After analyzing several of our past theory readings, it’s a wonder that men manages to look at women at all without turning into gorgon-cursed stone. Woman, who is defined by her lack of a phallus, stimulates a fear in men of their own castration. How do they ever render woman safe enough to become the focus of their erotic and sexual desires? Laura Mulvey, in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, analyzes how men get pleasure from looking at woman represented in cinema through a psychoanalytic lens.
Mulvey discusses scopophilia, which is achieving pleasure through the act of looking itself. However, “looking” in this situation is not as passive as it would appear. In cinema, a person on screen is rendered an object that the audience “subjects…to a controlling and curious gaze.” Film as a media for this erotic stimulation is particularly effective because of the way it is presented to an audience. As Mulvey writes, “The extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light…helps promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation.” Add this environment to the manner woman are presented on screen (as displayed objects to be looked at) and a nonthreatening and controlled erotic image of woman is produced to satisfy the male desire and pleasure.
Mulvey also focuses on how cinema has transformed throughout its history and the transference of the direct male gaze of the audience to an onscreen representation of the male ego. In the early years of film, the erotic woman object was unsubtly presented to the audience in awkward and plot-interrupting sequences. For a visual analogy, if no film text references come to mind, picture a waiter interrupting your dinner conversation to present you with your meal. This awkward plot-block was surmounted by having women function as “erotic objects for the characters within the screen story.” The man on screen not only has the role of being the active force driving the plot (while woman are passively dragged along if not condemned to ruin the flow of the story all together) but also has the power “as bearer of the look of the spectator.” The audience no longer needs to have the responsibility of controlling their own gaze and shaping of woman as an erotic object. The male audience can now project themselves on to the heroic movie star whose perfect and idealized qualities are not object of the erotic gaze (as the idealized woman is) but “those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror.” Through the representation of swaggering movie heroes, men can live out their fantasy of themselves. And what is the idealized man as represented by popular cinema? One that is not threatened by woman and reduces her to the object of his gaze. Not only can the audience safely gaze upon woman through the dark distance of the movie screen, but they can further arm themselves in a body suit of a male character.