How The Male Gaze Shapes Women Characters In Thrillers

As is apparent in society, I believe that women in thrillers are also viewed through the male gaze. Women characters feel unsafe and are often violated for a good part of the film, while their concerns are downplayed and worse.

[ The male gaze theory, is the action of depicting women and the world in the literature and visual art from a masculine and heterosexual perspective that portrays and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer.]

Why do films matter?

The typical response to film insights is that, “Come on, it’s just a film, no need to get so psyched about it.”

But is it? Films do not exist in a vacuum but are a response to popular social culture, to encapsulate it in a way that maximum members of an audience can relate, understand and connect it to concrete real life circumstances.

To ensure maximum success and viewership, movies must encapsulate real life regardless of how gritty or tragic and hence, my observations lie in the role of female characters specifically in one such genre of films, that is of thrillers movies with the belief that not only do movies reflect social ideas, they influence and consolidate them.

As is apparent in society, I believe that women in thrillers are also viewed through the male gaze, being shown to be most susceptible to the effects of the antagonist.

Women characters feel unsafe and are often violated for a good part of the film while their concerns are downplayed and worse, ignored by the male characters until the situation grows in severity in said stories. The male gaze more than often strips women characters of intellectual and emotional agency to build to the fantasy of damsel in distress.

How the male gaze shape women in thrillers

It would be familiar for you to hear female characters sensing something off, experiencing untoward incidents, fearing their safety and while they themselves try to understand what is happening.

Never miss real stories from India's women.

Register Now

Trying to be less of a bother to those around them because certainly she knows that if a woman has to be believed, she must have seven rounds of evidence to convince a man that her problem qualifies as a real problem.

However, when the threat swells too big to be ignored, their feverish cries for help or simply talking about their experiences in fright especially with male characters such as the husband, neighbour or a cop are usually met with a sanguine:

“You’re just tired.” 

“It’s just the new place.” 

My favourite, “It’s all in your head.”

Followed by a quick dismissal and reoccupation with their lives.

Interestingly, the antagonist seems to understand this, haunting the woman only when no one is around, leaving more space for others to doubt her sanity while the men typically clock in after a long work or give things a half-hearted once over and say, “There’s nothing there”.

All the while, the female characters sink into paranoia, gaslighting themselves that nothing is terribly wrong or that they’re in danger.

Thriller moviestoo are influenced by the male gaze and end up using these tropes to doom women in order to alleviate their men.

Among the many films that fetishize such female distress are

When a Stranger Calls (2006), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Insidious (2010), Black Swan (2010), The Conjuring (2013) and Indian counterparts such as Raaz (2002) and 1920 (2008)

Here women have been doubted and ignored by men even when their concerns have been valid. As these men both in the films and in the real life have fed a diet of women being erratic when in distress.

I believe, what the male characters covertly declare by doing this is that this setting is familiar to me if not to you and I feel in control of this situation even if you aren’t, and I will make no necessary changes because this does not affect me as much it does to you even though I claim that it is my responsibility to make you feel safe.

Needless to say, the serial killer, stalker or poltergeist must necessarily reveal themselves to the man in the latter part of the film, only becoming a genuine threat to him when he is physically faced with it.

It is also interesting to see the use of female distress in extreme ways such as rape or murder as a catalyst for another character, usually a man — in Shutter Island (2010), Interstellar (2014), Badlapur (2015) Kaabil (2017) to pursue his storyline.

Now, my demand isn’t that this trope be eradicated as it is realistic, but that it be dealt with effectively. To not simply use such female characters as an object or means to excite the audience from the antagonist’s gaze or power a male character’s story but to enable us to feel her fear and horror which new instalments like The Watcher, and Where the Crawdads Sing, do very affectively.

How  The Watcher (June 2022) handles this trope

The Watcher (2022) is a June released psychological thriller starring Maika Monroe and a fine fresher example. Its synopsis unravels in Bucharest, Romania, a gorgeous greyscale city.

Perhaps it is the reputation of Romanian folklore, of Dracula and the Strigoi that have endured in horror central for ages, but the foreboding doom is palpable in the setup.

Herein begins the story of Julia, an actress who has retired in order to move to Bucharest with her husband, who has got a seemingly hefty promotion. Hefty enough to convince the couple to uproot their lives in America and move to a smaller, quieter city in Southeastern Europe.

Here, she immediately begins to feel out of place. Freshly displaced, unemployed and unable to speak Romanian fluently, contrary to her husband, who is fluent and we can see Julia feels violently out of place.

The discomfort is established when their move is inaugurated by the news coverage of a gritty murder of a woman in the neighbourhood, followed by the apprehension of her serial killer by the police, which is where the seeds of fear for her safety are planted in her head and exacerbated when she finds a man regularly staring at her through the window.

Her safety is threatened simply by the violence of his gaze, not so much the act itself but the implications of it which every woman can conceive in the back of her head.

Because no woman has ever had the fortune to find good reasons for any man constantly staring at her. A physical declaration, a power move, to unsettle with the least of actions.

Whoever she brings it up with, her husband or the cop she called, all they ask is “So he’s just staring?” which to them, is practically a non-issue, letting the perpetrator off easy after conducting half-hearted inquiries.

Throughout the film, instead of encouraging the viewers to be titillating by her misery, we go to the heart of the horror and fear of the unthinkable, a journey through a thought process, a feeling of being ignored and misunderstood that the female protagonist is experiencing.

We feel watched along with her, as well as the isolation that makes her more vulnerable, being unable to connect with those around her due to the language barrier, questioning her career choices as she sits alone in a new house all day, reassessing her marriage as she catches her husband joking about her paranoia behind her back.

