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The dominance of the male gaze in Hollywood Films

Patriarchal Hollywood Images of women at the turn of the Millenium

©2004 Lizentiatsarbeit 154 Seiten


The way in which media systems reflect our social environment and specifically how they represent and disseminate gender role models and have a lasting effect on the construction of identity is of long-standing interest both in Gender Studies and in the literary and the visual arts. In order to examine in particular the representation of women in the visual art of popular cinema, The Dominance of the Male Gaze in Hollywood Films will thus focus on the image of women in mainstream Hollywood films.
Although media and specifically television and films are often considered to act „largely as a social mirror”, films in fact often distort social reality and continue to reflect traditional stereotypical gender constructions. In fact, these traditional gender images are not simply mirrors of real life, but also ideological signifiers: In many mainstream films that pretend to depict reality a time lag separates true social circumstances from the film reality the movie produces.
Consequently, this time lag also manifest in filmic representations of gender roles means for the women’s movement that feminists have hardly been able to enact new images of women outside the patriarchal context of popular films or change female stereotypes and incorporate feminist thought into mainstream films. Thus, mainstream films do not propagate an image of emancipated women, quite the reverse: women are subordinate objects of the male gaze. This general assumption has led to this thesis, which will deal with the question of whether Hollywood films, as representative of mainstream culture, still disseminate patriarchal images of women dominated by the male gaze even though feminist thought has been part of our society for some decades now.
Located at the intersection of Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociology, and Gender Studies, this thesis will mainly follow the theoretical approach of the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey who developed the concept of the male gaze in her essay „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Mulvey’s concept shall contribute to the analysis of the thesis that the images of women in Hollywood films still correspond to conservative patriarchal stereotypes.
Within the scope of this still valid thesis, one of the major restrictions was to narrow down the film analysis to merely Hollywood film production. The reason for this restriction is first of all that Hollywood films, representative of popular taste, are globally […]



The way in which media systems reflect our social environment and specifically how they represent and disseminate gender role models and have a lasting effect on the construction of identity is of long-standing interest both in Gender Studies and in the literary and the visual arts. In order to examine in particular the representation of women in the visual art of popular cinema, The Dominance of the Male Gaze in Hollywood Films will thus focus on the image of women in mainstream Hollywood films.[1]

Although media and specifically television and films are often considered to act “largely as a social mirror” (Humm, 1997: 13 or Coppock, 1995: 111), films in fact often distort social reality and continue to reflect traditional stereotypical gender constructions. In fact, these traditional gender images are not simply mirrors of real life, but also ideological signifiers: In many mainstream films that pretend to depict reality a time lag separates true social circumstances from the film reality the movie produces.

Consequently, this time lag also manifest in filmic representations of gender roles means for the women’s movement that feminists have hardly been able to enact new images of women outside the patriarchal context of popular films or change female stereotypes and incorporate feminist thought into mainstream films. Thus, mainstream films do not propagate an image of emancipated women, quite the reverse: women are subordinate objects of the male gaze. This general assumption has led to this thesis, which will deal with the question of whether Hollywood[2] films, as representative of mainstream culture, still disseminate patriarchal images of women dominated by the male gaze even though feminist thought has been part of our society for some decades now.

Located at the intersection of Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociology, and Gender Studies, this thesis will mainly follow the theoretical approach of the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey who developed the concept of the male gaze in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). Mulvey’s concept shall contribute to the analysis of the thesis that the images of women in Hollywood films still correspond to conservative patriarchal stereotypes.

Within the scope of this still valid thesis, one of the major restrictions was to narrow down the film analysis to merely Hollywood film production. The reason for this restriction is first of all that Hollywood films, representative of popular taste, are globally consumed and thus have an undisputed impact on an international audience. The films’ far-reaching dissemination is also due to Hollywood’s economic resources and power, clever marketing strategies, commercial exploitation of their films, and star hype. As a consequence, Hollywood films are the most lucrative and internationally successful in comparison to, for example, European or Bollywood productions. Secondly, Hollywood has been ceaselessly perpetuating the so-called “American Dream,”[3] which not only the American people still likes to believe in and aspire to. However, maintaining the myth of the “American Dream” also means propagating patriarchal ideology, including a hierarchical social order and traditional female roles. Also, in view of the fact that Hollywood presents these patriarchal role models in the guise of the ideological “American Dream” as desirable to the audience, I consider Hollywood’s conception and representation of the female sex especially problematic. To sum up, Hollywood films, predominantly box-office hits all over the world, are undoubtedly most effective in perpetuating the dominant patriarchal ideology and dissemination of traditional female gender roles, which contribute to the limitation of the ways in which women are depicted in culture and society.

Consequently, I will restrict myself to the analysis of Hollywood films and postpone a more elaborate account of the image of women in film productions other than Hollywood films to a later point. Additionally, it would be beyond the scope of this thesis to statistically prove the assumption that Hollywood still disseminates demeaning images of women, as for such a venture an analysis of at least about 250 Hollywood films would be required in order to be representative. However, on the basis of a reasonable selection of films and use of a film analysis codebook, my personal goal is to point out at least a statistical tendency which shall finally underpin the qualitative analysis of five films selected according to pre-defined criteria.

Following the outline of my thesis, the first of the three core chapters will deal with the topics of feminism and film theory. It is useful to commence with a discussion of feminist criticism versus patriarchal ideology in order to trace the patriarchal conceptions of women in the female film characters of the selected Hollywood films. This first chapter will conclude with the subject of feminist film criticism and will finally introduce the theoretical foundation of this thesis, namely the psychoanalytical approach of Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) and her concept of the male cinematic gaze. Subsequently, the feminist critique of Mulvey’s approach will be discussed against feminist film theorists such as Elizabeth Ann Kaplan and Teresa de Lauretis. This first main chapter about feminism and film theory will conclude with a short statement, of why I still adhere to Mulvey’s theory in order to examine my thesis.

The second main chapter will chiefly deal with the analysis of Hollywood films. After introducing film as a narrative genre, a short outline of the procedure of film analysis (how to read a film) as well as the film analysis codebook will be provided and the film selection will then be legitimated, before finally presenting and discussing the quantitative and qualitative results of the film analysis.

In the third main chapter, numerous questions which have emerged during the film analysis will be examined; for instance, the consequences of film alternatives such as feminist film-making for the cinematic image of women and the influence of female directors in Hollywood. Finally, the synthesis and conclusion will summarise the most important findings and will dare to venture an outlook.

This thesis will provide evidence that, in spite of more than three decades of feminist film criticism, the male gaze continues to dominate the image of women in Hollywood films well into the 21st century. Hopefully, the film selection will help to illustrate how patriarchal female role models are still perpetuated, yet more latent manifest than at the time when Mulvey’s pivotal article was first published.


