December 9, 2011 | | 4 Comments

Film scholars and critics that use feminist theory to conceptualize certain aspects of film are seeing how women are objectified for the males viewing pleasure and influenced through the narrative and aesthetics into identifying with the males point of view. Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist widely renowned for her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”(1975) discusses the way in which classical Hollywood films objectified women, subsequently causing audiences to identify with the male protagonist or “male gaze” term she coined to define the affirmation of male dominance in society with the use of film as the vehicle for the message. Mulvey’s essay on feminist theory as the basis for her critique on classical Hollywood filmmaking, when written, offered poiniant discourse of women consistently cast in a passive role, thus subjecting audiences to view on-screen imagery and relate to the narrative from a male perspective. In her essay, she cited several Alfred Hitchcock films as Hitchock films are prime examples of women objectified. As such, spectators are capable of perceiving roles of the protagonist from the male gaze, as was common and perhaps an inspirational factor when she wrote her essay.

Visual pleasure, as the title of her essay alludes to Mulvey’s notion in which pleasure is derived from looking, also referred to as scopophilia. “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.” (quotes from her essay) Thus it is imperative to comprehend the sexual desire that accompanies the watching, and how scopophilia is often refered to when discussing feminist film theory. Mulvey continues to consider Sigmund Freud’s perception of scopophilia and associate it with “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.” When considering the gaze, one can easily equate it to voyeurism as Freud did.Voyeurism is the act of spying upon another. Typically, voyeurs are males who spy on a female in a sexualized nature. However, regardless of the gender of the voyeur, the act of being watched without without knowing someone is watching you, is generally considered unwanted attention. “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in and active controlling sense, an objectified other.” Some excellent movies that are based on voyeurism, and support Mulvey’s ideology about feminist film theory, are Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The male protagonists in Hitchcock’s films fit the role described by Mulvey, they become compulsive in their gaze that is considered promiscuous and indecent.

Psycho, is a Hitchcock black and white masterpiece and one of the most important movies in film studies. The movie offers film students valuable insight into understanding feminist film theory and the effectiveness of using the male gaze as an attention grabbing form of entertainment for viewers. For example, there are several scenes in Psycho where Norman Bates, one of the male protagonists in the film, is seen peeping through a hole in the wall at Marion, the leading woman who’s character is victim to Bate’s sadistic voyeuristic habits. These images clearly show objectification of the female through the male gaze. Audiences watching these scenes that show Norman looking at Marion through a hole in the wall while undressing and taking a shower, are pulled into the act of watching as well which can cause them to experience the thrill of voyeurism and succumb to the male gaze that is so effective at objectifying women. “ The audience follows the growth of [the male] obsession and subsequent despair precisely from his point of view”. This is likely why Mulvaey choose Psycho as one of the Hitchcock movies to include in her analysis. Hitchcock’s use of advanced camera techniques supplied by the Hollywood industry allowed for audiences to take pleasure in the power of the male gaze. This allowed for Mulvey to discourse on inequality of gender and the many defiant stereotype of woman’s role in the past and on display for the big screen.

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4 Comments so far

  1.    tazin on December 9, 2011 1:04 am

    This is an excellent and detailed analysis! 🙂 Hitchcock is definitely a good example of the “male gaze” in mainstream cinema.

  2.    Amy Herzog on December 12, 2011 12:39 am

    Very nice discussion of scopophilia. I’d love to see more “visual evidence” drawn from your own observations of a specific scene to show us what this looks like in practice. Thanks for a great semester.

  3.    xavieraslarona on December 13, 2011 12:00 am

    Hitchcock is probably the best example of the male gaze in cinema. The male gaze objectifies women to such an extent that they’re almost not human. They’re pieces of a human (legs, neck, lips, eyes), but never anything fully whole. They’re representations of themselves, like painting and sculptures, which are meant to be looked at and placed on a pedestal.

    Some might say Hitchcock took this to an extreme in Psycho, particularly in the shower scene, where we never really get a full glimpse of Marion’s body. We see bits and pieces. This was probably done to circumvent censors, but I believe it’s also Hitchcock using Marion, a human character, as a mere object to move the plot along. She’s kind of like the stolen money in that both are misleading: the money is a misleading plot point; Marion is a misleading main character. They’re both pieces to the plot and nothing more.

  4.    kgarvey2 on December 16, 2011 9:57 am

    I agree with your analysis on Psycho. Very interesting and detailed and Psycho is a perfect example when describing the male gaze. Another aspect of the male gaze that is missed is the fact that Norman kills people as his mother. In many ways this can represent the male gaze that woman are the downfall to men or what causes them to slip up. Finding Norman’s dead mother is what helped convict Norman so essentially the mother was the passive cause of Norman’s failure.

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