Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Let's tear Freud to the ground: Laura Mulvey and Feminist Film Theory

Why does Laura Mulvey say that the film form is best suited for representing “the image of woman as passive raw material for the active gaze of man?” (forgive the length on this one).

With her text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1992) Laura Mulvey was one of the first to write about classical Hollywood cinema through the literal lens of the feminist perspective, paying special attention to the deconstruction of psychoanalysis and theories behind the male-driven gaze and narrative of film, essentially developing the beginnings of the feminist point of view on cinema in the late 20th century. Mulvey challenges audience members to understand the cinema of the past in order to change the cinema of the future, and the first step in understanding the older, antiquated mode of cinema, she claims, is to intentionally destroy pleasure and beauty through rigorous analysis. Divided into two dominant sections, Mulvey’s article intends to analyze 1) the pleasure in looking vs. fascination with the human form and its relation to Lacan’s mirror stage, the ego and psychoanalysis, and 2) woman as icon, with man as bearer of look. Through these two main points, Mulvey outlines how the passive image of the woman in narrative cinema is only there for the gaze of the male audience member and the men within the filmic world.

Focusing mainly on Lacan and Freud, Mulvey opens her article with scrutiny of the male-dominated realm of psychoanalysis and its relationship to the construction of the ego. In Lacanian theory, the mirror stage of self-identification is essential to construction of the ego of the young child, allowing the male who once saw himself only in his mother to now have an identity separate from the castrated image of this dominant female figure in his life. In a way, Mulvey argues, cinema acts much like a mirror, creating a protagonist with which the male audience member can identify, as well as relating this image to a likeness of himself on screen, larger than life, feeding the ego of the man. A woman in Hollywood cinema, however, is forever “tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning”, is caught in a patriarchal order that can only be reversed by a deconstruction of psychoanalytic theory (343).

Mulvey believes that males essentially drive the plot in classical Hollywood cinema and that women do nothing to advance the plot whatsoever; this allows the male audience member to use this mirror image of a strong, plot-driving male as a reflection of himself and an echo to his own ego, boosting his own self-image to greater heights than a woman could ever achieve while watching a film in which her only relation on screen is an objectified, passive woman. Women have trouble utilizing this mirror self as seen on screen as any sort of ego-boosting or morale-lifting device because traditionally, Mulvey believes, the woman serves two functions in narrative cinema: 1) she is the “erotic object” for on-screen characters, and she is also 2) the erotic object for the spectator in the theater.

With this point that women are the passive object when projected on screen and seen through the lens of the camera and the social scope of the audience, film in general is proven to be masculine and reflects the power relationship between men and women: Mulvey states that
“woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (343).
The fact that the woman cannot be maker of meaning but only bearer of meaning much like she is bearer of children and life also puts her in a role of narrative passivity, never allowing her to take charge within the narrative of the film or of the direction of the camera’s gaze.

An example of women not allowed to take charge and instead remain in a passive role is personified and symbolized in the 1960 film Peeping Tom by Michael Powell, a film for which Laura Mulvey herself later wrote the DVD commentary. The film is about Mark, a man who lives out his male sexual and primal “phantasies” through the lens and the equipment of the camera. Mulvey uses this narrative to further explain her theories written in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Not only does the tripod come to symbolize the phallic and the brutal weapon as it supports, protrudes from and literally holds up the camera, but the camera itself is never operated or touched by women. When Mark, (played by German actor Carl Boehm), was younger, his father passed on to him the gift of a camera, phallic in the symbolic because of the lens and phallic in reality because it is an extension of his father’s masculinity, an extension of the father’s power of the dominant gaze that is passed down to his son. It is now Mark’s camera, and it is now his way to control and to view women.

