Laura Mulvey

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Laura Mulvey (born August 15, 1941) was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford. She is currently professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London. She worked at the British Film Institute for many years before taking up her current position.

During the 2008-09 academic year, Mulvey will be the Mary Cornille Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College.[1]


[edit] As a film theorist

Mulvey is best known for her essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. It later appeared in a collection of her essays entitled Visual and Other Pleasures, and numerous other anthologies. Her article was one of the first major essays that helped shift the orientation of film theory towards a psychoanalytic framework, influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Prior to Mulvey, film theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz had attempted to use psychoanalytic ideas in their theoretical accounts of the cinema, but Mulvey's contribution was to inaugurate the intersection of film theory, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Mulvey's article engaged in no empirical research on film audiences. She instead stated that she intended to make a "political use" of Freud and Lacan, and then used some of their concepts to argue that the cinematic apparatus of classical Hollywood cinema inevitably put the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire. In the era of classical Hollywood cinema, viewers were encouraged to identify with the protagonist of the film, who tended to be a man. Meanwhile, Hollywood female characters of the 1950s and 60s were, according to Mulvey, coded with "to-be-looked-at-ness." Mulvey suggests that there were two distinct modes of the male gaze of this era: "voyeuristic" (i.e. seeing women as 'whores') and "fetishistic" (i.e. seeing women as 'madonnas').

Mulvey argued that the only way to annihilate the "patriarchal" Hollywood system was to radically challenge and re-shape the filmic strategies of classical Hollywood with alternative feminist methods. She called for a new feminist avant-garde filmmaking that would rupture the magic and pleasure of classical Hollywood filmmaking. She wrote, "It is said that analysing pleasure or beauty annihilates it. That is the intention of this article."

Some feminists criticized "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," claiming that, while Mulvey believed that classical Hollywood cinema reflected and shaped the "patriarchal order," the perspective of her writing actually remained within that very heterosexual order. The article was thus said to have contradicted its "radical" claims, by actually being a covert perpetuation of heterosexual patriarchal order. This was because, in her article, Mulvey presupposes the spectator to be a heterosexual man. She was thus felt to be denying the existence of lesbian women, gay men, heterosexual women, and those outside of these identities.

"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was the subject of much interdisciplinary discussion among film theorists that continued into the mid 1980s. Critics of the article objected to the fact that her argument implied the impossibility of genuine 'feminine' enjoyment of the classical Hollywood cinema, and to the fact that her argument did not seem to take into account spectatorships that were not organised along the normative lines of gender. For example, a metaphoric 'transvestism' might be possible when viewing a film – a male viewer might enjoy a 'feminine' point-of-view provided by a film, or vice versa; gay, lesbian and bisexual spectatorships might also be different. Her article also did not take into account the findings of the later wave of media audience studies on the complex nature of fan cultures and their interaction with stars. Gay male film theorists such as Richard Dyer have used Mulvey's work as a starting point to explore the complex projections that many gay men fix onto certain female stars (e.g. Liza Minnelli, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland).

Feminist critic Gaylyn Studlar wrote extensively to contradict Mulvey's central thesis that the spectator is male and derives visual pleasure from a dominant, sadistic perspective. Studlar suggested rather that visual pleasure for all audiences is derived from a passive, masochistic perspective, where the audience seeks to be powerless and overwhelmed by the cinematic image.

Mulvey later wrote that her article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, rather than a reasoned academic article that took all objections into account. She addressed many of her critics, and changed some of her opinions, in a follow-up article, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'" (which also appears in the Visual and Other Pleasures collection).

Mulvey's most recent book is titled Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006).

[edit] Phallocentrism and patriarchy

Mulvey incorporates the Freudian idea of phallocentrism into "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Specifically relating the phallocentric theory to film, Mulvey insists on the idea that film and cinematography are inadvertently structured upon the ideas and values of a patriarchy.[2]

Within her essay, Mulvey discusses several different types of spectatorship that occur while viewing a film. Viewing a film involves subconsciously engaging in the understanding of male and female roles. The "three different looks", as they are referred to, explain just exactly how films are viewed in relation to phallocentrism. The first "look" refers to the camera as it records the actual events of the film. The second "look" describes the nearly voyeuristic act of the audience as one engages in watching the film itself. Lastly, the third "look" refers to the characters that interact with one another throughout the film.[2]

The main idea that seems to bring these actions together is that "looking" is generally seen as an active male role while the passive role of being looked at is immediately adopted as a female characteristic. It is under the construction of patriarchy that Mulvey argues that women in film are tied to desire and that female characters hold an "appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact". The female actor is never meant to represent a character that directly effects the outcome of a plot or keep the story line going, but is inserted into the film as a way of supporting the male role and "bearing the burden of sexual objectification" that he cannot.[2]

[edit] As a film maker

Mulvey was prominent as an avant-garde filmmaker in the 1970s and 1980s. With Peter Wollen, her husband, she co-wrote and co-directed Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974), Riddles of the Sphinx (1977 - perhaps their most influential film), AMY! (1980), Crystal Gazing (1982), Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982), and The Bad Sister. In 1991, she returned to filmmaking with Disgraced Monuments, which she co-directed with Mark Lewis.

[edit] See also


[edit] References

  1. ^ Newhouse Center for the Humanities Newhouse Center for the Humanities - Personnel - Wellesley College
  2. ^ a b c Laura Mulvey (1975). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Screen 16(3): 6–18.  Online version.

[edit] External links

[edit] Further reading

  • Laura Mulvey (1975). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Screen 16(3): 6–18.  Online version.
  • Laura Mulvey (1989). Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-20494-1. 
  • Gaylyn Studlar (1993). In the Realm of Pleasure. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231082339. 
  • Rakhee Balaram (2007). Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. Online version.
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