Cover of "The Purple Rose of Cairo"The look” or “the gaze”, a technical term that is now more broadly used by film and media theorists to describe the ways viewers look at images of people in any visual medium or to the gaze of those depicted in visual texts, was originally coined by Laura Mulvey in her ground-breaking article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema published in Screen in 1975. Drawing on this article as well as the writings of other critics such as Jackie Stacey and Mary Ann Doane, this essay sets out to explore the complex interaction of looks in film, account for the spectatorial pleasure derived from ways of looking and thus describe how spectatorship works with detailed reference to Rear Window (Hitchcock 1954) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen 1985).

Analysing the complex interaction of looks in film, Chandler (1998) proposes a taxonomy of the key forms of gaze based on who is doing the looking: 1) the spectator’s gaze; 2) the intra-diegetic gaze: the look of one character at another, technically achieved by using a subjective “point-of-view” shot; 3) the extra-diegetic gaze at the viewer: the “out of frame” gaze of a person depicted in the filmic text, as if looking at the viewer; 4) the look of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, which also substitutes for the gaze of the film-maker or photographer; 5) the averted gaze – a depicted person’s avoidance of the gaze of another that usually involves looking up, looking down or looking away (Dyer 1982: 265-76); 6) the gaze of an audience within the filmic text: shots of an audience watching those performing in the “text within the text”.

All these different types of looks are present in Rear Window, the film functioning as a metaphor for the cinematic apparatus and spectatorship: not only is Jeff watching his neighbors in the apartment block opposite, he is himself surprised by Stella who sees him watching them, which triggers her witty remark: “The penalty for Peeping Toms in the state of New York is six months in the workhouse”. By inviting us to identify with Jefferies through the subjective use of point-of-view shots and most crucially at the point when Mr Thorwald returns his gaze by looking straight into the camera (at Jefferies and implicitly at us), this is Hitchcock’s humorous comment on the primordial status of the spectator as voyeur. It thus ensues that one important characteristic of the gaze is that the object of the gaze is not aware of being looked at or of the presence of a spectator, giving the viewer’s gaze a voyeuristic dimension. This concept is comically played with in The Purple Rose of Cairo, another film about spectatorship, in which one male character in the “film within the film” becomes aware of the enthralled gaze of one of the female spectators in the cinema and steps out of the screen into the “real world” to pursue a relationship with her.

Thus, on a first level, spectatorship is based on the pleasure derived from looking, the eyes being “modes of access for libido to explore the world (Wright 1991: 117), not only organs of perception but also of pleasure. This type of pleasure was first analyzed by Freud who described four types of scopophilia: fetishism, when an object is needed for the satisfaction of desire; narcissism, when the object of the gaze is one’s own body; voyeurism, the desire to look at a body outside the subject, and exhibitionism, pleasure in being looked at (Freud 1961 & 1973; Thurschwell 2000). But as Schroeder notes, “to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze” (1998: 208). This accounts for Jefferies’ averted gaze when he himself becomes its object, the moment of utmost suspense in the film when the roles are reversed resulting in Jefferies’ sheer terror and potential punishment by death at the hands of the Mr Thorwald who returns his look . This also calls attention to the fact that the position of the male as object of the gaze is uncomfortable (or as ideology would have us believe, “unnatural”), almost an impossibility. Jefferies’ attempt at “blinding” Mr Thorwald with flashbulbs suggests that the male must defend himself against it or die, making the possession of the gaze a matter of life or death for the male character.

This observation is perfectly in keeping with Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytically-inspired analysis of the structures of looking in Hollywood narrative film. According to her, spectatorship is based on a division or “split” between active looking, a position occupied by men, and the passivity of being looked at, a role assigned to women (Mulvey 1975:6-18). This binary opposition betrays the ideological workings of the male unconscious and the social and psychological roles that patriarchy ascribes to men and women. Thus, caught in a politics of looking heavily informed by sexual difference, women are merely objects of the male’s “curious and controlling male gaze” and connote “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Drawing on Freud’s ideas of scopophilic pleasure and ego libido, Mulvey argues that the ideal spectator is always positioned as male and his visual pleasure is derived both from the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also from the narcissistic process of identification with the male hero as “ideal ego”. Thus, the spectator projects his look onto that of his like so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events and moves the narrative forward coincides with the look of the spectator who also comes to indirectly possess the woman as object, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence. Hollywood films seem to present men as active, controlling subjects and treat women as passive objects of desire, refusing to allow them to be desiring subjects in their own right. The temptation of identifying with the male hero is explained by referring to Lacan’s mirror phase that describes the moment when the child sees his reflection in the mirror for the first time and perceives this image to be more perfect and in control compared to what he experiences in his own body, giving rise to the birth of the ego (Lacan 1979). Cinema can thus be seen as a machine for the production of ego ideals through the star system. However, the ego is illusory in its mastery. As argued by Barthes (1972) and Foucault (1977), in the post-Cartesian era the ego can only be construed as fragmented, lacking the unity, integrity and sense of identity it is craving for.

