Female characters as neurotic male projections in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Francois Truffaut's "La Sirène du Mississippi"

Femininity and the male gaze

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1) Introduction

2) Feminist film theory and the male gaze

3) Female representations in film noir

4) Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
4.1 Abstract plot
4.2 The neurotic male
4.3 Female characters as ideal illusions and projections of the male protagonist

5) François Truffaut’s La Sir è ne du Mississippi (1969)
5.1 The neurotic (fe)male
5.2 The female character: a male illusion or a female performance?

6) Conclusion

7) Filmography

8) Bibliography

1) Introduction

Set in the harsh reality of post - war America, the plot of a typical film noir focuses on the portrayal of straight Caucasian male detectives, prone to doing shady business, blurring the line between crime and law. Despite their being corrupted by the immoral society and law system around them, these male detectives nevertheless manage to establish a view of steadfast strength and masculinity.

While film noir directors endowed their male heroes over the years with a more and more differentiated psychology and character construction, this evolution has not changed the image of women who were branded as femme fatales in Hollywood main- stream cinema . The negative image of women in a film genre that is shaped by the male gaze of its directors can be explained by the suggestion, that women stand as a provoca- tion to the dominance of the male hero and have actually more power than men want them to have. Thus, they must be suppressed in the course of the narrative. This means, that the male is ultimately neurotic and tries to conceal something of his own deficient personality by battling the embodiment of that lack, the female character, as well as rob- bing her of her individuality by inscribing her with his very own male illusions.

This paper will try to illustrate the basic concepts of negative femininity and positive masculinity in film noir created by the male gaze. By making use of feminist film theory and especially Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” (1975)[1], Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed film noir Vertigo[2] (1958) will be compared to François Truffaut’s very own version of a film noir, La Sir é ne du Mississippi[3] (1969). The focus of the comparison will lie on the display of misogyny in order to hold up male hegemony and hide male neurosis and dependency.

2) Feminist film theory and the male gaze

Feminist film theory, as a diverse and versatile collective of theories, builds among historical, sociological and political approaches also upon psychoanalysis to lay bare how Hollywood mainstream films create and make use of ideologically engraved gender representations in order to hold up the patriarchal cultural order.[4] Herein, the por- trayal of women is dominated by negative stereotypes that are in turn created and reenforced by the dominant male ideology: mainstream cinema focuses on investing women with ambiguous qualities in order to show how women are inherently unreliable, fickle and basically not to be taken seriously[5]. Contrary to the demeaning perspective on women, the alignment of mainstream Hollywood cinema to the dominant male ideology allows for its male characters to be characterized as strong, versatile and superior to their female counterparts. While male protagonists are represented in terms of their social and cultural impact and achievements, women are hardly ever represented beyond their physical attraction and their erotic power over men.[6]

How can this fact be explained? The focus on women as sex object “express[es] the fantasies and subconscious needs of their (mostly male) creators”[7]. Sexual desire is projected on women to rob them of their individual identities and qualities and make them interchangeable. Laura Mulvey, the British feminist film critic and author of the essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema”, furthermore argues, that fetishizing women and thus making them inferior by reducing them on their bodies makes the male characters appear more potent and dominant. Feminist film critique explains the reasons for the suppression of women in mainstream cinema and especially in film noir with the help of psychoanalysis: the woman stands symbolically for a “threat of castration” (13) to the male. To silence down his anxiety, the male tries to silence down the woman and reduces her to an object of desire. Although she is perceived as a source of enjoyment for the male protagonist and the audience alike, she evokes anxiety in the male part and thus has to be put aside (13f.). One could even go so far as to summarize the sole function of female characters in films as triggers that set off affects in the male protagonist that should be avoided.

Mulvey subsequently points out, that cinema, “as an advanced representation sys- tem, […] poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking” (7). Therefore, cinema is a mirror of the unconscious processes which underlie dominant ideology and it reflects those via the representative of the ideology, the male protagonist. By presenting mostly male heroes, mainstream cinema imposes the male gaze - through whose eyes the narrative is per- ceived - on the spectators, offering them ways to identify with the male gaze only. The male part, with whom the audience identifies, takes over the active part of the looker, while the female constitutes the passive “to-be-looked-at-ness” (11). The visual pleasure that cinema offers to its audience and that is acted out by the male protagonist is twofold: the first one is “scopophilia”(8). Mulvey quotes Sigmund Freud’s definition of this phe- nomenon as “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curios gaze”(8). Scopophilia is acted out by the male protagonist, taking pleasure in gazing at the female other. The mainstream audience, aligned to the dominant male perspective, also adopts on a scopophilic role and takes pleasure in looking at the screen and the pro- cesses on screen as a voyeur who watches the life of the film characters (cf. 9). In this way, the audience projects its own repressed desires, which are in fact those of the male protagonist, on to the female character. One could argue that male characters could also be seen under a scopophilic and fetishizing gaze[8]. But the conventions of mainstream cinema do not negatively eroticize the male star; instead, he is even more powerful, and desirable as he is still dominating the storyline.[9]

The second form of visual pleasure, which Mulvey considers an enhancement of the former, is the narcissistic identification with the images on screen. Mulvey uses Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage to provide the analytical foundation for the narcissistic tendency: the mirror stage is the moment in an infant’s life, in which the physical abilities are not as far developed as imagined by the child and where the reflec- tion seen in the mirror is identified as the more complete and ideal rendering of the own self (9f.). This faulty awareness of the own self is projected on the environment as the “ideal ego” (10), which is afterwards in the course of life looked for in other people to identify with (cf. 10). In cinema, the male desire for completing the misrecognized infan- tile lack from the mirror stage is projected upon women, who have to serve as an insur- ance to male supremacy and power. Accordingly, women in film both serve as a “mirror and a screen of the male lack”[10], actually holding a powerful position in a man’s psycho- logical set - up - but with no identity of their own.

