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‘The Male Gaze’?

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2015

Mulvey This term goes back to a well-known article in Screen Journal by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). Feminist film writing has been greatly influenced by psychoanalytic theory since the mid-1970s. Laura Mulvey’s influential article was one that had an impact on feminist film theorists and critics. It was part of a general theoretical attempt to use the work of Freud and Lacan for the analysis of mainstream cinema. In her piece, Mulvey claims,

“that psychoanalytic theory can be appropriated… as a political weapon.”

There have been plenty of critiques of the article. One that I find especially helpful includes this:

“She argues that it offers a causal analysis of women’s oppression under patriarchy which can provide the foundation for political action and social change. Concerned with the relationship between the gendered spectator, the cinematic image and the pleasures of dominant cinema, Mulvey asserts that mainstream cinema organises the spectator in a gender-specific way. She argues that the visual pleasures of popular film are associated with fetishistic and voyeuristic ways of looking. These looks are organised so that the spec-tator has no choice but to identify with the narrative’s male protagonist and thus becomes complicit with his objectification of female charac-ters. Women, according to Mulvey’s article, are theorised as the passive `sexual Spectacle’,’ at the mercy of the active male gaze. In popular film Mulvey argues, men look and women are looked at; men act and women are acted upon. This claim may emphasise male control, but it tends to obscure differences between definitions of masculinity and femininity within society. It also, and perhaps most worryingly, tends to emphasise domination rather than struggle, contestation or resistance. In this way, it tends to reproduce the very ideas of women as victims which many feminists have criticised so vehemently.” From Psychoanalytic feminism to popular feminism by Liza Taylor in Approaches to Popular Film edited by Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich. 1995.”

Mulvey’s concept appears to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last couple of years. It turned up in a film review in Sight & Sound of Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle 2013): not without some justification in terms of the film’s treatment of female sexuality. Then it reappeared again in a letter of fulsome praise in the same magazine.

“So whether we are born biologically female, male or other; whether we subsequently define our gender as feminine, masculine or other; and whether we define our sexuality as gay, straight, bisexual or other; we have all already adopted the male gaze.” (S&S July 2014).

This would seem to go beyond Mulvey’s own arguments. And it overlooks people who define their sexuality through chastity. Still, one can recognise the absolute nature and application of the concept. I do not want to address the psychoanalytical arguments offered by Mulvey, the comments by Liza Taylor seem to me very apt. However I do want to criticise a couple of her specific arguments regarding cinema and its audiences and then look at some examples of films that appear to not fit into her construction. At one point Mulvey discusses the concept of scopophlia [sexual pleasure from looking at erotica] and following this she claims:

“Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.”