The challenging of the dominant ideological representations of femininity and the negative images of women as objects of the male gaze and desire in the visual conventions of both high art and popular culture was a cornerstone of second wave feminist theory and remains so in the age of post-feminism. Therefore, in feminist film theories, feminists criticised and continue to criticise the role of women in the film industry where they are reduced to being packaged as trivial images such as the victim, whore or housewife. These trivial and traditional female stereotypes enable men to oppress women and to perpetuate patriarchal ideology. As a consequence of these grievances, feminists as well as feminist film theorists declare the ideological struggle against patriarchal representation of women to be continuingly important for women’s liberation, since the female dilemma lies in the powerful and confining relationship between idealised or denigrating filmic images of women and the internalisation of these by female consumers.


Films are always imbued with meanings which extend beyond the simple function of entertainment and are thus an expression of dominant ideological assumptions within culture. For instance, Hollywood films incorporate the ideology of mass culture by addressing as large an audience as possible and by attempting to please the popular desire for “light entertainment”. In addition, Hollywood’s second ideological guideline is patriarchal ideology, which is responsible for the conservative cinematic stereotypes of women[4] in mainstream Hollywood films and which implies innately misogynistic female images. By following these two ideologies, Hollywood supports the global dissemination and perpetuation of the powerful patriarchal discourse which continually reinforces stereotypes about femininity, including sexuality, appearance and appropriate behaviour. Thus, in a Hollywood film text which is composed of a variety of different discourses the structural coherence arises from the interrelations of its discourses while ideological hegemony is gained by the power of the discourse carrying the dominant patriarchal ideology. Consequently, within patriarchal culture the various discourses that interweave through a specific (Hollywood) film text are organised along gender lines as to give priority to the male (patriarchal) discourse. A feminist analysis of exactly this ideological male discourse will be provided in the following paragraphs. According to Kaplan and Vicki Coppock, ideology is defined as follows:

It is clear that individuals live their lives through an inheritance and development of common-sense assumptions, often based on prejudices, images and reputation, but it is when those ideas and beliefs cohere and become institutionalised that they become ideologies (Coppock, 1995: 17).


(i)deology, in much recent cultural analysis, is understood in Althusser’s terms as ‘a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society’. […] If ideology is to be defined as a system of representations that have a material organisational force in society, the issue for film theory is the role in this of art as a practice specifically developed for the purposes of aesthetic representation and distinct from other forms of signifying practice (Kaplan, 2000: 70).

Ideologies are thus passed on through religion, education, media systems, the legal system, culture and other social institutions and reinforce the predominant discourses constructed by prevailing institutions such as patriarchy: “Patriarchy defines the personal, physical and institutional power that men exert over women” (Coppock, 1995: 18).

I define patriarchy as a system of interrelated social structures through which men exploit women. […] The definition refers to a system of social relations rather than individuals, since it is presumed that it is at the level of a social system that gender relations may be explained, not that of individual men, nor that of discrete social institutions (Walby, 1986: 51).

As a predominant ideology, patriarchy maintains structures of male dominance through female oppression, material subordination and shared assumptions about gender, femininity and sexuality. In addition, patriarchal institutions rely on the formation of what Robert W. Connell (1987) calls “hegemonic masculinity” and “emphasized femininity” within the development of distinctive heterosexual identities. The following paragraph will examine these two crucial terms in more detail.

The most widespread conception of the psychology of gender claims that two sets of traits, one for women and one for men, define femininity and masculinity, which has led to an ordering of gender stereotypes. At the level of mass social relations, the essential basis for these shared assumptions about gender differentiation[5] is mainly the global dominance of men over women. Hence, femininity is constructed in the context of overall female subordination to men. According to Connell, this unitary model of “sexual character” (Connell, 1987: 167) likely polarises around female compliance with or resistance to male dominance. As each resistance reflects role distancing or even deviance and compliance is central to the traditional pattern of femininity (“emphasized femininity” (ibid: 183)), it is attempted to marginalise other forms of femininity by denying them cultural articulation. “Emphasized femininity”, which is given the most ideological support and is contrasted with the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” (ibid: 183),[6] can be a very public matter: for instance, this concept of “emphasized femininity” is promoted in mass media (which are mostly organised, financed and supervised by men) with an insistence far beyond that found for any form of masculinity and is also taken up in Hollywood film production.[7] As a consequence, this patriarchal form of femininity still possesses enormous social prevalence and is constantly instilled in women and men’s minds.

Furthermore, the concept of the ideal woman is always defined in comparison to men in terms of passivity, submission, instinct, self-sacrifice and maternal, receptive sexuality. “In Talcott Parson’s classic work ‘instrumental’ versus ‘expressive’ traits are supposed to mark the two sexual characters that correspond to the male and female roles” (ibid: 167).

Actually, a bewildering variety of traits are considered characteristic of women and „kulturell tradierte Darstellungen von Weiblichkeit (stehen auch) oft für widerstreitende, einander gegenseitig ausschließende Werte“ (Bronfen, 1999: 76). Analysing female behaviour, also Sigmund Freud[8] ascribes women the still valid, but partly conflicting traits of passivity, sociability, vanity, jealousy and masochism.[9] Power, authority, aggression, and technical competence are clearly not considered to be female character traits at large, but according to the patriarchal concept of femininity, the principal womanly virtues are empathy, fragility, beauty, compliance with men’s desire and acceptance of marriage and childcare. Additionally, femininity has always been misconceived within the triad of ‘inferior - different - special’ (see Klaus, 1998).

Es gibt keine positive Bestimmung des Geschlechts außerhalb patriarchaler Tradition und Vergesellschaftung. Ausdruck davon ist die Tatsache, dass solche Überlegungen zur Differenz von Männern und Frauen auf die Biologie, auf Sexualität oder Mutterschaft zurückverweisen müssen, um die positive Andersartigkeit der Frau zu begründen (Klaus, 1998: 33).

Moreover, a double standard of morality operates to divide female characteristics and women’s sexuality into a historically reproduced dichotomy of the passive “virgin” and the unchaste “whore” (see Coppock, 1995: 22). Given that the chaste, virginal woman is defined as the moral patriarchal ideal that should be aspired to, men control and regulate women’s sexuality by inscribing chastity.[10] The “double standard” which permits men promiscuous sexuality and forbids the same to women, has everything to do with greater power and male fear of uninhibited female sexuality, which is conceptualised as terrifying, insatiable and predatory (see Gamble, 2001: 323). Active female sexuality outside the context of motherhood and reception is often defined as dangerous and emasculating (see Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine, 1993), as woman’s physicality is clearly defined as giving birth to children: “Motherhood is a ‘rite of passage’, invariably equated with ‘womanhood’ and glorified as women’s chief vocation (and women’s role)” (Coppock, 1995: 32). If a woman does not fit into the pattern of motherhood and obtains a powerful position outside the context of family, she is often portrayed as hard, uncaring and even dangerous. Additionally, women without family are often called “frustrated men-haters”, “spinsters”, “psychos” or “monsters”.

