Playing with the Gaze in Hitchcock. The Experience of Visual Pleasure in "Rear Window", "Vertigo" and "Psycho"

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

52 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Gaze and Spectatorship in Feminist Film Theory
2.1. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975)
2.2. Beyond Mulvey

3. Playing with the Gaze in the Films
3.1. Rear Window (1954)
3.1.1. L. B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies
3.1.2. Lisa Carol Fremont
3.1.3. Visual Pleasure through Masquerade and Female Empowerment
3.2. Vertigo (1958)
3.2.1. John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson
3.2.2. The Women: Midge and Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton
3.2.3. Autonomy, Nostalgia and Empathy enable Visual Pleasure
3.3. Psycho (1960)
3.3.1. Marion Crane and Lila Crane
3.3.2. The Men: Sam Loomis, Milt Arbogast and others
3.3.3. Norman Bates and Mrs. Bates
3.3.4. Empathy and Masquerade as a Source of Visual Pleasure

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Woman […] stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning (Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure” 15).

Ever since Laura Mulvey published her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975, feminist film theorists have challenged her assertion that films are directed at an exclusively male spectatorship. Despite the fact that Mulvey herself has revised some of her ideas in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)” (1981), theorists are still struggling to understand if and how visual pleasure manifests itself for female viewers.

In classical Hollywood cinema, this visual pleasure is the result of successful audience manipulation. Cinema is often regarded as a ‘narrative machine’ because “the narrative is delivered so effortlessly and efficiently to the audience that it appears to have no source” (Belton, American Cinema 22). As a rule, the film’s artifice is hidden so well that it remains unnoticed by the audience, conveying the impression that the narrative is “spontaneously creating itself in the presence of the spectators […] for their immediate consumption and pleasure” (ibid.). Thus, cinema’s visual manipulation techniques enable viewers to experience visual pleasure as they enter the world on screen and become involved in the lives of their screen surrogates.

Among the many talented directors in the history of film making, Alfred Hitchcock is known for being one of cinema’s most productive auteurs and a pioneer in the field of visual manipulation. Through his way of directing the camera – and with the camera also the gaze of the spectator – his audience not only appreciates the narrative itself but also, and especially, Hitchcock’s technique of storytelling. By means of simultaneously zooming in and tracking out, combined with point-of-view shots and extreme close-ups, the audience assumes the protagonist’s perspective along with a sense of vertigo, guilt and pleasure. Thus, as a director, Hitchcock is like a criminal who makes the audience his accomplice in a crime that is about to unfold in front of their eyes.

Although traditionally, Hitchcock’s film are considered to be directed at a male audience – due to the strong objectification and even mistreatment of female characters – this Bachelor thesis argues that female viewers can also experience visual pleasure, albeit in a different way. The female viewing experience and its relation to visual manipulation techniques are illustrated in three of Hitchcock’s most famous and most influential films: Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho. The Hitchcock films discussed in this paper offer potentially subversive readings: At first glance, they appear to support patriarchal power structures and can therefore be considered as conservative; however, a closer analysis reveals an underlying feminist challenge – in Rear Window and Psycho even an empowerment of women – which threatens to upset the classic split between active/male and passive/female.

On the basis of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and other feminist approaches, this paper discusses how the spectator of classical Hollywood cinema experiences visual pleasure through a process of identification with and separation from the characters on screen. An analysis of the three films and the gender relations in them demonstrates how female spectators experience visual pleasure through a set of different techniques, from masquerade to empathy for their screen surrogate. Finally, the conclusion links feminist film theory to the films discussed and illustrates the possibilities and challenges women face when playing with the gaze.

2. The Gaze and Spectatorship in Feminist Film Theory

Feminist film theory has its origins in Second Wave feminism initiated, amongst others, by Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “The Second Sex” from 1949 (Chaudhuri 4). Beauvoir criticizes that women are defined in relation to men and that men see themselves as subjects, as rational agents, who have the right to exercise power over the ‘other’ – the female, the second sex (Chaudhuri 16). Beauvoir’s critical writings laid the groundwork for crucial discussions of women’s rights and the representation of women in the media. Second Wave feminism disapproved of “the exploitation of women in advertisements and beauty contests” (Chaudhuri 7), which praised an unachievable ideal of femininity at a time when more and more women entered the workforce, juggling both their jobs and family duties.

In the context of this representation and exploitation of women in the media, feminist film theorists have offered various potential readings on the role of women and the female spectator in classical Hollywood cinema. Laura Mulvey is one of the theorists who essentially challenge the way films and their spectators are understood. Her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” has generated countless responses in feminist film theory and beyond, signaling the importance of Mulvey’s ideas.

