When looking back at the classics there seems to be an overarching theme that defines the average studio film, a trend which is still evident in film today, although less prominently so. This is the dominance of the man and the spectacle of the woman.
Besides with exception of a few, especially strong characters played by talented women like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn, women all seemed to be cast in the same interchangeable role – the woman who was to be looked at and admired for her beauty. Nothing more.
Alfred Hitchcock would take this scopophilic nature of film even further in films such as Rear Window and Vertigo where he would film his male characters openly watching and spying on beautiful women. As the audience we may not realize on a conscious level of our own participation in this scopophilia.
Laura Mulvey analyses this visual pleasure that film offers and suggests the root cause of the need of filmmakers to tell stories through the eyes of a man while objectifying the woman. She suggests several psychoanalytical theories including Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex theory. It’s quite a complicated notion that leads to the conclusion that the man views the woman as a powerless castrated man, therefore within the man is the fear that he will become as powerless as the woman if compelled to view the world from her perspective. Making the man sit through a story told from the perspective of a woman would cause him unrest, and so this threat is reduced by making the woman nothing more than an object of desire. This is also referred to as the “castration complex”. Along the lines of this analysis, it is safe to say that stories such as The Danish Girl (2015) which are praised in our era for empowering women as well as men who choose castration may not have had the same kind of impact then. As extreme as this theory may sound, it did shape the entire study of psychoanalytic film and still serves as the basis for critical thinking in film psychology.
The main issue I have with Mulvey’s text is that she analyses the way we look at film only through the eyes of the male spectator. When she writes about how we view women in film, she only accounts for the man’s psychological state, and discounts the female audience entirely. The idea of the man in the film being unified with the audience in the mutual admiration of the woman’s beauty is, upon reflection, likely to translate differently in the case of a female spectator. But as far as Mulvey is concerned, film operates under patriarchal rule which means that the woman is bound, indefinitely, to her place as “bearer of meaning, not the maker of it.” (Mulvey, 1975)
In Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Stacey opposes Mulvey’s presumption of a male audience, considering the female psyche. She suggests a different kind of looking and desire. She de-eroticises the idea of desire and identifies within the female a desire “not just to be sexual with but the desire to be.” We as females are likely to be looking at the beautiful women, wanting to be her, identifying with her in a narcissistic way. When women watch films like Devil Wears Prada (2006), which actively objectify women in a way that does not seek the desire of the man’s eye but that of the woman, we take part in a same-sex desire which is not necessarily sexual. It is a worship of femininity in general. She refers to it as homo-erotic desire and explains that it is “possible for anyone within the form of film.” (Stacey, 1994)
Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ Screen, 16(3) pp. 6-18
Hitchcok, A. (1954) Rear Window. Paramount Pictures, USA
Hitchcock, A. (1958) Vertigo. Paramount Pictures, USA
(2015) The Danish Girl