The Mortal Instruments: A Female Gaze?

I was walking towards the door at my local movie theater, feeling somewhat satisfied by the B-horror flick that I have just finished screening when I saw it: a life-size cardboard advertisement for Fifty Shades of Grey. The advertisement, which stands taller than me, is in the shape of a man in a grey suit watching me with stern, creepy eyes. Positioned at the bottom of the man’s torso, just above the groin, are the words: “Mr. Grey Will See You Now.” By the poster, a group of three girls giggled excitedly in anticipation of the film’s release. I pass them on my way out of the theater, hearing one girl proudly shriek “finally a film about female desire, Hollywood is finally making films for us, ladies we have arrived.” While I’m not certain that Fifty Shades of Grey is what feminist film critics had in mind when they called for more progressive portrayals of women than the fetishized images provided by classical Hollywood, the girl’s assertion that dominant cinema is changing toward female-centric narratives rings true.

The 2008 Twilight phenomenon proved that films aimed at a female audience are highly lucrative, rivaling the financial success of male fantasy films such as James Bond and Transformers with estimated revenue generated by commercial tie-ins alone ranging in the billions (Montague 164; Valby 44-45). Since Twilight, studios went to work on imitating franchise’s success, pumping out film adaptations of popular teen romance and fantasy novels at an alarming rate. Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, Vampire Academy, The Divergent Series, and The Mortal Instruments all have followed in the wake of the Twilight craze (Valby 44-45), and all but one have become highly lucrative franchises.



These films all feature a central female protagonist and focus on female desire, i.e. the objectification of the male lead (Montague 164; Valby 44-45).With female-oriented entertainment one the rise, the question becomes: is Hollywood now shedding a light on Freud’s ‘dark continent’ (Metz)? Utilizing psychoanalytic film theory, developed by Freud and Lacan, feminist film critics assert that Hollywood mass produces male fantasies designed for a male audience, leaving the female spectator forced to take part in the fetishization and punishment of her cinematic double (Mulvey 63-65). However, with the popularity of active film heroines such as Katniss Everdeen and Clary Fray (Jenkins 119; Valby 44-45), the tides seem to be changing. Is there finally room at the theater for the female spectator?

While some may be sympathetic to the argument that women are no longer relegated to the one-dimensional space of the screen image that Laura Mulvey theorized in her pinnacle essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” I find that the gender binary of active masculinity and passive femininity continues even in this era of mainstream entertainment (Mulvey 63-65). Mulvey’s critique of Hollywood being a male-dominated industry remains unchanged (Hollinger 28; Mulvey 63). Indeed, women only hold seventeen percent of all occupations (writers, directors, producers etc.) in the industry (Hollinger 28). Furthermore, all of the films I have mentioned above, except Fifty Shades of Grey are adaptations of novels that were written by women, but the films were directed by men. Thus, the hope that these films will engage the female viewer on equal ground with the male viewer is slim to none.

Yet, this fact alone is not enough to challenge the idea that these female-driven narratives are still forcing the female spectator to assume a masculine position, if not excluding her existence altogether (Doane 126; Mulvey 66). Therefore, this essay will conduct a psychoanalytic reading of only one of these texts: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Unlike the other films listed, The Mortal Instruments plummeted at the box office. Despite over a year of promotional advertisement, comic con panels, and TV guest spots with the cast and crew, the film failed to recuperate even half of its sixty million dollar budget “the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”). While many fans of the book series claimed the film ruined the source material (TMIHomeZone45), I believe the film failed because it, unconsciously, exposes the voyeuristic practices inherent in the apparatus itself – showcasing a female protagonist who dares to look and thus, possesses the gaze for herself.


The Mortal Instruments and the Mirror Stage

The plot of the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones follows a fairly simplistic structure. An ordinary teenage girl, Clary Fray, meets a handsome and rebellious demon hunter, Jace Wayland, and discovers she has a supernatural destiny; the two fall in love amidst a supernatural setting filled with angels, demons, warlocks, and vampires. Beneath the superficial narrative, the film lends itself to a psychoanalytic interpretation, restaging Lacan’s mirror phases from a female perspective (Metz 250-253; Mulvey 62). Clary’s separation from, and her quest to rejoin with the mother figure drives the action of the entire narrative. When first introduced, Clary Fray is shown talking on the phone as steam leaks out of her bathroom; her back faces the viewer as she stands in front of the mirror. However, her image is not reflected in the mirror because of the steam, but still, the camera lingers for just a moment too long on the obscured glass.

