Art Paper: Critical Summary of Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema

We wrote a number of critical summaries of artists’ works (paintings, sculpture, writings, whatever) with a partner. This is the first.

Laura Mulvey graduated from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. Most of her career was spent working at the British Film Institute; she is now a professor at Birkbeck, University of London in film and media studies. In addition to teaching she has written and directed films and written film critiques. The most famous work is her feminist film critique Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which was published in 1975 in the British film theory journal Screen. The article is significant because it was one of the first to analyze film from a perspective of psychoanalysis, and it was written from a feminist perspective to boot.

Mulvey’s essay begins by stating her intentions: to analyze the (assumed male) viewer ‘s response to a film. She presupposes a patriarchal society (implicitly the one present in Western capitalist countries at that — and this — time) and sets out to use psychoanalytic theory “as a political weapon.”

Mulvey establishes the importance of woman in the patriarchal society by following Freud: by her lack of a penis woman upholds the patriarchal system; she serves as an object of desire because she reminds the man of his power through possession of a penis. She defines man as man by being the “other” in his world.

Moving on in the article, Mulvey explains that, though technology has advanced to the point where an avant-garde cinema is possible, it can serve only as a counterpoint to Hollywood productions. She explains that the only way to move out from the shadow of Hollywood — and the essentially patriarchal experience it provides — is to destroy the visual pleasure we take in film. This concludes her extended introduction.

In the second part, Mulvey details the basic visual pleasures in cinema. First, film viewing is essentially a voyeuristic act, allowing us to observe the lives of others without their knowledge. The literal falseness of this does not prevent it from seeming to be true to our minds. Second, film allows us the “temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego” by submerging our own egos in the characters of the film (misidentifying ourselves as them) and recognizing the “ideal” ego represented in the star actors.

Mulvey then moves on to her third part, detailing the feminist points of her argument. She reminds the reader that viewing is an inherently male activity, contrasted with the female activity of being viewed. This bears itself out in the film. The female lead is a character of objectified sexual desire, while the male lead is an idealized ego rather than an object of sexual desire. Further, the male lead controls the story, advancing the plot by taking actions as he wishes; the female’s part is one of passivity. Eventually, she falls in love with the man and becomes his “property;” by identifying with the male lead viewers can possess her too.

Mulvey’s last fresh point is to discuss the reason that women become star figures. She describes it as a response to the “castration anxiety” men experience when they view women: by making the woman into a fetish, she becomes visually reassuring in her own right and the castration anxiety does not enter the mind.

The last page of Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is devoted to summarizing what has come before and reminding us that feminism must be against traditional cinema.