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Archive for April 3, 2012

Cinema & the Flattening of the Female Form

Cinema & the Flattening of the Female Form

“It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article. The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked. Not in favor of a reconstructed new pleasure… but to make way for a total negation of the ease and plentitude of the narrative fiction film” ~ Laura Mulvey

Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” challenges the issue of the objectification of women in cinema. In the world of law, language, and cinema, the role of women is fixed and flat. She is the bearer of the “bleeding wound”, therefore once she gives birth and “raises the child into the symbolic order…her meaning and process is at an end, it does not last into the world of law and language” (58). Mulvey states that in the dominant patriarchal order “woman… stands in a patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsession 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) This is a man’s world, and woman becomes that which the dominant patriarchal order says she is.

Film is a medium where man can experience his fantasy and obsessions about women. Mulvey states that “the magic of Hollywood style at its best… arose… from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure”. Woman is the central object in this creation of visual pleasure. In the world of cinema, woman is the “passive/female”. Her role is to be “simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded with strong visual and erotic impact” (62). What is most important here is the lack of difference between the world of patriarchy and the world of cinema in regards to women.

Woman’s role is to stimulate scopophiliac behavior in men; to arouse their sexual desire. Meanwhile, women are objectified and subordinated by the male gaze. Mainstream cinema reinforces the language of patriarchy by objectifying the female form. In conclusion, woman’s character and form is sacrificed for the sake of man’s development.


The Erotic Object

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” discusses sex and eroticism in film and the pleasures that cinema offers. The article reminded me of a discussion in class about the male gaze in the film Imitation of Life and how a lot of the time, the role of the female in Hollywood, is to deliver that pleasure for men, even if that is not the purpose of the movie.

Mulvey says, “The magic of Hollywood style at its best (and all of the cinema that fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (59). This idea can be applied to old Hollywood, as well as current films. In a film such as Transformers, about an alien that can transform, Meagan Fox plays the role of the sexy counterpart to Shia LeBeouf’s strong male lead.

This is pointed out by Mulvey when she says, “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen” (62). This made me think about movies that I have watched in the past and how this relates to them. Is this woman in this film an erotic object for the male viewer, or for the male in the movie? Or is she even an object for either?

This article, written in 1975 sought to challenge and criticize the intentional placement of women in film, for erotic pleasure. Mulvey says, “It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article. The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked” (59). Thirty seven years later, the article is as relevant as it was then; with need to analyze pleasure and beauty in order to destroy it.

Visual Pleasure through Anatomical Objectification

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey uses  psychoanalysis as a foundation for her theory that there is an unconscious patriarchal structure in the visual perspective of cinema. The woman contributes to the creation of a patriarchal unconscious  in two ways: She “raises her child into the symbolic”  and “symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis”. Phallic representation is highlighted by the woman’s lack of a penis, which according to Mulvey makes her “[a] signifier for the male other, bound by symbolic order… as bearer of meaning not maker of meaning” (58). Therefore, the woman exists only in contrast to man, as a passive object that proves the virility of man and therefore his superiority.

Mulvey follows this theoretical framework by explaining the ways pleasure is represented and elicited through cinema, focusing on scopophilia and narcissism. She describes  scopophilia as the pleasure gained from the very act of looking. She further engages Freud’s analysis of scopophilia, which he associates with “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (59). The scopophilic pleasure derived from cinema is the pleasure of looking in on a scene that is relatively private without the awareness of the characters, “producing a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy” (60). In a sense it is the pleasure of getting all the juicy tidbits of the tale without being involved in the drama. The second pleasurable effect of cinema, narcissism, projects the essence of scopophilia onto the self. The audience takes pleasure in the recognition of likeness within a character, particularly because the character is presented as an ego ideal, being like the audience in features but of a more perfect, glamorized manifestation. This idea is taken from Lacan’s mirror phase in child development. The child sees his/her reflection in the mirror, and “the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self but its misrecognition as superior objects the body outside itself as an ego ideal” (60). Using these two ideas, Mulvey explains how the unconscious patriarchy in cinema incorporates scopophila and narcissism to create an active (male) viewer and induces identification with the (male) character onscreen.

