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April 18, 2007
Laura Mulvey and The Male Gaze in Cinema
This entry is primarily targeted at those doing A Level Media / film Studies and those doing film theory for the first time.
Many A Level students are now introduced to Laura Mulvey's theories of the 'Male Gaze' especially if they have opted to do an option on Women and Film. Mulvey's ideas were first expressed in an article written in Screen in 1975. It was then a highly theoretical cinema journal. The article which became a seminal one is called "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (Some extracts here).
The levels of difficulty for those setting out in the world of thinking should not be underestimated. To be able to debate this article at higher levels requires a good knowledge of both Freudian and Lacanian theories of psychoanalysis. Much of the work done by Jacques Lacan is notoriously difficult and is not necessary for this level of analysis.
Key points of Mulvey's original article
She points out that feminists need a variety of tools (or methods) with which to understand the unseen workings of the patriarchal system which opresses women. Mulvey is concerned to argue that psychoanalysis is an important tool whilst recognising the need for many others.
Mulvey then moves onto a section which argues that pleasure needs to be destroyed and that this destruction is a radical weapon. Cinema particuarly Hollywood cinema which is primarily structured upon bringing pleasure raises questions about how the unconscious structures our ways of seeing and understanding of the world and also why we gain pleasure from looking.
Here Julia Roberts who is actually playing the character of a prostitute fits in with typically anodyne Hollywood fantasies which bear little or no relation to the reality of the sex trade. Compare this representation with that of Lilya in Lilya 4-Ever who is ateenager sold into the sex trade. One challenges the patriarchal status quo and the other doesn't. No prizes for working out which!
Mulvey points out that cinema had changed during the course of the 1960s and early 1970s in a way which afforded opportunities for other filmmakers outside of the mainstream because of technological developments in filming and also exhibition. It is worth noting that this is even more pertinent now because of the rise of relatively cheap digital video cameras (DV), relatively cheap software and with the growth of the internet the possibility of distributing to a global marketplace. YouTube is the perfect example of that.
Arguably it is the realms of the videogame which is beginning to impinge and to change cinema. It is perhaps here that industrial capitalist media will re-establish its headquarters. For just as it has become possible to erode and circumvennt the powerful position of Hollywood through technological advancement that advancement establishes new barriers to skills knowledge and capital, whilst a new media industry is being developed.
In 2003 David Puttnam on the BBC video Trigger Happy suggests has the potential to replace cinema and even TV as the most important medium. Perhaps it is here that Mulvey's arguments will need to be played out all over again in terms of the representation of women. But Mulvey was writing in a pre-digital era:
The magic of the Hollywood style at its best...arose, not exclusively but in one important aspect from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. (Mulvey in Movies & Methods Vol II, p 306)
It is because this pleasure is already idologically encoded upon patriarchal terms that Mulvey wishes to use analysis to start to destroy that pleasure creating mechanism. This she hope will allow a new language of desire to emerge for humanity.
Lilya and her best friend in a nightclub. The 'friend' is out to sell herself for the first time. Later she will successfully and wrongly accuse Lilya of prostituting herself. Her the camera has pulled the focus to a narrow depth of field to make Lilya the main object of representation. Lilya here is represented as young, näive and vulnerable in a patriarchal world. Although she is in a strappy dress the way the image is filmed is anything but eroticised.
Mulvey then moves on to explain the term scopophilia which was developed by Freud to describe the pleasure in looking which is associated with sexual drives although nothing whatsoever to do with the erotogenic zones. In Freud's early wor:
...he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze. (ibid p 307).
Mulvey is careful to note that for Freud scopophilia was essentially active, indeed it was an activity which he associated with children who have a voyeuristic curiosity to see the forbidden areas of the body. It is a curiosity which extends to the question of the presence / absence of the penis and ultimately in Freudian method to the question of the primal scene. This pleasure in looking becomes a part of the human subject. At its extreme it can be a perversion in which sexual satisfaction can only come :
...from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other. (ibid p 307)
Mulvey then notes that on the surface little could be further away from the shifty voyeur eying up an unwitting victim than cinema. this is why it is importatn to analyse carefully the workings of the cinema as a system, part of an overall ideological apparatus which structures a particular patriarchal world as 'normal'.
