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The cinema should present its spectators with a look at how the world functions, and question it by showing how it should function.

Anneke Smelik writes “cinema is a cultural practice where myths about women and femininity, and men and masculinity, in short, myths about sexual differences are produced, reproduced and represented.” (Smelik, 7) It is such sexual diffreneces that have been challenged by the feminist and women’s right movements. In order to understand how the cinema builds and reinforces the myths of sexual difference, film theorists need a framework to use.

Laura Mulvey provided such a framework with “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema,” and since then many have worked to refine her ideas and better suit them to the changing world of cinema.

When “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema” was published in 1975, Laura Mulvey built the foundation for the discussion of feminist film theory that was to follow. Despite the effects her writing had, many rejected her pessimistic attitudes towards the role of women in the cinema.

“Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema” starts out with a brief introduction concerned with presenting why her arguments are ultimately important. Mulvey grounds herself firmly in the tradition of psychoanalysis, but sees it as a “political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has formed.” (Mulvey, 833) The woman acts as a signifier for the man, symbolizing the threat of castration.

According to psychoanalytic theory, all children, on a certain subconscious level, perceive all people as having a penis. When children first become aware that women do not have a penis, they view this “as the effect of a mutilation which redoubles its fear that it will be subjected to a similar fate (or else, in the case of a little girl after a certain age, the fear that she has already been subjected to it).” (Metz, 812) This fear will then lead to the disavowal, or denial and suppression, of the experience and the notion that women have been castrated.

Mulvey argues that the role of women’s representation in the “patriarchal unconscious is two-fold: she symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis, and the second thereby raises her child into the symbolic.” (Mulvey, 833)

Through this symbolic order “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 the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning.” (Mulvey, 834) It is this symbolic order, and the inability of women to create meaning for herself, that Mulvey seeks to destroy. For her the cinema plays not only a powerful role in reinforcing the patriarchy, but at the same time it has the power to bring about changes to the ideologies that society holds onto.

For Mulvey, “Hollywood at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure.” (Mulvey, 834) Technological advances in the film industry have made it more accessible to a wider range of people to serve as filmmakers, which has contributed to the rise of the alternative cinema.

Alternative cinema is considered to have a more radical set of values concerning politics and aesthetics, while challenging the precepts of mainstream cinema and the pleasure it provides. In order to understand how such pleasure can be destroyed, one must examine what pleasures are being fulfilled by mainstream cinema. Mulvey writes “that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it.” (Mulvey, 835)

In her second section of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema, ” Mulvey presents an assessment of what are the pleasures of the cinema.

The first is scopophilia, or the pleasure of looking at another. Freud further “associated scopophilia with taking another people as objects, subjection them to a controlling and curious gaze.” (Mulvey, 835) Cinema and its conventions further cater to this desire by adding in the pleasure of voyeurism, or the act of looking at someone without them being aware that they are being looked at.

Events unfold on the screen without regard, or recognition, of the spectators that are watching. It gives the spectator the pleasure of looking in on a private world, which is created as the camera so chooses.

Most often, the camera (working with in the conventions of mainstream cinema) "focuses on the human form.” (Mulvey, 836) However, there is a certain level of contradiction between the desire to look at others and the narcissistic pleasure of identification with the human images on the screen. “In film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and the recognition of his like.” (Mulvey, 837) The dichotomy of these two “can be threatening in context, and it is the woman as representation/ image that crystallizes this paradox,” (Mulvey, 837)

Mulvey's third section of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema” presents the bulk of the argument against the conventions of mainstream cinema. She analyzes the how the image of woman is used and controlled to produce pleasure- the crystallizing of the paradox. She begins by asserting that the “pleasure in looking has been split between the active/ male and the passive/ female.” (Mulvey, 837) Woman had long been the sexual object of the image- in sculpture, painting, photography, and the like, connotating the female form’s quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 837)

