Stanley Kubrick's Ideas of Gender Roles and Sexuality in His Movie Eyes Wide Shut

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In 1999, Kubrick released his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and it has since been analyzed endlessly. The film is layered with several different themes and motifs, but one theme that is particularly striking is Kubrick’s ideas regarding gender and sexuality. Kubrick seeks to present gender roles as unnatural societal constructs that are constricting and detrimental to the human condition. He does this by reversing the gender roles of Bill and Alice, subverting Mulvian archetypes while showing the stifling and damaging consequences of pursuing and upholding gender roles. These ideas concerning gender open up a larger conversation regarding the genre of the film. The film is progressive for the thriller genre, but, in the end, the main characters revert back to their flawed views, which brings into question whether these subversions were meaningful. The forwarding of the genre and then reversion, along with Bill and Alice’s journeys, can be seen as allegories for the repetitive nature of society, and its resistance to change, specifically feminism.

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Before I delve into an analysis I will provide a brief synopsis of the movie. Bill and Alice, our main characters, are affluent New Yorkers. Bill is a doctor and works for many wealthy clients, one of which is Victor Ziegler who invites the couple to his Christmas party in his lavish mansion. After this scene, Bill and Alice get into a fight, and Alice confesses that she almost cheated on him on one of their vacations with a naval officer. This shocks Bill and causes him to abruptly leave their apartment. He then goes on a sort of sexual adventure where a married woman comes onto him, he almost has sex with a prostitute, he witnesses an underage girl having sex with older men, and finally Bill infiltrates an orgy. The orgy is held in an enormous mansion much like Ziegler’s, where masked men perform satanic like rituals, and then proceed to have anonymous sex with several women. During this time, Bill is discovered as an intruder and his life is threatened. But then one of the prostitutes says she will sacrifice herself to save him. Bill is then allowed to go free but is told if he tells anyone what happened he will suffer the consequences. After this, Bill discovers that Ziegler was part of the orgy and that the prostitute who saved him died after the orgy to what was said to be an overdose. Ziegler insists this is the case but we are led to believe there was foul play. When Bill gets home he is overcome by guilt and admits everything to Alice. Ultimately, they decide that they were lucky they didn’t get killed, and that they should just move on with their lives. All of these elements of the plot, along with many other factors, contribute to the overall message of the film.

One of the most prominent motifs in the film is the idea of looking and being looked at. This makes Laura Mulvey’s ideas regarding the male gaze very important and crucial to our understanding of the intricacies of the film. Mulvey explains that the viewers of a film are made to identify with the protagonist, who in typical Hollywood films, is almost always male. This character casts his gaze on female characters who are in the film to be looked at. Mulvey asserts that the male viewer, through his identification with the main character, derives a voyeuristic pleasure from the experience(Mulvey). She also notes that female characters rarely advance the plot and instead provide moments of erotic contemplation. Another distinction she makes is that males predominantly act sadistically while women embrace masochism. Men typically act sadistically in order to punish women, while female characters tend to have self-destructive tendencies that lead to disaster and tragedy in the film. Kubrick was clearly aware of these conventions and consequently sought to subvert them in his film in order to make a statement on gender norms in cinema. By subverting Mulvian archetypes he undermines their power and sheds light on how prevalent they are in the modern cinema.

The most revealing scene regarding Kubrick’s subversions of Mulvey’s gendered gaze is the ballroom scene at Ziegler’s mansion. The couple arrives at the party and greets Ziegler and his wife. Bill and Alice then go their separate ways. Bill begins to flirt with two models and it becomes clear that not only does he enjoy looking at the models but also enjoys their gaze, and subsequent objectification of him. When they flirt with him and cast their gaze, he smiles profusely and is clearly flattered. The models erotically gaze at him and ask to take him “to the end of the rainbow”(Eyes Wide Shut) which we are led to believe is a euphemism for sex. Bill has become a sexual object to the models and he very much enjoys this. This contradicts Mulvey’s idea that the male cannot bear to be the subject of “the look” much less enjoy it. This is important because this reversal of what is expected brings attention to how uncommon male objectification is in film and helps set up Kubrick’s theme of gender subjectivity and equality.

At the party, Alice also undermines typical gender roles. When Alice and Bill get separated, it is Alice who casts her gaze onto Bill. Bill never once looks for or casts his gaze onto his wife; several times, however, we are put into the perspective of Alice’s gaze. But while she does this, Sandor, a guest at the party, repeatedly tries to seduce her. He is casting his male gaze onto Alice, and it is clear that she is enjoying it. Just like Bill, she both casts her gaze while simultaneously bearing the gaze and objectification of another. So, from the very beginning of the movie, both Bill and Alice are portrayed as simultaneously feminine and masculine in terms of their Mulvian positions of both bearing and casting their gaze.