Above this publicity poster for Pretty Woman eroticises and fetishises in 'the nicest posssible way'. Here the use of star theory combined with Mulvey's theory of the gaze shows how Hollywood can make an unpleasant and patriarchally organised undrground busines seem 'OK'. One can pretend that it is 'post-modern irony' interpreted by the knowing subject (really?)
It is in the nature of cinema that the narrative unfurls with total indifference to the audience representing an hermetically sealed world. The darkness of the cinema helps to isolate the spectators from one another while the brilliance of the screen and the play of light and dark upon it contribute to this sense of isolation. The conditions of screening alongside the narrative and other conventions therefore can be understood to place the spectator in the illusory position of looking in on an abstract world. Here of course it is worth noting that frequently film isn't experienced like this but in the realm of home on a small screen with the possibilities of the external world intruding frequently.
The constitution of the ego
Importantly for Mulvey the whole of the cinema-going experience creates a structure of fascination which in a seeming paradox allows a forgetting of the ego (position of the subject in the world), yet simulataneously reinforces that ego through a process of identification through ideals "as expressed in particular in the star system" (Mulvey).
Contradictory model of vision
Mulvey then drives home the point that these two models of vision are contradictory. Scopophilic viewing requires a strong separation of the viewing subject from the observed object from a form of ego identification with the object on the screen through a process of fascination and and 'recognition of his like'. (Mulvey)
Both models have in common that they:
...pursue aims in indifference to perceptual reality . .. creating...a concept of the World that.... makes a mockery of the empirical reality of the world. (Mulvey ibid p 308).
It is extremely important that this idea of the operations of cinema and the social construction of vision operates at a deeply unconscious level. The theory is therefore one which is hard to prove in a hard "scientific" way through questionnaires etc precisely because the whole system works at a level of the subject which isn't immediately accessible to the conscious subject. We don't understand what it is that attracts us but as Theodor Adorno has pointed out, to be able to discuss rationality and reason there is clearly an area in which 'unreason' operates in individual subjects. Not all reponses by human beings can simply be measured by charts, questionnaires and statistics. Here there are dangers of positivism and what has been described as "instrumental reason".
Developing Theories of the Female Spectator
Mulvey was frequently criticized for omitting the question of female spectatorship. Why do women go to the cinema and what kind of pleasure do they gain from it? These became key questions for feminists and other film theorists and as a result Mulvey strove to address these issues in her article on "Afterthoughts" using Duel in The Sun as a case study. (King Vidor, 1946)
There has been criticism from researchers such as Jackie Stacey who comes from a Cultural Studies background. Cultural Studies argues that peope from the audiences for films must be approached and questioned about their conscious reactions to films and specifically the represenatiions of women within these films. Her own research suggested that women could gain a lot of satisfaction out of representations of women being powerful and in control of their lives or struggling to remain in control. These research findings supported the idea of the negotiated reading which comes from cultural studies theory and argues that audiences aren't just canvases totally controlled and manipulated by the film texts they have consumed. Rather the individuals within the audience are active and critical subjects capable of engaging with the intended messages emanating from the film but choosing to decode and read them differently. You will find it useful to engage with star theory if you are dealing with better known and high budget films which depend a lot on the promotion of stars to get a larger audience.
Mildred from Mildred Pierce a genre hybrid film which crosses over the matinee "woman's film" (melodrama) with a strong film noir sensibility. Here Mildred is represented as the doting mother whose obsession with her favourite daughter Vida destroys the family. After being left by her husband she meets playboy Monty who helps fiance her business. At their first meeting Mildred is painting up a ladder. The camera gradually tracks up her legs from a low angle eroticising her and providing a male gaze which is sexualised rather than seeing woman in 'her place' in the kitchen. The treatment of Mildred by the camera shows that theres is more than one kind of patriarchal gaze. however her status is still above that of an African-American woman who is playing a typical servant role!
Construction of the Male Gaze
The Wikipedia entry currently (17 / 04 / 07) argues the following:
In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood filmmaking. Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" gave one of the most widely influential versions of this argument. This argument holds that through the use of various film techniques, such as the point of view shot, a typical film's viewer becomes aligned with the point of view of its male protagonist. Notably, women function as objects of this gaze far more often than as proxies for the spectator.