What should be a brief moment of excess (Thompson132) within the film transforms into a recurring motif throughout the film, allowing for a Lacanian interpretation. Without looking into the mirror, Clary remains in the sphere of real and connected to the mother figure (Metz 252-253); this is narratively reinforced by the fact that she still lives with her mother. Clary’s first encounter with Jace, then, becomes the film’s equivalent to the child looking into the mirror. In the shadows of the club, Clary’s gaze freezes on an image of Jace as he strokes a phallic looking sword in his hand. When she sees him kill the demon, she sees the power of the phallus and recognizes her own mark of difference. Her scream punctuates the horror that her lack of phallus signifies (Metz 252-253); Williams 61-63).

Identifying with the slain monster, she remains frozen in fear at the demonstration of phallic power as it serves as a reminder of her own castration (Metz 260-262; Mulvey 63-65). After this encounter, Clary realizes that she is a separate being and from that moment no longer considers herself connected to the world and the mother. This separation from the mother becomes literal in the film as the mother is subsequently kidnapped and the home destroyed. Once the mother is removed, Clary’s understanding of the world changes as indicated by the camera’s lingering focus on the broken bathroom mirror; she learns about the supernatural world and engages in romance. Language and meaning begin to take form, the runic symbols that Clary sees everywhere now can be deciphered (Metz 252).

Despite the reoccurrence of a mirror, Clary’s reflection is consistently denied. Even when she drifts into a dream state, reliving old memories of her mother, Clary never faces her own reflection until the end of the narrative. Clary remembers seeing her mother in front of the very same bathroom mirror that she stood before at the film’s opening. Yet, when she approaches the mirror in the dream, an unseen force prevents her staring into her reflection and the memory changes. Clary’s refusal to look at her own image allows Clary more agency in the narrative, and thus, allows her to assume possession of the gaze. Clary’s possession of the gaze brings her into direct conflict with the law of the father (Mulvey 63), illustrated by the return of Clary’s narrative father as the villain.


Clary’s father presents the main obstacle to Clary’s quest in reconnecting with her mother. Rather than threatening Clary with castration, the father instead ruins her budding romance with Jace by revealing that the couple is brother and sister. The incest revelation serves to subvert the power of Clary’s gaze and position her back into the traditionally passive role of women. Though Valentine is defeated and the mother is returned, the power Valentine’s statement lingers. As Clary watches from outside her mom’s hospital room, she realizes her mother may never wake again; her injuries are too severe. The camera zooms in on the sleeping figure of the mother and gradually pulls back to reveal Clary standing on the opposite side of the glass, finally confronting her own reflection. Her separation from the mother figure is complete; her control of the gaze lost forever.


The Gaze: Daring to Look

Beyond the film’s reenactment of the mirror stage, the Mortal Instruments breaks the spell of the narrative by revealing the voyeuristic practices of the spectator, explicitly reflecting the viewer’s desire to look into a private world (Doane 126; Metz 259; Mulvey 60). I have isolated two pivotal scenes where the gaze of the camera is exposed: Jace’s introduction into the narrative and the bedroom scene; these two scenes also coincide with Mulvey’s twin modes of looking: voyeuristic scopophilia and fetishism (Mulvey 64-65). Yet, rather than the gaze being a reflection of masculine desire, the spectator identifies with a female; it is Clary who is daring to look. Instead of being suppressed by Hollywood’s continuity editing and mise-en-scene, Clary’s desire to possess the gaze breaks through the film.

Upon the opening of the film, the viewer is kept at a distance, watching through a series of long takes with the occasional medium shot. The privilege of the close-up is denied to all characters and objects, other than the blurred mirror in Clary’s bathroom. The camera remains mostly static as the narrative moves from Clary’s home, to the coffee shop and, finally, to the club where the heroine encounters the male love interest. Up until the introduction of Jace, the camera reinforces a male-perspective. The women in the club scene are shown in flashes of blue light as they dance proactively; all of them are dressed in tight, gothic clothing. Plunging necklines and high skirt slits fill the frame. Clary looks at the women, but her gaze is not one with the camera.

