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Male Gaze in Hitchcock's "Vertigo"

Updated on March 10, 2020

Over the years Hollywood has transformed in many ways and bloomed into a diverse industry filled with a variety of themes and discourses. But even today the industry receives criticisms for the way in which it normalises certain ideologies and stereotypes which contribute to modern hegemony. This essay will be using Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to discuss and analyse the significance of the term “male gaze”, mainly with respect to the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film named “Vertigo”. The attempt is to provide an in-depth study into how the two main characters of the film are represented with regard to their gender identities.

According to Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, the female lead in a movie satisfies the patriarchal unconscious of a film by representing the threat of castration. Mulvey points out that from the perspective of a male protagonist, a being without a penis represents a form of anxiety and deep uneasiness. As a solution to this feeling of being threatened the man proceeds to objectify the woman as merely being an artefact for visual pleasure. Since movies mainly portray the man as the observer and protagonist, the female becomes something to just be gazed upon and is given almost no depth of character. Therefore, Mulvey realizes the ultimate tragedy of this situation as the realization that the female character can “exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it”. (Mulvey, 1999) The audience automatically align their perspective with that of the main protagonist (male) and thus they too share the male gaze with the character, observing the female as an embodiment of their own sexual fantasies.

The 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film “Vertigo” is a perfect example for this phenomenon. The psychological thriller deals with the story of John Ferguson (called “Scottie” by his acquaintances), a detective with an interesting case of acrophobia (fear of heights) and the events that unfold when he falls in love with a woman. Scottie is hired by his friend Gavin Ester to follow and observe Gavin’s wife Madeleine as he suspects her of being possessed by a spirit. The film takes a turn when Scottie’s investigation transforms from merely being a professional endeavour into an obsession with the woman’s beauty. The movie can be used to decipher what exactly is meant by the phrase “male gaze” because of the way Madeleine is looked at by Scottie. The way she is represented in his eyes forms the crux of the story. It is also interesting to note that his perception of her is also shared on to the audience.

Madeleine’s image is romanticised from the very first time that Scottie lays his eyes on her. This takes place at a restaurant where Scottie is asked to observe her from afar. In her first scene Madeleine is shown sitting at a table with her back turned, wearing a backless dress that immediately gives her image a sort of feminine sensuality. As she stands up from her table and turns around however, the camera quickly zooms in on her face while the light behind her turns a bright red and the music intensifies. The colour red has long been associated with feeling of lust and love. This change in colour and the sudden increase in the volume of music makes it clear to the audience that from this point on she is the main focus of Scottie’s attention (and therefore ours as well) not because of the task that he has been given to him but because he is deeply transfixed by her. This subconscious realization is made even more apparent from the way that Scottie reacts to her image. His posture quickly turns from calm and professional to nervous and anxious. The audience (in this case, the male audience) quickly projects their own feelings of anxiousness and attraction onto the male protagonist. In this way, throughout the movie the audience sees Madeleine exactly as Scottie sees her and her character is reduced to just an object of visual pleasure.

Another pivotal scene that solidifies Madeleine’s image as the typical female figure in cinema is when she attempts suicide by jumping into a bay. This happens of course, under the watchful eye of Scottie who quickly jumps in to save her. In the scene that follows Madeleine is shown lying naked and covered in bedsheets in Scottie’s bedroom as he places her clothes out to dry. This scene is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, Scottie assumes the usual gender role of the protector here. The way he looks at her and talks to her is with an aura of protectiveness and Madeleine seems more than content and grateful to have this perfect stranger be her hero. Secondly, the scene suggests that in the process of changing her clothes, Scottie has had a chance to see Madeleine completely naked. This revelation although subtly presented, completely changes the dynamic of the story as Scottie now has had more freedom than the audience themselves to fester his fantasies. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Scottie may have used this situation to satisfy any immoral need but it does alleviate his attraction for her in the eyes of the viewer.

As the movie progresses, Madeleine eventually succeeds in killing herself. Scottie- after a few months of being heartbroken, finds a woman named Judy Barton who looks exactly like her. He succeeds in convincing Judy to go on a date with him but as this new relationship progresses, it becomes obvious to both of them that Scottie is not actually interested in Judy for her personality but simply because her appearance reminds him of Madeleine. The significance of the male gaze is brought into attention again here when Scottie makes continuous attempts to make Judy look more like Madeleine by asking her to change her clothes, hair colour and general appearance. This not only reinstates the idea that to him Madeleine has always been just an object of visual pleasure but also brings forth the idea of a man being controlling of a woman’s decisions as Judy continuously caters to Scottie’s unreasonable demands almost as if she is obligated to do so.

