Friday, April 23, 2010

Gazing at Literature: An Exploration of Laura Mulvey’s Feminist Film Theory Through Her “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

By Michelle L. Corbett

Please note: This was my term paper for my third year Contemporary Critical Theory (of Literature) class. I have not polished it since I received it back from my professor as it received an A grade.



Laura Mulvey is a feminist theorist who applied psychoanalysis to film theory. Mulvey’s work was more successful and unique because of her feminist perspective and it laid the foundation for feminist film theory. Her most well known theory was to do with male gaze in film. This can also be applied to other literary works. This paper will focus on Laura Mulvey’s theory in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and its strengths and weaknesses, and then use the poem “Lamia” by John Keats to show how this theory is useful for literature.

It is necessary to give a brief introduction to feminist theory before discussing the role Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” plays within this school of theory. Feminism arose out of the necessity for females to be given voice in society. Up until the recent past women in many cultures have been excluded from positions of political, social and economic power. Women were dismissed as less important than men and these views were fuelled by notions such as the mythology of witches through which women and men were stuck onto a binary in which women were associated with evil and men with good. It is easy to see how this might happen because the two sexes lend themselves to binaries simply by their duality. It is impossible to completely erase binary in literature but feminists put forth the notion that it should not be completely trusted. Feminist theorists also have the idea that literary discourse is often the result of males projecting their own insecurities onto women, making them appear less credible. Women work as literary symbols rather than as people in many cases. In other cases there is split discourse which condemns females no matter how they act. For instance in the case of the witch hunts if a women acted too purely it could be seen as a disguise for her true evil nature, whereas if she acted badly she would immediately be seen as a witch. Feminist theorists attempt to debunk male devices in literature in order to create a new discourse free from old stereotypes.

Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was written at a time when feminist ideas were only beginning to be considered seriously and studied in universities. Therefore, her essay had a revolutionary effect. Chaudhuri boldly states that “[f]eminist film theory almost became the orthodoxy of film theory, such was its influence in the field” as a result of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” (1). John-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz had previously attempted to apply psychoanalysis to film theory but with nominal success. The basic principle of Mulvey’s theory is the idea of the power of the male gaze in film. What is meant by this is that film has a patriarchal lens attached to it. Women are often portrayed as submissive objects to gratify males. Mulvey suggests that this sort of lens is incorporated into the very mechanism of how films are made. But it can be deconstructed by removing the scopophilic gaze of the audience and forcing an environment in which the audience must engage with the film instead of being the invisible spectator. According to Chaudhuri, “Mulvey’s concept of ‘male gaze’ subsequently became the main talking point of feminist film debate.” (31).

For Mulvey, females and males have very distinctive roles in film. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey describes the presence of the women as “an indispensible element of spectacle in normative narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of the story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” (715). The female is associated with spectacle, submission and exhibitionism. Females are the objects of male gaze and work as icons or bearers of meaning within the film. On the other hand, males are the agents of action in film. They work to move along the plots and have dominant roles. Males are associated with the camera’s gaze and function as the bearer of this voyeuristic gaze. What happens when a spectator views a film is that they must unconsciously sift through scopophilic notions like the norms of patriarchal society. The spectator becomes bombarded by these images, the result of which is that it provides the “pleasure of identification with the projected images, in particular with that of the male character, who makes things happen and controls them. Woman is, however, also a source of unpleasure since she represents the threat of castration.” (Braudy and Cohen 661). This identification with the male undermines the importance of women and causes a sense of scopophilic pleasure in viewing the film. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey says that, “By means of identification with [the male protagonist], through participation in his power the spectator can indirectly possess [the female spectacle] too.” (718). Mulvey calls the spectators voyeuristic because they watch but do directly participate and she calls the actors and actresses exhibitionists because they perform their roles in order to be watched by the spectators. The sense of voyeurism is heightened because the spectator can see the exhibitionist but the exhibitionist is unable to see the spectator.

Mulvey defines spectacle as the points in the film where the narrative is interrupted by an image of a woman. According to Cynthia Freeland, “[t]here is a dual analogy between the woman and the screen (the object of the look), and between the man and the viewer (the possessor of the look). A tension arises in the viewer between libido and ego needs, and this tension is resolved by a process of identification, whereby the [male] viewer identifies with the [male] protagonist.” (628). The spectator focuses their attention on the female in a way that ties the spectator with the (male) protagonist. This causes the female image to become objectified.

