‘Alias Grace’ & the Male Gaze

Alias Grace, the six-part Netflix original, was released at the beginning of November 2017, and is based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same title. Her tale is based on the real life events in the 1800s surrounding Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and James McDermott’s (Kerr Logan) murders of their employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and the housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). The series follows the fictional character of Dr Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychologist of sorts, who attempts to unravel Grace’s reasons and mental state at the time of the killings, 15 years after the fact. The narrative is focused on the events leading up to these crimes, and how Grace’s experiences shaped her understandings of men and morality.

From the first episode, it is evident that men in Grace’s life do not help her, but threaten the harmony of family life, through the actions of her father, an abusive alcoholic. The verbal and physical abuse she receives at home continues  into her adolescence as she is sent away to work as a servant and becomes exposed to other male attention. The adult son of her employer makes attempts to have his way with her, as does another drunken man later on. As Grace’s friend Mary explains, men deceive women in order to have their fun, and she pays the ultimate price for having been tricked in this way. Women must always keep their guard up, and Grace continues to do so, even in the company of Dr Jordan.

While women during this period were kept in the private sphere of the home, they could not avoid onlooking admirers and despisers. Nancy feels the eyes on her of fellow church-goers and Grace feels spied on while celebrating her birthday with Jamie. Grace is constantly observed and criticised by Nancy while carrying out her household duties. There seems to be no true escape from the watching judgemental eyes of others, whether those be male admirers or female criticisers. Grace feels caught up in the middle of the two, and this pressure from both sides to conform to an unattainable level of perfection causes a strain on her mental state. Her later label of ‘murderess’ and the way she is observed after her conviction, again working as a maid, demonstrate how she continues to be a curious and intriguing presence.

Dr Jordan’ character provides the viewer with the narrative from his outside perspective, never really knowing if Grace is truthful or pulling the wool over our eyes. His fixation on Grace becomes increasingly clear as the episodes progress, as his imagination shows them together, as embracing lovers in various romantic situations. This sexual desire runs parallel to his professional interest in her story and her psyche. The alternative reality shows how personally invested he becomes in the case study of Grace, and this further places her in the full view of the male gaze through his character. She is the object of his desire, while he is the object of her ridicule.

Image – Netflix

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