In the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey structures her argument around two crucial ideas, titled “Pleasure in Looking/Fascination with the Human Form,” and “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look.”  In these sections, she demonstrates how psychoanalysis can be utilized in film theory, particularly by feminists who struggle “under the phallocentric order” by applying it to aspects of film making.[1]

            In her first section, “Pleasure in Looking/Fascination with the Human Form,” Mulvey applies Freud’s theory about one form of pleasure; that of scopophilia.  In Mulvey’s explanation, she says that scopophilia is the pleasure of looking, something “which exists as drive quite independently of the erotogenic zones.”[2]  It is about “taking people as objects, [and] subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”[3]  In film, scopophilia comes into play because there is a world portrayed that is “indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy.”[4]  She explains that, much like a peeping tom hiding in the dark and looking into a lit window, the darkness of the auditorium contrasted with the light on screen helps distance viewers from the characters and events happening on screen while simultaneously pulling them into a world which evolves in front of them.  It gives “the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.”[5]

            This separation is only one side of her scopophilic argument, however.  The other side of the coin is the identification the audience feels.  Because film is focused on the human form, “the wish to look intermingle with fascination with likeness and recognition,” meaning that the audience identifies with the image on the screen like a child first recognizes themselves in the mirror.[6]  What is dangerous about this is that that representation is “more perfect” than themselves.  Mulvey points out that this is especially demonstrated in the star system as “the glamorous impersonates the ordinary.”[7]  Relating this back to Freud, Mulvey explains that watching the protagonist on screen allows for loss of ego (meaning the person watching forgets himself) while simultaneously reinforcing his ego as he watches a more perfect variation of his likeness (meaning representation of masculinity) triumph against the lesser feminine form.  It is obvious how building the ego through representations of masculinity produced in classic Hollywood cinema could be problematic in the eyes of any feminist, as they are often built on the objectification and domination of women.

            This leads into Mulvey’s second section: “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look.”  Here, she is more concerned with what is happening inside the screen.  Mulvey argues that within film, males are the active viewer and females become the passive subjects, meant to represent male desire.  She justifies this theory through various examples, explaining that in classic Hollywood cinema, the woman interrupts the flow of the narrative film.  Mulvey comment’s that examples of this can be seen in pin-ups, strip-tease, Ziegfeld, and Busby Berkeley.  These examples are important because they demonstrate that the “show girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis” so that the man in the film and the man in the audience (or any viewer) is unified in this active/passive relationship demonstrated on screen.[8]  This theory is not limited to theatrical films, but extends to other forms of active/passive viewership such as “conventional close-ups of legs… or a face.”[9]  These closeups don’t add to the narrative because they are flat, creating the opposite illusion of most Hollywood films.  Because the purpose of Hollywood filmmaking is to reproduce the “natural conditions of human perception,” audiences recognize the male’s erotic phantasy as reality, as the rest of the film orients you in time and space, especially through deep focus shots, camera movements, and continuity/invisible editing.[10]  Mulvey theorizes that this phenomenon of female passivity is because the “male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” because patriarchal structures enforce the need for man to find his ego in active/oppressive roles in relation to women.[11]

            Combined, the theories in these two sections provide an explanation for the hypermasculine/hyperpatriarchal representations on screen, and the effects they have on audience members.  What this explanation does for the feminist movement is to articulate exactly what it is filmmakers need to change in their work to erase female eroticization as an attraction of film, instead giving them power and choice on, and subsequently off-screen.  Mulvey also argues that through analyzing pleasure (Hollywood Cinema), it will be destroyed, allowing a new pleasure in film to emerge no longer based on patriarchal eroticization and subjugation of the female form.  It is this analysis which Mulvey uses as her political weapon, and which makes her piece so powerful.

[1] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, 713-25. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011, 716.

[2] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 717.

[3] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 717.

[4] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 717.

[5] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 718.

[6] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 718.

[7] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 718.

[8] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 719.

[9] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 720.

[10] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 720.

[11] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 720.

Leave a Reply