A Clockwork Orange: Representations of the Female Body
Caution, spoilers for A Clockwork Orange ahead.
The use of the female body for more then cheap, sexual entertainment and instead as a symbolic or thematic image has been used many times throughout the history of film. Films such as American Beauty have based a margin of their success in their use of symbolism represented by the female body, but its Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic that pushes this idea in a bolder direction.
Stanley Kubrick is known as one of the most influential filmmakers in history. This is due primarily from his use of hidden meanings and messages through his very specific and usually eerie cinematography and style of direction. His films are a popular and entertaining choice for film students to dissect and analyze, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Shining. Undoubtedly one of his most famous works, A Clockwork Orange, also falls into this category. This particular feature has been deemed one of the most controversial films of all time due to its violence and philosophical themes. Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, it describes a boy named Alex who, along with his “droogs (meaning “friends” in the Nadsat language spoken by the youth),” actively involves himself in horrible and violent displays for nothing more but his own enjoyment. This includes rape, murder, stealing, fighting, drinking, etc, and lacking any sort of respect for authority. The movie follows him as he is arrested, conditioned against his passion for ultra-violence, and attempted transformation into a regular, moral person, only to have it all unravel in the last few minutes. Along with Kubrick’s other films, A Clockwork Orange has been heavily analyzed, perhaps over abundantly so, by fans and critics alike, mapping out it’s themes of violence and morality reflecting back towards society and questioning the purpose and meaning of being human.
When watching the film, one will notice immediately the copious appearance of female nudity, specifically breasts, used throughout the film. It was for this reason, along with scenes of uncomfortable violence and themes of rape, that the movie received its NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. While its clear that the showing of breasts was added to convey its adult themes and possibly attract male audiences, Kubrick’s past film style should be noted when making these observation. One should accept the possibility of a hidden meaning behind these scenes depicting Alex’s changing mental state as he is faced with experimental conditioning and self-inflicted karma. Assuming that every detail in the film is deliberate, it is not a far leap to assume the importance of breasts to not only the visual appeal of the film, but as a thematic appeal as well.
Connecting Alex’s Mentality and Breasts
Within the very opening shot, the camera slowly zooms out from a close-up of Alex’s face to reveal a tight room where he and his friends are relaxing and drinking milk laced with drugs. This is the Korova Milk Bar, where the four of them enjoy spending time away from their sport. As the room’s interior is revealed more and more, white mannequins of featureless, naked women with large breasts become visible and are placed all over the room in various poses and positions. At one point, one of the droogs approaches a mannequin and puts his glass under one of it’s nipples and milk is drained into the glass from her chest. The amount of attention given to the female body makes it’s thematic importance apparent in this scene alone. As an audience, we are supposed to gather that Alex and his gang are at the height of their lives, connecting the female body to their mindset. The way the scene is shot makes looking away from these mannequins especially difficult.
The next few times that a woman’s chest is shown happen during events involving physical dominance, mostly in a sexual sense. The first scene of this trend opens to another gang of boys violently harassing a woman while unfitting music plays as the score. This gang forcibly rips her clothes off until she is completely naked, with a full frontal shot of her chest as they surround her and toss her back and forth. Just as they seem ready to take sexual advantage of her, Alex and his droogs arrive on the scene and this delves into a battle between the two gangs, allowing the woman to escape. In the end, Alex’s gang wins the fight, which leads to them later breaking into the house of an older couple and harassing them in a similar style as the second gang. After wrecking the house and beating them, Alex takes a pair of scissors from the husband’s desk and cuts two large holes into the wife’s shirt, exposing her breasts. The scene is uncomfortable, and it ends before any actual rape is shown, but is still heavily implied. While the opening scene showed women’s breasts on mannequins, these scenes are the first time we see actual breasts on a living female through times of distress. It is to be believed that Kubrick’s intention, whether conscious or otherwise, was to connect images of breasts with the horrible deeds performed by Alex for sport. Its true that there are other scenes depicting this, such as the scene after the opening where the boys beat up a homeless man singing on the street, but these instances involving feminine nudity prove to be more alarming, and more detail and major plot points seem to be shared while breasts are onscreen during the first quarter. (For example, Alex’s rendition of “Singing in the Rain” which returns later in the film )
Later, Alex returns home and the next day and brings two women back to his home. He has sex with both of them, and the film shows the entirety of the event but speeds through it, lasting only a few minutes. Once again, we see Alex’s dominance, and while their copulation is mostly consensual, slight reluctance can be observed between the two women as he progresses on them. This is the last scene that features physical breasts before the conditioning treatment that cements the visual appearance of breasts with Alex’s violent and decidedly evil nature.
