COMPS 8: Laura Muvley, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. 

(first published 1975)

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is a seminal piece in discussing the elements of voyeurism and fetishistic scopophila that make up the narcissistic male gaze. Mulveyusespsychoanalytic theory as a “political weapon, demonstrating the way th unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (833). Her ultimate goals are to deconstruct the pleasure of the gaze, and in doing so, “leav[e] the past behind without rejecting it” and in doing so, “conceive a new language of desire” (835). 

Mulvey begins by defining the pleasure in looking. First, there is scopophelia; associated with the filmic illusion of looking into a private world. This pleasure is derived on sexual instinct. Second, there is a narcissistic scopophelia; the pleasure of recognition, or identification with the image. This pleasure is about ego libido. Both these pleasures assume a male audience or gaze; they assume that the women acts as image and the man, the bearer of the look. “Woman stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of the woman still tied to her image of bearer of the meaning, not maker of the meaning” (834). 

Mulvey sets up a number of dichotomies to explore this concept of woman as looked-at, and man as bearer of the look. First, she suggests there’s a sexual imbalance— in the pleasure of looking men are active and women are passive. Here, we often see the image of the woman as fragmented, still or close up. This active/passive binary also affects the very narrative of the film. The arrival of the female slows down the narrator. Think of that first moment when we see Cameron Diaz in the Mask— through Jim Carrey’s eyes, the narrative slows to a screeching halt as we take the time to pan up Diaz’ body, never seeing her all at once, but rather as a set of body parts one after the other. We are starstruck, as is the narrative. 

Additionally, in keeping with psychoanalysis, this always has to do with the castration anxiety;  “the woman as representation signified castration, including voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanism to circumvent her threat” (843). “Thus women as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threaten to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (840). In other word, in an effort to protect the male from the threat of castration that the female represents (in representation), film employs two tactics: voyeurism (demystifying woman) and fetishistic scopophelia (objectifying woman). In doing so, the women is rendered passive, fragmented, objectified, and at the mercy of the male gaze and male ego. 

Mulvey closes this evocative essay by suggesting that there are three gazes in cinema: the gaze of the audience, the gaze of the camera, and the diegetic gaze of the character in the screen. She suggests that because of the castration threat that constantly threatens to break the diegesis of the film, the gaze of the camera and audience are “obsessively subordinate to the neurotic needs of the male ego” (843).

There are certainly problems with this essay. It establishes somewhat oppressive and reductive binaries for both men and women. It fails to see the possibility of power and agency despite fragmentation and passivity. It generalizes dangerously on the female experience of looked-at-ness. But it is also illuminating to see a reading of film that brings together both form (image) and content (narrative) and analyze them through a psychoanalytic lens. The objectification and demystification of women through film and other visual art works is certainly ever present in our world. It is depressing that this essay from 1975 still holds water today.