The Patriarchy in Pastel: The Male Gaze and Gender Roles in The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola’s debut film The Virgin Suicides could perhaps be read as feminist because of her focus on female protagonists and her role as a female director in an industry dominated by men. Indeed, Coppola’s father is a titan in the film industry. Her films have diverted from Francis Ford Coppola’s spectacles of male power in her use of overwhelming girlish motifs and pastel color schemes, a result of shooting in natural light. Or so her films would appear to be a diversion on the surface. The nuances of The Virgin Suicides reveal that Coppola situates the viewer in the male gaze via her middle-aged narrator. The narrator constructs the story with heavy-handed, patriarchal themes that attempt force the Lisbon sisters into a box in which they do not truly fit. The girls were far more complex than the narrator could comprehend or wants them to be; thus, the sisters’ story is not representative of who they actually were even though the narrator professes his desire to investigate the full nature of the girls. As the narrator tells the story of his and the Lisbon sisters’ period of sexual awakening, which results in the deaths of the girls, the viewer comes to understand that the film is being constructed by an unreliable, castrated man who remains stunted by the traumatic loss of the girls whom he continues to obsessively desire. Because the narrator’s gaze is rooted in patriarchal notions of power, Coppola subjects the Lisbon sisters and the audience to the limitations imposed by the narrator as he seeks to serve his version of who the girls should have been.

Although the narrator first appears to be an omniscient presence in the story, he reveals through his narrative devices that he has a significant bias in his presentation of the Lisbon sisters. Because the first introduction to the narrator is through voice of God narration, the implication is that he is all knowing. This theory is rebuked when the narrator reveals the teenagers who amalgamate him. The narrator’s temporal distance from the events then implies that he may have obtained knowledge in the twenty-five years since the suicides that will drive the story forward in a way that could not have happened immediately following the girls’ deaths. Indeed, the narrator has acquired new information regarding the lives of the Lisbon sisters, but much of that information comes from speculation or outside sources. What does come from primary sources, such as diaries, is open to interpretation by the boys whose biases color their view of the writings. In one scene, the boys largely ignore Cecelia’s poetry on trees and quotations from famous minds through history but focus intently on discussion of the girls’ personal lives and romantic fixations. Here, the initial omniscient type whom the narrator purports himself to be begins to dissolve as ulterior motives are revealed. The film is used as a vehicle for the narrator to further explore his obsession with the Lisbon sisters as he becomes more and more removed from the events.

The audience is made to identify with the narrator’s perspective as he guides the story, but because the audience never sees what the narrator looks like their image of the narrator is through the teenage boys. Therefore, the audience identifies more with teenagers fixating on teenagers rather than a grown man fixating on young girls. Moreover, an abundance of voyeuristic shots, especially gazing through windows or telescopes, puts a focus on the apparatus as the binding agent for the viewer to the film. In his essay “The Imaginary Signifier”, Christian Metz wrote, “The spectator himself does not escape these pincers [of the camera], for he is part of the apparatus….” (Metz 254) Metz’s view of the camera as the primary envoy for identification relates to The Virgin Suicides as the film is composed with an emphasis on the visuals. Much of the story is told with subtlety that relies on the gaze of the camera as a stand in for the gaze of the boys. As the audience identifies with the apparatus, it follows that they identify with the male gaze of the narrator. The apparatus, and identification with the camera’s gaze, benefits the narrator’s construction of the story by drawing the audience into the investigation as though they are one of the boys that amalgamates the narrator.

Arguably, his obsession stagnates rather than grows because the narrator is left going over the same pieces of information; however, he conducts interviews which allow him to introduce new viewpoints. Coppola institutes interviews as a motif when a reporter knocks on the Lisbon’s door looking for information on Cecelia. Although this reporter’s interview is not directly conducted by the boys, the viewer sees the boys and other neighbors interacting with this report when it airs. The boys’ personal interviews follow this first one as though the reporter piqued their interest in using interview to discover the secrets of the girls. Each person interviewed comes with a different bias, but because they all corroborate the main storyline they appear to be reliable. One of the more subtle uses of interview comes when a school administrator describes why green was chosen for suicide awareness pamphlets passed out after Cecelia’s suicide. As her reasoning, “We thought green was cheerful, but not too cheerful,” interrupts the narrator, Coppola integrates this outside perspective into the narrator’s monologue. (The Virgin Suicides 33:28) As the narrator guides the story, he then chooses to use the administrator’s voice rather than his own as though to authenticate his own perspective. However, the only time the viewer is able to witness the conducting of an interview is when an adult Trip Fontaine, the man Lux loses her virginity to, is interviewed in a rehab facility. Because the audience never sees the narrator, they instead adopt the narrator’s point of view in a shot that directly faces Trip from across a table as though the audience, rather than the narrator, and Trip are old friends discussing a dead girl they desired. Trip can recall Lux with perfect detail to the His interest perhaps does not go as far as the narrator’s, who hunted down Trip well into both their adult lives with the hope that Trip would be able to provide some clarity to the lives of the Lisbon sisters, in particular Lux. The narrator gets to choose how he uses Trip’s interview, as he proved when he excerpted the school administrator’s words. Therefore, Trip’s recollections are in service of the grander scheme of the version of the Lisbon sisters that the narrator chooses to both present and accept. Because the narrator has such a strong bias on how he wants the Lisbon sisters to function for his own purposes in the investigation and his grief, his presentation of the girls is limited to fit within his gaze. Though the interviews initially appeared to be a sign that the narrator was reliable and had varying perspectival evidence to back up how he represents the sisters, he is instead remains stuck within the strict confines of his male gaze and desires.

