Cynthia rants about Mulvey

When I read Laura Mulvey’s piece seminal piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” this time in 501, I clearly got a bit frustrated with the text. During the class discussion, we talked about how Mulvey was writing in  a time when feminism was being strongly promoted, and feminist views could not show any weakness, lending to the tone and approach of this piece. Nonetheless, I’ve preserved my original response, which is below.


The first question I always think about when reading this piece is how this gets translated outside of a patriarchal society (as those do exist), or are they only relevant within a specific cultural sphere in which patriarchy reigns? I wonder if societies in West Africa, which are largely matriarchal, have anxieties about castration and a lack of a phallus? Why is it that there is this subconscious feeling that masculinity is so threatened in Western societies that we must objectify that which does not have a penis (aka females) and assume power over them in order to deal with this deeply embedded (and, I think, shaky foundational) fear?

I wonder if our voyeuristic desires, as Mulvey describes while discussion scopophilia, stems at all from our prudish culture, where nakedness is indoctrinated into our kids as shameful through some sort of Puritan ideology? The fact that she relies so much on Freud’s work as background to support her work is problematic. Freud speaks from a very specific historical and geographical space/time. It’s bounded by cultural specificity as well. What happens with the codes or the conventions of Hollywood now that there’s transnationalism and globalization of entertainment? Will Hollywood films be read the same way? Will the male gaze come through and be read as such in other cultures? This reminds me of Stuart Hal’s ideas of oppositional readings, and makes me wonder, if a cultural artifact like a Hollywood movie is taken out of context and used/watched/consumed in a different space altogether, if a reading of the film and its codes be done completely outside the scope of the dominant ideology – the patriarchal one?

I got really frustrated with psychoanalysis, and with this piece in particular. I felt like it’s all speculation. Nothing she or any of the people she cites can necessarily be proven. The statements made can’t be substantiated. For example, she invokes Lacan’s discussion about how the “mirror is crucial for the constitution of the ego.” (IIB) She goes on to describe (in what appears to be almost pure speculation, or presented as such) how the child is joyous while looking at the mirror because he sees his reflected image as more complete than his own body, and that this “mirror-moment predates language for the child.” (IIB) If indeed this moment predates language, how do they (Lacan and his folks) know the child is joyous? How do they know that if a child laughs or smiles at his image, it is necessarily because he “imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body”? (IIB) Did the infant tell them? And in what language? In sign language? Oh wait, but this moment supposedly predates language! So how do we know?!

I’m sorry for sounding frustrated and seemingly mocking of what I know to be a seminal media studies piece, but think about it! This may be good fodder for discussion in class.

She then gives examples of how the male gaze is manifested in Hollywood films, giving specific examples. How about now, with more films and shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (of which I am a huge fan and addict) where the woman (Buffy) stalks the male (vampire), and the male becomes the object of the female gaze? Granted, Buffy sought to subvert the conventional ways of filmmaking and storytelling, utilizing the male gaze and turning it on its head, so it was aware of the dominant ideology of the male gaze. But I feel like her method is really weak. When talking about gender and power, I always like to point toSut Jhally’s “The Codes of Gender.”

I guess I’m just wondering how much credence we should give to psychoanalysis, and how much of it is a looped discussion of cause and effect – which came first – the male gaze or the subjugation of women? The chicken or the egg? Moreover, her sample size is quite small – a lot of her examples seem to be more anecdotes, rather than taking a look at the whole of Hollywood films. I’m not saying that she’s wrong in that Hollywood films are shot in a way that objectifies the female body, but I’m also frustrated at its limitation within a specific culture and/or society.


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