After a fight with an old lady whose house Alex attempted to rob (which also features some artwork placed in the setting depicting naked women), he is arrested and sent to a prison where he volunteers himself to have experimental tests done to him. (It should also be added that there is a small scene in which Alex imagines himself being fed grapes by three topless women, which again strengthens the ideas explained above.) These tests involve conditioning someone’s behavior, in this case someone with immoral tendencies, by forcing them to watch films of crimes that they have similarly committed while giving them a medicine that causes them to be sick. Therefore, every time they perform or even think about performing the actions portrayed in the videos, they will feel horribly ill and violently dry-heave until these thoughts or actions dissipate. Much of the controversy surrounding the book specifically focus on this method of psychological treatment, questioning whether or not taking away a man’s choice still makes him truly human. During one of Alex’s conditioning sentences, where he is tied to a chair with his eyes forced open and pointed towards the screen, one of the videos shows a woman being raped by a large group of masked men. As expected, her breasts are exposed. This is important, because at this point the medicine that he had been taking begins to take effect, and instead of a feeling of empowerment he begins to feel the sickness creeping through him. His brain automatically associates the unbearable nausea with what is happening onscreen, specifically the breasts, and his body reacts negatively.
This leads to arguably one of the most important scenes in the entire film. Alex is placed in the middle of an empty stage with a spotlight shining over him and presenting him to a small crowd of scientists and other officials. A man comes out and begins insulting and abusing him, slapping him and forcing him to lick his shoe while Alex fights the wave of sickness that hits him. The man is demonstrating the effects of the conditioning treatments to the crowd and they seem very pleased. Yet it isn’t until a woman, completely topless and wearing nothing but a pair of panties, walks from behind the curtain and walks towards Alex across the stage. The music picks up, and one will notice it to be the same song used at the very opening of the film, but now with a completely different context. Alex falls to his knees at this woman’s feet and tries to reach for her chest, but the sickness ultimately consumes him and he is left as a quivering mess on the floor.
Reinforcing the importance of breasts to himself, this scene is powerful in showing the fall of Alex’s personal empire that he has manifested. His reaction when seeing the woman’s breasts was automatically to cup them in his hands, uncaring towards her own feelings from his behavior. To him, breasts had been a symbol of some sort of assurance that his life was in his own control, that he held influence over pleasures and personal rewards whether he was conscious of this or not. It had rarely ever occurred to him, if ever, any possibility of something taking away this power of choice that wasn’t death. Being forced to stare at his own tool of comfort only to be caused nothing but sickness and pain was torturous and, in his eyes, a thousand times more evil then anything he had ever done.
Dealing With the Effects of the Treatment
After the demonstration, Alex is now released into the public and has been hailed a regular citizen by the newspapers and media. However, he finds that his life has now become harder. He tries to return home only to find that his parents had rented out his room and kicked him out. A group of homeless men who recognize him and begin kicking him to the ground. He is saved by two police officers who turn out to be his old droogs who now take advantage of their power against him in cruel ways. The story takes a shift from Alex causing pain to him receiving it. An important aspect that must be noticed is the significant lack of breasts for the majority of this act of the movie. After the demonstration, no other breasts, or many women for that matter, are shown onscreen, dipping from the pattern that it has set so far. If we are to believe that a woman’s chest symbolized Alex’s evil habits, then the lack there of is another way of showing that this part of his life has been forced out. As Alex’s behavior and ability to choose has been taken away, Kubrick has taken away the comfort of breasts to alter the mood of the story.
