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Laura Melvey’s Male Gaze Essay


The development of the film industry took an interesting turn after the 1950 especially regarding the development of the female character due to the changes in life style and the way women viewed themselves. The empowered feminine character started appearing in film noir, genre of crime thriller films heavily laden with seduction and erotic undertones (Muller 2006).

She played an active role in both the development of the genre and the development of the storylines and the plot. As such many movies producers started focusing on the female character and developed her to fit as one of, if not the key character in film noir. Thus, femme fatale (the fatal woman) was born and would dominate films and stage plays for decades.

Femme fatale has been an interesting study by film and literature critics who have come up with interesting views regarding this phenomenal character. Doane (1991) in her criticism of this character explains that even though femme fatale is seen as a literary image in films, she is an important figure of the representation of truth. She is a symbol of the real woman and their place in the society, whose real self is revealed through the sexual image, which portrays the differences between men and women.

Doane further explains that she is the “representation of the antithesis of the maternal” (1991 p 2). This means that she symbolizes a woman who cannot reproduce either biologically or socially. Film site (2011) adds that this character was a manipulative figure capable of making vulnerable male character compromise greats of odds. She was a vengeful and sadistic anti heroine whose life always ended up in tragedy.

One of the greatest criticism of femme fatalism “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Mulvey Laura has come under intense criticism from the film critics and the author herself. Mulvey (1976) uses Freud’s psychoanalytical approach in describing the role of femme fatale charades in film noir. The society is such that it is structured in a patriarchal manner: the male is all powerful while the female is an image of male sexual fantasies.

The fatal woman is thus an object that for both the satisfaction of the male character in he film as well as the male audience. The films “Out of the Past” and “Gilda” give the reader an opportunity to weight myulveys assumptions about femme fatale. Mulveys argument hold a lot of truth about the nature of the femme fatale and her roles in the development of the film industry, while the criticism by the author herself and other film critics has added useful insights into the subject.

Slide share (2011) explains that Mulvey is the originator of the idea of the male gaze developed the idea of the male gaze in her work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The concept of the male gaze explains the idea of gazing in three ways: the way men look at women, the way women see themselves and the way the women sees and relates to other women. This concept of the male gaze is feministic and borrows heavily from Freud’s psychoanalytical approach.

Sexual fulfillment and desire is the object of motivation and controls the images of the characters in a play to fulfill the desires of the male character. The female character only sees herself as a castrated woman (without a penis) and thus can only be useful in fulfilling a mans sexual desires. As such, she is the symbol of phallocentrism, powerless in a society that is overtly male dominated (Mulvey 1975).

Such phallus nature portrays the woman as an object of domination and oppression not only by the male in the film and audience but also a representation of the powerless woman in a patriarchal society. She is aware of her lack of a penis and can only “exist in relation to her castration and cannot transcend it” (1975, 343). Thus, a woman cannot find real meaning other than in the enjoyment of the fact that she is castrated.

However, Mulvey (1975) explains that it is within the paradox of the phallic nature that a woman finds her true meaning : the lack of penis is the cause of the phallus status while the desire to make the best out of the situation is what makes a woman derive meaning of life.

Such phallocentrism is the signification of a woman’s suffering. The femme fatale in the film Gilda is not without suffering. When Gilda’s husband Mundson “dies” Johnny, her ex lover and protector, marries her not out of love but for his faith in Mundson. Johnny subjects Gilda to psychological as wells as physical suffering (Dirks 2011; Spiderbaby 2010).

Gilda thus portrays the suffering that women have to go through in an overtly and an unapologetically patriarchal society. Such patriarchal tendencies fulfills the desires of the man at the expense of the woman are also exhibit in the film “Out of the Past.” Kathie is not a woman in freedom. She is constantly running away from her past (a man). In her earlier life she had shot and seriously injured Whit her lover and stole quite a hefty amount of money.

