Scopophilia and Spectacle: The Pleasure of Looking at “Chicago”

Looking at women as objects in film is not a new concept; it has been around since the beginning of motion pictures. Before that, it was also a concept in photographs and clubs. Men love to look, and some women love to be looked at. This is discussed in Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”[1] Specifically, she describes the idea of scopophilia, or the pleasure of looking. This is what I will be mainly focusing on for this essay. I want to showcase how scopophilia is displayed in the film Chicago.[2] In this musical film from 2002, directed by Rob Marshall, with a screenplay by Bill Condon, women criminals take the concept of scopophilia, and the male gaze, and use it towards their advantage. By putting on a show, or a spectacle, they are able to get what they want. In the way Chicago is filmed and edited, there are the “reality” scenes and the “fantasy” scenes that are intertwined. The fantasy scenes throughout the film then visually represent these spectacles, and provide a great visual representation of the pleasure of looking. Chicago forms a visual representation on how women utilize scopophilia to their advantage to get their way. Through the use of spectacle and performance, they are able to tease and charm their way through the criminal system.

We first must clearly define scopophilia in order to understand how the characters in Chicago go on to utilize it as a type of leverage for their accusations of murder. Putting it simply, scopophilia is gaining pleasure from looking. According to the Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, edited by Mary Kosut, the term scopophilia was first introduced into psychology in 1910 by Sigmund Freud. He derived the term from the German word “Schaulust”, which literally means lust for looking.[3] Sigmund Freud, as mentioned in Mulvey’s piece, associates scopophilia with “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.” Oftentimes, the receiver of the look, or gaze, is female, and the one doing the looking is male. Mulvey briefly mentions in her essay that there are circumstances where there is pleasure in being looked at, just as one can find pleasure in looking. This is part of what makes Chicago so interesting, as these women are shown to the audience to be performers. Part of their work is acknowledging and liking the fact that they will be looked at as objects. The following quote by Mulvey describes it best: “Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire.”

In Mulvey’s essay, she elaborates on the idea of women displayed as sexual objects by bringing up the show-girl, and specifically about the device of the show-girl. She states, “…the device of the show-girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis. A woman performs within the narrative; the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude.” Chicago is unique, as the spectacle moments throughout the film, with the “show-girl” type characters, are for the audience, not for the characters in the film. These spectacles, not necessarily the show-girl characters themselves, are used as a tool or device, rather than strictly an element in the narrative. The characters in the film do not see the spectacle/fantasy moments throughout the film (besides the opening and closing numbers of the film that are actually set in reality), they only see the reality of the narrative, which the film cuts back and forth to in the different musical numbers. They represent to us, the audience, what the characters are trying to do: put on a show in order to get their way. Maureen Turim, in her piece, Gentlemen Consume Blondes, argues that spectacle always has a purpose. She writes, “We are never given spectacle for its own sake—each instance of performance/seduction is grounded in a logical purpose, hardly ‘naturalistic’, but not freestanding either.”[4] Chicago, and the filmmakers surrounding the production, were definitely very aware in thinking through the best way to deliver both spectacle and narrative to the audience.

Mainstream film is also part of the conversation in Mulvey’s writing, and fits in well with the smash hit that is Chicago. While many musical films are never considered “mainstream”, the success and prestige of Chicago makes it fit right in with other prestigious mainstream films. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, and winning six of them, there is no argument that Chicago was a major success and was quite revolutionary in terms of live-action musical films. Part of that success comes from the way the film was written and planned out. Mulvey explains that most mainstream film “neatly combines spectacle and narrative”, and Chicago does just that, even more literally than most films. The film contains both realistic and fantasy moments that blend together to form the narrative. The fantasy moments, which consist of most of the musical numbers, form a visual representation of the “spectacle” that the women characters in the film are trying to put on in order to sway their juries, the public, etc. into thinking they are innocent in their crimes. In this way, they seem to have cheated the system, both in terms of the film, and in terms of the concept of scopophilia. They have figured it out, and the following paragraphs will consist of an analysis of a multitude of these spectacle moments that showcase how they have done so.

Chicago first opens up with the iconic number, “All That Jazz”. This, and the reprise of the song at the end of the film, are the only two “spectacles” that are set in the reality of the film. As the number begins, one of the main women of the film, Velma Kelly, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is introduced as she rushes in after just murdering her romantic partner and her sister for them cheating with each other. This number is to establish the show-girl character of Velma Kelly, while also introducing Roxie Hart, the wannabe show-girl. We see the first moment of scopophilia in Roxie Hart looking at Velma Kelly perform the song, imagining herself in Velma’s place. The lyrics, such as, “I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockin’s down,” pinpoint some of the provocative nature of the narrative, and provide the “to-be-looked-at-ness” that Mulvey describes that these women possess. Mulvey writes that, “Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.” She explains the complexity of this, which is seen throughout the lyrics, costuming, staging, etc. of the musical numbers in the film.

