Laura Mulvey: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Laura Mulvey’s bafflingly influential essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” represents a high water mark in the barking lunacy of psychoanalytically inflected film theory.

For Mulvey, `patriarchy‘ and `phallocentrism in all its manifestations‘ depens upon the image of the `castrated woman‘ to give order and meaning to its world: `Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.’ The woman’s lack of a phallus gives meaning to the man’s possession of such, and the power and status it brings. This process is both displayed and reinforced in the cinema.

Cinema, according to Mulvey, affords two forms of pleasure: `scopophilia‘, the erotic, voyeuristic pleasure of subjecting others to a `controlling and curious gaze‘ and which is associated with the `libido‘; and the `narcissistic‘ pleasure of `identification‘ with the male protagonist (or the camera’s point of view) which Mulvey associates with the `mirror phase‘ of Jaques Lacan‘s crackpot psychology: the moment that the child misrecognises himself ion his own reflection, thereby constituting his `ego‘.

For Mulvey identification is always with the male point of view, even for the female audience, and female characters are always subject to the controlling male gaze. Male protagonists and audiences are active, female characters and spectators are passive. There is no room in Mulvey’s ramblings for the pleasures of the female viewer, other than masochism, and no room either for identification across gender, or for identification for gay audiences: the male form cannot be subject to eroticization in the way that the female form can.

The female body exists for the pleasure of the male gaze. However, since the female form has no phallus, it is identified with the `threat‘ of castration and the spectator resorts to either the sadistic, voyeuristic pleasure in the spectacle of the punishment of women, the bearers of guilt (who, being `castrated‘, must have done something to deserve it) or disavowal of the threat of castration through `fetishism‘.

This fetishism can take almost any form: extravagant set design, excessive camera movement, musical numbers – just about anything that can’t be explained by `sadistic voyeurism‘ in fact, meaning that Mulvey can claim to have explained the entire cinema experience with a minimal number of psychoanalytical terms.

Since `pleasure‘ is identified purely with patriarchal domination, pleasure must be done away with. Mulvey advocates the `destruction of pleasure‘ as a `radical weapon‘: `The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked.’ The whole article reads like a parody of joyless feminism.

If it all sounds like gibberish to you, that’s because it is. There isn’t a shred of evidence any of the psychodynamic processes involved actually exist and Mulvey offers no attempt to establish that they do. Instead she just regurgitates the work of Freud and Lacan and expects us to take their lunatic theories on trust.

The theory is pessimistic, deterministic and also `essentialist‘ in that it is trans-historical; it is deeply reactionary as it rests upon a view of a universal, unchangeable human nature. Mulvey’s theory takes masculinity as `normative‘ in that the feminine as is defined in terms `deviation‘ from the masculine (hence `lack‘, `absence‘, `otherness‘).

Her uncritical support for the `avant-garde‘ also displays the usual pseudo-left contempt for `the masses’ in upholding the capitalist division of labour which valorises the intellectual labour of the ruling elites over the physical labour of the oppressed; in fact issues of class, `race’ or alternative sexualities which might over-ride simple sexual dichotomies are entirely absent from her work. Psychoanalysis is simply inadequate to even theorise about differences other than those which are sexual. Likewise there is no discussion of `camp‘ readings of film.

There’s no discussion of the context in which films are viewed other than the darkness of the cinema, something Mulvey inevitably associates with voyeurism, and the fixed seeting which she sees as a ‘repression‘ contributing to identification with the screen image – but are the psychodynamic processes involved in watching a film at the cinema the same as those involved watching a DVD in the more relaxed context of the home? In any case, audiences are often far from ‘repressed’: witness the cheers, jeers and laughter of the cinema audience.

Even if we were to suspend our utter disbelief in psychobabble Mulvey’s essay contains much which is demonstrably wrong: In Hitchcock `the male hero does see precisely what the audience sees’ according to Mulvey. However Hitchcock usually employs two strategies to create suspense: situations in which the perceptual points of view of the protagonist and the spectator correspond; and situations in which the viewer holds the privileged position of knowing things that the protagonist does not. In North By Northwest the audience is well aware of Eve’s divided loyalties before Roger Thornhill.

It’s about time this gibberish was cast into the trashcan of history. It is a blight upon both film theory and feminism in general.

References

Mulvey, Laura (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Mulvey, L. (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures*

Red denotes online version. There, saved you some money!

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