2.1. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975)

In her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey argues that visual pleasure in cinema is a product of Hollywood’s skilled and efficient manipulation techniques. Through the sharp contrast between the brightness on screen and the darkness in the auditorium, mainstream film conveys an illusion of separation to its audience, thus, “playing on their voyeuristic fantasy” (17).[1] Although the film is overtly presented as a narrative to be looked at, viewers are under the impression that they are looking in on an intimate world and, as a consequence, they momentarily forget who or where they are.

According to Mulvey, cinema contains three sets of different looks that create visual pleasure: The camera’s look at the actors, the audience’s look at the film, and the characters’ looks at each other within the diegesis (26). In mainstream cinema, the first two looks are denied to avoid allowing the camera to interfere with the spectator’s viewing experience (ibid.). A film that successfully conveys the illusion of immediacy offers two kinds of visual pleasure for the spectator, both of which are based on an initial fascination with looking at the human form. One is pleasure in looking, called scopophilia, and it requires a separation from the images on screen. The other is narcissism – the pleasure in being looked at – which relies on the identification of the ego with the characters on screen (16).

Mulvey elucidates that scopophilic pleasure is based on “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (18), in particular a person who is not aware of being watched, since this gives the viewer the illusion of power or control. Mulvey also points out that scopophilia can lead to a fixation, “producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (17). On the other hand, narcissism combines voyeuristic curiosity with recognition of likeness. Here, Mulvey refers to Jacques Lacan, who sees the origins of this fascination with likeness and the human form in the ‘mirror stage’: “[T]he moment when a child recognises its own image in the mirror is crucial for the constitution of the ego” (18). However, this recognition is seen as superior to and more perfect than the ‘real’ self and is thus conceived as an ideal ego (ibid.). The star system in cinema mass-produces these ego ideals and the actors offer a center of “likeness and difference” on screen (ibid.).

Within this star system and the interplay of likeness and difference, there is an aspect of cinematic narrative that is often criticized in feminist film theory, and also mentioned by Laura Mulvey: The dichotomy of looking as “active/male and passive/female” (19). In this respect, women become objects of the scopophilic male gaze, which then projects its voyeuristic fantasy onto the female figure ‘to-be-looked-at’. Mulvey explains that “[i]n their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (ibid.) and they therefore represent ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. Consequently, the woman symbolizes male desire and enables the man to enjoy his fantasies and obsessions through the silent image of woman (15). By actively driving forward the narrative, the man controls the film fantasy and represents the power of the look (20).

Furthermore, the woman embodies the erotic object not only for the characters on screen but also for the male spectators in the auditorium (ibid.). By means of identifying with the main male protagonist, the male spectator can fulfill his fantasies through the gaze of his screen surrogate. The spectator feels a “sense of omnipotence” as he shares the power of the male protagonist to control the woman and the narrative (21). Mulvey points out that in contrast to the female star, the male movie star is not an erotic object to-be-looked-at, but

a more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror. The character in the story can make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator, just as the image in the mirror was more in control of motor co-ordination (ibid.).

Both the male protagonist and the male spectator desire this glamorous woman on screen, but as the narrative evolves, the woman eventually loses her notorious appeal and her sexuality, falls in love with the hero and thus becomes his possession – and by extension the possession of the male spectator (ibid.).

The woman as object ‘to-be-looked-at’ and embodiment of male sexual desire also poses a threat of castration and emasculation for men. They perceive women’s lack of a penis as ‘otherness’ and as a threat to their masculinity. In her theory, Mulvey offers two possible means of escape from this castration anxiety: The male subject can either demystify the woman through devaluation, punishment or rescue of the woman in question, or he can turn her into a fetish object, disavowing her castration and overvaluing her physical beauty (22). The latter option is fetishistic scopophilia, whereby the appearance of the woman becomes satisfying in itself and the woman is seen as reassuring rather than dangerous (ibid.). Mulvey associates the first option, voyeurism, with sadism, saying that “pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness” (ibid.). This strategy is typical for film noir, which presents women as femmes fatales – “spectacular objects of male sexual fantasy who then turn[] on those whose desires initially empower[] them” (Belton, American Cinema 236). Women in film noir are often “both fetishized and devalued” (Belton, American Cinema 235), displayed as willful creatures intent on castrating or otherwise emasculating men and destroying the sacred institution of the family.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films are not technically part of the film noir genre, but Mulvey establishes a relation to the theme of voyeurism: By putting the man on the right side of the law and the woman on the wrong side, the male power to “subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically” (24) is supported by legal right and the demonstration of the woman’s guilt. Hitchcock’s influence on the viewer relies on, as Mulvey asserts, his “skilful use of identification processes and liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist” (ibid.), which lures spectators into sharing the character’s uneasy gaze.

