In reading chapters 5 through 7 of Flamethrowers, I was struck by Reno’s focus on women as something to be seen. This brought to mind discussions in my film and gender classes of “the male gaze,” which is the concept that, in art, the viewer is assumed to be a heterosexual male and the females depicted in the art are sexualized, or made to be attractive to that male eye. Art is a constant theme in this book, and I was particularly interested in the inclusion of the scene in which Sandro, Ronnie, and Reno are looking at the sculpture of the black slave girl. Sandro and Ronnie find particular meaning and gravity in the sculpture– citing the girl’s modernity and taking particular note of her “kiss of life” (106). They are fixated on their fantasies of her, and her immortality. Reno, however, doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps this scene is highlighting Reno’s (as of that moment) unawareness of the role of the male gaze in art? She can’t see what’s so special about the sculpture, which Ronnie and Sandro apply their own meanings happily to her “immortalized” body.
But Reno is somewhat aware of the importance of the male gaze in her own culture, in real life, as we see in her “makeover” scene with Giddle. She is gleeful over her new look, and Kushner even spells it out for us– Reno looks at herself “as if I were someone else looking at me,” (83) and she becomes thrilled by this idea. She decides she wants “to be looked at. By men. By strangers,” (83). If I was unsure of Reno’s stance on the controversial feminist ideas of the time, I was pretty convinced by this scene that she is at least embracing the culture of the male gaze–it almost makes her euphoric. She finds her new job in this way, being paid to be looked at, and unknown. This seems to be a special fascination for her, as it was when she met Nadine and Thurman, and they threw identities onto her without trying to get to know her. People see Reno, but they don’t try to know her personally. Sandro certainly seems to be the exception to this, as he is interested in knowing about her past. But the fact that Sandro sees Reno going to her superficial and anonymous job and finds her attractive without knowing her first makes me think that Sandro might just be another male with a gaze, another anonymous and unknowing viewer for Reno to be seen by.