Desire and the Male Gaze in ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and ‘The Beguiled’

American Zoetrope

In The Virgin Suicides, the body of a thirteen-year-old girl hangs uncomfortably across a wrought iron fence, limbs dangling lifelessly, eyes void of warmth. The fence pierces through her abdomen, and when her mother screams in horror, we know with a great finality that Cecilia (Hanna Hall) was successful in her second suicide attempt. Her four living sisters, sprinting upstairs from the party they had been hosting in their basement, shriek and immediately turn away, but the boys who had been with them stare unabashedly. Eventually, they move along from the trauma, walking down the front path, but they turn back to look after every few steps. They are obsessed with looking, obsessed with invading the privacy of these five girls who they believe exist purely for their amusement.

In The Beguiled, death rears its head differently: it becomes a form of regaining control for the women and girls, who are mercilessly manipulated, sweet-talked, threatened, and emotionally damaged by the only man they interact with, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Within these dual narratives of death, desire, and girlhood, Sofia Coppola intelligently develops a discussion surrounding how the male gaze operates— how women and girls become objects of manipulation and are villainized because of their sexuality, even if it goes unexpressed. 

Throughout The Beguiled, we get a sense of how these girls and women exist in their skin and in their isolated, shrunken down world, through their tasks and mannerisms. We perceive them abstractly rather than digesting their thoughts. Their characters are built by their physical expressions — the way Alicia (Elle Fanning) slumps, eyes distant, the way Amy (Oona Laurence) completes every task with great care and gentleness, the way Martha (Nicole Kidman) notes with sharp, distasteful glances the way the girls have begun dressing up in the presence of the Corporal, and the way Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) squints in frustration when the girls giggle in his direction. Even in moments of intense or violent emotion, only the Corporal is given the dialogue to directly express his emotions while the women make their feelings known through actions, like when an enraged Edwina shoves the Corporal down the stairs.

This is connected to how women have been socialized historically; in the time during which communication is developed in children, girls are frequently taught not to make a fuss or speak up. Thus, women tend to communicate in a much more nonverbal way than men. Their understanding and use of body language, in particular, is fluid and well-practiced. In two films that aim to deconstruct the male gaze, this emphasis on silent and physically expressed emotion is critical. Coppola intentionally contrasts verbalized male emotion with quiet female expression.

American Zoetrope

In The Virgin Suicides, the girls are constantly in tune with each other, fully exemplifying this silent, behavior-based communication. In public, we see the sisters use their girlishness to cover the darkness that thrums throughout each of them (Cecilia taping bracelets over her bandages as if to pretend she never slit her wrists). Playful scenes cut to moments of deep unrest, like the four of them slumped meditatively against different walls in a school bathroom. Their discomfort with their lives is made much more apparent as they all pile on top of each other, hands entangled and cheeks pressed into shoulders; the only material comfort they find is within each other. Their isolated togetherness is the only time they actually express what they feel. This is the only time we see them as they see themselves, rather than how the boys, their parents, or the town sees them.

For each of the women, in both The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides, there seem to be two selves. One is the actual self, while the other is the male-identified self that becomes an object. The male-identified self prioritizes assumed sexuality and flirtatiousness, things considered to be for men. The Corporal and the boys are so preoccupied with seeing them as beings that exist for their satisfaction that they ignore their individuality. On the part of the Corporal, he is fully aware of their clear differences and uses that to manipulate them, but first and foremost regards them all (even the younger girls) as vengeful, sexual women who are, collectively, villainous. 

Through their constructed perceptions of the women, the men view female sexuality as a source of evil, trying to pin them as seductresses and making that seduction a root of violence. In The Beguiled, this intersection of sexuality and violence comes after the Corporal is shoved down the stairs (something meant to be far less aggressive than it was) after being found in bed with one of the girls by Edwina, who he had promised himself to. This ultimately results in the amputation of his leg, which is done with regret to save his life. He screams and rages and flings things, calling them all “vengeful bitches” when the truth of it is that he preyed upon and manipulated each of them, intentionally pitting them against each other. He deliberately misplaces the blame for the harm that came to him on their jealousy and their sexuality.

In The Virgin Suicides, everything comes across with a bit more innocence, but the consequences are just as severe; the boys were so focused on how they thought the girls teased them and stirred up infatuation that they didn’t realize the sisters were planning a mass suicide. Even when the girls literally reached out to ask for help, communicating in morse code through the lights in their room, the boys interpreted it wrongly. When the girls sent them postcards marked with the words “Remember us? Will you help?” they thought of them as flirtatious gifts to be treasured, rather than serious cries for help.

Diving further into the idea of individuality, Coppola is careful in both films to clue the audience into the complexities between the groups of girls and women. Throughout The Beguiled, this establishing of individuality comes from the distinctly varied plaits in their hair, menial tasks, snarkiness, whininess, and expressive emotion. In The Virgin Suicides, it comes in the form of tiny repeated mentions of interest (Cecelia talking about frogs in fascination and the bright green frog taped messily onto a page in her journal, one that the boys flip right past in search of some entry about themselves). Individuality also comes through in the last few sequences in the film, where the girls kill themselves synchronously, but with vastly different methods, despite the added difficulty.

When the boys find them, they expect the girls alive and waiting, ready to run away with them, but instead, they find them slumped and sprawled and hung throughout the house, very dead, throwing them off guard. As they sprint through the house, all we and the boys see are the girls’ feet. In this, Coppola stresses the differences between them that the boys failed to see. They so harmfully idealize the girls that they miss nearly everything real and honest about them. Everything about their lives is sensationalized. 

American Zoetrope

To better understand how Coppola differentiates between the female (or neutral) and the male gaze, we can look at how the intradiegetic spectatorship of the characters is structured, particularly in The Virgin Suicides, where the boys are spectators themselves. This gaze is criticized and examined throughout. Coppola fractures spectator identification by not allowing us to identify with either the women or the men. Thus, our attention is drawn to the manner in which the male gaze operates.

One particular scene in The Virgin Suicides makes this apparent: Lux rolls around on the roof of their house making out with a boy, while the other boys watch intently from a house nearby. They watch through a telescope and set of binoculars, excitedly dictating what they see and shoving each other back and forth so they all get a turn. The audience watches the boys through a still, neutral lens, but only sees Lux through the lens of the telescope as it wobbles back and forth, thus being made privy to the gaze of the boys. At this point, they have completely made Lux an object of entertainment, turning the way she lashes out against her horribly stifling and toxic home life into something amusing to watch with a bowl of popcorn. Then, Coppola pulls us out of the intra-diegetic male gaze by turning her own, neutral camera on Lux as she smokes on the roof after whatever boy it was had gone home.

Even in the end, after the suicides of five young girls, all the boys concern themselves with is their own infatuation, their fantasy of who the girls were. In the last moments of the film, they say, about a story with such a horrific end, “it only mattered that we had loved them.” The Corporal is the same, deeming all of the women to be vindictive, jealous, and filled with nothing but desire. In general, but especially throughout these two films, Coppola sees the male gaze as something to be deconstructed and analyzed. She wants the viewer to see exactly how women become both objectified and villainized for merely existing because they will always be quantified by men as sexual beings.

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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