Apart from inviting objectification of and identification with the objects on the screen, Mulvey argues that Hollywood film employs two other devices in order to counteract the unpleasure and anxiety that woman connotes due to her lack of penis and the castration threat associated with it : 1) a voyeuristic/sadistic scenario based on the re-enactment of the original trauma by investigating the woman, demystifying her and leading either to her devaluation and punishment by the male hero, or in her salvation (these narrative structures are easily discernable in Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie); or 2) complete disavowal of castration by substitution of a fetish that stands in for the penis, the implication being that sexual excitement is impossible with a creature who lacks the penis, or something that represents it: tight clothing, high heels, bracelets, belts, long hair (Kaplan 1983: 14) or close-ups of body parts such as legs, breasts. In Rear Window the castration threat is suggested by the menacing projection of Lisa’s shadow that nearly engulfs Jefferies when she first appears on screen. Through fetishization, Lisa’s formal beauty becomes satisfying in itself and serves to neutralize the threat. Consequently, in Mulvey’s  model of the masculinized spectator, the woman functions only as an object that structures the masculine look into active (voyeuristic) and passive (fetishistic).

Cover of "Rear Window (Universal Legacy S...

In relation to Rear Window, Mulvey asserts that Jefferies does the active looking, a position reinforced by his work as photo-journalist, whereas Lisa connotes exhibitionism, “to-be-looked-at-ness”, a role also supported by her interest in fashion and style. Thus the spectator would derive pleasure from identifying with Jefferies as ego ideal and from looking at/indirectly possessing Lisa as object, an argument that supports Mulvey’s theory of the sexual politics of looking. However, Lisa is far from being the passive female character whose “visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey 1975: 19), Hitchcock’s characterization being much more nuanced. Firstly, Lisa makes her intention/desire to marry Jefferies clear from the beginning. Although this desire itself is problematic and reinforces a stereotypical view of woman who can only find fulfillment and meaning in relationships and marriage, it nonetheless makes her into an active, desiring subject. Secondly, she is in possession of her own gaze, as revealed by her comment towards Jefferies: “Look at you…If only you could see yourself”. Further in the film Lisa comes to occupy the “spectator” position alongside Jefferies, a position already acknowledged as “male”.  Thus, she is actively looking and proves herself capable of significant insights, producing the very arguments that point to the murder. Thirdly, she takes total control of the diegesis by her decision to intrude into Mr Thorwald’s apartment in search of proof, an action that frightens Jefferies and reveals his lack of power and control. This is also connoted by his dependence on others and his lack of mobility and autonomy, which implies a certain measure of feminization, Jefferies being frequently described as castrated, as lacking the symbolic autonomy of the phallicized subject (Rubin 1975: 189-90). This reversal of gender roles would seem to contradict Mulvey’s theory of the male/active, female/passive dichotomy of looking in Hollywood narrative film. However, it should be noted that, ironically, it is exactly Lisa’s transformation from spectator to spectacle (the moment she steps on to the other side of the screen into Thorwald’s apartment, becoming the object of the combined gaze of the spectator and the male protagonist) that helps reignite Jefferies’ erotic interest in her. This paradox suggests that the film is much more complex and multi-layered and thus refuses to fit any binary models of gender roles or spectatorial relationships.

One critique that was frequently lodged against Mulvey is that she focuses only on the experience of the male spectator leaving aside the issue of female desire, identification and spectatorship. If the filmic gaze belongs exclusively to the male, to the patriarchy, the female spectator is left with little agency. Bellour for instance sees women as complete victims of patriarchy arguing that the desire of the female character is generally punished and controlled by assimilation to the desire of the male character. Thus, by identifying with the female character the spectator’s desire betrays a masochistic component (Bellour 1979: 97).

