Term Crossing

Laura Mulvey's Appropriation of the Gaze into Feminist Film Theory

Film theorists, noting the scopic drive inherent to cinema, adopted the gaze from the field of psychoanalysis.  In her seminal article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey links the “pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation” to Freud’s scopophilia—linked with desire and the “pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight,” and narcissism—constituting the ego and coming from “identification with the image seen.”  As formative functions, these competing drives have no intrinsic meaning in and of themselves, “unless attached to an idealisation.”  Mulvey immediately points to the film image as the embodiment of this wanton ideal: “the cinema seems to have evolved a particular illusion of reality in which this contradiction between libido [the scopic drive] and ego [narcissism] has found a beautiful complementary fantasy world” (Mulvey 18).  She articulates this phenomena in film as “the look,” represented by the framed spectacle itself.

Mary Ann Doane notes that, in its relation to identification with the spectator, this look quickly attaches itself to a male subjectivity, and hence an objectification of the female results:  “In the structure of seeing which the cinema develops in order to position its spectator, to ensure its own readability, an image of woman is fixed and held—held for the pleasure and re-assurance of the male spectator” (101).  Therefore, the idealized perception created in the film’s textual system stems from a masculine subjectivity.  However, is “the look” inherently masculine and thus inevitably geared toward the male spectator?

In her description of the gaze, Mulvey seems to think so, as she both introduces the term and assigns it to a gendered point of view: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (19).  Mulvey goes on in the passage to refer to the female character as a sort of “alien” stumbling block in the diegetic process, existing only as “an indispensable element of spectacle” (19).1   In this sense, cinema works as an apparatus of social control, as it simultaneously proliferates and enforces the dominance of white patriarchal culture.  Males see and women are “to-be-seen” in this system, which leads Mulvey to an assessment of the identificatory processes of the female spectator in her follow-up article, “Afterthoughts on ‘Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946).”  Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to link her sense of identification with the dominant male subjectivity: “She may find herself, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides” (29).  Thus, the female spectator engages in a “fantasy of masculinization”—the desire to be male, to have phallus, which at the same time works as a reminder of her own castrated status.2

Although a feminist film theorist herself, Mulvey’s characterization of the gaze incites obvious questions regarding female autonomy within a film’s textual system.  As Teresa deLauretis points out, “In cinema the stakes for women are especially high,” for “the representation of woman as spectacle . . . so pervasive in our culture, finds in narrative cinema its most complex expression and widest circulation” (4).  Is there, then, a way out of the circularly repetitive pattern of female passivity and male domination perpetuated by this imaginary cinematic identification?  Surely, spectator position can be particular to its own context; and, if this is so, an alternative theory of spectatorship should be possible.  Judith Butler’s analysis of Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning anticipates these very questions; for, when she asks for a self-referential intrusion by the director into the milieu, Butler confirms that the camera’s gaze can indeed traverse an alternative trajectory of subjectivity: the lesbian can have the phallus.

1.   Mulvey’s assertion of the inherent masculine subjectivity of film narrative, and the abject status of the female, led her to respond to criticisms with “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)” which contemplated “whether the female is carried along, as it were by the scruff of the text, or whether her pleasure can be more deep-rooted and complex” (29).

2.   Mulvey also offers an alternative to this phallic “fantasy” for the female spectator, referring to the possibility of a break in the female spectator’s “spell of fascination” with the cinematic image.  See Cowie for an analysis of the gaze’s position in Lacanian psychoanalysis (287-92) as well as a synapsis of Laura Mulvey’s formulation of the gaze and the look (167-72).

Contact the author Kyle Edwards



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