Looking at empowered women through voyeur-tinted glasses

Complications of Exploring the Male Gaze with a Visual Medium as Demonstrated in Traumnovelle and Eyes Wide Shut

by Mariah Johnson

Introduction: The Male Gaze

This paper will delve into ideas surrounding the concept of the male gaze and its relationship to themes conveyed and explored in the 1926 novella Traumnovelleby Arthur Schnitzlerand its 1999 film adaptation Eyes Wide Shut, directed by Stanley Kubrick. As a specific term in feminist ideology, “male gaze” denotes the dominant, voyeuristic, and eroticized perspective of a male “looker” to a female “looked-upon.”In her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey talks about “the pleasure of looking,” or “scopofilia,” being at the root of the male gaze. She wrote, “At the extreme, [the male gaze] can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.”[1]This concept of sexual satisfaction as a result of watching and controlling an objectified subject is central to the story and themes of Traumnovelle and Eyes Wide Shut.[2]

Traumnovelleis a powerful commentary on gender roles and the male gaze. Academics have written about and discussed its subversion of 1920s gender norms since its release. Though a German TV movie was made of the novella in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that anyone made the story into a modernized film adaptation[3]. Stanley Kubrick directed Eyes Wide Shut, a film that sought to update the content of the story in ways that would preserve the themes of the novella and shocked 1990s audiences in the same way that Traumnovelleshocked viewers in the 1920s. Although both Traumnovelle and Eyes Wide Shutare considered widely successful in their indictment of traditional gender roles and the male gaze, the difference in medium between the two changes the ways in which they effect their audiences. In this paper I will attempt to prove that despite Traumnovelles successful commentary on the male gaze, Eyes Wide Shutfails in its attempt to have the same effect because its textual critique of female objectification is undermined by its visual objectification of the women involved in the film.

Traumnovelleand The Gaze

Traumnovellefirst introduces us to the idea of the male gaze as it becomes an important symbol for power, or loss of power, for the main character, Fridolin. Fridolin, a doctor, finds out his wife, Albertine, is not as pure as he thought her to be when she tells him of her sexual desires for other men, destroying his thus far unchallenged views of traditional gender roles. Distressed and stripped of his position of sexual power in their relationship, he spends the rest of the night in various sexual encounters with other women, in an attempt to regain his sense of masculinity. He ultimately fails in this and even gets himself into dangerous situations— further stripping him of his male power. In Susan Anderson’s article, “Visual Metaphors in Schnitzler’s Prose Works and Dramas,” Anderson outlines how the male gaze operates in Traumnovelle. Shenotes that as Fridolin tries to occupy the traditional role of dominant “looker” in each of his encounters with women, he instead becomes the “looked-upon” and is forced to realize that the traditional gender roles regarding sexuality that he has clung to are insufficient, and have both ruined his relationships and failed to protect him from danger.[4]

Fridolin “gazes” when he is in power, and is “gazed upon” when he is not. Throughout the book, he finds his power diminishing as he becomes the “gazed-upon” ever more frequently. In one instance he experiences unexpected and unwanted advances from Marianne, the daughter of his terminally ill patient. Additionally, when he meets Mizzi the prostitute and follows her home, she takes control of the situation and even eventually decides not to engage with him, despite his best efforts. These failures continue throughout the night. In each instance, the more he tries to regain power, the further he is pushed into subordination. Anderson observes that even Fridolin’s meeting with his old friend, Nachtigall, emphasizes Fridolinas the object of penetrating looks.[5]Because of this paradoxical role reversal, Fridolin is eager to participate in the erotic andsecretive meeting Nachtigall advertises— seeing it as a chance for him to regain his traditional male role. At the secretive masked ball Fridolin becomes completely objectified as he is subjected to the gazes of both men and women. This penultimate attempt to regain his position of power becomes futile and even dangerous. 

Schnitzler makes the women of the story the “gazers,” giving power to Marianne, Mizzi, the mysterious woman at the party, and Albertine, while taking power away from Fridolin. Anderson concludes, 

Fridolin has become like the young women and girls he gazed upon. Albertine is the one

who exercises authority in her questions to him and in her forgiving look at him… The

woman observer, Albertine, turns out to be the one most in control of her speech and field

of vision… He is compelled to abandon his domineering gaze for one like hers.[6]

As a novella, Schnitzler uses the medium of prose to effectively reverse

the traditional sexual perceptions of male and female roles. This reversal is a poignant commentary on gender roles of the time and on the prevalence of the male gaze as a tool to objectify and subjugate women.