While in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey focuses on visual pleasure and the gaze as it is experienced or exercised by men, in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’” she adds new thoughts to her theory. She admits that female spectators might find themselves “secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world” (Mulvey, “Afterthoughts” 32) through identifying with the hero. Moreover, classical Hollywood cinema offers women a means of rediscovering “that lost aspect of [their] sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis” (Mulvey, “Afterthoughts” 34) and is therefore marked by a sense of nostalgia and repression. On the other hand, there is always the risk that the spell of Hollywood cinema is broken if the female spectator cannot relate to the masculinization of the pleasures presented on screen. Feminist film theorists have ever since elaborated on this possible existence of a fragile female gaze and visual pleasure for the female audience, as can be seen in the number of reactive articles and film theories that to some extent agree with but mostly question Mulvey’s ideas.

2.2. Beyond Mulvey

Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze has triggered many responses in feminist film theory and beyond. Various approaches relate the sense of visual pleasure to identification through resemblance or sexual interest. In other words, heterosexual women will experience visual pleasure via identification with the heroine or by means of attraction to the male hero (Berenstein 250f). These concepts, however, exclude the possibility of cross-gender identification – which Judith Mayne describes as “one of cinema’s primary pleasures” (Berenstein 251) because it expresses a means of escape from the everyday world.

Mary Ann Doane argues that this kind of cross-gender identification is possible for the female spectator. Through identification with the male gaze, she gains power but loses her femininity, thus accepting masculinization; on the other hand, Doane considers same-sex identification masochistic because the female spectator adopts a passive position and endures the active male gaze (“Masquerade” 65). Doane comprehends the split of the gaze into active/male and passive/female as a ‘masquerade’ that enables female viewers to “use the appearance of femininity to seem unthreatening to the male hero by disguising the innate masculine qualities she may possess, including the power of the gaze” (Gates 44). This masquerade is also used by men, allowing them to appear more masculine and mask their inherent feminine qualities (ibid.). It is necessary for the male character to hide any qualities that may be perceived as feminine by the male spectator because the latter would experience the combination of “male and vulnerable” (ibid.) as threatening.

In regard to Hitchcock, this paper argues that not only female spectators but also women on screen conceal their possession of the powerful male gaze via masquerade, which puts them into the advantaged position of both looking and being looked at. However – as can be seen in films such as Vertigo – women who masquerade, like Judy Barton, are often punished (Chaudhuri 41). The punishment of women who are guilty for deceiving or threatening men has also been mentioned by Mulvey as a characteristic of film noir in which femmes fatales are punished as a rule.

Furthermore, Doane contends that women wearing glasses symbolize a different kind of threat to the male spectator. Because their image is marked through a “condensation of motifs concerned with repressed sexuality, knowledge, visibility and vision, intellectuality, and desire” (Doane, “Masquerade” 67), they are undesired and even rejected by men. Once they remove their glasses, they are transformed into embodiments of male desire. Doane explains that the glasses do not “signify a deficiency in seeing but an active looking, or even simply the fact of seeing as opposed to being seen” (ibid.). This explains why men feel threatened by intellectual women with glasses, who represent modern femmes fatales, and why they see them as wholly feminine as soon as they take off their glasses and lose their gaze.

Interestingly, Teresa de Lauretis argues that although female viewers can inhabit both active and passive points of view – both desiring and wanting to be desired, both looking and wishing to be looked at – the latter wish is more natural (Chaudhuri 72). Thus, women will give up their gaze and power in order to feel feminine and wanted. Lauretis explains further that “[w]omen must either consent or be seduced into consenting to femininity” and this “consent may not be gotten easily, but it is finally gotten, and has been for a long time, as much by rape and economic coercion as by the more subtle and lasting effects of ideology, representation, and identification” (Hollinger 19). According to Lauretis, a woman “who fulfills the male conception of feminine perfection” must accept male domination and never admit to her oppression (Hollinger 23). This is a very strong statement, supporting not only Mulvey’s idea of male domination, but also suggesting that women voluntarily submit to male authority, assuming a virtually masochistic position. On the other hand, Gaylyn Studlar points out that, regardless of one’s gender, every spectator in cinema adopts a passive, almost childlike position and subjects him- or herself to the dynamics and techniques of cinematic narrative (Hollinger 20). In this respect, spectatorship itself is regarded as masochistic. This certainly holds true for a film like Psycho, which conveys a strong sense of forbidden voyeurism and guilt.

