Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” argues that the various “looks” that you would find in works of cinema, tend to reinforce sexist stereotypes from the male perspective. These “looks”, include the gaze of the camera and how the characters are displayed on screen. Men are usually seen as the “lookers” or “gazers” while women are portrayed as the ones that must be looked at and admired. However, although uncommon, some directors will actually try and reverse the roles of the “looker” and the “looked at”.
A good example of this role reversal is present in The Lady Eve directed by Preston Sturges. Unlike most early 1900 films that portray the stereotype of the man being the one in control and that the women is just there for the sake of the male lead, this film takes the male lead character, Charles Pike, and makes him play the fool at the hands of the female lead, Jean Harrington . Although there are times when Jean is seen as the object of desire (particularly by Pike), she at the same time manages to show her control, intellect and perception in regards to show how things are going according to her plans. One scene in particular takes place from 5:41 to 8:10.
The first part of the scene starts with Pike sitting down in the dining hall reading a book and minding his own business. The camera then shows us the dining hall from his “gaze” as he meets the eyes of those who are gazing at him. Whether it’s at a table full of people, or meeting the eyes of women one-on-one, all show clear signs that they were staring at him since he sat down. Even the last women he looks at (who was busy drinking her beer) immediately regains her composure and returns his gaze with a rather idiotic smile. Pike is regarded as the desired one here, the one who everyone, men and women, look at due to his looks, charm or in the way he presents himself. Although it’s not uncommon for the male lead to be in some way desired himself, Pike never acts on the rather obvious “gazes” aimed towards him. Instead he just sits there wondering why people are staring almost like he is a center piece to be looked at.
While this part of the scene is shown in a way that we see the characters “gazing” at Pike from his perspective, in the next part, we take a step back and see things from the perspective of Harrington. Like how Pike doesn’t fall into the category of the stereotypical male protagonist like most films during this time, Harrington doesn’t fall into the category of the stereotypical female character. She watches from the indirect “gaze” of her compact mirror as these women try and use subtle approaches to get his attention. What’s more, she provides a rather insulting narration as though she knows exactly what they are thinking and saying despite being clear across the room. This is what separates her from the rest of the females not just in the dining hall but also in the rest of the movie.
This hostility could prove to be another parallel between the male and female gazes. After all, if women are given too much attention for whatever the reason may be, the director would implicate that this isn’t right and that the women must be punished. However, as I claimed before, the roles are reversed and since the male is the one who is being “gazed’ at and desired, then he would need to be punished. This is clearly emphasized at the end of the scene when Harrington trips Pike for no apparently reason.
In the first part of the scene, the camera makes good use of utilizing shots to show how Pike darts his eyes around the room. In the second part of the scene, the director makes good use of framing the camera into Harrington’s compact mirror. We also see the use of wide shots to emphasize this idea that he is at the center of the room and the center of attention. What’s more, her narration combined with her “gaze” helps strengthen her superiority compared to all the other women in the room throwing themselves at Pike.