Glass Houses: Subjugating the Male Gaze In ‘Swallow’ & ‘The Invisible Man’

The women of Swallow and The Invisible Man are prisoners of a gaze that objectifies and subjugates them. The Invisible Man’s Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is the girlfriend of tech millionaire Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a charming sociopath who physically and emotionally abuses her. Swallow’s Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a newly married housewife to wealthy businessman Richie (Austin Stowell), who subtly shames her for the tiniest imperfections and seems to see her as nothing more than a pretty face to come home to after work. These rich men treat their women more like trophies to be kept and polished than companions. They pressure them to be beautiful so they can show them off at parties and they use them to carry their offspring, but these women are not listened to or respected. What’s more, they’re not allowed to leave.

In these films, the subjugating male gaze is not just an invisible force that weighs on women: it is made visible in the form of walls made of glass. In a cell or a padded room, at least you have the dignity of privacy. Houses made of glass put women on full display to the world, showing them off like zoo animals but keeping them at arm’s length; they’re a cage that taunts women with a gorgeous view of an outside world that they are barred from entering. To their rich partners, Hunter and Cecilia are just another part of the furniture in their glass mansions. These men invite everyone on the outside to marvel at the things they own — including their women — and to see how beautiful their possessions are. It’s the perfect trick: to those on the outside, and even to Hunter and Cecilia, glass creates the illusion of freedom, making it easy to ignore just how trapped they are. It’s a transparent barrier that, just like the male gaze, is invisible until you find yourself pushing up against it.

In a glass house, sex and physical intimacy feels less like a private display of love and more performative, even sinister, like a display of power. In the opening shot of The Invisible Man, two figures cuddle in bed, asleep, an image that would usually conjure a feeling of bliss, peace, and love. But something is off. This couple, Cecilia and Adrian, is not cocooned together in a private bedroom; the glass walls around them act like a display case, showing off their physical intimacy to the world. Suddenly, the way Cecilia’s boyfriend drapes his hand over her body feels more like flaunting possession than experiencing closeness. The transparent walls let in the eerie dark of night and provide a backdrop of angry ocean waves to the sleeping couple, connecting an image of their togetherness with an image of violence. What’s perhaps even more invasive than the view is the overwhelming level of sound that the thin walls let in. Intimacy is being so close to someone that you’re able to hear them shift and breathe in their sleep, but all we can hear is waves crashing violently against jagged rocks.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis, director of Swallow, often shoots Hunter and Richie through the exposed outer wall of their home during their most intimate moments to emphasise the feeling of being watched. The first time we see them in bed together, Mirabella-Davis shoots the scene from outside in the bushes, looking in on the couple as they walk to the bed and lie down together. You’d think that if any room in a home shouldn’t be see-through, it would be the bedroom, but even there Hunter and Richie are performing contentedness and closeness rather than actually experiencing it. For them, the need to live up to heteronormative standards of coupledom is all-consuming, even when nobody’s actually watching. It’s not until much later in the film, well into Hunter’s breakdown, that they do anything in that bed that’s more than PG.

While Hunter and Richie don’t always have a literal audience in bed, when Hunter is being watched later, on Richie’s terms, it’s skin-crawling to see how much she is treated as just another piece of furniture. On the creepiest of these occasions, Richie returns home drunk with a group of work friends and they gather around the pool, Hunter watching them through a wall on the house’s top floor. It’s eerie how she floats above them, visible but not audible; seen not heard. To these men, she’s just another part of the house’s beautiful decor, and so they barely seem to notice she’s there. When they do look up at the house it’s to admire it as a whole rather than to regard her as an individual. They’re so inattentive of her presence or what she might feel that when she starts having stomach pains that cause her to double over in agony, not a single one takes note and offers her aid. Only one of the men actually speaks to her that night, and it’s to creepily ask for a hug “because I’m not drunk enough to ask for a kiss.”

The feeling of being constantly watched causes Cecilia and Hunter to feel extremely unsafe and exposed, and in Cecilia’s case, draws her to closed-off spaces. In Cecilia’s case, most of the film takes place after she’s left Adrian’s home, so we get to observe the way trauma has made her fearful of open spaces. As soon as she escapes, she flees to her friend’s suburban house where there are plenty of closed-off rooms with curtains to be drawn. It’s weeks before she can bring herself to step foot outside, and when she does, the very sight of another person passing by sends her running away in fright. Being watched and scrutinised is clearly deeply traumatising to Cecilia: when she next enters a glass building — fittingly in the office of Adrian’s lawyer brother, who reads her Adrian’s will — she looks visibly uncomfortable. So it’s her worst nightmare when she realises Adrian has been using his invisibility suit to observe her unseen, even in spaces that she previously considered safe. He’s used his infinite resources to transform the exposing nature of the glass house into portable form and bring it into her closed off new home.