The film doesn’t hold back to put you in her shoes, and it is beyond satisfying when her concerns turn out to be well-founded in the end, something she had the good sense to catch on to and preserve her safety despite the callousness of men around her.

Her quick thinking and will to fight back helps her survive the foreign grounds, without seeking help from any man she previously thought she had to rely on.

The Watcher proves that staring is a valid threat deserving of corrective action, it is an offence which shouldn’t be brushed aside or belittled. Staring is licence to the viewer to do worse, it is offensive to the one being viewed and that no one, whether man or woman, feels safe when being objectified.

How “Where the Crawdads Sing” (July 2022) handles this trope

Surrounded by the magical North Carolina marshland, Kya Clark, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, is a social recluse, living in a shack on the outskirts of the main town. This renders her as an outsider, the townspeople calling her the “marsh girl” and not in a good way.

Regardless, Kya has made the marsh her world. Despite a stormy family life wherein each member of her family walked out on her, she found her own means to get by, showing a keen interest in the natural flora and fauna of the marsh, using her artwork and keen knowledge to write Biology textbooks.

We learn of her as a survivor, of not only the callous community surrounding her, but he own loneliness as well. Though her being on her own and inexperienced in some ways renders her more vulnerable to advances from the opposite sex, her will to preserve her being and emotional stability trumps any ill-intentioned man trying to take advantage of her.

Her peaceful world is disquieted by the murder of a rich, local boy whom she dated in the past and is now roped in and made the immediate suspect by the townspeople as well as the boy’s family, who have always viewed her as the suspicious outsider.

She is caught and put on trial and while she stays wordless, people weigh in on her culpability despite having no evidence and her having a definitive alibi for the night he died.

With the help of a supportive lawyer, her case is scrutinized, people support her as witness to her alibi, and it is made more likely that the boy died from an accident instead of it being premeditated murder from her side.

She is finally declared as not guilty and is free to live her life. She spends her years amidst the peaceful marshland, being lulled to eternal sleep by it several years later. After her death, among her belongings, there crops up some damning evidence from the night of the murder.

We see a flashback of her relationship with the boy in question who had been engaged prior but was entertaining Kya as a joke considering she was an outsider, and he wished to toy with her feelings with no intentions of a serious relationship, casually ridiculing her with his friends and treating her as a conquest.

Once Kya senses this, she keeps her distance and pushes him away, only for him to become violent, upset that he was no longer in control.

To put her in her place, he tracks her down in a drunken stupor, getting violent and trying to rape her, but she momentarily incapacitates him to get away.

Though it was impossible to know through her alibi, it is implied that she did indeed resolve to get back to town, lure the boy to the spot of the murder and pushing him to his death. The film ends with an anecdote that “every creature does what it must to survive”.

What we learn from The Watcher and Where the Crawdads Sing

The film Where the Crawdads Sing expresses how Kya knew that no one in the town would take her account seriously as her attacker was rich, socially accepted and with lots of connections while she was a woman living alone on the outskirts, with people’s idea about her already poor.

It wasn’t any more about fighting for a punishment fitting the crime but to nip the threat itself in the bud, so she could live safely. Much like Julia in The Watcher, Kya knew that she had to preserve her own safety instead of relying too much on the surrounding men, along with the insensitive community. And this is how the film tackles the issue of male gaze narration.

Women’s issue are half-addressed as the male gaze doesn’t recognise them as functional humans

In general, women’s problems are first assessed for the degree of their seriousness by others, and then acknowledged, sometimes halfway and often not at all.

This assessment is typically subjective, the boys are always “just staring”, “just following” or “just playing around” but what people don’t realize is offence doesn’t happen in entirety, a man has already committed a crime by invading a woman’s personal space physically or non-physically without her consent, downplaying the initial crime expands room to commit even more heinous crimes against women.

And who is to say that a woman should put her life at stake to wait for something worse to happen.

While The Watcher, shows how ignoring such problematic behaviour escalates into emboldening the offender to commit a worse crime such as murder, Where the Crawdads Sing, shows that a threat is a threat, no matter how big or small.

Both movies show their leading ladies being compelled to take it upon themselves to remove the imposing threat, after their families, communities and authorities let them down and for showing that, these movies must be praised.

We see around us how authorities are punitive, only punishing crimes once they are committed, while there is little to no reform to prevent the crimes from happening in the first place.

Conclusion

Such movies question how long must a woman wait to ensure her own safety, how empowered is she to protect herself if a crime is committed against her, how much should she rely on others, even on authorized bodies such as the police, to make her feel safe instead of doing what she has to survive.

And lastly, an over looked aspect of the male gaze that makes me question — does a crime against a woman only hold weight once it is committed against her?

Some other similar movies to explore such themes are Perfect Blue (1997), You’re Next (2011), Gone Girl (2014), Phobia (2016), Section 375 (2019), Promising Young Woman (2020), The Invisible Man (2020), The Witch (2015) and Hush (2016).

Image source: Sadegura via getty images, free on CanvaPro

Liked this post?

Join the 100000 women at Women's Web who get our weekly mailer and never miss out on our events, contests & best reads - you can also start sharing your own ideas and experiences with thousands of other women here!

Comments

About the Author

Ria Tirkey

I am Ria from New Delhi. I'm a student of political science and law and I have a lot to say apparently. read more...

36 Posts | 22,383 Views

Stay updated with our Weekly Newsletter or Daily Summary - or both!

All Categories