In the final act of the movie it is revealed that Judy is in fact actually Madeleine and that the events that had been taking place throughout the movie were all just a well implemented scam by his friend Gavin Ester. As he comes to terms with this realization, Scottie is filled with anger and a sense of betrayal as he says the words “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.”. (2:07:25) This dialogue reveals that not only is Scottie distraught at having been betrayed by his friend Gavin but also because the image of Madeleine that he (and the audience) had formed in his mind has completely shattered. The revelation makes him realise that everything that took place between them – her “abnormality”; him rescuing her; their eventual affair; her death – all of it had been staged. His image of her as a vessel for his fantasies and as a being under his protection and his control, completely shatters before him and the impulsive anxiousness and threat of castration that Mulvey writes about returns as Madeleine goes back into being an unknown entity who in fact had complete control of all the events that had taken place throughout the film.

Scottie’s relationship with Madeleine is not the only example of male gaze in the film. His relationship with his female friend Midge Wood also forms one of the focal points in the movie. Scottie sees Midge as a sibling or a parent, someone who he holds a kind of familial bond with so that she is in no way sexualized. This is an interesting contrast between his relationship with Madeleine for two reasons. Firstly, it shows how Scottie deals with the problem of “threat of castration” with regard to Midge. It is implied that Midge may have other feelings towards him but he constantly refers to her as a close family member. At one point when Midge shows her care towards Scottie, he replies with “Oh no, Midge. Don’t be so motherly.”. (00:07:13) Secondly, it brings to attention the fact that the terms “male gaze” and “female objectification” are not interchangeable. Male gaze often includes sexualization of a female character but it primarily refers to the way in which the character is shown only through the point of view of the male protagonist, with no additional depth of her own. It is simply a phrase used to explain how a female character is defined only through the lens of the male character.

Scottie’s fear of height is a crucial element to the story and is brought up every few instances, even though it holds no direct relevance to the love dynamic between the two main characters. Some critics have pointed out that his fear of heights is in fact a metaphor for his fear of the female form. Perhaps this is why his character is quick to dismiss Madeleine as simply an object to be marvelled at. Towards the climax of the film, Scottie overcomes his fear of heights almost about the same time that he realizes the he had been fooled all along. Perhaps this is to symbolize him finally getting over the threat of a female and seeing Madeleine as a character of her own rather than as a figment of his own mental projections.

A deeper understanding of the male gaze in this specific film can be reached by analysing the personal and professional life of the director, Alfred Hitchcock. It has been a popular belief that Hitchcock had an obsession with beautiful blonde women, as is somewhat evident from the actresses he casted in his movies. Other than Kim Novak (who played Madeleine), Hitchcock had also been infatuated by actresses like Madeleine Caroll, Joan Fonatine, Ingrid Bergman and Tipi Hedren. In David Spoto’s biography of the famous director, it is explained how Hitchcock moulded his actresses into characters which were representations of his own male gaze, much like in the film where Scottie continuously tries to transform Judy Barton into his own image of Madeleine. The book goes on to point out that Hitchcock held resentment towards any actress who tried to add her own ideas to her role. Kim Novak was guilty of this and in return Hitchcock had made her reshoot the San Francisco Bay scene multiple times, resulting in her having to jump into the water then change back to dry clothes repeatedly. This specific insight into Hitchcock’s personal feelings towards women further reinforces Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in visual media.

Vertigo is a film that invokes the idea of scopophilia and places its audience in the position of an obsessive observer, alongside the protagonist. The phenomenon of “male gaze” is somewhat prevalent even in movies today, although it may not be as apparent as in Vertigo. Representation of genders, races and class in movies contribute in subtle ways to adding to the pre-existing hegemony of a society. And articles such as Mulvey’s help us shed a light on some of these issues and better understand the underlying implications of how these representations are done. There are critics who argue that Vertigo is in fact a film that is pro-feminism as it breaks the typical constructs of “male gaze” towards the end when it is revealed that Madeleine had in fact been in control of everything that had happened throughout the film. Of course, like all forms of art the interpretation is subjective to each viewer. But an assessment of such subtle details within different forms of text can always be beneficial when studying the various forms of hegemony and social constructs that is existent within a culture.

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