The Male Gaze in Classical Hollywood (c. 1929-1964)

by Maddy Forbess

Think back to your favorite classical Hollywood film. Who is the protagonist? Who is portrayed as the hero, guiding the plot along with a sense of agency? Are you picturing a woman? The short answer here is no. Perhaps you are picturing an early James Bond. Or, maybe, an early Hitchcock film with a classic male lead. Bill Murray from Caddy Shack or the rambunctious men in Animal House also strike the right chord. The common thread in these movies is their lack of a strong female voice. This is not to say that women were absent from the movie scene altogether; rather, they were designated to passive roles and portrayed as highly sexualized objects.

In her essay titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” renowned literary theorist Laura Mulvey employs Freudian psychoanalysis to explain how gender dynamics have traditionally functioned in the history of American and Western European film. During the era of classical Hollywood cinema, men held the purse strings in society and, more specifically, in heterosexual relationships. Men initiated romantic relationships, asked the women out on dates, and paid for the movie tickets. Thus, the producers and film companies set the affluent male as their target audience. They artfully constructed their movies to provide visual pleasure to paying viewers. The intention was for a man to feel good after leaving a movie theater, essentially affirming his superior place in society and dissolving any castration anxiety he may have in his real life. Take Rear Window, a 1954 mystery thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, for example. Protagonist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, played by actor James Stewart, never leaves his apartment throughout the entire movie, yet the audience automatically picks up on his active role in the narrative and intended heroic function. Although he is bedridden due to a broken leg, it is evident that he is the lead on account of his sex and, subsequently, due to his desirable socioeconomic status. 

Mulvey applies psychoanalysis to the world of film, delving into the sexism so deeply entrenched in the idea of the “gaze.” The “male gaze” is a well-known phrase, used to describe how aspects of our lives are falsely presumed to be from a male perspective. It is easy to see examples of the “male gaze” in advertisements for male vs. female products, in which the camera, characters, and the viewers are given over completely to a male point-of-view whereas the women assume a “to-be-looked-at-ness” quality. Grace Kelly, the glamorous female socialite in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, exhibits the aforementioned quality throughout the movie. From her entrance into the film to the ending scene, Grace’s character Lisa Carol Fremont affirms her feminine role within the broader scope of the patriarchy. She comes onto the screen as this ethereal angelic figure who both figuratively and literally illuminates her surroundings. She provokes certain emotions in Jeffrey, but is not seen as important in her own right. Lisa is only valued for the effects she has on Jeffrey: not for her own agency. Whether these effects are instilling love, fear, threat of castration anxiety, or even the loss of phallus (power) in her boyfriend, everything always comes back to one person: her boyfriend.

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—Grace Kelly’s award-winning performance in Rear Window, the film is successful in endorsing harmful gender roles. Not only do these harmful roles pervade the film, but they are emblematic of Western culture. The praise Kelly received for her stellar acting and the general consensus that Rear Window is a cinematic masterpiece proves Mulvey’s point that the patriarchy is enveloped in film. The same psychoanalytic tools used to describe a child’s development and anxieties, thereof, can help explain why certain types of films continue to be produced and preferred over those that confront viewers with sensitive subject matter. The Academy Awards honored Kelly with nomination and award for Best Actress, reinforcing the gender stereotypes depicted in Rear Window. The content and production of the final scene also bolster Mulvey’s theory because the “active male and passive female” achieve their culturally dictated roles. Lisa Fremont trades in her glamorous dresses for the more mundane clothing of a housewife, and Jeffrey gives up his bachelor lifestyle and voyeuristic tendencies to assume the traditional husband role. Just as Mulvey’s film theory claims, old Hollywood movies have the unfortunate, sexist convention of affirming society’s gendered roles. The “old” Hollywood perpetuated the patriarchy—a problem today’s writers, producers, and directors must combat in the film community.