Mulvey’s work was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. In particular his theories of penis envy and his ideas of “scopophilic” pleasure (viewing another as an erotic object) shaped her work. The idea of scopophilic pleasure translates into her notion of voyeurism in film. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey says, “Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality ... At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze. His particular examples centre around the voyeuristic activities of children, their desire to see and make sure of the private and forbidden.” (713). It can easily be seen from this quote how the application of Freudian psychoanalysis leads to the concept of the voyeuristic male gaze in her film theory. The idea of penis envy affects her theory so far as that the male gaze in film encourages people to see male as the position of power and therefore the better position in society. In this way the female spectator will still want to identify themselves with the male position and see the female position as weaker. This lends itself to creating submissive female roles. Even in the case of female heroines in films they often become objects of the male gaze and require male assistance to come in and move the plot along.

She was also influenced by Lacan’s ideas about the mirror stage. Lacan’s mirror stage is defined as the point in the life of an infant where the infant becomes aware that their image in the mirror is a reflection of themselves. With this realization comes the formation of Ego. The Ego is created out of the discord between the perceived self and the internal understanding of self. The infant begins to objectify themselves upon the discovery of their image. This dissention between the perception of self and the image creates a fragmentation of self. Mulvey’s idea of how the male gaze operates in film is very closely linked with Lacan’s mirror stage theory. The spectator is in the place of the infant and the spectacle is in the place of the image. The spectator identifies themselves with what is happening in the film although they are actually separate from it. This vicarious behaviour displays itself in the form of voyeurism. The connection between the spectator and the spectacle is fragmented and yet within the moment of watching the film the two are connected in a sense as well. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey states, “[C]inema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego.” (714). The male gaze becomes an action through voyeurism, tying the spectator to the male view within the film and keeping the spectator from fully identifying themselves with images of the objectified feminine.
Lacan referred to the image in the mirror as the symbolic realm. This image causes the separation of the infant from the unconscious. Entering into the symbolic realm the infant is no longer able to connect their selves with the real. The real is the self that exists purely in and of itself before the infant is able to perceive of their self. The symbolic realm is the world of the masculine in which people conduct their business, fully conscious of their perceived image. A person may try to go back towards the real but all they are capable of reaching is the realm of the imaginary, which is connected with the perceptions of Freud’s pre-Oedipal stage. The imaginary is more real than the symbolic but at the same time is incapable of fully reaching the real. Mulvey applies this in her film theory, saying that the film moves towards the imaginary but is full of images based in the symbolic patriarchal realm, implying the power of the male gaze over everything happening within a film.

One of the strengths of Mulvey’s theory is that it gives a woman’s perspective on theory. There were not a lot of female theorists before Mulvey and the few that there were often were not taken seriously. One of the more well known female theorists previous to Mulvey was Cixious, whose theory seems more of a satire than an actual theory. Mulvey appeared at just the right time for her work to get noticed. Feminist theories were beginning to be taught at universities. Writing on film theory, which was a relatively new area of theory, allowed her to carve out a spot for herself among male scholars. Her feminist slant on film theory was revolutionary and paved the way for many more feminist theorists. Her psychoanalytic perspective helped to tie her theories to theories of literature that were well known and therefore made her voice more reputable.

Another strength is that Mulvey’s theory lent itself well to the silent film era where action was limited due to the superimposing of the actor onto backdrop. The result was that even performances in a setting that should require little movement, such as the confined space of a car were “self conscious, vulnerable and transparent.” (“A Clumsy Sublime” 3). This allowed for many strategic shots that focused on the female body as an object of desire, while limiting the shots containing action that would further the narrative. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” the woman in patriarchal society becomes a “signifier for the male other, bound by the 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.” (712). This image of the woman as an image onto which male discourse can be projected creates a very strong sense of the male gaze although the limited capability for realism in film during this era made the fragmentation between reality and the world of the cinema more pronounced, not allowing the spectator to be fully engaged in the act of voyeurism. It is for this reason that Mulvey’s theory did not lose its ability to apply to the modern film industry and in fact is possibly more effective in describing it than it was the silent film era in that the film itself has a greater sense of realism and less fragmentation. Mulvey states in “A Clumsy Sublime” that “the artificiality of the studio scene heightens the sense of temporal dislocation” in the case of rear projection cinema. (3).