Another important component of the patriarchal myth of femininity is the female appearance. Flawless complexion and bodily beauty are central to the idealisation of the female sex in patriarchal ideologies: “As Rita Freedman (1988) states: ‘the idealisation of female appearance camouflages the underlying belief in female inferiority’” (Coppock, 1995: 24).

Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth analyses patriarchal definitions of female beauty and how these unattainable ideals restrict and oppress women in their personal freedom and advancement. When it was no longer possible to confine women to their domestic duties and women slowly began to intervene in existing and established power structures, the beauty myth replaced the outdated values for women with something new: “die Erlangung tugendhafter Schönheit“ (Wolf, 1991: 22). „In dem Maß, wie es den Frauen gelang, sich vom Kinder-Küche-Kirche-Weiblichkeitswahn frei zu machen, übernahm der Schönheitsmythos dessen Funktion als Instrument sozialer Kontrolle“ (ibid: 13). Since the beauty myth as a complex ideology is used to sustain male supremacy by inscribing patriarchal norms of femininity and functions as a counteroffensive against protesting and independent women,[11] it has nothing in common with womanhood, but rather with institutionalised male power and repression. „Unsere Kultur presst die Frauen in schönheitsmythosgerechte Klischees, indem sie sie auf ,die dumme Schöne’ oder ‚die hässlich Intelligente’ reduziert. Frauen dürfen Geist oder Körper sein, aber nicht beides“ (ibid: 80).

As a result, a strong and undeniable relationship between beauty, body and womanliness has clearly been established within the realm of femininity by patriarchy, and women have become addicted to being looked at; striving for a perfect appearance in order to be the target of men’s gaze and admiration. Beauty has become women’s main goal; eating disorders have spread epidemically, and today cosmetic surgery has become “das wachstumsintensivste medizinische Fachgebiet“ (ibid: 12). Cosmetic and plastic surgery literally transform the female body into a sign of culture.

This aspiration towards a perfect appearance and bodily flawlessness has also influenced the realm of sexuality and women thus strive for the bigger breasts, longer legs and thinner hips only because they consider themselves worthless and sexually unattractive as they are. Always on their minds are the sexy male-created images in advertisements, films and magazines; images of perfect female bodies that seem to promise endless sexual attractiveness to men:[12] „Nacktheit wurde zu etwas Nichtmenschlichem, perfektioniert bis zur Unkenntlichkeit, fremdartig wie eine Kunststoffplastik und oft erniedrigt oder missbraucht“ (ibid: 189).

Hence, the difference today between male and female status in patriarchal society is confirmed when it comes to nudity and sex. Feelings of guilt, shame, suffering and masochism are still linked to female sexuality, and: „Bilder, die Sex zu ‚Schönheit’ verflachen […], werden politisch gern gesehen, weil sie den weiblichen sexuellen Stolz in die Knie zwingen“ (ibid: 198). Before 1960, women’s sexuality was decoded in the dichotomies of good/asexual and bad/sexual, which then changed into good/beautiful[13] /sexual versus bad/plain/asexual as soon as the beauty myth gained prevalence in Western societies.

Wolf concludes as follows:

Wenn sie (Frauen) es schaffen sollen, sich von dem Ballast zu befreien, den Weiblichkeit schon wieder bedeutet, brauchen sie dafür in erster Linie nicht Stimmzettel, Lobbys oder Transparente. Sie müssen vor allem auf eine neue Weise sehen lernen (ibid: 23).

Patterns of violence are another way to silence women day by day, since violence is imposed on women through sexual harassment, rape and misogynistic portrayals in pornography and other media systems. Given the patriarchal manifestation of culturally rooted power relations between the two sexes, the inferior status of women as weak opposite the masculine is always a question of male violence and dominance. Direct physical violence of men towards women exemplifies these unequal gendered power relations in particular. Thus, in the case of rape,[14] the roles ascribed to both sexes are exemplary for their status in patriarchal society: women as faint and dependent victims of the male offender and powerful perpetrator.[15] Susan Brownmiller argues that “rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (Connell, 1987: 55), and Andrea Dworkin claims that “(p)ornography is regarded as an expression of the violence in male sexuality and a means of domination over women; rape as an act of patriarchal violence rather than sexual desire” (ibid: 55).

As a consequence, a feminist analysis of rape concludes that rape is a cornerstone of patriarchal control over women and that since in patriarchy there always exists a link between sex and power, male-female sexual relationships are still constructed through relations of power and powerlessness and based on the pattern of male dominance and female submission.[16]

Moreover, feminist studies have gradually revealed that gendered economy is a system of power, control, oppression and exploitation of women, disproportionate wages and social struggle of an awe-inspiring scope and complexity. Thus, in recent research (for instance Ann Game and Rosemary Pringle’s Gender at Work), the workplace is treated as a major site of sexual politics in its own right and can be analysed as an object of patriarchal ideology. Therefore, male-dominated institutions and organisations depend on patriarchal principles, since by and large the people who run important workplaces are men who are empowered in gender relations from the very beginning and arrange things in such a way that it is extremely difficult for women to access top positions. “The problem of the general conditions for the reproduction of capitalism led back to sexuality and the family” (ibid: 36). Hence, male hegemony is not only asserted in business, but also in private life through the sexual division of labour, namely unpaid domestic work versus public work: “The sexual division of labour reflects ideas about ‘a woman’s place’” (ibid: 122). In the early 1970s, feminist critique of patriarchy widely viewed the authoritarian institution of family, female domestic housework and marriage as the main strategic sites of women’s oppression and control (see Lee Comer’s Wedlocked Women). Simone de Beauvoir’s phenomenology (The Second Sex) in particular turned famous for the insight that family relationships are defined by power and are thus a site for female subordination. But it soon became clear that the domestic institution of family might best be regarded as part of the periphery rather than the core complex of patriarchy.

Concepts of sex roles which are intertwined and sometimes even blurred with concepts of gender stereotypes[17] play an important part in the functioning of patriarchy not only in the realm of family and work, but in fact in every social sphere. Both gender stereotypes and sex roles function as socially constructed patriarchal ideals and expectations and women’s disadvantages in patriarchal society are attributed to exactly

such stereotyped expectations,[18] which are held by men and internalised by women. Unequal and partly sexist gender stereotypes and sex roles are constantly promoted through families, schools, mass media and other agencies of socialisation. In principle, the inequalities could be eliminated by breaking down the stereotypes of gendered sex roles.[19]

Most applications of role concepts to gender (relations) are of different kind. Their basic idea is that being a man or a woman means enacting a general role definitive of one’s sex - the “sex role”. There are, accordingly, always two sex roles in a given context, the “male role” and the “female role”; less commonly but equivalently called “man’s role” or “woman’s role”, the “masculine” or “feminine role” (ibid: 48).

