-first century. It’s okay to bring back popular and beloved stories, but directors and writers must update these stories to be socially progressive and modern.

History & Summary of A Star is Born

The 1937 movie A Star is Born, directed by William A. Wellman, was remade three times.

  1. 1954 by George Cukor
  2. 1976 by Frank Pierson
  3. 2018 by Bradley Cooper

The 2018 retelling of A Star is Born failed to overcome the inherent sexism present in all three of the previous versions.

2018’s A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a country singer on the decline as a result of his substance abuse problems.

Starring alongside him is Lady Gaga as Ally, who becomes Jack’s love interest as well as a rising star in the music industry.

Laura Mulvey Applied to A Star is Born

Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, analyzes how women in film are often objectified, passive, and serving the male gaze and perspective.

While many current films work hard on fleshing out female protagonists by making them an active part of the narrative, A Star is Born sticks to the same sexist narrative that the original movies told.

In 2018’s A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper portrays Ally as a hypersexualized and passive character who allows men to make decisions for her so they can transform her into their vision of the type of star that they want Ally to become.

Ally Under the Male Gaze

Laura Mulvey male gaze A Star is Born

A Star is Born gives into the sexist nature of its story by objectifying Ally at every given opportunity.

In one of the first scenes of the film, Ally performs at a drag bar. During her performance, she sexily dances throughout the room. At one point, Ally hikes up her dress to reveal her fishnet stockings and gets on a table in front of Jackson Maine.

The scene cuts back and forth so that the audience watches Jackson Maine watching Ally and then the audience themselves watches Ally, as if they are watching her with him. In Laura Mulvey’s essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she uses Freud’s term Scopophilia to describe the pleasure an audience gets from watching a character on the screen.

In the drag bar scene, Ally is “subject[ed] to a controlling and curious gaze” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 59). Not only is Ally under the gaze of Jack, but also Lady Gaga is under the gaze of the audience.

Throughout the film, Ally exposes her midriff, her behind, and her cleavage to the audience.

Someone is always watching her, whether it’s Jack watching her in the bathtub or an audience watching her dance on stage in sheer clothing. Ally functions as an “erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as [an] erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 62).

Being subjected to the male gaze means that she is defined by her beauty and what she can do for men instead of by her wants, goals, desires, and dreams.

Objectification of Ally

A Star is Born Male Gaze Lady Gaga's nose

Since Ally is seen as an erotic object, her appearance and beauty receives an emphasis that does not apply to any of the male characters in the film.

Ally confides in Jack that she believes she won’t make it in the music industry because her nose is too big. In response, he stares at her nose voyeuristically and touches it while gazing upon her beauty.

Then, when Jack drops her off at her home after their first date, Jack stares at Ally because he just wants to take one more look at her. While Jackson Maine doesn’t believe that her nose is too big, he does not dispute the fact that Ally needs to be beautiful to make it in the music industry.

However, the problem is that Jack constantly talks about Ally’s beauty and rarely talks about her talent.

In the movie, instead of seeing Ally working hard to write inspiring music, we see her struggle with her appearance. The movie emphasizes that Ally should prioritize her beauty over her talent. When Jack meets Ally, he asks about her nose, but when Ally meets Jack, she asks him about his family and where he is from.

A Star is Born values Ally for her appearance and Jack for who he is.

Ally Doesn’t Make Choices for Herself

Since the film treats Ally like an object, she becomes a passive character whose actions have no influence on the narrative or plot of the story.

Laura Mulvey believes that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 62). A Star is Born exemplifies this because Jack’s objectification of Ally causes Ally to be passive, which makes Jack the active character driving the plot of the story.

If it weren’t for Jack, Ally would have never sung at Jack’s concert in front of millions of people. If it weren’t for Jack, she would have never gotten a record deal and she never would have won an Emmy.

Illusion of Autonomy

It seems like Ally has a journey because she starts the film being a nobody and ends the film being a famous singer. However, these are events that happen to her instead of a journey that she chooses to embark on.

She becomes a star because of decisions other people make for her, not because of her own decisions. This is also apparent when Rez Gravon, her record producer, tells her to change her hair. Ally responds, “What’s wrong with my hair?… I don’t want to be f—ing blonde! I am, who I am” (A Star is Born), but she ends up changing her hair anyway so she can be the vision of what her producer believes is the type of star that she should be.

Ally is an object that Rez can profit from by making Ally into a performer that her fans will objectify. Therefore, Ally is forced to change her hair because Rez wants to make a profit off of her, rather than it being a personal choice that she makes for self-expression.

Jack Makes Decisions for Ally

When Jack pushes Ally onto the stage for the second time to sing a new original song, “Always Remember Us This Way,” she protests, but Jack convinces her by saying, “All right, listen to me. Here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna do the song that I said that I wanted you to do. The one that I love” (A Star is Born).

Not only does Jack not ask Ally if she wants to sing the song, but after she says, “No. I’m not. Please!” he forces her to sing the song regardless.

Anytime in A Star is Born Ally makes an objection to a decision, a man overrules her.

Ally Inspires Jack to Change Initially

A Star is Born Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Ally’s rise to fame is good for Jack. She reignites his passion for music, and throughout the film, Jack’s success is dependent on his relationship with Ally.

Ally represents the heroine who “is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 62).

For instance, when Ally wins an Emmy, Jack’s story propels forward. During Ally’s acceptance speech, Jack drunkenly follows Ally onto the stage and urinates publicly. This causes Jack to make the decision to go to rehab.

