Laura Mulvey is known for her feminist criticisms of films and movies and Alfred Hitchcock is known for making films that have paved the way to feminist film theory. Among these films that Hitchcock directed that called the attention of feminist theorists would be Rear Window and Vertigo which will be further discussed. In Mulvey’s essay entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative in Cinema, she contends that Hitchcock’s films portray women in classic Hollywood cinema as passive objects of male voyeurism and sadism.
In this sense, women are represented as objects whose main role is to fulfill the desires and express the anxieties of men in the audience (The Sexual Subject: Screen Reader in Sexuality) The essay incorporates psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud as a method to reveal that the audience’s fascination in films are rooted on “pre-existing patterns of fascination” that has already been established by the individual himself and the social norms. These social norms pertain to sexual differences among men and women that controls the way they are represented in images and films.
According to Mulvey (1999), the film making in the past and of the present have always worked in such a way that the unconscious favors the representations in films that are structured in the patriarchal perspective. The cinema is considered as an advanced representation dictated by dominant order of the society is somehow the controlling factor on the way the unconscious mind perceives our way of seeing and our way of looking at pleasure. Although the cinema has already evolved over the last decades, it has not evolved into an alternative cinema that would please most of the post-modern critics.
It could have evolved into something that is radical both ideology and aesthetics that is capable of challenging the mainstream film industry, but it has not. As a matter of fact, it has remained to be restricted to the formalities of mise en scene where the dominant ideology of the concept of films are always prevalent. This is because the magic and power of Hollywood films are in their skill at satisfying and manipulating the visual pleasure of the audience in such as way that it reflects the the pre-conceived social norms on the role of women and men in a patriarchal society.
Because this kind of cinema has forever been unchallenged, it has remain to persist that films code the concept of eroticism in the language of the dominant ideology, that is, the patriarchal ideology (Mulvey, 1999). Moreover, the cinema’s main concern is to offer possible pleasures for its audience. First of which is identified as scopophilia. This is the circumstance where looking is a source of pleasure. For Freud, it is the circumstance where one take other people as a source of “controlling and curious gaze”.
This can be observed in the voyeuristic practices of children which is rooted to their desire to see the forbidden and the private. Because of this role of cinema to cater the pleasures of its audience, most of the films especially that of mainstream and conventional films portray a world that is indifferent to the audience but at the same time playing on the their “voyeuristic fantasies”. These films see to it that that the conditions of screening and narrative would give the audience an illusion of looking into a private world that they are curious to know about.
In addition, these films focus on the attention to the human body (Mulvey, 1999). In this kind of representation, phallocentrism is manifested through the image of a castrated woman. In this sense, it is the woman’s lack that produce the phallus or manhood a symbolic presence and domination. In other words, the function of a woman in establishing a patriarchal consciousness is to symbolize the castration and to bear a child. A woman’s desire is always subjugated by her prevalent image of being a bearer of a bleeding wound.
Women in a patriarchal society is exists as a signifier of the male fantasies and obsessions by imposing to them an image that is oppressed, silent, and constraint in a place where she is bearer of meaning rather than the maker of meaning (Mulvey, 1999). In a world where there are prevalent differences in sexual roles among men and women, pleasure in looking is divided into two aspects: active male and passive female. The male’s role is to project its fantasy into the female image. Women are still portrayed in their traditional exhibitionist role where they are always being displayed to be looked at.
In this sense, they are displayed in an appearance that would feed the fantasy of men and in such a way that would guarantee the pleasure that the cinema is known for. This appearance is coded in such a way that it would have a strong visual and erotic impact to men. In other words, they are treated as a sexual object in erotic spectacles such as pin-ups and strip tease. This is the way she will symbolize the male desire (Mulvey, 1999). As a matter of fact, it is observed that in many films the image of a woman is an “indispensable element”.
To the active male image in the film, the passive female always acts as the lover or the fear of the male hero. The importance of the woman is not attributed to herself, but to the roles that she needs to fulfill to satisfy the men’s desire and the society’s conventions. As a tradition, women have two roles in the screen. First as an “erotic object in the screen”. Second as an “erotic object in an auditorium”. In this sense, the man is in control of the film at all circumstances. He is considered as the look of the spectator and the woman is the spectacle.
Moreover, the film is also constructed in such a way that the look of the spectator will be identified by the audience so that her erotic image is seen in two levels mentioned above. In other words, films open with the woman as an object of gaze both of he male protagonist and the spectators ( Mulvey, 1999). Furthermore, the woman is sexualized. She is being isolated and glamorously displayed. However, as the storyline progresses the woman falls in love with the man and will eventually become his own. All of her glamor, her sexuality, and her eroticism will now become the property of the man.
