Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Object of His Gaze: Gender and Visual Display in ITV's Downton Abbey

As a young, single, and beautiful upper class woman, Lady Mary Crawley is naturally desired by many men. Indeed, the series opens with concerns about her impending marriage—or lack thereof—to a suitable man. Throughout the series, she is presented as bait for other men, “however many times it takes,” a notion reinforced by her mother, her father, her grandmother, and even her aunt. Within this narrative, Mary is displayed in all her finery—she is clothed in rich gowns that accentuate her best features, her hair is styled to perfection, her jewels add to the glamour surrounding her, and even the manner of her walk and elocution are designed to heighten her attractiveness.

Interestingly, Mary is also visually “displayed” on another (meta) level through the medium of film. Like her suitors, the viewer is invited to gaze at her, thus positioning her as an object, passive and devoid of desire or agency. Moreover, as seen through her interaction with Matthew, the gaze is structured as masculine, reifying her as an object of visual pleasure for men. Laura Mulvey’s theories on the objectification of women in film will be employed to expound on this idea.

From the beginning that Mary is the one “to be looked at,” not the bearer of the look. When Matthew first meets Mary, he stares at her, struck by her beauty. As seen in the shot below, the viewer forms an implied association with Matthew and is led to view Mary in a similar manner. From their first meeting, Mary is already classified as an object.

Matthew looks:


Mary is looked at:


Matthew keeps looking at her during the dinner with Pamuk, watching her flirt and parade around with another man while ignoring him. Thus, she is viewed as a seductress, easily tempted and therefore weak in her resolve. The viewer’s sympathy is directed towards Matthew, the hero, and we are meant to think badly of Mary here. Additionally, there’s a power struggle at work: Matthew appears to want Mary for himself, itching to keep an eye (and thereby control) her movements and behavior. Her availability to other men—and thus, her freedom—seems to unsettle him.

Mary flirting with Pamuk:


Matthew’s rather stern look of reprimand:


Mary is also viewed voyeuristically, further objectifying her as well as increasing her sexual value. Matthew literally hides behind the door and stares at Mary’s figure, a look of yearning and hunger in his eyes:


As an object, Mary’s full figure, including her bare back, is revealed as she walks the length of her room:


Matthew’s gaze is stronger in the climatic scene in Episode 6, where he looks at Mary while her eyes are turned downwards, suggesting her submission and powerlessness.



However, we only see Mary’s face during the kiss. By keeping Matthew’s face hidden, Mary is displayed once again. The viewer can relish in seeing her muscles flex, her mouth open, her chest heave, her fingers touch. By virtue of being unreadable, Matthew is more powerful while Mary is shown as the desired, the seductress, the weaker of the two.


By having the viewer identify with Matthew, Mary is viewed as an object of the male gaze. Indeed, other cinematic choices make her more attractive to male viewers. For example, Mary is seen being fitted a corset and her half-naked figure is displayed on screen, even though it does not add anything substantial to the story. Likewise, we never see a half-naked Matthew, the object of a female gaze.


The depiction of Mary in Downton Abbey conforms to Mulvey’s theories of the paradoxical female character in many mainstream media films. In order to satisfy the male ego, the female figure is fetishized and also dismantled by either being saved or punished.

As in Mulvey’s conclusion, Mary’s character is written to be saved and punished. Matthew is perceived by those around her as a figure who will save her. Her mother tells her not to quarrel with him because one day she may need him, under the assumption that Mary will find a powerful protector in him. Her grandmother notes that Matthew’s proposal is the “only decent offer she will ever get.” Mary is also punished in several ways: in the highly charged episode 3, Pamuk literally throws himself at her and steals her virtue, thus symbolically punishing her for her forwardness and rejection of the hero (Matthew) earlier; Matthew himself rejects her just as she attempts to voice her desire for him.

It is clear that the male gaze is central to Season One, as evidenced by the cinematic and narrative techniques used. Male ways of looking and male desire takes precedence and the female's perspective is shown to be either absent or inferior. However, this way of “seeing” also appears to be retained in Season Two.

Matthew’s furtive look:


Mary displayed and Matthew’s face hidden again:

Photobucket Photobucket

So it’s important to ask why the male gaze is persistent. Is it for pure entertainment value, where the female is more attractive to audiences as a passive object rather than an active and autonomous figure? Is Downton Abbey just another pedestrian TV show where the same gender inequality and cultural tropes are retained? Or more importantly, why does it continue to grab viewers both male and female in spite of this gendered visualization, and what does it really say about us?

