The number of people dropping feminism and the male gaze in daily conversations these past few years is astounding. So much that Merriam-Webster hailed the former as the word of the year in 2017. I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter is also on the list. It’s all good, and I’m all for it 100%.
But around 50 years ago, when society wasn’t ready yet to have conversations about such topics, these two terms were already in regular use in Laura Mulvey’s work and life. In 1973, she wrote her seminal essay called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which discussed her feministic theories and the relationship between the male gaze and cinema. They considered it a game-changer that eventually helped bring the “male gaze” into the world of film criticism and mainstream consciousness.
So, what made Laura Mulvey’s essay and theories so influential?
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Who is Laura Mulvey?
Laura Mulvey’s Early Life And Her Career As An Educator
Born on the 15th of August 1941 in Oxford, United Kingdom, Laura Mulvey is a filmmaker, feminist film theorist, and a film and media studies professor. She has taught at several institutions such as Bulmershe College, The London College of Printing, the University of East Anglia, and the British Film Institute. Currently, she is teaching at Birbeck, University of London.
As an academic, she holds three noteworthy honorary degrees:
- Doctor of Letters from the University of East Anglia (2006)
- Doctor of Law from Concordia University (2009)
- Bloomsday Doctor of Literature from the University College of Dublin (2012)
Laura Mulvey’s Career As A Filmmaker
During her career as a filmmaker, Laura Mulvey became prominent for making avant-garde films with her husband Peter Wullen between 1974 to 1982. She worked as a co-writer and co-director for a total of six theoretical, avant-garde films. Although each film deals with different subjects, the most common element is the themes they explore. These themes usually revolve around feminism, psychoanalysis, and left-wing politics. Below is a list of the six films they made together:
- Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)
- Riddle of the Sphinx (1977)
- AMY! (1980)
- Crystal Gazing (1982)
- Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982)
- Bad Sister (1982)
Non-sexist Film Language
Their most notable work is the 1977 film Riddles of the Sphinx, released as a “landmark fusion of feminism and formal experimentation that seeks to create a non-sexist film language”. This film blurb shows how uncompromising Laura Mulvey is with her philosophies by challenging the norms set by society with her work.
Geoffrey Howell-Smith of Sight & Sound called the Riddles of the Sphinx “unassuming and yet rigorous in its intellectual stance”. He continued by saying that the film is rare for being both “pleasurable and provocative”.
Meanwhile, modern film review aggregators such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes were not as enthusiastic with their reviews. The film received an approval rating of 6.0 or a generally favorable rating based on the critic’s consensus from the former. It earned only a 20% approval or “rotten” users rating from the latter. It’s mind-boggling how a seeming landmark film didn’t get much attention. Perhaps, it’s time to reevaluate it.
After a long hiatus, Laura Mulvey returned to making films and co-directed Disgraced Monuments with Mark Lewis in 1991. Other notable films that she has been a part of include 2015’s The Illusionists and 2016’s The Amazed Spectator.
Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Summary
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema opened up a conversation about the male gaze. Source: unsplash.com
If you Google Laura Mulvey, the results mainly include her body of work as a filmmaker. Besides her filmography, her essay entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema comes up often in the results. It’s no wonder that the public recognized it as one of her most significant contributions to the film and academic industry.
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was published as a stand-alone piece in Screen, a British film theory journal. Later on, it appeared in some anthologies, including Laura Mulvey’s Visual and Other Pleasures collection.
WATCH VIDEO: In Conversation With Laura Mulvey (Interview)
Challenging The Visual Pleasure
The male gaze has been putting gender roles in a box since the start of films. Source: unsplash.com
The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Marie Émile Lacan primarily influence the 14-page essay. One of the first major female-written essays paved the way towards a more psychoanalytic approach to analyzing films.
The term “male gaze” was first used by John Berger in his 1972 BBC TV series and book, both called Ways of Seeing, a collection of his analysis of nudity in European paintings. Although it wasn’t Laura Mulvey who coined the term, through her writings and films, the male gaze became a common idiom.
The Male Gaze In The Narrative Of The Cinema
The essay, in a nutshell, is about Laura Mulvey’s observations of how most Hollywood films were made to please most heterosexual men, their egos, and their ideas of masculinity. In this observation, she wrote about how common it is for men to be portrayed as a strong, deep-voiced Bond-James-Bond-self-introducing type of secret agent or hero. On the other hand, women are, more often than not, the object of their desires and/or the helpless damsels-in-distress who need rescuing.
The male gaze is a regular part of most 1950s and 1960s Hollywood films. Only a few movies challenged this stereotype of film characters. Laura Mulvey noted that this is because filmgoers, who were predominantly heterosexual men, needed a character they can identify with.
In the essay, she incorporated the Freudian concept of scopophilia to back up her criticisms of Hollywood cinema. Scopophilia, which literally means the love of looking, refers to the pleasure individuals receive from looking at and being looked at. It is sexual in nature, and Hollywood utilizes that to keep men’s attention glued to the screen. Sex sells, after all.
According to Laura Mulvey, women in films of this era were always written with “to-be-looked-at” characteristics while men were coded with the “I’m-looking-at-you” identity, hence: the male gaze. She called it out and labeled it as voyeuristic, fetishistic, narcissistic, and exhibitionistic. Well, to be honest, it was. It is.
Gazing Through To The Other Side
Let’s not forget the role that patriarchy played in the male gaze-y type of films. Source: unsplash.com
Laura Mulvey and her Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema have started a movement challenging the male gaze. I would even go as far as saying she revolutionized filmmaking. While, to some extent, that may be true, we still have a long way to go before entirely dismantling the current formula of male gaze-y filmmaking.
Nowadays, the narrative of films and the visual pleasures we can get from them have shifted. We can see how plots are becoming less formulaic, castings are becoming more inclusive, and Hollywood has more female-directed, female-written, and female-led films. Most of the movies in recent times employ more progressive ideologies.
It’s debatable if it’s because Hollywood is becoming more forward-thinking or if it’s a response to the cancel culture, the woke generation, and the #MeToo era. Whatever the reason is, I believe that it won’t be long until most classic and existing films are reevaluated, and new ones will be made to fit our modern gaze.
And we should thank people like Laura Mulvey for that.