A further intervention on audience perception of the narrator’s reliability is the use of dream sequences as another motif set up by Coppola to illustrate the delusions of the narrator. The narrator begins the first dream sequence by defining how he was made to see girlhood through Cecelia’s diary. He describes how the boys interpreted Cecelia’s diary: “Coming to hold collected memories of times we hadn’t experienced, we felt the imprisonment of being a girl. The way it made your mind active and dreamy…” (The Virgin Suicides 26:25) The dreaminess that the boys understand from the diary then translates into how they present the girls in the dream sequences. The scenes have nothing to do with reality; they offer an escape in which the sisters serve at the pleasure of the narrator and, by extension, the viewer. These dream sequences are purely a construct born out of the narrator’s craving to both understand and possess the girls. Because the male narrator desires the Lisbon sisters, the viewer is made to desire the sisters via his gaze. Coppola chooses to satisfy the idea that the narrator and viewer could have the Lisbon sisters through illusion rather than plot. Audience identification with the film is felt through physiological response; therefore, in order to heighten the sensations of desire the viewer must be led to believe that there is a possibility of sexually having the Lisbon sisters. Vivian Sobchack wrote in her essay What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh, “…the spectator’s identification with the cinema has been constituted almost exclusively as a specular and psychical process abstracted from the body and mediated through language.” (Sobchack) The narrator both tells the audience how to feel towards the sisters and holds up a mirror, forcing them to confront their sexual impulses through lascivious response. The viewer almost pleads that the halcyon images become real.

Furthermore, Steven Shaviro suggested in his essay Film Theory and Visual Fascination that as the viewer and image co-constitute each other an imagined self is created; in the case of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s imagined events aid in the suturing of the imagined self into the film. If the audience is sutured into a perspective of sexual feelings towards teenage girls, all of whom are under eighteen, are they then perverse? There is nothing new in a perversion of film viewing. However, the final piece that allows distance, contributes to the fake self, and denies sexual deviance is that the audience never sees the narrator. The audience is guided by the narrator’s voice but identifies with the images of teenagers. Therefore, the construct of the dream sequences, which are founded on innocence, suture the audience and stir an erotic response because the fake self that is created aligns with the teenage boys. However, the narrator does not construct a fake self, but instead guides the audience through all their desires as a middle-aged man. He is then not only unreliable in his forcing the sisters to conform to his image of what they should be, but also stunted in his long-term fixation on lusting after young girls. Arguably, the only way the audience departs from identification with the narrator is in seeing the girls through the fake teenage self rather than a middle-aged self. The narrator is stuck in the past, but he has the experiences of a man with the mindset of a teenager; thus, he presents the story as it benefits his inhibited perspective.

The Lisbon sisters explore but never fully model the virgin trope, a common presentation of women for the benefit of men. Bill Nichols explored the trope in his essay Feminism and Film: Feminist Film Criticism and the Paradigm Shift to Formal-Social Analysis. Indeed, much of the virgin trope belongs to the views of men who align female characters with “innocence and vulnerability,” the cornerstone traits of the virgin. (Nichols 399) A subcategory of the virgin trope is the dumb blonde, “whose innocence combines with obliviousness regarding her erotic effect on others.” (Nichols 400) The Lisbon sisters, all blondes, fall into this category because their innocence and sheltered upbringing blocks them from acting on or even noticing the erotic effect they have on the boys. Lux is the exception. It is made clear that Lux understands and takes an active role in exploring sexuality and seduction in her writing Kevin Hanes’s and Trip Fontaine’s names on her underwear and her hooking up with boys on the roof of her home. Through her sexual awareness, Lux is established as a black sheep of the family. While the sisters are often remembered as a unit, Lux is the only one ever pictured separated from the others. This phenomenon begins with the first shot in which Lux is shown coquettishly sucking on a popsicle and later, as the title is shown, when her superimposed, dreamlike face winks directly at the viewers. Jocelyn Nicole Murphy argues in her essay The Role of Women in Film: Supporting the Men — An Analysis of How Culture Influences the Changing Discourse on Gender Representations in Film that “one side of modern feminists contends that owning and celebrating one’s sexuality by being in control of the context of a situation gives women power.” (Murphy 10) While Lux certainly celebrates her sexuality, she is not in control of the context. The Virgin Suicides is then made to be about reality versus remembering, or fabricating, the past. (Hoskin) The girls are left to exist as virgins for eternity, a statement not of their sexual experience but of the purity and identity the boys assign them.

