Week 2 – Spectatorship

Student with learning difficulties – please read fast to get better comprehension of text.

I first encountered Laura Mulvey’s essay on Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema at college when I was 17. The fact that I have encountered this essay so many times in academia since I was 17 and that after thirty years, the theory is still relevant today,  is testament to Mulvey’s successful approach in using psychoanalysis to analyze fascination and the depiction of sexual difference, particularly with women in visual media. It is also (worryingly) testament to the fact that conventions in dominant narrative cinema have remained relatively unchanged in the thirty years since the work was first published. The start of the essay immediately indicates that it will make use of existing psychoanalysis to tackle the patriarchal nature of dominant cinema – that is to say Hollywood. Mulvey fuses Freud’s concept of scopophilia – the pleasure of looking, with Lacan’s mirror stage and comes the conclusion that there are three different ‘looks’ within traditional narrative film.

1. The characters gaze
2. The spectators gaze
3. The camera’s gaze

To illustrate her theory, I present this excerpt from Sin City, Miller/Rodriguez/Tarantino, 2005

Sin City…

In this clip Jessica Alba’s character is fetishised, not only by the main character and other men watching her dance in the club but also  by the camera and subsequently you the viewer. I will note as Mulvey does in her essay, that the camera and you as the audience are not present in the scene, making the men viewing Alba the ‘prime gazers’ and you, plus the camera ‘secondary gazers or voyeurs’. This is a very overt example of the theory, as most of the time we are conditioned not to recognise  the conventions of the gaze as we stare as spectators into the cinema screen. It is interesting that both of the psychoanalytic theories of Frued and Lacan were built on patriarchal ideas which were simultaneously  attacked and politicised by Mulvey and other feminists in the 1970s. I admire how psychoanalysis  was  taken and utilised as a tool to deconstruct patriarchal constructs within (in Mulvey’s case) dominant cinema, and  was surprised when talking to some of the class today, that they thought the theory of spectatorship was perhaps outdated and no longer applied as a modern theoretical concept today. In response to this I would like to illustrate my point that it is still very prevalent in modern dominant cinema, and for that matter in advertising and other forms of visual media.

Here is a collection of clips that a fan has put together from the Tomb Raider movies – you may well think that Angelina Jolie in the female lead as the strong and confident Lara Croft, would break the conventions of the gaze; she is even occasionally allowed an active gaze directly at the audience (something usually reserved for the male). Her gaze however, is undermined by how she is fetishised in front of the camera and spectator.


The theory can also be applied to the marketing of the film, where she is denied an active gaze and is positioned in such a way that her body is on display and ready to provide pleasure to the spectator of the picture.

Denied the Gaze -Picture property of Paramount entertainment

So my task for those of you who find the theory outdated,  find me a Hollywood film poster where the woman holds an active gaze without being undermined or sexualised!

Laura Mulvey’s essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” can be found here:  http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~mquillig/20050131mulvey.pdf

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