Gradually, she moves toward left corner and follows the movement of a girl dressed all in white. The girl fades away into the shadows but another figure catches Clary attention. Here, the camera angle grants the viewer the first close up; zooming in on Clary’s eyes, the film follows her perspective as she looks through an opening in the plastic fence that separates the sitting area of the club from the stage where the band plays. The camera moves from her eyes toward the square cut hole until it fills the frame, as a blurred image of a boy gradually comes into view. The framing of the fence resembles the Freudian device of the keyhole, symbolically recreating the primal scene (Mulvey 62-63) and exposing the inherent voyeurism of cinema, itself.

The Gaze: Male Fetishization

This scene marks Clary’s first introduction to Jace and illustrates Clary’s first possession of the look; she usurps the gaze and transforms the male lead into an object of desire. Everything else within the frame momentarily vanishes, the camera’s pace slows to as Jace comes into view. His lightly colored hair shines against the dark lighting of the room. The graceful speed of his movements creates a stark contrast with the frenzied motion of those surrounding him. The music grows quiet while the camera lingers on his pensive expression; his hands gingerly stroke the bladed weapon he holds. He stands apart from everyone in the crowd, becoming the sole focus of the gaze. Yet, the audience is positioned, not with him, but with the narrative’s heroine, Clary. Jace consumes her vision; she is transfixed by his inhuman and fatal beauty. The gradual nudge of the camera, centering closer and closer upon his face invites the viewer, like Clary, to stare at him in wonder right before he slices into a demon.


This scene serves to hook the audience, an audience that is undeniably female as demonstrated by the film’s choice to position the viewer in Clary’s point of view; not only is the primary conflict of the film introduced, i.e. the supernatural atmosphere of demons, but also the objectification of the male lead is made apparent. Even as Jace kills the demon, it is his physical body and his movements that the camera fixates onto as the form of the demon is revealed only in shadows and smoke. The decision to highlight only the male lead through lighting and the use of close-up camera angles is completely intentional, functioning to contradict the premise of the male gaze (Mulvey 59-60).

Feminist film critic, Laura Mulvey, maintains that it is women who are sexualized by the camera in order to counteract the threat of castration that a women’s lack of phallus poses to a patriarchal society (Mulvey 63-65). Yet, in this scene, it is the woman who is doing the looking while the man is reduced to pure visual pleasure. As the scene makes clear, it is Jace, not the supernatural mythos created by the narrative, which is meant to fascinate the viewer – just as he fascinates the female protagonist. Thus, Jace is positioned to be less a character in a story and more of a tool intended to encourage the sexual desires of the female viewer. He is, therefore, not subject of the gaze but the object (Mulvey 63-65).

The second scene that overtly exposes the act of looking is the bedroom scene; in this scene, Clary walks down the hall of the Institute, the home of the demon-hunters, and notices cracked door. The camera zooms in on the space to reveal a blurred image of a dark room and a silhouetted male body. As Clary’s eyes move closer, the image gradually refines itself.; moving from the rumpled sheets of the bed, the camera’s gaze freezes on the image of Jace as he sits on his bed wearing only tight leather pants. The toned flesh of his torso fully exposed. It is worth noting that Jace’s character is the only character within the film to appear unclothed, reinforcing his function as a vehicle for female desire. The camera lingers on Jace’s unmoving body for three frames before switching back to the Clary whose blue-green eyes have taken up the entire frame. No words are spoken; the only sound that the viewer hears is Clary’s gasp at the sight of the beautiful boy in front of her. No action actually occurs in this scene. Yet, the flow of the narrative seems suspended, inviting the viewer to once again stare in wonder at the fetishized image of Jace.

Is the Gaze Truly Female?

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones offers the spectator a reversal of Mulvey’s gaze; women become the active subject of the look while men are reduced to an objectified image. Yet according to Anne E Kaplan, this reversal is not enough to signify a truly female-oriented cinema (Kaplan 126-128).  In her essay, “Is the Gaze Male?,” Kaplan criticizes Mulvey’s claim that the spectator is always male (Kaplan 127-129). Through her examination of the women’s film genre, Kaplan, argues that the gaze can be appropriated by an active female protagonist as long as the male lead takes on a passive role (Kaplan 133-134). Therefore, the binary of dominance and submission is maintained; this is binary that must be broken before the female spectator can truly gain representation in cinema (Kaplan 134).

Kaplan’s criticism complicates the reading of the film text as neither Clary nor Jace is truly dominant characters (Kaplan 134). Though Clary motivates the action of the narrative, she still has to be saved three occasions by Jace. While she watches Jace from a distance, she never initiates contact with him. Clary’s supernatural gift lies in creating weapons to fight demons, not wielding them. Whenever, Clary is given a seraph blade, the film’s symbol of phallic power, she refuses to take it. Though she helps Jace defeat the villain, she does not engage the villain directly; she only trips him into a portal at the last minute. Thus, Clary is not a dominant character.


