Staring Back: On Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983)

The early 1980s. New York at night. Lurid neon lights. Rain-soaked streets. The clog of people and cars. In the middle of this tumult stands the flashing sign of Variety, a porn theater where Christine sells tickets. One regular patron, Louie, strikes up a conversation with Christine, buying her a coke and inviting her to a baseball game where he abruptly leaves without any explanation. She starts following him, overcome by a desire to know what he’s hiding.

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Bette Gordon’s 1983 film Variety is concerned with many things–desire, surveillance, voyeurism, pornography–but what compels me most is how it shows a woman looking, gazing, watching, following. A woman who dares to stare back at the men who stare at her. To watch Variety is to enter a cinematic world that centers a woman’s gaze and affirms a woman’s subjectivity under patriarchy.

At every turn, Variety subverts our expectations. Christine works at a porn theater, but the audience is rarely afforded a glimpse of the explicit films that play inside its walls–only brief flashes of faces and body parts are shown. Instead, we experience the pornography through sound. We don’t see the films, but, like Christine on her various smoke breaks, we hear them–the simulated moaning and screaming of sex, the graphic language spoken by men to women. Throughout the film, Christine also describes to her love interest what she sees and the fantasies she has, but he can’t handle a woman expressing sexual desire.

 

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Still by Nan Goldin

Christine constantly destabilizes and disturbs men. She trespasses in their spaces. In one scene, she enters a porn shop where men stand around looking at images of naked women. Ironically, this is a space where women are both omnipresent and unwelcome. Women are allowed so long as they are two-dimensional photos, passive and silent, existing for the pleasure of men. Men want to look, but they don’t want the object of their gaze to look back. They don’t want to be seen in the act of looking. Christine sees them. Her presence threatens them because she is a living woman who dares to look back, to find power in her own gaze. Similarly, she explores other masculine spaces, including a baseball game and a fish market. All of these spaces are a reminder of women’s vulnerability and how hostile the male-dominated world often is to us. When Christine appears in the magazine shop or the fish market, she is immediately visible, watched, and, at the same time, unwanted. She has no business being there. Men don’t want her there.

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The film provides a counterbalance to these masculine places by including spaces more dominated by women, like the gym Christine swims at in the opening scene and the bar where her friend Nan, played by the legendary photographer, Nan Goldin, works. The women in these spaces talk to each other and share their struggles under patriarchy, like when one woman–a sex worker–talks about being arrested by cops. Women are not victims in Variety, but they are subject to misogyny and they’re not afraid to openly and honestly talk about it.

Christine goes so far as to challenge the gendered power dynamic between men and women. In interviews, Gordon has spoken about the influence of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking 1973 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that explored how cinema centers the male gaze. Films often show women as men see them. In Gordon’s words, “Mulvey establishes that film is a voyeuristic medium, its appeal lying in its visibility, its quality of being there to be looked at. Film plays on the voyeuristic fantasies of the viewer, who is constructed as a male.”

We also see men pursuing women, but rarely do we see the reverse. Variety gives us a woman pursuing a man as Christine follows Louie, the patron of the porn theater. She checks into a motel where he’s staying, goes through his room, and even steals one of his porn magazines. Another scene shows Christine walking behind him on the street. He has no idea that he is being followed, that the power is in Christine’s hands. In this way, Variety looks at looking and makes us think about what it means for a woman to watch, to follow.

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Christine’s stalking of Louie reminds me of Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne. Calle picked a random man on the street and followed him around Venice, Italy without his knowledge. She took photographs, wrote notes of his movements, and recorded her own thoughts. Like Christine, Calle challenged the idea that only a man can watch, that only a man can be the voyeur and take pleasure in looking. Women can also pursue. Women also have the desire to gaze and to follow.

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Suite VĂ©nitienne, 1983

Over the course of the film, Christine gradually changes. Variety explores Christine’s burgeoning and unsatiated desire. She dares to describe the porn films and her own fantasies to her boyfriend who only runs away. Louie never initiates sexual contact. Near the end of the film, Christine dresses up in lingerie and puts on make-up, transforming into one of the women she’s probably seen in the porn films and magazines. She looks at herself in the mirror. She seems to take pleasure in seeing herself this way, or maybe she’s trying to understand who she is in relation to those images.

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Still by Nan Goldin
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Still by Nan Goldin

At a time when porn is easily accessible, more and more women are comparing themselves against the films and photos they see and trying to figure out what they want in a world that rarely asks what a woman desires. In the lingerie, Christine is no longer looking at a woman on a screen or a magazine page. Now, she is looking at herself. She is turning her gaze on her own face and body. And not a man is in sight. She is centering her own pleasure, and that might be Variety‘s most radical contribution–a woman seeing herself outside the gaze of men, a woman watching instead of always being watched, a woman asserting her right to be subject rather than object.