ÉCRITURE FEMININE

PART TWO: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 
LAURA MULVEY (1941 – )

One of the most famous essays critiquing the structures of masculine oppression comes not from France and not from America but from the genteel shores of the British Isles: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey. Re-published in her book of film and cultural criticism, Visual and Other Pleasures, this ground-breaking article was written  in 1973 and published  in Screen in 1975.  Her position was that psychoanalytic theory, a feminist take on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) by way of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), whose philosophies had been used as a weapon against women. Those psychoanalytic theories were, in their own way, expressions of the prevailing social norms that through the complex fulcrum of philosophy reinforced male control of the female. Mulvey was conversant with Lacan years long before the entirety of his work was translated into English. Indeed, she was present as Lacan, himself, was re-writing his own ideas on women during the seventies. Her article on the unconsciousness of film was so groundbreaking because, first, she used Lacan against himself or his own theories, but, second, she also provided a cutting-edged subversive analyses of male art forms to feminist theory. Given that Hollywood cinema is a delivery system of pleasure to men, Mulvey’s goal was to analyze this male pleasure and to destroy that pleasure.

If we extend psychoanalysis from the individual to the culture that produced the person, then the culture itself has embedded and buried its own unconscious which expresses itself through “dream-work.” Without being fully aware of what it is doing, male-made popular culture reproduces and reinforces male dominance in society, not in obvious ways but within a visual and verbal language that reveals, not will to power but a deep male anxiety about women. Mulvey analyzes cinema, an advanced representative system, which rests upon an unconscious that has been formed by the dominant order. The power of her texts is that she carefully re-looks at the familiar, films that most people have seen, perhaps the most insidious instruments of social manipulation, and makes these movies unfamiliar. Both men and women watch popular movies and are moved and shaped by what they see. One can debate as the “importance” of the feminist target–is it more effective to directly challenge Jacques Lacan, read by thousands or to dissect a mode of communication that involves millions of watchers?

Mulvey’s article established an entire field of film criticism for feminists and for critical theorists, such as Slavoj Zizek (1949-). Given the late date of the translation of Lacan’s writings, Mulvey must have read some of his work in the original and, thus, she acted as a transmitter of phallocentric ideas from this author to a wide audience, especially the audience of women who would make of this text a tool kit for critique.  Mulvey worked with a concept that will prove a fruitful one: “The Political Unconscious,” which Frederic Jameson (1934-) would later combine Marx and Freud and join Mulvey in analyzing popular culture as revealing of the unsaid in culture. Because it was written in English and hence would have wider circulation, Mulvey’s signature essay is better known than the work of her French counterparts here in America. Her writing is more accessible and she sidesteps the temptation to take on Freud and Lacan in order to refute them. The article does not require the audience to have an understanding, first of Freud and second of Lacan, at the same level of detail that is needed to read French feminism; all “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” demands is a passing knowledge of familiar films. Mulvey assumed, however, that the reader grasps the basic idea that society is phallocentric, that is male dominated, as she wrote,

The paradox of phallocentrism in aIl its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies. 

According to Mulvey, mainstream film has been coded into the language of the erotics of the dominant (male) order and these erotics give pleasure (designed for male needs) to the male. Although there is no doubt that females also receive pleasure from popular movies but this pleasure demands that she incorporate her own objectification. It is the intention of Mulvey to analyze this pleasure in order to destroy it, to break with “normal” pleasures and expectations–which are male pleasures at the expense of women. Mulvey’s article focused on the films of Alfred Hitchcock (1889-1980), the ultimate voyeur-as-director. In the 21st century, Hitchcock is understood through post-feminist eyes as somewhat unbalanced when it came to women, but it would be more precise to state that the English director was in a unique position to express very powerfully the feelings that men (at that time) had about women. Indeed, today, we view his films as less than archaeologies of  sixties male culture but more as frank assertions of male needs, hiding in plain sight in the sixties. Whether Hitchcock can be positioned as a director of a group of late film noir movies or as being in an idiosyncratic class by himself, it can be said that he foregrounded one of the favorite noir characters, the femme fatale who became the focus of the auteur’s dissecting eye on the eve of a series of Civil Rights movements, including feminism.

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Rear Window (1954)

In his classically neurotic film noirs of the late fifties and early sixties, from Psycho to Rear Window  to Vertigo to Marnie to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock featured strong blond women who, according to Mulvey, were, like all women in all male-made movies, were symbolic and “speaks to castration and nothing else.” Echoing Lacan who insisted that women did not exit, Mulvey said their role in visual culture was only as a sign:

Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning. 