A third strength is that Mulvey’s theory can easily be applied to other works of literature. While the male gaze in other literature is less pronounced because the voyeurism is not as extreme as it is in the case of film, it is present and able to affect the way the reader frames the characters in narratives in relation to themselves. In the case of poetry, which is often devoid of narrative it is possible to see the female depicted as spectacle, especially in the case of erotic poetry and love poems. The main difference between film and other literature in regards to Mulvey’s theory is the gap between the spectator and the spectacle. It is very easy in the case of film to see things through the lens of the male gaze when the mechanism of the camera itself, and the shots produced lends itself to being interpreted through male gaze within patriarchal society. With the spectacle of film splayed out in front of the spectator’s eyes it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing it through a male lens. This is because the speed at which the information reaches the spectator’s senses requires much less time than in most other forms of literature. In the case of a novel the reader is likely to pause and think about a passage before continuing. This allows for more time to disrupt and contradict the male gaze. Despite this much of the highly reputed literature has been written by men and within the bounds of patriarchal society and is therefore subject to the male gaze.

One weakness of Mulvey’s theory is that it is based in psychoanalysis, which is flawed. One problem with psychoanalysis, particularly in the case of Sigmund Freud is the way it is applied. Freud would use lead in questions in his sessions with clients, cause them to respond in a certain way that would tie in with his theories. In this way it would be impossible to disprove the effectiveness of psychoanalysis. This lack of objectivity also leads to a lot of criticism and for good reason. Another problem with Freud’s psychoanalytics is how phallocentric his theories are. This is also very evident in Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”. She seems to take Freud’s ideas too seriously, and this is particularly obvious when she fails to give female spectators credit that they may enjoy a film without actually seriously agreeing with the patriarchal position of the male gaze. In fact it is strange that Mulvey would take Freud’s work seriously in any fashion as a feminist theorist because it causes females to be viewed in bad light. Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” remarks on “the ‘beauty’ of psychoanalysis in the way it renders the frustration women experience under ‘the phallocentric order’” according to Chaudhuri. (33). This analysis is a poor one, because Freud’s psychoanalysis attempts to undermine women rather than identify with their feelings. The idea that women are supposed to have penis envy is not something that should be taken seriously, and yet Mulvey seems to incorporate this into her own theories. It is likely that this background in Freud’s well-known psychoanalysis gave her an edge in the field when “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” first was written, but it undercuts her whole vision of empowerment for women through the medium of film.

A second weakness of Mulvey’s theory is that she assumes that people must always identify with the males in films. Laura Mulvey herself addresses this in her book Visual and Other Pleasures. She states “I have been asked why I only used the male third personal singular to stand for the spectator. At the time, I was interested in the relationship between the image of woman on the screen and the ‘masculinisation’ of the spectator position, regardless of [their] actual sex.” (29). Laura Mulvey decided to pursue the question “What about the women in the audience?” in further detail. (29). She believes that there are a few possibilities as to how female audience members can react to the male gaze created my film. One possibility is that as a result of the masculinisation of the spectator position a woman “may find herself so out of key with the pleasure on offer ... that the spell of fascination is broken.” (29). Another possibility is that she would not and instead “find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with the hero provides.” (29). Mulvey is more interested in the latter.

Another issue Mulvey addresses in Visual and Other Pleasures is how having a female lead in a film effects how spectators identify with males in the film. She focuses on “films in which a woman central protagonist is shown to be unable to achieve a stable sexual identity, torn between the deep blue sea of passive femininity and the devil of regressive masculinity.” (30). Mulvey describes the female heroine’s identity crisis in this sort of film as “echoed by the woman spectator’s point of view.” (30). She thinks that the female spectator who has identified with a male hero in another film and then identifies with a female heroine is problematic because she views the masculine point of view as equal to a more female gaze. It seems that Mulvey neglects the fact that the female spectator is perfectly capable of enjoying the film for its plotline and identifying with a male hero’s human emotion rather than just focusing on a film with a masculine gaze. Female spectators (or any spectators for that matter) are able critically evaluate what is going on in a film or piece of literature and take only what is meaningful from it. Mulvey attempts to band-aid this part of her theory by using the pre-Oedipal stage in Freud’s theory to describe the role of the female spectator. According to Chaudhuri she suggests that “during many women’s lives, there are frequent regressions to this phallic phase, leading their behaviour to alternate between ‘passive’ femininity and regressive ‘masculinity’.” (40). Through this digression the female spectator is able to take on the masculine role of spectator and derive pleasure from the film.