Downton Abbey, 2010. TV Series. Directed by Brian PERCIVAL. UK: CARNIVAL FILMS.
2. Laura Mulvey. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Originally published - Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18

1. Season One screencaps:
2. Season Two screencaps:

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The Object of His Gaze by mysticgypsy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Enid Blyton: The Girl Who Never Grew Up

Enid Blyton was recently selected as one of the most beloved writers of all tie. A J. K. Rowling of her day, she wrote nearly 750 books in a writing career that spanned half a century. Her books have been translated into several languages, and her imagination continues to inspire generations of children all over the world. A new biopic, starring Helena Bonham Carter, seeks to complicated our understanding of Blyton by tactfully examining the universal conflict between art and mother, ambition and service.

Bonham Carter's succint portral of Blyton reveals the dual nature of the writer. On the surface, she appears to be a petite, slender and matronly woman. Her hair is neatly combed, she wears plain dowdy dresses and sensible flat shoes, and she speaks in a monotone, addressing suitable epithets to the people around her. However, in her private moments, we see a different side of her. Alone in her bedroom, she is careless about her appearance and wards off her husband. When she writers alone, her brow furrows with concentration and her face darkens. Indeed, when she is interrupted by the maid or the children, the visible sign of anger conveys a sense of bieng possessed by writing. She insists that she must be left alone in order to craft her stories and takes great measures to shut out the world. In this way, Bonham Carter sympathetically unravels a woman much like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a woman whose dual personality is compounded by the way she wrestles her own childhood demons.

While childhood is the central theme in all her works, it is one that is ironically shunned in her personal life. Blyton's childhood was an unhappy one after her beloved father left the famaily when she was still a child. But by burrowing into her work for comfort, her children's childhoods were also unhappy. Blyton did not love her children the same way she did her "fans"--other children who wrote to her and even came to her house for tea while her own daughters were admonished to the nursery. It appears that her art, and her fans, demanded more of her, occupied so much of her time, that, by not being a good mother or caring for her children, she unwittingly inflicted wounds on their own childhoods. But perhaps it is this conflict, this difficulty to grapple with childhood and its myriad forms, which infuses Blyton's works with the poignancy and reality of childhood. For in childhood are our joys and sorrows, and art, inevitably is created out of loss--even if the price of that is motherhood and service to one's own children.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Artifice of a Manless World: A. S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" and the Perils at Women's Colleges

A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book," is set at a time when college education for women was just beginning to take shape. Two of the female characters--Griselda Wellwood and Florence Cain--attend Newnham College in Cambridge while other characters like Dorothy Wellwood and Elsie Warren find alternate ways to gain the education that enables them to build careers. This novel explores the ambiguities surrounding women's education and questions the ethics built into women’s education system. Although the setting is early twentieth century, I believe many of the issues explored are relevant to the present day.

It is crucial to ask the significance of Byatt’s work: is it merely a quasi-historical narrative to be shelved on the “women’s history” aisle, or is it a cautionary tale—much like a fairy story—that is supposed to warn women about the perils they are in. If the latter is true, then what type of women is the target population? Is it western women or women of color living in the west? Is it women in developing countries? Is it women in a chiefly patriarchal cultural system?

The themes relating to women’s education explored in the novel resonated strongly with me as I am not only a graduate of an elite women’s college, but a subaltern taught under the British system.

Speaking of college women, Griselda Wellwood remarks to Florence Cain:

"I feel a lot of incompatible things. I feel I must think or I'll go mad. And then I think of those colleges full of women--knitting, I imagine them, and flower-arranging, and drinking cocoa. And I think, is it like taking the veil, which is an idea that's always given me the horrors. Unhealthy, part of me says. And part of me says it is all secretly exciting. New. Doing things women haven't done, aren't expected to do. Things brothers take for would be a new kind of human being--" (495).

I was motivated to apply to women’s colleges because, like Griselda and Florence, I wanted to concentrate on academics without competing with traditional female duties like marriage. I wanted to nurture my feminist leanings and fight against sexism in my society. I thought college would enable me to “do things women haven’t done” (the women in my society, at least.)

It was only later, after graduating, that the reality of what I had chosen dawned on me. For Florence, however, it came early, for Byatt tells us that, "Florence was in a turmoil…And she did see her future as, perhaps, the choice between thinking and sex." (495).

