Male Gaze in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema

From 1975 to 1990, the sexual attitudes of Spanish society encountered a great deal of changes with the death of its ruler Francisco Franco. At the same time, some attitudes remained unconsciously in the decades afterward due to gender norms that existed during Franco's reign. The death of Franco saw many Spanish films of the era characterized by their unconscious sexualization of the female body. This is especially exemplified in two films: Bilbao, filmed and released during the unstable transition period from Spanish fascism to democracy in 1978, and ¡Átame! in 1989. To understand how these two similar films, Bilbao and ¡Átame!, serve as an extension of the unconscious gender norms that were still evident in Spain during its first years of democracy, this article aims to explain the political achievements of women throughout this fifteen-year period and the entrenched social norms that yet remained.

Figure 1: Despite an era of remarkable social upheaval, Spanish feminist lenses were not always included in both art and society.

Franco's death in 1975 helped to facilitate the emergence of a power vacuum as the authoritarian state within Spain collapsed. With various sectors of Spanish society competing for political and social rights, the fundamental question of what to do with women’s status in the nation was at the forefront of many discussions. For decades during the regime, Spanish women suffered from a unique form of misogyny:

“Socialised into subordination by the Feminine Section, presented with marriage and motherhood as the only socially acceptable role, forced to give up an independent income on marriage, unable to control their fertility or pregnancies, yet deprived of parental authority over their children, threatened with the charge of 'abandonment of the home' if they escaped from under the marital roof, and with imprisonment, if they started a relationship with another man - in such a context, most women had in fact learnt to buckle down and resign themselves, encouraged by the weekly lecture from the pulpit and whispered advice from the confessional.” (Threlfall, 2004, p. 28)


The decades of the Franco regime destroyed any semblance of women's rights in both public and private spheres of society. The woman was conceptualized solely in the role of mother to the state, a reproductive machine to produce more loyal citizens and soldiers. As such, women could not be seen enjoying sexual acts, as the eyes of the Spanish church (and its influence on the state) viewed them as a perverse act. This led to a highly fragmented insular society that rejected women and delegated them solely to this unique role of mother.

Figure 2: 1975 marked a watershed year for the advancement of feminist movements in Spain.

However, at the same time, 1975 served to further normalize the Spanish women’s movement, as “two thousand women marched down Goya Street in Madrid demanding equality in all spheres” (Threllfall, 2004, p. 20). Many women's advocacy groups united in a powerful lobby and began to demand change in the newly democratic state. These feminists decided to work within the political parties of the time in the hope of pushing influential politics and implementing legal reform so that women's issues would be taken into account. New services for women, such as the provision of contraceptives and domestic violence shelters, were some of the first social services created by these governments (Threllfall, 2004).

During the transition period of 1977-1981, numerous laws regarding gender relations passed with the help of these women-centered lobbying groups. Some laws abolished adultery; others decriminalized the provision and sale of contraceptives; others lowered the age of victimization in cases of sexual assault; and others helped legalize divorce, a controversial concept under the Catholic Church. (Threllfall, 2004, p. 47). In addition, the newly adopted Spanish Constitution added gender-based provisions which became fully codified into national law: “Spaniards are equal before the law, and no discrimination shall prevail on account of birth, race, sex, religion, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance” (Threllfall, 2004, p. 48). However, despite these relative legal gains, the social norms entrenched for decades under the Franco regime did not disappear overnight.

Figure 3: The notion of sex as pleasure was a critical talking point during the era.

Such sexual attitudes, during a time when women had recently gained numerous legal rights, would theoretically influence the art and media produced during that time. At a time when women were still perceived according to the hyper-restrictive norms of Francoism, the way in which female characters were written and filmed in cinema would be influenced by these unconscious biases. It is imperative to see how filmmakers during this fifteen-year period from 1975 to 1990 filmed in the unconscious light of the "male gaze," in which one can better understand why both Bilbao and ¡Átame! can seem gratuitous and problematic in their depictions of the female body and sexual pleasure. As Laura Mulvey explains in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the “male gaze” (defined as the male viewer’s aesthetic pleasure in viewing the female body on screen) derives from the entrenched thoughts of a patriarchal society, and the films produced during this era of transition and infantile democracy in Spain are no exception (Mulvey, 1975). The "male gaze" is comprised - consciously or unconsciously - of voyeurism, or the act of observing someone (in this case, women) in their most intimate and private moments.

Filmed in 1978, Bilbao is the perfect example of how an unconscious male gaze, influenced by contemporary attitudes about sex and sexuality, infiltrates the making of a film. It is imperative to analyze some scenes in which the titular character Bilbao's body is shown to the camera, especially with the use of a close-up, to demonstrate the commentary of voyeurism and control over women. There are several scenes in which Bilbao dances nude for a crowd of men: the camera hovering with the use of an extreme close-up on her body, paying luxurious attention to filming her chest and hips (Luna, 1978, 2:00, 42:56, 1:00:00). The audience watches as the men in the crowd lustfully gaze on Bilbao's naked body. Additionally, the specific decision to use the sensual song “Love to Love You Baby” adds provocative, sexual moans, revealing obsession or lust with the female body. The song's lyrics repeat the exact phrase without stopping: “I love to love you, baby,” accompanied by the sound of sexual moans from its singer, Donna Summers. Both the visual aspects like lingering close-ups of Bilbao's naked body and the audio aspects like the incessant repetition of “I love to love you, baby” reveal this masculine gaze that deliberately defines Bilbao.

