While reading Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t most fascinated by her concept of the male gaze. Do all men posess this gaze? Have I, for the last twenty-one years, given countless female family members and friends acquaintances unspeakable amounts of discomfort by virtue of my eyes meeting theirs? Perhaps, Mulvey seems to say. After all, what is the media if not the proverbial magic mirror held up to the world we live in? Does it present something that is idealized? Absolutely. However, Mulvey’s words imply that the filmic universe is more apt to run parallel, as opposed to perpendicular, to our own.
The male gaze, Mulvey writes, is caused by “a world ordered by sexual imbalance,” and indeed, man and woman are generally divided into a “active/male and passive/female” dichotomy. (62) She goes on to explain that the gaze is structured by two pleasureable variants of looking. The first variant, scopophilic in nature, “arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight.” (61) Mulvey herself points out the paradoxical passivity one would associate with only looking at someone for purposes of sexual stimulation, but one must pay careful attention to her Fruedian diction. One isn’t looking at someone; rather, one takes a person engages in his or, more commonly, her objectification.
A Lacanian concept of identification is the the second ingredient necessary to conjure the male gaze. Mulvey explains this as a child’s first encounter with his reflection, and how,
“[His] recognition is…overlaid with mis-recognition: the image recognized is concieved as the reflected body of the self, but its misregonition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject, which…gives rise to a future generation of identification with others.”
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, page 60.
Here is, according to Mulvey, the naissance of man’s identification with his cinematic bretherin. Further, Mulvey believes that technological advancements have done much to enhance this mis-recognition the audience feels. With the help of better cameras and editing software, “The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action.”
Could the “glamorous…male movie star” ever become the object of the spectator’s gaze? Of course not, Mulvey writes; the actor is as complete and perfect as the first reflection that we mis-recognized. One does not objectify that which he wants to be. Once the spectator identifies with “his screen surrogate,” he transfers his gaze to the actor, thus “a satisfying sense of omnipotence” is felt. (63)
While man is allowed to live vicariously through the active male protagonist, woman is once again the passive counterpart in visual media. Her very appearance “can be said to connoteto-be-looked-at-ness.” Most ironically, women have been placed in this narrative frame so often that “her visual presence tends to work against the development of a storyline…freezing [sic] the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” Indeed, how often does the plot of an otherwise well-paced movie come to a screeching halt on account of a woman, whom the the audience must view as if they were the “main male protagonist?” Essentially, woman are so much of a distraction, that the world of cinema had to create a new genre of movie altogether. The “buddy movie,” Mulvey sardonically writes, dispenses with the cinematic woman question by allowing “the active homosexual eroticism of the central male figures [to] carry the story without distraction.” (62-63)
The woman’s spectacular presence is the height of her filmic contribution. Mulvey quotes Budd Boetticher, who puts it bluntly: “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents…In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.” As the old addage goes, it’s a man’s world, and in the world of cinema, women exist only to provoke visual pleasure in the male protagonist, and by extension, the audience.