In response to: The Laura Mulvey essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” from the journal “Screen”
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
In the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey objectively examined the roots of woman’s oppression in cinema using the socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, including the erotic ways of looking at spectacle, as applied in films. She looked into the language of patriarchy using the tools provided by psychoanalysis, offering a better understanding of the status quo in the process. She articulated the problem in coding the erotic into “the dominant patriarchal order,” as erotic pleasure is consistently attached to the image of the woman character in cinema. Films continue to use the language of cinema to please the male viewer, unchallenged by the pre-existing patterns of fascination to the female form, which, for the longest time, continue to serve the phallocentric order. As Mulvey explained in this sophisticatedly written essay, “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castigated woman to give order and meaning to its world.” She moved on further saying, “psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.”
Mulvey asserted how the pleasure of scopophilia implies that there is pleasure in looking, as well as pleasure in being looked at. In Freud’s “Three Essays on Sexuality,” he isolated scopophilia as “one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones.” Mulvey explained how scopophilia objectifies women, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze (in the case of Freud, he specifically cited voyeuristic activities of children, their desire to see and make sure of the private and the forbidden). Later on, as he further developed his theory of scopophilia in “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” Freud said that scopophilia is initially attached to pre-genital auto-eroticism, then after which, “the pleasure of the look is transferred to others by analogy.” He added, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” In discussing “voyeuristic phantasy” as the voyeuristic separation strengthened by the projected image in a dark room, Mulvey suggested that the process offers “the illusion of looking in on a private world.” This serves as a projection of the spectator’s repressed desire – now seen through the performer on screen. In the male gaze, there is a narcissistic aspect of scopophilia as the human form becomes the focus of the objectification process. Breaking down the voyeuristic-scopophilic look in cinema, “It is her lack of that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.” Meanwhile, Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage where “the recognition is thus overlaid with misrecognition: the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject, which re-introjected as an ego ideal, gives rise to the future generation of identification with others.” In exploring the extraneous similarities between the screen and the mirror, Mulvey effectively presented the structures of fascination in cinema through the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition, and identification.
Although Mulvey’s “male gaze” pertained to the highly developed Hollywood cinema, other film industries around the world also coded women for strong visual and erotic impacts – “Woman as image, man as bearer of the look.” In her words, “Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle” continue to persist because producers believe such is what sells. In the case of the Philippines, the active male-passive female tendency became the norm as well. The reality in cinema is, the woman’s presence, as the bearer of the pleasurable look, is meant to freeze the flow of action instead of allowing the narrative to move on – for the sake of erotic contemplation. Meanwhile, the man, as the bearer of power, is meant to forward the story, to make things happen. These suggest that the female character serves as a pleasurable distraction, while the male character becomes the male spectator’s screen surrogate. The active male figure becomes “the ego ideal of the identification process,” while the woman becomes his property. In many cases, stories in films involve the powerful man falling in love with the beautiful woman, then she loses her own outward glamourous characteristics when she literally and figuratively becomes his property. Throughout this process of passive raw material vs. active gaze, the male spectator seems to possess her too. It is pretty clear that humans are naturally visual compared to other species whose more dominant senses may be their sense of smell or hearing. This makes the object of sexual stimulation through sight in humans, as in the case of the male gaze, even more powerful in cinema. The male viewer identifies himself with the male character on screen using the concept of “the glamorous (the star/actor and the character in the film) impersonates the ordinary (the male spectator).”
Mulvey aptly noted how woman as representation signifies castration. In explaining the structure of her representation, she said, “Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic). Either she must gracefully give way to the word, the Name of the Father and the Law, or else struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the imaginary. 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.”
After analyzing all these insights, it is worthwhile to attempt to circumvent the issues of utilizing cinematic codes to create a gaze, a world, and an object in women to merely serve the ideology of the patriarchal order because “It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged.” Challenging the norm means telling stories that challenge the status quo, alongside the stories that react against the phallocentric order. According to Mulvey, alternative cinema (and from my understanding, all the other terms pertaining to it) provides this opportunity. She said, “a politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.” Indeed, the domination of Hollywood films and other films falling within its sphere of influence would be quite hard to shake and break as the established system has already mastered the skill of satisfying the manipulation of visual pleasure for its target consumers. Nevertheless, Mulvey presented such a well-thought-of statement to at least leave enough space for films outside the mainstream system: “The alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire.” I prefer these convictions way more than her statements suggesting the attack on existing films that reinforce and satisfy the male gaze. In general, these older films should be studied and critiqued to further film, cultural, and even anthropological studies. Discourse sprouting from these existing films should acknowledge the issues and not merely focus on direct offense/defense relating to the attack on objectified woman characters. Instead, there should be discourse to find that route towards maturity for better films in the future. However, I do agree with her in attacking new films of such oppressive forms because producing them at this time and age, despite all these theories and schools of thought now in our midst, means the lack of social and moral responsibility and gender sensitivity in the part of modern filmmakers. In these modern times, such shouldn’t only apply to films that objectify women. It should apply to any film that objectify people, regardless of gender.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975.