Consequently, sex role theory emphasises that female and male behavioural patterns are different because they respond to different social expectations. As a consequence, feminine character is produced by socialisation into female role expectations and deviants are explained as some kind of female failure in socialisation. Additionally, departures from the female sex role are likely to be said to be the result of some personal eccentricity produced by inappropriate socialisation. Generally, women regard the standard case as the proper way to live and by doing this they again define and consolidate actual role expectations. A crucial difficulty however is that what is expected and approved is not necessarily standard. What is normative can be perceived not as a definition of normality but as a definition of what the holders of social power (for example mass media or the Catholic Church) wish to have accepted, namely conventional patriarchal sex roles.

Furthermore, sex role theory drastically simplifies the complexities of gender by reducing all masculinities and femininities to one biological dichotomy: the biological determinism of men and women. Even though the gendered category of “femininity” is not a biological essence, it is still defined as the natural experience of the female body and is embedded in the context of natural reproduction. Debates about sexual politics often end with the assertion that men and women are ultimately different and biological explanations of natural sexual difference are often clearly given priority; social explanations are left behind. Freud, for instance, believed in ultimate biological determinism and many of his followers such as Theodore Reik and Robert May have repeatedly drifted towards that view. The challenge for feminism therefore is the assumption that biological difference is the decisive basis of social gender relations.[20]

To give full weight to the practical character of politics […] requires a form of social theory that gives some grip on the interweaving of personal life and social structure without collapsing towards voluntarism and pluralism on one side, or categoricalism and biological determinism on the other (ibid: 61).[21]

However, society culturally elaborates and underpins the natural difference between the sexes; clothing and cosmetics are familiar examples. “In the additive framework of sex role theory this is interpreted as a social marking of the natural difference” (ibid: 79). The fashion and cosmetics industry thus significantly defines clothes and cosmetics as markers of gender and sex roles are often associated with sex-typed adornment such as make-up, hairstyle, clothing and accessories. In Gender Advertisments, Erving Goffman adds positioning and posture to this catalogue.

The critical content of liberal feminism, then, is consistent with the concept of natural difference. It presumes that a kind of base-level gender distinction is left when we strip away the pancake make-up or the Playboy philosophy. This basal difference is taken to be unoppressive because it is natural sexual attraction. It begins to look as if we are in the land of mirrors again (ibid: 74).

Furthermore, biological determination, accounting for the different behavioural patterns of both sexes, powerfully combines with the cultural and ideological concept of gender which defines rigid gendered categories of femininity and masculinity. “Gender is both something we do and something we think with, both a set of social practices (social order, hierarchy) and a system of cultural meaning” (Klaus, 1998: 49). Hence, gender as a system of classification of human social action ascribes individuals a certain social status. Thus, social gender acts as a structuring category, since the social categories “feminine” and “masculine” are culturally defined codes which help to describe, define and assess everyday incidents. The naturalisation of gender, which obviously asserts the correctness of the gender dichotomy, finally produces plain as well as veiled clean-cut stereotypes with female gender subordinated to male gender.

Feminism claims that in mass media, these patriarchal stereotypes of women often result in sexist and misogynistic representations, since most mass media participate in the sexist cultural policing, in which the authority of masculinity is sustained. Thus, sexist female portrayals in mass media subtly underpin the traditional feminine role.[22]

Gaye Tuchman hat darin (in „The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media“) die Rolle von Frauen in den Massenmedien wie folgt charakterisiert: Massenmedien verdrängen Frauen in die symbolische Nichtexistenz und sie trivialisieren die Vielfalt ihrer Lebensentwürfe. Dabei geht die Wissenschaftlerin von der Reflexionshypothese aus, der zufolge die Massenmedien herrschende gesellschaftliche Werte widerspiegeln. [...] Mit einiger Verzögerung entspricht das Frauenbild der Medien so ihrer Stellung in der Gesellschaft und in der Öffentlichkeit (Klaus, 1998: 222).

Feminist disapproval criticises the fact that mass media mainly construct patriarchal prototypes of femininity to encourage women to identify with these stereotypically submissive female representations. Accordingly, Gaye Tuchman concludes her essay “The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media” as follows:

Die Massenmedien führen zwei Aufgaben gleichzeitig durch. Zunächst, bei einigem kulturellen Hinterherhinken, spiegeln sie die herrschenden Werthaltungen und Einstellungen in der Gesellschaft wider. Sodann funktionieren sie als Sozialisationsagenten und lehren insbesondere die Kinder, wie man sich richtig verhält, [...] an traditionelle Geschlechterrollen zu glauben (Klaus, 1998: 223).

In the chapter “Femininity as Mas(s)querade” of Feminism without Women, Tania Modleski also debates the issue of gender in relation to mass culture and perceives women as the victims in our mass culture, forced to adapt to the traditional notions of the feminine and female domesticity. “A feminist approach to mass culture might begin, then, by recognizing and challenging the dubious sexual analogies that pervade a wide variety of discourses, however seductive they may at first appear” (Modleski, 1991: 34).

To conclude this chapter, feminism generally demands that the traditional dichotomies underlying reductionism should be replaced with a more adequate account of social gender relations in which departures from the conventional standard of the patriarchal feminine role model are no longer denominated as deviant.


In the study of film, feminist criticism on the one hand analytically approaches the production mechanisms of patriarchal practice and on the other, includes a detailed study of film scripts and stories from a feminist perspective. Feminist engagement with film as a bearer of ideology and key carrier of contemporary cultural myths means struggling against women’s role in the film industry and the limited range of images offered to women by film. Moreover, feminist film theory aims at identifying oppressive ideological stereotyping and attempts to substitute them with images that correspond to real women’s lives.

Since feminism and psychoanalysis both recognise that most women do not slip into the feminine submissive and inferior role painlessly, if they do at all, they both fight for the end of “patriarchal phallocentrism” (Gamble, 2001: 178), which produces sexism and misogyny. Therefore, a psychoanalytical feminist approach to film will prove suitable for this thesis.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminists generally began to prioritise the media’s treatment of women, focusing on its part in reflecting society’s and specifically patriarchy’s preferred view of women, denying them images of power. In the context of women’s liberation movements, in contrast to the feminist literary perspective which emerged at the tail end of numerous decades of academic literary studies, feminist approaches to and perspectives on film came about as Cinema Studies and gradually developed in the more general field of feminist Media Studies with feminist film theory as its subcategory.

Most feminist film theorists and critics use the language of “before” and “after” to characterize the evolution of this field. Before there were “images of women”, and after, there was “feminist film theory” (Davidson and Wagner-Martin, 1995: 320).

Some founding and ground-breaking texts of feminist film theory among others were:

- The US Journal Women and Film, started in 1970 (today: Camera Obscura, see,[23]
- The British journals Screen and Screen Education (see,
- The German periodical Frauen und Film, started in 1974, and
- In France, Cahiers du Cinéma.

