Man as Image: Clark Gable, James Dean, and the Audience that Looked at Them

By Anna J. Varadi
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 3/3 |

Like Father Like Son

As a final thought, I believe that the positioning of Gable and Dean on separate sides of the Lacanian Mirror can be summarized best through the parent-child analogy: Gable as the "Ideal-I" is isolated from the spectator because he personifies an ultimate masculine authority figure, resembling a father figure. The protective attitude he displays towards Ellie in It Happened One Night, for example as he covers her with his coat when they have to spend the night outside, confirms this resemblance. Such parental behavior is repeated in his last film, The Misfits (Taylor, 1961), where he also covers a co-star, Marilyn Monroe.

Coincidentally, Monroe has stated that she "pretended Clark Gable was [her] father" as a child ("Marilyn Monroe – Clark Gable was my father," n.d.). Dean, on the other hand, appears like the infant in the Mirror Stage, "trapped in his … nursling dependence," in need of parental love (Lacan, 1966, p. 1164), as demonstrated in Rebel Without a Cause when he lies down next to a toy monkey in the fetal position. This reaffirms his childlike lack of a fixed identity and creates a sense of proximity between him and the spectator.

The way both Gable and Dean were positioned on screen, together with the ways in which audiences have reacted to their images demonstrates the extent to which masculinities have been fetishized by viewers, even as early as the 1930s. I believe it is important to pay more attention to sexualized and objectified depictions of the male body in cinema; it would be a mistake to overlook something that we are clearly supposed to look at.


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1 The Freudian concept of 'scopophilia' was defined by Mulvey (1975) as "pleasure in looking" (p. 11). Mulvey applies this concept to her own theories, describing how [male] cinema audiences look at objectified [female] figures on screen.

2 The Mirror Stage, as developed by Jaques Lacan (1966), signifies the moment when an infant recognizes itself in a mirror. This, according to Lacan, results in the infant's "identification" with the mirror-image. (p. 1164). However, the infant is always divided from the mirror-image by the physical presence of the mirror. According to Lacan this suggests a division beteen the self (= the infant), and an 'Ideal-I' (= the mirror-image) which the self tries to become, but can only ever approximate.

3 For the purposes of this article, 'Mirror' (capitalized) refers to what Jaques Lacan (1966) considers the dividing line between the self and the 'Ideal-I'.

4 Here, I reverse Mulvey's (1975) statement "Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look" (p. 9).

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