In this sense, she will be manipulated in such a way that everything she does is for him. The spectator, on one hand, since he can identify with the male protagonist because the possession is patterned in such a way that it conforms to the the societal norm on sexual differences will in the process own the same woman as a commodity (Mulvey, 1999). Mulvey (1999) used the films of Alfred Hitchcock in illustrating her thesis, that is, films portray women as passive objects of male voyeurism and sadism. In the case of Hitchcock’s movies, the male protagonist sees what the audience perceives.
The main role of the male protagonist is to portray the possible feelings of the spectators. In this paper, Hitchcock’s two famous movies entitled Rear Window and Vertigo will attest to the claim of Mulvey. In these movies, it will be seen that men protagonists’ roles are developed vis-a-vis the woman in their lives. In Vertigo, the first scene where a women appear in the scene was when the male protagonist John “Scottie” Ferguson was talking to a female designer friend (Mich) regarding his acrophobia right after the chase incident where he discovered that he has one.
In this scene, the female friend was trying to convince Scottie that he has no fault in the incident because the death of a co-police officer is not attributable to him. It was a medical problem that he never intended to be. In this sense, the female character is not there for herself. As a matter of fact, she does not have a personality to begin with. She was just there to promote the character of the protagonist. As a matter of fact, there was a hint that says the woman is deeply dependent on the character of Scottie. She was never married in her life and when she was asked why, she replied that there is only one man for him.
She of course is referring to Scottie himself. This simply implies that the woman’s character in the film is bind to that of Scottie’s that if it weren’t for him, she would not have to appear. There is also this particular scene where Scottie was asking of a particular thing he cannot recognized which turned out to be a brassiere. The woman was there to explain this. But while the female character did have a reason after all in that particular scene, still she was just used not only to answer the queries of Scottie but also to fulfill his desire.
In addition, the female character was also the one who is encouraging him to conquer his acrophobia and when he failed, she was always there to comfort him. She was the one who caught him from falling down on the floor from climbing chairs. In this scene, the woman’s character is as already reiterated just an add-on, she does not have a personality on his own. In the next scene where Galvin Elster and Scottie were conversing in a professional manner, the two talked about a woman, specifically the wife of Elster named Madeleine Elster.
Elster would want Scottie to follow his wife and investigate on her whereabouts because he was in panic on her odd behavior. In this scene, just the same, the woman does not have a personality on her own but she was there to serve as an object on which both men (Elster and Scottie) could gaze and observe. She was there both as an attraction to the male protagonists and the audience. In the next scenes, we see Scottie following her wherever she goes: in her car, in her house, in the flower shop, in the places she visits.
The same thing happened to the second Madeleine that he met which he stalked out of despair. He also followed her wherever she goes to the extent of following her to her room that he threatened her. Clearly, she has become a passive object. She does not do anything but stay there and be looked at and be seen. There is no other role that she possessed but to be something / someone to be observed and looked at. The process of following her through wherever she goes fulfills not only his mission as a detective but also as a a male protagonists who gains pleasure in looking.
The audience on one hand, is involved in the observation of the woman. As a matter of fact, as Scottie follows her from here to there, the spectators also manage to sneak peak into her life and her actions. She becomes a scene in her own. She becomes a film just on her own. She becomes a spectacle that both the male protagonist and the audience are able to experience. In other words, she has become commodified. Furthermore, the film sees to it that Madeleine is a pretty woman so that it could feed the desire of the males.
When Mich, the female designer friend of Scottie asked him if the woman he has been spying on was pretty, he answered in the affirmative. This means that Hitchcock sees to it that the woman is worth observing. She is designed in such a way that she is a spectacle in herself. She wears sophisticated and beautiful clothes. She goes to parties and beautiful places. Hitchcock’s choice of Kim Novak as Madeleine really worked as he expected it to be. Not only was the husband fell in love with her grace but also Scottie and the rest of the audience.
Because of her charm, Hitchcock was able to design her worthy of all the attention that she gets. As a matter of fact, in the end we see how Scottie has finally fallen in-love with her and she with him. However, in their love affair, the Madeleine is still treated as a passive object that only accepts and receives the affection of Scottie. As a matter of fact, he was there to save her from her suicidal tendencies and anxieties. He was there for her whenever she feels like killing herself. He was there for him when she feels like crying or doing anything.
But this does not add to the personality of the woman, she has remained to be an object both to the real husband and Scottie. Her character has exemplified the ability of the two to actually control her. For instance, in the suicide scene, the woman was actually told what to do by Mr. Elster on what to do ever since. They have already planned the incident ever since which indicates control over the woman. In addition, the relationship of Madeleine and Scottie has also exemplified that character of manliness on the part of Scottie.
His ability to both love and take care of women are emphasized. This means that even though the control is done positively, still there was control. The woman has relied on the love of Scottie in order for her to cope with her problems. In other words, the woman is held as dependent to the company, love, and care of Scottie. In return, this dependence has made the image of Scottie and the rest of the other men as superior to that of women. This is because by then, they have the ability to control both the feelings and actions of women just as the Scottie has done over Madeleine.
