Male Gaze in Vertigo
Section I Images of Women in Film Dr. Judith Lancioni 07, February 2012 Male Gaze in Vertigo Several film theorists have used a variety of tactics and view points to analyze feature films since their inception. One of the most prominent theorists of those that analyze films from a feminist perspective is Laura Mulvey. Mulvey is famous for her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which presents an array of theories involving the treatment of women in films. Arguably the most notable idea presented in Mulvey’s work is the existence of the “male gaze” in films.
This essay will examine Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo. Vertigo does not fit the criteria of a film that embodies Mulvey’s “male gaze” because of three key elements, the presentation of the Midge character, the flashback scene, and the conscious submission of Judy’s character to the wishes of Scottie.
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Before these elements of the film can be related to the “male gaze,” it is imperative to understand the theory behind the gaze according to Laura Mulvey.
The male gaze is a theory which states that most films are shown from the point of view of a white, middle-class male. That includes the complete objectification of women into sex objects. This includes scenes that accentuate the curves of a woman’s body, or focus heavily on her breasts. Women are also seen as figures that rely on the man to get by in the male gaze, which means they are void of all qualities which could “castrate” the male or leave him in a situation where he does not have the power in the relationship between them.
It also stays out of the women’s point of view and does not reveal her thoughts or perceptions in relation to any of the male’s actions, the gaze purports that the films focus on the male and his point of view, while merely objectifying the women. Now that the male gaze has been sufficiently explained, it can be clarified how the aforementioned elements contained in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo do not comply with Mulvey’s theory. The first element to examine within the film is the presentation of Barbara Bel Geddes’ character, Midge Wood.
Midge is not presented as a sexual object for Scottie in any way. In actuality, the male gaze may be somewhat satirized in this film by the fact that Midge designs brasseries for a living, yet she is not a sexual exploit or sexually driven at all in this film. Midge also contradicts the male gaze because she is placed in a position of power over Scottie, as he goes to her to deal with his vulnerabilities regarding acrophobia in the beginning of the film. Midge’s position of power over Scottie is further affirmed as she refers to herself as “mother” multiple times in the film.
An example is seen when Scottie mentions seeming lost in the mental hospital and Midge replies “You’re not lost, Mother’s here. ” Scottie’s acceptance of this represents a castration affect not typical to the male gaze, as well as the extremely atypical acceptance of a female in power in a film by a lead male. This presentation of Midge in Vertigo demonstrates a variance from Mulvey’s view of female characters in accordance with the male gaze. Another scene in the movie does this by allowing us into the mind of a female character and giving us information before even Scottie obtains it.
The aforementioned scene is a flashback that occurs after Scottie’s first encounter with Judy in her apartment. During this flashback, the viewer is exposed to Judy’s actual thought process and frame of mind. The viewer is provided with key information, the fact that Judy is Madeleine, which even Scottie does not yet know. This occurrence is unique because it creates a dichotomy with the male gaze, since Judy is much more than an object of sexual desire. Judy becomes an active part of the “lens” through which the viewer sees the film, making it almost transcend into a female gaze for this brief period.
This one scene is a clear example which shows the male gaze does not remain constantly present throughout this film. The character of Judy herself can easily represent the stereotype that the male gaze portrays for women in film. She is changed by Scottie throughout the second half of the film to resemble Madeleine, which feeds Scottie’s obsession and objectifies her. This change, however, can also be used to show a gap in the male gaze within the film due to one line uttered by Judy at the end of the film.
When Judy and Scottie arrive at the top of the church and he confronts her, Judy says “I wanted you to change me because…” The key part of this statement is Judy’s assertion that she allowed Scottie to change her. If this situation was to remain typical of the male gaze, she would simply have changed because Scottie was in control. It would have been what he wished and it would have happened without a defense or explanation because she would simply be an object for his pleasure. Judy stating that she allowed the change to happen for a reason shatters that idea.
Her suggestion that she allowed the changes to occur for her benefit actually puts her in a position of power. Although it may have seemed as though Scottie was changing her and getting his every wish, Judy claims that she submitted to this changes willingly, because she wanted him to know who she was. If the viewer assumes this claim is true, then Judy manipulated Scottie and played his own obsession against him. This does not fall within the scope of Mulvey’s male gaze, as that would see the female manipulated by the male without retort or reasoning.
Laura Mulvey’s ideas and rationales put forth in her theory of the male gaze are widely accepted and referenced when studying the roles of women in film. However, the gaze cannot be a blanket theory applied to all films, as some simply do not fit the criteria it lays forth. The presentation of Midge, the flashback scene, and the conscious submission of Judy’s character to the wishes of Scottie illustrate that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of those films.