What Gwyneth Paltrow and Great Expectations Taught Me about the Male Gaze

Sara Petersen explores the origin of her desire to perform a certain type of femininity, and how the performance ultimately led her to pursue motherhood as a path to purpose.

Sara Petersen | Longreads | February 2019 | 15 minutes (4,273 words)

I was 17 when I watched Gwyneth Paltrow bend her knee gently toward Ethan Hawke’s stooped figure in Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 film adaptation of Great Expectations. In the gloom of a suburban Massachusetts movie theatre, I watched, my body stiff, my fingers gripping the red plush seat, as Hawke’s hand moved slowly up her leg. I watched as Paltrow’s lovely head tilted back in pleasure. I had never been kissed and I wasn’t entirely sure what Hawke’s hand was doing beneath the layers of Paltrow’s mint-green tulle prom dress, but that seemed beside the point. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her face. Her face, which seemed to exist only to be seen.

In the film, the kneecap scene begins with Estella discovering Finn’s portrait of her hanging on his bedroom wall. She stares at the painting with dispassionate eyes before turning and saying to him, “I don’t wear my hair like that anymore.”

“You should,” he replies.

“Do you like it that way?” Her voice purrs and a ghost of a smile twitches at the corners of her lips. It’s clear she is turned on by looking at herself through his eyes.

“What else do you like?” she asks, as she moves closer to his seated form before sliding her golden leg toward him.

As his hand moves toward her white cotton underwear, her lips part with what must be ecstasy; the angular planes of her face glow. The scene ends with Estella leaning down toward Finn in a gesture of kindness which seems to cost her nothing. She offers her mouth to Finn’s, which is hanging open with stupid, raw desire. Just as he relaxes into the realization that his fantasy is becoming real, just as he moves more confidently toward her and reaches for the ends of her brittle blond hair, Estella suddenly stands up, her body iron-straight and leaves the room. Her eyes are calm and cold and she is in complete control.

***

At 17, I had fresh-bud boobs, a little-girl tummy, and hard bumps of cystic acne dotting my chin. I had participated in the pageantry of “going out with” a few boys, and I was just beginning to discover what it meant to feel wanted, just beginning to confuse being wanted with having power. My boyfriend-in-name-only gave me a grubby hemp necklace festooned with a soon-to-tarnish silver sun, and after watching Great Expectations, I spent countless hours in bed, fingering the rays of that little sun, wondering if he saw me as golden, as light, as beautiful. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Estella came along at just the right — or ultimately wrong — time in my development.


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Watching Estella use her body to gain control made me curious about desire, made me think about the male gaze before I knew what the male gaze was. Estella enchanted me with her stony perfection, her utter lack of awkwardness or apology, her total command of her audience. I never wondered what she wanted, which of course, was entirely the point. For me, at gangly and insecure 17, Estella was the pinnacle, the holy grail of what any woman might ever hope to be: a gorgeous object of desire.

In her 1998 review of Great Expectations for the New York Times, Janet Maslin writes, “Ms. Paltrow does turn herself into the elegant object of desire that the story requires. Her presence is as coolly striking as her role (in Mitch Glazer’s screenplay) is underwritten. Incidentally, this is one more film in which the heroine’s posing nude for an artist is supposed to make her more fully defined.” At 17, I didn’t read the New York Times, and even if I had, I think Maslin’s critique would only have fanned the flames of my craving to be seen as worth seeing. In high school, it’s every awkward girl’s dream to be thought of as “coolly striking.”

When I recall the movie scenes that lodged themselves into my still pliable, tender subconscious, it’s the kneecap scene first and foremost. But there’s also the penultimate scene in which Finn paints naked Estella in a frenzy of both erotic and artistic ecstasy. She takes off her clothes before uttering her first and final line in the scene: “So do you want me sitting or standing?”

The rest of the scene consists of her languidly moving throughout a New York City loft as Finn frenetically splashes paint across countless canvases, so entranced is he by the glory of Estella’s flesh. And of course, like any good movie that fetishizes unhealthy attachments, there’s the kissing-in-the-rain scene. In other words, the scenes that mattered to me were the scenes in which Estella is devoid of any active purpose or agency; the scenes that mattered were the scenes in which Estella passively submitted to Finn’s desperate eyes.

