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The Gaze - Feminist Ideas of Laura Mulvey in Relation to Alfred Hitchcock and the Film Rear Window

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

Excerpt from Dissertation by Laura Harold BA Fine Art

Feminist theorists suggest that since it is almost always the females who are being gazed upon by the male, the male in fact exhibits power over the woman. This form of gaze can be the sexual gaze by a man towards a woman, or the gazing of an image of a woman in some text or in the media. "" Laura Mulvey, a very influential feminist, wrote an article called Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, she identifies the action of possessing a gaze as being an intrinsically male (the "male gaze"), and identifies the action of being gazed upon with the female. This harks back to of male/active, female/passive stereotypical role modelling.

She argues that classic Hollywood films inevitably puts the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire, viewers are encouraged to identify with the most important character of the film, who nearly always is a man. Meanwhile, female characters are, according to Mulvey, coded with "to-be-looked-at-ness." She uses Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear window and writes "the satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked." She gazes herself, at Hitchcock's hero, a man facing a woman, he is caught up in his own power and the movie's ultimate sexism.

Daniel Chandler in his article Notes on the Gaze says “Laura Mulvey did not carry out any studies on actual filmgoers, but declared her intention to make ‘political use’ of Freudian psychoanalytic theory (in a version influenced by Jacques Lacan) in a study of cinematic spectatorship. Such psychoanalytically inspired studies of 'spectatorship' focus on how 'subject positions' are constructed by media texts rather than investigating the viewing practices of individuals in specific social contexts. Mulvey notes that Freud had referred to (infantile) scopophilia - the pleasure involved in looking at other people’s bodies as (particularly, erotic) objects. In the darkness of the cinema auditorium it is notable that one may look without being seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience. Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen. She declares that in patriarchal society ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’ (Mulvey 1992, 27). This is reflected in the dominant forms of cinema.

James Stewart starred in Hitchcock's Rear Window

Conventional narrative films in the ‘classical’ Hollywood tradition not only typically focus on a male protagonist in the narrative but also assume a male spectator. ‘As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence’ Traditional films present men as active, controlling subjects and treat women as passive objects of desire for men in both the story and in the audience, and do not allow women to be desiring sexual subjects in their own right.

Such films objectify women in relation to ‘the controlling male gaze’, presenting ‘woman as image’ (or ‘spectacle’) and man as ‘bearer of the look’. Men do the looking; women are there to be looked at. The cinematic codes of popular films ‘are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego’. It was Mulvey who coined the term 'the male gaze'.

Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator: voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt - asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’. Fetishistic looking, in contrast, involves ‘the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. This builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself. The erotic instinct is focused on the look alone’. Fetishistic looking, she suggests, leads to overvaluation of the female image and to the cult of the female movie star.”

Mulvey can be criticised though, one cannot assume that feminine is passive and male aggressive, this is not so, for isn’t this the stereotype which feminists argue against. She also takes no account of the female viewer as the spectator, or of the homosexual viewer of either gender. Does the female viewer do a sort of double identification – identifying with the female passive role and also the male aggressive role through the gaze of the male? Her use of Alfred Hitchcock is an easy vehicle for her argument at first sight, she cherry picks the film rear window, but on examining Hitchcock’s full body of work one sees a different picture emerge. Hitchcock granted is often thought of as a director who felt uncomfortable with, and even hostile to women. There is plenty of evidence to support this view, in his life and in his films, but there is also evidence that he admired strong, independent women, at a time when these characteristics where often considered undesirable.

'Women in peril' were a feature of many Hitchcock films, as they had been in cinema since its early days. Hitchcock's first film, The Pleasure Garden (1926), features a woman who falls victim to a deceitful and violent husband, while the victims of the killer in The Lodger are blonde women. Hitchcock himself favoured blonde actresses, and more than one was obliged to bleach her hair for a role. Several actresses complained that Hitchcock could be brutal on set, and he often seems to enjoy watching his female characters suffer.

