In her article “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams examines horror and psychopathic forms of film to discuss the various ways the woman is punished for looking. Williams’s exploration reveals a surprising, and at times subversive, affinity between the monster and woman. “When cinema permits the woman’s look, she not only sees a monster, she sees a monster that offers a distorted reflection of her own image (64).” In the face of movie screen terror, men and young boys make it a point of honor to look as the violent scene unfolds, while women and girls tend to cower and cover their eyes. Why is it that women refuse to look? According to Williams, it is because women are given so little to identify with on the screen. To look, means she must “bear witness to her own powerlessness in the face of rape, mutilation, and murder (61).”
Like the women in the audience, the female protagonist in classic narrative film often fails to return the gaze of the male who yearns for her because to see is to express desire (61). Blindness is used to signify an absence of desire. Since the blind woman cannot express desires of her own, the male character may voyeuristically regard her from a safe distance. The vamp archetype, on the other hand, represents a powerful female look. Her smoldering and wanton gaze upon the male threatens his power over her. Therefore, her gaze is always punished. Mary Ann Doane suggests, “the woman’s exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization (61).” In other words, her curiosity and desire gets transformed into masochistic fantasy. It is the combination of both the desiring look of the male voyeur and the woman’s look of horror, that ultimately paralyzes her. Her trance-like passivity collapses the distance between the observer and the observed, which is crucial to the “pleasure” of the voyeur, and allows him to master her through her look (62). Nina’s hypnotic fascination with the vampire in F.W. Muranau’s Nosferatu (1922) is an excellent example of this.
Williams references other films like The Phantom of the Opera to discuss how the monster is either symbolically castrated (“He had no nose!”) or he is overly endowed and potent (“Yes he did, it was enormous!”) (63). The monster’s power resides in his sexual difference from the normal male. In the eyes of the traumatized male, the monster is remarkably like the woman, a feared power and potency outside of the phallic norm. This is how the affinity and flash of sympathetic identification develops between the woman and monster. “For she too has been constituted as an exhibitionist object by the desiring look of the male. There is not that much difference between an object of desire and an object of horror as far as the male look is concerned (63).” In the end, Williams concludes that what is feared in the woman is not her own mutilation as the “castrated other,” but her power to mutilate and transform the vulnerable male. I, however, suggest that the male image inherently carries the threat of rape for women, which further complicates our understanding of the female gaze.
To read Linda Williams's article, "When the Woman Looks" for yourself, click here.