The Official Blog for ENGL 41416.

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.

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Comments on: "Women in Cinema: Through the Looking Glass" (1)

  1. The points you bring up in the last section of your post are eloquent and extremely insightful. You conclude that men are allowed to live out their fantasies through the idealized man in popular cinema who “is not threatened by woman and reduces her to the object of his gaze,” which I felt was a great point.
    I recently saw Crazy Stupid Love with my girlfriend and a particular part of the movie seems to illuminate the conclusion you drew. Ryan Gosling’s character is a replica of the “idealized man” (charismatic, good-looking, well-dressed) and assumes the “idealized man” role for a majority of the movie. However, when Emma Stone’s character (a woman who initially rejects him, so he distinguishes her as “different” and chases her) finally accepts him, as she is charged by an emotional letdown; he sees her innocence, no longer becomes interested in conquering her sexually, and informs her of his “secret” with women. He tells her that he takes women back to his lavish apartment, puts on “Time of my life” from Dirty Dancing and tells them that he can duplicate Patrick Swayze’s “move,” (he picks Jennifer Beals up rotating slowly as if to hold her to the heavens) stating that it “never fails.”
    I felt as if this scene clearly encompassed your words, as Gosling’s character is allowed to live out his sexual fantasies with women through Patrick Swayze’s character in Dirty Dancing: an “idealized man” in popular cinema who “is not threatened by woman and reduces her to object of his gaze.” In literal terms, Swayze “reduces her to the object of his gaze,” for the “move” is meant to enhance the strength of the male gaze, while “averting” a woman’s “anxiety and retributive feelings” (Riviere) but actually exposes them, allowing her to be used as a prop to initiate sex. The invocation of Dirty Dancing in Crazy Stupid Love gives an entire new meaning to the male gaze as you have defined it.

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