‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837) This statement makes reference to a very specific manner of gendered gaze, in which the male, and in turn the ‘male gaze’, is considered to be active, ‘project[ing] its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837) Mulvey further argues that through a process of identification, primarily a heterosexual form of identification, the ‘male gaze’ ‘controls the film phantasy’ (Mulvey, 1975: 838). This essay, through an analysis of both Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) and The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963), will demonstrate that whilst Mulvey’s claims are certainly valid in aiding our understanding of film, the use of the ‘male gaze’ as an analytic tool is ultimately limiting in creating and developing a greater meaning to film. This essay will introduce and assimilate – through a discussion of identification, spectatorship and representation – a concept of the ‘female gaze’ which, when discussed here, will largely reference a specific form of female desire, be that heterosexual or homosexual. Mulvey’s writings refer to the passive manner that women are reduced to through this active ‘male gaze’; this essay will demonstrate that an active ‘female gaze’ is undeniably present within films, and whilst this ‘female gaze’ may eventually be reduced to passivity in a heterosexual narrative, it is still momentarily present.
These films have been chosen specifically for their clear subversion of this ‘male gaze,’ and in turn their active use of a ‘female gaze’. Certainly a ‘male gaze’ is present within both films, but the films chosen here for analysis demonstrate the need for a rather more multifaceted understanding, largely through the very presence of this ‘female gaze’. Through identifying and understanding this active ‘specifically female desire’ (Modleski, 1988: 2) another level of complexity to the representation of the women featured is presented: ‘The representation of women in film is more complicated than Mulvey’s article allows … some films do allow for the (limited) expression of a specifically female desire’ (Modleski, 1988: 2). In the case of Rebecca and The Birds, it is through the identification of a ‘female gaze’ that an expression of a specifically female desire can be acknowledged, a desire that is not necessarily limited.
‘Is it possible to argue for a female gaze in contemporary movies, where the woman would be objectifying the man to a subject of their desires and pleasures of looking?’ (Jacobson, 1999: Online). This statement, whilst useful in its discussion of a ‘female gaze’, once again denies the possibility of a homosexual desire, failing to acknowledge that a ‘female gaze’ does not and should not merely reference heterosexual desire. This essay will largely focus on the representation of the women featured in both films: although reference will be made to the male protagonists these will predominantly be referred to in a formative manner, largely in regards to how their characterisation and representation in turn create and form our process of identification with the female leads.
Mulvey’s influence is undeniable, yet her theories have certainly faced criticism, leading her to reassess some of her earlier claims in later writings. The criticism she has received largely references the strict adherence to a heterosexual reading of films: Mulvey’s theory does not take into account gay or lesbian readings, or indeed make much reference to a simple form of female identification. This lack of a homosexual reading is especially pertinent in relation to the films that will be discussed here, Rebecca and The Birds, both demonstrating the need for a less gendered, heterosexual reading, in order to generate and thereby understand a film’s meaning. Mulvey’s readings, especially her writing upon Hitchcock, focus upon the scopophilic look, which is linked to the ‘male gaze’, ‘taking other people as objects’ (Mulvey, 1975: 835). In this manner women are thus reduced to performing as a voyeuristic pleasure for the male onlooker: ‘traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium’ (Mulvey, 1975: 838). Whilst such a reading can be useful, it is surely only useful for a heterosexual reading of the film, limiting its understanding. This essay will demonstrate that this scopophilic look can also be linked to a ‘female gaze’, with both men and women providing themselves as an erotic object for ‘the spectator within the auditorium’. (Mulvey, 1975: 838)
Based, like The Birds, on a Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca demonstrates the use of the ‘female gaze’ in reference to a homosexual desire, predominantly through Mrs Danvers and her ecstatic loyalty to the now-deceased titular Rebecca. The new Mrs De Winter does at some level demonstrate a scopophilic gaze, but hers is not explicitly homosexual. Rather, her fascination with Rebecca is largely borne out of jealously and the viewer witnesses her becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the manner in which Mrs Danvers reveres Rebecca. Mrs De Winter’s ‘female gaze’ is eventually superseded by the traditional ‘male gaze’, in which she learns to submit to her husband’s expectations and desires.
In adherence to the Hays Code (also known as The Motion Picture Production Code) that was in operation at the time of production and release, the references to homosexuality – Rebecca’s supposed bisexuality and the surely-sexual love felt for her by Mrs Danvers – whilst present in the original text, are almost entirely excised in Hitchcock’s film. Despite this, there can be little question that Hitchcock’s film implicitly retains suggestions of a non-heterosexual love felt for Rebecca by Mrs Danvers, allowing ‘the film … [to] hint at what feminine desire might be like were it allowed greater scope.’ (Modleski, 1988, 54) Certainly the fanatical depiction of female desire demonstrated here is not altogether ideal, but there is little denying its presence.
