An Eye on Consent: The male gaze and female pacification in Michael Gordon’s “Pillow Talk”

Women playing to male desire was thematic in Hollywood, and was a phenomenon catalyzed by commercial films in life off the screen. Surges in eating disorders, for example, evince internalized beliefs—most often by women—that they have aesthetically failed to ‘play’ to a male sexual appetite. “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact is that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” (Mulvey 1975).Women in such films as Pillow Talk are cast to ‘hold the look’ directed upon them by heterosexual male subject, but it is worth noting that such male subjects are cast to have their held by the female object, even if it is not held by her eyes. (As the average male identifies with the casted one, the expectation develops that the object of the average male’s desires will also hold his gaze.) In question was not whether the female object in Hollywood films would fulfill his scopohilic desires, among others, but how much of ‘a fight’ she would put up in between first gaze directed toward her and the two winding up horizontal, limbs entangled (even if such an ending is only implied as in Pillow Talk).

Of course, there are moments Pillow Talk, other films, and in lived lives where a lack of awareness that the male gaze is being cast upon her renders the female object powerless in managing it. The one-way gaze signifies desire, which, according to Mulvey, “allows the possibility of transcending the instinctual and the imagined” (1975).2 While desire may transcend the imagined through its capacity to bring us actual pleasure (at least temporarily), such transcendence does not make the desired situation any less of an egotistic projection nor figment of the imagination. Notwithstanding a loaded performance by Doris Day, casting Rock Hudson as a bifurcated character (Wojcik 2010)3 makes any potential female desire for male attention conflated with desire for attention from someone like Rock, neither fully Brad nor fully Rex. When (fragile) masculine identifications with Rock’s performance—a performance that encodes facility in wooing the object and in manipulating himselves to do so—compounds with female desire for like-Rock male attention, male confidence is built higher on contradictory assumptions that she is both passive and secretly ‘wants it.’

Assumptions that occur within the film, as well as those produced and implied by the film for gendered sexuality performances in society, beg important questions about consent. Is the male gaze an act that creates desire he might later act upon sexually? Or is the male gaze a nonconsensual (but private) imposition of desire on another body—an experience from which he derives pleasure from her without her knowledge? If the male gaze creates a desire that cannot be fulfilled by gazing, later action by the male (of which the female must be aware for his masculinity to be affirmed) becomes requisite. For example, after eyeing Jan in front of his mother, Harvard man Tony Walter offers to drive Jan home. Shortly thereafter the shot cuts to a parked car, inside of which Tony is attempting to sexually dominate Jan.  After having verbally denied Tony repeatedly, he says: “it’s your word against mine.”4 While such an utterance elicits observable cringes from audience members steeped in today’s political climate, this scene and this phrase indicate that the film was conscious of consent to sexual advances in a way that Wojcik (2015) claimed it could not possibly have been.5

Alternatively, if the male gaze uses a female object to fulfill desire (by bringing the gazer sexual pleasure), then her say in an act of arousal is considered irrelevant and she is further pacified in the male imagination. When Brad is sitting at the dinner table with his date and sees Jan dancing, we get a vertical panoramic of Jan’s backside (apparently we had seen enough go her front-facing beauty) from Brad’s perspective. Pleasure here is implied as Marie, his actual date, becomes the butt of the joke. Suddenly, the carnal pleasure Brad would receive from the evening’s activities on his rotating bed with Marie pale in comparison to that which he is receiving simply from observing Jan’s corporeal movements. Despite relying on Jan for its production, the gaze here operates as auto-erotic response to Brad’s narcissistic projections of how he imagines he will “score” with Jan once he flips the switch on an automated process(es). It would be impossible to argue that auto-eroticism requires consent from an arousal-inspiring body. Nonetheless, the extent to which the male gaze pacifies its object lowers inhibitions to actualization of objectifying behavior in inter-personal interactions, as when Brad carries Jan from her bed and then through the streets against her wishes. Brad literally setting his sights on Jan is pleasurable because of the sexual fantasy that him gazing can produce, but additionally so because he subconsciously exaggerates his own agency in transferring this situation from imagination to reality.

The male gaze thus doubles as a pleasurable act that fulfills desires and as motivator to act later in ways that satisfy (more sexually ambitious) desires. Both depend heavily on the objectification, pacification, and sometimes manipulation of a sexually desirable female by a male subject. Brad “court[ing] the lady through a wicked pretense” (Crowther 1959)6 violates Jan, and the film is far more self-aware of this violation than scholars like Wojcik credit it to be. Such a reading of the film is supported by (relatively seldom) manifestations of female agency. Chief among them is inclusion of the redecorating trope at the end of the film. Not only do Jan’s redecorations fly in the face of the Playboy bachelor pad aesthetic, which spacialize and insulate Brad’s masculine identity (Wojcik 2010),7 but they also flout his personal tastes. In a non-sexual fashion, Jan’s revenge conquest similarly requires her to bypass Brad’s consent.  To “get the girl” with her consent, Brad must accept emasculation, rendering female consent and ideals of masculine control mutually exclusive. Post-war urbanity rewove a web of oft-intersecting masculinities and femininities, and the space of the apartment created an opportunity for males and females alike to assume a more multiplicitous set of public, private, and private-public hybrid identities. This reading is far from retroactive, as it was this kind of urban life—single females and males alike occupying their own apartment-closets—that brought to the fore a clash between male and female agencies that had been expanding in parallel to one another.

To conclude this discussion, I would like to comment on the camera’s relationship to the audience, and particularly its male subset. It is obvious that the camera is an instructive mechanism; its positioning and focus notify viewers of where they should direct their attention. However, the concept of the camera is internalized by audience members during the formation of their relationships with characters in a film. That is to say, viewers relate aspects of their identities (i.e. heterosexuality, masculinity) to aspects of characters’ performances—performances which are done for the camera. While some readings of the film queer Rock’s performance of masculinity or otherwise compromise it, most scenes of the film crystallize a then-formative urban, masculine heterosexuality. The average male’s identification with Rock’s putatively masculine desires parallel an identification with his performance; it is with the notion of Rock’s masculinity coming under constant surveillance in mind that male viewers conceptualize and idealize their future behavior. (Let the record reflect that societal forces like Helen Gurley Brown encouraged the same occurrence, if not more overtly, for women at the time.8) Utilization of a split screen and the eventually failed bifurcated identity suggest a collapse of public and private, as well as according expressions of gender and sexuality. At a formative historical moment for urban male identities, Pillow Talk and other films assisted with the installation of a panopticon, of sorts. The camera’s material representation of a felt panopticon affirmed the necessity of gendered and sexualized performances to actively rebuke anxieties and threats to hegemony, even if for men that frequently came with the cost of emotionally or physically violating women.



  1. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introudctory Readings. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 199: 833-44.
  2. Ibid. 837.
  3. Pamela Wojcik, “We Like Our Apartment,” The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, 107, Duke University Press (Durham and London), 2010.
  4. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, US, 1959).
  5. Pamela Wojcik, “Teaching Pillow Talk,” The Cine-Files, Issue 9, Fall 205,
  6. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: ‘Pillow Talk,’The New York Times, Oct. 7, 1959,
  7. Pamela Wojcik, “We Like Our Apartment,” The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, 88-138, Duke University Press (Durham and London), 2010.
  8. Laurie Oulette, “Inventing the Cosomo Girl: class identity and girl-style American dreams,” Media, Culture, & Society, SAGE Publications (London), 21:3(359-383), 1999.