Hitchcock's leading ladies

Hitchcock saw female sexual vulnerability as a powerful dramatic device, which he exploited ruthlessly, as the example from Blackmail, in the previous section, illustrates. In Champagne (1927), the heroine - a silly rich girl whose father feigns bankruptcy to teach her a lesson - imagines that an attractive but sinister man, who she meets while waitressing in a nightclub, is sexually assaulting her. Only at the end of the scene does Hitchcock reveal that she is imagining it, and he withholds till the end of the film the information that the man is really in the pay of her father and has no evil intentions.

But like Alice in Blackmail, Hitchcock's women also fight back.

The heroine of Sabotage (1936) murders her terrorist husband, while in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); Jill is an expert markswoman, who uses her skills to shoot down the villain menacing her daughter, while the police look on helplessly. Both Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) feature women whose resourcefulness and determination solve the mystery.

Turning to the film Rear Window itself and having watched the film for myself I was quite surprised, I don’t agree with Laura Mulvey’s view of the film. The main protagonist is male and played by James Stewart, he has been leading a very exciting life as a successful photographer but unfortunately for him on one of his assignments he breaks his leg and has been confined to his flat in a wheelchair while he recuperates. He therefore has been forced by events outside of his control into a passive role. He has a house keeper/nurse and a very beautiful girlfriend who is played by Grace Kelly.

The film begins showing James Stewart in his flat with sweat all over his face the temperature is very hot, from his window he is able to view into all the neighbourhood apartments as they all have their windows wide open because of the heat. He keeps himself entertained by viewing his neighbours lives, what they are doing in the privacy of their homes while unsuspecting that they are being viewed. He feels he knows these people, one lady he calls Miss Lonely Heart another is a ballet dancer, a male neighbour is a music writer, in another flat opposite a middle aged man is looking after his sick wife. All this is presented as a kind of backdrop to the relationship with his girlfriend, and this is where it gets interesting because the two female characters both have aggressive roles while he is basically trapped in his chair.

The action starts with the housekeeper telling him he should marry his girlfriend because she loves him and he will not find a girl like that again, she loves him very much. During these conversations she is controlling his environment tidying up putting things away. Then she gets him to take his shirt off and starts vigorously massaging his back, I’m not sure what this has got to do with a broken leg, but the point is she is controlling him manipulating his body even though she is in fact a servant and subordinate to him. He argues back that his girlfriend would be unsuitable as a wife because she just likes buying clothes and being pretty, if he were to find someone suitable as a wife they would have to be the type of girl willing to go on adventures with him and be able to share the life of a reporting photographer. In other words he would like someone who was active rather than in the traditional passive role of a wife.

The girlfriend now enters the film; she appears as he described with a beautiful new dress on which we are informed cost a fortune. But the film then swings around in this struggle of male/active female/passive roles because she takes control, she bought the dress, she works for a living, she is successful. He does not support her financially but still she wants marriage. While all this is being discussed we are unaware that she has organised a surprise meal, she has had a male waiter standing outside the door of her boyfriend’s flat with ready prepared food and wine. Suddenly, she decides to serve the food, let’s in the waiter, pays him and dismisses him. She tells her boyfriend if they are not to marry then there is no future in their relationship and she must say goodbye then heads for the door. He becomes anxious because he thinks it is the end of the relationship but she relents and says “goodbye until tomorrow”.

Events then swing to viewing neighbour’s again he sees the middle aged man in the flat opposite who has been looking after his sick wife, start to behave oddly. The neighbour is going out with suitcases in the night. James Stewart sees him with knives and a rope. Then the sick women disappears from view, our hero discusses this with the two females who at first dismiss what he says, but gradually start to believe him. All three of them become involved in the viewing (the gaze) now. When they see a large trunk being wrapped with rope and two removal men come to collect the trunk, the housekeeper takes action. She states that she is going to go down and get the registration number of the van that took the trunk. She rushes off after them, but fails. Our hero then decides to get an old buddy who is a private detective involved. He looks into things but finds no wrongdoing, he has also failed.

The girlfriend and protagonist become convinced the middle aged man is guilty of murdering his wife, when a small dog is killed. The owner shrieks on her balcony, the neighbour's come out to see what is happening; only the middle-aged man stays in the dark in his flat. Interestingly it is she who shouts at the neighbour's, telling them they don’t care while her husband meekly deals with the body of the dog. He offers the dog to her, she refuses it.