Eyes Wide Shutand The Gaze

Eyes Wide Shut, attempts the same gender role reversal and commentary on the male gaze as does Traumnovelle, often using nudity as a tool to denote the “gazed-upon” and modesty to denote the “gazer.” Bill, a cinematic reflection of Fridolin, is a well-off and well-respected doctor, accustomed to positions of power. Throughout the film, he flaunts his money and his credentials, using his position of dominance to get what he wants. As a doctor, he observes naked women from a position of professional authority. As an attractive male of high status, he observes naked women (including his wife) from a position of sexual dominance.

Analogous to the paradox in Traumnovelle,the “gazer” in Eyes Wide Shutbecomes the “gazed upon.”  In attempts to regain his male position of power— which was stripped by his wife’s admission of sexual desire for others— Bill unsuccessfully pursues sexual encounters with  aprostitute, apatient’s daughter, and with the daughter of a shop owner.  The masked party results in a total loss of control and power when a group of masked men surround Bill and force him to remove his disguise, making him the only person in the room whose identity is unprotected. Further emphasizing his new and terrifying role as the “gazed-upon,” they command him to remove his clothes in front of everyone, at which point he is saved by the unknown woman.

Eyes Wide Shutincludes similarthemes, symbols, and critiques of the male gaze as Traumnovelledoes.The major difference, however, is in how the film presents the material to its audience. As a novella, Traumnovellecan use visual language to give the reader a vivid mental image of its story. As a film, Eyes Wide Shutexists in a medium that is, by definition, visual. While Traumnovelleis capable ofgiving the audience an idea of what each scene looks like, Eyes Wide Shutis able to present each situation in full visual detail, utilizing a completely different method of portraying women than exists in the novella.

Portrayal of Women

Eyes Wide Shutcriticizes objectification of women and condemns society’s sexual portrayal of the female body. However, rather ironically, the film employs all of the aspects of male-gaze filmmaking techniques that Mulvey writes about in “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema.”According to Mulvey, there are three different types of looks associated with cinema: the camera recording the pro-filmic event, the audience watching the final product, and the characters gazing at each other within the screen illusion.[7]Eyes Wide Shutis a textbook example of all three of these looks, despite its claims of rejecting societal acceptance of the male gaze.

From the very first moment of the film, the visuals appeal to the sexual pleasure of the audience. The film opens with a shot of Alice from the back; she removes her dress, letting it fall to the floor and revealing her naked body. In his dissertation on females in Kubrick’s work, David Eric Browning mentions this opener, asserting that the nudity is important and necessary in this moment to, “alert the audience immediately to the voyeuristic nature of the film.”[8]This scene’s purpose is shock. It demands the attention of the audience and warns, “This is the kind of film you are about to watch.” The next scene opens on Bill, fully clothed. The intimate voyeuristic and erotic introduction to the film is reserved only for the female lead, while the main male character is unexposed. And so the film begins, leading out with a sexualized female bodybut an actualized—and fully dressed—male character.[1] 

Later, in the party scene, when Ziegler calls Bill in to help with Mandy’s overdose,

Mandy’s naked body is sprawled over the couch, and the men are all clothed. The men’s hands and groin areas are always included in the frame with her naked body, emphasizing their dominance. This is consistent with the in-film commentary on male dominance, power, and the male gaze, but also contradicts this message by visually objectifying Mandy.

Throughout the film, visuals are used increasingly to portray naked and

vulnerable female bodies. The way the camera frames and moves around female bodies is sexualizing and objectifying, regardless of the humanist message the story claims to pursue. Lindsay Ellis describes this point vividly in her video essay on feminist theory in the context of the first Transformersfilm. She suggests that despite Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela Banes, having been written in the screenplay as a strong, well-rounded female character, she is seen by the audience simply as visual relief, because of how intensely the camera focuses on her body. She argues that the camera sends a completely different message than the script, portraying Mikaela as “gratuitous eye candy” instead of the powerful female role-model she was meant to be. Similarly, the camera work in Eyes Wide Shutcombats the message of thescript. Ellis says: 

[This is called] dissonance of framing – the text is saying one thing; the framing is saying something else. What do people remember from this scene? Do they remember what Mikaela says? Or do they remember the way Megan Fox’s body was shot? … Aesthetic impressions get weighted much more heavily than thematic or narrative ones. … The text says one thing, the camera says another, and because this is a visual medium, what the audience remembers is what the camera tells them. Mikaela is talking about how people don’t see her as anything but a pair of T and A [tits and ass], but all the while the camera is conveying to the audience that this is her value.[9]

Dissonance framing also occurs in Eyes Wide Shut.Alice’s dialogue and character traits become irrelevant when the camera is movingup her naked body voyeuristically, emphasizing her sexual beauty. Cinematicaudience’s will likely weigh aesthetic impressions more heavily than narrative ones due to the visual nature of the medium.

