Although there are no lead actresses in Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, women and their manifestations play a vital role in the protagonist Andy Dufresne’s life and escape from Shawshank Prison. Feminist theory identifies the ‘male gaze’ or scopophiliac desire – traditionally the desirous gaze of male characters directed at female ones – as a pervasive cinematic tool. By initiating these “looks” and simultaneously being targeted by them, Andy embodies both masculine and feminine conventions. Ultimately it is this exemplification of male and female roles through his relation to these gazes that shape his own climactic escape from the objectifying environment of the prison. Because he is uniquely capable not only of fantasizing, as male characters do, but also bringing fantasies to life, as only objects of erotic gazes can, Andy employs both gendered conventions to imagine, prepare, and finally execute his own climactic escape.
From the the film’s opening, Andy Dufresne is identified as a thoroughly uncharacteristic prisoner. One of the prisoners remarks that Andy “just wasn’t normal around here” and he soon becomes a distinct personality in a prison environment satiated with masculinity. Andy’s character emerges as an “other” figure: fundamentally different, even from the inmates with whom he associates so frequently, and especially in moments of identification with femininity. Tony Magistrale argues in Redemption Through the Feminine that Andy astounds his fellow convicts most when he is associated with “the feminine:” the Mozart sonata about a rebellious woman or a film noir heroine, for example (Magistrale 106). Further, according to Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Andy stands in Shawshank as a clearly defined anomaly, just as women “stand in patriarchal culture as signifiers for the male other” (Mulvey I.A). The oddity of Andy’s actions compared to those of his fellow inmates illuminates Shawshank’s cultural presumptions, and because the prison is a hypermasculine environment, Andy’s oddity brings him into definitive association with femininity.
Andy’s most blatant feminine traits manifest themselves when he becomes the object of the scopophiliac “look” in two of the film’s central conflicts. In the first, the “Prison Sisters” prey upon Andy repeatedly and succeed in his rape. During the most prominent of these incidents, Andy is cornered behind the projection of the film Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth. Hayworth’s image and dialogue provide a backdrop for Andy’s confrontation, placing the two protagonists under parallel pressure to subvert an erotic gaze. “Hayworth’s character confronts a gendered tension on screen at the exact moment that Andy encounters the Sisters” (Magistrale 104). Just as Gilda, a heroine of film noir, becomes the sexually objectified recipient of Johnny and her husband’s gazes, the Prison Sisters subject Andy to violent scopophilia as they attempt to obtain him as a sexual object. Later Andy stands up to his aggressors “in a way that is highly suggestive of Gilda’s assertiveness in the face of patriarchal dominance” (Magistrale 105). The simultaneous juxtaposition of Andy’s victimization with Gilda’s emphasizes his similarity to the feminine icon, associating him with the particular feminine tendency to be objectified by a “look.”
In the second central conflict of the film, Warden Norton takes advantage of Andy’s talents and attempts to employ him as a useful object in his schemes. Norton rewards Andy with particular privileges, such as allowing him the same cell throughout his stay in Shawshank, but he ultimately refuses Andy the privileges of a friend or even an equal, preferring to use him as (in Andy’s words) “a nice pet to have.” Like the Sisters, Norton makes Andy an object, which he can not only exploit but dominate. Objectification is a symptom of modern film’s leading women, yet in the Shawshank Remption it is Andy who endures the same scopophiliac process (Mulvey I.B). Repeatedly, he receives the covetous gazes usually directed at female characters. Because he is perceived as an “other” figure in Shawshank’s male-dominated environment, Andy simultaneously becomes an object of scopophiliac desire and thereby embodies the traditional female protagonist.
Though significant evidence supports Andy’s association with femininity, Andy is still the film’s central male protagonist. Undoubtedly, Andy is the main character with whom the audience is meant to empathize and, when assured of his innocence, the victim whom the audience is meant to support. Traditionally, Mulvey contends, this role belongs to a man: “The male protagonist… commands the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (III.B). Though Andy is the subject of scopophilia like a female character, he also articulates a look of his own and in doing so, fulfills his concurrent responsibilities as the film’s male protagonist. Without women or homosexual relationships in the film, Andy’s only feasible opportunity to initiate scopophilia is toward his poster of Rita Hayworth,, which hangs on the wall of his cell.
Andy’s fellow inmates unreservedly subject Rita to scopophilia as seen during the prison’s screening of Gilda. However, for Andy, Rita’s image is not simply a source of erotic fantasy: the poster conceals Andy’s path to escape, a tunnel he has begun to chisel through the wall of his cell. This escape route is a fantasy at which he gazes much more hungrily. The plan for getaway that he recounts to his friend Red reveals much preparation as seen through his specific destination: Zihuatanejo, Mexico, translated as “the place of women.” This destination becomes Andy’s consumptive focus, his motivating fantasy, and Rita’s image literally acts as a sentry guarding his means to achieve it. Though the poster seemingly represents a basic erotic fantasy, it (and thereby Rita herself) disguises Andy’s true, aptly named “escapist fantasy.” Andy gazes past Rita’s possible purpose of erotic mental escapism and towards physical escape from the prison. Instead of fixating exclusively on her image as a source of temporary relief, Andy uses the poster to hide his progress in creating his tunnel of escape. He engages Rita as an ally, an essential component of his escape to “the place of women” and the outside world. Andy wishes to enlist, not possess, the feminine, and through that critical distinction, he fulfills a greater fantasy: escape from constant objectification in Shawshank Prison.
Andy succeeds as a protagonist through his successful escape, and according to Mulvey, he “gets the girl,” or fulfills his scopophilic desire for “the place of women” itself. Through his jailbreak, he acquires the object of his assiduous “look” – the tunnel of his escape route – which the poster of Rita Hayworth disguises. By engaging with the representative figure of the “the feminine” within Shawshank’s enormously masculine constraints, Andy succeeds as The Shawshank Redemption’s heroic male protagonist as it is he alone who obtains the object of his fantasy.
Magistrale, Tony. “Redemption through the Feminine in The Shawshank Redemption; Or, Why
Rita Hayworth’s Name Belongs in the Title” In: Hollywood’s Stephen King / Tony
Magistrale. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” In: Screen 16.3 pp. 6-18. Autumn 1975.
The Shawshank Redemption. Dir. Frank Darabont. Perf. Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob
Gunton. Castle Rock, 1994. DVD.