Typical representation of men and women in cinema
Female characters are dressed and visualised in a manner to play to the so-called male desire. As a sexual object of desire to the male character, the woman is the spectacle that can heavily influence the actions of the male hero, but not the story or narrative directly. If the female is the passive, ‘to-be-looked-at’ figure, the male is the active figure.
According to the dominant patriarchal principles, a male cannot bear to see the male form sexually objectified. Male characters are then the ones who control the narrative and ‘make things happen’ in a narrative. In doing this, they also bear the burden of the ‘look of the spectator’. As mentioned before, the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, and looks to him as the ideal, more complete ‘mirror image’ form. This also influences the way camera-work, editing and lighting function to represent the man, to complement the identification and ideal representation process in the most powerful way possible.The spectator and the protagonist can view the female as a sexual object at the same time, after which the male protagonist can take action to possess her, and through identification the spectator can possess her too.
Desire in movies
Sexual instincts and the identification process within the symbolic order articulate desire. Desire, however, uses the ‘point of its birth’, or the castration complex as a point of reference to return to. Hence, the ‘look’, although pleasurable, can be threatening in content. The first route entails making the object beautiful and wholly satisfying within itself, but it cannot do much for the narrative itself. The second route, however, can almost be sadistic, as the pleasure and neutralisation of the ‘castration anxiety’ lies in ascertaining guilt, control and either punishing or forgiving of the erotic object of desire, all to restore the dominant, patriarchal social order.
In Sternberg’s work, the woman is fetishised and beautified to an extent that she is no bearer of ‘guilt’, but instead a perfect product, whose body, face, style and overall presentation is supplied directly to the spectator. He produces the ultimate fetish. Examples given are from Morocco, and Dishonoured. In these films, the audience sees the object exclusively, as even the male protagonists cannot see.
Hitchcock too uses fetishism, but interweaves the process of investigation and punishment/forgiveness in the narrative. His male protagonists are often representatives of the symbolic and ideological order, such as a policeman in Vertigo, or a dominant, rich and powerful man in Marnie. Their erotic desires lead them into compromising situations, but by the end of power struggles, confrontations, power is ultimately and sadistically restored by the male protagonists.