In Mildred Pierce it is Mildred's daughter who plays the role of femme fatale. The bad woman who uses her sexuality to get her own way. As the film progresses it is Vida who becomes the camera's eroticised object.
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) - Laura Mulvey abbreviated version.
Brief explanation of The Gaze
There are some useful notes on The Gaze by Daniel Chandler from Aberystwyth University including some on Mulvey. Well worth checking out.
A useful Powerpoint presentation on Mulvey is available via Birmingham University Arts Web
April 07, 2007
Stars & Star Theory
Helen Mirren wins leading actress award @ the Oscars 2007
As can be seen from the above image and the 'appreciation' web site linked beneath it the role and status of stardom is an essential part of developing and maintaining significant audiences for the film industry. But the creation of stars wasn't always a part of the film industry. In the early years of the industry it was technical feats, stunts etc forming a 'cinema of attractions' which were the successful ingredients of cinema.
Audiences soon began to tire of these though and more complex stories told in more exciting cinematic ways began to develop. At the same time genres and stars were also developed as ways of increasing the industries communications with their audiences, for audiences are fickle things and must be continuously seduced. By the time Hollywood developed a sophisticated studio system it had also developed a 'star system'. There was a hierarchy of stars and frequently they were associated with specific genres. John Wayne was usually associated with Westerns and then later on war films as well for example.
Much of the writing on stars is hagiographical and sychophantic. This is of course all part of creating an aura of myth around those upon whom 'star' status has been conferred. It is a notion which has spread from primarily Hollywood stars into the whole culture of 'celebrity'. Scandal and gossip is all an essential part of creating the necessary 'spin' around stars and potential stars. In reality the whole business is very tightly managed with agents, promotions and public relations companies playing an important role in star discourse. You will never see an interview with someone of star or celebrity status on TV or hear one on the radio unless there is an upcoming, film, record thatrical production etc. In this sense all interviews with a star are nothing else but indirect advertising. The interviews by chat show hosts are undemanding with prearranged questions which usually border on sychophancy. There very rarely any critical or probing questioning. If there was any danger of that the agents & PR people wouldn't put the stars onto the shows!
A study of the construction of stars inevitably involves issues of audience and reception. With no audiences there are no 'stars' ! The webliography has several links to articles about audience and the relationship to stars.
Star as Capital Value
The French film industry was the first to recognise the method of using stars to generate audience interest. After the radical reduction in power of the French film industry due to World War 1 the star system really developed in Hollywood in 1919.
Mary Pickford became the first star. Charlie Chaplin soon followed. Not only could stars make money for the studios they could make big money as well provided they generated big profits for the studios.
After the coming of sound there was a shift in the way that Male stars were represented whilst the position of female stars remained largely the same. Vamps / Virgins or Sex Goddesses. In this way they tended to function as objects of beauty and desire. By comparison male characters started to become more complex. They could not only be heroes but rebels or even anti-heroes.
Stars contributed to the successful growth of Hollywood and its increasingly dominant position over other countries. This meant that thet could export their stars into the exhibition system of other countries. It also meant that Hollywood could attract the most popular European stars by outbidding any opposition. Great Garbo is a good example from the silent era.
By the end of the 1950s the star system was weakened with the collapse of the Hollywood studio system after anti-monopoly regulation and the growth of TV caused a consolidation and restructuring of the industry.
Stars were still being manufactured but there were far fewer of them. There was still fierce in country rivalry as Britain and Europe tried to create sex godesses such as Diana Dors, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot to compete with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
Sophia Loren "At Home" Sophia Loren front cover of Life 1960
The creation of celebrity through different parts of the media was a crucial part of gaining and maintaining star status. The scandal potential and events coming back to haunt you cross over into star as deviant (see below). This is a recent image from the National Enquirer. Was a certain young woman really the daughter of the famous film star Sophia Loren? (Does anybody really care?)
Stars have far more than a direct capital value. Their ability to attract audiences has the ability to attract money. Getting a popular leading and fashionable star lined up for a script considerably increases the chances of getting financial backing.
Films are both vehicles for stars but also genres become associated with particular stars. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were iconic for the musical which was an American genre.
