Laura Mulvey, Male Gaze and the Feminist Film Theory

Tageskarte 01.08.13/ Kino/ Riddle of the SphinxLaura Mulvey (b. 1941) is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), Fetishism and Curiosity (1996), Citizen Kane (1992) and Death 24x a Second (2006). She is the director of a number of avantgarde films made in the 1970s and 1980s, made with Peter Wollen and Mark Lewis. Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) has had a major impact on the course of film scholarship. Mulvey’s interests are broad, ranging from contemporary art to the introduction of sound in cinema, from Douglas Sirk to Abbas Kiarostami.

It is clear that the most iconic of Mulvey’s articles is Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, first published in Screen in 1975 (reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures along with “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema inspired by King Vidor‘s Duel in the Sun (1946)”). Mulvey’s work has been overshadowed by this single piece of youthful polemic (the author was in her early thirties on publication) but “Visual Pleasure” does highlight issues of concern that continue to run through her subsequent work. Most obviously these include feminism and psychoanalysis, and it is these two branches of twentieth- century thinking, alongside Marxism, that most consistently inform her philosophical approach to film and art. A number of other broad areas are of obvious and continuing interest to Mulvey. These include photography (particularly ideas of stillness and delay) and contemporary art (with an emphasis on women artists and artists who could broadly be described as “postmodern”). Increasingly her work has reflected her interest in death and the Freudian compulsion to repeat. Her interest in cinema covers a surprisingly narrow range, with an overwhelming emphasis on popular Hollywood cinema from around 1930 to 1960, melodrama (particularly the films of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and, more recently, Iranian cinema.

There are a small number of films to which she dedicates extended discussions – Morocco (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930), Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941), Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy; dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1954), Imitation of Life (dir. Sirk, 1959), Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Angst essen Seele auf (Fear eats the soul; dir. Fassbinder, 1974), Xala (dir. Ousmane Sembene, 1975) and Blue Velvet (dir. David Lynch, 1986) – to some of which she returns repeatedly throughout her writing.

It is in the early 1970s that Mulvey began to re-evaluate her relationship to Hollywood cinema, because of her greater involvement with feminism and, increasingly, psychoanalysis. In her introduction to Visual and Other Pleasures she writes:

Before I became absorbed in the Women’s Movement, I had spent almost a decade [during her twenties in the 1960s] absorbed in Hollywood cinema. Although this great, previously unquestioned and unanalysed love was put in crisis by the impact of feminism on my thought in the early 1970s, it also had an enormous influence on the development of my critical work and ideas and the debate within film culture with which I became preoccupied over the next fifteen years or so. (1989: xiii)

Her work begins to concentrate on analysing the ways in which women are represented in popular and art culture. She takes part in the demonstration against the Miss World competition held in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1970, and this action also points to a concern that runs throughout her work: the relationship between theory and practice (Mulvey 1989: 3-5). Mulvey sees that it is necessary to understand and analyse the ideological precepts of contemporary culture, while also realizing that one should contribute to or intervene in that culture itself in order to bring about change. From the direct action of a stage invasion, Mulvey’s analysis of films informs her own film-making practice in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey characterizes  the viewer of cinema as being caught within the “patriarchal order” and, in accordance with a certain feminist identity politics, postulates an “alienated subject” (ibid,: 16) that exists prior to the establishment of such an order. It is to the possibility of this romantic individual and his or her liberation from that order that the essay is addressed. Mulvey explains that Hollywood, and crucially its visual style (which we can broadly understand as the style expounded by David Bordwell et al. [1985]), is to a large extent dedicated to the “skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (Mulvey 1989: 16).

Her stated aim in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is not only to analyse the way in which pleasure has been organized and used by Hollywood in the service of patriarchy, but to destroy that pleasure (despite any lingering “sentimental regret” for the enjoyment that cinema had previously afforded), and not only to destroy past pleasure but to “make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film” This rebellion will transcend “outworn or oppressive forms” and will “conceive a new language of desire” (ibid). This language is to be understood in formal, structural terms, which will then inform the new cinema that is to come. This burnt-earth policy is complicated by Mulvey s own contention that Hollywood is not as straightforwardly monolithic as she makes it appear here, but Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema should be understood as a polemic rather than as a nuanced argument. For instance, she writes in 1989:

As time passes and the historical gap between the films produced by the studio system and now, I feel that I overemphasized Hollywood’s transparency and verisimilitude, and underestimated its trompe I’oeil quality and its propensity to flatten the signified into the signifier (ibid.: 250).