Feminist film criticism and studies particularly analysing Hollywood films then emerged in response “to male film scholars’ excitement about auteur theory and about classical genres” (Kaplan, 2000: 6) and mainly became popular because of Mulvey’s influential article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (printed in Screen). With this ground-breaking article, Mulvey intervened in ongoing male theories and criticised Hollywood’s realist style as ideologically complicit with sexism. Since her work struck a cord that was so provocative and significant for film theory that it has remained to this day an area both of appreciation of insights and debate about their validity, she has often been labelled as the first key figure in feminist film theory and studies of woman as image. (Before the publication of Mulvey’s article in 1975, Molly Haskell with From Reverence to Rape (1972) and Marjorie Rosen with Popcorn Venus (1973) were considered to be influential in the field of feminist film theory.) Consequently, in the next three decades of film theory, feminist film critics very often referred back to Mulvey’s seminal essay and built upon her psychoanalytical concept.

After the publication of Mulvey’s article, feminists unanimously agreed that cinema as an institutionalised art form requires methodical and careful critique and analysis. Thus, feminist film research began to be very much at the forefront of the questioning of filmic differences across various subjects such as gender differences[24], gay/straight differences and differences between women produced by race and ethnicity. Moreover, feminism acknowledged that the disciplinary formation of feminist film scholars and the development of an independent field of study were indispensable to the women’s movement, as “(f)ilm is an important object for feminist practice, since creating art or entertainment with feminist perspectives may help to change entrenched male stances towards women that can be found in commercial or avant-garde entertainment and art” (Kaplan, 2000: 2).

After the founding of feminist film studies, there was hope that cultural attitudes towards women in patriarchal societies might be challenged and finally changed; if not, they are at least questioned, and questions about the functioning of cinematic gender representations were always relevant, as Mulvey formulates in the following quotation: “As an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions about the ways the unconscious structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking” (Mulvey, 1989: 15). As the human unconscious is influenced by the dominant order of patriarchy, the central question that has been repeatedly asked in feminist film studies was and still is about the direct relationship between the filmic images of femininity and the social context of their production.

The feminist approach to film has varied considerably, as scholars, theorists and critics taking up feminist film research have all drawn on a broad spectrum of available theories. Consequently, a division emerged between the feminist film theorists who turned to French feminists and post-structuralist theories to examine the filmic representations of women and those feminists who focused more on neo-Marxist, sociological, and historical paradigms. It was a matter of emphasis rather than of complete difference.

Nevertheless, studying filmic images of women, from whatever perspective or within whatever research method, has raised questions about the relationship of aesthetics to politics and cultures. Therefore, film studies in general but also feminist film studies specifically were dependent on the findings of Cultural Studies and were undoubtedly influenced by the theories developed in the Centre for Cultural Studies in Birmingham which was founded in 1964.


Die Annahme unbewusster seelischer Vorgänge, die Anerkennung der Lehre vom Widerstand und der Verdrängung, die Einschätzung der Sexualität und des Ödipus-Komplexes sind die Hauptinhalte der Psychoanalyse und die Grundlagen ihrer Theorie, und wer sie nicht alle gutzuheißen vermag, sollte sich nicht zu den Psychoanalytikern zählen (Mitchell, 1976: 395; quoted from Freud’s Psychoanalyse).

Although Freud is said to be the founder of psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis has become an important component of the analysis of women’s oppression, some feminists still take offence at his theories.[25]

Der Frauenbewegung gilt Freud noch weiterhin als Stein des Anstoßes. Die Psychoanalyse, so heißt es, betrachtet die Frau als minderwertig und will sie auf die Rolle als Ehefrau und Mutter fixieren. […] Die Psychoanalyse ist (aber laut Mitchell) keine Verklärung der patriarchalischen Gesellschaft, sondern deren Analyse. Wer die Unterdrückung der Frau begreifen und wirksam bekämpfen will, kommt an der Psychoanalyse nicht vorbei (Mitchell, 1976: 11).

In Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Mitchell argues that although Freud certainly reflected the patriarchal attitudes of his time, he still provides the theoretical instruments for surpassing those traditional patriarchal ideas. Consequently, feminism is according to Mitchell dependent on the findings of psychoanalysis, as the psychoanalytical approach helps to explain how human beings acquire the cultural inheritance of thoughts and social norms by the unconscious. And exactly for the reason that psychoanalysis explains the functioning of the human unconscious and ideological systems, the psychoanalytic approach is still important to the feminist discourse.[26] Especially with regard to feminist film theory, a theory of the unconscious was absolutely crucial to comprehend cinema as a realm of human fantasy and desire, which finally activates cinematic voyeurism and fetishism.

Feminist authors who have dealt with Freud and his psychoanalytic approach are for example Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch), Eva Figes (Patriarchal Attitudes) and Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex). However,

Firestone, Greer, Figes und Friedan gehen übereinstimmend davon aus, dass zunächst die soziale Realität gegeben ist und das Individuum quasi nachher kommt. Die Psychoanalyse akzeptiert diese logische Abfolge nicht, sondern stellt eine ganz andere Art von Beziehung her (Mitchell, 1976: 403).

By believing in social reality and conscious decisions, the feminist authors mentioned in the quotation deny the unconscious and mainly criticise Freud for ignoring the determining influence of patriarchal culture. Yet, Mitchell regrets that „durch das Missverstehen und die Verurteilung der Psychoanalyse auf ein wichtiges Instrument zur Erhellung der ideologischen und psychologischen Aspekte der Unterdrückung (der Frauen) verzichtet wurde“ (Mitchell, 1976: 347). Furthermore, Mitchell defends psychoanalysis by claiming that the psychoanalytic approach does not prescribe what femininity means; rather it examines femininity as a psychological phenomenon. According to her view, findings about the psychological structure of femininity in patriarchal societies are undoubtedly relevant for feminism and feminist film studies.

Die patriarchalische Ordnung spricht zu jedem Menschen und durch ihn in dessen Unbewusstem; die Reproduktion der Ideologie der menschlichen Gesellschaft ist demnach mit dem Erwerb dieser Ordnung durch jedes Individuum gewährleistet (Mitchell, 1976: 473).

Subsequently, Mitchell mainly argues in favour of the classical form of psychoanalysis as the theoretical foundation on which to build further steps of the women’s movement and that psychoanalysis was not a transfiguration of patriarchal societies but rather their analysis.