According to Mulvey (1999), the male protagonist in this film has all the characteristics of a patriarchal superego. Hitchcock has placed him in a symbolic order that he would be patronized as a patriarchal male domineering over the female character. The implication of the active male looking at the passive female that is being looked at is that the male patriarchal image has dominated the film scene. This is also effectively shared throughout male spectators so that the image of the woman remains traditional. Not only is the image of the woman remain traditional but also they have become oppressed and subordinated.
In Rear Window, it is the same actor that played Scottie in the movie Vertigo. Only this time, instead of being a police officer, he was an injured photographer named Jeff Jeffries who was confined in a wheelchair in his apartment. Just the same, he spies on his female neighbors such as the dancer who practices with her underwear on, a woman who lives by her lonesome, and a salesman with a wife that has been bedridden for so long. From his rear window, he watched a dancer go about her daily life. He has also watched couples go about their daily routines.
After noticing a weird scenario between a salesman and his bedridden wife, he has focused on them for quite a moment (Deutelbaum and Poague, 2009). He, his attendant Stella, and his girlfriend Lisa suspected that the salesman has killed his wife because after he was seen with a huge suitcase one evening, his wife is nowhere to be found. They probe on to really know what has happened. Because Jeff was in a wheelchair, he can never go up to the neighbor’s house to investigate. It was his girlfriend Lisa who went there to probe the whereabouts of the salesman.
He remained there as he has always been a spy to the happenings that are accessible to his rear window (Deutelbaum and Poague, 2009) The film is once again a commentary on how Hitchcock has portrayed a patriarchal superego that dominates the whole movie. Even with his paralyzed state, he was still able to gain control of the women around him. At the beginning, when he observing those clueless neighbors, he already gained control of them. Because by then, his gaze means a lot. He is like a king atop his castle looking at his servants and his people.
The narrative revolves around his perspective because the storyline depends on what he sees and how he interprets what he sees. For instance, when he made a fuss over the missing wife and the huge suitcase, both Stella and Lisa were involved in the probe if the wife has really died. Also, the two women in his life, both the attendant and the girlfriend were there just to attend to his needs. Just the same, they do not have a personality on their own. Their characters are add-ons so that the character of Jeff will be emphasized.
The female characters were obviously in control of Jeff because their actions were either influenced or due to Jeff’s actions and requests. Even Lisa was in the brink of danger because she has to go by herself to the residence of the salesman to discover his secret and the missing wife. Jeff in this kind is the same as the king analogy already mentioned but more so, he is more of a puppet master that manipulated the other characters around him. Because he cannot do things on his own, his patriarchal domination is still observed.
This is because Hitchcock has portrayed the women around him as an object to his desires and his wants. In other words, the domination of the male protagonist in this film is not by force because he is obviously incapacitated to do that. However, since there is a preconceived idea on a patriarchal image of a man, therefore it is not that difficult that this is manifested in the film. Jeffry is considered as the audience in which the events and happenings in his neighbor’s house at the opposite view of his apartment corresponds to the screen. Every time he watches, there is an erotic dimension that is added in the scene.
He has little interest with his girlfriend Lisa for as long as she remains as a spectator like him. When she crossed the other side to investigate on the supposed crime committed by the salesman neighbor, their relationship was reborn erotically. Jeffry has started to look at her as a distant meaningful image rather than as a girlfriend who has always been there for him. He also sees her as an intruder who is exposed to the danger of being punished by a stranger. Lisa’s exhibitionism has already been established from the beginning through her obsessive interest in dress and in style.
Because of this, she remains a passive object of visual perfection both in the eyes of Jeffry and the audience. The voyeurism of of Jeffry on one hand, has already been established early on because of his profession as a photojournalist and maker of stories. Because of this, he has put his spectacles in a fantasy position in the eyes of the audience (Deutelbaum and Poague, 2009). As a conclusion, the films of Hitchcock are good examples of avenue that can give us an idea on how sexual differences in men and women are treated in the mass media.
They are molded in such a way that it becomes a commodity. Women being the passive objects are fantasized and looked at as in the case of Madeleine and Lisa. This caters to the patriarchal orientation of men. They see themselves as dominant among the sexes so that they have the capability to manipulate the actions and feelings of women around them. The patriarchal superego is manifested vis-a-vis the inability of women to do the things that men can do. In this sense, she is suppressed and constraint in her traditional roles that were imposed the patriarchal society itself.
Her glamor and sexuality is displayed but not for her end. It is for the end of the man in his life. Her worth lies on the worth and achievements of men. Henceforth, she remained as an add-on and as a subservient element in films that cater to a patriarchal ideal. References Deutelbaum, Marshall, Poague, Leland, 2000, A Hitchcock Reader, USA: John Wiley and Sons. Mulvey, Laura, 1999, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP. , 1992, The Sexual Subject: Screen Reader in Sexuality, Oxford: Routledge
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