Maybe it was Finn’s desperation (and, transmuted through the male gaze through which I viewed Estella), my own, that muddled me into imagining Estella the central focus of the film. I didn’t know that Finn is supposed to be the subject of Great Expectations. Feminism existed only as a sterile word in a paragraph about suffragettes in my history textbook and I did not have the tools to view Estella as what she is: an empty shell crafted for male consumption, even demonized as a femme fatale. I did not know that there were limited roles for women — domestic goddess or dangerous sexual minx, or perhaps worst of all, pitiful spinster — and that Estella represented not rosy possibility but a narrow and reductive scope of female representation. Anne Bancroft’s Miss Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham in the novel) tried to show me what happened when a woman defied patriarchal norms, but I was too enthralled by the shiny object of Estella that I didn’t pay attention. Grotesque in clownish makeup and abject in her heartbreak, I saw Miss Dinsmoor through the male gaze, and by that I mean, I saw her as disgusting, a wreck of thwarted desire I longed to look away from.

I did not know that there were limited roles for women — domestic goddess or dangerous sexual minx, or perhaps worst of all, pitiful spinster — and that Estella represented not rosy possibility but a narrow and reductive scope of female representation.

I relegated Miss Dinsmoor to the back of my mind where she belonged, and focused my ambitions on becoming an “elegant object of desire.” Estella never seemed flustered, upset, or awkward, her role as object seemed peaceful and complete. Maybe if I could define myself through and for someone else’s eyes, a man’s eyes, I wouldn’t have to do the work of defining myself for myself.

***

At college in Boston, my breasts became more than buds, and I began dressing to showcase that fact, tagging along with girlfriends to stores in Downtown Crossing to buy all-important “clubbing clothes.” In my case, this meant a pair of boot-cut pleather pants and a triangle top in flimsy polyester zebra print. I wore my new clothes with a combination of curiosity and entirely feigned confidence until it became clear that boys were starting to look.

I watched boys watch me, and the hunger etched into Ethan Hawke’s face flashed across my brain. At frat parties in Allston, or in the bottom bunk of extra-long twins, I became intoxicated by the reflection of myself I had become increasingly adept at invoking in boys’ eyes. I would stand tall and hold my head high on my neck and envision Paltrow’s knee moving slowly toward Hawke’s open hand. I would remember the delicate hooks of her collarbones. Estella doesn’t seem to want anything from Finn. From anyone. In a critical piece about the male gaze in both the novel and the film adaptation, Michael K. Johnson writes, “Pip [or Finn] is blind to any desire on Estella’s part, for if Estella desires, she begins to emerge as a subject rather than an object, and thereby would destabilize Pip’s construction of himself as the hero of his romantic quest.” I thought the not caring and not wanting was the magic that locked people in, allowed a person to bask in the warmth of being seen as something the seer wants. I didn’t imagine Estella’s lack of desire meant that she could never flourish as anything more than a foil to a man’s story.

I finally read Great Expectations around the time I met the perfect test subject for my performance of Estella cool — a boy in a band. By then, I had so internalized Paltrow’s slight underbite, her weightless body, her chilly power, that it was difficult to imagine Estella in heavy petticoats. Miss Havisham’s death by flaming bridal dress failed to make an impression.

The boy in the band scorned me as being a dumb blond at our first meeting (I called him aloof, to which he responded, “I’m surprised you even know what that means”), and his slouchy disinterest was the ultimate aphrodisiac. The first time we slept together, he told me he was in way over his head, and I thought about Finn’s bottomless desire for Estella. The more I projected Estella onto my face, my body, the more the boy in the band wanted me. He hovered his body over mine, and I thought about Paltrow’s lifted chin as she pushes Hawke’s hand between her legs.

The boy in the band fucked me with an urgency that made me dizzy, made me forget the inner trapping of my mind, made me exist only within my body. The force of his desire was all I wanted, needed. His desire was enough for us both — his desire fueled mine. Being wanted like that made everything simple, made my insecurities melt away, made my doubts about myself and what I wanted from life drift into the ether. His desire for my body filled me to the brim, leaving no room for anything else, and that feeling — of being enough because of being wanted — that feeling was calm, was rest. It felt like power.