Eventually, Alex finds himself back at the house where he attacked the couple to find that the wife had died after the attack. At first, the husband, who is now subjected to a wheel chair, fails to recognize him and offers him a bath. That’s when he hears Alex singing “Singing in the Rain” and recognized him immediately. Alex is drugged and taken to a room where he is tortured through his sickness and is eventually driven to jump out the window and attempt suicide. The camera falls through the window and the screen goes black.
A few seconds later, the camera fades to Alex lying in a hospital bed. Now, it is at this point that Alex’s conditioning has worn off and he is back to his old self again, but this has yet to be revealed to the audience. However, Kubrick gives a very large hint that he was back to normal. As Alex wakes up, he moans in pain or exhaustion and is answered by another moan somewhere offscreen. After a few moments of back-and-forth, a curtain in the room is drawn back and there is a fully topless nurse who had been having sex with a doctor in the room. The shot is set up like a big reveal, complete with the building of suspense and the drawn back of a curtain to display this nurse’s breasts. She quickly dresses herself again and runs to Alex’s aid, but Kubrick had used this little detail to express the idea that Alex’s original behavior had returned. Sure enough, in the next scene, he is shown a set of flashcards with different pictures and his responses were inappropriate and vulgar, which he expressed with a large smile on his face. The conditioning treatment had worn off and he was back to his old self.
The final shot of the film is a strange one, but cements this idea of breasts connecting to Alex’s psyche. He begins to daydream as Beethoven is played for him on overly large speakers given to him as a gift.There is a slow-motion shot of a crowd surrounding a topless woman straddling a shirtless man on the floor of what looks to be a photo shoot. The camera lingers on her as she wrestles and laughs with this man, and her chest is clearly shown. Its a strange, almost out of place shot that seems to exist only to fit in one more shot of a woman’s bare chest, which may be the only reasoning. This scene plays over the final line of the movie, spoken by Alex: “I was cured, all right!” The movie ends on a note of ambiguity, leaving the audience to assume that Alex had once again taken an evil role.
Stanley Kubrick was a very specific when pertaining to his directing style. He has made his mark on the industry through his obsessive attention to detail. Its hard to believe that the placing and usage of such controversial imagery wasn’t thoroughly planned out. This observable pattern is possible to miss, but after several viewings and knowledge of Kubrick’s style, one could easily find these patterns for themselves. “Evidence of the ol’ glassies!”
What do you think? Leave a comment.
When I was in film school, on the first day of some film appreciation class, the professor decided to show us the rape/murder scene in its entirely. After it was over, the class (at least half female) sat there in stunned silence. He said, “Powerful stuff, isn’t it? Now let’s watch it again.” And we did.
I think it’s a pretentious art film, with exploitative undertones.
I didn’t find McDowell’s performance to be very engaging. At times I had no idea what Alex was supposed to be conveying. I didnt feel sorry for him because of what he had done at the start. I didn’t care what happened to him because he was such a detestable character. Even in scenes when he wasn’t raping or beating it didn’t seem clear what his character was supposed to be combating. He acted and spoke the exact same way throughout, the only difference being the sickness towards violence.
I feel similarly about this movie as I do about Eyes Wide Shut. It’s obviously masterfully made, with some kind of vision in mind, and just as a piece of film-making I think it’s worth watching. But I can never shake the feeling that for all the action and troubling images onscreen, nothing has happened at all. I have no doubt Kubrick did that, along with his presentation of the female body, entirely on purpose. This is a really deep exploration, which I think the movie deserves, as weird and hard as it is to watch.
Thanks for a new point of view; I have to say this is an interesting aspect. I remember watching this film a few times, and it was the violence that struck me the most. I suppose I overlooked this element of the film. Good Job.