A close analysis of a number of key scenes will aid the identification and thus the understanding of this prevalent ‘female gaze’. Perhaps the key – and certainly the most explicitly sexual – scene involves Mrs Danvers showing the new Mrs De Winter Rebecca’s own, untouched, bedroom, which Mrs Danvers refers to as ‘the most beautiful room in the house’ (Hitchcock, 1940). Mrs Danvers, clearly wishing to impart her love of Rebecca to another, has invited Mrs De Winter to visit this room on a number of occasions. Mrs Danvers, as the viewer will learn, has kept the room in pristine condition, creating a manner of monument to her beloved mistress, clearly highlighting her dedication. Immediately the sexual connotations of the scene are apparent, the very setting itself – the bedroom – is almost simplistically sexual. This is where Rebecca was at her most intimate, and where the apparently cherished rituals between Mrs Danvers and her mistress were performed. Mrs Danvers leads Mrs De Winter around the bedroom, detailing the rituals that were performed, actively re-enacting them. The active nature of these re-enactments immediately highlight the active nature of Mrs Danvers’ desire: whilst she may have been the passive participant in the relationship, there is little doubting the active nature that these desires have taken on since her mistress’ death and ‘it becomes clear that Mrs. Danvers is really willing [Mrs De Winter] to substitute her body for the body of Rebecca.’ (Modleski, 1988: 48) As the scene progresses the sexual connotations becomes more apparent, further demonstrating Mrs Danvers’ desire; making reference to Rebecca bathing, the nudity that is implied is immediately conjured for the viewer, further demonstrating and highlighting the sexual manner of Mrs Danvers’ desire – her clearly female desire. Further showing Mrs De Winter around Rebecca’s bedroom, she removes a fur coat from her previous mistress’s wardrobe, rubbing and caressing its cuff against her cheek, she invites Mrs De Winter to ‘feel it’ (Hitchcock, 1940). This particular action is significant: until this point in the film’s narrative, Mrs Danvers, through her treatment of the new Mrs De Winter, has shown to be cold in nature, demonstrating very little tenderness. Now in the presence of Rebecca’s personal things she becomes animated and gentle, becoming tactile with Mrs De Winter. For Mrs Danvers, the imagined presence of her prior mistress and her recollections are enough to introduce a level of hitherto unseen familiarity and intimacy between herself and Mrs De Winter. Further detailing Rebecca’s personal effects, Mrs Danvers informs Mrs De Winter of where she keeps Rebecca’s under-things. As the scene progresses, the nature of conversation and the personal items shown become increasingly intimate. As the scene reaches its climax, Mrs Danvers inserts her hand inside Rebecca’s night things, ostensibly to highlight the delicate nature of the material. There can be little denying the sexual nature of this action as Mrs Danvers’ insertion of her hand effectively acts as a form of penetration; penetrating the item of clothing she demonstrates her desire to somehow penetrate Rebecca herself. Without the acknowledgement of a form of active ‘female desire’ this scene could not be analysed and thus understood in the same way, undermining its importance. By only highlighting a ‘male gaze’ the film and its meaning would certainly be rendered impotent and obtuse.
‘In Rebecca … the sexual woman is never seen, although her presence is strongly evoked throughout the film, and so it is impossible for any man to gain control over her in the usual classical narrative fashion.’ (Modleski, 1988: 52) This statement, important in enabling the viewer to understand how Rebecca evades possession, does not acknowledge Mrs Danvers herself as a sexual being: her sexuality and desire is certainly demonstrated in the bedroom discussed above and its presence should therefore be identified. It is the evocation of Rebecca’s presence that allows Mrs Danvers to elude any form of male possession; instead she is possessed by Rebecca, thus resisting male control and female passivity. Mrs De Winter, in refusing to submit to Rebecca’s possession, allows herself to become possessed by Maxim, leading to her passivity. When she informs Mrs Danvers that she is ‘Mistress of Manderlay now’ (Hitchcock, 1940), she is only mistress in title, not in action – it is only through being possessed by Maxim that she has been able to state as such, and thus she has indicated to us that she is not in possession of herself, she is not in control at all.
