“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 phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” (Mulvey 750)
Mulvey refers here to classic Hollywood cinema. Is her analysis still relevant? Discuss in relation to films from the classic era and contemporary cinema. Refer to films screened in this unit and films of your choice with attention to mise en scene and narrative structure.
Laura Mulvey identifies certain patterns in narrative cinema regarding the model of power between the gaze and the subject of the gaze as written in her text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she has concluded that the women in film are treated not as separate entities from the male characters, but instead served only as reflective surfaces for the male characters, echoing their desires and motivations. (Mulvey 43-5) Active/male refers to the male characters in a film as the one leading and always the one looking whereas passive/female, on the contrary, refers to woman as an object; always being looked at and submissive, always submitting to the male. In other words, women are sexual beings, and their passiveness plays to the male’s aggressive nature. The subject’s sexual satisfaction comes from “watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (Mulvey 43-5). The female figure is being fantasized and used as an erotic object in the classic Hollywood film. This essay will argue if Mulvey’s analysis of the male gaze is still relevant in contemporary cinema. Mulvey’s analysis using visual pleasure and narrative cinema and scopophilia will be discussed in the first three paragraphs. This essay will then further examine Studlar’s theory (Tamiko 24-6) and how spectatorship and subjectivity which challenge her analysis. This essay will conclude by arguing that Mulvey’s analyses even though referring to the classic Hollywood cinema, is still relevant in contemporary cinema to a certain extent.
First and foremost, Mulvey has suggested that there were two distinct modes of the male gaze; voyeurism (woman viewed as beautiful) and fetishistic (woman are viewed sexually). (47) In relation to the concept of scopophilia, a term to describe the pleasure watching, Mulvey (47) goes on to describe the specific, complex processes, by which the male unconscious is enacted or performed upon the image/body of woman in cinema. A classic Hollywood film that clearly shows this male gaze is a Howard Hawks film, The Big Sleep (1946). The relationship between Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) is relatable to Mulvey’s analysis of the films To Have and Have Not (1944) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Lauren Bacall’s character is isolated, glamorous, on display and sexualized. But as the narrative progresses, she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone. Another example that shows the submissive female is from the film The Thing from Another World (1951) where the female was seen making drinks for the male and was dressed in a provocative way, not having any important role nor lines. Women are objectified in these films, signifying the patriarchal culture, while the women having passive roles has been created as misogyny by the media (Mulvey 43-45). These two examples strongly support Mulvey’s analysis of how there is a sexual imbalance and the woman submitting to the male, being all weak and passive.
In addition, Mulvey (47) describes two kinds of pleasure in film that is always produced for the male gaze: scopophilic and narcissistic, the pleasure in recognizing self in others. This was created by the psychoanalysis where the Oedipus Complex explained that the infants undergo a ‘mirror phase’ where visual recognition of the physical body as the main...