Star as Construct
We can understand stars as primarily constructed by the film industry, but stars are also agents in their own right and they play some part in creating the myths which float around them. Stars are also authenticated by other parts of the media but they also use these channels to help construct their chosen myths. If Marlene Dietrich was sexually charged we can see Catherine Denueve as an 'ice-maiden'.
A star is about putting on a face representing something that actually isn't there:
Yet we as spectators accept this construct as real. ( Hayward, S. 1996 p 340)
Of course this is open to question and research. Exactly how much spectators do accept these constructions is exactly one of the realms of research which can be undertaken through qualitative research from sixth form projects on women and film to far higher academic levels.
Christine Gledhill argues that stars reach their spectators primarily through their bodies in other words their appearance. Female stars have historically bemoaned the fact that there have been few serious roles for older and more mature women. On the whole the audience dislikes the audience to age:
Curiously, the process of aging matters when it is a woman star - it recalls our own age, ageing is too real - not the 'real' we want to see. (ibid)
But is that necessarily the case? Certainly the Oscars of 2007 offer a challenge to this perception. Are things changing since Hayward first wrote this? The photograph of Helen Mirren gaining her Oscar for her leading role in Stephen Frears' The Queen, signifies possible change. Below is the list of nominees from the BBC website
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children
Three out of the five are highly regarded as actors and are clearly in the 'mature woman' category. Does this finally mean that there is the recognition of an audience who are also more mature mentally ?
Dame Judi Dench Dame Helen Mirren
Does this begin to break down the traditional delineation of the star as construct with three basic parameters which Gledhill identifies?
- Star as real person
- Star as 'reel' person (on-screen character)
- Star 'persona' (combination of the above two categories)
For Richard Dyer the star image has four key components:
- What the industry releases promotionally
- What the various media critics say
- What the star says and does
- What the those who make up the audiences say and do. (Lookalikes etc at one extreme). different audiences will probably make up different meanings to the point of reading the star 'against the grain'.
Stars can become intertextual as the image gets picked up and used by others in advertising for example. A star can be seen as a constellation of meanings rather than any one single meaning.
Star as Deviant
In general the star colludes readily in the construction of themselves as a star led by the studio. Where there are exceptions, such as with Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro, then this resistance becomes incorporated in the essence of their stardom.
On the whole stars comply with and wish to be represented as 'normal'. There are 'lavender' weddings for example to cover up homosexuality. Star performance for gays then becomes a double masquerade.
Being a star is about excess. Excess - being larger than life- is what is specifically according to a 'star'. Without an excessive lifestyle how can they be a star? Provided this 'excess' is well managed then it is of positive value to a studio. If it becomes genuinely excessive then the 'norms of excess' are transgressed and a star can start to take on a negative value for a studion. Excess is usually in the realms of consumption (drugs alcohol) and / or sex. This threatens to expose the masquerade of stardom.
Star as Cultural Value: sign & fetish
Stars can function as signs of changing cultural value. In the 1950s American teenagers quickly took on board the look of James Dean or Marlon Brando. in Europe teenage girls mimicked Brigitte Bardot. Stars then act within wider society to precipitate new mores.
Stars can be mediators within the society as a whole. Hayward traces the changing representations of female sexuality in Hollywood to clarify the point:
- 1930s / 40s: 2 types of female eroticism - independent as good as the boys Bette Davis & Katherine Hepburn / weak vulnerable type (Vivien Leigh)
- 1950s: The independent type replaced by dutiful supporting wife as US society needed to absorb excess labour after the war or a self-parodying brunette who 'settles down' (Doris Day & Jane Russell)/ the weak vulnerable type is replaced by the 'dumb blonde' (Marilyn Monroe)
- 1960s late in the decade the more self assertive radical-liberal feminist eroticism (Jane Fonda)
These change relate to a combination of changes in the social / political / economic conditions in society as a whole.
Star-Gazing & Performance
Audiences come with expectations of certain stars. There are basically two differnt modes of acting:
Here a star plays roles inline with his or her perceived personality. They know what to expect of say the taciturn gunman Clint Eastwood, or grinning machismo bravura with Jack Nicholson.
These actors are far fewer in number. Meryl Streep is a good example. For those who come to see stars rather than good acting this can cause a problem. For the person concerned with impersonating a role then a sign of their excellence is the ability to 'disappear' as a star. Hayward remarks that this is the case with Meryl Streep and suggests that this is why she has usually received very mixed reactions to her performances.
