Reading Mulvey

For Tuesday I’ve asked you to read British film theorist Laura Mulvey‘s hugely important and influential 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Since the copy we have is all marked up, you can download a clean version from another source here. It’s also available in HTML at the Brown University Wiki.

As I noted in class, this is a very challenging essay. It relies heavily on psychoanalytic theory and can seem confusing at first, but it is logically organized and reasonably argued. While some of the concepts Mulvey works with may be difficult and unfamiliar, a careful, attentive reading will reveal an interesting and provocative argument that makes sense whether or not you agree with it. So go slowly and make note of what you don’t understand, want to discuss, or would like clarified further. You may not totally grasp every idea Mulvey raises right away, but you should be able to get a pretty good sense of her overall argument — enough to give us a lot to talk about in class on Tuesday. This is a well known and controversial essay that has been discussed, debated, refuted and refined by film students, scholars and filmmakers for the last 35 years and now we’re going to join the conversation.

At it’s most basic, Mulvey’s argument is that the perspective of Hollywood films has historically been a male one, predisposing viewers to identify with men onscreen and to see women in the movies merely as passive objects, there to be looked at by by both the male characters and the spectator.  The “gaze” Hollywood films offer, she argues, is a male one so that when we watch a movie, we look with the men, but look at the women.

Grace Kelly and James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954)

I am looking forward to our discussion on Tuesday and to establishing explicit connections between Mulvey’s argument and the films we’ve seen so far, particularly the noirs we’ve been watching for the last two weeks.

If you have questions you’d like to pose before our discussion (or even after), feel free to post them here in a comment.

4 thoughts on “Reading Mulvey

  1. I enjoyed the discussion we had in class today, but I’m still trying to mull over the question I posed in the last stretch of our session.

    Let me refresh everybody by first laying out the foundation of my question. On page 486 and into 487, Laura Mulvey develops an aspect of the “pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation;” scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect (hereafter referred to as “aspect”). My understanding of this entire section– which was confirmed by Professor Gershovich in class– was that the male spectator identifies with the male heroes of films as an idealized reflection of himself.

    My question was, how can this aspect be reconciled with the male heroes of the films we’ve seen in our foray into film noir? Professor Gershovich brought up the lead character in Detour, Al, who is mostly weak-willed and subservient, and perpetually nervous– I would call him scruffy, not in the sense that he possesses a raffish charm, but in the sense that he’s a worn-out human being. Indeed, Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir” describes lead characters from noir films of the third phase (1949-53) as “seemingly under the weight of ten years of despair” and psychopathic (222). Is that really how the male spectator of the period would ideally see himself? As a male spectator myself, there are a few main male characters of the noir tradition I would want myself to– er, become, if that doesn’t sound too weird, such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; but I wouldn’t want to become an Al, or a constantly paranoid Frank Bigelow (of D.O.A.). The two examples I’ve pulled out to make this point, D.O.A. and Detour, certainly weren’t obscure films for the time period; based on our class discussion it seems that both films (D.O.A. at least, since it wasn’t a B-movie) were successful and well-received by critics, which means that many male spectators went to see them.

    Schrader places the third phase of film in a period beginning in 1949. That’s a post-World War II atmosphere he associates with “the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity and… psychic stability;” therefore making films of this period “sociologically piercing” (223). Could it be that the men of this period, having returned from the theaters of war just a few years prior, were pierced subconsciously by the behavior of these third-phase-noir-heroes to the extent where they accepted these heroes as an idealized version of themselves, as an acceptable personification of their own disillusionment?

    My questions– my entire line of thinking, means nothing if Mulvey’s description of the aspect isn’t valid and applicable to every case, so I’m assuming it is as I write all of this. Let me know if any part of this wasn’t clear!

  2. This is a great question, Vik. Let’s see if this clarifies things.

    Keep in mind that Mulvey is working with psychoanalytic theory here and the terms she uses have particular meanings.

    In the section you mention, Mulvey gives us two “contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking” in conventional films. The first, as she summarizes on p. 487, is scopophilia, which is the pleasure associated at looking at someone we find sexually attractive — “pleasure us using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight,” as she puts it. The second aspect of the pleasure of looking is what she initially refers to as “scopophilia in it’s narcissistic aspect” comes from identifying with the image on the screen. It comes from, she says, an “identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like.”

    Now here’s the tricky part. Remember that Mulvey is talking here about unconscious processes, theorized by folks like Freud and Lacan, that are facilitated or even reproduced by the narrative conventions of classic cinema. She’s interested here in how movies create a “subject position” or subjectivity for us — in how we come to identify with the “film apparatus” or “camera-eye,” as various theorists have put it.

    The “fascination and recognition” she is talking about come about through the the role the movie creates for a generalized spectator. The movies, with their particular ways of making meaning and the ways in which they work on us, according to Mulvey, facilitate identification with the male protagonist regardless, I would argue, of how we feel about that protagonist.

    This isn’t the kind of identification, in other words, that we talk about when we talk about identifying with heroes or role models. So while you don’t identify with the the protagonists of Detour or D.O.A. in the sense that you don’t see yourself in them or find them unlikeable, Mulvey would say that you do identify with them in the psychoanalytic sense — that, through the magic of the movies and the structure of the unconscious (shaped as it is by the dominant order), you share their subjectivity while you watch their stories unfold and see teh world as they do.

    So while you may not like them, the conventions of Hollywood film force you to identify with them while experiencing the film. You may not identify with them in the more general sense, but Mulvey would likely argue that the movie forces a kind of identification given the way looking is structured in Hollywood films, to use some of her language.

    • Ah– I mixed up my conscious with my subconscious. Thank you for the explication of that section of Mulvey, it really helps in my understanding of the essay in relation to film noir. The two examples I used, D.O.A. and Detour– you’re right, I do manage to see the world as the protagonists do, especially in D.O.A.’s case. Bigelow’s flashback and narration of events really allows me to identify with his experiences to the extent where I would see the world as Bigelow did in that opening sequence– had I been in his shoes walking into that police station, of course!

      I know Mulvey’s essay applies mainly to conventional films, but do her principles still hold when held against an unconventional film? I’m thinking of Dali’s Un Chien Andalou as an unconventional film that actually falls in line with many of Mulvey’s solutions.

      The scene where the lead male character gropes the female lead character after watching another woman get run down by the car– the way Dali portrays that scene seems to fall in line with Mulvey’s assertion of the woman’s “passive” role in film. The female lead is segmented– as her breast is clutched by the male lead and the screen flashes into nude body parts. And the lead male’s solution to his castration anxiety is fetishizing the lead female, to the extent where he makes her armpit hairs part of his mouth– would that qualify as an example of fetishistic scopophila? Can Un Chien Andalou even be analyzed under Mulvey?

      • Another really interesting question, Vik. Since Un Chien Andalou is not a narrative film in the sense that Mulvey uses that term, we can argue that it shirks some of the narrative techniques and devices that she says gender the gaze in typical Hollywood films. But it does rely on the male gaze in the way you’ve described since it does appear to gender the spectator as male despite the fact that it strains the whole notion of spectatorship in true surrealist fashion. The Surrealist movement was (and still is) often criticized for patriarchal and even misogynistic tendencies — they weren’t exactly feminists. The exhibition of surrealist art at the Met a few years back made this point rather well, showcasing works that speak to the rather traditional sexual politics of that movement. So it isn’t surprising that Un Chien Andalou lends itself to a feminist critique along the lines Mulvey draws.

        For what it’s worth, Mulvey actually talks about Un Chien Andalou in her 1989 collection, Visual and Other Pleasures. I’ll need to dig that up.

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