Are Women Really Focalized?

by Katalin Bálint

March 15, 2011


The aim of this paper is to find a way how a psychoanalytic-feminist abstraction and cinematographic-visual facts can interact each other. The goal is to examine the correspondence between the concept of male gaze and focalization, and to find the link between the structuralist term used by narrative theory of film and literature, and the highly theoretic idea of male gaze.
According to the hypothesis, if a conceptual correspondence can be found between the two ideas, then it is possible to transform the concept of male gaze into a focalization pattern – as a constant combination of a male focalizer and a female focalized object – within a film.
At the level of composition, cinematic techniques of internal focalization (focusing on the point-of-view shots) were analyzed in two films by Hitchcock (Vertigo, Marnie).
Results show the temporal structure of the characters’ focalization. Mulvey’s claims are verified partially. The focaliser-focalised combinations reveal complex relations of the narratives.


Are Women Really Focalised?

Overlap Between the Conceptsof Male Gaze and Focalization in Film Theory



Judith Mayne (18-20) makes a provisional but useful division between „apparatus” and „textual” tendencies in the psychoanalytic film theory of the 1970’s. Following Louis Althusser’s argument on ideological state apparatuses, works of film theorists (e.g. Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry and Laura Mulvey) had a pronounced emphasis on the question of how cinema functions as a cinematic apparatus, and were centered around the investigation of cinematic situation. In the same period, film theorists as for example Thierry Kuntzel, Raymond Bellour, Stephen Heath applying Roland Barthes’s method of textual analysis were concerned with micro-analysis of narrative fiction films, in order to find how cinematic devices position the spectator’s desire. The two tendencies certainly informed each other a lot, but the integration in terminology and in methodology has remained unfulfilled (Mayne 20).

Reconsideration of psychoanalytic concepts appeared by the development of cognitive and narrative approaches in film studies. Cognitive theorists strongly criticized the psychoanalytic abstraction of the passive and homogenous spectator implied in apparatus theory, and has provided a concept on film-viewing that is based on the results of cognitive research (Bordwell 12-18). The narrative approach seems to disregard the psychoanalytic interpretation, and to keep the method of textual analysis, providing a useful terminology of narrative devices derived from the narrative theory of literature.


Aim of the research

The aim of this paper is to find a way how a psychoanalytic and feminist abstraction and cinematographic-visual facts can interact with each other. The goal is to examine the correspondence between the concept of male gaze and focalization, and to find the textual connection between the structuralist term used by narrative theory of film and literature, and the highly theoretic idea of male gaze.

Aesthetic features are widely regarded as unquantifiable. My goal is to demonstrate that quantifying elements of the compositional pattern in a film can be a useful method of analysis. 



The hypothesis of the investigation has two levels. On the first one, the question is whether a conceptual correspondence can be found between the two ideas. This requires a theoretical investigation. If it turns out to be reasonable, then on the second level it may be possible to transform the concept of male gaze into a focalization pattern within a film. This requires a textual analysis. This transformation can be a fruitful integration of different theoretical perspectives, that may provide an inspiring basis for further research.


The Concept of Male Gaze


Description of male gaze assumes that the visual structures of mainstream films repeating the patriarchal logic of power and domination, where point of view is controlled by the male character and the female character appears as the object of his gaze (Mulvey 19-20). The term of male gaze rooted in the so-called Screen Theory, that involves paradigms like feminism, Brechtianism, structuralism, Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis (Mayne 22, 32, Aaron 24-34, Chaudhuri 31-44). In the seventies, Screen Theory was dealing with the relationship between the spectator and the film text, and the theoretical formation of the subject through the act of spectating. One of the central points of Screen Theory is the Lacanian concept of Gaze (Lacan 67-78), which is, on the one hand, effected by the Sartreian transcendental Ego, and is in connection with the mirror stage, the conception of the imaginary and the formation of the ego (Copjec 30-38). Lacan’s concept at the same time contains Merleau-Ponty’s idea of pre-existing gaze that stares at us from the outside (Lacan 72). Lacan is concerned with the pre-existence of gazes, that are pre-existing the subjective view, and to which we are subjected.

The term male gaze was conceptualized in Mulvey’s essay on “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” in 1975, on the pages of Screen. Beside the Lacanian concept, Mulvey applies other currently used psychoanalytic ideas as well. According to Mulvey, there are three levels on which the gaze is operating in the cinema. The voyeuristic gaze of the camera as it is filming, the look of the protagonists, that is usually the look of the male protagonist as it positions women characters within the narrative itself, and finally the gaze of the spectator, as it is facilitated by the previous two positions (Mulvey 25). My research refers mainly to the second level.


The Concept of Focalization

The term of focalization was introduced around 1972 by structuralist literary theorist, Gerard Genette, whose aim was to distinguish the narrator’s activity from the activity of the character (Genette 72-79). Genette’s work had a very pronounced impact on narrative theory of film, it sharpened and recasted the broad concept of point of view and perspective. Point of view is one of the most important means of structuring narrative discourse according to Robert Stam, and he claims that it is one of the most powerful mechanisms for audience manipulation (Stam 83-95). Focalization is subdivided into different types by Genette. Vision is externally focalized when the perception is not bondable to a character, and the shot is focalized internally when the camera takes the place of a character’s eye or optical point-of-view (Genette 72).