Mulvey’s later position is to try to rescue Hollywood from her own critique.In Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On, Michele Aaron provides a succinct overview of the issues raised in Mulvey s article (2007: 24-35) and summarizes her conclusions usefully as follows:

One, women cannot be subjects; they cannot own the gaze (read: there is no such thing as a female spectator). Two, men cannot be objects; they cannot be gazed at, they can only look, and only at women (read: there is no such thing as a male spectacle). Three, the only way to evade conclusions one and two, for spectatorship to be liberated from patriarchal ideology, was via a film practice that operated in opposition to narrative cinema. (Ibid.: 34)

Clearly Mulvey hoped that her own films would be a part of this new cinema but it is evident from the continued dominance of “traditional” fiction film that the pleasures that she hoped to destroy keep coming back. Whether this is because the patriarchal system is indeed unbreachable or whether it indicates a flaw in her own argument is something that must be explored further elsewhere. The fault lies in Mulvey s necessary simplification, which subordinates critical insight to political expediency. Nevertheless, it is clear that Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema will inevitably be remembered for its formulation of the “male gaze”.


The phrase “male gaze” occurs only twice in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1989:19,22) but has become the shorthand for describing the main point of the essay. While Mulvey uses a seemingly complex psychoanalytic structure to explain the objectification of women, not only within the narrative but also within the stylistic codes of Hollywood film-making, it strikes me that her use of the term scopophilia is given too much weight, since Freud himself never really discusses the idea in much detail. While the term “love of looking” makes an expedient link for a discussion centring around cinema, it seems clear that Mulvey is in fact discussing sadism and masochism: the desire to inflict harm or to have harm inflicted on the self.

However, using the bridge of “scopophilia” Mulvey quicky arrives at Freud’s structure of fetishism, since the “gaze” finds within its object a disquieting lack (the infamous “castration anxiety”) and moves beyond this anxiety by, paradoxically, overvaluing (fetishizing) the object, which then, of course, means that the object is once again examined and found wanting, and the circle of anxiety and pleasure continues. Taking issue with her understanding of fetishism, Lorraine Gamman and Merja Makinen argue that Mulvey tends to conflate the terms voyeurism and scopophilia with fetishism, and that these terms, at times, appear to be used interchangeably. Mulvey suggests that “scopophilic” pleasure arises principally from using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. Voyeurism and scopophilia for most cinematic viewers rarely replace other forms of sexual stimulation, nor are they preferred to sex itself. Thus these forms of pleasure cannot be encompassed within our definition of fetishism. (1994: 179) However, it is not necessary to go down this rather absolutist route around the definition of the fetish in order to say that Mulvey s insight that women tend to be treated as sexualized objects in Hollywood films does not really require the clumsy psychoanalytic mechanism of scopophilia/voyeurism (and Gamman and Makinen go on to say that they feel that Mulvey actually means “objectification” rather than “fetishism”; ibid.: 180). Mulvey, however, goes on in her later work to develop her discussion of fetishism in terms of what she calls “curiosity”. Curiosity is Mulvey s non-gendered version of fetishisms fraught relationship to knowledge best summed up in Octave Mannoni’s formulation: “Je sais bien, mais quandmeme …” (I know very well, but all the same …) (1985: 9-33). Mulvey attempts  to move beyond this Freudian paradox by concentrating on the drive to knowledge, which she understands as the desire to solve puzzles and understand enigmas (problematically, perhaps, festishistic disavowal – the act of believing two contradictory elements simultaneously – is itself unsolvable in the traditional sense of arriving at a single conclusion). In Death 24x a Second, Mulvey writes that after Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema she tried to evolve an alternative spectator, who was driven, not by voyeurism, but by curiosity and the desire to decipher the screen, informed by feminism and responding to the new cinema of the avant-garde. Curiosity, a drive to see, but also to know, still marked a Utopian space for a political, demanding visual culture, but also one in which the process of deciphering might respond to the human minds long standing interest and pleasure in solving puzzles and riddles. (2006: 191)