audience 1940s

This is not an uncommon comment on cinema exhibition; hence also the frequent use of the dream parallel. But this ignores the actuality of cinema, especially cinema during the era of the studio system, which is the period that Mulvey focuses on. I am not sure if there are any statistics, but descriptions, records and my own experience seem to indicate that the majority audience in cinema then were the couple, the group or the family. The isolated film fan or viewer was a minority, possibly quite a large one. In fact the power and popularity of cinema probably related to this aspect. The darkened auditorium and the dominating screen and sound system certainly worked, but there was also the atmosphere of a communal ritual. One could follow the narrative partially at an individual level, but the group response was also important. This was most obvious in comedy, where the laugher in the auditorium was a stimulant and an encouragement. But it also worked in drama. Those great moments of élan or surprise: the singing of the ‘Marsellaise’ in Casablanca (Warner Bros. 1942): the opening graveyard scene in Great Expectations (Cineguild 1946): the ironic dialogue as Holly Martin mistook matters in The Third Man (London Film Prod. 1949). Other audience members could be disruptive but the majority respected the attention of their fellow members: a discipline that spoke to the importance of the group experience. What is noticeable about Mulvey’s article is how few film titles actually get discussed. Those included comprise Marilyn Monroe, in The River of No Return and Lauren Bacall’s songs in To Have or Have and Not, Busby Berkeley, Marlene Dietrich and Morocco, Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo, Marnie and Rear Window. The majority of the ten pages in Mulvey’s article are taken up with references to and comments on Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This is THEORY rather than the ‘concrete analysis of concrete things’. The films that Mulvey refers to in her article are predominantly those of Holywwod in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They certainly were films where the contemporary audience enjoyed them in large, usually fairly full auditoriums. An important element in the pleasure they offered was this collective experience. When you examine many of the studio films one finds that they offer pleasure for a varied audience: a ‘male gaze’, a ‘female gaze’; and one that was likely not gender specific. I want to look at some examples of films where the audience is offered dynamic active women characters, and where male characters are offered as objects of pleasure for women [and other men], both onscreen and in the auditorium. The Flesh and the Devil, MGM 1926 FleshAndDevilD Greta Garbo was one of the great icons of early cinema. But she was not just the object of male subjects. In this film, she plays the siren Felicitas, who has a dramatic effect on both Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hansen). She actively seduces Leo and manipulates Ulrich for her own ends. She does, of course, suffer a conventionally moral fate at the film’s end, but that is for villainy as well as for her gender. And for the many women in the audience her obvious desire for the character played by Gilbert must have offered a fulfilling experience. The love scenes between the two characters are torrid, and Garbo generates as much sense of physical desire as Gilbert. This is an aspect that re-appears in a number of their films together. Queen Christina (MGM 1933) has a scene set in an inn, with Christina (Greta Garbo) reclining and Antonio (John Gilbert) seated at her feet. Her gaze upon Gilbert embodies physical passion and desire. Morocco, Paramount 1930 This film stars an actress referred to by Mulvey, Marlene Dietrich as Mamoiselle Amy Jolly. To imagine, after The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel UFA 1931), that Dietrich could be constrained within the gaze of a mere man seems misplaced. This film also stars Gary Cooper as Légionnaire Tom Brown. Cooper was noted in his early career for his physical beauty. In The Wolf Song (Paramount 1929) one of the pleasure of his appearance as Sam Lash is a scene where he is nude but not quite completely exposed. Lupe Velez as Lola Salazar certainly lusts after him. And in this film he becomes the object of Dietrich’s explicit desire. Moreover the film has a delightful moment when Dietrich, dressed in male attire, gently kisses a female member of her audience. Gone With the Wind, Selznick International Pictures 1939 Gone With the Wind movie image This is in many respects the seminal film of the Hollywood Studio system. Its immense popularity, at the time and subsequently, likely follows on from the pleasures it offers specifically to women; pleasures Mulvey does not seem to recognise. Certainly the film offers the pleasures of the male object. Primarily this is in the character of Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable. Within the film diegesis he is clearly an object of pleasure for Scarlet O’Hara; one has just to watch how Vivian Leigh [as Scarlet] looks at him; repeatedly, at different stages of the film. And Gable was clearly an object of pleasure for substantial part of the audience. The petitions to cast him in the role of Rhett, long before the film entered actual production, speak volumes about his attractions. But there is an alternative object for female pleasure, Ashley Wilkes (Lesley Howard). So Scarlet, and the audience, had a choice – in fact in terms of plot a number of choices. Ashley is the domesticated male, whilst Rhett is the lover male: the equivalents of male choices in other genre films. It might seem that Rhett matters as the active character. But the film deliberately subverts this role. Thus after having rescued Scarlet from burning Atlanta, Rhett leaves the narrative to volunteer in the Confederate army. A decision scornfully criticised by Scarlet. Then, as the film reaches its closure, he again leaves; and thus it is Scarlet and the plantation that dominate the final frames of the film. The potency of this ending is demonstrated by the failures to ever provide a satisfactory sequel to the film and the book. And Scarlet is equally forceful in social and economic matters. For much of the film she scorns traditional conventions. And her business prowess comes to the fore in the period of construction. Much of this is a repeat of the presentation in the novel by Margaret Mitchell. The latter raises another issue that Mulvey does not address. How films work with non-cinematic sources. Whilst the racism of the book is diluted in the film, the centrality and dynamism of Scarlet is apparent in both. This sort of novel, with its female protagonist, would require substantial subversion to fit into Mulvey’s frame. His Girl Friday, Columbia Pictures 1940 Despite the title Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is not the subordinate of editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This is a very clever and very witty reworking of the classic comedy The Front Page [now filmed at least five times]. In this version gender and sexual politics get one of the most entertaining outings in the studio era. Hildy can handle her editor, the governor, the