Cinema is taken by feminists to be cultural practice representing myth about women and femininity as well as about men and masculinity. Issues of representation and spectatorship are central to feminist film theory and criticism. The development of feminist film theory was influenced by second wave of feminism and the development of women's studies within the academy. Initial attempts to analyze film theory were taken in United States in 1970 and the research was mainly based on analysis of sociological theory. It focused on the function of women characters in particular film narratives or genres and of stereotypes as a reflection of a society's view of women.
It has been over 35 years since the Laura Mulvey’s outbreaking article „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” appeared. The basic source for this essay was Lacanian psychoanalysis and his theory of the gaze which I personally find one of the most complex and still not elucidated piece of work. Mulvey uses psychoanalysis as a mean to explain the fascination of Hollywood cinema. She theorizes, using Lacanian concepts, the ways in which Hollywood movies (but the principle can be also applied to European ones) direct the viewers into sadistic and voyeuristic position in relation to onscreen female bodies, which are designed as passive objects for consuming gaze, male gaze (Krzywinska, 2006).
The main aim of this paper is to problematise in the light of Mulvey’s article the issue if a woman can be still characterized exclusively as an object of male desire. Has the situation changed since the 1975 when the article was first published in Screen? In order to try to answer these questions I will focus mainly on two sources of criticism directed toward Mulvey’s theory. Firstly, gays and lesbians are the group of people who was questioning the male/female dichotomy, they proposed its deconstruction. The second reason why “Visual Pleasure…” has been so widely criticized evolves around the issue of skin color, class, race and age not mentioned in the text.
To start with, Mulvey explains the ways film reflects, revels and plays on the socially established interpretation on sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle. Mulvey uses psychoanalytical theory as a weapon demonstrating the way the unconscious of the patriarchal society has constructed film forms. Phallocentrism relies upon the image of the castrated women. Woman as lack produces the phallus as symbolic presence. The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. Women symbolize the castration threat through the lack of a penis, and raise children so they can enter the symbolic order. The fascination of Hollywood cinema can be explained through the notion of scopophilia. This is what keeps the viewer glued to the screen. The cinema stimulates the desire to look by combining structures of voyeurism and narcissism into the story and the image (Mulvey, 1975). Voyerism is the pleasure involved in looking at people’s bodies as particularly erotic objects whereas narcissism evolves around the pleasure derived from self-identification with the image. As Mulvey continues, the diverse features of cinema viewing conditions simplify for the spectator 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. The classical, narrative structure establishes men as both powerful and active, whereas the female character is presented as powerless and passive, what is more, she constitutes to be the object of desire for male character/characters. The male gaze is 'determining', and female characters are shown in accordance with male fantasies they connote to-be-looked-at-ness, as in conventional erotic spectacles. In mainstream films, there is both spectacle and narrative, the presence of women can threaten the flow of narrative, by freezing the action in moments of erotic contemplation. This means that women have to be reintegrated into the narrative indeed, their role in narrative is almost entirely to make the hero act in the way he does (Mulvey, 1975).
Among the evidence which proves that narrative and visual techniques in cinema make voyeurism exclusively male privilege, Mulvey points out the fact that the spectator in the theatre is made to identify with a male look because the camera films from both the optical and libidinal point of view of the male character. According to her, masculine structures of looking rely on three kinds of gaze; the look of the male actors within the film which is structured to make their gaze powerful, the camera which is usually operated by the man, looking at women as objects and the gaze of the spectator, who is presumed to be male, voyeuristically identifying with the camera/ actor gazing at women represented in fetishistic and stereotypical ways (Mulvey, 1975).
Written almost forty years ago, Laura Mulvey’s essay on visual pleasure centers on the issue of a dominant male gaze and problematized relations of gender, power, and spectatorship in cinema. As Susan Martín-Márquez suggests, Mulvey’s argument has been …refined, revised, rejected, and recycled by successive waves of feminist film theorists (2004: 14).
Let me now come back to our two fundamental sources of criticism directed toward this famous piece of work. Mulvey’s essay has been widely criticized first of all for exclusive attention to male spectator, many objected to the set role of the male activity and female passivity. One of the critic is Ann Kaplan who in 1983 asked very important question: “Is the gaze male?” Her criticism was mainly directed toward Mulvey’s dominant/submission model. According to Kaplan this model may not necessarily be tied to gender because women in the same way like men can fantasize across sexual binary. Also Kaja Silverman finds similar, namely she claims that gaze could be adopted by both male and female subject and that it is not always men who posses control over passive women (Smelik, 1993). What is more, she suggests so called oppositional reading of the film. This is one of the framework offered by British studies which encourages the viewer (or reader for that matter) to read the film along the lines opposed to those the film themselves invites and offers. This manner of reading questions and challenges the meaning encoded in the text. A general agreement about the limitations of the exclusive focus on sexual difference has always been present among feminists. The need of deconstruction was very strong. The main accusation was directed against the part in feminist film theory where it seemed unable to conceived of representation outside heterosexuality. A very important query was made by Steve Neale (1992) who posed the question that if it was assumed that there was only masculine and feminine reading position what about gay spectator (Neale, 1992)? Although homosexual relationships shown in majority of movies treat ‘this’ issue unspokenly in some of them viewers may find a source of strength and aspiration.
Very famous and at the same time controversial example can be Basic Instinct (1992) which although features lesbians as pathological killers it also represents a very strong character of the female protagonist (Sharon Stone). Femme Fatale has the total control over men in this picture, she provokes constantly by the way she dresses, behaves, speaks, moves. Men are at the same time afraid of her and desire her, they cannot control their instincts, they sweat and behave like a bunch of teenagers when she is nearby. The mystery that surrounds her attracts male attention. An average viewer may think here that finally woman has the same range of rights as man, that woman can have control, power, her own principles and live independently on man. In my personal opinion, this image is invented to satisfy viewers. In fact, Stone’s character was created by men to satisfy men. In other worlds, it constitutes another example of female character that appears on the screen as the object of desire and possible source of pleasure and satisfaction for male audience.
