Male Gaze In Cinema: Giving Vertigo To Viewers?

Exploring the detrimental effects of the male gaze in films like Vertigo (1958) against the positive impacts of films like Fargo (1996).

The male gaze has been overly present in cinema since its beginning. Even as the progression of feminism has grown rampantly over the years, the male gaze has remained constant in a majority of films.

The male gaze is, in cinema, a way of viewing and portraying women as sexual objects from a cis, heterosexual man's point of view.

Why are male characters the default?

Most films, historically, have been made entirely by men. When writing a story, it is common to have your main character reflect upon the identity of the author, resulting in an overrepresentation of men as the main characters.

Typically, a female character has to be purposefully included in a narrative, which slows and can even work against a storyline’s development. This works against feminist ideals and slows the progression of equality between genders.

Vertigo (1958): A main culprit of the male gaze

vertigo movie still male gaze 1958
Image Source:  The Seventh Art

Movies like Vertigo are classic examples of conforming to the male gaze in cinema. The main character, Scottie, is portrayed as a level-headed and manipulative man who is presented with issues coming from the women in his life.

On the other hand, his ex-wife is solely portrayed as similar to an obsessive, and sometimes crazy, mother. Meanwhile, his love interest Madeleine is purposed as a beautiful and mysterious, albeit also crazy, the woman whose personality centers solely on her looks.

Although the male gaze is somewhat used to distract the audience from her manipulation of Scottie, it also emphasizes the only way to be able to influence a man is by flaunting her looks. This focus on the appearance of women not only hinders the progression of the plotline but also the deliverance of the message altogether.

The fact that the part of the film with Madeleine as the central love interest takes up a majority of the film, despite the part with Judy being actually responsible for delivering the theme, hinders the continuation of the plot and the theme.

Scottie’s overall obsession with Madeleine and her looks—representative of the male gaze—is essentially the entire plotline with little focus on his previous relationship or even him as a character. 

The objectification of women throughout this film not only negatively impacts the film’s message and character development but also contributes negatively to society.

Although the film was still a major success and was groundbreaking in its film techniques, the film itself introduced a semi-new genre of film but unfortunately started the genre off by objectifying women and establishing a pattern that still lasts in many films today.

What does a movie without the male gaze look like?

fargo movie still snow body
Image Source: Senses of Cinema

In cinema, the male gaze has become a hindrance to the continuation of a plotline and development of the overall theme but films like Fargo, which eliminate the male gaze, still prove equally as successful in the box office and more successful in plot development and thematic impact.

Contrary to the pattern Hitchcock established, films like Fargo forego the male gaze altogether and focus on the power women can have when they are made the main character without it being overwhelmingly feminist.

A problem many films have when they move past the male gaze is to make their female characters seem exceptionally masculine and try to hide the feminine aspects of the character altogether.

One of the central characters in Fargo is Sheriff Marge Gunderson, who is adept at solving crimes in the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota. Although she may be thought to be masculine within her job choice, her behaviors combined with the fact that she is pregnant negate making her either too feminine or masculine.

Within the gender, binary is also a binary within men and women. For females, the binary is between maternal and non-maternal women, with non-maternal women deemed as a sort of false woman.

By becoming the ‘elite’ of womankind by bearing a child and also being the highest-ranked within a male-dominated profession, Marge is balancing the roles of hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine without leaning too strongly toward one or the other.

The male main characters of the film also showcase the overly masculine side of the masculine binary between being an individual and being a follower. There are only two male characters that act as individuals, while the rest would be deemed ‘followers’.

Jerry Lundergaard’s father-in-law, who is the rich man Jerry is trying to get money from by hiring two men to kidnap his wife, would be considered an individual and so would Carl Showalter, the main man he hires to kidnap his wife. Carl ends up shooting Jerry’s father-in-law, but he also eventually gets caught by Sheriff Gunderson.

This goes to show that Marge would be considered the ‘alpha male’ of the film, but she is also considered the ultimate woman by being pregnant. This dichotomy represents strength in the main female character and weakness in the male characters.

Throughout the film, there were only six women who had speaking roles within the film. Although this may seem like an anti-feminist thing for Coen to do, it seemed to only capitalize on the fact that the male gaze was absent throughout.

The majority of the men in this film did not act nearly as level-headed or intelligently as the women did, making the women’s roles seem more important to the continuation of the plot as a whole.

The six women who had speaking roles include Marge, Jean Lundergaard, a TV news reporter, and three who worked in the sex industry. Although those three women worked in a sex-related field, the characters themselves didn’t appear to be sexualized. They are seen in moderate clothing for their profession and none of the female characters appear to be wearing makeup to the point where it is noticeable for the character and not just for the camera.

By representing the women as people essential to the plot without overly focusing on their sexuality, Coen is successfully continuing the movement of the plot and the deliverance of the movie’s message.

This message is taught from the experiences of the male characters, namely Jerry and Carl. They show the consequences of selfishness and how it impacts the people around them.

Most of the people Jerry cares about end up dead, even though he just planned to hire somebody to kidnap his wife so he could collect half of the ransom money from her father. Carl, being the person hired, focused solely on the reward no matter the cost of killing the people who got in his way.

Eliminating the male gaze means more effective storytelling

The theme of Fargo is much more apparent than that of Vertigo, where the male gaze was extremely present and overwhelming to the plot. These two films are examples of how the male gaze hinders a movie’s meaning and mostly serves as a distraction when female characters could actually be useful toward the plot.

By deleting the male gaze from films altogether and instead utilizing female characters similarly to male characters, as productive members of a plotline, filmmakers can be more successful and their films can be more accurate and reflective of society.

When films like Fargo eliminate the male gaze, they will continue to be successful at the box office and even more successful in plot development and thematic impact in comparison to films like Vertigo which rely solely on the male gaze.

What makes a movie feminist?

The male gaze is proven to be detrimental to women's self-esteem, which can have long-term effects. When films finally rid of the male gaze, society can continue the trend and stop hyper-sexualizing women.

Eliminating the male gaze makes a movie inherently more feminist, which broadens the amount of people who will enjoy a movie and make it more socially impactful.

Fargo is not the only example of a truly feminist movie without having a feminist agenda, but it is the most effective at displaying the power an "alpha male" female can have without the character being oversexualized.

When filmmakers start making movies without having an agenda but remain conscientious about the work they are creating for society, we will be one step closer to truly treating women equally to men.

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