In Alice and Bill’s bedroomargument, they both wear only underwear. Though they are equal in dress, Bill is clearly meant to be listened to in the scene, while Alice is meant to be looked at. Yes, Tom Cruise’s body is defined and tan, and some might argue that the female audience is meant to gaze upon him as much as the male audience is meant to gaze at Nicole Kidman, but his posture and the camera’s framing make it hard to see his body during their argument, and the cinematography draws the viewer’s eye to his face. Alice’s body, however, is always fully displayed during her coverage. The way Kubrick has arranged her movement and posture in the scene, as well as the way the camera follows her, prompts the audience to survey her body while she argues her point.

The mixed messages sent by the film continue in the ritual scene. The men, fully clothed in cloaks and masks, surround naked women and assume positions of power over them. The women are exposed andvulnerablewhereas the men are comfortably and anonymously concealed. Both men and women wear masks in the ritual, but they serve different purposes. For the men, they work to conceal identity and eliminate accountability, but for the women they  diminish individual worth and discount the women to nothing more than bodies. The women kiss through their masks as the men watch. Browning comments on the intensity of the images of female objectification in this scene, as well as the eerie, identity-concealing masks worn by the men, 

This in and of itself shows that these men view these women as sole objects of

sexual gratification, as they are completely devoid of identity. Their physical attributes

are the solitary form of identification among the women. They are faceless, and thus, as

the men engage sexually with them, they do not develop a sense of guilt.[10]

This excerpt expounds upon the narrative and symbolic weight of choosing to portray the women in the scene this way, but fails to acknowledge that the visual nature of film makes it so that not only do the men of the party view these women as props, bodies, and objects—but so do the members of the audience.

As the party escalates from sexual ritual to full-on orgy, Bill wanders from room to room

as people engage in various sexual activities, each room lined with the watching eyes of cloaked voyeurs. In one of the scenes, men watch while several women have sex with each other. The camera focusesunflinchingly—watchingevery detail of sexual interaction. The scene is clearly reminiscent of common violent male fantasies like lesbian sex, BDSM, and rape simulations. This scene is meant as a nod to bourgeois society and the objectification of women, but functions as a pornographic simulation which encourages the audience to watch these women as hypersexualized objects of not only the male characters’ gaze but also their own. The scene is disgusting to the viewer, but also entrancing and fascinating. It is deeply concerning that a film meant to condemn female sexual objectification contains scenes with such lewd and erotic content. 

            Eyes Wide Shutquickly became the very thing that it attempted to critique by objectifying women and subjugating them to the male gaze. Browning claims that the film is a representation of strong, proactive females, saying that Alice Hartford is a realistic portrait of a woman who is unhappy in her marriage and seeking for something more, who by the end of the film succeeds in helpingBill to see her as her own person.[11]While this may be the message that the script attempted, the objectification of Alice and all other female characters in the film illegitimatized the message early on. Whatever textual strength any of the females in the film had were undermined by the voyeuristic nature of the cinematography.[12]

Eyes Wide Shut– Women on Set

As discussed earlier, Kubrick uses these women’s bodies to make a narrative point just

as the male characters in the film used their bodies for their personal pleasure without regard to

their character, personality, or value as a human beings. Not only are these woman used

for their bodies inside the narrative, but the actresses themselves are used in the film in the same way. No matter how well they may or may not have been treated on set, no matter how necessary their nudity was for the production, the portrayal of these women resulted in objectification and misconstrued ideals.We have faces and characters for Ziegler, Nick, and Bill. The women however, are only bodies. With the exception of Alice, these nude actresses are unrecognizable. To Kubrick within the context of the film, it does not matter who they are. Not only does it not matter within the story who these female characters are, it also does not matter to the production who the actresses are. The only prerequisite for their casting call was a desirable body and a willingness to expose it.

Conclusion and Looking Forward

In conclusion, though Traumnovellesucceeds in its commentary and censure of gender roles and the male gaze,Eyes Wide Shutfails in that regard by overshadowing any textual critique it may have made with its visual objectification and degradation of women as characters and actresses. 