Our hero hatches a plan he says, “We must find out why that dog was killed. What was he digging at in the flowerbeds?” He writes a note to the middle aged man “What have you done with her?” The girlfriend delivers the note, we watch in suspense, as the man reads the note and runs for the door to see who delivered it. She escapes by hiding and returns to the flat. She is excited, asking questions.

He looks at her with a new realisation that she isn’t the passive flower that he thought she was.

The two women take control again; they decide to dig up the flowerbed to what is buried there. In order to get the presumed murderer away from the scene of the crime, our hero rings him and arranges to meet him in a hotel to discuss things; the middle-aged man thinks he is to be blackmailed. He leaves the scene hurrying to the hotel.

The two women head down with a spade while we watch, they find nothing in the flowerbed. His girlfriend then decides by herself to take matters into her own hands and climbs up the fire escape and manoeuvres herself into the flat through an open window.Her boyfriend watches helplessly saying “No! No! No! Don't do that!” but she can’t hear. She starts searching the flat; the murderer then returns to the flat and catches her. We watch them struggle, her boyfriend, helplessly watching, calls the police, they arrive, she is saved.

She has found the dead wife’s wedding ring, which she has on her finger and signals to her boyfriend watching. The murderer sees this and looks out of his window straight at us. We are too are complicit in this voyeurism. Clever Hitchcock.

She is arrested for burglary then the murder heads for our hero. He enters his flat stands there in the dark all you can see are his eyes, his gaze, the boyfriend is a dark silhouette in a wheelchair. The murderer says, “What do you want from me? No reply from the man in the wheel chair. He keeps questioning until he asks for the ring back to the reply of “NO!” He then advances towards our hero presumably to kill him, who in defence uses a flash light bulb to blind him at every few paces. Hitchcock makes a lot of this scene; after all, the film is based on “the gaze”. We are now seeing through the murderers eyes and the weapon is to temporarily blind him. The murderer throws him out of the window. We find out that the murderer in truth has murdered his wife because he confesses.

The film ends with our hero in his wheel chair asleep, contented, completely passive with two broken legs, the camera pans to the girlfriend reading a book called “Beyond the Himalayas”. She puts the book down and picks up a fashion magazine and smiles to herself. She has manipulated the situation after all, she is the hunter, he is the prey and the prize is marriage. Is this a nod to the female viewer? She is the one who has won.

Grace kelly and James Stewart

The film is interesting in that plot commences only through the “looking”, looking at each other, looking through binoculars, telescopic lenses, two females balanced by two males. The women are not passive and take action and manipulate the course of the events themselves. Both women work for a living, they are not kept. All sexual encounters are instigated by the girlfriend in contradiction of Mulvey’s view and in one instance when spying on Miss Lonely Heart we see her overpowered by a male to which she responds by slapping him around the face. This is hardly passive behaviour, desperate as she is for a companion; it still has to be on her terms.

The ethical question of this voyeurism is discussed in the film but to no conclusion and by swinging the camera on us we are shocked to be found participating in this activity too. The male does order the females around a lot, but I think this is in defence to the very strong female characters that basically carry out most of the action and have motivations of their own. If he had no authority at all, the plot could not move forward because he is too dependant on them it keeps a kind of balance.

I watched the whole film wondering when the girlfriend was going to be killed but she wasn’t, I wonder if Laura Mulvey watched the film before quoting it.

Mulvey’s voyeuristic associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt - asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ in this film doesn’t stand up, we as voyeurs have no control over the plot and can only look. Our hero ends up outwitted by his girlfriend and an extra broken leg.

If we examine Mulvey’s statement about Fetishistic looking, ‘the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. This builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself. The erotic instinct is focused on the look alone’. Fetishistic looking, she suggests, leads to overvaluation of the female image and to the cult of the female movie star.” In answer to this I found this quote from An Introduction to Visual Language “Indeed, the most striking aspect of both fetishism and the gaze as systems of analysis is the way in which women are systematically excluded. Both Freud and his disciple Lacan agreed that there was no such thing as female fetishism (Apter 1991: 103), for the entire psychic mechanism revolved around the real penis and the fear of castration.” So here we have the female viewer excluded while both male and female watch films.

