by Melissa Strong, MJ Contributor
In 1975, Laura Mulvey published an essay analyzing feature film in a groundbreaking new way. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” first acknowledges that movies make the camera invisible, almost unnoticeable, to create the illusion of verisimilitude. Next, it observes that the disappearing camera becomes a kind of eye, and the gaze this eye creates is male. This notion - that the camera has a male gaze - is what Mulvey is best known for. Perhaps it went without saying in 1975, but today it is worth noting that the camera’s male gaze also is cisgender, heterosexual, and representative of conventional expectations of masculinity. Whatever for, you may ask? Well, as Mulvey points out, movies are a product of a patriarchal culture, so naturally they tend to reflect patriarchy.
There is no question this remains the case 40+ years after Mulvey’s essay first appeared in print. However, our culture has not remained static, nor has its patriarchy. To what extent do the ideas in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” still apply to film? And what about the other, more Freudian claims it makes, like the one about men on screen being active voyeurs while women are passive exhibitionists? Mulvey’s essay has been a touchstone in cinema studies, gender studies, and other disciplines for decades. I first read it in college for a class on Hitchcock. Several years ago, students studied it in a film class I taught. For the “women in film” issue of Moviejawn, I wanted to revisit this influential essay and consider how relevant it remains.
In order to do that, let’s review its main points. Mulvey’s essay approaches movies from the crossroads of film theory and feminist theory, applying concepts from psychoanalysis to depictions of men and women onscreen and how audiences look at them. Some of this can seem a little wacky, though Mulvey simply borrows the weirdness right from Freud, weirdo father of the Oedipus complex. For instance, Freud Dude believed women represent the threat of castration because they don’t have dangly genitalia. He also believed that errrybody lives in constant fear of being castrated despite the non-existence of empirical evidence of this. Nonetheless, the language of film is the language of patriarchy, so, according to Mulvey, the female form in cinema represents castration threat. If a woman in a movie is a mother, her child represents her desire for a penis.
Mulvey persuasively supports her analysis with evidence from film noir and the works of Sternberg and Hitchcock, particularly Morocco (1930), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958). Handily, these films also are about looking. For example, as Mulvey notes, the nightclub audience watching Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) perform in Morocco mirrors the moviegoer watching her on screen. Rear Window is a metaphor for movies, with looking central to its plot and a male protagonist, “Jeff” Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), who embodies the audience’s perspective. Like Jeff himself, this perspective is male, so looking allows the looker to explore the hetero, white, cis, stereotypically masculine erotic.
Experimental film is a different story, but mainstream movies default to a male perspective, and recognizing this can lead to positive change, Mulvey argues. Certainly, film has changed since the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Female characters no longer always simply serve as a tool for a male character’s self-discovery, as Mulvey said they did. The Bechdel Test helps us identify movies like Lady Bird (2017), Hidden Figures (2016), and Grandma (2015) that center female experiences, which also often are human experiences.
Yet plenty of movies continue to relegate women to two-dimensional roles supporting a more well developed hero, who is usually white and male. And, often, these women are flawed in some way, recalling Freud’s theory of the defective woman and Mulvey’s point that it produces movies in which women are irrelevant and/or symbolic instead of autonomous, three-dimensional characters. As an added bonus, saving or fixing these defective women becomes part of the plot.
The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which I have written about before, exemplifies this. Consider Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), the wife in Paterson (2016): her sole purpose seems to be providing a wacky foil to her husband’s (Adam Driver) serious contemplations in a relationship that resembles child and parent rather than partnership of equals. Laura also highlights how Hollywood imposes limitations which pigeonhole women actors into generic roles like Girlfriend/Wife, Mother, and Grandmother/Old Lady, especially as they age. Charlize Theron began her career playing Pretty Wife/Girlfriend over and over in movies like The Astronaut’s Wife (1999), Reindeer Games, and The Legend of Bagger Vance (both 2000), always decorating the background with looks that fulfill normative beauty standards and facilitating the journey of the male protagonist.
Mulvey might say that the male gaze requires such female decoration to satisfy scopophilia, the pleasure of looking. I would add that scopophilia remains present in film, but it seems to have evolved. Many films of the past 30 years seem to take pleasure in looking at women’s bodies in a different way: female bodies that are endangered, harmed, or suffering are depicted with titillation. Action movies are notorious for inflicting violence on female characters while also giving them much less to do than their male counterparts, from Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) in the trunk of a car in Out of Sight (1998) to the completely dependent female precog (Samantha Morton) in Minority Report (2002). Forced servitude robs Morton’s character of her humanity and her looks, but it is more common for women in action and sci-fi movies to be hot and young. Meanwhile, men such as Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford get to be action heroes into their mid-60s.
But sometimes the camera seems to love looking at attractive women who make themselves less attractive. Consider Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Hours (2002), and Monster (2003), all of which received attention due to the physical transformations of leading female actors: weight gain, prosthetics, etc. Yet the attention focused on the actors’ uglification of their usually beautiful selves, and it differed in tone from the admiration heaped on men (like Christian Bale in several films) who physically suffer for their art. On the other hand, Theron’s performance in Monster provided her with an escape from Wife/Girlfriend/Arm Candy roles. However, the message of her success seems to be a catch-22: women cannot succeed in the mainstream unless they are gorgeous, but gorgeous women cannot be taken seriously. Meanwhile, female actors who physically resemble normal people are doomed to play certain types of secondary characters which comedian/actor Rachel Dratch calls “unfuckables.”
Amy Jolly seems nuanced in comparison, and pre-code movies, along with film noir - as others have pointed out - often produced female characters with more depth and realism than movies in recent years. In this way, little seems to have changed since Mulvey pointed out that men in film get to do things, but women just get looked at. Wonder Woman (2017) made me wonder if things have gotten worse. Finally, a superhero movie with a female lead! But as my wise friend Jenni pointed out, it should have been called Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman. Steve-o (Chris Pine) and his story get as much screen time, if not more, than Diana (Gal Gadot), which would never happen in a movie about a male superhero. So Laura Mulvey’s ideas continue to resonate in the era of Time’s Up and Me Too, revealing that Hollywood can treat women just as badly on camera as off.
The television renaissance born of the streaming revolution is leading the way for change. Alias Grace, the 2017 Netflix series, brilliantly acknowledges the male gaze through Grace’s observations about how the men who look at her project upon her their thoughts, feelings, and desires. As if in protest, Grace keeps herself hidden, unknowable to these men as well as the viewer. However, Hollywood movies lag behind. Moviegoers who don’t demand change allow the bad old ways to continue. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published during the second wave of feminism, during which activists pointed out that failing to fight sexism resulted in colluding with oppression. The same is true today. Viewers might take Mulvey’s suggestion to recognize that things must change, voting with our dollars and demanding better roles for and more complex depictions of women and other human beings.