The Male Gaze: Demeaning or Empowering? An examination of this subtle element in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the world of cinema

Paper by Jessie Reid.

The Male Gaze in film, whether subjective or objective, continues to illicit discussion and debate in its use in the cinematic narrative. This seemingly subtle element of film convention, when applied by auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, transcends being an act of simplicity and becomes a dynamic part of the films plot and formula. This element, though a crucial aspect of the works of Alfred Hitchcock, does not tell the complete story of the unique sensibilities of the director. As Jeanne T. Allen contends in her examination of R. Barton’s “The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho (Cinema Journal, Winter 1985), “Hitchcock’s classic Hollywood realist style made him attractive to a mass audience, and his intense self-consciousness, particularly in his films of the 1950’s which operated metaphorically at the level of content, intrigued an audience that took “modernism” as a sine qua non (absolute essential) of art”. Ms. Allen also contends in her response that, “Hitchcock’s films developed a calculated ambiguity. But the contradiction between commerce and artistry is less a logical exclusiveness than a cultural bias. More a contradiction was Hitchcock’s protracted game with his audience: the pleasure of unpleasure, being terrified, being made to look at one’s own guilty pleasure” (54). This ability to engage the audience in the myriad of ways developed by Mr. Hitchcock, has allowed his work to continue to remain relevant in the cinematic world.

The element of “The Look” in the cinematic works of Alfred Hitchcock has long driven the narrative of the reality that he brings to his films. This allows the audience to at once be a part of, and removed, from the events take are taking place on the screen. This duality of meanings in regards to the role of the audience, can also be used to describe “The Look” and its use in the narrative. The Male Gaze in the films of Alfred Hitchcock can be seen as derogatory and demeaning, or conversely it can be interpreted as empowering to the female character viewed, making this aspect worth note even to filmmakers in the present. Through dissecting the motivations of Mr. Hitchcock through the styles, themes, and historical context, of pivotal scenes from the films Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock,1954), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), and The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), it will be shown that instead of holding sway in the narrative through the male gaze, the male protagonist is instead manipulated by it, allowing the female viewed to control his thoughts and actions. By allowing this manipulation, the dominant power given to the attribute of the male gaze is diminished, bringing a new interpretation to the convention.

The dynamic of the male gaze is as complex in society as it is in the structure of the narrative of film form. The contention that the White Patriarchal Capitalist system ideology is pervasive in culture and film, analyzes only a part of the equation dealing with this element of cinema. Laura Mulvey states in her acclaimed work on this element, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, that she intends to use psychoanalysis to “discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject (Hitchcock) and the social formations that molded him”. She also states that, “It takes as starting point the way film reflects, reveals, and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle. Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriate here as political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (803). Though Ms. Mulvey sees the nuanced aspects of the male gaze through the lens of patriarchy and feminism, this conclusion has, and continues to, receive an oppositional reading. Clifford T. Manlove in his essay, “Visual Drive and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey, contends regarding the statements of Ms. Mulvey that, “respondents also seek to redefine Mulvey’s gaze, depending on whether their primary object of study (or attack) is feminism, film, or psychoanalysis. However, a few respondents seek not only to reject Mulvey’s theory of the gaze, but also, in some cases, to reject the use of psychoanalysis, “feminist film theory”, or other critical/interpretive approaches to film” (85). This debate and counterargument concerning the male gaze shows the innate complexity of gender and sexuality in regards to both society and film.

The Male Gaze and its relevance in society has long been examined and explored by great minds of intellectual science and academia.  To paraphrase on what Laura Mulvey extols in her essay Visual Pleasure, “The scopophilic instinct, (taken from the seminal work of Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality), (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object), and in contradistinction, ego libido, (forming identification processes), act as formations and mechanisms, which cinema has played upon”. She also states, “This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, strip-tease, theater, shows, etc. Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked at-ness, cinema builds the way she is looked at into a spectacle” (815). Ms. Mulvey further explores this element when she states that, “In a world ordered by sexual balance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which s styled accordingly” (808). The subjective and objective viewing of person or object through this perimeter of thought does seem to tend to objectify the female. Ms. Mulvey’s viewpoint also receives a different interpretation when seen in the guidelines of the renowned psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. As Mr. Manlove states concerning the argument made by Lacan in Visual Drive, “The gaze is a much more primary part of human subjectivity than patriarchy, which although powerful, is a secondary manifestation of culture” (84).  This definition slowly releases the hold put upon “The Look” by the feminism aspect of society regarding the sexualized attribute of the male gaze, and allows it to by redefined by a more measured neutral and analytical outlook.

