In her seminal essay, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to demonstrate how the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured the form of film. According to Mulvey, woman’s on-screen image forms and reinforces phallocentric thought in two ways. First, woman symbolizes the threat of castration due her real absence of a penis and secondly, her child is raised into the realm of the symbolic. In other words, her maternal plenitude compensates for her lack. Mulvey states, “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 (58).” I beg to differ.
“Woman [...] stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, [...] in which man can live out his fantasies 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 (58).” The hierarchy and power dynamics encouraged here are problematic. Surely, women can and already have surpassed the label of “male other” and bearer of castration anxiety. These thoughts then lead Mulvey to question how women can fight their oppression if their unconscious is structured within the language of patriarchy. In this sense, we are all predisposed to slightly more misogynistic tones due to the hegemonic reality of our society. This tendency is something I want to be acutely aware of in future writings. Thankfully, we do not have gendered words in the English language, so their influence upon cultural identity can be overlooked for this writing.
Alternative cinema must react against the obsessions and assumptions of Hollywood in order to exist as a counterpoint to it. The best of cinema, Mulvey explains, is through the skilled manipulation of visual pleasure. But what is visual pleasure for women? Mulvey states by analyzing pleasure, or beauty, we destroy it (59). My intention is not to destroy pleasure through analysis, but to better understand how men and women differ in their pursuit of it. How can we put this into visual terms? Mulvey believes it is through the thrill of leaving the past behind without rejecting it and daring to break away from normal pleasurable expectation in order to conceive of a new language of desire. This echoes my own sentiments completely.
Scopophilia is sexual stimulation through sight, often taking people as objects with a controlling and curious gaze. Mulvey uses scopophilia to explain the objectification of the female body. But how do women look at the male body? Film plays on and encourages voyeuristic fantasy and separation; a sensation that is enhanced in the ambience of the dimly lit movie theater. Film gives the voyeuristic illusion of looking in on a private world which simultaneously creates a loss of ego (I forgot who I am and where I was) and the ego ideal, a joyous recognition of the self through the glamour of movie stars.
Since I am attempting to invert the male gaze within my own work, I found that I was continuously flipping and replacing certain key words throughout the text. It started by simply replacing men with women, sadism with masochism, but then I realized that I was starting to replace “threat of castration” with “threat of rape.” This is challenge that repeatedly compromises the presence of the female gaze. How do women circumvent the threat of rape? Is it through masochism and submission? According to Mulvey, men use voyeurism and fetishism to escape castration anxiety. “The look, pleasurable in form, can be threatening in content [...] the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like (62).” Woman, thusly, becomes his property and unpleasure.
For the most part, Mulvey’s text feels dated and out of touch with contemporary society. However, I believe her essay is an important component to my research as it continues be a major influence in feminist and cinematic theory. I am interested in finding contemporary criticism that incorporates new psychoanalytic theories so that I may better inform and answer the questions presented above.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema. Screen Magazine. 1973.