Mulvey had expanded on the theme of curiosity, which is also an explanation of her own academic “drive to see”, in Fetishism and Curiosity (1996) and in what follows I will explicate some of her arguments of this book.3 Mulvey argues that “if a society’s collective consciousness includes its sexuality, it must also contain an element of collective unconsciousness” (1996: xiii). This leads her to the conclusion that, since she is interested in the cinemas “ability to materialise both fantasy and the fantastic”, the cinema is “phantasmagoria, illusion and a symptom of the social unconscious” (ibid.: xiv). For Mulvey, then, cinema functions much like the speech of the analysand on the psychoanalysts couch: what we see on the screen can be interpreted as containing a latent meaning that reflects the desires and problems of that cinemas contemporary society. Mulvey writes: Psychoanalytic film theory suggests that mass culture can be interpreted similarly symptomatically. As a massive screen on which collective fantasy, anxiety, fear and their effects can be projected, it speaks the blind-spots of a culture and finds forms that make manifest socially traumatic material, through distortion, defence and disguise. (Ibid.: 12)

This understanding of meaning as being on two levels (the conscious and the unconscious) is one that permeates Mulvey s thinking and is fundamental to her understanding of “curiosity”. It is the curious interpreter who is able to read the hidden messages within culture and its products, and so she sees that culture as a “fetish” that hides within itself the truth of its production. She writes, “The presence’ can only be understood through a process of decoding because the covered’ material has necessarily been distorted into the symptom” (ibid.: xiv). This argument allows Mulvey to conclude: “The fetish is a metaphor for the displacement of meaning behind the representation in history, but fetishisms are also integral to the very process of the displacement of meaning behind representation. My interest here is to argue that the real world exists within its representations” (ibid.). There is a problem with the use of the phrase “real world” here.

If there is such a thing as the “real world”, the existence of which is manifest only in readings of the representations of that “real world”, how would one be sure that one has managed to find the “real” and correct interpretation of those representations and thus be able to claim knowledge of the “real world”? She speaks of the “incontrovertible reality of intense human suffering” and proclaims that “the Gulf War did happen, in spite of what Baudrillard may claim” (ibid.: xiv-xv). This anxious call to the real is a reflection of Mulvey ‘s roots in second-wave feminism and the direct action of the women’s movement in the 1970s and her own desire to bridge the gap between cinema theory and practice.

The interior/exterior model explored in Fetishism and Curiosity could be explained by a term such as “false consciousness”, or even “ideology”, and in this sense it can be linked back to Mulvey’s preoccupation with the “real”. In order to be able to sustain an intellectual project based on the moral worth of interpretive activity, the critic cannot interpret blindly but must have as a goal the elucidation of the “real” and of “truth”. This truth lies beneath the carapace created by another (presumably evil) power. Critical activity becomes a crusade against hypocrisy and oppression where the avant-garde (whether it be artistic or interpretive) is the only position from which an attack on the carapace is possible.

It is the importance of interpretation that lies behind Mulvey’s other, less frequent, metaphor in Fetishism and Curiosity: that of the hieroglyph, one of the meanings of which is “a secret or enigmatical figure” (OED). She writes of three processes that the hieroglyph evokes:

a code of composition, the encapsulation, that is, of an idea in an image at a stage just prior to writing; a mode of address that asks an audience to apply their ability to decipher the poetics of the “screen script”; and, finally, the work of criticism as a means of articulating the poetics that an audience recognises but leaves implicit. (1996: 118)

For Mulvey, the process of the formation of meaning is quite straightforward. There is an idea that exists, which is then translated into a form that demands to be deciphered but which can be properly understood only by a small group of critics who will come and explain to the general public the true message of any “mode of address”. This final reading of the hieroglyph would constitute the failure of the fetish and the final cracking of the carapace. Presumably, this explanation of the processes that underpin popular culture and consumer culture in general will have some sort of liberating effect on general society. Hie problem that faces the critic is difficulty itself.