There are several point-of-view shots from the perspective of the camera as Mark gazes at the women in his life who will eventually become victims of murder after they become victims to the brutal, scrutinizing, voyeuristic gaze of the camera. The women in Peeping Tom cannot use the camera because they have no control, they have no literal phallus, and the camera is ultimately a phallic object. This exemplifies Mulvey’s claim that film is the best medium through which to depict the passive woman, the iconic, pin-up fashion of female objectivity.

Our conscious thoughts are driven by dominant order, which, at least in narrative American cinema, are male-centric. Mulvey believes that the world in which we live is one where there is extreme “sexual imbalance”, a world where the female in film “holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” (346). If one wishes to argue with the “sexual imbalance” of this society, please take note of the number of men who make films as compared to the number of women, or the target audience for most moneymaking blockbuster films (males aged 18 to 24, usually), or the percentage of films in which men are the main protagonist versus films in which it is the woman who drives the narrative.

I believe there to be several recent female-driven plots lines, but according to Mulvey the filmic medium does not allow for a female-driven narrative, period. One could look at, for example, Thelma and Louis (dir. Ridley Scott, 1991), but this film also falls victim to the male gaze: we see Geena Davis in several sexual situations, and although it is Brad Pitt’s character who is usually exampled as being fetishized by the camera the audience still sees Geena Davis fragmented by the camera’s gaze, depicted in sexual situations, and punished for both instances on sexual expression, first by rape and next as a victim of theft. This film also suggests that the only way to get away from horrible, detrimental marital situations is to commit suicide, something that I think Mulvey would completely attack and scrutinize.

There is this concept of looking to which Mulvey continuously returns, that men are the bearer of the look directed at the fragmented, iconic, displayed female forms on screen. This look is presented for all in the theater, but the darkness that is present out in the house of theater makes the viewing experience into a selfish and personal one, and a shift of the look occurs: the female who is literally on display for all, flickering within the lights of the screen, now slips into the possession of one, and suddenly the only person watching the screen is the scopophilic male, oblivious to everyone around him, believing this narrative is being played out for his pleasure alone in complete ignorance of everyone else in the theater. The filmic world is a private glimpse into the lives of others, thus enhancing its voyeuristic appeal. This is, as Mulvey states, a classic example of scopophilia, or the pleasure of looking, developing into narcissism. Curiosity mingles with likeness and recognition, and the male audience member as well as the male protagonist are free to enjoy the performance of the woman as it plays out in front of them.

Voyeurism, Mulvey would argue, is an inherently masculine trait. Voyeurism and film are quite similar in that film constructs viewing that reflects this pathology of the instinctual pleasure of scopophilia. We are forced to look at the screen in a theater, forced to focus on it, which is precisely a way of enforcing that gaze, imposing it as the only possible way of interpretation. When we look at the other side of this, which is narcissism, film concentrates on the human form. We look at people acting on screen, we gaze at these humans and are attracted by our likeness to these characters. In these characters, we recognize ourselves. In a way, film is a way of looking at others while at the same time looking at ourselves and judging ourselves on the basis of these characters.

When one looks at the differences between the focused, attentive gaze required for viewing the cinema and the unfocused, distracted gaze required of, say, television or the Internet, the fact that film is the best suited for the active male gaze becomes apparent. One could argue that television and the Internet as media are intended for distracted audiences who are capable of multi-tasking (arguably female audiences), and the content within the media is formatted with this in mind. For example, a film is presented on a large screen in an amphitheatre as an event for which the audience pays good money, and therefore undivided, undistracted attention is required of the medium and the content. Television has reruns, events such as Internet videos and web pages can be accessed at any time, and modern digital video recorders allow the audience to rewind, fast-forward, skip, and repeat recorded television programs on a whim. Film is unique in its viewed setting, its format, and its creators; while some could argue that men dominate television programming (at least in the upper tiers of production), most programs cater to and are made for women. While some could argue that the fragmentation and accompanying fetishization that is inherent in female representation on the film screen also occurs on the smaller screen of the television, this is solely out of necessity of aspect ratio and screen size and should not be focused on much within this argument.

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