The Threat of a Female Gaze
There’s a lot of talk in film theory about the fact that cinema is dominated by the male gaze, and in recent years that’s prompted the question of what a female gaze looks like. Some even speculate that a pure female gaze is impossible, because in our society women can’t help internalizing the male gaze and seeing even themselves through men’s eyes. At the end of his life and career, Kubrick is here very interested in the female gaze, which is expressed visually through Alice’s glasses, which turn her into someone who looks with agency.
Kubrick tracks how the male’s stable narrative, which props up his comfortable life, is utterly threatened by the very existence of this female gaze.
What sets this whole drama in motion is Alice revealing her lust for a naval officer she saw on vacation. She shatters Bill’s assumption that, because she’s a woman, she’s less interested in sex and doesn’t actually want to be unfaithful, whereas a man naturally has desires that he suppresses.
Alice: “Men have to stick it every place they can, but for women—women, it is just about security and commitment and whatever the f–BEEP else!”
Bill: “A little over simplified Alice, but yes.”
The film, like Kubrick’s 2001, takes inspiration from the Odyssey, Homer’s epic about Odysseus’ journey back to his loyal wife Penelope, who is besieged by suitors. As Siegel writes, quote, “Just as every enchantress Odysseus meets on his voyage home is an echo of his thralldom to Penelope, every woman Bill meets is a version of Alice.”
The question of Penelope’s unbesmirched virtue, of whether she gave into her suitors—or wanted to—haunts Odysseus and Bill, all of literature and film, and really, it seems, men in general.
The female’s desire and the male’s inability to possess or contain it is the central anxiety and crisis of the movie.
“If you men only knew.” –Alice
What’s subtly revolutionary about this film is that it’s telling men: your wife has the same feelings and fantasies and temptations as you. All of these perverse, dark, difficult human impulses are universal.
Yet a man like Bill can’t handle this. The erotic femininity she exudes as she describes her true feelings strikes him as confrontational. And the desperate, long adventure he goes on in search of a sexual thrill is ultimately just an attempt to live up to Alice’s fantasy.
Is it worth seeing? Or no?