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.