In reading Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” I was struck by how complicated and paradoxical her explanations were. I knew that this was the quintessential essay for feminist film theory, so I was expecting it to be a piece that presented a very clear cut, definitive theory of the “male gaze”. I found many more complications than I was expecting.
One of the paradoxes Mulvey presents is the Freudian theory for why we look at one another. She references scopophilia, a view of people as objects, as well as well looking as an identification of and projection of the ego, like identifying oneself in the mirror. She acknowledges the contradiction of these two reasons for looking within her essay. She even splinters scopophilia further into her essay into looking with an objectifying fetishistic view of curiousity, and voyeurism, which is sadomasochistic and serves to cause the submissive participant to feel guilty.
One of the other paradoxes she explored was the concept of the woman being both passive and an exhibitionist. The woman is in a passive role as the receiver of the look. She is both naturally cast through gender to have “to-be-looked-at-ness” (62), and she also has been stylized and even intentionally acts in an exhibitionist manner. Woman is a passive exhibitionist. This paradox was particularly striking to me because it was such a different view of woman’s role. Female gender is both a construction that is subtle, but also crafted to be attention grabbing. This was a way to complicate the concept of gender performance that we studied through Judith Butler. Being female is not simply driven by a desire to keep woman suppressed and secondary, she is also trying to stand out, but in a way that is superficial. The female is fascinating, inspiring, and is worthy of being looked at. This combined with Mulvey’s statement that ” There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at,” (59) complicated the female role in visual pleasure. The implication that females are not ignored and that their experience being gazed at is also pleasurable for them is a problematic issue for feminists. Many women might be complacent with being appreciated superficially. This makes feminism an issue not just of some sort of external oppressive force, but also an issue with female self perception.
Besides making the concept of men viewing women as objects seem to be a gray area for men (since they partially view women in a way that is reverent, and in a way that reflects identification with them) and also for women (they are being viewed as objects, and occasionally viewed with fear and loathing, but they are also enjoying the experience) Mulvey’s article contains a major contradiction in it’s whole which is that though it is about cinema, the theory is most relevant because it applies to a scope much larger than that. If Judith Butler says women are always performing their gender, and Laura Mulvey says that film is ” skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (59) which just intensifies and plays with a natural human urge, then consequently, males are always gazing and females are always being gazed at. This film theory is more than a film theory.
Mulvey suggests that “analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” (59). However, there really seem to be so many contradictions in visual pleasure, which would perpetuate this constant objectification of women that exists in a less enhanced state outside of cinema.
For a recent “30 Rock” Reference to the male gaze watch a scene between feminist comedy writer Liz Lemon and a page named Hazel who is virtually the complete opposite. For a whole bunch of jokes we’ll now get after learning so much feminist theory, watch the scene at the 4:00 mark.