Film’s power to combine the image and the narrative have allowed women to “freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” (Mulvey, 837)

This can especially be seen in musical numbers where women are on screen purely for the spectacle of performance, yet in some cases (such as when the female star is playing a showgirl) the performance is neatly woven into the narrative and does not interrupt it. The quality of to-be-looked-at-ness also allows for female stars to serve two functions- “the erotic object of the characters within the screen story, and as the erotic object for the characters within the auditorium.” (Mulvey, 838)

With this in mind, the close-up of specific body parts further reduces iconic objects, presenting the female as a series of pieces rather than a cohesive whole. According to Mulvey, men cannot serve as sexual objects in the cinema, as it is reserved for how women function on the screen and the roles they tend to play. Male protagonists and their roles exhibiting power and control brings the spectator to identify with the gaze of the male characters.

The technical styles of the cinema further reinforce the notion of the active/ male and passive/ female by following the action of the male protagonists and by showing their points of view. Women are then allowed to be taken in as the sexual object not only by the male characters on screen lusting after them, but also by the spectators through their identification with the male protagonist’s pleasure in taken of the woman as an object.

It is here where Mulvey draws on the concept of how disavowing the woman’s “lack of (a) penis, implying threat of castration and hence unpleasure…thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men…always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signifies.” (Mulvey, 840) Not only does cinema have the power to examine to-be-looked-at-ness; it turns it into the spectacle of the film as a whole.

It is this coding of the female image that Mulvey argues must be challenged and ultimately destroyed. In her summary, she breaks down the look of the camera into three different types:
  1. that of the camera as it records
  2. that of the audience as it watches what is projected
  3. that of the characters on the screen
The conventions of the narrative film attempt to subordinate the first two to that of the third. If the spectator is actively aware that they are watching a film or of the notion that a camera has recorded what is being seen, then pleasure is destroyed. They are aware that the world they are looking in on is not a private world. She also argues that the pleasure of voyeurism and scopophilia in the cinema is “obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego.” (Mulvey, 843)

Most of the critical charges against “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema” concern Mulvey’s notion that the spectator is assumed to be male, and that the pleasure that a female might have in watching a film is either ignored or tied to masculine notions of pleasure. The notion of the male gaze has been “the dominant paradigm in feminist film theory.” (Smelik, 9)

However, many theorists following Mulvey took to questioning what the female spectator found pleasure in when watching a film, and “if feminist film criticism in the 1970’s was characterized by debates about the male gaze, debates in the 1980’s were characterized by their emphasis on female spectatorship.” (Stacey, 22) In Mulvey’s own article “Afterthought” she addresses her own omission of the female spectator from her earlier article. She attempts to argue that the female is a mobile spectator, oscillation between “masculine and feminine narrative identifications.” (Stacey, 25)

Terese de Lauretis further wrote on the concept of the female spectator, and emerged as a key figure in the examination of how women fall into the mode of double-identification with the masculine gaze and the passive feminine image. (Stacey, 26) But de Lauretis takes the position of the spectator a step further by questioning “how spectators are narrativeley ingraved in the text.” (Stacey, 26) Smelik describes de Lauretis analysis of how women are represented in the narrative structure in the following way: One of the functions of narrative, de Lauretis argues, is to ‘seduce’ women into femininity with or without their consent. This is a cruel and often coercive form of seduction. The female subject is made to desire femininity. Here de Lauretis turns Mulvey’s famous phrase around: not only does a story demand sadism, sadism demands a story. (Smelik, 17)

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Works Cited

Metz, Christian. “from The Imaginary Signifier,” Film Theory and Criticism, 5th ed., Braudy and Cohen, eds. Oxford Press, New York, p. 800- 817.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema,” Film Theory and Criticism, 5th ed., Braudy and Cohen, eds. Oxford Press, New York, p. 833-844.

Smelik, Anneke, M. And the Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and Film Theory. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998.

Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing and Female Spectatorship. Routledge, London, 1994.

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