Hollywood women - part 2: the male gaze

The importance of male perceptions of women in the Cinema by Anna-Louise Felstead


The role of the director in the representation of women in film is of course (whether one subscribes to the auteur theory or not) crucial and complex. Film directors were nearly always (and remain) predominantly male. It is of course through the director that the audience sees what they are manipulated into seeing. It is the male cameraman who is looking and filming the female for the benefit of the men in the audience that watch her on the big screen. In her 1973 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey stated that 'the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.' Hollywood styled many of its stars for men to look at. Monroe was placed within the frame to accentuate her curvaceous figure. Mulvey discussed how women are displayed as sexual objects for 'she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire.'

Feminist writers were desperately trying to understand the fascination of Hollywood cinema. This fascination can be explained through the notion of scopophilia (the desire to see) which is a fundamental drive according to Freud. However, there was so much analysis into the way women were filmed that feminist Mary Ann Doane wrote that 'cinematic images of women have been so consistently oppressive and repressive that the very idea of a feminist filmmaking practice seems an impossibility. The simple gesture of directing a camera toward a woman has become equivalent to a terrorist act.'

In Women and Film; Is the gaze male? E Anne Kaplan describes the different ways of looking at film in relation to two Freudian concepts, voyeurism and fetishism. Films have been analysed using 'what exactly woman represents and the mechanisms that come into play for the male spectator watching a female screen image.' Voyeurism is 'linked to the scopophilic instinct (i.e. the male pleasure in his own sexual organ transferred to pleasure in watching other people having sex). Critics argue that the cinema relies on this instinct, making the spectator especially a voyeur.' So a man sitting in a darkened room watching a film experiences the same type of gratification as a child watching a sexual act through a keyhole.

Above: Blow Up (dir: Michaelangelo Antonioni)     

'The original eye of the camera, controlling and limiting what can be seen, is reproduced by the projector aperture which lights up one frame at a time; and both processes (camera and projector) duplicate the eye at the keyhole, whose gaze is confined by the keyhole "frame." The spectator is obviously in the voyeur position when there are sex scenes on the screen, but screen images of women are sexualized no matter what the women are doing literally or what kind of plot may be involved.' (Kuhn)

Many factors are manipulated to create voyeuristic film imagery, the viewfinder, the eye, the mirror or the peephole whether it be a hole in the wall or the keyhole of a door. Hitchcock's Psycho (1968) (right) is but the most demonstrative example. When Norman spies on Marion in the shower through a hole in the wall without her knowing, we share his point of view. The woman doesn't know she is being watched and so we, the viewer immediately have power over her. This can also be seen in relation to sex, for the woman having sex is seen as vunerable and without control over what they do or what is being seen.

In many instances, when the camera zooms into the woman's mouth or legs it can be taken as a visual metaphor for penetration. This kind of camera work can also be seen in Psycho. There is a 'visual play with Marion's enjoyment of the shower: we see, for example, close-ups of parts of her naked body intercut with shots of gushing water, close-ups of her face showing pleasure, and so on.' (Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema' by Annette Kuhn).

Another obvious film to examine for the concepts of The Male Gaze and voyeurism is Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, (1969) (left). The opening sequence begins through a viewfinder of a secret camera belonging to the main character, Mark who is a scopophiliac film-maker.  He is filming a prostitute and she takes him into her room and undresses in front of him. As she looks at him, we suddenly see her face turn to horror and as she backs away, the camera moves closer and closer towards her before she lies down on the bed and begins to scream hysterically. The screen then goes blank.

In Women and Film, E Ann Kaplan writes that 'many male fantasies focus on the man's excitement in arranging for his woman to expose herself (or even give herself) to other men, while he watches.' This is exactly what the prostitute does in the first few minutes of Peeping Tom, for to the male viewer in the audience, she is about to give her body to Boehm. Notably, we don't see Boehm's face at all in this scene. Everything we see is through Mark's secret camera which intensifies the male viewer's fantasy of being in the same room as the prostitute and ultimately, murdering her by penetration of the camera which is used as a metaphor of the penis.

Hitchcock's Rear Window (right) deals with the voyeuristic act of a disabled man, played by James Stewart (the master of suppressed sexuality in Hitchcock's work) spying on a neighbour whom he suspects of murder. As he watches, an erotic dimension is added to his look, a central image to the drama. When Grace Kelly, playing Stewart's girlfriend, first appears in the story, she is portrayed as a classic passive female, interested only in fashion and glamour.

But later she breaks this role when she sneaks into the neighbour's home to investigate the murder herself and Stewart, paralysed with excitement 'does not merely watch her through his lens, as a distant meaningful image, he also sees her as a guilty intruder exposed by a dangerous man threatening her with punishment, and thus finally giving him the opportunity to save her. Lisa's exhibitionism has already been established by her obsessive interest in dress and style, in being a passive image of visual perfection; [Stewart's] voyeurism and activity have also been established through his work as a photo-journalist, a maker of stories and captor of images. However, his enforced inactivity, binding him to his seat as a spectator, puts him squarely in the fantasy position of the cinema audience.' (Mulvey).

Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver (1974) (left) provides one of the best examples in films of the two different types of women, knowing and innocent, but brilliantly, this time the roles are counter-intuitive. Cybill Shepherd's character (the innocent) is an attractive blonde political campaign worker whereas Jodie Foster plays, as the knowing woman, a child prostitute just going on thirteen who is living in one of the most scabrous, degenerate and low-life sections of New York with her pimp boyfriend (Harvey Keitel).

In one scene, De Niro takes Shepherd out on a date to see what he doesn't tell her is a pornographic movie. We are then shown Betsy in her discomfort. She is trapped. This takes us back to Kaplan on men fantasising about their fantasy woman giving herself to another man as he looks on. In this case, DeNiro watches Shepherd watch another woman on the screen have sex with another man, which is even more of a fantasy for him rather than just watching a pornographic movie on his own. In a film packed with paradoxical moments, DeNiro's character ultimately risks his life for the knowing woman, Foster, to whose physical vulnerability he is much more sensitive.

With the progression and diversification of female roles in film (see Part I) and the advent of women directors, the Male Gaze is having to compete with the female gaze and that of modern society as a whole. Even a reactionary director such as Quentin Tarantino, in his fascination with violence towards women, offers up a formidable heroine in the form of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003, right), who fulfils the dominant role of the action female whilst simultaneously trading for the audience's sympathies with an almost pornographic display of victimisation and vulnerability. Ultimately, whilst the Male Gaze may be more cluttered and unpredictable than in the days of The Seven Year Itch, it still holds sway.

©Anna-Louise Felstead 2004


Recommended Reading: E Ann Kaplan - Is The Gaze Male?   Anette Kuhn - The Power of the Image; Living dolls and 'Real Women'    Yvonne Tasker - Spectacular Bodies; Working Girls; Women Warriors; Women and Film    Laura Mulvey - Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.