Ally gives Jack a reason to fall in love with music again and a reason to believe in himself. The closer Ally is to Jack, whether she’s on tour with him, singing with him, or focusing on their relationship instead her own career, the happier he is and the more he succeeds. When Jack tells his friend Doodle about Ally, Doodle Says, “Maybe she’s your way out,” suggesting that Ally is good for him with little regard or interest in who she is or what she wants.

Ally inspires Jack to be a better a man, she inspires him to be a better musician, and a better brother, anything but a better person who can see Ally as more than a means to an end.

Rez and Jack Project Their Desires onto Ally

Male Gaze and Female Representation in modern film

Ultimately, A Star is Born becomes a story about two men, Rez and Jack, fighting over the type of star they think Ally should be.

The Ally that sings at the drag bar seems to be the most authentic version of herself. It’s the only time we see Ally doing something out of her volition. No one tells her to perform at the drag show, or what to sing, or what to wear.

However, Jack likes Ally when she looks natural, which is why when he talks to her backstage after her performance at the drag club, he peels off her fake eyebrows and asks Ally if her hair is real or not. Jack’s “determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 62).

When Ally performs with Jack, she wears natural looking makeup, casual clothes, and her real hair color because that is the star that Jack believes she should be. Jack’s vision for Ally feels threatened when Rez wants to dye Ally’s hair and completely change Ally’s look.

When Rez books Ally to play on SNL, she has red hair, she is wearing sheer pants, and she is hip hop dancing with a crew of back up dancers. Neither of these visions that both men have for her is what she presents as a performer in the drag bar.

Jack Feeds Ally’s Insecurities

A Star is Born Lady Gaga Bradley Cooper

Jack is able to project his vision onto Ally because as “the male protagonist [he] is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 63).

Rez is Jack’s antagonist and the one who eventually succeeds in making Ally his star. Everything that happens to Ally happens because Rez or Jack make it so. Jack disapproves of the lyrics in one of Ally’s songs she was nominated for, and Ally gets fed up with Jack’s drinking, causing the couple to fight.

However, the fight becomes about Ally’s appearance. Jack shouts, “You’re embarrassing me… you’re worried that you’re ugly, and you’re not. I’m trying to tell you that” (A Star is Born).

Jack assumes that Ally is insecure about how she looks even though she hasn’t mentioned that she was insecure during their fight. In the beginning of the movie, she mentions that she had some insecurity about her nose, but she hadn’t brought it up since.

The reason why Ally’s nose becomes a major point of the movie is because Jack keeps talking about her nose.

Rez Makes Ally His Star

What he’s really upset about is that she doesn’t look the way that he wants her to, and she isn’t performing the way he would like her to perform. He wants her to embrace her natural beauty because that’s how he wants her to look.

By the end of the argument, when Jack realizes that he isn’t going to get his way, he says, “You’re just f—ing ugly, that’s all.” While Ally does kick Jack out of the bathroom where they’re fighting, it’s not a sign of strength, but rather a sign of defeat.

In multiple instances, Ally lets Jack down by doing what Rez wants her to do. For instance, Jack wants Ally to go on tour with him, but she has to stay to finish her album. In the end, Rez convinces Jack that what he wants for Ally is the best thing for her.

Rez tells Jack that “just by staying married to you she looks like a joke. It’s embarrassing” (A Star is Born).

At no point do Jack or Rez talk to Ally about what she wants. They conclude that Ally would be better off without Jack, which leads Jack to his suicide.

Changing the Sexist Narrative of A Star is Born

Though the 2018 version of A Star is Born objectifies Ally, causing her to be a passive character that has her decisions made by two men, it is possible to bring back classic movies such as A Star is Born and update them to be progressive stories.

A Star is Born Lady Gaga Female Representation

The bare bones of the story A Star is Born can transcend decades. Everyone loves a success story about a nobody achieving their dreams, or a somebody falling from fame. There are other modern versions of this story told successfully such as The Social Network, The Pursuit of Happyness, or The Wolf of Wallstreet.

Bradley Cooper could’ve gender swapped the roles so that Ally is the fallen star and Jack is the star on the rise.

However, if he wanted to have a more thoughtful approach to modernizing the story that fleshes out both characters, there are adjustments Bradly Cooper could have made.

For instance, during Jack and Ally’s argument, Ally could stand up for herself and tell Jack that it isn’t about her appearance, but rather about her going after what she wants.

Bradley Cooper could have ended the film with Ally finally going back to performing the way that she likes to perform. He could have even constructed the story to be a real social statement, but he didn’t.

Female Voices in Hollywood

Maybe this is a sign that we need more female directors in Hollywood because if any female writer had read Bradly Cooper’s script, it wouldn’t take someone like Laura Mulvey to know that it was sexist.

Even in this year’s Oscars, no female directors were nominated and most of the movies nominated were centered around a male’s perspective.

It’s a director’s and writer’s job to make sure whatever work that they’re putting out in the world is making the proper statements about the race, sex, and ethnicity of their characters.

Every character a writer puts on the page represents a certain population of the world, which is why it is a writer’s responsibility to accurately depict whatever portion of the world that their character is representing.

More women need to join the industry in order to have themselves properly represented on screen. However, until women receive the opportunity to make the scripts they want to write, male writers and directors must put more thought into how they portray their female characters.

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