Analysis Project # 2 – Formal Analysis – The Lady Eve

Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze states that males are the bearers of the gaze in classical cinema. Mulvey’s argument is that men are the voyeurs and women are not allowed to stare back. It is as if the women are being controlled. The men are predators and the women are they prey. The audience is not allowed to empathize with the female character. It also states that the way the camera is positioned does not allow for women to control what we see. The woman is totally objectified and she is on display for us to see. The audience then takes the perspective of the male. Although this argument remains true in many examples of classical cinema during Code Hollywood, there are some examples that contest this claim The male gaze is all too common in mainstream cinema. There are countless films where a woman walks into a room and a man or group of men gaze at this woman. She is the subject of their admiration, and most of time it is based purely off of looks alone.

One example of the gaze is in the film The Lady Eve (1941). This film is a clear commentary on gender politics. Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a con artist who, along with her father Colonel (Chalres Coburn), take advantage of the naïve and docile snake lover Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). In this film, it is clear that Charles is being taken advantage of by Jean.  Charles is the puppet and Jean is the puppeteer, pulling the strings and showing she holds authority.

The very first time we encounter this in the film is in the scene where Jean picks Charles apart when looking at him through her compact mirror. Jean, the female, is the voyeur. We see everything from the eyes of the female protagonist. Charles is kind of inferior and Jean is the bearer of the gaze. She enlightens the audience as to what is happening behind her, as women sitting around Charles each attempt to capture his attention because they are all so smitten with him. Jean is in control here and Charles is inferior because he has no dominating power over what we see. This scene is narrated via the female gaze. Jean objectifies Charles; However, the objectification that occurs is an objectification of his character, not one of his looks or physical appearance.

Even Jean’s monologue in this scene serves as sort of an inner monologue of Charles’ thoughts. She says “Now who else is after me?” “These women don’t give you a woman’s peace, do they?” while still looking at Charles through her compact mirror. She is able to anticipate Charles’ every move, every thought, and yet Charles is not able to speak for himself or defend himself from her remarks. Jean bears the gaze and her thoughts are the only ones that matter in this scene. As with the male gaze, in the female gaze, the audience is not allowed to empathize with the male. In this scene especially, it seems as though Charles is just something to look at.

This film has a heavily influenced theme of female indentify and trying to break the gender constructions made by society. Society’s patriarchal influence is contested by Jean’s character. She breaks the mold of a submissive female lead. We are not watching her to admire her; rather, Jean is the voyeur in control in this film. She is able to watch and toy with Charles without him even realizing it. She even goes by a new identity (“the lady Eve”) later on in the film after Charles breaks up with her in order to get back at him. And Charles is, of course, oblivious to this. Since this film is a screwball comedy, it is at most times comedic. The comedy in the film is reliant on how Jean is able to use and abuse her authority over Charles’ every move.

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7 Responses to “Analysis Project # 2 – Formal Analysis – The Lady Eve”

  1.    jusmel112 Says:

    This was a great choice for your analysis, I originally was going to do this scene also. This is a great example of the gener roles being switched as far as the gaze, the woman has control of the viewers eyes. I liked the element of the mirror in order for her to watch his every move. I like how you mentioned that the female gaze here was more about his character and not based on his physical appearance. Other woman seemed to be concerned of his appearance but not Jean, she gives us insight on who he is.

  2.    Amy Herzog Says:

    Excellent analysis, Tania!! You make some incredibly perceptive comments. I must agree with the commenter above that one of your best observations is that the objectification of Charles is quite different from the stereotypical portrayal of women in film. Charles is Jean’s puppet, but he’s not the object of OUR desire in the same way female stars often are. Really interesting problem to think about– thanks for presenting such a thoughtful critique.

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    MEDST144 – History of Cinema II » Blog Archive » Analysis Project # 2 – Formal Analysis – The Lady Eve

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