The concept of the gaze when we look at our ""visual culture is one that deals with how an ""audience views other people presented whether in Art or film. This concept is examined in the framework of ""feminist theory, where it attempts to deal with how ""men look at ""women, how women look at themselves and other women, and the effects surrounding this. For this reason I have to a limited extent examined these theories and put them to the test as to whether they hold water or not. As far as I have determined they do not hold any truth, Freud and Lacan’s theories dealt only with a male perspective coming from fear of castration this cannot apply to women, as we do not fear castration, we have no penis to lose. They did not consider a female perspective at all, for them it didn’t exist as male chauvinistic as you could get, so how can feminist writers use these theories in the presentation of argument. Apparently Laura Mulvey in defence of her writing said that she wrote the article to provoke discussion.

I conclude, that ironically, the famous homosexual Oscar Wilde in 1889 got it right, when he said “One does not see anything until one sees its beauty.” If you cannot be seen society lowers your importance, your worth, women use cosmetic artifice to be able to enhance their beauty to increase their worth. In so doing do we become magnets for male response, the greater the response, the greater the choice of mate to choose from. Power comes to the female as she becomes desirable; she has power over the male. Beauty becomes an exchange value. Women vie with each other in the pecking order, in dressing up for each other we project our worth, it is both competitive and enjoyable it is a game within a game. But there are rules to this game, one has to show style, not to appear sluttish because this signals your intention that you are only interested in the male gaze. You become a threat to steal men away and you appear to have no interest in your female friends welfare.

But what if you feel you don’t measure up, society rejects you. We pity the non attractive women, so women fear ageing and not having the body beautiful and in their fear they can cause destruction to themselves by comfort eating, over dieting, depression, plastic surgery etc. We measure each other with society’s gaze. That is governed by what is held up by the media as examples of beauty, film stars, pop stars, celebrities, fashion models, glamour models or whom we are told are beautiful. These are the people we should emulate as role models, this is what beauty is.

So the gaze is neither male nor female, the gaze belongs to the media and we strive to reflect that image. In our own way, we use our bodies as a canvas, sculpting with plastic surgery, diet and exercise or paint with cosmetics. We transform our image to become compliant to the “media gaze”.


Oxford English Dictionary

Article: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey

Notes on the Gaze Laura Mulvey on film spectatorship by Daniel Chandler at

Wikipedia the web

Hitchcock’s women at ""

Alfred Hitchcock’s Film Rear Window

An Introduction to Visual Culture by Nicholas Mirzoeff p166

Oscar Wilde quote 1889 from The Trouble with Beauty by Wendy Steiner

Oxford English Dictionary

Article: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Laura Mulvey on film spectatorship

“Jacques Lacan tells of the mirror stage in his essay "The Mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience," which was published in English in Écrits: A Selection, first by Alan Sheridan in 1977, and more recently by Bruce Fink in 2002. The ideas Lacan expresses are seen as both an extension and reinterpretation of Freud's earlier work. He first delivered this essay as a talk at the 16th International Congress of Psychoanalysis in Zurich on HYPERLINK ""July 17, ""1949. In HYPERLINK ""Jacques Lacan's ""psychoanalytic theory, the "mirror stage" (le stade du miroir) is the point in an ""infant's life when it may recognize its " ""self" in a mirror, and thus achieves ""consciousness of itself.

When the child sees itself in the mirror, often propped up by another person or mechanical device and is able to associate the image with itself, it retroactively posits that before this autonomy that it now perceives, its body was in "bits and pieces." The dependency upon another is crucial, for just as a mirror reflects an object according to its incidence, Lacan argues that this consciousness is formed in a "trigonometric" manner, dependent, but not contingent, upon the nature of this "first encounter". At the moment of perceiving bodily autonomy, Jane Gallop says there is jubilation, but it is short lived, before "post-infantile angst” sets in. As soon as the infant can posit that prior to this moment it was in "bits and pieces," it recognizes the very real danger of regressing to this earlier stage. Wikipedia the web

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