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Laura Mulvey (1941 - )

Key text: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975)

visual - pleasure - narrative - cinema - 1975

See also: Sigmund Freud - Jacques Lacan - feminist film theory - fetishism - film theory - gaze - Peeping Tom (1960) - psychoanalytical film theory - sadism - scopophilia - voyeurism

"Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat." (Laura Mulvey, 1975, 29).


Laura Mulvey (born August 15, 1941) is a British feminist film theorist. She was educated at Oxford and is currently professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. She worked at the British Film Institute for many years before taking up her current position.

Mulvey is best known for her essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. (It also appears in a collection of her essays entitled Visual and Other Pleasures and numerous other anthologies.) This article was one of the first major essays that helped shift the orientation of film theory towards a psychoanalytic framework, influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Prior to Mulvey, film theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz attempted to use psychoanalytic ideas in their theoretical accounts of the cinema, but Mulvey's contribution was to inaugurate the intersection of film theory, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Mulvey’s article argues mainly that the cinematic apparatus (specifically of classical Hollywood cinema) inevitably puts the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire. In classical Hollywood cinema, viewers are encouraged to identify with the protagonist of the film, who tends to be a man. Meanwhile, female characters are, according to Mulvey, coded with "to-be-looked-at-ness." Mulvey argues that the only way to annihilate this "patriarchal" system is to radically deconstruct the filmic strategies of classical Hollywood with alternative methods. She calls for a new feminist avant-garde filmmaking that will rupture the magic and pleasure of classical Hollywood filmmaking. “It is said that analysing pleasure or beauty annihilates it. That is the intention of this article”.

"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was the subject of much interdisciplinary discussion that continued into the 1980s. Critics of the article objected to the fact that her argument implied the impossibility of genuine 'feminine' enjoyment of the classical Hollywood cinema, and to the fact that her argument did not seem to take into account spectatorships that were not organised along the normative lines of gender (for example, a metaphoric 'transvestism' might be possible when viewing a film -- a male viewer might enjoy a 'feminine' point-of-view provided by a film, or vice versa; gay and lesbian spectatorships might also be different). Mulvey later said that this article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, rather than a coldly reasoned academic article that took all objections into account. However, she addressed many of her critics in a follow-up article "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'" (which also appears in the Visual and Other Pleasures collection). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Mulvey [Dec 2005]

see also: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) - feminist - film theory

Gaze [...]

The concept of gaze (often also called the gaze), in analysing visual media, is one that deals with how an audience views other people presented. This concept is extended in the framework of feminist theory, where it can deal with how men look at women, how women look at themselves and other women, and the effects surrounding this. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaze [Dec 2004]

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) [...]

Word count for words related to: sadism: 6 , fetishism: 12, voyeurism: 18, scopophilia: 15, gaze: 14, representation: 14, psycho-: 11, mirror: 8, patriarchal: 9, narrative: 24, visual 6, phallus: 5, castration: 14
This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have molded him. It takes as a starting point the way film reflects, reveals, and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking, and spectacle. It is helpful to understand what the cinema has been, how its magic has worked in the past, while attempting a theory and a practice which will challenge this cinema of the past. Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form. --Laura Mulvey, Originally Published - Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18 [...]

Is the gaze male?

E Ann Kaplan (1983) asked ‘Is the gaze male?’. Both Kaplan and Kaja Silverman (1980) argued that the gaze could be adopted by both male and female subjects: the male is not always the controlling subject nor is the female always the passive object. -- Daniel Chandler, http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html [Nov 2004]

Jacques Lacan [...]

Laura Mulvey did not undertake empirical studies of actual filmgoers, but declared her intention to make ‘political use’ of Freudian psychoanalytic theory (in a version influenced by Jacques Lacan) in a study of cinematic spectatorship. --Daniel Chandler

Cindy Sherman [...]

One of the clearest and most concise elaborations of the feminist perspective on Sherman's work has been from Laura Mulvey in her essay "A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman." --http://www.ago.net/www/information/exhibitions/modules/sherman/feminism.html

'You Don't Know What's Happening, Do You Mr. Jones?' (1973) - Laura Mulvey

[...] 'You Don't Know What's Happening, Do You Mr. Jones?'" first appeared in 1973 in the British feminist magazine Spare Rib. In it, Mulvey critiqued the work of British pop artist Allen Jones who had produced a series of sculptures in 1970 called Women as Furniture in which "life-size effigies of women, slave-like and sexually provocative, double as hat-stands, tables and chairs."  Some of these may be familiar as they were featured in a scene in Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange. Mulvey pointed out that Jones was simply repeating a cultural trope or set of conventions which could be seen in many forms of popular culture and mass media: fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper's and Bazaar, news magazines such as Life, advertisements of all sorts, TV shows, and films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Barbarella. Mulvey's point was that Jones, like many male auteurs in the visual arts was speaking in the language of fetishism. --source unidentified

See also: Allen Jones

Camille Paglia on Laura Mulvey

Yes, British critic Laura Mulvey is now a highly esteemed member of the staff of the British Film Institute, which invited me to contribute to the Film Classics Series (and has asked for another book). Her 1973 essay, with its references to "patriarchal society" and "phallocentrism," is the ultimate source of the theory of the "male gaze" that made my life so difficult in those decades of feminist orthodoxy and political correctness in America when I could not get published or employed by a research institution. --Camille Paglia via http://archive.salon.com/it/col/pagl/1998/10/07pagl.html

Visual and Other Pleasures (1989) - Laura Mulvey

  • Visual and Other Pleasures (1989) - Laura Mulvey [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Laura Mulvey did not invent feminist film criticism, but her short piece "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" is a seminal essay, cited more often than almost any other single article on the movies. Mulvey brought psychoanalysis, the experience of pleasure, and the idea of the male gaze into the mainstream of feminist film criticism. Visual and Other Pleasures reprints her famous analysis along with other important essays on film melodrama, avant-garde cinema, the Oedipus myth, and directors Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard. Unlike many academic critics, Mulvey writes with refreshing clarity. Arguments that in other hands might seem dense and thorny are both comprehensible and enlightening here. --Raphael Shargel

    Fetishism and Curiosity (1996) - Laura Mulvey

    Fetishism and Curiosity (1996) - Laura Mulvey [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    review by Kenneth MacKinnon
    I have long been drawn to the work of Laura Mulvey, since my initial acquaintance with it through 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. This article would be of crucial concern to film studies if for no other reason than the massive use made of it within the subject over the last 24 years. The massiveness of its use must surely be owed, though, to universal recognition of the fundamental importance of its analysis. No account of specularity, of looking relations in cinema (or, for that matter, in the fields of, say, television or art) seems to be possible without a re-examination of her position in 'Visual Pleasure'. That position, declaring that man is the subject, woman the object, of seeing, and that such seeing is a key to cinema's erotic pleasures, has been challenged, most notably perhaps by Kaja Silverman. [3] (Silverman argues for masochism against Mulvey's sadism in cinema's erotic viewing, and draws attention to the strong possibility of the secret identification of males in the diegesis (and audience) with the suffering female object.) More normally, though, it is built upon, extended -- as in, for example, the work of Paul Willemen, who increases the three Looks to four, [4] and of Steve Neale [5] or Richard Dyer [6], who foreground disavowal as a means whereby men may become covert erotic objects. --Kenneth MacKinnon in Film-Philosophy Journal February 2001 via http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n4mackinnon [Dec 2005]

    See also: curiosity - fetishism - Laura Mulvey - feminist film theory

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