The themes and stylistic tendencies of Alfred Hitchcock were borne of the chaos and tumultuous times of World War I. During his stint as an assistant/art director at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, he became influenced by the dark, brooding atmospheres of both German Expressionism and to a smaller extent Soviet Montage. Montage, directly affected his outlook on the male gaze, as examined by Tyler Theus in his essay on Hitchcock and The Material Politics of Looking: Laura Mulvey, Rear Window, and Psycho, when he states, “If voyeurism, (scopophilia), is associated with narrative, and narrative is associated with sadism, (pleasure/pain of others), we can easily consider montage to be the formal building block of this mode of looking” (7).  Mr. Theus’ examination of the dual nature of the male gaze can be ascertained when he explains the dichotomy of, “narrative sadism”, (man controls the woman for the sake of forward narrative movement) favored by Ms. Mulvey and the “non-narrative scopophilia,” in which the male spectator enjoys the woman as object “to-be-looked at”, without any forward narrative movement”. He also contends that, “In other words, Mulvey believes that there is a fundamental antagonism between narrative conventions and the visual presentation of the woman on screen as a sexual object in classical Hollywood films” (6). This antagonism between the active/male gaze and the passive/female object was the underlying principle in a majority of the works of Mr. Hitchcock.

By examining specific scenes from films such as Rear Window, The Birds, and Vertigo, the duality of interpretation of the active and the passive can be shown to be malleable and not static as asserted by Ms. Mulvey. In Rear Window, professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair.  Through the male gaze, seen through a style reminiscent of “Direct Cinema” or the Soviet “Kino-eye”, we see the narrative move forward as “Jeff” witnesses’ events through his camera and binoculars that allow him to believe that a neighbor has murdered his wife. His reluctant, but uncontrolled “narrative sadism” occasionally focuses on a neighbor in his Greenwich Village apartment complex dubbed Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy). In the Hi-key lit, medium framed, point-of-view shot scenes in which she makes an appearance, “Ms. Torso”, to combat the steamy summer heat of New York City, is attired in various types of bikinis and other skin showing ensembles. The attire worn by this ballet dancer in her muggy, and sweltering apartment, is enough to give the Production Code censors recurrent heart palpitations. Unbeknownst to her, even though her apartment is wide open with most doors and windows unsecured, she is firmly in the grasp of the male gaze as she goes about her normal routine, actively making the most of her day. From the first moment that “Jeff” spies her in activities in her small, cramped apartment, he is enthralled and enamored. Though he has a girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), throughout the course of the narrative time and again he returns to the apartment of Ms. Torso to observe her daily activities. It may seem that she is the object of a leering and sexually stimulated Jeff, and a “victim” to his unwanted gaze, but as she has become a part of his daily routine, it can be surmised that she is indeed the one in control and regardless of whether or not she is aware of his voyeurism, she has cemented a place in his thoughts and ultimately his actions. This same loss of power by the male protagonist can be seen in the film Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992). As asserted by Clifford T. Manlove in Visual Drive, “True perversion is barely concealed under a mask of ideological correctness. Hitchcock’s skillful use of identification processes and liberal use of subjective camera form the point of view of the protagonist draw the spectator deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze” (100).  As can be seen in the narrative featuring our scantily clad Ms. Torso, the male protagonist, as in other films by the voyeuristic Alfred Hitchcock, abdicates the inherent power of the gaze, and becomes a subservient viewer to the power of the female form.