The film is noted for the symbolism and hidden meanings that are shown throughout. However, the overall plot is controversial and complex in itself. Stanley Kubrick’s use of the female body in A Clockwork Orange, is similar to the direction and use of female nudity in many films by Ki-duk Kim. I can understand why people just label it as an “art film.” Art is free of a solid interpretation. People see art and break it down in their own opinions… Much like this film.
I am saddened to say that we never went into this film in my film classea but you’ve certainly offered a perspective for me to take into my next viewing of the movie.
I found that movie painful to watch. In part because of the sexual violence, but also I loathed the style.
This is an outstanding movie, and I re-watched it for the first time in a couple years yesterday and still loved it. One thing I noticed this time around that may have gone over my head in the past was the utterly confusing and perhaps even impossible questions about morality the film raises. The main theme to me seems to be choice, and that a person should always have the ability to choose and not be forced how he acts even if he is totally immoral. I tend to agree with this, however, this makes me very hypocritical because there is no doubt Alex was less dangerous after the treatment, so I would have to say that it worked. But he is not a more moral person, because he still wants to do violence but is unable to. So, the question I kept asking myself is which is more ethical: programming someone into not being able to do violence or still giving him that choice and perhaps continuing with his previous behavior?
The question you keep asking yourself is exactly the question that Kubrick wanted you to ask of yourself after seeing the movie. I don’t think he provides an answer. He asks the question. He wants you to think about it…which is what you are doing.
Your question is commonly asked and partially the fault of Kubrick, the book is not ambiguous. Kubrick made his movie from a version of the book that was missing the final chapter, and that missing chapter clarifies the moral stance.
That is precisely the fundamental point of the book: the problem of free-will versus the necessary constraints society must impose on it. Raskalnikov’s in Dostoevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is an earlier example of an alienated, asocial young man seeking self-actualization through violence. The answer there was confession, atonement through long imprisonment and religious faith. Amore secular and rational(?) society offers no such simple solutions for Alex. With an election to be won, the imprisonment is brief, and a quick and brutal technological fix must be found. The movie also leaves out the final chapter, which at least finds a solution in growing up.
I find this movie to be highly overrated.
I’ve watched this movie several times thinking that as a semi-mature adult that more would click and I would appreciate the movie a lot more, but nope. The more I watch it the worse it gets over that past 20 years. Especially after watching and loving The Shining and Full Metal Jacket.
i watch this film this year and I’m 13. Some people think that i’ll become a psycho for watching it at this age but in order to watch this movie ad appreciate it you need to have some knowledge about movies and be mature about its themes.
I was 15 the first time I watched it and I really didn’t like it then. It wasn’t quite as retro as it is now. Years later in University, I wrote a paper for one of my Ed Psych classes on the film and the book, and I had a whole new appreciation for it.
Kubrick did pick some very attractive women for that film, and the way he lights them turns them into works of art.
Even the old ‘cat woman’ was in great shape. I wasn’t too sure about ‘Mum’ though. She looked like a plain typical ‘Mum’ sort.
You make a really good point that filmmakers like Kubrick wouldn’t just put up images of nudity only to be provocative but also to express some kind of meaning behind them. It’s a complaint I have against most entertainment nowadays that seems to use sensual imagery just for the sake of attracting eyes rather than providing any substantial meaning.
While you have certainly persuaded me the breasts are a crucial symbol in A Clockwork Orange, I still fail to what they symbolize. You mention that breasts are a symbol of Alex’s dominance over the female, but I believe that they are more than just that. Breasts are generally a source of warmth, comfort, and nourishment. The mannequins’ breasts in the first scene of the movie provide milk to patrons of the bar for a reason. This symbol is subverted, however, when the milk the breasts are providing are toxic; it promotes ultra-violence. The human breasts that Alex uses to his liking are no longer a symbol of comfort to Alex, but a catalyst that encourages rape. What else do you think breasts might symbolize in A Clockwork Orange?