The picture that I personally find a very interesting one is Bound (1996). This noir movie tells the story of two homosexual women fighting in solidarity against a man. One particularly positive motive visible throughout the whole film is women enjoying having sex without apologizing for it. One of the main protagonist (Jennifer Tilly) describes this picture as “wet (feminine) as opposed to hard (masculine)”. She continues that the more subtle lesbian themes of the film were noticed and appreciated at the LGBT film festival screenings. While writing this fragment one question repeatedly appears in my mind: Why the issue of masculine homosexual desire is still a taboo topic? Isn’t it because it is generally said that although men enjoy watching lesbians kissing they cannot stand two men in similar situation? If it is so we are coming back to the exit point once again, namely that even lesbian characters presented in movies are aimed at satisfying male audience! If I was to provide any example of male homosexual relation presented in movies, definitely these are not the mainstream ones that come to my mind but queer movies.
It was in 1990 when Teresa de Lauretis reshaped her ‘queer theory’ into ‘Queer Theory’. In other words, at the beginning queer theory was treated as one of the field of gay and lesbian studies, later on it turned out that it is developing so significantly that it started to be associated with the whole gay and lesbian studies. Although de Lauretis invented the name queer theory, it was Judith Butler and her “Gender Trouble” that constituted the beginning of a new humanist field of studies. On the basics of Michaela Foucault’s and both french and american feminists theories, Butler suggested the total critique and rejection of all gender and sexual identities that were claimed to be ‘normal’ and natural. In this sense queer was presented as a critique of normative identities (Butler, 1993).
Antarctica directed in 2007 by an Israeli director Yair Hochner shows the broadness and variety of queer theory, this movie follows the physical, spiritual and emotional journeys of a group of gays and lesbians. Viewers can find here a range of problems that LGBT people have to face, their experience and their sexuality that was fluid and subversive to traditional understanding of sexuality. By putting the examples of lesbian/ gay couples, transgender and bisexual people the audience has a chance to be more familiar with the idea of ‘queerness’ and the LGBT community’s problems caused for example by society, forms of government, political systems, homophobic people and many more.
This is the one of the missing perspective in Mulvey’s article and the second one that I would like to elaborate is the issue of race, skin color and age. In this case the critique came from black feminists who reviewed the exclusive focus on binary oppositional model and failed to deal with racial difference. Although Mulvey assumes that male gaze is the dominant one she omits the very important issue here, namely black male gaze, a socially prohibited one. We are all perfectly aware of the stereotypes evolving around the black male person; strong, uneducated, violent, rapist, mannerless, always condemned and excluded by society, always found guilty. Psychological thriller drama, The Crying Game (1992) touches upon the issue of race, skin color, gender and nationality. The film is a perfect example of how racial hierarchies have created visual taboos. It constitutes the reason why this picture failed to fulfill the promise of transgressive relationship and ultimately reproduces stereotypes of both black male (and the features that I have already mentioned) and black female (using Hill- Collins’s terminology: the Mammy, the Matriarch, the Welfare Mother, and finally the Jezebel or the Whore).
The issue of blackness was also a leading topic in bell hooks’s article “The Oppositional Gaze” from 1992. According to hooks creation of both black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship would be a starting point for deconstruction of images established so far (hooks, 1992). An example of movie deeply rooted in Black life, traditions, history and culture is Daughters of the Dust (1995). It represents three generations of black women for whom celebration of traditions is a sacred think. Each of them serve to represent a full scope of black women’s experience and lives. It also shows varieties within black womanhood. Although watched mainly among Black audience, this movie is considered to be a powerful component of cultural movement that aims at empowering of Black women (Bobo, 1995).
Although I am aware that this one as well as the previous examples of movies provided by me were directed in 90s and the article was released in mid 70s my aim here was just to demonstrate what kind of perspectives and angles Mulvey did not take into consideration in her publication.
Recapitulating, this essay has been arguing the advantages of Mulvey's definition of the male gaze as a construct dependent of the unconscious desires and fears in the social structure. The examples provided here prove that although some progress cannot be denied, there has been a significant increase in films made by homosexual and Black directors we have not yet reached the position in which we can affirm undeniably, the power of the female (female and black) gaze. Perhaps this will be the case when the present ideology radically changes. Until it happens I have to admit that worldwide cinema, mainstream movies are still dominated by men, constructed by men and aimed at satisfying men.
Bobo, Jacqueline. 1995. “Black Women As Cultural Reader: Daughters of the Dust”. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.133-65.
Cohan, Steven. 1993. “Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema”. Routlage, London.
hooks, bell. 1992. “In Black Looks: Race and Representation, The Oppositional Gaze”. Boston: South End Press.
Kaplan, Ann. 1983. “Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera”. Routledge, Great Britain.
Krzywinska, Tania. 2006. “Sex and the cinema”. Wallflower Press, Great Britain.
Martín-Márquez in Steven, Marsh and Parvati, Nair. 2004. “Gender and Spanish Cinema”. Oxford, New York.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:2 (Autumn l975)’ 6-18; reprinted in eds. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, Women and the Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977)
Neale, Steve. 1992. “Notes on The Gaze”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverman, Kaja. 1983. “The Subject of Semiotics”. Oxford University Press, Great Britain.
Smelik, Anneke and Rosemarie Buikema. 1993. “Women's Studies and Culture: A Feminist Introduction”. Redwood Books, United Kingdom.