The Gendered Gaze

This essay deals with the field of gender and spectatorship in Pretty Woman (1990) directed by Gary Marshall and will explore the ways in which the gaze is gendered with references to scenes such as a shopping spree.

This film is directed towards women and has a hypothetical story about love and relationships.

Generally, films have often been considered as portraying specified roles for men and women and forming the existence of a male gaze. Though, it is just as vital to consider where the female gaze exists. Psychoanalytic film theory consists of the happy endings of mainstream films, cinema supporting our ideal ego (the person we want to be) and argues that cinema supports the process of illusion.

Similarly, Laura Mulvey perceives Hollywood as a great construct, which confirms to the importance and formation of the male psyche as she states, “A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude.”(Mulvey, 1999:838)

This backs up the idea that narrative is determined by the unconscious desires and fears of the patriarchy. Typically, the women are objectified in the Hollywood films as a result of the unconscious desires, established in the patriarchal ideology, delivering a “male gaze”.

In the film-text itself the male appearance is the gaze on women in a position from the camera, the spectator recognise this male gaze, which objectifies the women on the screen. Women’s advances have set inequalities between men and women on the notion.

Women have fought for the right to vote, equal rights in employment, and for a divide of responsibilities in the domestic field. This notion has also been recognisable in cultural studies, such as film production. A concern is brought to us by feminist film criticism of whether we can be discussing a female gaze or not.

This can be performed by imbedding a notion where women have an increase of power to reduce the depression of: not being married, not being able to find a man, not having children and all the additional setbacks which are possibly situated away from the traditional patriarchal society. However, these notions and theories should perhaps simply be understood as the patriarchal ideologies’ method of upholding the usual structure of society.

This film is directed towards women and has a hypothetical story about love and relationships. On the other hand, when we look at it closer, Julia Robert’s character is for the most part, skimpily dressed, and her character is a prostitute, but showing off her body at any opportunity they can is deliberately male gaze. This is attributable to most directors and writers within Hollywood as they are men, so the techniques in which they to make films has been established in mass audiences and is just the ordinary way for people to both make and view a film in this day and age.

Although on some occasions, “it presupposes knowledge that people encountering it do not process.” (Lapsley and Westlake, 2006:8) Understandably, there is an exploration of the men’s’ unconscious desire which exists throughout the film in order to sustain the system as it is and to do this at all amounts, we have to analyse further in order to confirm this. Hollywood movies present the consumers with a male gaze, since the dominating will is the one of patriarchal ideology.

That is why the culture industry is not the art of the consumer but rather the projection of the will of those in control onto their victims. The unconscious pressure of the social structure demands a male gaze, and is a desire of a male gaze. The fear of changes in society is projected onto the women, and by forcing the women to adapt to the norms and rules they become controllable.

Again, when we consider Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward, we have the example of a female character that has her identity represented throughout the film. She begins the film as a “prostitute” but then is presented and represented in numerous different ways as the film progresses and Vivian is referred to as a “lady” which of course holds a strong significance to the title of the film, Pretty Woman.

Needless to say, it is not a real person of any kind as she is a character in a film, who lives within the codes, images and belief system of society and the relationship to other film texts. Similarly, taking into consideration that “Lynch has eliminated realism from his films in a way that deconstructs Hollywood’s images of women and men and thus intersects with some feminist attitudes. (Nochimson, 1997:2) it is apparent that these issues have grown to be increasingly important in contemporary years.

Both men and women have encouraged to question the stories (the assumptions, ideas and attitudes), which govern and determine what the idea of a ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ character is. Correspondingly, media products (films, advertisements, programmes etc.) have all proved the main foundations that make up the perfect male and female.

From the beginning of the film, Roberts’ character is connoted as embracing power over Gere’s; in spite of this, her outfit appears to contradict this, by implying that her power over him is just a result of her sexual appeal. This relates well to Mulvey’s theory about women being consistently presented as erotic objects.

Transcendental style is a universal factor in film, which “eschews all conventional interpretations of reality” (Schrader, 1972:45) This is apparent in Pretty Woman as Vivian is also arguably represented as a threat, with the capability to destruct Edward’s reputation by luring him into behaving uncharacteristically by hiring a prostitute.

Conversely, we see that Vivian’s character can be taken to a further extent than Mulvey and Schrader’s theories of these initial suggestions of gendered stereotypes which results to a gendered gaze. Vivian seems more independent than what we stereotypically expect, with her reluctance to be dominated by a man, and turns out to be almost masculine by means of her escape out of a fire exit, her consistent assertiveness and knowledge of cars that goes beyond Edward’s.

Without a female protagonist that, to an degree, opposes gendered stereotypes, it wouldn’t be possible to suggest that, Pretty Woman does not give importance to either the man’s or the woman’s involvement as spectator, and consequently meets Devereaux’s concept that “observation can be clearly separated from interpretation” alongside “observation is always conditioned by perspective and expectation.” (Devereaux, 1990:337) Everyone sees differently, therefore have different interpretations, so one may not necessarily be considered as a “true observation”.

Yet, in the wider cinematic landscape Pretty Woman perhaps, in no way can be regarded as challenging, as it absolutely complies with the expectations for a generic Hollywood ‘rom-com’. Its success at the box office was huge; it was the fourth high ranked grossing film of 1990 which received two Golden Globes and being nominated for an Oscar.