In more recent theoretical work, feminists such as Mary Ann Doane defend the psychoanalytic approach as well: “Feminist theory which grounds itself in anti-essentialism frequently turns to psychoanalysis for its description of sexuality because psychoanalysis assumes a necessary gap between the body and the psyche, so that sexuality is not reducible to the physical” (Doane, 1991: 168). As Doane insists on the fact that every image of woman is ideological predisposed, she also challenges the very idea of a positive female image:

Psychoanalysis was a crucial dimension of this challenge of feminist film theory to any notion of positive feminist image. Following, the examples set by theorists in France and Great Britain in particular, for whom psychoanalysis offered a means of understanding not only individual psyches but textual and cultural obsessions, feminist film theorists insisted that the language of the cinema needed to be approached as Freud approached the dreams and speech of his patients - symptomatically. And the language of psychoanalysis was, for emerging feminist film theory, a crucial - and controversial - means of analyzing how images function (exactly Mitchell’s point in Psychoanalyse und Feminismus) (ibid: 168).

Psychoanalytic questions of feminist film theorists could be as follows: first, what are the relationships between images of women in film and the level of fantasy, desire, unconscious wishes and fears; second, whose desire is at work in a particular film; and third, whose unconscious is being addressed. Such questions lead directly to Mulvey’s pivotal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, since in her analysis of the cinematic image of women she deals with psychoanalytic issues.

Mulvey’s Article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

The following chapter will analyse Mulvey’s seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”,[27] which was published exactly at the time when the main shift from semiotics to psychoanalysis as a tool of analysis occurred in film theory.[28] As Mulvey, a feminist film critic as well as independent avant-garde filmmaker,[29] has been regarded as one of the most important feminist film critics and her work on the male gaze thus as fundamental since the mid-1970s, her pivotal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” has set the terms of discussion in feminist film criticism and still proves seminal for psychoanalytic debates about cinema, spectatorship, sexuality and subjectivity.

Mulvey’s article is perfectly qualified as the theoretical framework of this thesis, since her concept of the male gaze relates to and reveals the innate patriarchal views about femininity in narrative Hollywood cinema:

The magic of the Hollywood style at its best […] arose […] from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order (Mulvey, 1989: 16, emphasis added).

Hence, feminist film criticism of patriarchal ideologies could irrevocably be associated with Mulvey’s psychoanalytic approach, since she claims narrative cinema to be dominated by the male gaze and pleasure, analyses how already existing patterns of fascination determine a film’s interpretation and addresses the issue of cinema as a predominately male symbolic system.

Her essay summarises previously existing concepts of cinematic apparatus and the gaze (crucial to 1970s film theory); however, by moving these concepts into a new territory, she discusses them in the framework of psychoanalysis. Mulvey draws on psychoanalytic theory in order to discover

how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject. […] Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form (ibid: 14).

Her article is based on the two key psychoanalytic models of Freud and Lacan[30] to explain unconscious human thinking processes and to argue that male dominated film-making acts to assign women a subordinate social position because of men’s unconscious castration fears. By subordinating women, the male symbolic order and patriarchal authority are sustained and the fear of women is allayed.

Feminism’s interest in filmic representations creating gendered viewing positions began with Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. She argues “that the spectator theorized by 1970s film theory is a male spectator, and that the classical cinema is therefore an apparatus made to the measure of male desire and male crises of identification” (Davidson and Wagner-Martin, 1995: 321). In addition to her claim that for most classical Hollywood cinema[31] the implied viewing position is male (structured around mechanisms of voyeurism and fetishism) and that cinematic pleasures are provided only for male spectators, Mulvey alleges that in film the woman is the one looked at, not the one who looks. Thus, the female audience has only two options; either to assume a masculine viewing position by identifying with the dominant male hero or to assume a masochistic position by identifying with an objectified female character.[32] Consequently, the dominance of the cinematic male gaze denies female spectators development of their own viewing positions and additionally objectifies and eroticises female bodies. Cinema ultimately defines women as image.

Therefore, Mulvey’s aim is to counteract the relationship between narrative cinema and male pleasure in order to conceive a new language of desire for both sexes. For this purpose, a psychoanalytical background was necessary; first, to outline the cinematic pleasures and displeasures in the favourite cinematic form of patriarchy, the illusionist Hollywood film and second, to explain the fact that the structure of looking in narrative cinema is contradictive. Contradictive means that the female image as a castration threat to men is confronted with two contradictory types of male gazes that are subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male character: “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to the world” (Mulvey, 1989: 14).

The following paragraphs will analyse how male pleasure and gazing is constructed in narrative Hollywood cinema and how this cinematic style reinforces the dominant patriarchal order. According to Mulvey’s concept, the male gaze is a controlling viewing position,[33] which defines the image of woman as a passive object for the active male gaze; either the male film character’s gaze or the male spectator’s gaze. Hence, the cinematic female image functions as bearer of the male gaze, whereas men control the look actively.[34] The determining male gaze projects its fantasy and desire onto the passive female figure, which is displayed accordingly and finally becomes a sexual object.[35] Since her appearance is coded for strong visual impact, she traditionally assumes the role of the eroticised object. In film practice, this objectification results in close-ups of different, fragmented female body parts. This fragmentation of the female body finally destroys the filmic illusion of depth and an unreal female icon is created. In their visual perfection, women become beautiful and mystic cinematic spectacles. These spectacularly stylised forms of femininity are represented as exhibitionists (obsessive interest in clothes and styling) and/or masochists (passive counterpart of the sadistic, voyeuristic patriarchal male protagonist) and perform in front of the male gaze, masquerading “as the perfect to-be-looked-at image” (Mulvey, 1989: 24). The male spectator is in direct scopophilic contact with the spectacular female figure to give him visual satisfaction.

Women can be objectified by the male gaze either through the pleasures of scopophilia or through the pleasures of fetishism (i.e. the fragmentation and display of the body; in this case especially the female one). Hence, the unique cinematic male pleasures arise from exactly this cinematic combination of scopophilia and fetishism. Even though both scopophilia and fetishism reactivate early traumas of loss, they differ in important ways. Scopophila is both the erotic basis for the pleasure of actively looking at another person as an object and of being looked at. In Freud’s work On Sexuality, he suggests scopophilia to be an important component of human sexuality. And “(h)e associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (ibid: 16). However, Freud applies the term “scopophilia” in a restrictive way; namely merely to childish behaviour and the desire to see, especially other people's genitals. But scopophilia can develop into an adult perversion, obsessive voyeurism, which involves gaining satisfaction only from watching. This satisfaction is guaranteed in mainstream films, which are a combination of spectacle and narrative and play on exactly this voyeuristic fantasy of the audience. “Conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world” (ibid: 17). Consequently, mainstream cinema satisfies a primordial wish for scopophilic pleasures, as spectators watch an enclosed world of images, may look on private human bodies and project their desires onto the screen and the actors. Scopophilic pleasures have two contradictory aspects:

The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like (ibid: 18).

Both aspects of scopophilia motivate eroticised phantasmagoria that affect the subject’s perception of reality; thus, cinema creates an illusion of the world; a fantasy world.