Kaja Silverman also criticizes Mulvey’s rigidly gendered approach to cinematic pleasure for being taken as axiomatic by feminists and film theorists (1984: 131-132). As shown in the analysis of Rear Window, Mulvey’s assumptions do not always apply to filmic texts and the critic herself later reviewed her arguments and concluded that the heroine of traditional cinema is unable to achieve a stable sexual identity leading to an oscillation between masculine and feminine positions, but that the “fantasies of action” can only be maintained through adopting a masculine point of view (1981:30).

Drawing on Mulvey’s argument, Mary Anne Doane concedes that the tendency of dominant cinema is to equate sexual difference with a subject/object dichotomy and to match the male subjectivity with the agency of the look. She also makes it clear that spectator and spectatorship should be understood in psycho-analytic terms as “psychical subject”, as “an effect of discourse and signifying structures” and not as social subject or actual person (1987:9). Thus, if the male spectator is easily conceptualized as either voyeur or fetishist, Doane argues that the social and psychological construction of female spectatorship encounters difficulties due to the fact that in classical Hollywood cinema, woman is deprived of a gaze, of subjectivity (1987: 6). To Mulvey’s passive/active dichotomy, Doane adds that of proximity/distance to the image based on the metaphor of woman as “hieroglyph”, riddle, enigma, undecipherable “other”: similarly to hieroglyphic languages which are iconic systems of representation, women cannot disengage from the “real”, from the “concrete”. This opposition also locates the possibility of spectatorship within the problematic of sexual difference.  Whereas the male displaces the first object of desire (the mother), the  woman must become it. For the female spectator there is an over-presence of the image, she is the image: above everything, “women are body” (Cixous 1980:257). This lack of distance prevents woman from assuming a position similar to man’s in relation to signifying systems and Doane concludes that there are only two possibilities left for female scopophilia: either narcissism – which presupposes the confusion between subject and object – or a sort of masculinisation in which woman identifies with man: “woman’s relation to desire is difficult if not impossible. Paradoxically, her only access is to the desire to desire” (1988:9).

Consequently, even when woman is the subject of the gaze as in The Purple Rose of Cairo, there is a quality of excess and naïveté surrounding her. Cecilia represents the longing, over-involved female spectator who “gives in” to the fascination of cinema, whose pleasure in viewing is more intense, leading to passivity and over-identification, as connoted by Cecilia’s glowing face of spectatorial ecstasy. Allen’s ironic comment on the woman’s hyperbolically intimate relation with the screen is suggested in the inciting event: drawn by her fascination and defying the laws of reality,  the male romantic lead leaves the screen and joins her in the real world, falling in love with her and thus fulfilling her spectatorial desire.

In the Purple Rose of Cairo the oscillation between masculine and feminine spectatorial positions that Mulvey and Doane point to is clear. At the beginning of the film, there is a dissolve between the image of Rita on the film poster and a shot of Cecilia staring at it which indicates that Cecilia projects herself onto the figure of Rita and thus narcissistically contemplates her own image, her own body as the object of her own gaze, conforming in this way to the notion of female scopophilia. But Cecilia equally identifies with the romantic male lead when she confesses that her eyes are always drawn to him despite him being a minor character. She thus fulfills her “fantasy of action” and adventure through him. Furthermore Cecilia is ambivalently associated with spectacle and narrative, stasis and agency, again suggesting that a clear-cut dichotomy of male/active, female/passive does not apply. The several close-ups of Cecilia watching the same movie five times ascribe her as passive, as spectacle, a visual presence that works against the flow of the action. At the same time she is the perfect spectator, in line with the role that patriarchy assigned woman: “outside the arena of history, politics, production – looking on” (Doane 1988:2). This paradox makes it possible for her to become the subject of the gaze, to become active, and Cecilia clearly advances the story in both films: she makes the decision to leave Monk, her husband in “real life”, and she also contributes to the resumption of the action of the “film within the film” when she joins the fictional characters in their customary visit to the Copacabana.