Another film that follows the narrative of lost power by the active gaze of a male upon a supposed “passive” female is the suspenseful thriller The Birds. In another Hi-key lit, medium framed to close-up, long take scene, the female protagonist, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren), (after a cameo by Mr. Hitchcock), enters a department store to retrieve an order for a bird (Mynah) that she placed. Smartly dressed in black skirt and blazer with high collar, white blouse, pearl earrings, and immaculate hair and make-up, the prim and debonair Melanie Daniels is a stark contrast to carefree and barely attired Miss Torso. After briefly speaking with the saleswoman, the male protagonist Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), enters the store and the scene. Dressed in a two piece tailored suit, white shirt, black tie, and twirling a fedora on his finger, his athletic demeanor and spry gait as he ascends the stairs to the second floor, is far from the frail invalid that is “Jeff” Jeffries in Rear Window.  As the” active” male gaze of Mitch is brought upon the “passive” form of Melanie, unlike the allusion to sexuality seen in the gaze dynamic in Rear Window, or to paraphrase Tania Modleski in her essay, Rape versus Mans/laughter: Hitchcock’s Blackmail and Feminist Interpretation, when she states, “the image of the female is inevitably a product of masculine fears and fantasies” (309), this initial encounter is businesslike and formal.  The brief encounter is filled with rapid-fire banter as Mitch plays along with Melanie’s ruse of being a sales clerk. At the conclusion of the scene, Melanie, unlike Miss Torso is briefly under the power of the male gaze. This situation is reversed however in their second encounter as Melanie delivers the lovebirds to Mitch’s residence. After delivering the birds, Mitch, (after spying Melanie through binoculars), hurries to catch Melanie as she departs in a skiff. This interaction propels the rest of the narrative as Mitch throughout the rest of the film attempts to safeguard Ms. Daniels, putting her welfare first and foremost. Again we see the male gaze used as a catalyst to subjugate the male protagonist and give authority to the female.

In the film Vertigo, the male protagonist, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is completely captivated by the female protagonist/antagonist Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). Through the Lo-key lit, medium-framed, long take, scene where Judy completes her retransformation into Madeleine, “Scottie” has long since abdicated any pretense of power over the male gaze. Dressed in a tailored grey suit with white shirt and black tie, “Scottie” paces nervously as “Madeleine” completes her metamorphosis.  He seems bewitched as he stares forlornly and nervously at Judy/Madeleine as she exits the bathroom, transformation complete. Hair and make-up immaculate, and dressed as well in a tailored grey suit of skirt and blazer, “Madeleine” emerges from the restroom, unsure of her power, but wielding it nonetheless. The scene has more in common in attire and narrative with The Birds than Rear Window, but in all three the male protagonist has begun the reversal of power and control that is usually associated with the “active” view of the male gaze. Throughout the narrative of Vertigo, unlike The Birds and Rear Window, the male gaze has transformed the protagonist, allowing him to be manipulated and easily controlled in thought and action. Also unlike The Birds, but similar to Rear Window, our protagonist “Scottie” seems unsure of his role in relation to the male gaze, his “masculinity” slightly ambiguous, never fully assertive or dominant.

In conclusion, in all three films the “active” power that theorists such as Laura Mulvey assert are an innate manifestation of the male gaze seem to have been transferred to the “passive” female “object”. As Tania Modleski asserts concerning the interpretation of this transfer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, “The point is then, that the same scene can elicit different responses depending on its viewers’ experience and values. It is possible for a male critic to celebrate the tendency of art to “force” woman’s “body into play” while a feminist critic might see a self-reflexive element here and deplore the way art easily becomes the alibi for sexual violence against women” (308). As ascertained from the statement from Ms. Modleski, the male gaze and its relation to gender and sexuality will continue to spark debate and discussion in society and cinema. The only true certainty in this fluid element of film for filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock as well as the auteurs that have followed, is that the interpretation of the male gaze is truly in the eye of the beholder.      

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey Laura. (web, 1973) (803, 808, 815)
Hitchcock and the Material politics of Looking: Laura Mulvey, Rear Window, and Psycho. Theus, Tyler A. (G.S.U. ,2013) (6-7)
Visual “Drive” and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey. Manlove, Clifford T. (Cinema Journal, 2007) (84-5, 100)
Rape versus Mans/Laughter: Hitchcock’s Blackmail and Feminist Interpretation, Modleski, Tania. (PMLA, May 1987). (308-9)
R. Barton’s “The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho. Allen, Jeanne. T., (Cinema Journal, Winter 1985) (54)


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