The paper follows Mieke Bal (142-159) and Celestine Deleyto’s (159-177) ideas about focalization, who differentiate between two poles of focalization: the focalizer subject that sees, and the focalized object that is seen, and they argue that focalization is the relation between them, that refers to the questions: who is seeing within the diegesis? who is seen? whose perception orients the visual information? or what is the most important question for the issue discussed: who is allowed to see and who isn’t?

Hypothesis 1

How can we link these two distant ideas introduced above? I suppose that the most significant correspondence between the two terms – male gaze and focalization – is that both of them include a perceptual relationship between a focalized object and a focalizer subject. The position of the focaliser character is regarded to be more advantageous than the non-focaliser positions. The spectator views with the focalizer’s eye, and is inclined to accept the vision presented by that character. The significance of the revealed subject-object relationship can verify the conceptual relation between the terms.

Both focalization and male gaze have definitions expanding the sensory range to psychological or ideological perspective, this research is supposed to remain at the perceptual level regarding the correspondence of the concepts.

Hypothesis 2

According to the second hypothesis, male gaze can be defined as a pattern of internal focalization, or as a constant combination of a male focalizer and a female focalized object within a film.


Compositional Devices of Internal Focalization in Film

Following Deleyto’s argument (171), I introduce the most important filmic techniques of getting close to a character’s subjectivity, the compositional devices of internal focalization. One of the most important filmic means that binds focalization to a character is eyeline match shot. Eyeline match shot is composed of two shots, a glance shot – where we see the focalizer agent, a character who sees – and an object shot – that shows us the focalized object in a point of view shot in order to depict what the character looks at.

Edward Branigan in Point of View in the Cinema was the one who extended the role of POV to the overall architecture of film narrative form, and emphasized the subjective ingredients of  POV structures. He argues that „whenever a character glances – fastens upon an object – and we see the object of that glance, there exists an inevitable subjectivization of film space.” (130). Another filmic technique that emphasizes subjectivity is shot/counter-shot (or shot/reverse-shot), that is a sequence of several shots, where the gazes of characters meet. In a SCS a character is focalizing and is focalized at the very same time. A third editing element of subjectivity is reaction shot that is showing a character reacting to what was seen by him or her.



In order to transform male gaze into structural-narrative terms, these editing elements mentioned above, were collected in two selected films in order to grasp a pattern of focalizer-focalized combinations. I selected two films by Hitchcock for textual analysis – Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964). Mulvey argues that both of these films are dominated by the male character’s perceptual point of view and female characters are the objects of looking (23-24).

In the process of data collection character-bound shots were collected and the length of them was measured. Afterwards the pattern of internal focalization sequences was examined.


The following introduction of results focuses on the focalization of the protagonists, and on the technique of eyeline match shot, that is the most relevant composition technique in narrative film.


Table 1: Temporal Distribution of Internal Focalization among Characters of Vertigo


Table 1 shows the temporal distribution of internal focalization among film-characters of Vertigo. The length of the film is approximately 7173 seconds, the total length of internally focalized sequences is 3055 seconds. This proportion means that the characters’ internal focalization covers the half of the total time. In the remaining time, the shots are focalized externally. The main male protagonist’s, Scottie’s internal focalization (2250 seconds, 73% of the total time of internal focalization) is extended to almost the entire narrative of Vertigo.




Number of EM segments



Madeleine / Judy


1388 sec

Madeleine / Judy



8 sec




47 sec




40 sec

Table 2: Internal Pattern of Eyeline Match (EM) Sequences in Vertigo

Close examination of the patterns of eyeline match sequences shows how dominant the Scottie-focaliser and Madeleine/Judy-focalised[1] combination is within the film, and how weak is the opposite. The combination of the non-protagonist female character (Midge) as focalizer and the male protagonist (Scottie) as focalized seems to be very interesting. This is that moment in the film when Scottie is in a mental hospital, in a regressive traumatized state (Figure 1-4) losing his focalizer position transiently. It reveals how deep the interconnection is between the compositional pattern of focalization and the emotional level of the narrative.  


Figure 1-4: Eyeline Match Shot: the non-protagonist female character (Midge) as focalizer and the male protagonist (Scottie) as focalized (Vertigo, 1958).


Interpreting the results of Vertigo as a prototypical case of male gaze can lead us to misrecognition. We can not ignore the fact that the story of Vertigo is about a man following an unknown woman, for what is an adequate depicting method to use compositions expressing that the man is observing the woman. In the following part, I continue with the textual analysis of the film Marnie, that doesn’t contain the motive of follow-up.

