Laura Mulvey is celebrated as one of the most important film thinkers of all time.
She believes that cinema offers a number of possible pleasures, one of them being scopophilia, “in which looking itself is a source of pleasure,” and in cinema’s ability to develop scopophilia “in its narcissistic aspect” by constructing an ideal image of male ego in which “the spectator [is in] direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment and that of the spectator fascinated with the image of his like,” which sets in “an illusion of natural space” through which he gains “control and possession of the woman within the diegesis.”
This is widely regarded as the central point of feminist film criticism.
Alfred Hitchcock plays with a spectator’s fascination with the scopophilic image: “In Vertigo,” Mulvey writes, “the spectator’s [scopophilic] fascination is turned against him as the narrative carries him through and entwines him in the process that he is himself exercising. Hence, the spectator, lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent legality of his surrogate, sees through his look and finds himself exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking.”
Tania Modelski proposes that one of the major attractions of the protagonists of the film, Scottie and Madeleine, is “his identification with her, an identification that the film works to elicit in the audience as well: we are identifying with Scottie identifying with Madeleine (who is identifying with Carlott Valdez.)”
Therefore, in Vertigo, the audience’s identification with the male character, itself a development of cinema’s scopophilic pleasures, is compromised and made problematic.
Mulvey also writes about the three different looks of cinema: that of “the camera as it records the profilmic events, that the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each within the screen illusion.”
Further, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
Female desire has no power and, therefore, “either [woman] must gracefully give way to the word, the Name of the Father and the Law, or struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the imaginary.”
This would lead one to believe that cinema is motivated by what has been referred to as a “male gaze.”
However, E. Ann Kaplan concludes: “while the gaze is not necessarily male … to own and activate the gaze … is to be in the ‘masculine’ position” due to the language and structure of the unconscious. In other words, in its representative form, cinema merely expresses the said language and structure of the unconscious.
Thus, feminist film theory begins with the realization that a feminine position is essentially submissive.
There exists, in my opinion, an alternative mainstream classic Hollywood cinema where the “male gaze” is not activated. For example, Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) lacks any gendered gaze. This lack prevents the story from moving forward.
The male and female protagonists of Morocco obviously are in love with each other, but each fails to take the initiative (take on the ‘masculine role’) and, therefore, there is no happy ending in which the protagonists passionately embrace against the desert backdrop of the exotic title setting.
Mulvey, unsurprisingly, refers to Von Sternberg’s emphasis on “the pictorial space enclosed by the frame [as] paramount rather than narrative or identification process.”
Mulvey wants to destroy pleasure and beauty in cinema by analyzing it. She claims that this is precisely her objective and thus the objective of feminist film criticism.
I do not agree with this. Mulvely, perhaps, convinced in the average viewer’s passivity, scorns the pleasure of investigating the disturbances in the films that allow alternative interpretations. After all, that is precisely what she is doing in a critical sense.
My response to Mulvey’s feminist battle-cry is further complicated by Kaplan’s candid concession: “we have (rightly) been wary of admitting the degree to which the pleasure comes from the identification with objectification. Our positioning as ‘to-be-looked-at,’ as object of the male gaze, has come to be sexually pleasurable.”