What Demoralized the Barber Shop (1897)
This little clip from the days of film’s “innocent” youth gives us a chance to look at the development of what would become known as the “male gaze” in cinema. A group of men are in a barbershop, situated in a basement. The camera is framed to allow us to see up the stairs to the street. Suddenly, two pairs of feminine legs become visible. The women face one another, tugging their dresses upward, while the men below break into “pandemonium” at the sight of their ankles and shins. The viewer is treated to the view of disembodied female body-parts, and to a comedic over-representation of his own (presumed) reaction. The men are portrayed as having no control over their sexuality or behavior, while the women are oblivious to what is happening below their feet. Modern viewers will be especially amused that it is simply ankles that create the reaction in this early piece of deliberate titillation, although of course the folks at Edison were aware of how far they could go before there was a police raid on the Black Maria. As time went on, movies would inspire a great deal of debate over censorship, morality, and the gender order, but this example demonstrates how early some of the standards were set.
Director: William Heise
Run time: 48 seconds
You can watch it for free: here.