“Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
This is an excerpt from film critic Laura Mulvey’s paper Visual Pleasure and the Cinema in which she establishes the idea of the Male Gaze. In essence, Mulvey argues that in film, women’s role in film is to develop the character of the male protagonist through their (often romantic or sexual) relationship. The female character alone experiences no character development and is characterized solely by the relationship she maintains with her male counterparts.
This theory has gained traction in recent years due to its applications in modern film and the general western canon of the arts. Examples of the male gaze can be viewed in everything from the James Bond movies where the female character functions as a sexualized damsel in distress for Bond to save, or in classical artworks from the Rococo movement where women were frivolously depicted for the sake of their male viewers (see the Swing by Fragonard). Recent conversations about the Male Gaze center upon the theory that because the majority of the western canon, whether it be Disney or Shakespeare, maintains elements of the male gaze, it subliminally reinforces misogyny throughout modern culture. This portrayal may lead to self esteem issues and internalized misogyny on the end of young female viewers. As Objectification Theory asserts, if women grow up engaging with media that presents other women solely as objects, they in turn will see themselves solely as objects. As it relates to the Male Gaze, if women see other women being valued only for their relationships with men, then women will only value themselves for their relationships with men.
While I do believe Male Gaze is deeply embedded into our culture and media, I don’t think we should ignore works that are emblematic of this theory. Instead, the Male Gaze must be factored into our understanding of the peice.
While there are many interesting feminist theories and ideas that can be used as a framework for unpacking the female characters in King Lear, the Male Gaze seems to rear its head in each of the female protagonist.
For one, each of the female characters is defined by her relationship with men. Most obviously, the three sisters are each characterized as good or evil based on their treatment of their father whom deems them good and evil. While I’m not arguing that Goneril and Regan were moral uncorrupt, there protrayals as power hungry monsters rested solely on their father’s view of them. Cordelia, conversely, was characterized as innocent due to her submission to her father. Additionally, Goneril and Regan are further portrayed and lustful objects in the wake of Edmunds rise to power. Rather than focus on the effects of the immense power they have acquired, Shakespeare choose to focus their characters (in the second half of the play) on their quest for Edmund’s love.
It is also wort noting that none of the female character show any dynamism throughout the play. Gonerial and Regan remain villainous and in the pursuit of power and sex until they die (might I add that they die due to the relationships they had with a man). Similarly, Cordelia remains submissive and uncorrupted until she dies (again due to the relationship she had with a man). Where characters like Lear and Gloucester are constantly changing and growing throughout the play, the women stay the same. None of them come to any revelations or experience any hardships apart from their relationships with male counterparts. These portrayals altogether lead to the idea that women are little outside of their interaction with men.