Away From the Male Gaze: The Changing Face of Female Sexuality in Latin American Cinema

'Ayer maravilla fui' still courtesy of Los Cabos International Film Festival

If there was one recurring image I was pleasantly surprised to find in several of the films playing at Los Cabos International Film Festival it was that of two women cradling each other in bed. It was there in the opening film, Battle of the Sexes, where we see tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) wrestle with her attraction to Marilyn, the lovely female hairdresser she’d met in Los Angeles (Andrea Riseborough), only to find herself lunging lustily after and later tenderly spooning her in her motel room. The crowd-pleasing flick focuses on King’s fight for equal pay for female tennis players and on her now famous “battle of the sexes” match with Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). But the exploration of her budding same-sex attraction emerges as the film’s most assured attempt to capture what’s made King such an enduring LGBTQ icon. The sweet moment she shares with Marilyn in bed is no mere B-plot, it further cements the way the film wants to think about how women navigate safe spaces outside the probing eyes of the men that nevertheless still threaten to control their lives.

I happened to follow up Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ tennis biopic with two Mexican films that returned to that same theme, offering audiences two same-sex couples that sought solace and comfort in one another’s arms. First up was Ayer maravilla fui. Gabriel Mariño’s award-winning lo-fi sci-fi black-and-white melancholy look at Mexico City is ostensibly about a being who finds itself waking in different people’s bodies and yearning for the love of a pretty hairdresser. At first we meet him as “Emilio” (Rubén Cristiany), a frail old man. But later we see him take the body of “Anna.” An imposing young woman played by Yo no creo en los hombresSonia Franco, Ana pursues Luisa (Siouzana Melikian), asking her to cut her hair, a scene that suggests there’s definite chemistry between the two. (Yes, one wonders how I inexplicably scheduled seeing back to back films where a haircut becomes a sensual meeting between two women – it’s got to be a first, right?)

What’s tentative at first soon blossoms into an intimate affair between the two women who eventually find themselves undressing one another in Ana’s bedroom. Rather inert – whether by design, “Ana” after all is not quite human, or by happenstance – this tender sex scene suggests that these women have found solace in one another’s arms. Outside this room, they’re belittled and bullied (and, at a party they both visit, they’re accosted and assaulted by an inebriated man). But when they’re with one another, everything else falls away. There’s a reason why the love Ana feels for Luisa transcends genders and sexualities, but it bears pointing out that Mariño only shows the two truly coming together when they’re a same-sex pairing.

But where Ayer maravilla fui feels all too comfortable aiming for a dream-like aesthetic that pulses with the energy of Mexico City but still brackets it off from the lives of the characters we’re following, Astrid Rondero’s Los días más oscuros de nosotras tackles head on the ugly reality many women face in Tijuana. Speaking after one of the film’s screenings at the fest, Rondero admitted that she wrote this grueling drama about a woman taking on a job leading a construction site in the hometown she’d left years before because she wanted to capture what it means to face the blunt misogyny that still riddles many parts of Mexico, and Tijuana in particular. Set against an ongoing epidemic of violence against women (which fellow female filmmakers like Tatiana Huezo and Natalia Almada have tackled in their own films), Los días follows Ana (Sophie Alexander-Katz) a woman haunted by a traumatic childhood that’s since become a respected architect. Not that that helps her when trying to wrangle the construction workers at the seaside project she’s entrusted with. In such a testosterone-fueled place, it’s no surprise she ends up turning to the young woman who now lives in her childhood home, who in turn is fighting for custody of her daughter while working shifts at the local strip bar.

Seen at a time when there’s no shortage of news stories about sexual harassment, scenes like these that celebrate spaces devoid and indifferent to the male gaze feel potent, necessary even.

The two wounded women, the latter of whom reminds Ana of the sister she lost when she was a child, try to make sense of their unlikely attraction for the other. They share a beer and, when they realize they truly don’t have anyone else to turn to, end up exploring each other’s bodies in Ana’s bedroom. Where the male-dominated world of Battle of the Sexes hinges on paychecks and rude sexist remarks, the environment that Ana and Silvia (Florencia Ríos) attempt to flee is tinged with the violence that such microaggressions engender. There’s a danger lurking in every frame of Rondero’s film, which takes place mostly in night time shadows and unwelcome spaces, and is filled with the threatening stares of men who can’t handle self-sufficient women. It makes the vulnerability they expose to one another all the rarer – and yet another example of the strength of having a female gaze behind the camera. There’s a muted eroticism in their nude interactions as Rondero was eager to focus less on titillating her viewer than in representing the sweet-hearted comfort these women find in one another.

Seen at a time when there’s no shortage of news stories about sexual harassment, scenes like these that celebrate spaces devoid and indifferent to the male gaze feel potent, necessary even. They may not announce themselves as a kind of militant feminist agenda, but they do point to the kinds of support networks that women have needed to create for themselves in order to face the sexism that greets them on a near-daily basis. Moreover, lesbian sexuality, which has so often been reduced to blinkered stereotypes – or worse, male-ogling fascination – is here treated, in movies of wildly different genres, with a level of nuance that should give us hope about the way filmmakers, American and Mexican alike, are tackling sexuality in 2017.