Mulvey returns to the problematic of difficulty again and again throughout these essays. She writes that:  it may always be difficult to decipher the place of labour power as the source of value. (Ibid.: 5) A shared sense of addressing a world written in cipher may have drawn feminist film critics, like me, to psychoanalytic theory, which has then provided a, if not the, means to cracking the codes encapsulated in the “rebus” of images of women. (Ibid.: 27) The enigmatic text [Citizen Kane] that then gradually materialises appeals to an active, curious, spectator who takes pleasure in identifying, deciphering and interpreting signs. (Ibid.: 99)

In the introduction she writes:

History is, undoubtedly, constructed out of representations. But these representations are themselves symptoms. They provide clues, not to ultimate or fixed meanings, but to sites of social difficulty that need to be deciphered, politically and psychoanalytically … even though it may be too hard, ultimately, to make complete sense of the code. (Ibid.: 11)

The difficulty of interpretation would appear to be the ultimate impossibility of combining theory and practice. Mulvey seems to come to the conclusion that reality, while always the necessary yardstick of interpretation, cannot in the end be understood through curiosity. It is in her book on Citizen Kane that Mulvey explores the pleasures of interpretation for its own sake and ends with the observation that there “are two retreats possible: death and the womb” (1992: 83). If we can understand her work to have been concerned with “the womb” (the origins and interpretation of reality), perhaps her most recent book deals with the other retreat: death.

In Death 24x a Second, Mulvey shifts her attention to the freeze-frame, or the slowed image, and to the image of death. She explores what she terms the “death drive movie” (2006: 86) epitomized by Psycho and Viaggio in Italia. Her ruminations on C.S. Peirce’s semiotic triangle of icon, index and symbol try once again to come to terms with the relationship between representation and reality and her focus on the index, which is “a sign produced by the ‘thing’ it represents” (ibid.: 9) like a footprint or shadow. Here she concentrates on photography more than cinema and is indebted to Roland Barthes’ linking of the photograph with death in Camera Lucida (1981). She also discusses the uncanny at some length. She sums up her project in Death 24x a Second thus: “The cinema combines … two human fascinations: one with the boundary between life and death and the other with mechanical animation of the inanimate, particularly the human figure” (2006: 11).

quote-in-a-world-ordered-by-sexual-imbalance-pleasure-in-looking-has-been-split-between-active-laura-mulvey-69-58-34Mulvey is also fascinated by the impact of digital technologies on the moving image but does not really explore this beyond the analogue possibility of freezing the image on screen. She formulates two new models of spectatorship – the pensive and the possessive spectator – but neither of these are fully articulated in any convincing manner. Rather than examining the details of her argument in this book, which are perhaps even less clearly formulated than in her other episodic works, it may be worth noting Mulvey s rather world-weary tone and her emphasis on death.

The book does, however, contain an essay on the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, whose work she terms as a cinema of “uncertainty” and of “delay”. For Mulvey, Kiarostamis films appear to be an elegy for cinema itself, which is now in its final death throes. This approach seems uncannily to echo Mulvey s 1970s “negative aesthetics” approach that film as it exists should be destroyed, with only a vague sense of “sentimental regret”. It is this emotion that seems to pervade Death 24x a Second.

Finally, Mulvey cannot reconcile pleasure, or even life, and reality. At this stage of her work reality equals death. In her afterword to a collection of essays on the new Iranian cinema Mulvey explicitly addresses the issue that her feminist stance in the 1970s is echoed in Islamic censorship of cinema:

Islamic censorship reflects a social subordination of women and, particularly, an anxiety about female sexuality. But it then produces, as a result, a “difficulty” with the representation of women on the screen which has some – unexpected – coincidence with the problems feminists have raised about the representations of women in the cinema. (2002: 258)

Mulvey is puzzled by the fact that both oppression and liberation may result in exactly the same aesthetic object and her proposed solution is that it is this puzzlement, this curiosity, this call to “the process of deciphering”, that will move us away from being transfixed by “the fascination of the spectacle” {ibid.: 261). However, it is difficult not to be left with a certain sense of pessimism.

Source: FILM, THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY The Key Thinkers Edited by Felicity Colman, McGill Queens University Press


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