Formal Analysis: The Lady Eve’s Feminine Gaze

Recently in class, we discussed the cinematic feminist theory of the “Male Gaze.” This psychoanalytic theory formulated by Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” brings to focus the overwhelming use of the heterosexual male perspective in cinema. In this perspective, women are not seen as admirable counterparts but as objects of desire. She is merely seen as the male protagonist’s sexual conquest, usually the narrative’s sidequest as seen in The Public Enemy, Breathless and countless other films. Although accurate, it would be foolish to assume that all films follow that format. Earlier this semester we watched a film by Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve. Preston Sturges turns Laura Mulvey’s theory on its head and give the spectator audience the female’s perspective or the “Female Gaze” as Mulvey might say.

The 1940’s American screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, follows the entertaining narrative of a headstrong and feisty con artist, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and a naive Ale heir, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) as they fall in and out of love, multiple times, after meeting on a luxury cruise line. From the start, Jean is swift talking and in control, a rare appearance during this time. However, one scene that would best display the ‘female gaze” would have to be the infamous mirror scene.
Only five minutes and ten seconds in to the movie, we a brought into the ambiance of the cruise liner’s dining room. Merry music plays as people dine and order Pike’s family brand Ale. Pike enters the dining room taking a seat by himself  only accompanied by his book. Taking a moment to look up from his book, Pike sees the table of people (mostly female) raising pints of the ale to him. In this medium shot, all the females smile eagerly. The camera returns to Pike, he is not amused nor does he look comfortable. It cuts to another table also mostly female waiting for him to glance over and when he does, they too smile. He awkwardly returns his gaze back to his book then glancing off screen. This exchange of glances continue on, each resulting in a flirtatious gaze of an ogling female. Next, there’s a shot of Jean and her con artist companion sitting at a table. Jean is seen with a small mirror from which she watches Pike’s actions. It is hear we learn that she has been narrating all of which Pike does at his seat. The close-up superimposed mirror image depicts all the other women and their attempts to get Pike to notice him. Jean swiftly narratives with great accuracy. The scene comes to close about 8 minutes in with Jean’s own attempt to get Pike’s attention, by tripping him.
In this scene, there are multiple occurrences of “female gaze”. Foremost, would be Jean’s gaze. She actively watches Pike, whom she desires. Instead of being a timid passive woman, Jean is aggressive and her fast talking commentary shows that she know whats going on. Pike, however, seems to be in a nervous and really unaware of whats going on, just as a woman would have be depicted if there was “male gaze” in the film. The other females in the dining also view Pike with the  “female gaze.” One woman in particular even suggestively  stares at Pike as she smokes her cigarette. This blatant sexual desire for a man was definitely not meant to be shown in film at that time. Women were seen as the image and men were the bearer of the look, as referenced from Mulvey’s essay.
 So in conclusion even though Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” seems to be true in most cases it is not apparent in all films. Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve was one of the first films in that era to challenge this construct. Women can pursue men and have the desire for them. Human sexuality is not as black and white as it was formerly depicted. The Lady Eve’s “female gaze” made sure to bring light to the desires of women and made way for this realistic depiction for films to come.
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  1.   Amy Herzog

    Fantastic example, Denisha, and I really like the way you structure your argument– summarizing Mulvey but then demonstrating your own counter-position. Do make sure to proofread (there are some typos you should be able to catch). This is such an interesting case study for thinking about representations of female desire– it seems like classical Hollywood film can only accommodate the female gaze within the genre of the comedy! Thanks for all your hard work this semester.

  2.   Denisha Bayley

    Thank you Professor Herzog! I really enjoyed your class this semester and I hope to take another class of yours in the near future.

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