Whit wants her back plus the money, a portrayal of how subordinated women are to men (Ebert 2010). Spiderbabay (2010) also explains that Kathie suffers betrayal from a man, her lover Jeff, when he leads her to the police so as to buy his freedom, as such using a woman to achieve his personal wishes to freedom. The biggest crime in the film is “not murder or stealing the money but betrayal” (Morris 2011)

As Mulvey (1975) notes, the phallocentric approach (where women are aware of the weaknesses they are exposed to as a result of their penile deficiency) only reduces the woman to an object of desire for men. The fatal woman in a film or stage play is thus propped in such a way that the male can have a proper gaze at her and fulfill his sexual desire. She is crafted in way that only portrays her sexual prowess and her power to seduce men, both the film characters and the audience.

This desire is usually fulfilled by gazing at women characters. The male gaze is enhanced by several camera techniques, which focus on certain parts of the woman body. The focus is intended to drive the attention of the male towards that particular part of the body. Not any part of the female body is subject to focus. The camera only focuses on the various body part and behavioral traits that arouse and fulfill sexual desire in the male characters and the male audience.

As such, the objectification of the woman is further achieved through compartmentalization of her body into sexual and non sexual parts (Barnes n.d.). Such trait is seen through the main character Gilda in the movie going by the same title. Gilda is a flirt who plays mid games with both the male characters and the male audience in an erotic and seductive way. The male gaze is directed at her provocative flirtation and seduction techniques.

Gilda intentionally flirts with other men to make Johnny jealous (Dirks 2011). At one time in the film, Gilda does a striptease in on stage, in full view of the patrons at the club. This is a sexually provocative action that the cameras focus on to enhance the male gaze and fulfill the sexual desire of the male.

Such acts have an effect both to the male audience as well as to the male characters in the film such as Johnny who in rage slaps Gilda for performing indecent acts in public. Later and out of the effect of that act Johnny confesses his love to Gilda (Spiderbaby 2010). Thus the two films have exemplifies Mulveys theory that a woman is an objects subject to a males gaze for his sexual fulfillment.

In further defining the male gaze mulvey explains that the man is the one who bears the ‘look’ while the woman only bears the image. As such ‘the pleasure of looking is divided into two: the active male gaze, and the passive female gaze (1975, p. 346).

The active male gaze is the dominant gaze while the female has to be figured and structured appropriately to enhance her to-be-looked-at-ness. To-be-looked-at-ness is a very strong visual sexual symbol and is displayed through a series of erotic acts such as striptease [as exemplified by Gilda (Spiderbaby 2010)].

This kind of erotism makes a woman an indispensable character and spectacle in film noir. As such, femme fatale becomes an alien intrusion into the plot and thus a deviation from the normal script and storyline. Morris (2011) explains that Kathie is part of the lethal triangle that also includes Jeff and her former lover Whit.

The story line is initially focused on recovering Whit’s $ 40000 stolen by his ex lover Kathie. However, Whit hire Jeff, an ex sleuth and the two, jefff and Kathie, fall in love and start an affair. Kathie and her new lover have to live on the run, running away from Whit who still wants to recover his money.

This love affair thus becomes a considerable deviation from the sleuth work that the film was initially built on. It this becomes a story of Whits fatal obsession with Kathie, which finally makes the film, looses the initial theme (Mills 2007). The film Gilda also exemplifies Mulveys assertion that femme fatales are an erotic diversion from the films main story line.

The film has a Mafioso inclination and the main character Mundson, is the owner of a casino and has connection to the underground mafia world. Mudson introduces Gilda as his wife and because of his lack of trust for her, asks Johnny, her former romantic partner, the roles of keeping an eye on her. Thus is the beginning of a love triangle as Johnny and Gilda rekindle their romantic flame.

This is the point that love, romance and seduction take over and the film looses connection with the mafia world. Even though Mundson fakes his death to dissociate himself with the mafia his faked death is literary more significant to the love triangle. Mulvey (1975) adds that such diversion by the femme fatale from the main course off the story line does not make her significantly important as a person, rather t is what she provokes in the male character and audience that matters (347).

Therefore, it is the sexual objectification of the woman and the gratification of the male character and the male audience by gazing at the sex object signified in a woman on stage that matters. The fatal woman has no importance in herself either to the film or to the audience. It is what she represents that counts.

The male character is not subject to sexual objectification and as such is the important figure that controls desires and erotic nature of the woman. The male characters in the film are able to identify with what the audience is feels about the and thus part of its search and realization of sexual fulfillment.

