Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze is based on Freudian constructions of the psyche. Sigmund Freud was a psychologist who developed the practice of psychoanalysis which examines the conscious and unconscious areas of the mind. Mulvey uses psychoanalysis to highlight the patriarchal structure of women in films. A Freudian concept that is present throughout Mulvey’s work is the idea of scopophilia. Scopophilia, to put it simply, means the pleasure in looking (Laughey 103). It makes people into objects that are meant to be looked at. Within film the characters are constructed as objects that the viewers of the film look at. The audience is separated from the film, making them outsiders. It is as if they are intruding on the lives of the characters. This created what Mulvey calls a ‘voyeuristic fantasy’ (Hein 57). Voyeurism is when someone acquires pleasure from watching other people in private situations without their knowing. Mulvey argues that when watching films, the audience is partaking in this voyeurism because they are watching private and intimate interactions without the character’s knowledge. Film normalizes scopophilia and voyeurism, making it a common practice among all people who view films.
Another theory Mulvey builds on is Jaques Lacan’s mirror stage theory. According to Lacan, when children first see themselves in a mirror they do not recognize that image to be themselves. They see that image as a better version of themselves than they actually are and a certain narcissism develops within them (Laughey 103). When viewing cinema, the audience tends to identify themselves with the characters in the film. In this way, viewers can live out their narcissistic fantasy.
Both of these concepts helped Mulvey develop her theory of the male gaze. In cinema, there are three ways of ‘looking’: the look of the camera that records the film, the look of
the audience at the film, and the look of characters in the film. The male gaze is the idea that the audience’s main way of ‘looking’ in the majority of films is male. This excludes female and homosexual viewers. Women are forced to take part in the male gaze on the “physically desirable, sexually submissive female characters” (Laughey 103). Many times, women only exist in films to be looked at. Mulvey refers to this as their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’ The way the film portrays them is solely for the sexual pleasure of the male viewer. In the movie The Shallows (Collet-Serra 2016), there are numerous shots that pan over Blake Lively’s bikini body that are unnecessary to the plot, they are only present because they are pleasurable to the ‘male viewer.’
Michele White provides an example of the male gaze in Key Words for Media Studies of an anti-smoking commercial. In this commercial, a man is looking at a dating app and he scrolls past a photo of a seemingly attractive woman because she is smoking. The purpose of the advertisement is that people will find you less attractive when you smoke. (White 75) This commercial displays Mulvey’s idea of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” The woman in the advertisement only exists in order to be looked at and assessed in terms of physical attractiveness.
The male gaze is not a construction of the film industry. Male gaze is evident in films because it is a construction of the society that we live in. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey (1981) explains:
Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning. (58)
Women bear meaning to men, they do not make meaning for themselves. A concept that exemplifies this in many films is the manic pixie dream girl. This is a female character that exists only to enhance the life of a male character. Their purpose is to further the plot and help the male character achieve what he is working towards. They exist as sexual objects that bear meaning to other characters. This makes female viewers feel as if they are unable to make meaning in their lives, thus contributing to the patriarchy.
There are two ways that women are a spectacle within film: as a sexual object for the character(s) and as a sexual object for those viewing the film. These take place simultaneously and puts women spectators in an uncomfortable viewing position. Men are able to partake in an active viewing of film while a woman’s view of film is passive. What this suggests is that heterosexual women are not able to partake in the viewing of the film as it is intended to be viewed, because they do not view women as sexual objects. Cinema contributes to the sexism in our patriarchal society by portraying women as sexual objects.
Returning to Freud, the male gaze promotes a sadomasochistic behavior in women. Sadism is pleasure from inflicting pain while masochism is pleasure from being in pain. When women are partaking in the male gaze by watching a film, they are essentially contributing to the patriarchy that the male gaze is constructed by being both subject and object. By participating in this objectification, a woman is putting herself through pain. Furthermore, if they identify with the female characters, they are identifying with a sexualized version of a woman that a male mind has constructed. In this, they are potentially taking pleasure in harming themselves and other women by contributing to this patriarchal society.
A major fault in this theory is that it relies entirely on psychoanalysis. In this, it assumes the audience’s reactions and thoughts about cinema without actually asking them how they respond to film. It often ignores biological, cultural, and social factors. There is a great disparity in how different races view film and Mulvey does not account for any of these differences in her theory of the gaze. Freud frequently did not take into account individual differences. He made generalized assumptions about all unconscious minds and did not thoroughly investigate the different factors that contribute to each individual life. In Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, a look at the factors besides the unconscious mind would give the theory more accuracy and background.
Another fault in Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze is that she does not take into account queer audiences. Her whole theory is predominantly heterocentric. Simply by calling it the “male gaze”, it implies that only male onlookers are attracted to the women in the film. It also excludes homosexual males who are as not attracted to the females in the film as the heterosexual female audience members are. She touches on this criticism in Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) by explaining that she was not focusing specifically on men viewing women sexually in films, but on the overarching masculinization of the films themselves, which takes power away from women and makes female viewers feel excluded (Mulvey, 1981, 29).
Hein, C. (2006). Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Frankfurt, Germany: German National Library.
Hooks, B. (1999) ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’. In S. Thornman (Ed.) Feminist Film Theory (307-320). New York, NY: New York University Press.
Laughey, D. (2007). Feminisms and Gender. In Key Themes in Media Theory (pp. 100-121). New York, NY: Open University Press.
Mulvey, L. (1981) Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Dual in the Sun (1946). In Framework (pp. 29).
White, M. (2017) Gaze. In L. Ouellette & J. Gray (Eds.), Key Words for Media Studies (75-77). New York, NY: New York University Press.
Image Attribution: The images used in this post are in the Public Domain
Written by Sydney Armitage, 2018.