Interesting comment — and certainly true that the image of the breast is subverted. Something that enables a child to survive in this world has the opposite effect- but then again, does Alex have to resort to violence in order to survive in Kubrick’s dystopian world?
This might be a masterpiece in cinematography for Kubrick!
I read the book, and then I saw the movie and loved it. Excellent analysis! I enjoyed reading your in-depth analysis on how breasts come to be associated with Alex’s mentality. Great job.
I don’t think that Kubrick ever intended for us to fully understand any of the films he made. That’s the beauty of his work. It’s all up to interpretation.
I like this piece a lot – it addresses some really interesting points about the filmic perspective that I haven’t ever considered. As someone who read the book first, and then saw the movie, I wonder if the novel would mirror this theme. I’m also a cinema studies minor, so this is very interesting to consider! Well written. I agree that his work is totally unreachable a lot of the time, and I love that he chose to take on a plot that is written in a really inaccessible style.
Good connections! I never really thought about the different meanings of female nudity in this film other than it just being consistent with Alex’s lifestyle.
It is always interesting to see how much this film disconcerts us in taking such things as Beethoven and “Singin’ in the Rain” and twists and contorts them away from the radiant significations we gave them before the film into a perverted fantasy of violence. It is the same, I guess, with what happens here with woman’s breasts. The fecund symbol of natural sexuality and life-giving is perverted by Alex’s violence and sense of self-identity. Interesting article, well done!
Interesting and compelling analysis. The film is definitely a difficult one to watch and because of this, its easy to miss the symbolism that you mention here, so its particularly intriguing to read your analysis. It appears that there’s definitely psycho-sexual layers in A Clockwork Orange that enable us to explore further. Really enlightening article – thanks!
For me, A Clockwork Orange, as with Eyes Wide Shut and other Kubrick works, has this masterful way of framing sexuality and the obsession with sexuality in an uncomfortable way that makes the viewer question how they typically respond to sexualized imagery. While it may seem like it feeds into a viewer’s perverse need and love of voyeurism, as we are so pleasurably given via watching films, I think it is interesting how it makes the viewer resist the unending urge to wince, cringe, or even turn away from the action that takes place on screen.
Very intriguing article. A Clockwork Orange was my first Kubrick film and I have to admit that at first I believed he was taking the intensity of the novel to a disturbing place with the large amount of breast scenes. Before seeing other Kubrick movies and re-watching the movie to more closely identify themes, I honestly believed it to be akin to Tarantino’s foot fetish. The points raised in the article are valid and well-founded. Kubrick certainly opened eyes with his take on the book but as this article highlights, he doesn’t just push boundaries for the sake of shocking the audience but had a larger plan in mind.
Good article. It touches on many of the different themes presented in the film. The film my be dark and distributing, but theres a meaning to it, and this article expressed those reasons in good detail.
As Adrienne Corri said, “Well, Malcolm, today you’re going to find out I’m a real redhead.” Perhaps some the actors learned more about the female body than they’d bargained for.
This was refreshing to read and you really loaded it up with new perspectives of the film. The violence factor really took me by surprise when I first watched the movie. I expected violence of course, however not to the extent that was actually depicted in the film.
Great synopsis and analysis of themes of the film. A Clockwork Orange is a masterful film and novel with so many different aspects that can be delved into. The way the female body is presented is of course related the idea of Alex’s control and power, but the female body is also reduced down to such a subhuman level. As mentioned, the image of the mannequin milk ladies in the opening scene presents women as featureless, cold, impersonal beings. Dull paintings of sexual women which highlight cleavage also hang in the home of Alex’s parents home which just further sexualizes women while simultaneously creating a dehumanized image of women in the film.
I do not think that it should be narrowed down to just women. While the female body is definitely objectified more explicitly, the apartment building which Alex lives in also shows murals of men with sexual drawings objectifying them.
I must say, I too considered this to be an “art” film, but I guess I can see how it’s really not.
