Question 1 “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. ” (Mulvey 750) Mulvey refers here to classic Hollywood cinema. Is her analysis still relevant? Discuss in relation to films from the classic era and contemporary cinema. Refer to films screened in this unit and films of your choice with attention to mise en scene and narrative structure.
Laura Mulvey identifies certain patterns in narrative cinema regarding the model of power between the gaze and the subject of the gaze as written in her text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she has concluded that the women in film are treated not as separate entities from the male characters, but instead served only as reflective surfaces for the male characters, echoing their desires and motivations. Mulvey 43-5) Active/male refers to the male characters in a film as the one leading and always the one looking whereas passive/female, on the contrary, refers to woman as an object; always being looked at and submissive, always submitting to the male. In other words, women are sexual beings, and their passiveness plays to the male’s aggressive nature. The subject’s sexual satisfaction comes from “watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (Mulvey 43-5). The female figure is being fantasized and used as an erotic object in the classic Hollywood film.
This essay will argue if Mulvey’s analysis of the male gaze is still relevant in contemporary cinema. Mulvey’s analysis using visual pleasure and narrative cinema and scopophilia will be discussed in the first three paragraphs. This essay will then further examine Studlar’s theory (Tamiko 24-6) and how spectatorship and subjectivity which challenge her analysis. This essay will conclude by arguing that Mulvey’s analyses even though referring to the classic Hollywood cinema, is still relevant in contemporary cinema to a certain extent.
First and foremost, Mulvey has suggested that there were two distinct modes of the male gaze; voyeurism (woman viewed as beautiful) and fetishistic (woman are viewed sexually). (47) In relation to the concept of scopophilia, a term to describe the pleasure watching, Mulvey (47) goes on to describe the specific, complex processes, by which the male unconscious is enacted or performed upon the image/body of woman in cinema. A classic Hollywood film that clearly shows this male gaze is a Howard Hawks film, The Big Sleep (1946).
The relationship between Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) is relatable to Mulvey’s analysis of the films To Have and Have Not (1944) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Lauren Bacall’s character is isolated, glamorous, on display and sexualized. But as the narrative progresses, she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.
Another example that shows the submissive female is from the film The Thing from Another World (1951) where the female was seen making drinks for the male and was dressed in a provocative way, not having any important role nor lines. Women are objectified in these films, signifying the patriarchal culture, while the women having passive roles has been created as misogyny by the media (Mulvey 43-45). These two examples strongly support Mulvey’s analysis of how there is a sexual imbalance and the woman submitting to the male, being all weak and passive.
In addition, Mulvey (47) describes two kinds of pleasure in film that is always produced for the male gaze: scopophilic and narcissistic, the pleasure in recognizing self in others. This was created by the psychoanalysis where the Oedipus Complex explained that the infants undergo a ‘mirror phase’ where visual recognition of the physical body as the main constructive element of subjectivity and the reflection looks like a wholeness of the self as compared to the fragmented perception of self in bodily experience.
Hence, this recognition is a mis-recognition. Looking conveys pleasure and desire as an active, ideal being, associating it with the symbolic order of repression. Men control the action and he is aware of his phallus because of her lack, as Mulvey has suggested. This clearly shows how man feels superior over the woman and thus, always holding active lead roles as compared to the woman. Mulvey writes about sculptor Allen Jones and his “Women as Furniture”. Mulvey’s point is that the sculptures, as with ominant forms of representation in general, do not reflect “real” women, that is, social beings existing in a material world. (Pribram 146-52) The mise en scene of women in Hollywood classic films are similar – sexually arousing costumes for the women, fluid camera movements and soft preferential lighting. This can be seen in Otto Preminger’s The River of No Return (1954) where it features the device of a show-girl, allowing the two looks; scopophilic and narcissistic of the male gaze to be unified without breaking the story line.
The device supports Mulvey’s claim of “Women as Furniture” as the woman is dressed in bright, bold, provocative costumes as the camera slowly moves showing her as the object of desire. There are many examples in cinema that show the two roles of women: that as erotic object for the characters within the story, and that as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium (Mulvey 43-5). To understand Studlar’s theory, which will challenge Mulvey’s theory this essay will look into how spectatorship and subjectivity discuss both theories.
Visual pleasure in mainstream film, according to Mulvey (47), is ordered by sexual difference, a difference that is not innate or historically contingent: instead spectatorship is a distinctly male pleasure centered on identification with the male protagonist and the voyeuristic and sadistic punishment of women. The interaction of spectator and screen/film text doesn’t simply pleasure a fixed, pre-existing subject but actually produces or constitutes the viewer as subject in the process. This means that the viewer is active and he will relate to the characters in the film.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the male protagonist, a photographer, portrays the contradictions and tensions experienced by the spectator, simultaneously intensifying and parodying the scopophilic pleasure. Spectators watch it as a male way of looking and spectatorship that unconsciously associates woman as ‘lack’ and according to Mulvey, men control the narrative action and we spectators are encouraged to identify with the male protagonist who control events and bear the erotic gaze – the woman as the object.
This claim supports Mulvey’s analysis (43-5) of how the world is ordered by sexual imbalance and how man see woman as the object. Thirdly, Mulvey’s analysis is both relevant and irrelevant to date in the contemporary cinema. In contemporary films now, there are more women taking the lead roles, bearing the importance of their presence. For example, in The Fifth Element (1997) the female plays the most crucial role and is sought after by all the other males. This shows how the males are submissive to her.