Since desire as a consequence of scopophilia is always linked to the castration complex, looking can be pleasurable in form, but threatening in content. Mulvey sees male castration anxiety at the heart of cinematic pleasure. It is the female image that crystallises this paradox, on the one hand creating fascination and on the other, fear:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative (ibid: 19).[36]

As a result, the female filmic icon originally displayed for male enjoyment might function as a threat because of her sexual difference; her lack of a penis. As this threat can evoke castration anxiety, the male spectator has two possibilities to avoid this displeasure: first, devaluation or punishment of the female icon using voyeurism and voyeuristic sadism (this sadistic aspect fits in well with the narrative flow) or secondly, disavowal of the threat of castration and thus overvaluation of the female sex, which ultimately results in the cult of the female star and the “Hollywood Diva” (see Bronfen’s Diva). The male spectator focuses his fascinated gaze only on her beautiful and erotic appearance (the so-called fetishistic scopophilia) and is no longer able to gain any distance to his fetish.[37]

This complex interaction of looks is specific to film. The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions […] is to free […] the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the “invisible guest”, and highlights the way film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms. Women whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret (ibid: 26).

Even though Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze was taken as the core element of her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, it is also a manifesto for cinematic alternatives and the creation of a radically new film aesthetic:

It is these cinematic codes (of Hollywood films) and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged. […] the voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down (ibid: 25).

Alternative films thus enable feminist criticism of the dominant ideological concept of patriarchy in Hollywood films, since “(h)owever self-conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise en scène reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema” (ibid: 15). Consequently, alternative and avant-garde feminist films might challenge the basic assumptions of mainstream film and provide space for new points of view and different ideologies. Unfortunately, Mulvey has to admit that “(a) politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint” (ibid: 16).[38]

Critique of Mulvey’s Concept in the Past Thirty Years

Almost thirty years have passed since the publication of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and her theoretical focus on the male gaze, which set the terms and has been the basis for most feminist film criticism during the last decades. Although Mulvey has modified her position slightly in subsequent essays (1977, 1981), she remains committed to her model of patriarchal Hollywood, which has proved both influential and controversial. Thus, during the 1980s, the field of feminist psychoanalytic film criticism split into two groups: those who defend and extend Mulvey’s model and those who seek to modify it in crucial ways by rejecting her assumption that Hollywood films are exclusively for male pleasure and arguing that female spectatorship is a more complex process than Mulvey’s concept allows (for instance, Teresa de Lauretis). In both feminist groups, Mulvey’s analysis of cinematic viewing positions has gradually come more to the foreground than her discussion of feminist avant-garde cinema.


[1] Three common terms refer to the subject: cinema, movie (motion picture) and film. In this thesis the term film will be preferred, but the other terms will be reserved for occasional variation.

[2] Hollywood, an “American film city, nominally a suburb of Los Angeles, was founded in 1912 […]. By 1913 Hollywood was established as the film-maker’s Mecca, and continued so for forty years. Several factors combined in the late 40s to affect its unique concentration […]. The consequent break-up of many big studios […] weakened continuity of product […]. So began the world-wide trekking now evident in American production.” (Walker, 1993: 382)

[3] The “American Dream” stands for the human dream of mobility, independence, beauty and success, for the importance of self-reliance and individuality (see Traube, 1992: 127,129) and for the value of human virtues such as strength of will, courage and hard work.

[4] Male filmic stereotypes surely exist as well, but they are not the focus of the present thesis.

[5] It is often neglected that in fact the main finding from many years of psychological research is an enormous psychological likeness between women and men. This path could lead to non-unitary conceptions of sexual character, which means the acknowledgment of female and male diversity and the coexistence of masculinity and femininity in the same person.

[6] Hegemony means human social ascendancy achieved in an interaction of social forces. This ascendancy extends beyond contest of brute power into private life and cultural processes and is embedded in almost every aspect of life (for instance religion, mass media, education and wage structures).

[7] The actress Marilyn Monroe was said to be both archetype and satirist of “emphasized femininity”.

[8]„Freud (stellt) ausdrücklich fest, dass er die Ausdrücke “männlich” und “weiblich” nicht besonders brauchbar findet. Biologisch angemessen bezeichnen sie lediglich den streng anatomischen Unterschied zwischen den Geschlechtern, während sie in volkstümlicher Ausdrucksweise auch „Aktivität“ und „Passivität“ bedeuten.“ (Mitchell, 1976: 67)

[9] Freud claimed that “Masochismus ist ‘feminin’ – gleichgültig, bei welchem Geschlecht er auftritt.“ (ibid: 142)

[10] Hence, patriarchy constructs sexuality as well, defining objects of desire and sexual practice by means of the heterosexual dichotomy. Since heterosexuality only has meaning through gender opposition, this actually requires two exclusive categories: heterosexual men and heterosexual women (see Connell, 1987: 137).

[11] The beauty myth defines getting older as becoming plain and unattractive only because getting older often accompanies becoming mentally stronger and independent and threatens to “castrate” men.

[12] The process of sexualising women as objects of heterosexual desire involves standardising feminine appeal in a misogynistic manner and symbolic markers of the female category such as high-heeled shoes and mini skirts. The fashion industry, the cosmetic industry and the content of mass media are tangible proof of the fact that women have become sexualised objects.

[13] The current ideal construct of “Western” beauty remains slim, narrow-hipped, high breasted and with a flaw-less complexion (see Coppock, 1995: 25).

[14] “Rape, […] routinely presented in the media as individual deviance, is a form of person-to-person violence deeply embedded in power inequalities and ideologies of male supremacy. Far from being a deviation from the social order, it is in a significant sense an enforcement of it.” (Connell, 1987: 107)

[15] Some feminists criticise this concept of victimisation, as in their opinion, victims are passive objects, incapable of taking action. They claim that the definition of women as victims of patriarchal societies is insufficient in order to understand the actual situation of women and finally change traditional gender relations. According to this view, the devaluation of the female has to be analysed without constantly referring to the concept of victimisation.

[16] The analysis of the power distribution between men and women in its simplest form has pictured women and men as contesting social blocs connected by sexual relations. See various accounts: Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.

[17] Disseminating patriarchal concepts of sex roles (for instance “naturally given motherhood”) often means just the same as propagating patriarchal gender stereotypes (for instance “the perfect housewife”).

[18] To end these disadvantages, in her book The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan argues for a change of societies’ expectations of women.

[19] “It was even discovered that freeing sex-role conventions might be good for men (as well). Such was the claim of the ‘men’s liberation’ movement in the United States in the mid 1970s” (ibid: 34). See also David Frenbach’s argument that patriarchy and patriarchal sex roles define homosexual men as necessarily effeminate.

[20] “It is possible that there are some innate differences in temperament or ability between women and men. The hypothesis cannot be ruled out entirely. But if they exist, we can say quite confidently that they are not the basis of major social institutions” (ibid: 71). Some “characteristics are shared between the sexes, and there is no good reason to doubt that the shift from biological evolution to history was also a shared accomplishment” (ibid: 72).