prison warden, her newspaper colleagues, the chief of police and anyone else who stand between her and her story. As well as a remarkably doughty fighter Hildy is the investigator par excellence. Here she crosses over with a series of female investigators in newspaper stories, crime thrillers and film noirs. [See the excellent study – Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film, 2011 by Philippa Gates]. Double Indemnity, Paramount 1944, This is another film adaptation from a novel, an example of extremely tough pulp fiction. In the book the femme fatale Phyllis has a scene with Walter Neff in which she almost seems to devour him. Whilst the operation of the Production Code meant that the film toned down aspects of the book Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis embodies her strength and her active sexuality. Aspects of her character that her husband, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers), Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson – indirectly) all learn to their cost. Duel in the Sun, Selznick Studio 1946. Duel in the Sun This is a film that Mulvey comment upon in her “Afterthought’. She sees Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) as caught between two masculine views of her as an attractive woman. Pearl’s active presence in the film is finally subsumed under the ‘male gaze’. It is probably the case that for some men in the audience this is the way the film works: personally from the first screening I was always rooting for Pearl. And I am sure that this was also the case for many women. Lewt McCanies (Gregory Peck) and Jesse McCanies (Joseph Cotton) represent two conventional types of men, the domesticated male and the lover male. Pearl, however, neither fits neatly into the domesticated women nor into the lover woman. This is one of the aspects that make the film so interesting. There are a number of scenes where Pearl’s gaze upon Lewt is full of laviscious desire: returning the gaze that Lewt directs at her. In the climatic showdown Pearl actively lays hands upon and fires the gun: so frequently seen as a stand-in for the phallus [penis] in psychoanalytical commentaries. This is followed by the terrific sequence in which she crawls to the dying Lewt and they expire together in a dramatic crane shot. If, as Mulvey seems to think, the phallus denotes activity, then it is a mute point who has a stronger hold in the film. River of No Return C20th Fox 1954. This film features Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston, basically a good-time girl: a role she reprised a number of times. Here she is paired with Robert Mitchum as Matt Calder, unusually for Mitchum he is a domesticated male with a son. The film includes a dangerous ride down river torrents. It closes with Matt carrying Kay away from her work as a saloon moll and home to cabin and family. Whilst Mitchum’s Matt is an action hero Marilyn’s Kay is more than a moll or perspective wife and mother. Like Pearl she has a choice between two men. Like other western heroines she has to survive physical danger, here river rapids, and hostile Indians. And at a key moment in the film she not only chooses but also provides care and attention for Matt. Rear Window Paramount 1954 Rearwindow This is one of the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that is referred to by Mulvey. Hitchcock is, of course, a favourite with writers interested in psychoanalytical and voyeuristic standpoints. This is currently my favourite Hitchcock and I have seen it on number of occasions. Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is no mere object for L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). He is wheel-chair bound for just about the whole film. And whilst he spends time playing with the phallic telephoto lens of his camera, he is not really potent. It is Lisa who ventures into the dangerous territory of the apartment in which a murder may have been committed. It is Lisa who makes the running in their romantic relationship and in a scene like the evening dinner ‘Jeff’ is clearly the object of Lisa’s attentions. And it is likely at the end that it is ‘Jeff’ who has been landed by Lisa rather than the other way round. Of course, the film is full of male voyeurism but it is a voyeurism that comes badly unstuck in the climax of the film. I am sure readers could think of many other examples. And these are all films that are products of a studio system. It is not just a question of certain directors, but includes writers and performers. There is The Wind (MGM 1928), scripted by Frances Marion. In this film Lillian Gish plays Letty and what the film shows us is predominately her view or gaze. And I should definitely mention Dance Girl, Dance (RKO 1940). It is directed by Dorothy Arzner. But it is actually Maureen O’Hara’s Judy O’Brien who delivers the lecture to the mainly male audience about their ‘gaze’. I note that MGM and Paramount get more mentions in my examples. An intriguing question would relate to how distinctive on this issue were any studios? Mulvey’s article would appear to be about fitting the studio cinema into framework of the ideas of Freud and Lacan. But as the quotation from Liza Taylor suggests, if you take the analysis’ claims seriously then women in the audience have ‘no choice’. In fact, Mulvey wants to deconstruct the ‘male gaze’. She identifies the mechanism in mainstream film as follows: “There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience.” I am not convinced by the arguments about how audiences watch films, popular or otherwise. It does seem the norm for films presented as entertainment that audiences do not pay much attention to the camera, or other technical aspects. But there is a fourth aspect, which is the projection and its environs. Depending on the lighting, the seating and the audience one can be more or less involved in the film drama. And that involvement is a matter of choice for every individual. That choice is affected by the amount of sympathy or empathy we have for the film’s content. So our responses and involvement vary across a range films. But Mulvey’s argument sees the female audience as determined within the whole output of a particular form of cinema. This is a tendency I find in psychoanalytical analyses, and also in semiotics. My sense of film, popular or otherwise, is that only proportion of the meanings in films are denotative, and that far more are commentative. It should be a matter of empirical investigation as to what meanings particular audiences take from particular films. If we do identify with a particular character in a film we may accept the point of view they offer. But it can be complete and it can be only partial. In my experience and in discussions with friends and fellow viewers it is clear that on many occasions they and myself have opted for different identification figures. Just as the commentative language of film allows for multiple readings so do the films allow for multiple identifications, for multiple ‘gazes’.   Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) – Laura Mulvey. Originally Published – Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18 Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun by Laura Mulvey  

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