Figure 4: The titular character of Bilbao in the infamous dancing scene, 1978.

Although ¡Átame! was released almost ten years after Bilbao, it still suffers from a gratuitous portrayal of its main protagonist Marina, which can best be characterized as an act of voyeurism when viewing the film. In one scene, Marina leans suggestively over the stage in the background while her obsessed director watches her in the foreground. The viewer witnesses a close-up of the lust on his face as he stares longingly at Marina’s legs, waist, and chest (Almodóvar, 1989, 21:40). Although the audience is intended to feel embarrassed witnessing a lonely, elderly man stare at Marina, the film is shot in such a way that it pays a considerable amount of attention towards shots which linger upon her legs and waist. Although the audience is not supposed to empathize with the director, Marina is still filmed in a sexualized way, and the camerawork allows one to look at her as the director does.

Viewing both ¡Átame! and Bilbao through the lens of post-Franco gender politics gives considerable insight into why certain scenes are shot so gratuitously. Although the directors may not have intentionally shot their films with the knowledge of the male gaze, the conservative social norms of the time still influenced their works on a subconscious level. It is possible to conceptualize both the act of voyeurism as representatives of a Spanish society that had not yet been substantially liberalized in 1990, fifteen years after the death of its fascist leader. In a society that was still beginning to open up after decades of repression and fascism, films like Bilbao and ¡Átame! reveal sexual norms of the era in the manner in which they characterize and film their female leads.


Figure 5: Marina of ¡Átame! tending to male protagonist Ricky's wounds.

Finally, it is also imperative to discuss a recurrent theme of "possession" as it relates to both protagonists Marina and Bilbao. There are numerous voice-overs in Bilbao where the male protagonist Leo affirms that he must have her: must possess her, her name, her voice, her body, everything about her identity (Luna, 1978). Bilbao reduces down to merely how she can serve Leo with no character traits or personality beyond the seductive temptress. This seems similar to the relationship present in ¡Átame!, in that the male protagonist Ricky views Marina merely for the duties she can perform as a wife. There is a slight degree of change in that Marina has a voice and a personality beyond just her body, serving as a loud and boisterous actress. However, both women are reduced to how they can best serve the male protagonists, as in Bilbao, a physical object to extract pleasure and control, and in ¡Átame! an obedient and maternal wife.


It is evident that despite a chronological difference of about ten years between the two films, not much has changed. The dialogue and character construction may differ slightly, but the fundamental misogyny and reduction of women to their bodies remain the same. For this reason, it is sufficient to say that both films Bilbao and ¡Átame! serve as examples of conservative social behavior embedded within art, defined by the Franco regime that continued to influence Spanish films during the era. A difference of ten years is not enough to completely stop sexist patterns of film-making from occurring, and the audience views the film as a voyeur if one does not engage in a critical lens.

Bibliographical References

Almodóvar, P. (Director). (1989). ¡Átame! [Tie me up! Tie me down!]. [Film]. El Deseo S. A. Luna, B. (Director). (1978). Bilbao. [Bilbao]. [Film]. FIgaro Films. Ona Films. Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6 Threlfall, M., Cousins, C., & Valiente, C. (2004). Gendering Spanish democracy. Routledge Advances in European Politics. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203323182 Threlfall, M., Cousins, C., & Valiente, C. (2004). Gendering Spanish democracy. London: Routledge.


Visual References

Cover Image: Almodóvar, P. (1989). ¡Átame! [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.moma.org/d/assets/W1siZiIsIjIwMTYvMTAvMjYvMWFyNHoxZHhqZl9UaWVfTWVfVXBfVGllX01lX0Rvd25fNzIyX2ltYWdlXzAyX2Nyb3AuanBnIl0sWyJwIiwiY29udmVydCIsIi1xdWFsaXR5IDkwIC1yZXNpemUgMjAwMHgyMDAwXHUwMDNlIl1d/Tie%20Me%20Up%20Tie%20Me%20Down%20722_image_02_crop.jpg?sha=71336b78da95f868 Figure 1: Junquera, P. (n.d.). What Abortion's Past Can Tell Us About its Future. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a39894240/the-secret-history-of-an-underground-abortion-network-1651591856/ Figure 2: Arxiu de Ca la Dona. (1975). Account of the feminist struggle during the post-Franco era. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.barcelona.cat/infobarcelona/en/tema/feminism-women/account-of-the-feminist-struggle-during-the-post-franco-era_765462.html

Figure 3: Arxiu de Ca la Dona. (1975). Account of the feminist struggle during the post-Franco era. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.barcelona.cat/infobarcelona/en/tema/feminism-women/account-of-the-feminist-struggle-during-the-post-franco-era_765462.html

Figure 4: Luna, D. (1978). Bilbao. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077236/ Figure 5: Almodóvar, P. (1989). ¡Átame! [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://programm.ard.de/files/265/2007/2698/2753/8806/Banderas_Fessle_mich.jpg



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