- Read Visual Pleasure and Narrative in Cinema by Laura Mulvey and make notes
Mulvey explores a particular genre of film common in the 30s, 40s and 50s which came out of Hollywood where women were represented as a passive actors in narratives that were driven only by male action, and where the camera operated as a substitute for and an extension of the male spectator. Although films in the 80s such as Six and a Half Weeks or Fatal Attraction convey much of the same voyeuristic sadomasochistic vision Muvley describes, it does seem possible to find examples of work begin to emerge where that trope is challenged. The recent BBC 2 Fleabag offers the spectator a character whose “female image threatens to break the spell of illusion” (368) by speaking directly to the male viewer, saying things and behaving in ways that are far from passive and even threatening. In Seers’ Entangled2, although not a commercial film, she owns the gaze entirely, making the screen a representation of eyes that are just like hers, sharing a subjective history with spectators who she invites in but controls, albeit in a more direct, way than we’re used to seeing out of Hollywood.
According to her Wikipedia entry, Mulvey was a filmmaker but is most well-known for her academic career. She has several degrees and doctorates and is extremely accomplished. The chapter we have been asked to read was “written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. It later appeared in a collection of her essays entitled Visual and Other Pleasures, as well as in numerous other anthologies.” (Wikipedia)
Mulvey says in a recorded panel discussion on YouTube that the essay could only have been written at the time it was (Mulvey, 2015). Prior to that she was not sufficiently ‘bought to consciousness’ regarding feminist ideas. And after that time, she would not have written such a sweeping polemic. Although she doesn’t use first person singular in any part of the essay, she said it is extremely autobiographical as it describes her own recognition and feelings about the way in which films were made to satisfy a male eye, where men are effectively ego-ideals and women objectified sex icons, where stories were driven entirely by male action, and female interludes were included but slowed down or paused narrative. She talks about how she was thinking of Hollywood films that were made during the 30s/40s/60s which had shaped her vision of male and female. I was interested in her comments about writing a polemic, and how a move away from that as she went deeper into academia meant she could not have written this particular essay at any other time. Her passion and enthusiasm seems to have contributed to its success and made the essay a seminal piece of writing.
My subjective response
The following paragraph on Wikipedia struck a chord: ““Before the emergence of VHS and DVD players, spectators could only gaze; they could not possess the cinema’s “precious moments, images and, most particularly, its idols,” and so, “in response to this problem, the film industry produced, from the very earliest moments of fandom, a panoply of still images that could supplement the movie itself,” which were “designed to give the film fan the illusion of possession, making a bridge between the irretrievable spectacle and the individual’s imagination.”” I grew up with a bookshelf stuffed with these images. My father repeatedly gave me books about movie stars. I was regaled with stories about Merle Oberon and Vivien Lee (who he said he met as child as my grandfather was a successful film distributor) and I read whatever I could about those and other “black and white” movie stars. My father seemed obsessively desperate for me to become one them. Of course I never could satisfy his ‘desire’, for so many, many reasons, but not least because by the time I was born the Hollywood starlet factory system had been transformed into something else. Even so, when I recently watched a DVD showing a re-enactment of Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire I was in in 1994, I was appalled by my lack of engagement. It really does look to me like I was most pre-occupied with looking pretty, rather than with the work. It saddens and infuriates me to see the twenty-something-year-old me existentially ‘trapped’ in something to do with how women should be seen.
Mulvey, according to Wikipedia says that video technology allows spectators to possess the films they watch nowadays, but that previously it only an illusion possible with the photographs of stars that people collected. “It is within the confines of this (DVD) redefined relationship that Mulvey asserts that spectators can now engage in a sexual form of possession of the bodies they see on-screen.” I can now re-think about the question at the beginning to the project which asks us to consider why video artists use themselves and wonder if this points to the answer in some way.
Seeing Seers’ work with video, which I touched on in the previous project, I can appreciate that she is doing something Mulvey recommends. “Mulvey has stated that feminists recognize modernist avant-garde “as relevant to their own struggle to develop a radical approach to art.” (Wikipedia)
Notes on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
Language and ideas in Mulvey’s writing are based very firmly within models provided by Freud, Lacan and Marx. The UVC course direction and development makes perfect sense as everything we have looked at so far resonates in Mulvey’s essay (which is why I am fascinated by the other philosophers I have mentioned who perhaps rejected some of Freud/Lacan)
- Cinema offers pleasures – namely a pleasure through looking (scopophilia)
- Freud Three Essays on Sexuality looking exists independently of erotic zone
- Through looking, ‘take others as objects’ (so much street photography does this – controlling and curious gaze. Street photography in fact, is often very male – I am followed on Instagram, where there are lots of images influenced by street photography, by a significantly higher percentage of men than women.)
