Put on your goggles, and what do you see? You’re on a train, and there is a woman sitting across from you. She’s reading a book, but every once in a while her eyes glance up to meet yours. It’s a sign, you think to yourself, she must be into me. You notice that she’s wearing a V-neck dress, and you’re certain she wore that dress because she knew by some wild guess you’d cross paths today. There’s a bit of sweat on her collarbone, evidence of her burning desire for you, no doubt. After an absurdly short amount of time spent with this woman, you’re certain you have to have her, and even though she has expressed no verbal interest, that she wants you too.
Now take your goggles off, and what do you see? You are still on the subway, and there is indeed a woman sitting across from you reading a book. You notice the air in the subway car is thick and humid, which explains the woman’s sweat. It’s Saturday night, and like the other people on the train she’s probably headed out to a dinner or party, which explains the dress. However, you never get to find out where she’s headed, because the woman just sits there minding her own business. And if she does look up at you over her book it’s probably to wonder why you were staring at her.
This is what the world looks like with and without the goggles of the male gaze. The male gaze exists not only in real life, but also on screen with Hollywood’s plethora of empty female characters, too undeveloped to stand on their own, independent from their male counterparts. While “the male gaze” may manifest itself in both fact and fiction, it was film critic Laura Mulvey who coined the term in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey defines the concept in this mic-drop worthy excerpt, stating:
“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as 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 a silent image of a woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
Many actresses’ careers have fallen prey to the male gaze, their talents limited to roles as defined by relationships (e.g. “the girlfriend” “the mom”) or by tropes (“the prude,” “the bitch,” “the sexpot”). But no actress’s career seems to be more fraught by the male gaze than Hollywood’s ultimate blonde bombshell: Marilyn Monroe.
After Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 she left behind a trove of iconic imagery from stills of her performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to the frames of her last-ever photo shoot, which Lindsay Lohan once recreated for New York Magazine. But of all these photos, one of Marilyn’s most popular and reproduced photographs comes from her 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. You probably already know what I’m talking about; the photo depicts Marilyn standing over a subway grate when a gust of wind from a coming train lifts her skirt up. In an effort at modesty, she tries in vain to push her skirt down, but the sexual undertones are already there, written into the photograph. People can glean many things from the seediness that lurks behind the photo’s luscious and even joyous exterior, particularly things having to do with Marilyn’s troubled life and legacy. But what strikes me most about the photo is how perfectly it embodies the male gaze. In a single image a woman’s innocent desire to, as Marilyn’s character says, simply “feel the breeze,” is sexualized and reclaimed by us– the (straight, male) observer. However, in Marilyn’s beaming smile and sideways glance, we, the viewer, might find comfort in our voyeurism, because while we may intruding, at least she doesn’t seem to know we’re there.
It’s fitting that such a photo would come from the set of The Seven Year Itch, considering that it’s the most unapologetically male gaze-y film at least that I’ve seen and potentially of all time. For one, the story is told entirely and obviously from a male perspective. The main character, named Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), is a man spending the summer working at home while his wife and kids are away on vacation. In a kind of diegetic narration, Sherman thinks aloud to himself in long monologues much of which concentrate his attempts to resist the “exclusively male” urge to stray from his spouse after a sustained period of commitment (a.k.a The Seven Year Itch). And who do you think would be his main source of temptation this fateful summer? Do I even need to ask?
The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) is a character as profound and mature as her name suggests. She is brought into Sherman’s world by coincidence as his new neighbor, living in the apartment above him for the summer. The few dimensions the character has showcase the classic Marilyn Monroe persona we know and love. The Girl is bubbly and attractive with a wide-(blue)eyed innocence that shadows her every action and word of dialogue. In the film, this innocence both excuses and explains why Marilyn’s character is so woefully oblivious to Sherman’s attraction to her and the potential suggestiveness her actions. For example, she once tells Sherman about a time she got her toe caught while she was taking a bath and had to call a plumber. In the story she attributes the plumber’s rush to help her as an act of “kindness,” rather than a desire to see her naked in the bath. While we never meet the plumber, the implication is that The Girl is wrong. The plumber wasn’t kind; he was horny. This little anecdote furthers the film’s thesis about gender roles, emphasizing men as lustful creatures and women as the object of their fantasies.
The funny thing about The Seven Year Itch is that it’s actually quite progressive. It exposes cracks in the ideal 50s nuclear family by questioning its capacity for longevity. And were the story told from a different perspective, its progressivism might have extended to its female characters where there is a shadowy potential for empowerment. For instance, I like the idea of a woman confident enough to not care what men think of her and express herself, sexuality and all. Yet if this hypothetical character were to exist I would at least like her to know how she’s viewed by the men in her narrative, even if their opinions don’t matter to her. None of this happens in The Seven Year Itch, and as a result The Girl’s blindness makes her unaware of her own role in the plot. She is reduced to a sex symbol and not even allowed to reap the slice of autonomy she’d gain from wielding the power of her sexuality knowingly.
It’s hard for me to imagine a more narratively disenfranchised character than The Girl. And this new cultural low has even caused me to reconsider my opinions of other female tropes in movies like The Vixen and The Siren. In the past I’ve been skeptical when women who use their sexuality as a weapon/tool, have been called strong and powerful. Most recently, I was watching an X-Men First Class movie when Rose Byrne’s character, some kind of detective/government agent, strips down into her underwear to invade a strip club to gather intelligence. I felt like the film was supposed to show Byrne’s character as resourceful and that her powerful sexuality offered her the privilege of infiltrating a space her male partner could not. It was a nice thought, but in the end I didn’t buy it.
In fact, the scene seemed to confirm my cynical beliefs that The Empowered Seductress trope is just a ploy to a) get away with showing sexualized female bodies on screen and b) try and make women feel comfortable within a patriarchal visual culture. Watching The Seven Year Itch, however, did make me feel a tad grateful that Rose Byrne’s character was at least aware of her own objectification, and that on the spectrum of empowerment these sexually awakened characters are a step in the right direction, although by no means an end goal.
I wonder if Marilyn’s ignorance about her allure is what makes the difference between having her character called The Girl vs. The Woman. Yet in the cinematic world, recognizing sexual power seems to be a matter of not only maturity but also morality. If The Girl knew the full effect of her physicality on men, I’d wager that her character wouldn’t be so bright and perky. The writers would probably have given her a darker edge, making her mean and conniving, the downside of The Vixen, Siren, and Femme Fatale tropes. These tropes and the character of The Girl by omission, prove that to some a woman aware of the power of her sexuality is a dangerous creature. Accidental sexiness, it seems, is the loophole, allowing male viewers to have both innocence and kink. Stirred together, these ingredients make a character like The Girl, someone so good she doesn’t know she’s bad.
By Sophie Hayssen
Sophie is a 19 year old from Brooklyn, NY. Outside of school, she spends most of her time wandering aimlessly through bookstores and wasting away her youth watching Netflix. Her favorite movies range from documentaries like Crossfire Hurricane and Paris is Burning to narrative films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Truman Show. To read more of her musings, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter@filossofee.
Categories: Feminist Criticism