As the teenage boys’ sexual awakening coincides with the girls’, rather than attempt to understand their own sexuality, they channel their new state of being into a fixation on the sisters as the girls become women. In doing so, the film does not become about the girls’ experience of sexual awakening, but of the boys’ experience of the girls’ sexual awakening. Catharine MacKinnon wrote in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, “…women have been substantially deprived not only of their own experience but of terms of their own in which to view it…” (MacKinnon 129) MacKinnon continues with a discussion of the implications of the construct of sexuality as it has defined women’s experience. Her theory encapsulates the exact mode of female representation in the real world that translates into the world of The Virgin Suicides. In part, the viewer can look to the source material to recognize the extent of the male gaze in the film, considering the book the film is based on was authored by a man. However, Coppola had the opportunity to rectify the implications of the male gaze on the girls through her female gaze. Many of Coppola’s films focus on young women. Coppola’s making films that feature female protagonists does not automatically make her a feminist director. Indeed, The Virgin Suicides highlights her shortcomings as she subscribes to the male gaze and subjects her characters to the identities the narrator forces upon them. The lack of agency the Lisbon sisters are given in their own story calls into question whether they are even the protagonists of the story. The narrator and his teenage counterparts certainly have a more active role, and the audience only ever sees the narrator’s fetishization of the girls. In the boys’ attempt to understand the girls through interviews and memorabilia, they sideline the very figures who hold the key to knowing the girls: the Lisbon sisters themselves. The boys rarely interact with the girls through any means other than voyeurism, yet the audience knows that their investigation began before the girls’ suicides. The film then draws parallels to Mulvey’s psychoanalytic film theory. Mulvey wrote, “At the extreme, [scopophilia] 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.” (Mulvey 201) Because the boys’, and later the narrator’s, pleasure is derived from investigating the Lisbon sisters while not being active participants in the sisters’ lives, they represent a patriarchal desire to understand women without including women in the conversation.

A focus on the girls while excluding the girls’ voices reveals the film to further be a construct by solely the narrator’s castrated perspective. Metz theorized about identification beyond the apparatus with the characters. Metz’s argument states, “As for identifications with characters…they are secondary…cinematic identifications…taken as a whole in opposition to the identification of the spectator with his own look…” (Metz 259) The audience’s identification with the narrator is then presumed to be an opposite version of the viewer, which implicates the female viewer as the consequences of the male gaze weigh on the female psyche. Returning to Shaviro’s theory of the fake self, the female viewer has the potential to construct a teenage boy self for the purposes of viewing the film. Indeed, this fake self would potentially engage with the film through a male gaze. The shortcomings of this theory implicate the female viewer in forcing her to deny the female experience, thus seeking to identify her with the bias of the male gaze. MacKinnon wrote, “…to limit feminism to correcting sex bias by acting in theory as if male power did not exist…is to limit feminist theory the way sexism limits women’s lives: to a response to terms men set.” (MacKinnon 128) The narrator sets the terms of who and what the girls can be; thus, their existence is limited and he is unreliable in his personalizing facts for his selfish narrative. The narrator does not desire to understand the girls, he desires to construct the girls in his perfect image. In this way, the narrator builds upon a patriarchal expectation that women will serve men’s image of what women should be. Mulvey wrote, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” (Mulvey 203) Coppola fell into a trap, as did Mulvey in her essay: in focusing on the male gaze, both Coppola and Mulvey disregard the female subject and viewer. Whether or not Coppola was familiar with Mulvey’s essay prior to making The Virgin Suicides is irrelevant. As a woman, she was familiar with the female experience and, if she believes herself to be the feminist filmmaker that many have professed her as, she should have recognized the implications of her film’s use of the male gaze to sideline her supposed protagonists. Perhaps that she did not is the paradox of what MacKinnon wrote: there are limitations in being a woman in a patriarchal world, but having that knowledge is not mutually inclusive with the paradigm shift that would need to occur within society to override the male gaze. The narrator of The Virgin Suicides then controls the girls, the events, and the audience in a fairly predictable way because of Coppola’s inability to free the film from the constraints of patriarchal reference.

Bibliography

Coppola, Sofia, dir. The Virgin Suicides. 2000; Hollywood, CA: Paramount.

Hoskin, Bree. “Playground Love: Landscape and Longing in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, 2007,  214 – 221.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Sexuality.” Toward a Feminist Theory of State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Metz, Christian. “The Imaginary Signifier.” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Philip Rosen, Columbia University Press, 1986.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Philip Rosen, Columbia University Press, 1986.

Murphy, Jocelyn Nicole. The Role of Women in Film: Supporting the Men — An Analysis of How Culture Influences the Changing Discourse on Gender Representations in Film. Diss. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 2015.

Nichols, Bill. “Feminism and Film: Feminist Film Criticism and the Paradigm Shift to Formal-Social Analysis.” Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1985.

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh.” Sense of Cinema no. 5 2000.

Shaviro, Steven. “Film Theory and Visual Fascination.” The Cinematic Body, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

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