The most interesting part of Mulvey’s article was the idea of “woman as image man as bearer of the look.” Mulvey describes the erotic objectification of the female character, who not only represents a feminine ideal but who is displayed for male pleasure. Pointing to screen shots slowed to take in the length of a woman’s legs, close-ups of the face and other body parts, she explains how the woman is reduced to an object of visual pleasure. Only the man has the role of active, round character in this cinematic structure, as the action is viewed through his perspective, by ‘what he sees and fails to see’. Despite her theoretical background, I must disagree with Mulvey’s argument that the male figure cannot “bear the burden of sexual objectification. Admittedly, her context does not extend into the 21st century which has included the female viewer into ego identification with a round female character. When I read this statement, my first thought was to James Bond, the debonair spy with a square jaw, blue eyes, and “a license to kill”. It wasn’t until Mulvey’s article that I really understood the concept of fetishism. Indeed, it is an objectification of a ideal representation of a physical or sexual object that marginalizes the object even as it praises. However, fetishism also includes the erotic pleasure in viewing or objectifying an image, even one as small as a smile. To this point, I thought of Brad Pitt’s abs, then Taylor Lautner’s abs, Mario Lopez’s smile, Leonardo DeCaprio’s hair and childish face in Titanic and many more abs that have flashed across my television screen.


Woman on Display

In Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema , she begins by telling her audience, “film reflects , reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference.”(833) She continues stating that, “woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound….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.” (834) Mulvey elaborates on a familiar theme of a voiceless woman seen in “The Laugh of the  Medusa” by Helene Cixous. But Mulvey does not interprete this woman through writing but through imagery, specifically the cinema. Where she states that, “the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasureable looking, but it also goes further, developing scopophillia in its narcisstic aspect.” (836) The cinema allows the audience to exit their realm of living and enter a new realm or as Mulvey states, “the glamorous impersonate the ordinary.” This statement can justify our socities obsession with Hollywood stars and reality television.

Mulvey speaks on Freuds theory of scopophillia stating that, “it continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object. At the extreme, it can become fizated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfication can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (835) she concludes that the cinema audience posess this quality and further liek a child sees the cinema as a sort of mirror, in relation to Jacques Lacan’s theory of children and mirrors.

Since the cinema audience posses these qualities and the obsession people have with the human body directors must play into them where women are “displayed as sexual object….erotic spectable”(837). Woman in the film serve as a display and work against the storyline unlike men who, “cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification”(838) in other words the female body is much more interesting to look at. But Mulvey theorsizes that the “female figure poses a deeper problem” (840). Her lack of a penis inhibites her to be visually seen and will continually be seen as “the woman..icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (840).

In everyday life, not only in film, women are under the constant watchful eye of the man. Who continually regulates how women should act and how they should be seen.

Visually making a transvestite

In summarization the striking idea from reading Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator  by Mary Ann Doane is that woman in film are seen through the view of pleasing men, and in trying to depart from this transvestitism forms in some women.

Doane presents the argument with the use of Freudian theory that femininity is enigmatic and like hieroglyphics are undecipherable.  From the reading women “harbor mystery” as do hieroglyphics but hieroglyphics are “the most universally understandable, comprehensible [and] appropriable [by] signs.” In definition of woman in film women are mysterious but easily read. Women being easily read is because the image of women in film is through the male prospective and what she can do to please man.

Doane says, “woman’s relation to the camera and the scopic regime is quite different from that of the male.” Noel Burch supports this idea by framing the image of woman in film as voyeurism and fetishism in favor of the male perspective. Through this idea Doane poses the rhetorical question, “what is there to prevent her from reversing the relation and appropriating the [the image of woman] for her own pleasure?” Irigarary says that men through film have an image of self but woman do not,

“the masculine can partly look at itself, speculate about itself, represent itself for what it is, whilst feminine can try to speak to itself…but cannot describe itself from outside or in formal terms, except by identifying itself with the masculine, thus losing itself”

            Later in the reading transvestitism can be supported but women trying to depart from the images they receive of femininity through the male prospective. Routledge says that “woman becomes a man in order to attain the necessary distance from the image” of femininity presented through film. Freudian theory of penis envy also supports this reasoning for transvestitism by women wanting the image and power or the image presented through film of males and masculinity.