Having pointed that out, she was also seen as the object of desire as her costumes were mostly revealing and that accentuates her cleavage and employing camera framing that fragments their bodies and reinforces their status as passive objects. (Ott, and Aoki 51-55) Children of Men (1996) shows the independent female, and not as a subject of desire to men. From the film it is seen that whilst all the government representatives in a position of power seem to be male, it is interesting to note that females are not portrayed as sex objects. Another significant feature is the role of the female lead, Julian.
She represents the modern women; intelligent and independent. This challenges Mulvey’s analysis (43-5) as the females were not portrayed as an object of desire to the male gaze, but as intelligent and independent characters instead. Therefore, Muvley’s analysis is relevant to the classic Hollywood films but only to a certain extent for the contemporary films. However, Spectatorship and subjectivity has also challenged Mulvey’s analyses. In Pribram’s (146-52) theory, he rejects Mulvey’s analysis and came up with three different subjects to oppose so – The The Psychoanalytical subject, The Discursive subject and The Social subject.
In these three subjects he basically explained that Mulvey has ignored the historical and cultural differences of the spectators. The individual psyche, appears to be the same, once gender differences are established, over time and social categories, despite class, race, ethnicity, nationality and sexual preferences and so on. Mulvey’s theory generalizes singular subject identities regardless of obvious differences between people cultures and eras. (Pribram 146-52) Mulvey has generalised the audience and her theory has left out some of the audience who are caught in the orbit of the male and not male; lesbians, gays and transsexuals.
Therefore, Mulvey’s analysis(43-7) may not be relevant when it comes to the spectatorship, as the audience is active and may not relate to the characters, as well as look at them through the male gaze. Studlar (Nicholas 610-12) examines the implication of masochism under five issues – The female as lack, The gaze, Fetishism and Disavowal and Identification. Challenging Mulvey’s theory, Studlar argues that the castration fear and perception of sexual difference have no importance when considering masochism. Mulvey on the other hand viewed that the female only functions in cinema as an object of sadistic male spectatorial possession only.
This, according to Studlar, is too narrow and other things must be taken into consideration as well. “Masochistic aesthetic in film offers a complex image of the female in which she is the object of the look but also the holder of a controlling gaze that turns the male into an object of to-be-looked-at-ness. ” (Nicholas 610-12) This can be supported with reference to the film Babarella (1968). The male lead, Pygar is blind and has lost his ability to fly. He cannot have an active controlling gaze as suggested by Mulvey’s analysis.
In terms of mise en scene, shots are structured not to privilege his point of view. Pygar is also seen as fragmented and fetished in this film. He is seen as the subject of woman’s controlling gaze. From this film, we can conclude that the woman while being the object of the look, also controls the gaze as suggested by Studlar while the male character, Pygar is in the words of Mulvey’s connotes “to be looked ness”. Lastly, Mulvey has made the exception of the ‘buddy movie’, where “the active homosexual eroticism of the central male figures can carry the story without disctraction”. 62) This proves that traditional cinema is not always patriarchal and subverting the female gaze, there are examples of evidence to the contrary, or otherwise non-heteronormative. Claiming that it is possible for the story to carry on without distraction (referring to woman as objects) shows how unimportant the women are in films and this contradicts her theory of sexual imbalance, as the male gaze is absent. Mulvey’s discussion about the ‘buddy movie’ seems problematic as she contradicts to her own analysis of the importance of the female as the object to the male gaze is in films.
In conclusion, Mulvey’s analysis is relevant to a certain extent. The theory of male gaze projecting its phantasy on to the female figure can still be seen in many films in the contemporary cinema as argued earlier with the examples to support. However, there are also other factors such as spectatorship and subjectivity, where the audience is active Studlar’s analysis, Pribram’s analysis of how Mulvey has generalized the audience as well as the dubious ‘buddy film’ that has challenged Mulvey’s analyses.
Therefore, Mulvey’s analysis is still relevant to the contemporary cinema to a certain extent. References Durham, Meenakshi, and Douglas M. Keller. Media and Cultural Studies. 2nd ed. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 342-50. Print. Hayter, Tamiko. “Perverse Pleasures – Spectatorship. ” (2005): 24-26. Web. 26 June 2011 Mulvey, Laura. “Fetishism and Curiousity. ” BFI Publishing (1996): 43-47. Web. 26 Jun 2011. Nicholas, Bill. “Psychoanalytic Semiotics. ” University of California Press, Ltd. 2. (1985): 610-612. Web. 28 June 2011.
Penley, Constance. “Feminism and Film Theory. ” BFI Publishing (1988): 62. Web. 28 June 2011. Pribram, E. Deidre. Spectatorship and Subjectivity. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1999. 146-152. Print. Ott, Brian, and Eric Aoki. Counter-Imagination as Interpretive Practice: Futuristic Fantasy and The Fifth Element. 2nd ed. Volume 27. International Communication Association, 2009. 151-155. Print. Filmography Babarella. Dir. Roger Vadim. Dino De Laurentiis, 1968. Paramount Pictures, 1968. DVD Children of Men. Dir Alfonso Cuaron.
Universal Pictures DreamWorks, 2006. Only Angels Have Wings. Dir. Howard Hawks. Columbia Pictures, 1939. The Big Sleep. Dir. Howard Hawks. Warner Bros, 1946. The Fifth Element. Dir. Luc Besson. Patrice Ledoux. Columbia Pictures, 1997. The River of No Return. Dir. Ortto Preminger. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1954. The Thing from Another World. Dir. Howard Hawks. Winchester Pictures,1951. To Have and Have Not. Dir. Howard Hawks. Warner Bros,1944. Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures Universal Pictures, 1954, 1983.