Published February 2007
Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. Routledge
Nelmes, Jill. 2007. Now in 4th Edition (which has just come out). An Introduction to Film Studies. Routledge.
3rd Edition has section Stars and Hollywood Cinema from page 169.
General Bibliography on Audience Studies
Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and female spectatorship (1994)
Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: the practices of film reception (2000)
Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films (1992)
Tania Modleski, Loving with a vengeance: mass-produced fantasies for women ((1982)
Ien Ang, Living Room Wars; Rethinking Media Audiences for a Post Modern World (1996)
Ien Ang, Watching Dallas, (1985)
Ien Ang, Desperately seeking the audience (1991)
Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: from stage to TV (2000)
Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: TV Fans and Participatory Culture (1992)
Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (2000)
Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women movies and culture in Chicago (1998)
Lisa Lewis, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (1992)
Miriam Hanson, Babel and Babylon (1992)
Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV (1996)
Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (1984)
Helen Taylor, Scarletts’ Women: GWTW and its female fans (1989)
Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987)
Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship (1993)
M Stokes and R Maltby, American Movie Audiences (1999)
Greg Smith: Film Structure and the Emotion System (2003)
Kathy Fuller, At the Picture Show: Small town audiences and creation of movie fan culture (1997)
Jowett/Jarvie/Fuller, Children and the Movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund (1997)
Hadley Cantril. The Invasion from Mars: A study in the psychology of panic (1940)
Melvin DeFleur and Sharon Lowery, Milestones of Mass Communication research
Denis McQuail, Audience Analysis
Shaun Moores, book on ethnographic studies
Cheryl Harris, Theorizing Fandom (1998)
Sanders, Science Fiction Fandom (1994)
Barbas, Movie Crazy: fans and stars
Harrington, Soap Fans
Tulloch, Watching TV Audiences (2000)
Ellen Seiter, TV and New Media Audiences
Spigel and Mann, Private Screenings: Women and Television
Sut Jhally, Enlightened Racism
Robin Means Coleman, African-American Viewers and Black Situation Comedy
Mumford, Love and Ideology in the Afternoon (computer file)
Joyrich, Lynne, Re-viewing Reception: TV gender and popular culture (computer file)
Shattuc, The Talking Cure: TV Talk shows and women
Bernstein, Attack of the Leading Ladies (1996)
Pinedo, Recreational Terror (1997) computer file
Wikipedia on Richard Dyer the first academic to seriously study stars
Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America: Jessica Freame
Senses of Cinema article on the Development of the Star Image of Dorothy Lamour
Link to Matthew Tillman article on Stars
Review author[s]: Constance Balides
Signs, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 248-254. (This is a JSTOR article and requires subscription access.)
- Cinema and Spectatorship by Judith Mayne
- Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship by Jackie Stacey
- Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film by Miriam Hansen
Unpacking clothes: a Senses of Cinema article by Tamar Jeffers who researches Doris Day.
Review of Kuhn, Annette: An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory. London, I. B. Tauris (2002). ISBN 1-86064-791 (pbk), pp. vii + 273
Link to review of Richard Dyer, 2nd Ed 2004. Heavenly Bodies: Films Stars and Society by Rebecca Feasey in The Jounal of Visual Culture
A useful example of establishing a relevant research project (clicking will downloadthe proposal): http://media.utu.fi/emy/JuttaHeikkila.rtf
Link to an Exeter University MA Unit on Stars
Link to interesting Fashion Worlds Cultural Studies Blog page on the cult of celebrity relevant to star theory.
Link to Rebecca Feasey article on Stardom and Sharon Stone: Power as Masquerade. It comes from Taylor and Francis and will cost you a gobsmackingly ridiculous £13 to douwnload! Find it in your library.
Article by Guy Austen from Scope the online film journal :
"In Fear and Pain": Stardom and the Body in Two French Ghost Films. Guy Austin, University of Sheffield, UK
Link to Film Jounal article by Hunter Vaughan which discusses Eyes Wide Shut in relation to Laura Mulvey
Link to article on American Fan Magazines and the Glamourous Construction of Femininity
Link to Su Holmes University of Kent Revisiting Star Studies Article