I never orgasmed with him, but when I was alone in the dark, I pictured myself through his eyes and did.

Maybe if I could define myself through and for someone else’s eyes, a man’s eyes, I wouldn’t have to do the work of defining myself for myself.

When the boy in the band teetered toward indifference, I conjured Estella, thought of her hard icy heart, which was so desirable, so beautiful, and I worked harder on freezing my own soft, warm places. When he didn’t call me, I didn’t call him to complain. I made plans with girlfriends and drank too much until he finally did. When I could no longer locate the image of me reflected in his eyes — the me as he wanted me — I withdrew until the image returned. When we went out together, I collected the stares of other men and boys as if they were a currency I could use to pay my way into the band boy’s heart. When I did these things, I saw that my instincts were right. His desire returned and it filled me up. I told myself we were in love, remembering how Finn and Estella made love look like pain. I remembered their tortured kiss in the rain and committed to making a success of star-crossed love because surely difficult endeavors were worth pursuing. The boy in the band never painted a picture of me like Finn did for Estella, but I vowed to keep us together until he wrote a song instead.

It was all perfect until I made the mistake of thinking maybe the boy in the band wanted the real me, not the veneer I had worked so hard to create. It was perfect until the person who wanted things, needed things — the person that was me — reared her ugly head and scared him off.

I started to ask for things. Things like dinner, double dates with friends, cozy sleepovers planned in advance. Too much. Most of the time, I subsumed my desires to be alone with him and forced myself to be easy, cool, to go with his flow, despite the fact that I was not truly a chill person, that I hated not knowing where I would sleep on a given night. I paid too much for blond highlights that made me look like I had been out in the sun, because the version of me he liked was naturally beautiful without trying. I would sit in the corner of his apartment wearing a mustard-colored vintage sweater because I thought it made me look bohemian, watching him watch a movie I didn’t want to watch with his best friend and bandmate, and the more they enjoyed the movie, the more they enjoyed each other, the more I hated him, his friend, and their easy comradery. The more I hated myself for failing to keep him interested in me.

I went to great lengths to hold his attention. The summer of my 23rd year, I traveled to Vermont to play a coquettish 1940s secretary at a summer stock theatre. When the show closed, a girlfriend and I snuck into the women’s dressing room, where I donned my Marilyn Monroe platinum wig and stripped down to fishnets and a black bra. Steph snapped photos of me, making sure they were optimally sexy. When I developed the black-and-white disposable-camera film, I analyzed each photo carefully, before selecting the ones in which I looked most assured of whoever it was I was pretending to be and pasted them into one of those artsy books girls in their twenties make for their boyfriends who are in bands. Cleverly, I thought, I developed a narrative to accompany the photos. Alongside a photo of me perched above an ironing board, cold iron in hand, my ass jutting out against my black American Eagle underwear, I wrote, “She can be clean.” Alongside a photo of me peering over my shoulder with empty eyes and faux nonchalance, a la Estella, I wrote, “She can be cold.” And alongside a photo of me sitting on the floor cross-legged, my boobs out and slightly saggy, the perky wig tossed to the side, I wrote, “She can be yours.” This last photo felt like a risk, felt like honesty. It was a photo of the me I wanted him to want.

It’s not that these tricks failed to ignite his desire, it’s that I became increasingly resentful of the need to conjure tricks at all. The longer we were together, the harder it was for me to be someone else, and the more I resented him for finding that someone else more appealing than me. As much as I tried to remember the power of Estella, my frosty mask started to itch. The injustice of the whole venture began to preoccupy me. I had groomed my body according to his desires; molded my tastes, my attitude, my clothing to what I thought were his wants. I had done everything Estella taught me would work. But it wasn’t working. There was a flaw in the equation, and I had no choice but to assume the flaw was me. I thought something about the authentic me must’ve been marring my performance. Something about me wasn’t enough. My suppressed desire to be wanted as myself started to turn the real me into something dangerously near combustion.

Miss Havisham died wearing a flaming wedding dress. She died in a blaze of frustrated desire and unrealized potential.