Additionally, the film’s conventional resolution, where the characters conform to a communal stereotype by settling down and living ‘happily ever after’ together, arguably goes a way in which more or less strengthens the gendered stereotypes which the remainder of the film seems to work so difficult to subvert.

More to the point, by concentrating on the spectators’ awareness on the spectacle of romance and on the ultimate pleasure of love, for the most part reinforces and undermines the patriarchy’s message to women of the genre of romantic comedy promotes a woman’s character to be “beautiful” with the intention of being loved and yearned for by a man, and that the accomplishment of this representstheir utmost contentment in life.

Freedman suggests that, “If the eye is that which sees, the gaze is that which elides the eye and shows us how we are caught up in our own look.” (Freedman, 1991:1) The majority of females today take so much time in their physicality to feel good about themselves and attract men while, many men do the same.

Some do not see the true beauty in others, as we rely so much on media texts like Pretty Woman, that hides the true attractiveness of a prostitute or that a man’s wealth is strong sex appeal for women. Likewise, the overall message of Pretty Woman is: when a woman embodies these qualities, they are saved from the type of misfortune that Vivian encounters. This film proclaims that, you can achieve true love which you long for when you see yourself as naturally beautiful as the protagonist.

Consequently, the title (Pretty) is emphasised by accomplishing the love between a handsome, wealthy man, who falls in love with a prostitute as her inner beauty shines. She reflects a “psychologically rounded character” in order to give truthfulness to human nature. (Hall, 1997:346)

Relative to the shopping binge scene, we see several cuts of Edward expression, detecting Vivian’s naivety. Having paid for her glamourous red dress, he says that “something is missing” where a necklace acts as a sign that no one else can complete her. The hotel workers’ approval, endorses the delight of Edward as Vivian’s look has been refashioned. Evidently, Stacey’s theory that, “…such theories of spectatorship is cinema spectators and the formation of their social identities, which will shape the kinds of readings made of films.” (Stacey, 1994:32) supports this.

Everyone’s social status is determined by his or her employment, appearance and attitudes, which people do not always get correct. Traditionally, through a male gaze, women as “sex objects” were considered as fundamental. The way in which both men and women are represented can only be interpreted differently if we choose to deviate from genre conventions and characterization and accept that everyone should be thought of equally regardless of social categories such as class, gender and race.

Pretty Woman makes a point clear that, “If [a person] love’s [opera], they will always love it. If they don’t they can learn to appreciate it but it will never become part of their soul.”  This dialogue confirms, that loving opera is a test, which no volume of transformation can fail to disclose as it proves if Vivian’s soul is “beautiful” (as opposed to her physical prettiness). This goes to show that “it is on the basis of failure and impossibility that the subject desires” (McGowan, 2007:226) as we desire something that we think will complete us and get rid of this lack – this creates an endless cycle of desire.

The desired object never gives us what we want (to get over our fundamental lack). Before now, Vivian lacked in not having a man love her for who she truly is where Edward knows it isn’t to be easy to get the woman he wants, Vivian.

In conclusion, it is evident that gaze is gendered in numerous ways. With the analysis of Pretty Woman, we see a demonstration of the transformation from rags to riches, falling in love against all the odds, and accomplishing revenge with appearance (alongside key elements of wealth, capitalism and romance).

Many people rely on film texts like this in order to feel accepted in society and it illustrates that if you uncover your true identity, you will be appreciated and loved for who you really are. There is a possibility that both the female and male gaze can overlook the complexity of gender, however, failure to take account of female spectators can only result in stereotypical issues.

We have identified that, Pretty Woman deviates from audience expectations as Richard Gere plays the role of a man who is willing to see test the inner beauty of a prostitute and wants to spend time with her for her company, not the sexual pleasures which may come along with it. In turn, the film does conform to a happy Hollywood ending.

Women may read misogynistic/patriarchal representations of women against the grain. One thing that does remain true is:

“Whether we accept the currently favoured model of gendered gaze or endorse the mutability of the gendered gaze- even the abrogation of the case of gender addresses in certain circumstances, we are confronted by the address of this look at every turn.” (Dixon, 1995:108)

Cinema maintains our figure of the person we want to be by enabling us to relate with idealised images of “perfect” people (powerful men and beautiful women who have the happy ending of mainstream films). Gendered gaze is reflected through the stereotypes which exist in society today through not only through film, but other media texts such as, television programmes, magazines and books.


Devereaux, M. 1990. Oppressive Texts, Resisting Readers and the Gendered Spectator: The New Aesthetics. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48 (4), pp. 337-347. Available at: [Accessed: 10th Mar 2014].

Dixon, W. W. 1995. It looks at you: The Returned Gaze of Cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Freedman, B. 1991. Staging the gaze. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hall, S. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in association with the Open University.

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. 2006. Film theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Leonard, R. 2009. The mystical gaze of the cinema. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing.

Mulvey, L. 1989. Visual and other pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nochimson, M. 1997. The passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press.

McGowan, T. 2007. The real gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stacey, J. 1994. Star Gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship. London: Routledge.


Pretty Woman, 1990 [Film] Directed by Gary Marshall. United States: Buena Vista Pictures

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