As such the male ceases to be an object of sexual desire but the power that controls the desire. Femme fatales sexually explicit behavior is thus as a result of such power by the man to control the way she behaves. The audience thus sees this power to control sexual desire through the woman (Mulvey 1975).

However, the film Gilda put this notion under the perils of validity test. Gilda the main character is a dangerous and seductive woman who performs seductive acts such as flirting with other men and strip teasing so as to make Johnny her secret lover jealous. This evokes a very strong sense of attraction in Johnny towards Gilda (Spiderbabay 2010). Therefore instead of Johnny controlling the sexual desired as Mulvey suggests, he becomes the victim of such desire in which its power lies with femme fatale, rather than him.

Film noir focuses on sexualisation of the female character, the symbolization of femme fatale as the object of sexual fulfillment to the male character and audience, thus masculining the audience (Mulvey 1975). This means that the film is only useful to men and this article does not tale care of the spectator who has tendencies towards both male and female sexuality.

However in “Afterthought to Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey (1983) argues that the original intention was to celebrate the masculine culture of the spectator but this kind of spectator includes both men and women. It is possible to have women who are not particularly keen on having a sexual identify on the screen.

This change of stance in the masculinisation of the female character is as a result of the fact that things have moved on and the way a woman carries herself has drastically changed (Mulvey 1985). Skjerdal,(1997) agrees with this new line of thought and further adds that the masculinisation of the audience and the objectification of the female character in film noir is leaves the woman without any identify as it only describes her in relations to a mans desire.

This also means that the woman is just a “bearer of meaning but not its maker” (Despotopoulou, 2004). However, the film Gilda gives the viewer an opportunity to contend this view. Gilda the main character posses an overwhelming power of seduction over the male character in the film. So powerful is her power of seduction that she chooses and owns the men who seduces her.

Thus Gilda is a woman “knows her power over men and that she is the real definition of intoxicating sassiness” (Stevens 2009). Such power over men thus proves that the fatal woman is not just an embodiment of the male’s sexual desire but has made deliberate effort to develop her sexual identity, a tool she uses to her own advantage. Thus this film put Mulvey’s idea of lack of identity of femme fatale at great peril.

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” offers some insight into the mysterious and almost mystical character of femme fatale. It supposes that this mysterious character is the creation of men for their own benefit. She is an object of sexual fulfillment. The male gazes at her and thus gains much sexual gratification. Such approach ha borrowed heavily from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical approach.

It denies the woman the power to make her own identity. A political tool portrays the manner in which the way the society is structured to be dominated by men. However it does not answer to all questions as it does not take care of the part of the audience that has homosexual orientation (Rucas 2003). The idea does not also address the place of the female character and audience who is not a forced object of sexual symbolism but who likes and enjoys to be looked at. As such, weaknesses are ignored and need attention.

Reference List

Barnes, E. Laura Mulvey’s male gaze: Looking at film through the eyes of a man. Web.

Despotopoulou, A., 2004. Fanny’s gaze and the construction of feminine space in mansfield park” Modern Language Review ed. 99: 569-583.

Dirks, T., 2011. (1946). Web.

Doane, M., 1991. Femmes fatales: feminism, film theory psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge

Ebert, R., 2004. (1947). Web.

Mills, M., 2007. Out of the past. Web.

Morris, G., 2011. High Gallows – Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Web.

Mulvey, L., 1985. Changes, Discourse. pp 11 – 30.

Muller, E., 2006. Film Noir. Green Cine podcast. Web.

Mulvey, L., 1985. ” Feminist Film Theory. Sue Thoruham (ed.), NY: New York University Press, pp.31-40.Web.

Mulvey, L., 1975. Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Durham and Kellner Media and cultural studies ed., Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Rucas, P., 2003. . Web.

Skjerdal, T., 1997. Laura Mulvey against the grain: a critical assessment of the psychoanalytic feminist approach to film. Centre for Cultural and Media Studies, University of Natal ed. Web.

Slide share, 2011. . Web.

Spiderbaby, L., 2010. Evil as admirable: the femme fatale in the eyes of the contemporary female spectator. Web.

Stevens , S., 2009. . Web.

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