Saturday, 10 March 2012

Laura Mulvey

"As Jonathan Schroeder notes, 'Film has been called an instrument of the male
gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexual fantasy from
a male point of view' (Schroeder 1998, 208). The concept derives from a seminal
article called ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ by Laura Mulvey, a
feminist film theorist. It was published in 1975 and is one of the most widely
cited and anthologized (though certainly not one of the most accessible)
articles in the whole of contemporary film theory.
Laura Mulvey did not undertake empirical studies of actual filmgoers, but
declared her intention to make ‘political use’ of Freudian psychoanalytic theory
(in a version influenced by Jacques Lacan) in a study of cinematic
spectatorship. Such psychoanalytically-inspired studies of
'spectatorship' focus on how 'subject positions' are constructed by media texts
rather than investigating the viewing practices of individuals in specific
social contexts. Mulvey notes that Freud had referred to (infantile)
scopophilia - the pleasure involved in looking at other people’s bodies
as (particularly, erotic) objects. In the darkness of the cinema auditorium it
is notable that one may look without being seen either by those on screen by
other members of the audience. Mulvey argues that various features of cinema
viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of
objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of
identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen. She declares that
in patriarchal society ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’ (Mulvey 1992, 27). This
is reflected in the dominant forms of cinema. Conventional narrative films in
the ‘classical’ Hollywood tradition not only typically focus on a male
protagonist in the narrative but also assume a male spectator. ‘As the spectator
identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his
like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he
controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving
a satisfying sense of omnipotence’ (ibid., 28). Traditional films present
men as active, controlling subjects and treat women as passive objects of desire
for men in both the story and in the audience, and do not allow women to be
desiring sexual subjects in their own right. Such films objectify women in
relation to ‘the controlling male gaze’ (ibid., 33), presenting ‘woman as
image’ (or ‘spectacle’) and man as ‘bearer of the look’ (ibid., 27). Men
do the looking; women are there to be looked at. The cinematic codes of
popular films ‘are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male
ego’ (ibid., 33). It was Mulvey who coined the term 'the male gaze'. " -

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