Table 3 demonstrates the temporal structure of characters’ focalization in the film Marnie. The total length of the film is 7317 seconds. Compared to the male protagonist (Marc Rutland, 340 sec), the female protagonist’s (Marnie) internal focalization (780 sec, 70% of total time of internal focalization) takes more time in the film. (Figure 5-8 gives examples for the internal focalization of the female protagonist) This result seems to be in contradiction with Laura Mulvey’s claims about the dominance of male gaze, and the patriarchic dominance that structures the visual field of the film.


Figure 5-6: Eyeline Match Shot: Marnie as Focalizer (Marnie)

Figure 7-8: Eyeline Match Shot: Marnie as Focalizer (Marnie)

Table 3: Temporal Distribution of Internal Focalization among Characters of Marnie




Number of

EM sequences


Marc Rutland



332 sec


Marc Rutland



Table 4: Internal Pattern of Eyeline Match (EM) Sequences in Marnie


Table 4 demonstrates the combination pattern of eyeline match shots. Even if Marnie gains more character-bound focalization, she never observes the male protagonist in a one-way direction look. Marnie is allowed to watch objects and supporting actors and to explore her surroundings, but she is not allowed to watch the male leading actor. She certainly looks at Marc Rutland during the movie, but these sequences are always composed in a shot counter-shot sequence, where both characters look at each other in the same time.

Figure 9-10: The male focalizer (glance shot) and the focalized female (object shot) (Marnie)



The theory of male gaze can direct our investigation, and it provides an optional starting point for interpretations. Examination of focalization can link our schemas into the discourse of the filmic world. Quantifying and comparing measures seem to be useful methods that can provide a firm basis to interpretation.

After verifying the conceptual relationship between male gaze and focalization, I transformed the idea of male gaze into focalization patterns by analyzing the filmic technique of internal focalization. The textual analysis of the film Marnie refutes Mulvey’s statement that in Hitchcock’s films male protagonists are the only controllers of point-of-view, but it confirms Mulvey’s argument about the „looked-at-ness” of female characters (25). The male protagonist (Rutland) is allowed to watch the female protagonist (Marnie), the aim of his internal focalization is mostly to observe Marnie. The textual analysis of internal focalization reveals the pattern – as Mieke Bal (158) considers – of who allows whom to watch whom in the diegesis.             

We can agree with Branigan when he emphasizes the role of point-of-view shot in subjective ingredient. It has a significant role indeed. The imbalance of the focalizer-focalized roles among characters can reveal deeper patterns and connections. Structural analysis of two films doesn’t make it possible to articulate generalities, but we can presume that some aspects of the visual structure can refer to the psychological, emotional structure of the story, that is in some cases pre-structured for example by the patriarchic logic of gender imbalance.

Lacan (72) argues about the pre-existence of the gaze. He assumes that there are gazes that pre-exist our subjective view. We – as characters of films – are always-already beings who are looked at. There are gazes pre-existing the subjective view, and to which we are subjected.

Further Questions

Examination of focaliser-focalised combinations can express complex but hidden relations of fictional characters. The results, on the one hand, inspire fruitful questions of narrative: which character’s point-of-view is the one through which the spectator sees a character, or perceives a narrative? What kind of reflection does the focalizer character provide to the spectator? And whose realm of experience fits the image of the object? The image presented of an object talks about the focalized, or does it say something about the focaliser itself?

On the other hand an integrative empirical approach of cinema, a systematic measurement of textual and narrative elements can provide a frame on which a deeper understanding of spectatorship can be built. An integrative examination would be capable of concerning the interaction between theory and empirical evidence, and between narrative cues and their affect on film reception at the same time. Inspiration for methodology is provided in the study of Els Andringa, Petra van Horssen, Astrid Jacobs and Ed Tan (133-157), whose purpose was to establish empirical evidence of the effects of film perspective on viewers’ character perception and empathy by manipulating the level of internal focalization.



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Bal, Mieke. De theorie van vertellen en verhalen. Trans. Christine von Boheemen. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Bordwell, David. ?Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory.? Post-theory: Reconstructing Film Studies Eds. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 3-36.

Branigan, E. R. Point of View in the Cinema. A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film. Berlin: Mouton, 1984.

Casetti, Francesco. Teorie del cinema 1945-1990. Trans. Katalin Dobolán. Budapest: Osiris, 1998.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Copjec, Joan. Read my desire. The MIT Press, 1994. 15-38.

Deleyto, Celestino. ?Focalization in Film Narrative.? Atlantis 13(1991): 159-177.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative discourse revisited. Cornell University Press, 1988.

Lacan, Jacques Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan. L ivre Xl ,Les quartre concepts fondamentaux de Ia psychanalyse' Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.

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Mulvey, Laura. ?Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.? Visual and Other Pleasures New York: Palgrave, 1989, 14-28.

Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis  New vocabularies in film semiotics: structuralism, post-structuralism, and beyond Routledge, 1992, 83-95.


Hitchcock, Alfred. Vertigo. USA. 1958.

Hitchcock, Alfred. Marnie. USA. 1964.


[1] The film story allows merging the results of the two female protagonists with each other (Madeleine and Judy).

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Katalin Bálint "Are Women Really Focalized?". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 4, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 15, 2011, Published: March 15, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Katalin Bálint