Being so starkly exposed to the outside world doesn’t just affect how people see Hunter and Cecilia, but also how they see themselves. The very nature of glass as a semi-reflective surface means these women are constantly faced with their own ghostly, half-there reflection. Quite literally, they’re unable to see themselves clearly, yet they’re also constantly made aware of how they look. We feel this most deeply in Swallow because of how much time we spend with Hunter in her home, where she always feels watched, so she makes sure everything is perfect. Her hair is always immaculately styled, she wears full makeup even when nobody’s around, and she puts on elegant and expensive dresses just for quiet evening meals with Richie. Interestingly, in the moment that triggers her breakdown and a growing carelessness about her looks — when she experiences her first pica compulsion and swallows a marble — Mirabella-Davis offers her first reprieve from constant self-awareness. When she swallows the orb, Mirabella-Davis shoots her from outside, through the glass. For the first time, the glass reflects the trees and water outside Hunter’s home rather than looking straight through at her. The rebellious act of swallowing the marble allows Hunter to forget herself and the insular world of her home and feel at one with the natural world instead.

However, these films find hope in the ways women use their smarts, ingenuity, and creativity to survive, or even escape, life in a patriarchal prison. In the regressive role of a housewife, they actually have more agency over the home that they’re trapped in than their partners, who own the glass mansions. With Richie and Adrian away all day at work, Hunter and Cecilia gain agency over the interior of their homes. The most personal room to Hunter in her home is the one she’s dressing up to be her unborn child’s nursery. Hunter’s pregnancy is a terrifying prospect to her, an invasion of her body that anchors her to Richie and his family in a lasting way. Rather than expressing her fears and frustrations in words, they come out in the form of interior decorating. She covers the three ceiling-to-floor windows in the nursery with coloured gels: one blue and one red, with the middle panel left uncovered. It’s a colour choice that can be read many ways — it’s certainly interesting that blue and red are colours that evoke the gender binary, and in this room we often see Hunter choosing to stand where the windows will bathe her in deep red. Perhaps she is attempting to create a space in the house that looks more like how she feels: stuck on one end of a binary, where femininity feels less like a sugary pink and more like a dangerous blood red.

Cecilia’s revenge against Adrian is so satisfying because she uses both his subjugating gaze and the architecture of the glass house, which represents that gaze, against him. She meets Adrian for dinner at the end of the film after he has revealed to the press that he was alive all along and cleared his name by framing his brother as the wearer of the invisibility suit. Yet Cecilia is still intent on revenge. First, she regains his trust by playing into his perception that she needs and desires him, harnessing and weaponising his objectifying gaze. Then, she retreats into the depths of the house to a secret hiding place that, unlike most of the glass mansion, resides away from prying eyes. It may be Adrian’s house, but after being trapped in its four walls for so long, Cecilia is more intimately familiar with its secrets. It’s all the more satisfying when Cecilia puts on the spare invisibility suit, which she had hidden in the hiding place, and murders Adrian because she does so by using the prison he created for her against him. When she leaves the glass house this time, it feels like she’s leaving her mental prison behind as well as her physical one.

Near the end of Swallow, when Hunter escapes the house and starts on the road to recovery, Mirabella-Davis replaces the see-through glass with reflective mirrors to show how healing it is for Hunter to gaze upon herself for a change. She escapes to a motel and finds herself a room with closed drapes and a wall of mirrors. For the first time, Hunter is in a space where nobody can see her but herself. Faced with her own reflection and free from prying eyes, she has the space to think about her own needs and her own self-image.

Mirrors are often used to show vanity, but in Swallow they are a tool for empowerment, allowing women to regard themselves without worry that they’re being watched. In the film’s final scene, Hunter goes to the mall and takes a pill to induce abortion and then goes to the bathroom where she flushes away the cluster of blood that she leaves behind in the toilet. With her last tie to Richie’s world down the drain, she has the freedom to move on and begin the hard process of thinking about what she wants in life, rather than what is expected of her. The final image sees Hunter confronted with her reflection in the mirror above the sinks in the women’s bathroom, surrounded by several women in the same position. Even when Hunter leaves the frame and the credits roll, Mirabella-Davis holds on to the bathroom sinks as more and more women filter in and out. Each of them is preoccupied with their own image and oblivious to one another, able to look upon themselves casually and uncritically in a safe space away from the male gaze.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *