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The Subjectivity of the Male Gaze

by Omer Levin Menekse

In her essay ` Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema `, Laura Mulvey talks about the dominant male gaze in mainstream movies. The male characters are active and carry the agency, while the female characters are attractive objects to be gazed at.  

This scene from Basic Instinct is a peculiar example. On one hand, it is a text-book example of the condition described in Mulvey`s article. Police officers, all male, are literally staring down a woman, sitting alone in the opposite end of the room. The camera is with them, the audience is gazing at the beautiful Sharon Stone with all the males. All the males are fully clothed, whereas Sharon Stone is dressed in a skimpy white dress. The audience and the police officers even get to glimpse at Sharon Stone`s most private and feminine part.

However the situation is not so black and white. The male police officers are scared and befuddled, whereas Sharon Stone`s character, Catherine Tramell is in full control. She toys with them and especially the film`s main character Nick Curran, and her weapon is her body, or rather, her ability to control and manipulate the male gaze. This is especially evident in the famous moment when she crosses her legs to reveal she has no underwear.

Once can argue that the tension in this scene comes from what Mulvey talks about in her essay; scopophilia. She talks about the sexual satisfaction that comes from watching, from controlling, an objectified other. In this scene, even in the whole movie, Nick Curran and the audience is trying to objectify and control Catherine Tramell, but she does not yield.

Mulvey also writes how as a film progresses, the generalized sexuality of a female character tends to be focused on the one male protagonist, so the audience can have the vicarious pleasure of possessing her. In Basic Instinct, the whole movie is Nick Curran trying to posses Sharon Stone’s character. In return, she toys with him - and in the last scene, as they are talking about their potential future as a couple, she kills him.

The odd dichotomy here is that Basic Instinct is a sexy, Hollywood, main-stream film, and yet it is both a male fantasy and an odd subversion of gentle clichés. For the lack of a better saying; it manages to have it’s cake, and eat it too.

Basic Instinct - Interrogation scene

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Catherine Tramell subverts the male gaze in this iconic scene.

from Basic Instinct (1992)
Creator: Paul Verhoeven
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media