‘American Honey: Redefining the Road Movie Through the Female Gaze’, by Edie Straight
This video essay aims to explore how American Honey utilises the female gaze to depart from the traditional masculine aesthetic of the road movie, so as to achieve a better understanding of how the female gaze is constructed – visually and thematically – and of why the film is so ground-breaking within its genre.
When I first watched American Honey I was struck not only by its focus on the story of a young female protagonist, but how it framed the women of the film with an unobjectifying and realistic perspective. This was especially significant as its status as a road movie placed it alongside an archive of genre films that predominantly prioritised male protagonists and the exploration of masculinity. As Timothy Corrigan notes, it’s “a genre traditionally focused, almost exclusively, on men and the absence of women”, and even when they are included, they’re relegated to the roles of, as David Laderman describes, “passive passengers and/or erotic distractions”.
When I began to delve further into an investigation of American Honey’s style (one that evoked feeling, compassion and total absorption) I realised how wholly it diverged from the cinematic viewpoint of the male gaze. Instead of fetishizing the women of the film, treating them as objects viewed purely from the heterosexual masculine perspective, it aligned the viewer with them and gave them the space to express their own desires and needs. During my research I came across a masterclass given at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on the female gaze. Delivered by Joey Soloway, the lecture highlighted how the female gaze is a way of shooting a film that allows the audience to be plunged into its world through the visceral and tactile visuals of the feeling/seeing camera, and to not just experience how it feels to be seen as an object of the male gaze, but also how it feels to take ownership of it (and subsequently return it). With the knowledge of this theory, I began to explore how and why American Honey was an exemplary instance of the female gaze in action.
Instead of just “inserting female protagonists into this male-orientated genre”, which Shari Roberts asserts “neither simply subverts or subsumes its masculinist tendencies”, the film uses a variety of formal aspects and thematic techniques to redefine the road movie from a feminine perspective. The film’s poetic cinematography that reveals both beauty and brutality, the camera’s physical proximity to Star, as well as its expression of the world from Star’s perspective as we follow her gaze, establishes this. Simultaneously, the audience experiences how it is to be gazed by the male characters that Star encounters throughout the film.
The format of a video essay fully lends itself to the ability to express these points, as a visual and aural engagement with the text is necessary to experience the female gaze in totality. The soundtrack of American Honey is equally significant in establishing the film’s ambiance and reinforcing identification with the characters. Therefore, the ability to incorporate this iconic music into my video essay aided in recreating the atmosphere of the film, a tone that was an integral product of the female gaze.
Arnold, A., ‘Director Andrea Arnold on the Cross-Country Party that Produced American Honey – Interview’, The Verge, (September 29, 2016), https://www.theverge.com/2016/9/29/13109072/american-honey-movie-director-interview-andrea-arnold-tiff-2016, date accessed January 30, 2021.
Cohan, S., Hark, I., (ed.), The Road Movie Book, (London/New York: Routledge, 1997)
Corrigan, T., A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991)
Laderman, D., Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie, (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002)
Mulvey, L., ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, 16(3), (Autumn 1975)
Roberts, S., ‘Western Meets Eastwood’, in Cohan, Hark (ed.), The Road Movie Book, pp. 45 – 69
Soloway, J., Masterclass lecture given at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LukysI8R4g8&ab_channel=FestivaldeCannes%28Officiel%29, date accessed January 2, 2021
A Perfect World (Dir. Clint Eastwood, Prod. Malpaso Productions, USA, 1993)
American Honey (Dir. Andrea Arnold, Prod. British Film Institute/Film4 Productions/Maven
Pictures, United Kingdom/USA, 2016)
Badlands (Dir. Terrence Malick, Prod. Warner Bros., USA, 1973)
Bonnie and Clyde (Dir. Arthur Penn, Prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, USA, 1967)
Die Another Die (Dir. Lee Tamahori, Prod. Eon Productions/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Pictures, United Kingdom, 2002)
Duel (Dir. Steven Spielberg, Prod. Universal Television, USA, 1971)
Easy Rider (Dir. Dennis Hopper, Prod. Pando Company Inc./Raybert Productions, USA, 1969)
Fish Tank (Dir. Andrea Arnold, Prod. BBC Films/UK Film Council, United Kingdom, 2009)
Mad Max 2 (Dir. George Miller, Prod. Kennedy Miller Entertainment, Australia, 1981)
Midnight Run (Dir. Martin Brest, Prod. City Light Films, USA, 1988)
The Mask (Dir. Charles Russell, Prod. New Line Productions/Dark Horse Entertainment,
Thelma & Louise (Dir. Ridley Scott, Prod. Pathé Entertainment/Percy Main
Productions/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, USA, 1991)
Vertigo (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Prod. Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, USA, 1958)
Wasp (Dir. Andrea Arnold, Prod. FilmFour/UK Film Council/Cowboy Films, United Kingdom, 2003)
 Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991), p. 143
 David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie, (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002), p. 20
 Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, 16(3), Autumn 1975, pp. 6 – 18
 Joey Soloway, Masterclass lecture given at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2016
 Shari Roberts, ‘Western Meets Eastwood’, The Road Movie Book, Steven Cohan, Ina Rae Hark (ed.), (London/New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 64