Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey laid the foundation for spectator positioning within cinematic discourse with her identification and concentration of what she termed to be the male gaze, where the viewer adopts the male perspective and the female becomes the object of male fetishism to counteract the inherent threat of castration that women with their lack of phallus represent. However, Sally Potter’s, The Tango Lesson, completely subverts this theory as it Potter’s gaze through which the audience identifies with during Sally’s path to rediscover herself through the art of Tango and her relationship with Pablo in hopes of removing the writer’s block brought on by the demands of Hollywood executives which is hindering her creativity.
Much of the film emphasizes the “importance of looking,” personifying Sally as a camera through which the audience can voyeuristically become enthralled with both Tango and Pablo. Through Potter’s eyes, the audiences approach the world of Tango as an outsider, moving through dark corners and finding delight in Pablo, the breathtaking soloist. Potter loves Pablo the most “when she is simply allowed to look at him, as if from behind a camera” while Pablo himself never looks at Sally because he is too busy looking at himself.
Indeed it is Pablo who is objectified by the gaze – Sally’s gaze. Upon the first time that Potter and the audience witness Pablo dance, creation is born and it is fueled by desire; Sally’s desire for Pablo dispels Mulvey’s assertion that the women always the object never the subject of the gaze. In fact, it is only when Sally undergoes the active role of learning to dance that she experiences conflict. By allowing the audience to identify with Potter’s desire, the viewers are taken to a deeper level of understanding the meaning of balance, both professionally (whether it be directing or tango dancing) and personally as demonstrated by the “jostling of egos” between Potter and Pablo (Mayer).
Throughout the film, Potter must learn to balance her leading role as a director while simultaneously learning to follow when dancing the tango; this struggle is also paralleled with the character of Pablo and epitomizing the predominant theme of the film: the dichotomy of feminism and femininity. This power struggle manifests itself in the narrative through her relationship with Pablo, ultimately suggesting that both femininity and feminism are needed to achieve a harmonized state of being. In Tango, Sally, as a student, must navigate with her body and not her mind, effectively relinquishing the control to which her career as a director has afforded her to Pablo’s expertise (Fowler). In revealing Sally’s internal transformation, Potter gradually heightens her sense of femininity, changing her wardrobe from jeans and sneakers to high heels and dresses.
This alteration in her appearance signifies the typical, mainstream technique of accentuating the inner feminine beauty which lies beneath the masculine woman. However, unlike traditional Hollywood cinema which ends its narrative once the ugly duckling has become a swan, Potter’s outward transformation does signal the end independence but indeed gives her renewed sense of self which she explores more fully with Pablo. Pablo himself must undergo a transformation in order to overcome the burden of masculinity and regain harmony with Sally by becoming her student and learning how to follow. The end of narrative signals both parties regaining a new sense of self-awareness where finding their true selves leads them to find a ‘home’ with each other. Thus, The Tango Lesson reveals the limitations placed upon the self by a patriarchal society advocates harmony both internal and romantically for both men and women.