Furthermore, even by Mulvey’s standards, the film falls into the same traps of traditional cinema. Clary’s acquisition of the gaze is only temporary; once the villain is defeated and the mother returned, Clary loses control of the gaze. The final segment of the film shows Clary seeing and accepting her own reflection in the glass of her mom’s hospital room. From that moment one, she is no longer the one who looks. The gaze privileges Jace as he stares at Clary with lust before they ride off together.

Clary’s desire to possess the gaze also results in a denial of narrative closure. The film’s ending is ambiguous, it is unclear if Clary is punished or rewarded for reducing the male lead to a fetishized image. The viewer can choose to believe that Clary and Jace’s romance remains in-tact as they ride into the sunset on Jace’s motorcycle. However, this choice forces the viewer to accept the incest taboo. For many viewers, the acceptance and endorsement of incest are too extreme, leaving the viewer with no other choice but to interpret the sibling revelation as punishment for Clary’s resistance of traditional femininity.

Jace, on the other hand, is no more dominant than his female counterpart. Jace spends the majority of the film fighting his warrior upbringing, oscillating between action and passivity regarding his courtship of Clary. He neither seeks her out nor pushes her away; his indecision regarding their romance and his hesitance in fighting Valentine illustrates his vulnerability. Much like the rebel-hero archetype of the 1950s, Jace represents traditional masculinity in crisis (Wexman 134-5). The character lends itself to a bisexual reading as it glorifies a feminized male who triumphs over the film’s domineering patriarch, Valentine (Wexman 134-135).

Valentine’s defeat at the hands of Jace, a character more prone to emotional vulnerability than his older adversary, signals the ultimate defeat of aloof, hardened male idols (Doane 135). Instead, male heroes are now expected to indulge in emotional behavior, reveal a softer side to the male identity in order to earn the love of a narrative’s female protagonist. Unlike the rebel-hero associated with Brando, Jace’s vulnerability is never completely shed (Doane 137; Wexman 135). Even in the final confrontation with the film’s patriarch, Jace only wins with the help of the female’s heroine. Thus, his traditional male identity is never truly reaffirmed.


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones temporarily displaces the male gaze, allowing women to briefly indulge in identifying with a female character without clear repercussions. Clary and Jace’s defeat of Valentine places men and women on a more equal footing, signaling a breakdown of the gender divide and encouraging cooperation between the sexes rather than the prevailing binary of domination and submission. However, the film’s lack of success suggests that mainstream cinema is not yet ready to dissolve this tension between men and women. Though the fetishization of Jace offered female viewers an outlet for their own sexual desires, the film’s reenactment of Lacan’s mirror stage reinforced the women’s status as other. Female viewers witnessed a bit too closely, their own mark of difference and rejected the image held before them.

Works Cited

“Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Amazon Company, Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
Doane, Mary Ann. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator.” Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York University Press: New York, 1999. Print.
Hollinger, Karen. The Actress: Hollywood Acting and the Female Film Star. Routledge: New York, 2006. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York University Press: New York, 2006. Print.
Kaplan, E. Ann. “Is the Gaze Male?” Feminism and Film. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. Oxford University Press: New York, 2000. Print.
Metz, Christian. “The Imaginary Signifier (excerpts).” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. Ed. Philip Rosen. Columbia University Press: New York, 1986. Print.  
Montague, Charlotte. Vampires: From Dracula to Twilight The Complete Guide to Vampire Mythology. Chartwell Books Inc: New York, 2010. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. ‘Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by King
Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946).’ Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York University Press: New York, 1999. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York University Press: New York, 1999. Print.
Thompson, Kristin. “The Cinematic Concept of Excess.” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. Ed. Philip Rosen. Columbia University Press: New York, 1986. Print.
TMIHomeZone45 “Why the Movie Sucked.” TMI Is My Life. Tumblr, 13 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Apr 2015. Blog.
Valby, Karen. “The Twilight Effect.” Entertainment Weekly. 17 Feb. 201: 44-45. Print.
Wexman, Virginia Wright.  “Masculinity in Crisis: Method acting in Hollywood.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.
Williams, Linda. “When The Woman Looks.” The Horror Film Reader. Ed. Mark Jancovich. Routledge: New York, 2002. Print.


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