“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
The #metoo movement empowered women to talk about sexual harassment and sexism. It also showed that, especially in the film industry, powerful men have been hiding their history filled with harassment cases with their titles. Although successful women filmmakers started to shine, we still have lots to do both in front of the camera and backstage. Many movies still use female stereotypes created within conventional cinema.
Likewise, despite his respectable auteur identity, we see stereotypical female representations in Scorsese’s filmography through the male protagonist’s gaze. Those representations are always two dimensional while reflecting man’s figure twice its natural size in Woolf’s words. To go into detail, I will try to analyze this topic by focusing on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Hugo.
Taxi Driver is a movie about a man, Travis Bickle. Throughout the film, we watch people from his taxi with him. Since audiences always perceive the movie’s inner form through Travis’s filter, we women’s depictions as filtered by his gaze. You can easily say that it’s the director’s choice to create his film; however, this also turns those women into cartoon characters without agency.
For instance, Iris and Betsy are the two main women characters of this movie, like opposite sides of the same person. Although they seem to have their voices, they appear to have a voice when Travis turns his gaze upon them. Hence, they become reflecting on different parts of Travis’ personality at twice its natural size.
BETSY THROUGH TRAVIS’ EYES
When we see Betsy for the first time, she wears a white dress, walking on the New York streets looking like an angel in disguise despite the streets’ dirt. This first glance is essential because while Travis describes her as an angel with his own words, her image also fits into that depiction with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and a gown like a white dress. Betsy resembles the idealized beauty of the early Hollywood actresses looking pure and angelic. Benshoff and Griffin (2009) see the parallels between women’s images in early cinema and women of the Victorian age by saying:
“The images of women in early American cinema were mostly drawn from the gender roles and representational codes of the Victorian era. […] As a young woman, she was childlike, and frequently associated with innocence, purity, and the need to be protected.”
This definition matches with Travis’s ideas about Betsy after they met, but we also realize that Betsy is not a simple representation of a girl from the Victorian age. She lives by herself and has a job. We can easily say that she is an economically independent woman. As Benshoff and Griffin (2009) argued, pure and angelic representation of the damsel in distress changes after the Industrial Revolution and WWI/II. By that time, we also see the depiction of a woman in the cinema changes.
And for Betsy, since we are not living in the Victorian age anymore, Betsy is not a concrete representation of women in early cinema. However, we cannot say she is an independent character entirely. We watch her like a satellite for another male character and this time with his political power: the senator. Travis sees her as a damsel in distress, needing him to rescue her from the filthy streets of New York. Maybe for some, she breaks that image by rejecting Travis. However, she is also depicted as drawn to political power and even the senator’s chivalry.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN: IRIS
When it comes to the other woman character of the film Iris, we can easily say that she is the opposite of Betsy. She is younger, and the movie portrays her as a lost soul. These characters’ physical appearances look similar to Jodie Foster could easily play as Cybill Shepherd’s sister or younger self. They’re both blonde, white, and blue-eyed beautiful women. In that sense, Betsy and Iris’s physical appearance perfectly fits idealized women in early cinema.
When Betsy is economically independent, Iris is sexually active. Her costumes are braver than Betsy, and she usually wears red outfits, and it positions her opposite to Betsy’s angelic appearance. In a conversation with Travis, Iris tells about her plans for living in a commune as a hippie. It is evident that she represents a generation and is a flower child. But how the movie depicts her makes us think maybe she gets punished because of her bold ideas about life and sexuality.
Since she is vicious, she has to be punished with her pimp, with whom she is madly in love. From Travis’ perspective, she also needs saving from bad men around her. While representing Betsy as the virgin image, the movie labels Iris as the whore and falls into the virgin-whore complex. Again, Benshoff and Griffin (2009) argue about the virgin-whore complex:
“[…] Victorian culture and early film simplistically divided women into two groups. This cultural construct based on the basis of their sexuality has been dubbed the virgin-whore complex […]”
MASCULINITY CRISIS OF TRAVIS
The masculinity crisis of Travis has a relation with female figures. Mulvey (1999) explains the term “scopophilia” means having sexual pleasure from looking. The gaze objectifies whoever it is looking for. There is no doubt that Travis is a voyeur, and his male gaze makes him feel superior to those subjects of the eye and turn them into objects, including Betsy and Iris. Further, Mulvey also says that women characters represent the threat of castration because of their lack of a penis. From Travis’ point of view, both Iris and Betsy represent his wounded masculinity and a threat to castration. Mulvey (1999) suggests two dealing way with this castration phobia:
“The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving the guilty object […]; or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or tuning the represented figure itself into a fetish […]”
Mulvey’s depiction summarizes Travis’s way of dealing with Iris and Betsy. He tries to solve the mystery of Iris by facing up with the original trauma. He pays her pimp to meet her finally. After they meet a couple of times, Travis decides that he must save Iris. In that sense, she becomes a guilty object that needs Travis to rescue her. On the other hand, Betsy also represents his way of dealing with his crisis. All that voyaging acts from the taxi car proves that Betsy turns into a fetish object after she rejected him.
One of the striking elements of the Taxi Driver is how Travis faces his masculinity crisis. There is the fetish Betsy represents on one side, and on another side, we see Iris as the guilty object. In the end, he tries to repair his wounded manhood by committing a crime. First, he considers killing the senator, whose idealized place in Betsy’s eyes. I think why Travis gives-up that idea is that senator’s masculinity is beyond Travis’ boundaries, and defeating him could lead to his destruction in the end. Senator’s masculinity is more protected than him.
So, he chose to save the trapped girl instead and became a hero. Travis sees pimp and the timekeeper as worthless. He rescues his masculinity by punishing lower men than himself, and he also reaches his goal of cleaning the streets of New York. He gets sadistic pleasure from killing them.
In the end, he saves the trapped girl and gains the heart of the virgin, who once rejected him. I think the director legitimizes Travis’ manliness with the last scene, including Betsy. I already said that Betsy is a satellite character drawn into power. After Travis proves his masculinity by killing the lower men and cleaning the NY streets, she shows affection. Of course, this does not mean this is the end because he is still a voyeur, and there are different women on the streets that will be objectified as goals need to be achieved for Travis.
This article was originally a paper submitted for the course “Auteur Theory: Martin Scorsese, W.Allen, Francis F. Coppola (FA48D) instructed by Nilgün Bayraktar at Bogazici University in the 2017-2018 Summer Term.
Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America On Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies . USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Featured image is retrieved from: tribecafilm.com