Shown in a match on action, the transgression of Tom’s leaving the screen, and the ambivalence that this criss-crossing of gazes creates, acquires its meaning from the fact that it is Cecilia as subject of the gaze that summons it. Although problematic, her position is reinforced by the power of a gaze that is able to “resuscitate” him, as the passage from black-and-white to color suggests. However, through this action she also becomes the object of Tom’s gaze of recognition and interest, which serves to remind us that man is usually the bearer of the look, the controlling figure. Nonetheless, in the overall economy of the story, it is the determining female gaze that projects its fantasy onto the male figure, which is styled accordingly: Cecilia is in desperate need of love and attention and Tom can provide both. Moreover, Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom and another of Cecilia’s projections, also falls in love with her. Compelled to choose between the two, she eventually opts for Gil, for the “real world” but as soon as Tom returns to the film within the film, Gil also disappears. Thus the subversive power of feminine desire is frustrated by patriarchy but the fact that the last shot features Celia again as spectator posits her as the most consistent subject of the gaze throughout the film, although nothing is done to resolve the ambiguities related to her gaze (Arizti 1996:395).

In an attempt to pinpoint the specificity of the female spectator, Doane introduces the notions of transvestite and masquerade (1982: 74-87). A term originally coined by Joan Riviere, masquerade signifies wearing “the mask of womanliness” that holds femininity at a distance, that can be worn or removed at will and denies the production of femininity as closeness, as imagistic, as it is usually conceptualized by feminist critics (Montrelay 1978; Kofman 1980; Irigaray 1985). This concept is embodied by Lisa at the beginning of the Rear Window when she appears as the perfect image of beauty, charm and femininity. Jefferies himself remarks that her only flaw consists in being “too perfect”, which indicates that she is deliberately flaunting her femininity, overdoing the gestures, assuming a mask of womanliness in order to hide the possession of masculinity (desire) and avert reprisals if discovered: “To be a woman is to dissimulate a fundamental masculinity, femininity is that dissimulation” (Heath 1986: 49). Lisa removes the mask revealing her “real voice” in the scene in which she argues with Jefferies about relationships and dominates the conversation to such an extent that he cannot articulate his own opinion and has to ask her to shut up. Similarly, when she is invited to occupy the masculine role of spectator, Lisa becomes a transvestite who adopts the sexuality of “the other”: she becomes a detective herself investigating a man and is active in the production of the very argument that points to the murder. She thus partakes in the production of meaning, the arena of patriarchy. The ease of female transvestism indicates a sexual mobility characteristic of femininity which allows women mastery over image and the possibility of attaching gaze to desire. Thus Lisa’s transformation into “spectacle” can be seen as a deliberate gesture of attracting Jefferies attention, in other words only the masquerade of spectacle. This reading is also supported by Allen (1988:3043) who sees Lisa as an active character whose final victory is asserted in the last shot of the film where she is shown in a content pose swapping an adventure book (an object which stands for Jefferies) for Harper’s Bazar, her real interest. Regarding this unusual narrative conclusion for a Hitchcock film, Haskell notes: “Kelly’s blonde imperturbability insured her against mistreatment and against striking an unequal (i.e. masochistic) bargain” (1973: 268).

Due to the nuances and ambiguities that surface upon carefully deconstructing the films, there is a need for a conceptualization of female spectatorship that moves beyond Mulvey’s masculinisation, Bellour’s masochism and Doane’s marginality. One such “Contradictory Model of Spectatorship” was proposed by Stacey who takes subjectivity into account and argues for a viewing process in which “identification and object choice may be shifting, contradictory and precarious” (1987: 48-61). She finds evidence for an active feminine desire in Freud’s theory of the female’s Oedipal journey that posits the mother as the baby girl’s first love object. De Lauretis (1984) also argues that the female spectator does not simply adopt a masculine position but is involved in a “double identification” with both the passive and active subject positions.

Considering that films create meaning through the integrated articulation of all their signifiers, the analysis of Rear Window and The Purple Rose of Cairo went beyond the surface features of image, role, story and character to include the operation of the “specifically cinematic” signifiers: composition of cinematic image, types of shots, editing, camera movement, lighting. It can be thus concluded that the interplay of structures of looking, gender and spectatorship in film is very complex and the binary dichotomy masculine/feminine, active/passive can be seen as limited and insufficient. Mulvey’s  consideration that film is an instrument of the male gaze may apply to some films but cannot be taken as axiomatic. Given that the male is not always the controlling subject or the female always the passive object, the gaze can be adopted by both male and female subjects.


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Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock, Universal, 1954

The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen, Orion Pictures Corporation, 1985

Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock, Universal, 1964

Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, Universal, 1960

Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, Universal, 1958


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