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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