[21] Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1991) is appropriate for a new definition of gender, since she avoids reproducing the dichotomy of gender. “Sie legt dar, dass in der Vorstellung vom biologischen Geschlecht das kulturelle Geschlecht bereits mitdefiniert ist, weil der Leib selbst eine Konstruktion (ist) [...]. So stellt sich die Frage, inwiefern der Körper erst in und durch die Markierung(en) der Geschlechtsidentität ins Leben gerufen wird. Selbst biologisch ist der Mensch danach nicht Mann oder Frau, sondern durch die Bedeutungszuweisung von als ‚primär’ definierten Geschlechtsmerkmalen wird die Vielfalt der Körper auf die beiden Pole des Geschlechts reduziert. Diese Kategorisierung ist bereits eine kulturelle Handlung” (Klaus, 1998: 46). By claiming that gender constructions are reproduced through cultural conceptions of biological assignations and two opposite gender characters, Butler has fundamentally deconstructed gender.

[22] Gender Studies takes as a starting point the assumption that gender is often distorted in mass media as sexist cultural stereotypes, which first have to be identified as sexist practices and shall then be deconstructed. They acknowledge that gender representations in mass media, especially traditional role models and rigid female stereotypes, impede the social equality of men and women.

[23] “(J)ournals like Camera Obscura called for a radical deconstruction of patriarchal Hollywood cinema, and the elaboration of an avant-garde feminist cinema.” (Stam, 2000: 173)

[24] For studies about gendered representations of masculinity in films see for instance Joan Mellen’s Big Bad Wolves. Masculinity in the American Film or Therese Steffen’s Masculinities - Maskulinitäten. Mythos - Realität - Repräsentation - Rollendruck.

[25] “Im American Womens Liberation Diary von 1971 ist Freud mit einer über sein Gesicht gezeichneten Zielscheibe und einem ins Schwarze treffenden Pfeil knapp unter seinem linken Auge abgebildet. Die Unterschrift lautet ‘Frauenhasser (männlich) III’.” (Mitchell, 1976: 342)

[26] The other psychoanalytical approach most frequently applied in feminist film criticism is Jacques Lacan’s theory about the Lacanian imaginary, the dynamics of the gaze and the “infantile mirror stage” (see Kaplan, 2000: 7), which is assumed to be the moment of establishing a split subject; a subject divided within itself. Post-structuralist theories in particular often relied on Lacanian notions of subject formation in the so-called mirror stage.

[27] First published in Screen, 1975, Volume 16, no. 3, p. 6 - 18.

[28] See Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics, in which she considers this shift as the basis of feminist film theory.

[29] Her best known films, which she and Peter Wollen co-directed in the 1970s and have always been governed and influenced by their theoretical writing, are Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). “Both films use formal experiment to investigate theoretical and practical issues raised by the women’s movement, addressing both the construction of sexuality through myth and history, and practical problems of child care.” (Caughie, 1996: 115)

[30] According to Lacan’s mirror phase theory, Mulvey argues that this narcissistic process is reproduced in cinematic representation.

[31] In Women and Film (1983), Kaplan defines the classical Hollywood cinema as “a feature length narrative sound film made and distributed by the Hollywood studio system”. Generally, the term “classical Hollywood cinema” is understood as the cinema that draws the spectators into a fictional and seamless world of narrative crisis and then resolution (see Davidson and Wagner-Martin, 1995: 321 and The Classical Hollywood Film by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson).

[32] “In the 1980s theorists like Mary Ann Doane and Tania Modleski analysed the pleasures offered to the female spectator by ‘feminine genres’ like the ‘woman’s film’ or the soap opera, concluding that these genres offer masochistic fantasies in which the active woman is usually punished, though they also offer the pleasures of transgression and rebellion.” (Gamble, 2001: 318)

[33] There are three different viewing positions associated with narrative films: 1) the view of the camera; 2) the view of the audience of the events on the screen; and 3) the gaze of the character(s) in the diegesis (this look is given precedence over the other two viewing positions in order to achieve realistic images). Paul Willemen (1980) has specified a fourth look: “(T)he possibility of the viewer being overlooked while engaged in the act of looking at something he/she is not supposed to look at” (Creed, 1993: 29). Maybe by assuming this fourth type of viewing position the question of whether the screen spectator might be punished for his/her voyeuristic desires might finally be answered.

[34] In the year 1949, de Beauvoir already used similar terms to Mulvey to describe the concept of the gaze. “De Beauvoir’s idea of woman as other is articulated in terms of drawn from the Sartrean struggle for dominance between the looker and looked-at. There can at any one time be only one Sartrean looker; the other must be looked-at. In appropriating this point for the analysis of the female condition, de Beauvoir introduced two variations to the Sartrean theme. The first is that with respect to relations between the sexes, one sex is, as it were, permanently in the role of looker; the other is always the looked-at. […] In de Beauvoir’s application of this model to the sexual division, woman connives at being the objectified Other. Women accept their own objectification, being well-pleased with the arrangement.” (Lloyd, 1984: 96, 97)

[35] According to the dominant patriarchal ideology, male characters cannot be ascribed the role of a sexual object, the object of the female gaze. Men must control the filmic events and advance the story. Thus, by controlling the screen play and the female characters, the diegetic male character serves the male audience as an identification figure. Thus, male spectators get a feeling of omnipotence and superiority because of the powerful erotic gaze and the control of the narrative including the female film characters.

[36] Concerning this argument, Haskell takes the example of the buddy movie, in which the two central male figures carry the story without any distraction of a female figure. This has certainly changed with the female buddy movie Thelma & Louise (USA 1991) by Ridley Scott .

[37] These two contradictory cinematic processes of voyeuristic sadism and fetishistic scopophilia are evidence of the ambiguities in the concept of the male gaze.

[38] In her essay “The Myth of Pandora”, Mulvey attempts to give her argument in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” more complexity by analysing the myths and images of women again. She claims that patriarchal myths about women have materialised into a polarisation between a seductive/visible surface (masquerade) and a dangerous/secret essence (see Pietropaolo, 1995: 3). Furthermore, she analyses the three motifs crucial to Pandoras’s iconography: femininity as enigma; female curiosity as transgressive and the figuration of the female body as visible/invisible or outside/inside; these three elements might form the concept of feminine seductiveness (eroticised image of women) and the mask of femininity. She claims that Hollywood has built its appeal and fascination by emphasising the erotic allure of the female actress, who is stylised to the point of artificiality (the artificial presentations of femininity as exaggerated masquerade). Finally, she tries to contest the distorted female image in the myth of Pandora, as “(t)he myth of Pandora and the box are similarly imbricated with the structure of fetishism” (ibid: 18), and claims a female right of self-representation.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Paperback)
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Universität Basel – Philosophisch Historische Fakultät
2006 (März)
feminism patriarchal ideology film analysis theory mainstream

Titel: The dominance of the male gaze in Hollywood Films