Through audience identification, the ‘female gaze’ and a heterosexual audience’s ultimate rejection of it can be seen. Mrs Danvers is almost entirely unsympathetic, her reveries and desire for Rebecca simply, and unduly, present her as mentally unbalanced, obsessive and destructive. In contrast, Mrs De Winter’s treatment at the hands of Mrs Danvers, along with her timid nature, ensures that she is easily empathised and identified with in a rather conventional manner. Her embarrassment and awkwardness is quickly rewarded with the audiences’ pity, most explicitly so during the party scene. In this scene Mrs De Winter has unwittingly been tricked by Mrs Danvers into wearing a costume previously worn by Rebecca, placing herself in direct contrast with the supposedly superior Rebecca. Notably it is during this party scene, in which Mrs Danvers’ desire for Rebecca’s possession reaches its height, that the audience most identifies with Mrs De Winter through her acute embarrassment. In attempting to ‘elicit audience identification … the camera insists on the heroine’s point of view as she descends the stairs looking at the people’ (Modleski, 1988: 49), ensuring that her experience and her embarrassment at her husband’s reaction encourages the viewer’s empathy, distancing the viewer from the ‘female gaze’ and thus female desire. Modleski continues, ‘the interchange [between Mrs De Winter and Maxim] is filmed with progressively tighter close-ups suggesting the claustrophobia experienced by the heroine, who seems unable to escape possession by Rebecca.’ (Modleski, 1988: 49) As the viewer will learn, Mrs De Winter is in fact able to elude Rebecca’s possession; by allowing herself to be viewed through a ‘male gaze’ and entering into a passive mode, Mrs De Winter is instead possessed by Maxim. Whilst Mrs De Winter is clearly attempting to make herself suitable in her husband’s eyes, there can be little doubt that she is also competing with the previous image of Rebecca, attempting to elicit the praise of others and hoping to be as beautiful or as glamorous as others have professed Rebecca to be. Under her husband’s orders Mrs De Winter quickly changes the offending clothing – the clothing which suggested Rebecca’s presence – thus Mrs De Winter is possessed by Maxim, and as such is possessed by the spectator. Mrs Danvers, in her rejection of the ‘male gaze’ and her active female desire, escapes male possession.
Mrs De Winter, in spite of her passivity, actively invites male possession, purchasing new items of clothing in an attempt to become the manner of woman she believes Maxim desires. For Mrs De Winter, it is not her own female desire that is important, but rather Maxim’s desire: she does not think of herself independently, but rather as a product of male desire. ‘Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 842) The manner in which Mrs De Winter should be looked at is informed through both her representation and the manner in which she is treated by others. It is her clearly-apparent ‘otherness’ that does most to inform the spectator as to how they should identify with her. The manner in which Mrs Danvers derides her immature and thus unsophisticated (compared to Rebecca) style of dress, elicits the viewer’s sympathy. Upon her entrance to Manderlay for the first time, it is immediately apparent to the viewer that this is a setting within which Mrs De Winter is neither comfortable nor suited to: her clothes and appearance make this clear, as well as her difficulty in navigating and feeling comfortable in her own home. She is eventually transformed into a figure more befitting to Maxim’s desires, and in turn ‘by means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 840) Through both the elicited sympathy and identification with Maxim, the spectator can too possess Mrs De Winter. Much of Rebecca’s power and her ability to possess others stems from her absence, with the narrative ‘occupied by an intangible figure who cannot quite be contained within it. Rebecca is absent and seemingly all-powerful’ (White, 2004: 221). Capable of possessing others, as seen in the case or Mrs Danvers, she is resistant to possession herself through her very intangibility and absence. Rebecca ‘becomes excessive to heterosexualised narrative when the position from which she is viewed shifts to that of the other woman. Her story no longer makes sense as the complement of male desire’ (White, 2004: 222). Thus if Rebecca’s story does not make sense through a male desire, it is clear that the use of a ‘female gaze’ is needed in order to create sense and meaning to both her character and her story. Similarly Mrs Danvers could not be understood without the use and understanding of a ‘female gaze’ and in turn a female desire, demonstrating the need for such an analytical tool. Through the ‘female gaze’ we can understand that Mrs De Winters desires to be like Rebecca, whereas Mrs Danvers simply desires her.
Melanie Daniels in The Birds, much like the absent Rebecca, finds herself a similar victim of a ‘female gaze’, but here the gaze is not sexual, and when it references desire it simply refers to a heterosexual form of desire. Melanie demonstrates her own form of female desire in her attraction to Mitch, whilst both Lydia and Annie, in desiring to possess Mitch, view Melanie as an outsider. Much like Mrs De Winter, Melanie is a stranger to Bodega Bay, and similarly it is through the way in which she is treated by others that we view and identify Melanie. Melanie, as a stranger to this community, is shrewdly looked upon by the Bay’s inhabitants: arguably we are, at least initially, encouraged to identify with the inhabitants of the Bay in their perception of Melanie, effectively performing the role of the ‘male gaze’.