On a raw, drizzly night in November, he texted saying he was in the middle of a jam session and couldn’t make it to my apartment. He was supposed to sleep over, fuck me, then hold me. When I couldn’t make him come to me, something fell apart inside, and it was with equal parts relief and horror, that my whole explosive self came screaming to the surface. Banging my palms against the glossy white of the painted bricks in the tiny Beacon Hill bedroom I shared with my sister, I shrieked and felt validated when my vocal chords felt like they were choking me. I craved that sense of stillness that only his body wanting mine could give me. Without it, I felt empty, felt missing. I think now I had allowed his desire to sweep away the rest of me, so when the desire disappeared, so did I. Unmoored.

Everything was perfect until my pesky subjecthood tried to claw its way free from objectification.

My inability to make him do what I wanted in this one small moment brought the reality of my failure crashing home. I had spent countless months putting all my energy into cultivating what I thought was power only to find it was ultimately meaningless, that my “power” had only ever been submission, that desire could only be fleeting, and this realization shook me to the core. I knew I wasn’t a true Estella, but I had lived for so long in her skin, I still wasn’t clear who the real me was. I just knew she was angry, I just knew she wanted to be seen. Because without someone looking, I felt invisible.

Behind the tears, behind the desperation, I probably imagined a camera documenting the whole thing.

My sister didn’t know what to do with me, so she called my parents, who threatened to call an ambulance if I didn’t stop saying I wanted to hurt myself. Which I did want. Not seriously, but just enough for my external pain to match my internal pain. The blissfully unyielding white walls of the Beacon Hill apartment bruised my knuckles and substantiated the howling void inside of me. The pain made me feel grounded.

The boy in the band broke up with me soon after, and a therapist prescribed me something akin to horse tranquilizers should I find myself gripped by another panic attack, which is what the therapist called the flood of feeling that had deluged me on that chilly November night. The pills came in handy once the boy in the band took me back.

Feminist scholar Hilary Schor says this about Great Expectations: “Pip’s authorship is so strong as to make Estella’s story almost disappear, to make Estella almost disappear.” For me, watching Great Expectations at 17 did more than that, it halted a burgeoning self from appearing in the first place.

The irony is no longer lost on me that I spent the remainder of my twenties as a struggling actor determined to be seen without fully knowing or even asking myself what it was I wanted to be seen as or for. I continued to seek validation from men and eventually stumbled across a guy who wasn’t in a band, a guy who wanted to move in together and get a puppy. It was the first relationship in which I felt comfortable to be my ugliest, most basic self. I felt no compunction about wearing a shapeless pair of flannel PJ pants I’d had since high school around him, and this committed relationship felt so good, so restful, so much easier than waiting in open-call lines, so much easier than sending out another slew of headshots, so much easier than asking myself if I really even wanted to be an actress in the first place, and this sense of ease made me think that I had finally figured out what I wanted. I wanted to get married and have kids.

After struggling for so long to find myself, I was relieved that motherhood had found me.

As a mother, I would no longer need to worry about being sexually desirable, about being who someone else wanted me to be, about being “successful.” My nagging fear of purposelessness would disappear, the repressed anxiety that whispered about lack of motivation or ambition or direction would cease interrupting my sleep. I could be earnest and boring and comfortable. I could devote myself fully to a new life, an endeavor so worthy that it couldn’t fail to fill me with joy and satisfaction. As a mother, I wouldn’t need to schmooze or hone my craft or have any craft at all. I would just need to love and be loved. Most importantly, I would care so much about this new little person, that I could stop worrying about myself.

So it was with a heartbreaking sort of recklessness and desperation that I threw myself into wifehood and motherhood as the conclusive panacea to a lack of self-knowledge.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that motherhood did not provide a smooth path to selfhood, but rather made me seriously engage with the work of finding myself for the first time. My body, which used to feel like a magical vessel with which I could choose my own adventure, was stripped down to its most grimly physiological purpose. And the new baby, whose desire for me was insatiable, didn’t care if I was cool, didn’t care if my pores were big or small, didn’t care about me at all, the real me or otherwise.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that motherhood did not provide a smooth path to selfhood, but rather made me seriously engage with the work of finding myself for the first time.