Wittingly or unwittingly, film is a form of scopophilia, the rather perverted sexual pleasure obtained through looking–largely a male proclivity–a form of passive voyeurism that is inherently voyeuristic. Film is a function of the specular. Film theorists had long compared the darkness of a movie theater and the passive inertness of the audience to sleeping and experiencing dreams. The “narrative conventions” of this “magically unfolding” experience” allow the viewer to spy on a drama unfolding before their eyes. Like the voyeur who takes pleasure in watching, the filmgoers also receive ritual pleasure. Mulvey explained that the screen is a mirror, much like the Lacanian “mirror” which reflected a magnified image of the ego back to itself. The ego “misrecognizes” the image and receives pleasure from this “ego ideal.” This identification is the source of the “fascination” of film and its hold on its rapt audience who gazes upon the ego ideal, the male protagonist on the silver screen.

Because the narrative of film is constructed out of the split between the active male and the passive female, the ego ideal is that of the male and can never be that of the female. But male identification with the male must be constructed not on sexuality but on the dominance of the male protagonist who pushes the story forward. As Mulvey expressed it, “…the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like.” Regardless of the gender of the spectator, s/he identifies with the male on the screen. In contrast to the male, the female character is passive; she exists to be gazed upon, to be looked at. She is on display as a Sign of male sexuality and of male desire. But the active display of the passive female as an object to be seen by the viewers causes a problem for the male who will experience acute anxiety at the sight of this Other who does not possess the most important and prized possession: the Phallus. Mulvey wrote,

…the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star). 

Alfred Hitchcock masterfully played with the conventions of movies by foregrounding the perversions of scopophilila and the sadism of fetishistic fascination. In Rear Window (1954), the male protagonist is already suggestively castrated by his broken leg, his immobilization, and his infantile state as an invalid. His emasculation is further heightened by his active and sexually assertive girlfriend who controls and order his now-homebound life. Even the large extended phallic lens of his heavy camera, a survival of his career as a photojournalist, cannot compensate for his supine state. The anxieties of the male audience would be aroused in the extreme: a helpless male and a demanding female. As Mulvey pointed out, this hero is as trapped in his seat as the audience in the theater and the narrative worked quickly to ally fears. As soon as she appears, “Jeffries” orders “Lisa” to display herself to the audience, and as she swirls and twirls her bouffant skirts, she is belittled and degraded by the sarcastic male.

As in Vertigo, the male must be seemingly placed on the side of the Law of the Father. But Hitchcock’s saving grace is that he undermines these self-rightsous males: “Jeffries” is an irresponsible voyeur who snoops on his neighbors and cravenly sends “Lisa” into danger, and in Vertigo, “Scottie” is maniacal and obsessive and is responsible for the death of the woman he loves, “Madeline.” On its surface, Vertigo (1958), like Rear Window, is a murder mystery, but the so-called mystery is an Hitchcock MacGuffin, an excuse to explore the unhealthy romance between an ineffectual male and a powerful woman who must be destroyed and re-made into a fetish fashioned for male control. As in Psycho and Marnie, Hitchcock’s women were displayed to the men in the audience, made visually available to them, so that men, identifying with the male protagonist, could interrogate and investigate these women and then either master or kill the women, or both, in order to alleviate the castration anxiety of the male audience. According to Mulvey’s “Summary,”

The argument returns again to the psychoanalytic background in that woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat. None of these interacting Iayers is intrinsic to film, but it is only in the film form that they can reach a perfect and beautiful contradiction, thanks to the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look. It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, strip-tease, theatre, shows, etc. Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.  

According to Mulvey’s critique, many films have a male-orientated sub-text that must be located in order to reveal the constant workings of the patriarchal culture to silence and to extinguish women, but the fact that she focused on Hitchcock films, the work of an acknowledge auteur raises several questions. First, Hitchcock was a director of the sixties and second, Mulvey was a writer of the seventies, therefore is this essay still viable? It has been forty years since Mulvey attempted to subvert the male pleasure of cinema, but from the opening credits of television shows, such as the Miami Vice and Burn Notice, the camera, the consummate instrument of voyeurism, par excellence, gloms onto women’s breasts and buttocks, untroubled by feminism, whether First or Second Wave or post. Clearly, we still need Mulvey. If any progress has been made, it can be seen that voyeurism has become equal opportunity: now male torsos have become fetish objects. But over the half century, we have witnessed the evolution of strong female protagonists in movies and in television. While there is no doubt that the Male Gaze reigns supreme, it is not unchallenged, as female filmmakers gradually remake and rewrite the political unconscious of film.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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