Like Mrs De Winter, Melanie’s style and manner of dress clearly highlights her differences to others. Her smart, clearly sophisticated manner of dress along with her expensive car, mark her out as an urban dweller. Her confident, self-possessed manner further highlights her role as an ‘outsider’ performing as an apparent ‘intrusive girl’ (Fiennes, 2006). It is this perceived intrusion that causes Melanie to later be accused of causing the violent bird attacks. Unlike Mrs De Winter, whose ‘otherness’ leads to pity, Melanie’s ‘otherness’ is apparently something to be feared, marking her out as something different to this particular inhabitant of the Bay. Interestingly, it this accusation that not only allows the other inhabitants to fully identify with Melanie, but also allows the spectator to fully identify with her: a ‘female gaze’ elicited from the hysterical mother, who desires her children’s safety, propels Melanie into full identification and thus a ‘male gaze’.
Despite their similar perceived ‘otherness’, Melanie is clearly an entirely different incarnation to Mrs De Winter. Whilst Mrs De Winter begins the film unsure of herself, and through an acceptance of a ‘male gaze’ feels in control, Melanie begins the film in control of herself and her own life, losing this control as the film progresses and the ‘male gaze’ begins to take control. Melanie only begins to lose her control once the birds themselves appear, and is then forced to call upon the help of others, particularly Mitch. Whilst male desire is clearly present within the film, it is female desire and the ‘female gaze’ that is most prevalent, through Melanie, Lydia, Annie and indeed even Cathy: this is not necessarily a sexual desire, but rather a desire that is clearly traditionally or typically female in nature. It is Melanie’s desire that creates the subsequent events of the film, seemingly in control of them at first; she chooses to act upon them initially, arriving at Bodega Bay without invitation because, coarsely put, she wishes to ‘fuck Mitch’ (Sophie Fiennes, 2006). Later these desires appear to propel her to a fate not necessarily of her own choosing: she seems inexplicably drawn towards remaining in Bodega Bay, giving into her desires, rather than leaving at the first sign of the bird attacks. Her desires are effectively usurped by Mitch’s desires: as she becomes possessed by the ‘male gaze’, she is unable to retain her own control over them, rapidly changing as she loses her control – this loss of control will be explained through attempting to answer what the birds themselves represent.
Much of the critical discussion surrounding The Birds has focussed upon interpreting what the birds and their seemingly unprovoked attacks represent. Žižek states that the birds represent the ‘mother’s superego’ (Fiennes, 2006), with other critics further elaborating ‘In this view, the bird attacks function primarily as extensions of Lydia’s hysterical fear of losing her son Mitch.’ (Horwitz, 1982: 279). Instead, it can be suggested, in relation to this concept of a ‘female gaze’ and Melanie’s loss over the control of her own desires, that instead the birds represent Melanie’s internal fear of submitting to a male possession, one which, like Mrs De Winter, she is ultimately unable to resist. Each bird attack can easily be traced to the overtly domestic events that precede them, with the culminating bird attack taking place at a moment when Melanie is at her most traditionally domestic: she has seemingly been accepted into Mitch’s family and has begun to take on a motherly role to Cathy. The very first bird attack takes place directly after Melanie has made contact with Mitch, and is soon to engage in a burgeoning relationship with him. Annie’s attack, which results in her demise, arguably stems from her desire to accept an overtly domestic role. Thus the film could said to be punishing female desire, or at least a desire which will lead to their subsequent possession. As Melanie becomes more vulnerable as the film progresses, Mitch begins to enforce his own power more overtly, rapidly taking charge, resulting in her losing control over both her own actions and her own desires.