Estella had taught me that to be wanted was everything, and being wanted had gotten me a husband, which had, in turn gotten me a baby. Of course, I had deliberately sought these things for myself, but while cluster feeding my newborn throughout the night, tears moved silently down my face, I felt like this life had been done to me. So blindly had I ridden the roller coaster of objectification, I forgot to ever ask myself, “What do you want?”

I spent the days following my first child’s birth waiting in vain to feel an overwhelming sense of rightness. I held him against me and waited for some sort of feeling that this was always what I wanted, always what I was meant to do, to descend upon me and quiet the voices within that kept persisting in wanting, wanting, wanting. I wiped away spit-up, ran the dishwasher, sat in a circle of smiling adults singing songs about animals, and ached with loneliness. I came to realize that motherhood can never fill an empty person up. On the contrary, motherhood can sweep an empty person away entirely.

Motherhood taught me about feminism with a force that took my breath away, and the ramshackle self I had cobbled together through the eyes of others came tumbling down in the darkness of postpartum depression. I’ve since read and thought a lot about postpartum depression, and while of course, women undergo vast physical and hormonal changes following the creation and birth of a human being that impact their mental health, I have some of my own theories about why some of us are more prone to that particular blackness than others.

Historically, the world has not cared about what women want. The world has only very recently offered this question to women. The world has only very recently thought to ask women whether or not they want marriage. Children. And even though the questions have slowly started to seep into some girls’ lives, many other girls, myself included, were (and still are) raised breathing the air of a male world, a world in which women’s most valuable currency is her ability to be what a man wants, is her ability to starve her own selfhood for the sake of someone else’s.

Historically, the world has not cared about what women want. The world has only very recently offered this question to women.

And for me, motherhood, was the culmination of disillusionment. Especially at the beginning, motherhood takes, takes, takes. And if the new mother’s foundation is a simulacrum, the baby soon takes so much that nothing much is left. To enter into motherhood, a job defined by self-sacrifice, without a strong sense of self in place, is a dangerous venture. Postpartum depression was a brutal teacher who made me realize that figuring out who I was and what I wanted was no longer a luxury, it was critical to me putting one foot in front of the other.

***

After hours of nonsleep, the sun glared through my curtains, and I peeled myself from the breast milk–soaked sheets and limped to the bathroom, where I confronted the mirror. There was no one else left to look at me, no one else that could make me feel seen. I would have to look at myself. My face was gaunt, my skin wan, my eyes heavily shadowed in a shade of exhausted purple, and I saw an abject figure looking back at me. I remembered Miss Havisham.

At 37, I still occasionally think of Paltrow’s slender kneecap emerging from the folds of mint tulle when I enter a dark bar and scan the male faces. Old habits.

After hours of nonsleep, the sun glared through my curtains, and I peeled myself from the breast milk–soaked sheets and limped to the bathroom, where I confronted the mirror. There was no one else left to look at me, no one else that could make me feel seen. I would have to look at myself.

I think of another moment more often — a moment I’ve never seen — the moment after Estella leaves the room. Does she even exist? At 17, I didn’t wonder about Estella’s desires. I do now.

Estella was never asked what she wanted. Miss Havisham raised her to break hearts, to wreak revenge for Miss Havisham’s own broken heart. And lest we judge Miss Havisham too harshly, she had every reason to suppose that living a life free from personal desire would be less tortuous for a woman than risking making one’s true desires known. Miss Havisham desired love from a man; she wanted a man’s love to complete her, and when that didn’t happen, she didn’t know how to complete herself.

And what do I want? I want to have been asked the question in the first place. And I want to use my bitterly earned knowledge to ensure my own daughter knows that asking herself that question should always be her first priority. I want to live the rest of my life giving voice to my anger that she still lives in a world in which she must prioritize her desires, because there’s no guarantee anyone else will. I want to live each day as a continued effort to listen to myself, to fill myself up.

***

Sara’s essays about feminism, motherhood, and the performance of femininity have appeared in The Rumpus, Catapult, Ploughshares, Vox, The Lily, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She’s working on a collection.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Fact checker: Ethan Chiel

Copy editor: Jacob Gross