Laura Mulvey (b. 1941) is best known for the groundbreaking essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1973, published 1975) in which she coined the term ‘male gaze’ and tackled the asymmetry at the heart of cinema – the centrality of the male viewer and his pleasure. The ideas developed throughout her long career as both film theorist and filmmaker have cast a long shadow, continuing to influence a host of other thinkers and makers, many of whom appear in this journal. Now, she is professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
You can read her groundbreaking text here.
In cinema as she describes it, the male character is active, driving the plot forward with the things he does, and the female character serves to halt the pace of the plot with her arresting beauty, lingering close ups, and slow panning across her body. This break in the movement of the film narrative is made to make sense to the audience by the male character also looking at the female character, he ‘transfers the look’ from the audience who sees through the camera, as if they were actually seeing through his eyes. It is always him, not her, who the audience identify with. He is a seeing, thinking and acting being, and the woman is an arresting visual surface.
There’s a bit in the David Lynch film, Lost Highway, that exemplifies and arguably caricatures the way this works.
The male character sees the woman and her beauty and his desire for her makes the film turn into slow motion and music start to play. The lyrics of the Lou Reed soundtrack, ‘this magic moment’ even picks up on the language of Mulvey’s essay all about the female temporality of the film being best described as an arresting ‘moment’ rather than duration. I’m convinced Lynch must be doing it deliberately…
Even in mainstream cinema, the male gaze abounds. Nowadays, there is sometimes a meta narrative that is critiquing the male character’s behaviour as reprehensible objectification of a woman, but nonetheless we still see that woman as the character does, we still see her through his eyes as Mulvey explains.
One good example of this is The Wolf of Wall Street, when Margot Robbie’s character is seeking to gain power over her husband through her sexuality.
In that very moment of seeking to gain power, she is being made fun of by him and the security guards who watch through a hidden camera which she wasn’t aware of. It’s a great visualisation of how a woman’s attempt to use her sexual desireability to her advantage still winds up handing the power back to the men. Do they desire her? Yes, she has been successful in that regard. But are they still making fun of her? Yes. Is she sexually assertive in this scene? Yes. Does that mean she is powerful? No. As a scene, it provides some answers to the loops of questions about female sexuality and power that abound in society today.
She thinks she can drive the narrative for a moment, but, via the male gaze, she is dominated by her husband and the patriarchal world she exists in, both within the story and in the wider context of the film industry. She’s a fool for thinking she could dictate and she leaves the room, humiliated.
Mulvey describes how female cinema goers, or film viewers, watch not as women, but have to also see through the eyes of the male gaze to understand the logic of the film in front of them. They are constantly swapping gendered positions in their head to be able to follow the unfolding narrative. Even if the female viewers are heterosexual, they have to understand that beauty and sexual desirability are provided by the female characters, while action, choice and narrative forward thrust is provided by the men.
That’s not to say that men in cinema are not presented as attractive, but they are attractive while doing something at the same time. The well known example of a film apparently for the female gaze is Magic Mike. Straight women may well watch this and find the men attractive, but it doesn’t offer a female gaze in the sense of a lead female character, driving the stories action, through the eyes of whom we see. The film allows us a glimpse into what it might be like to objectify men, but it doesn’t offer the crucial other half of the challenge to the male gaze, which is a woman’s point of view that is central and that we have to empathise with and get on board with in order to be able to watch the film.
This theory is clearly incredibly valuable to Film Studies, but has wider implications than that. Some argue that the whole world is organised for the male gaze or for male pleasure. Whether it is just that films and the popular culture they sit within have a big influence on our values and expectations, and that those who watch films internalise these gendered roles, or whether it is that we live in a patriarchal society, and a society in which all powerful institutions were founded with men, their wants, needs, and responsibilities, as the suns around which the business models and company structures orbited. The world was not built with women in mind, and women have to imagine another perspective to their own all the time in order to understand the world and in order to work out how to succeed in it. They have constantly to ask the question, ‘What do men want from me?’
There is a conversely positive side to being a woman within this kind of popular culture universe, and the socio-political world that bears at least some resemblances to it. Women have many opportunities to learn empathy that are not so readily available to men. Because the narratives presented to us are so often from a man’s point of view we are used to having vicarious experiences that are other to our gender. But also, because most of us will experience multiple situations where we are disrespected, humiliated, or even assaulted, we will be forced to confront difficult questions of identity and society. Many men just won’t face situations that get them to question why the world is the way it is, at least until later in their lives, because events will just unfold smoothly for them. For many of us, our journey to wanting to change society for the better, came from negative experiences that we wanted to avoid. If your life is relatively free of socio-politically driven or cultural negative experiences, then your political awakening may be stunted.
I hope to see more films that force us to look through women’s eyes, empathise with their experiences and allow men the opportunity to step into our shoes for a while, but I also hope that whatever social, political and cultural changes take place to further empower women and bring us equality, women don’t lose the memory of the skills we built from the situations we faced when we were marginalised.