This leads right into a third weakness of Mulvey’s theory which is that she assumes that people are child-like and do not comprehend the implications of what is depicted in film. As human beings we are able to see that film is not the same as reality any more than theatre is. We are perfectly capable of making critiques of film and often do. It is easy to move beyond the film and see the falsities of the male gaze. Mulvey’s suggestion of female spectators regressing into a pre-Oedipal state undermines their ability to look at films in a critical fashion.

While Mulvey’s theory is tailored to film and works better with it than other forms of literature it is possible to find the influence of patriarchy in many works of literature and to see how the male gaze exists in these works. In the poem “Lamia” by John Keats the character Apollonius has a particularly powerful gaze. The nymph Lamia had Hermes transform her into a beautiful woman so that she could capture the affections of Lycius. At their wedding Lycius’s mentor Apollonius arrives and warns Lycius about her. He is able to see Lamia’s previous serpent-like self when Lycius seems blinded to it. When Lycius still cannot see beyond Lamia’s beauty Apollonius stares at Lamia until her serpent shape is exposed to Lycius and then Lamia vanishes, leaving Lycius to die of heartbreak.
Looking at the poem through the lens of Mulvey’s theory Apollonius can be seen as cutting through the male gaze and exposing Lamia for what she truly is (a serpent-woman). Lycius seems incapable of seeing Lamia as anything except spectacle. This is illustrated by how he did not notice Lamia before she had Hermes make her beautiful. This concept of beauty as attracting the attention of a male gaze is echoed in Mulvey’s discussion of the film Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock, in which Lisa is “continually putting herself on visual display for Jeff so that he will notice her.” (Modleski 725). Lamia’s beauty objectifies her, making her become noticed by the people of Corinth as well. Lycius wants to show her off in public because of her beauty and so she becomes a spectacle. Worse still Mulvey would point out that Lamia tries to tailor herself into becoming the object of a male gaze for Lycius’s love. Modleski criticizes Mulvey for seeing Lisa in Rear Window as “only a passive object of male gaze” saying she ignores the “full complexity of woman’s contradictory situation” and “risk[s] acquiescing in masculine contempt for female activities.” (725). In the same way Mulvey’s theory would condemn Lamia, who is working to empower herself with in a strongly patriarchal society.

The name Apollonius suggests the sun god Apollo, so it can be deduced that Apollonius serves as a light (like the sun) that exposes truth in a world that is veiled by shadows and lies. Despite this when Apollonius exposes Lamia as a serpent-woman this paints Lamia in a bad light. Apollonius makes Lamia into a monster, claiming that she is trying to deceive Lycius. In a patriarchal society any woman who does not fit the bill exactly as to how women should behave becomes just such a monster. Apollonius destroys Lamia in a very real way. No one is going to love or trust a serpent-woman. The connection with the Adam and Eve story makes the spectator as uneasy as Lycius upon this revelation.

However, looking at the poem solely from this angle would be problematic. It seems no matter how the poem is read though it results in Lamia being the object of the critical male eye. If the poem were to be read as Apollonius possessing the male gaze this would work also. Apollonius sees Lamia’s serpentine form, but we cannot be sure this is her true form. Lamia tells Hermes at the beginning of the poem that she “was a woman” and asks that she may be restored to “a woman’s shape, and charming as before.” (lines 117-118). This suggests that if her true shape is that of a woman, she has for some reason been cursed with her serpentine form. If this is true (and the male gaze in the poem makes it hard to trust Lamia’s words) then Apollonius does not expose Lamia for what she truly is but instead destroys her by making Lycius see her in the wrong light. Within the poem itself it is said,

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries of rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade. (lines 234-238).

Lamia is compared with an Angel whose wings are clipped by philosophy. The image of an Angel with clipped wings suggests a demonizing of it. Therefore the poem is saying that philosophy has the ability to make what is beautiful become monstrous. As Apollonius is a philosopher he can be seen as a force that will destroy Lamia’s beauty.

