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Women aren’t Ornaments for the Male Gaze

Alicia is a third year student in Film Studies

‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual erotic impact so that they can connote to-be-looked-at-ness.’

This quote is from the essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ by Laura Mulvey, a British feminist and film theorist. In it, she articulates her theory that visual media has represented women as figures to be looked at and depicted as passive. In her books and essays, she has deconstructed film and invented the concept of the male gaze. The male gaze is what I want to focus on through the example of Madeleine Elster (played by Kim Novak) in Vertigo and Summer (played by Zoey Deschanel) in 500 Days of Summer. Why does the principal agency in films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s belong to heterosexual white men? And why is it that women have nearly no agency and are acted upon in film? 

Mulvey explains how identification with the male protagonist likens identification with the camera and the gaze the audience sees through. The most logical reason why men had the dominant agency in film is that men were the ones writing, directing and producing movies. All they knew was to apply their own narrow, subjective experiences to their process. And Mulvey goes further in that explanation. She argues that the key tenet is the castration anxiety and the fear of emasculation that comes from an idea of loss of power founded on the childhood discovery of sexual difference. Thus the image of a woman alludes to the threat of castration. The representation of women in cinema is created by fear of emasculation, which in turn creates the male gaze. Spectators accept and even pursue identification with this cinematic male gaze because they are looking for mastery and power. Mulvey explains, ‘Woman stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning’.

 This leads me to introduce my first example of female representation under the male gaze. In Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, the main female character is Madeleine Elster. This film follows the story of detective John Ferguson (played by James Stewart) investigating the strange activities of an old friend’s wife. He becomes obsessed with her. The agency and identification are led by John, the male protagonist. As he follows Madeleine around, she becomes the source of mystery. In this film, the woman is created to be looked at. Through this excuse of being a detective, his spying becomes voyeuristic objectification, especially because she never looks back, symbolising her lack of power. The male protagonist objectifies and projects his desires onto a woman he doesn’t even know for his sexual pleasure. Mulvey introduces the word scopophilic as ‘pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight’ as relevant to the male gaze in cinema. Hitchcock is known to represent women in this way. This film and Rear Window take these representations to a next level of sexual obsession and objectification by portraying the passive woman, she who exists only to carry out the male fantasy and desires. 

Active/passive heterosexual division can be evidenced by the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope in 500 Days of Summer. 500 Days of Summer follows Tom (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) as he revisits the approximately one year he shared with Summer, the girl he thought he could spend the rest of his life with. Summer, who is depicted as a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, is carefree, unique, and feminine. She’s the romantic interest of the male main character but doesn’t have much more to offer. The ideal woman is manufactured by a male ideal, gaze, and agency. In this film, the male protagonist projects his ideals, wants, and needs onto Summer who is independent and free, and expresses many times that she is not willing to give him what he wants. His scopophilic creation and delegations are boldly apparent. She is made from his imaginary mould. We are led to realise that her role in the film is to further Tom’s character arc. She is not valued and, as in Vertigo, we don’t know much about her. She is still quite a mystery. 

There are so many more tropes that sexualize women and portray them as uncomplicated and uninteresting. For there to be changes, we need to analyse and challenge this representation to change the industry’s way of making films. We need to educate ourselves on how to change the way our society has taught us to view relationships and the role of women within them. Because there is more than white heterosexuality and more to women than sex. Next time you watch a film, think of whose perspective you’re seeing and why it’s probably not the woman’s. 

(editors’ own emphasis in quotes)