Seemingly, internally and certainly subconsciously, Melanie is rebelling against this ‘male gaze’ and the male possession it will lead to. ‘In Psycho Marion’s journey takes her, not to marriage as she intended, but to death.’ (Mulvey, 2000: 233): Melanie’s journey operates in much the same way, clearly hoping to embark upon a relationship with Mitch, her pursuit of a relationship results, not in death, but a final brutal attack. Rendered defenceless and childlike, Melanie herself might survive, but her own self-possession and self-control has effectively died, now ‘her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone’ (Mulvey, 1975: 839), rather than remaining within her own control. Up until this final attack the birds have indicated a desire on the part of Melanie to avoid her subjection; she has attempted to remain her own person, but has found it impossible to do so: ‘In a deep sense, then, the final assault against Melanie is an attack on her subjectivity’ (Horwitz, 1982: 285). Melanie, rather than performing as the ‘passive/female’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837), spends, in light of this interpretation of the birds, much of the film actively attempting to fight back against this passive role. Unlike Mrs De Winter, who does little to fight against passivity, indeed inviting it at times, Melanie attempts to avoid it: ‘the most distressing moment in The Birds comes after Melanie has been removed from the attic … she regains consciousness and starts fighting desperately with the Brennar family. It is no overstatement to say that the real threat is internal.’ (Cameron and Jeffrey, 1965: 273) It is clear that Melanie is subconsciously rejecting Mitch and all that he represents – an end to her independence, which would enable her possession. This final attack brings an end to Melanie as she first was, she is now fully possessed by Mitch – this possession, stemming from the concept of the ‘male gaze,’ is not valid unless it is linked to the ‘female gaze’ and female desire. It is through the understanding of female desire here that Melanie’s attack is all the more brutal and shocking –not only is it a physical attack, but a mental attack too. Through this possession Melanie is no longer a threat for Lydia, instead, Melanie’s reduced child-like state simply raises Lydia to being mother of them all, the ultimate matriarch, which has surely been her desire all along.
It is not just Melanie who exhibits a form of ‘female desire’, as mentioned Lydia, Annie and even Cathy all display elements of a strong female desire. For Cathy, her desire is quite simply a wish for a matriarchal figure in the form of Melanie: arguably then, it is not simply male desire that in turn possesses Melanie, but also Cathy’s very female desire. For Lydia, as discussed, her desire is to retain possession of her son and in turn seemingly possess Melanie too, assimilating a male desire into a female desire. Much like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, in which Mrs Danvers adopts what is essentially a ‘male gaze’, in her scopophilic treatment of Rebecca, desiring Rebecca sexually, Lydia adopts a male desire for possession, although certainly not a sexual one. Annie’s desires are less complex: she simply desires Mitch, and her role as a teacher further highlights her desire for a traditionally female role.
Both Annie and Lydia find the presence of Melanie as a threat to the fulfilment of their desire. For Lydia, it is only once Melanie is possessed that she no longer presents a threat to her own desire. It is through these women that the spectator can both view and identify with Melanie, allowing us, much like Mrs De Winter, to empathise with her. We pity her when she comes into contact with the undoubtedly-challenging Lydia. The violent nature of the final bird attack further aids the creation of an identifiable pity: if Lydia, Melanie’s biggest detractor pities Melanie then the viewer certainly shall. Without the understanding of this multifaceted ‘female gaze’, a focus on simply a ‘male gaze’ would undermine the film as a whole, limiting its meaning.
It is only through the adoption and use of this concept of a ‘female gaze’ that a viewer can truly understand the meaning generated from these two films. If the films were to be analysed or examined simply through the formal use of a ‘male gaze’, the end analysis would certainly be lacking. Whilst Mulvey’s theory is indeed useful in regards to a heterosexual relationship, it does not make allowances for others forms of identification or spectatorship, specifically female or homosexual desire. Rebecca can only be understood through a close analysis of Mrs Danvers, a character which clearly does not fit into the concept of a ‘male gaze’, indicating the need for this ‘female gaze’, as without this ‘female gaze’ it would not be possible to understand Mrs Danvers desires and motivations. Similarly The Birds, through an understanding of the complex and multiple concepts of a ‘female gaze’ and in turn the concept of female desire, can be truly understood.
Cameron, I. and Jeffery, R. (1965), ‘The Universal Hitchcock’ in Deutelbaum, M. and Poage, L. (eds.) (1986) A Hitchcock Reader, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 265 – 278
Horwitz, M. (1982), ‘The Birds: A Mother’s Love’ in Deutelbaum, M. and Poage, L. (eds.) (1986) A Hitchcock Reader, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 279-287
Jacobson, E-M. (1999) ‘A Female Gaze?’ http://cid.nada.kth.se/pdf/cid_51.pdf (3 January 2012)
Modleski, T. (1988), The Women Who Knew Too Much, London: Routledge
Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Braudy, L. And Cohen, M. (eds) (1999) Film Theory and Criticism, 5th Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 833- 844
Mulvey, L. (2000), ‘Death Drives’ in Allen, R. And Ishii, Gonzãles, S. (eds.) (2004) Past and Future Hitchcock, London: Routledge, 231 – 242
White, P. (2004) ‘Hitchcock and Hom(m)osexality in Drives’ in Allen, R. And Ishii, Gonzãles, S. (eds.) (2004) Past and Future Hitchcock, London: Routledge, 211 – 227
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006)
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)