Yet another way Bill and Alice defy gender conventions is in their sadistic and masochistic actions. In the scene where they argue in their bedroom after the party, Alice is sadistic in her actions. Bill feels he owns his wife and sees her as a sexual object. In order to shatter this idea, Alice proclaims that she once almost cheated on him. She says she would have given up everything she had with him for one night of passion. This proclamation is meant to hurt Bill and shatter his ego; therefore, her actions are sadistic. Mulvey states that men typically act sadistically in order to punish women and that the viewer derives pleasure from this. Interestingly, Bill takes on the role of female in the sense that he is the one who is repeatedly punished. In his attempts to sadistically punish his wife, he is ultimately led to the orgy, which almost gets him killed. This also puts him in the masochistic female role(Dovey). His actions are self-destructive which is usually reserved for female characters.

One important thing to note is that while Bill is portrayed as gender fluid in many ways, he fails to acknowledge this himself and asserts a simplistic view of gender. He states that men are promiscuous, while in contrast, women seek security and lack promiscuity. He asserts that men and women are fundamentally different and that this defines them. When Alice asks Bill if he thinks the women he examines think of him sexually when he touches their breasts he responds that women don’t think like that. He doesn’t merely stereotype women and say most women don’t think like that but says that all women don’t think like that. We almost get the sense that he is talking about a different species when he talks about women in comparison to men. This illustrates his denial considering even this early in the film he has been shown evidence to the contrary. It was the models who made advances on him, not the other way around. Recognizing this denial is crucial because, as I discuss later, Bill represents men in modern society and their similar denial.

The entire film seeks to destroy this notion of a gender dichotomy and consequently Bill’s denial. Along with Alice’s confession of promiscuity, we are constantly confronted with promiscuous women. When Bill leaves the house to comfort the daughter of a patient of his who died, she confesses her love for him and says that she’ll do anything to be with him, including leaving her fiancé. This is clearly meant to mirror the scene before with Alice’s confession, reinforcing the idea that women can be promiscuous and have sexual passions. Later, when Bill visits the costume store, Millich’s daughter is seen having an orgy of sorts with Japanese businessmen who state that she came onto them. Then she begins making sexual advances on Bill. Once again, women are portrayed as sexual aggressors in contrast to Bill’s distorted view of gender which serves to make him come to terms with gender subjectivity.

It is also important to note that when Bill tries to redeem his masculinity and reinforce his flawed conceptions of gender, his life is almost destroyed multiple times. When he attempts to sadistically punish his wife by having sex with a prostitute, which he doesn’t follow through with, it is later discovered that the prostitute had AIDS. Had he asserted his masculinity, he would have contracted a life threatening-disease. Then, when he infiltrates the orgy to again try to sadistically punish his wife and assert his masculinity, it ends with him almost getting killed, a woman sacrificing herself for him, and his family is put in danger. This demonstrates that attempts to uphold gender conventions are detrimental to the human condition.

But Bill is not the only one who upholds gender conventions. While Alice has many masculine qualities, it is still evident that she is a character who is defined by her looks, which Mulvey states most women in Hollywood films are. Throughout the film, she is constantly praised for her looks and shown grooming herself. In the opening scene, she drops her dress to the floor which is the ultimate expression of her to be looked-at-ness(Cornellier). In one scene we see her hooking on a brassiere and putting on makeup while looking in the mirror. This scene is shown directly after we see Bill at his office performing his job as a doctor. This seems to suggest that looking good is Alice’s occupation. It becomes apparent that her “job” is much like that of a prostitute in that she makes her living off her looks and has a passionless relationship.

The fact that Alice upholds sexist representations is very revealing. One thing that we notice early on in the film is that Alice is not happy and appears to be discontented with her current life. In one scene we see Alice and Bill kissing through a mirror. While Bill caresses her and kisses her neck, Alice stares into the mirror and has an expression of distaste. It appears that she realizes what she is and is and is sickened by it. She is essentially eye candy, and a sex object for Bill, rather than empowered and independent. Also, the only times we ever see Alice happy is when she is acting sadistically towards her husband. When Alice argues with Bill and makes her confession that she wanted to cheat on him, she laughs hysterically and seems to find pleasure in it. Also, in one scene, Alice is laughing in her sleep and when she is awoken she says she was dreaming that she was having sex with multiple men in front of Bill. All of these instances lead us to believe that Alice harbors deep resentment of her husband because of the role he puts her in and its stifling effect.