Either way Lamia is under a critical male gaze which depicts her as either a beautiful object of desire or a monstrous manipulator. Both of these depictions are very common ways depict women in literature, which was for centuries dominated by male writers. Women were to be mistrusted and feared when they acted to set their own goals in motion. When they remained submissive to men then they became objects of desire, satisfying the role of sexual partner, wife and mother. In a submissive role women did not challenge the authority of patriarchal society. This depiction of women who defied the patriarchy as monstrous reared its ugly head in creating harsh consequences for women, sometimes taken to their logical extreme such as in the case of the practice of witch hunting. It is often the case in literature that women “who become aligned with monsters, are typically shown themselves to represent threats to the patriarchy and hence require punishment.” (Freeland 629). In the case of Lamia is capable of getting things for herself and so she might be seen as a threat to the patriarchy. Also her love threatens Lycius’s relationship with philosophy (represented by Apollonius) and is keeping Lycius from the male sphere of society. This could be seen as problematic, forcing Apollonius to expose Lamia as a serpent-woman.

Mulvey’s theory works better with some literature and films better than with others. Films that Mulvey’s theory works well with are police films and films to do with the justice system. The action is often disrupted in these by the introduction of female characters. Alfred Hitchcock films also lend themselves to Mulvey’s theory. In fact she used a couple of them in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to illustrate voyeurism within film. She wrote, “Hitchcock has never concealed his interest in voyeurism, cinematic and non-cinematic.” (719). Mulvey’s theory works well with the film and literary genre of horror because of the over-dramatisation of female characters. Mulvey’s theory also works well with love poetry, although it is often devoid of a plotline. Females are often objectified in love poems. A good example is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in which he is describing his lover’s appearance. Films that do not work as well with Mulvey’s theory include Tim Burton films, children’s films and films such as Bend it like Beckham, in which females are allowed to play a dominant and empowering role which does not rely on a male coming in to save the day. An example of a literary genre in which this theory does not work well is the romance novel genre. In this genre it is usually the male that becomes the object of a female gaze. This is likely because these books are often geared towards a female readership. In many cases poetry also does not lend itself to Mulvey’s theories because it often has no plot and the object of the gaze is very fluid. Love poems are an exception because of the way they objectify women.

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” the problem has always been “how to fight the unconscious structured like a language (formed critically at the moment of arrival of language) while still caught within the language of the patriarchy.” (712). Mulvey herself attempted to create films devoid of the male gaze with the help of her former husband and fellow film theorist, Peter Wollen. To do this they used avante garde film techniques, such as causing the spectator to be forced into realizing they are viewing a film, which is separate from reality. This process has been repeated by many avante garde film makers. An example Laura Mulvey uses in her article “Repetition and Return” comes from Kiarostami’s film And Life Goes On, where it is scripted that one of the actors cannot find a prop necessary for a particular scene and so he calls “the script girl, [who] runs on set to give it to him.” (22). Kiarostami’s films commonly work to undermine the male gaze in order to give voice to those who are usually undermined. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey states, “However self-conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema. The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film.” (712). It is also interesting then to see that more recently men are beginning to become spectacles in popular films, causing a disruption of the male gaze in these films. An example of this is Jacob in New Moon, the second film in the Twilight series. Many women flocked to the theatres to see Jacob’s “hot body” while completely ignoring the rather thin plotline developed in the Bella’s whiny narrative voice. The male image as a spectacle seems to have real marketability leading to the creation of new films that are able to move beyond the male gaze. It can be hoped that their plots will blossom as this trend progresses. If they do this may well be a way through popular film and literature are able to move beyond the restrictions of the scopophilic gaze.

Works Cited

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Freeland, Cynthia A. “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films.” Film Theory & Criticism. Eds. Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009. 627-631.

Keats, John. “Lamia.” (1820). Excerpt from British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Mellor, Anne K., and Richard E. Matlak. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1996. 1298-1308.

Malleski, Tania. “From the Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory: The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window.” Film Theory & Criticism. Eds. Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009. 723-725.

Mulvey, Laura. “A Clumsy Sublime.” Film Quarterly. 60.3 (2007) 3.Mulvey, Laura. “Repetition and Return.” Third Text. 21.1 (2007) 19-29.

Mulvey, Laura. “Repetition and Return.” Third Text. 21.1 (Jan 2007) 19-29.

Mulvey, Laura “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory & Criticism. Eds.
Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009. 711-722.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Eds. Heath, Stephen, Colin MacCabe and Denise Riley. Hampshire: Palgrave. 1989.

“Spectator and Audience.” Film Theory & Criticism. Eds. Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009. 659-664.

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