I had chosen to think and before I knew it, four years of my youth flew by, as I abstained from the society of men. Men were scarce at my college and the only ones you would see on campus were men you could not have: boyfriends, fathers, and rarely brothers. Like many a young woman brought up in a traditional home where one needed to “save face” and where a liaison outside of marriage in inappropriate places was forbidden, I had no desire to party the night away in a raunchy frat or risk being date-raped in a bar. In America, unlike other commonwealth nations, communities from my cultural group were hard to come by. As a result, there weren’t enough opportunities to meet men the proper way: in dinners surrounded by chaperones (old aunties) or a quiet event in a religious center. I also was not terribly drawn towards the men who were different from me. I did not even have the opportunity to pick.

When Florence and Griselda discuss their future with Dorothy, who knew "exactly what she wanted" as she was going to be a doctor, Griselda notes that "she half-desired to spend the rest of her life in this College--largely because here she could call her life her own, and do what she wanted to do, which was to think..." (525).

I, too, thought I wanted to get a PhD and work in a liberal arts college—albeit women’s college—and inspire a future generation of young feminists who will change the world. But then I thought: what world will they change? For I wished to do that and the only path I have open is academy if I chose to get a PhD. I knew a PhD didn’t suffice, as Florence remarks to Griselda: "But is this enough, all these earnest women, and timid girls and the artifice of a manless world?"

In another instance, talking to Julian Cain, who questions her if she will settle in Newnham and study for the rest of her life, Griselda alludes to Florence’s point by remarking, "I cannot make my mind up. Sometimes I think a women's college is like the tower Rapunzel was shut in, or even the gingerbread cottage. I don't want to become unreal. Do you know what I mean? I think it is different for men." (537).

Florence and Griselda are both correct in noticing how the women’s college is nothing but “an artifice of a manless world.” I learnt too late how much of an artifice a women’s liberal arts college really is. True, there were opportunities to form strong bonds with women but I believe it could be formed anywhere. I, certainly, would naturally gravitate towards women because that’s what I feel most comfortable with. Having been taught to stay away from men, one becomes expert at forming bonds with women for companionship. Excluding men from women’s colleges creates an artificial world, especially for those women like me who have to go out into the real world and acquaint themselves with men’s ways and may not be able to cope for they were never given the opportunity to mingle with men in that capacity prior to going to college.

I believe, as Florence notes correctly,

"The truth is...that the women we are--have become--are not fit to do without men, or live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don't, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters, like Viola in Twelfth Night, or Miss Harrison's harpies and gorgons.” (526).

I know now that I cannot do without men, even though I pretended it was possible, or that I could wait until a man will come along who would know the woman I have become. The biological clock waits for no (wo)man. College does not tell you that, hence adding to the artifice. It is so focused on making you smart that it overlooks developing you—especially the shy, subaltern you—as a romantic partner. Even good, respectable men in my community want young wives, not one that is bohemian, seeking self-fulfillment at the expense of her age. Add to that the present economic crisis, when women who pursued the development of their minds and chose dead subjects as their majors found themselves unemployable. There is hardly a sadder sight than a single woman in reduced circumstances, unprotected and alone. While this seems to be something Austen’s Mr. Knightley would take pity upon, the modern world cannot shut a blind eye either. Indeed, for many women, penury is a real threat to forming an alliance by marriage. A woman without connections or fortune is the worst of the lot. Unlike a 19th century governess who can teach and thereby employ her talents, the poor woman nowadays is lucky if she can scrape floors and diaper other people’s babies.

College does not shield Florence from temptations, however, for within a year, she falls pregnant with an older man's child, and marries another man. Florence escapes college and finds fulfillment in her baby and marriage while taking classes from a tutor. She does not regret leaving college.

Griselda, on the other hand, continues her studies and eventually becomes a research student at Newnham while warding off any idea of romance. Griselda finds that her degree in History, with a concentration in German fairy tales, is useless. She later trains as a nurse and assists in the war efforts. In the end, we see that "Griselda had become fixed, efficient and almost spinsterly as the war went on. [Her mother] was almost resigned to seeing her close herself into a college." (675).

Thus, Byatt ends her novel by showing the options open to women who pursue an education: Florence leaves college to raise a baby; Griselda is set towards a “spinsterly” career as an academic; Dorothy saves lives on the battlefield; Elsie marries and thus has no need to work (teach). Each of them is fulfilled in a different way and neither is fulfilled in both an intellectual and romantic manner. It appears that education is not compatible with family life.

It serves to question how far we have come in the 21st century. Although we have female doctors who raise children, they have a spouse who helps. If men do not change and adapt to women’s changing roles in society, women—those that desire men, that is—cannot be fulfilled.