Male Gaze

“Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference” [1]

 Castration anxiety stems from psychoanalysis studies conducted by Sigmund Freud in late 19th century. Freud described this as a literal, but subconscious fear of castration from a (male) child when encountered with the realisation that the opposite sex (usually his mother) has different, or seemingly castrated genitalia.

 The male subconscious mind has two methods of suppressing this fear or anxiety: fetishism, a fixation or obsession on a particular object (particular body part, for example); and voyeurism and sadism, a fixation or obsession on the actions of a female and a pleasure in the punishment or forgiving of these actions.

 As Netto explains [2], a modern revision of Freud’s theory moves away from a fear of literal castration, rather a fear of separation, or alienation from the opposite gender. In La Jette (Marker 1962) the protagonist fetishisises the image of the woman to suppress his fear and reject his knowledge of their inevitable separation. Netto notes that the image of the woman is made a fetish-object for the audience also, in that we are repeatedly shown it, to reinforce this idea. It becomes a representation of the protagonist’s lust and desire for the woman, and not of the woman herself.

 According to Mulvey, women may be presented on film as objects subjected to both fetishism and voyeurism and sadism. A passive female character may be presented solely in a scopophillic sense for their beauty or “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Or a female who takes an active role will be subject to scrutiny from the gaze of the active male characters and audience.

 “…(investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object.” [1]

 This is demonstrated in Rear Window (Hitchcock 1954). When we are first introduced to Lisa (Grace Kelly) she is presented as a a figure of beauty. Her face is framed in soft focus, she wears extravagant dresses, and largely has no real substance. She is made a fetish-object for the gaze of the audience, but not for her boyfriend Jimmy (James Stewart) who is mostly uninterested and dismissive of her beauty. It is not until Lisa takes an active role in the narrative, in climbing into the neighbour’s apartment and being in danger -being ‘punished’ – that Jimmy is attracted to and interested in her. He takes on a sadistic perceptive to her, as do the audience.

 In scenes from  Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988), and Gilda (Cahrles Vidor, 1946),  each female character is subjected to a fetishistic and sadistic male gaze. The cartoon character of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is portrayed fetishistically to the point of parody with her highly exaggerated features and seductive nature towards the male character Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins). However, she is also subject to a sadistic gaze as she plays the role of the ‘femme-fatale’ and is actively victimised or ‘punished’ within the narrative of the film as she attempts to save her husband. This sadistic gaze comes from the pleasure of seeing an inner conflict, trauma or emotion in the female character. This is also apparent in Gilda when the title character (Rita Hayworth) meets Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) for the first time. Initially Gilda is portrayed as an object of beauty and seduction and special attention is directed to her features (notably her hair and shoulder). When the male characters leave her facial expression and mannerisms change drastically.  We no longer see her as merely a distraction to the male characters but as an active character with context and intent, although she is clearly troubled. As we later find out, Gilda and Johnny are former lovers and are hiding this fact from Gilda’s husband. Although Gilda and Johnny are both ‘acting’ in this scene and deceiving her husband, it is Gilda who we are looking at. If we are watching Johnny then we are watching him looking at Gilda, and it is Gilda who we are left with when the scene ends.

“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.” [3]

 Referring to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, parallels can be made between the male gaze in cinema and the nude oil painting. The subject of a nude is nude, to be seen that way. They are seen fetishistically and only in that way. Being nude acts as a masquerade for their true identity or intentions. It is only when they are naked i.e. unaware that they are being seen, that we see them for who they are. However this, even going back the story of Genesis, brings with it connotations of voyeurism, sadism or shame. 

 Similarly in cinema – at least certainly in the case of femmes-fatales such as Jessica Rabbit, Gilda or Lisa- woman appear ‘naked’ when we see them for their true selves, and their true feelings and intentions. We sadistically gaze upon their vulnerability, pains and emotions. They are ‘nude’ when they are portrayed as representation of themselves and objectified as images or icons that we may gaze upon fetishistically. As Jessica Rabbit aptly summarises, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”.



 [1] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16, no.3 (autumn 1975): 6-18.

 [2] Jeffrey A. Netto, Ph.D., 2000. ‘Psychoanalytic Film Theory’, Film Theory Pages. Available at: <>

 [3] John Berger, 1975. Ways of Seeing. (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books)

 [4] Noah Berlatsky, 2012. ‘The Master and John Malkovich’,  The Hooded Utilitarian. Available at:





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