It seems the movie suggests that to find happiness, Alice must abandon the gender role she upholds and embrace her true self rather than the societal construct she embodies. This is clear in the fact that when she embraces gender subjectivity with her masculine actions, she is momentarily happy, but when upholding stereotypes she is joyless. Bill on the other hand almost causes the complete destruction of not only his own life but that of his family in trying to uphold gender roles, as I discussed earlier. The reason his journey is destructive, unlike Alice’s is due to his denial. His actions are a manifestation of this denial of subjectivity and cause him to do whatever it takes to protect his disturbed delusion regarding gender. In both instances, the movie suggests that upholding gender stereotypes result in negative consequences either in the form of destructive behavior or persistent unhappiness. Alice’s unhappiness and Bill’s detachment from reality are in itself unnatural and deprives them of their humanity. They are portrayed almost like drones who are joyless. We can conclude that gender roles in the film are portrayed as unnatural, stifling, destructive, and most of all detrimental to what makes us human.

But, at the end of the film, all of this is seemingly contradicted. Bill and Alice are in a department store discussing everything that has happened. They refer to the orgy and subsequent consequences as a dream and at the end of this discussion, Alice tells Bill that they need to “fuck.” So Bill has gone on a dangerous journey where he begins to acknowledge female subjectivity, his own gender fluidity, and her equal status to him, and yet Alice essentially demands him to revert back to his old ways and see her the way he did before. It should be noted that Alice also should have learned something from her experiences, but she fails to. Both of their failures demonstrate how unwilling people are to confront painful truths and make positive changes. The fact that they reference the journey as a dream suggests they don’t want to confront it as reality. All of this seems to imply a cynical outlook on progress in their relationship, but in a broader sense, mankind.

Kubrick’s films are hardly ever simply about individual relationships but are more complex. In the words of Tim Kreider “Kubrick's films are never only about individuals (sometimes, as in the case of 2001, they hardly contain any); they are always about Man, about civilization and history.”(Kreider). This lends us considerable insight into the movie and allows us to realize that Bill and Alice’s journeys, and subsequent failure to learn anything from said journeys, is likely a metaphor for society’s inability to learn from its mistakes and embrace change though it may be inconvenient. In this case, the change society refuses to accept and embrace is feminism.

The journey that Bill and Alice went through is an allegory for the journey that feminism and as a result society went through. Throughout history feminism has gone through three waves. The first sought to give equal political rights for women such as voting, the second to reject gender stereotypes and objectification of women, and the third came to a catharsis that allowed women to embrace either masculinity or femininity, as they saw fit. The journey of Bill and Alice, as we discussed before, encouraged the rejection of gender stereotypes, much like second wave feminism, and encouraged gender fluidity and subjectivity, much like third wave feminism. This is significant because arguably, society, just like Bill and Alice, should have learned to embrace feminism after their “journey”, yet this is not the case. Society even to this day holds many sexist notions even though society had the ability to face the harsh truth and abolish them. Kubrick is trying to show how true change in society is rare even when all the tools to accomplish it are present.

This idea is also significant in terms of the genre the film perpetuates. Although Eyes Wide Shut in many ways defies genre, it is largely considered a thriller. Thrillers typically portray women as damsels in distress who are helpless and rarely advance the plot, while men are either the hero or villain but, either way, have direct control over the narrative. In his book In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity which interprets film noir a type of thriller, Krutnik states “Women have an integral part in narratives, but only as conquests, as testimony, that is, to the hero’s sexual prowess.”(Krutnik 96). What is interesting is the film completely subverts this notion. Bill originally thinks of Alice as a testimony to his sexual prowess, but she destroys this notion with her confession. She also directly controls the narrative in the fact that she is the reason Bill goes on his journey. She is active while Bill is reactive, again subverting thriller tropes, therefore, advancing the genre.

But once again these subversions are almost meaningless in the end since the ending reverts back to thriller tropes. The end result is no different than a typical thriller because Alice regains her role as the passive female who is only there to be looked at. This signifies Kubrick’s acknowledgement that this movie will not revolutionize the genre, and even if it did, the genre would still be largely the same. Film genre just like society is resistant to change and Kubrick wants to call attention to this.

Eyes Wide Shut is an exceptionally complex film that has been interpreted to be everything from an expose on the Illuminati to a statement on the gluttony of the New York elite. But the element of gender in the film is undeniable. This element portrays gender roles as unnatural societal constructs that only serve to destroy and stifle what makes us human. Kubrick does this by heavily relying on Mulvian archetypes and then repeatedly subverting them. But these subversions are meaningless in the end due to the fact that Alice and Bill revert back to their old ways. This is meant to shed light on the fact that true change in society is rare, particularly in regards to feminism, and this is reflected in the static nature of the thriller genre.

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