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in “Knocked Up”

By Frank Miller

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey seemingly parallels the theory of Luce Irigaray that I briefly mentioned in my Week 3 posting: “In ‘The Sex Which Is Not One’ Luce Irigaray proposes that females become a part of ‘a dominant scopic economy’ and through her submission to this ‘she becomes the beautiful object of contemplation'” (364). However, it seems that woman cannot be entirely culpable for her ambivalent feelings toward wanting to be a “beautiful object.” Mulvey helps indicate that ” [for the dominant patriarchal order of men] the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking, but it also goes further, developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect” (60) in which man receives “pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (61). Mulvey also argues that if progressed enough “[scopophilia] can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (60).

Mulvey later writes: “woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease…she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire” (62), she explains that “mainstream film neatly combined the spectacle and narrative” and that the more than essential spectacle of woman in film has a tendency to “work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (62).

While reading Mulvey I couldn’t help but think of how the 2007 comedy, “Knocked Up” couldn’t be more relevant to the article. Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his roommates dedicate their lives to watching every single movie produced by Hollywood with nudity/sex scenes in it, and attempt to indicate what exact body parts/sexual acts were screened with their respective times in the movie (essentially re-create the site Mr.Skin). This activity demonstrates that woman does indeed “hold the[ir] looks, plays to and signifies male desire” in a career-driven way, if not a sexual one. As Ben and his roommates portray how cinema has satisfied their sexual desire to look at women objectively, one can also observe their scopophilia developing into a type of “perversion” as they dedicate nearly 24-hours to viewing breasts, vaginas, butts, and women performing sexual acts. Their ultimate goal of creating a website (for others to access) demonstrates that they possess knowledge that there are others (more specifically, men) just like them who gain “sexual satisfaction from watching an objectified other” and similar to the Hollywood that Mulvey writes of, Ben and his roommates look to “bank” on their knowledge of this “perversion.” Oddly enough Ben’s obsessive voyeuristic ways “work against the development of Knocked Up’s story line” in a literal sense. His dedication to watching every movie in its entirety is depicted as immature and “loserish” while the film predominantly focuses on his maturation process from an extremely immature adult to a somewhat progressively mature, yet still immature one when he learns he will soon become a father. Ben and his roommates “freeze the flow of action” of the movies they watch by use of a simple “pause button” (a form of active control) to catch a glimpse of actresses and starlets who satisfy the “perversion” of all heterosexual scopophiliacs. However figuratively, the “action” of his maturation process becomes “frozen” from his otherwise unnecessary “erotic contemplation” of the “erotic spectacle of woman” that his roommates succumb to. Interestingly enough, “Knocked Up” is a Hollywood film displaying how Hollywood films are indeed “skilled and satisfying manipulat[ors] of visual pleasure” (59).

Cinematic Gaze

In Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” she uses the psychoanalysis theory as a “political weapon” to show how the patriarchic subconscious of society molds the way we see film and cinema. She states that the cinematic text is organized along lines that are corresponding to our cultural subconscious, which is essentially male dominated. The popularity of Hollywood films is determined and reinforced by preexisting social patterns, which have shaped it according to Mulvey.

In Mulvey’s piece, she combines semiotic methodology of cinematic means of expression with psychoanalytic analysis of desire structures and the formation of subjectivity. On the semiotic perspective of it, the analysis allows an interpretation of how films create the meanings they produce, while the psychoanalytic side of the article provides the link between the cinematic text and the viewer and explains the fascination through the way cinematic representations interact with the subconscious.

The main point being made is that Hollywood narrative films use women in order to have a pleasurable sight for men. The gaze identified in this analysis is structured for men therefor, women are constantly deemed as an object, not the gazers

In the portion titled “Woman as image, men as bearer of look” within the text allows us to understand the infamous ‘cinematic gaze.’ Mulvey describes two ways in which Hollywood cinema produces pleasure, through different mental techniques. The first involves the objectification of the image, and the second one the identification with it. Both represent the mental desires of the male subject. The first form of pleasure relates to what Freud termed as scopophilia, the pleasure derived from subjecting someone to one’s gaze. The second form of pleasure is the identification with the character, which is brought about by needs stemming from the Freudian Ego.

Though the text was difficult to understand, by applying what we watch to this theory, we can begin to understand the psychoanalytic purposes behind the production. These are things we fail to put any mind to, but we are subjected to without choice. Mulvey does a great job at describing what we must do next. “ It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be broken down.”(67)