In her essay collection Femme Fatales (1991)[11], Feminist film critic Mary Ann Doane takes Mulvey’s essay on mainstream cinema as a basis, but shifts the focus on female spectatorship. She investigates, how a female film audience handles a cinematic experience that is created by male ideology and tries to make clear, if and how a feminine audience has a chance to identify with the objectified figures shown on screen[12]. The character of the femme fatale, portrayed as an ambivalent character concealing her real intentions[13] - standing as an example for the whole of womanhood - is a central figure in the essay collection. Doane argues that the femme fatale displays a unpredictable “threat”[14] in her sexuality, as film noir conventions shape her as a highly sexualized and obscure object of desire. At the same time, the fetishization of the male gaze makes her in this less significant and a mere accumulation of body parts. Nevertheless, the female spectator is through the various technical and narrative methods of cinema made to iden- tify with the fragmented woman on screen, having to accept that the male is given a “privileged, active gaze that reduce[s] women to passive images”[15]. However, Doane entertains in another essay[16] the hypothesis that femininity as a whole is a “masquer- ade”[17], a performance that women willingly enact to correspond to society’s notions of womanhood. In turn, this performative character of femininity gives female spectators the chance to subvert ideological definitions and challenge patriarchal assumptions con- cerning womanhood, as the show of femininity can be put on and effaced at will, as well as invested with notions of femininity that are not part of the male dominant ideology[18].

3) Representations of femininity in film noir

As mentioned beforehand, the most common role assigned to women in film noir - movies of the 1940s and 1950s is the femme fatale. Portrayed as cunning and devious, the ‘baneful woman’ brings about the moral downfall, corruption or even death - ex- pressed by affix fatale - of the male protagonist. Traditionally, the femme fatale is with- out exception extraordinarily beautiful and sexy, greedy, ruthless and mysterious. Her attractive looks lure the male hero into falling in love with her, but he never manages to find out about her true motives until it is too late. The fatal obsession the male protago- nist develops in the course of the film noir - movies for the femme fatale ultimately leads to his inability to act rationally, thus falling prey to her immoral plans and purposes. The reason for this sexist and misogynistic portrayal of female characters in film noir is sim- ple: they serve “as a projection of male antisocial fantasies”[19]. The male hero mystifies the woman, re-constructs her image as an amoral one and thus manages to direct the blame for his antisocial impulses towards her[20]: she made him do the amoral deed; he cannot be taken responsible for his actions because the witch has cast an evil spell on him.

As discussed above, Mulvey states that female characters in film constitute an in- fantile castration fear of the male protagonists; thus, women are sketched as flat charac- ters, one - dimensional and fetishized in order to appear harmless. This shows that the representation of the female characters is shaped by the dominant male ideology which endeavors to demystify the woman and “devaluat[e], [punish] or sav[e]”[21] her in the course of the narrative. The female devaluation through fragmentation, achieved by fo- cusing the gaze of the camera on certain body parts, is the most rewarding counteract for the male protagonist, securing his sexual supremacy over the physical embodiment of his castration fear. Another form of coming to terms with male castration anxiety is voyeur- ism, which expresses sadistic tendencies: “pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt […], assert- ing control and subjecting the guilty person [i.e. the female character, t.a.] through pun- ishment or forgiveness.”[22]

Mulvey argues that voyeurism is a method especially displayed in film noir [23], in order to re-assure the male detective after falling prey to the feminine other and to reestablish his idealistic view of himself that he is invested with by the dominant ideology and patriarchal discourse.

If this pattern is also applicable to Hitchcock’s Vertigo will be shown in the following analysis.


[1] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. All parenthetical references follow this edition.

[2] Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Kim Novak, Tom Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes. 1958. Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2003. DVD.

[3] La sir è ne du Mississippi (Das Geheimnis der falschen Braut). Dir. François Truffaut. Perf. Jean - Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Bouquet. 1969. MGM, 2004. DVD.

[4] Cf. Wolfreys, Julian. “Feminist Film Studies and Film Theory“. Modern North American Criticism and Theory. A Critical Guide. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. 159ff.

[5] Cf. Robbins, Ruth. “American Feminisms: Images of Women and Gynocriticism. “Modern North Ameri- can Criticism and Theory. A Critical Guide. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. 72.

[6] Cf. Smith, Sharon. “The Image of Women in Film”. Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 14f..

[7] Smith 15.

[8] Cf. Lacey, Nick. Introduction to Film. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 179.

[9] Cf. Mulvey 12.

[10] Smith 56.

[11] Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1991.

[12] Cf. Wolfreys 162.

[13] Cf. Wolfreys 162.

[14] Doane (1991) 1.

[15] Lacey 178.

[16] Doane, Mary Ann. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the female spectator”. Screen 23.3/4 (1982). 74-88.

[17] Doane (1982) 81f.

[18] Doane (1982) 82.

[19] Davidson, David. ‘‘From Virgin to Dynamo: The ‘Amoral Women’ in European Cinema.” Cinema Journal 21.1 (1981): 32.

[20] Davidson 32.

[21] Mulvey 13.

[22] Mulvey 14.

[23] Cf. Mulvey 13.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
493 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Würzburg – Neuphilologisches Institut
female characters neurotic male projections alfred hitchcock vertigo francois truffaut sirène mississippi femininity gaze



Title: Female characters as neurotic male projections in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Francois Truffaut's "La Sirène du Mississippi"