The next spectacle and song come after Roxie Hart has now shot and killed her so-called “agent”, and is trying to convince the officers that her husband, Amos, actually shot him in defense to save her. This is the first moment in the film of one of the women criminals trying to work the system and put on a show to get out of trouble. Roxie Hart flaunts herself on the stage, making a scene, visually representing the plea of desperation she’s giving to her husband, and the police, in the reality of the narrative. “Funny Honey” goes on to get twisted as Amos realizes it was their salesman and that Roxie was cheating on him. Amos doesn’t let the lie slide, Roxie’s spectacle fails, and she is arrested for the murder. As her song is ending, she angrily belts, “Look at him go, rattin’ on me. With just one more brain, what a half-wit he’d be.” Her anger and jealousy of Velma Kelly’s stardom are what fuel the rest of the narrative and spectacle.

One of my personal favorite musical numbers from Chicago is one that introduces the audience to the type of “system” that is being worked throughout the film. Queen Latifah’s character, Matron Mama Morton, sings “When You’re Good to Mama” for her spectacle moment, while she introduces the rules of her jail to the new inmates, which includes Roxie Hart. The song opens with the lyrics, “Ask any of the chickies in my pen, they’ll tell you I’m the biggest mother… hen. I love them all and all of them love me, because the system works. The system called… reciprocity!” She then goes on to about how there’s a lot of favors that she is prepared to do if “you’re good to Mama”. All of the women criminals in her jail know her rules, but also learn how to best use this to their advantage. For instance, Velma Kelly uses Mama to buy her publicity in the paper to keep herself relevant to try to come out innocent after her trial. Roxie Hart sees this exchange and begins to garner ideas on how to best spin her story to get out free, but to also build up as much fame for herself as possible.

All of the spectacle moments of the film come to a head in the most important number, “Razzle Dazzle”. This song and scene drives home exactly what we have been talking about: the use of spectacle and scopophilia to get what you want. This scene consists of Roxie Hart’s trial, and the show they put on to try to claim her innocence. Richard Gere’s character, who is Roxie’s lawyer, Billy Flynn, sings the song, as the film itself cuts between an elaborate circus-like spectacle, and the gray, drab courtroom. As Kelly Kessler writes in Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity and Mayhem, “Chicago short circuits musical/social integration and character interaction by continually stepping outside of the narrative to unrelated fantasy sequences in moments of musical presentation.”[5] The lyrics of the song clearly define what their intentions are: “Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle ‘em. Give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it, and the reaction will be passionate. Give ‘em the old hocus-pocus, bead and feather ‘em. How can they see with sequins in their eyes?” The number goes on as Billy Flynn and Roxie Hart continue to work the system and spin the story to make the court believe that she is innocent.

Spectacle comes to an end in the final musical number of the film, that is actually set in the reality. In this scene, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart have become a dynamic show duo, after both becoming free women. While they still dislike each other, they realize that the only way to keep their fame is to become a double-act. The bandleader, played by Taye Diggs, introduces the final spectacle, exclaiming, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Chicago Theatre is proud to announce a first, the first time anywhere there has been an act of this nature. Not only one little lady but two. You’ve read about them in the papers, and now here they are. Chicago’s own killer dillers, those scintillating sinners, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.” It is a sort of spectacle to show that they won; they got what they wanted. Velma Kelly got her life back. Roxie Hart got her fame and success.

Scopophilia in Chicago is unique, as one can see from the analysis of the scenes above. It is not necessarily focused on the human body, as Mulvey mostly writes about. In one part of her essay, Mulvey mentions how, “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” This is almost opposite in the case of Chicago. Women, and their spectacle, drive the film’s narrative. The women characters in Chicago flip Mulvey’s idea that men are strictly the maker of meaning. These women in the film use spectacle and their “image” to become the maker of meaning to get what they want.

The pleasure in looking comes through the spectacle of the film. While much of the lyrics, costuming, etc. are rather provocative and nice to admire, it is the overall spectacle that brings on the scopophilia. The accused murderesses use this then to twist their stories in major spectacles, that only the audience can see, but are played in an elaborate visual representation of what they are trying to accomplish: convince everyone in the film that they are innocent of their crimes. Kessler, again, writes, “Films such as Chicago…fully embrace this visual style to create simultaneously frenetic, stunning, and narratively disruptive visuals.” This visual style of spectacle is used as a device to show the audience, on an elaborate, fantastic scale, the story that these women are trying to spin for themselves to come out as free women.

[1] Mulvey, Laura. 1989. “Visual and Other Pleasures.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Language, Discourse, Society. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-19798-9_3.

[2] Chicago, dir. Rob Marshall (USA: Miramax Films, 2002), DVD.

[3] Kosut, Mary E., ed. Encyclopedia of Gender in Media. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2012. Accessed April 8, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[4] Turim, Maureen. “Gentlemen Consume Blondes.” Movies and Methods 2 (1985). Accessed April 2018.

[5] Kessler, K. Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical : Music, Masculinity and Mayhem. London: Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2010. Accessed April 8, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.