In hopes to avoid these ethical mistakes of production in the future, there are several things to note. First, as illustrated previously, this failure could have been avoided by more closely aligning camera work with the textual commentaries. This would have left the gaze dynamics of sexualizing women intact in the story without involving the audience in it as well. In addition, upon inspection it becomes clear that no women were involved in the above-the-line[13]crew. The film had male screenwriters, directors, producers, executive producers, as well as a male cinematographer.[14]While men are certainly capable of making a film that comments on gender roles and portrays women in a strong and non-objectified way, a film addressing such sensitive issues of femininity should certainly involve female input. Without empowered women on the above-the-line crew to have an equal voice in how women are portrayed in the film, it is easier to allow antiquated and sexualized portrayals of women to remain unchecked. Moving forward, changes in the ethics of cinematography will prevent movies like Eyes WideShutfrom getting caught in the very trap they aim to dismantle.


Anderson, Susan C. “The Power of the Gaze: Metaphors of Seeing in Schnitzler’s Prose Works and Dramas.” In A Companion to the Works of Arthur Schnitzler, ed. Dagmar C. G. Lorenz, 302-324. Rochester: Camden House, 2003.

Browning, David Eric. “Dark Façades: Gender and the Films of Stanley Kubrick.” Open Access Theses.Coral Gables: University of Miami, May 17, 2013.

Ellis, Lindsay. The Whole Plate. “Framing Megan Fox – Feminist Theory Part 3.” September 23, 2017.

Glapka, Ewa. “’If you look at me like at a piece of meat, then that’s a problem’ – women in the center of the male gaze. Feminist Poststructuralist Discourse Analysis as a tool of critique.” Critical Discourse Studies15 (2017): 87-103.

Internet Movie Database. Eyes Wide Shut.<https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120663/>, n.d., accessed April 2018.

Eyes Wide Shut.Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1999.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Visual and Other Pleasures, by Lisa Mulvey, 14-26. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Schnitzler, Arthur. Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, 1927.

[1]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures, by Lisa Mulvey 14-26. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 14-17.

[2]“Male gaze” originally referred to film production techniques that turn women into the “object of the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film,” according to Mulvey. It should be noted that “male gaze” as a term was nonexistent in Schnitzler’s time. “Male gaze” (the term) didn’t exist until 1988, so for our purposes, the term will be retrofitted to Schnitzler’s work to describe themes, moments, and ideas therein.

[3]Internet Movie Database, Eyes Wide Shut, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120663/>, accessed April 2018. 

Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights to the book many years before he ever started working on the film adaptation.

[4]Susan C. Anderson, “The Power of the Gaze: Metaphors of Seeing in Schnitzler’s Prose Works and Dramas,” in A Companion to the Works of Arthur Schnitzler, ed. Dagmar C. G. Lorenz (Rochester: Camden House, 2003), 302-324. 

Anderson’s description of the way the gaze functions in Traumnovelleis very similar to my own, in that she talks about the visual metaphor of the gaze as central to the book’s critique of gender roles, and also that putting women in the position of the gazer puts them in the position of sexual power and dominance, whereas traditionally that has been men’s role in stories and in real life. Anderson’s opinion differs from mine in one regard, namely that she wouldn’t attach a gender to the term “gaze”, making it male or female, which makes sense when talking about the gaze as a phenomenon outside of gender politics. But in my opinion, as the “gaze” has typicallybeen male and has a lot to do with heterosexual gender and sex politics, the gender of the gaze is important to this discussion.



[7]Mulvey, 26.

[8]David Eric Browning, “Dark Façades: Gender and the Films of Stanley Kubrick,”Open Access Theses,University of Miami, (May 2013).

[9]Lindsay Ellis, “Framing Megan Fox – Feminist Theory Part 3,” The Whole Plate,(YouTube, September 23, 2017).

This is a webseries on feminist theory in film. Ellis’s main point in this episode is an extremely relevant and enlightening argument next to the point I make in this paper; as it turns out, Eyes Wide Shutdoes the exact same thing to Alice Hartford as Transformersdoes to Mikaela Banes. As this webseries episode only came out a year and a half ago, it would be extremely interesting to make a broader and more encompassing study to see how common it is in contemporary mainstream films for the sexualized camera framing of a film to undercut the strength and humanistic value of female characters.



[12]Stanley Kubrick showed a cut of the film to Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, then died six days later. There is much controversy over the question of whether the film as it currently stands is how Kubrick would have wanted it to be in the end, though his daughter, Cruise, and Kidman are generally of a consensus that he was extremely proud of it, according to IMDb. The editing of the film, if different, could have a different effect on the way the film reads and therefore could change the arguments presented in this paper. But overall, as this paper does not focus on the life of Kubrick but rather the work by itself, it is fitting that we should look at the film as it currently stands instead of speculating what he would have wanted it to be like.

[13]The “white collar” departments in filmmaking.

[14]Internet Movie Database.