Hitchcock’s films are often considered to be misogynistic due to the victimization of women by men. As Tania Modleski puts it, “such films are usually thought to appeal largely to males; women, it is claimed, can enjoy such films only by assuming the position of ‘masochists’” (71). She states that

[r]ape and violence, it would appear, effectively silence and subdue not only the woman in [emphasis in original] the films – the one who would threaten patriarchal law and order through the force of her anarchic desires – but also the women watching the films: female spectators and female critics” (ibid.).

Are female spectators then the only victims of masochistic viewing? Can a woman watch a film directed by Hitchcock and feel empowered despite his invitation to “indulge [in] sadistic fantasies” (ibid.) against women?

Modleski argues that women might in fact be powerful in their own way and that it is not uncommon for them to have an active gaze (Manlove 86). Such a female gaze might even be found in a film by Hitchcock, in spite of its strong objectification and devaluation of women. A closer look reveals that in these films, femininity is constructed “as a rebellious position, fueled by anger against the patriarchy” and because of this contradiction in the way women are represented, “the position of the male spectator is loaded with its own contradictions. He is at one and the same time subject and object of the gaze” (Rabinowitz 165f). Thus, Modleski disagrees with critics who see Hitchcock solely as misogynist or only in terms of his achievements as ‘master’ of film.

Modleski adds that female spectators are not only able to identify but also to empathize with their female surrogates on screen; they are therefore at an advantage over the male spectator, who will generally objectify and thus not fully understand the female figure (Belton, Rear Window 64). She gives the example of Rear Window:

Through their own identificatory and empathetic means of spectating, female viewers of the film […] will not masochistically objectify Lisa or themselves but will see that Lisa’s desire to marry Jeff leads her into the clutches of a wife murderer. […] Female spectators of Rear Window must endure the murder of a wife but are also empowered in their recognition that Lisa’s seemingly normal desires for a husband endanger her (ibid.).

Accordingly, the female spectator is in a position to detach herself from the diegesis and critically examine the relationships on screen. One the one hand, she can ask herself if Lisa’s desire for marriage is reasonable in regard to the sacrifices she has to make, on the other hand, the female viewer will desire Jeff herself and empathize with Lisa’s struggle to gain his attention. Clifford Manlove explains that women are often active agents and owners of the gaze in Hitchcock films, since these films are less about “active male heroes using their gazes to control passive, ‘to-be-looked-at’ women”, but rather about “ambivalent, less-than-powerful heroes struggling to resist patriarchy, struggling to wrest control of the gaze from the world around them” (90; 84). Steve Neale points out that “the manner in which Mulvey describes the passive, feminine sense of ‘to-be[-]looked-at-ness’ can also be applied to images of masculinity, both with regard to heterosexual female and gay identifications” (Manlove 86).

In general, masculinity is the embodiment of agency, voyeurism and law, while femininity conveys notions of passivity, to-be-looked-at-ness, fragility and even narcissism. However, Neale asserts that “these clear distinctions belie the acute anxieties and paradoxes” (Nelmes 265) still prevalent in today’s society. Both Doane and Neale agree that the image of ‘man’ is more complex than one might think at first sight, and that certain parts of ‘man’ are hidden in order to maintain the appearance of masculinity.

Although, it is Mulvey’ intention to criticize the objectification of women in film and point out the oppressive mechanisms of patriarchy that regard men as superior to women, feminist film theorists argue more and more that the distinction between active/male and passive/female is no longer applicable. These reactions, however, are evidence that despite – or even because of – her controversially discussed ideas, Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Cinematic Narrative” is an integral part of feminist film criticism and certainly a good starting point for film analysis.


[1] Here and hereafter, in chapter 2.1., single page numbers in parentheses refer to: Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and other pleasures. 2nd ed. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 14-27. Print.

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Playing with the Gaze in Hitchcock. The Experience of Visual Pleasure in "Rear Window", "Vertigo" and "Psycho"
University of Heidelberg
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Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, Male Gaze, Laura Mulvey, Jacques Lacan, Teresa de Lauretis, Visual Pleasure, Femininity, Mary Ann Doane, Gaylyn Studlar, Tania Modleski
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Anett Koch (Author), 2011, Playing with the Gaze in Hitchcock. The Experience of Visual Pleasure in "Rear Window", "Vertigo" and "Psycho", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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