Alex associated breasts with control, and therefore sex with power instead of an act of love. The treatment brainwashed him into associating sex and violence with pain and sickness instead of an act of love. I always thought that the failure of the treatment was that any of his actions afterward couldn’t be *immoral,* but they could never be out of love if he felt sexually attracted to a woman or physically challenged by a man. These two things seemed to me to be Alex’s primary foci pre-treatment and uncultured man’s primary foci. Hm.
Great article. I still love ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but now I may see it via a new perspective.
Great insights. I wonder, was Alex breastfed as a child?
It was a brutal and disturbing film but Kubrick was likely commenting on the potential savagery of human sexuality, just as he has explored the potential savagery of almost every other aspect of what makes us human.
The organization of your writting is horrible.You did mention and conect intresting points,but u are all over the place and I obviously have seen the movie if i am reading this,there is no need to describe every scene in such detail.Learn to write buddy,whoever was your english writting teacher did a terrible job.
The deeper symbolism of Clockwork Orange exposes the elements used in MK Ultra conditioning (mirrors, double imagery, B&W checkered floors, checkered curtains & checkered sleeve cuffs to reinforce duality, shadowy figures observing, unpleasant dream recall of having one’s mind/body messed with, & songs/imagery triggering extreme trauma or dissociation) and the other unpleasant reality that most of the 1% ruling elite do belong to the masonic order that call themselves the Illuminati (the hidden pyramid on the grey brick wall overseeing the circling prisoners, the minister’s gold pyramid-shaped kerchief on his jacket pocket, the minister’s gold & black pyramid-patterned shirt, the purposefully pyramid-shaped stagelights strobing Alex, Alex’s one eye exaggerated with mascara along with other characters covering one eye (Eye of Horus) throughout the film). All you have to do is examine the movie poster of this film (pyramid shapes & an eyeball) to see Kubrick’s allusions to the Illuminati.
Other films of Kubrick’s cover the above grim realities: The Shining hints at them & Eyes Wide Shut completely focuses on them – which is why some think Kubrick was killed for revealing too much – he did die just 3 days later after he handed EWS to Warner Bros. The autopsy was supposedly “heart failure” but Kubrick’s own family was adamant that he never had any pulmonary problems.
In regards to how women are portrayed in Clockwork Orange, one can argue that the Illuminati are probably the most powerful misogynistic group in the world. In their “higher” masonic rituals, men dressed as women are kept in subjugated positions, such as being the base for a sacrificial altar. In MK conditioning, ‘beta kittens’ are women forced to be sex toys – which is what all the porno paintings on the ‘cat lady’s’ walls suggest. When Alex cruelly kills the ‘cat lady’ with a big phallic sculpture, images of double mouths flash suggesting dual personalities – the cat lady herself has been conditioned. Alex & his “droogs” are dressed as handlers- those that “train” MK Ultra victims through violent abuse.
For those that practice the cruelty of MK programming, Kubrick’s film is a warning that he’s wise to them as he warns the audience and for those unfortunate to have been subjected to such conditioning, seeing Clockwork Orange would be a multiple trigger-fest of horrors. The surface of Clockwork Orange is a morality tale that hides the deeper horrors of actual behavioral conditioning committed in our time.
You have missed many crucial points In the book the two “women” Alex brings in the shortened/speeded up episode are scarcely ten years old and his seduction/entrapment/rape (makingAlex -even at a supposed 15 a true monster) includes getting them drunk, injecting speed, and their barely being able to walk as they stagger away. THAT is a point your and most film reviewers seem to completely miss. Apparently you cannot be bothered to actually read the book – which was essentially written as a screenplay.)
A good essay. Malcolm McDowell did a presentation at the university where I taught, discussing the film after the audience first watched the movie. I found it interesting that several people in the audience when asking a question had trouble distinguishing between the character he played and that he is an actor. In fact at one point he said, “You realize I am an actor.”
i think you should edit this piece to remove “mostly consensual” from the segment on the women he took home. although it wasn’t through physical violence, he did rape them. reluctance is not consent.