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Eye Candy is Junk Food

Okay, so I have to lead discussion on Laura Mulvey’s “Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema” tomorrow, so I figured I’d post a little primer today.  Let’s just run through her article as I understand it.

Mulvey starts by explaining some Freudian psychoanalysis as it pertains to how women are perceived.  According to Freud, women, what with their lack of penises and all, are seen as castration threats to a male world and thus becomes a symbol of otherness, a symbol that must be controlled.  Women become, as Mulvey puts it, “the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

She then goes on to explain Hollywood films are influenced by the dominant ideology, and of particular interest to her is how American patriarchy has formed the definitions of pleasure; that is, men have decided and shaped want we want to see on screen.  Visual pleasure, for Mulvey, is a tool for female oppression.

She then goes on to discuss psychoanlytic concepts of visual pleasure, starting with scopophilia.  She explains Freud’s concept of looking at people to take them in as erotic objects.  This pleasure is controlling, as the person doing the looking is determining the identity of the person being looked at.  The cinema is a form of this voyeurism, turning the objectified people on screen into performers while allowing the spectators to remain hidden.

Mulvey then goes into the concept of the mirror phase, which we went over in class a few weeks ago.  According to Lacan, we recognize ourselves in a mirror before we reach full physical development, and recognize the figure in the mirror as being more perfect than our own bodies.  This continues through development in the form of people locating their ideal self being outside of themselves, and help us form a subjective identity.  The cinema, for Mulvey is a physical projection of our ego ideals.

She then attempts, using Freud, to synthesize those two opposed notions of the pleasures of looking, concluding that the structure of pleasure obliterates objectivity, but has not ideological slant in itself.  However, because films are produced by a phallocentric society, they reflect the biases of it.

In the next section, Mulvey explains that women in film are made to be passive objects of male desire: they are to be looked at for the pleasure of a male audience.  They are eroticized to emphasize their, what she calls, to-be-looked-at-ness (I love that phrase, btw).  Interestingly, she notes that this emphasis on looking at the women sexually is not bound by conventions of narrative, and a film will stop right in the middle of action to contemplate how a woman looks.  Check out this clip from Star Wars (you can skip ahead to 3:15):

Star Wars

In the middle of a rushed escape, we get a moment to check out Princess Leia.  Aren’t these guys in a rush?

Next, she points out that the male-dominated film industry does not treat men the same way it does women, because “Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like.”  To illustrate this, check out how nudity is handled differently in the following clips:

Fast Times at Ridgemont High


Both these scenes are, ostensibly, comic, but only one of these clips could really be considered erotic.  The Pheobe Cates scene is particularly interesting, I think, because one the one hand, it’s about the voyeur getting his comeuppance and it addresses the masturbatory nature of visual pleasure, but on the other hand it is guilty of everything Mulvey accuses phallocentric cinema of representing.  Both clips feature voyeurs, but Judge Reinhold is a willing and enthusiastic voyeur of the female object featured, where the elevator patrons (and, in a sense, the “cameraman”) in Borat are disgusted and decidedly not in control.  Men in film, as Mulvey puts it, are part of the landscape, and if a film breaks with that tradition, it’s played off for laughs (see also: Hot Tub Time Machine or Walk Hard). The process of editing makes the Fast Times clip erotic and makes the Borat clip ridiculous (although it’s hard to imagine an erotic shot of Ken Davitian).

Mulvey then explains how the techniques of editing serve to control women, again bringing up castration anxiety.  According to her, patriarchal films have two methods of putting women into a male-dominated order.  The first way is to demystify female characters through the story, eventually punishing or rescuing them for or from their otherness.  the other is to chop women up into little bits by using close-ups, turning the threatening woman into a safe fetish object.  Here’s a fun clip (skip to 7:00):

Double Indemnity

In this, Barbara Stanwyck is an intimidating figure at first, towering over Fred MacMurray and, you  know, being naked and way sexier than him.  But then she goes to get dressed, and the film starts to demystify her.  MacMurray snoops around a bit, learning about her  without her consent.  Then, when Stanwyk is reintroduced, the camera shows her ankles, puffy slippers and little anklet.  Those are controllable objects, and MacMurray is given a position of power for the rest of the scene, sitting higher than her and talking down. In addition we, the audience, become more powerful than the puffy slippers and little anklet that Stanwyk is reduced to.

Mulvey then goes onto explain the differences between how Sternberg and Hitchcock use some of these techniques, but I’m running out of time, so I’ll skip to the conclusion.

In her summary, Mulvey explains that there are three types of gaze involved in cinema: The camera’s gaze at the “profilmic event,” the audience’s gaze at the screen and the character’s gaze at each other.  Hollywood techniques, according to Mulvey, suppress the importance of the first two to present a seamless product for its audience.  The emphasis on the third gaze, that of the character, forces the audience to see the film as the typically male, patriarchally-trained main character.    Check out this Pepsi commercial, which featured kids as the voyeurs:

Pepsi Commercial

We see Cindy Crawford as the kids see her, and because of this, the kids are given the power in the scene and we identify the male spectators as in control.

Mulvey finishes by arguing for a new cinema that changes the emphasis form the male gaze towards a “passionate detachment.”  She explains that this might make film uglier, but it will also make it fair.

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