- Looking pleasure transferred to others – ‘There is close working here of the relationship between the active instinct and its further development in a narcissistic form” (381) instinct to survive, take care of oneself and nourish ego as well as repel threats to it
- At an extreme, this looking activity, the pleasure derived from it, can be fixated into a perversion – Peeping Tom – whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching… an objectified other
- Cinema provides an illusion of looking into another private world (although mass-produced) – “the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” (382)
- Cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking (repressed as children when they are frequently told it is rude to stare)
- Fascination with likeness and recognition
- Mulvey’s description of the mirror phase eloquent and clear = happens at a time when ‘physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity’ leading to an imaginary picture of a more adept whole self. “
- Recognition overlaid with misrecognition”
- …an alienated subject, exists outside, an imagined image of self that doesn’t match up with internal
- mirror moment predates language for the child (am wondering about the vast discrepancy between the imagined ego image and the actual physical self in my eldest child who was speaking fluently by 19 months but motor skills were very slow to emerge)
- cinema allows for” temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it” (382)
- nostalgically reminiscent of time prior to language (loss of self)
- the polarization between instinctual drives and self-preservation creates a tension – leads to pleasure, neither significant unless attached to idealization (movie stars/protagonists which we watch and invite into fantasy)
- Desire given a shape in language allows for the “possibility of transcending the instinctual and imaginary” – heightened fantasy, but it refers the watcher back to the “traumatic moment if its birth: the castration complex” (What does Cisoux say about this, I wonder?) Hence looking can feel pleasurable but also threatening
- Women must bear the brunt of these paradoxical and conflicted feelings (mother/whore difficulties; idealized and put on a pedestal only to be knocked off for being no good, internal conflicts, difficult for some men to contain, but reinforced by cinema)
- Active male/passive female dominates narratives in film
- Male gaze projects fantasy onto women – women ‘trapped’ with it on
- Women appears as a sexual object – plays to and signifies male desire, has in the past had little choice but to play this role, confines of social structures so firmly held in place
- Male movie star ends up being a bit like the ideal ego the male baby sees in the mirror – too perfect
- Women are represented as icons (signs that represent something, i.e. sex/fantasy/lustful projection from male)
- Spectators indirectly posses the female star in films such as Only Angels Have Wings
- But women as sex icon threatens as well as pleasures the male gaze, linking back to symbolic order, origins of language and ‘the father’
- (Is this what leads to songs with lyrics such as, “Never trust a women, until she’s dead and buried” as quoted by Jessica Valenti in The Guardian? (2016))
- Men have two options for dealing with this anxiety (castration) – to disavow the castration by fetishising the women, therefore making her reassuring – movie stars; or demystifying her, saving, punishing, or devaluing her
- e. fetishistic scopophilia or sadistic voyeurism
- In terms of film narrative: “Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning, middle and end. Fetishistic scopophilia, no the other hand, can exist outside linear time as the erotic instinct is focused on the look alone” (386)
- Hitchcock relies on both…
- … the audience sees what the male hero sees (how brilliant is Seers’ Entangled2 with her eyes being the screens?)
- In Hitchcock scopophilic voyeurism combined with ego ideal portraying spectator’s anxiety
- “True perversion barely concealed under shallow mask of ideological correctness – man on right side of law, women on wrong” in Hitchock’s narrative (386)
- Interesting how in Rear window the women is redeemed by the fact she eventually gives the protagonist an opportunity to save her
- In both Rear View and Vertigo there are subjective views which echo the audience’s position in the cinema
- Mulvey summarise: “The actual image of a woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of a man takes the argument a step further into the content and structure of representation, adding a further layer of ideological significance demanded by the patriarchal order in its favourite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film” (288)
- Cinema has the ability to ‘shift the emphasis of the look’ (288)
- Editing and narrative can control the dimension of time and space
- “Cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object” (288)
- “As soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion”… the spectator cannot keep a distance from the image and all it represents (think about Fleabag, BBC 3 2016)
- Mulvey ends with, “Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret.”
The passive (female) and active (male) signifiers we see in films described by Mulvey are recognisable in the argument that men are socialised towards narcissism and women towards co-dependency as described in the follwing article:
Mulvey, Laura (2005), “The possessive spectator”, in Mulvey, Laura, Death 24 x a second: stillness and the moving image, London: Reaktion Books, p. 161, ISBN 9781861892638.
Jacobus, Mary (1978). Women Writing and Writing about Women.
Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.