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Critique of Mulvey's Theory of The Male Gaze

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1376 words Published: 8th Sep 2021

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“In masochism, as in the infantile stage of the helpless dependence that marks its genesis, pleasure does not involve mastery of the female but submission to her. This pleasure applies to the infant, the masochist, and the film spectator as well”. (Studlar 782)

How does Studlar’s work on fetishism and masochism challenge Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze?

Discuss in relation to films from classical era and contemporary cinema. Refer to film screened in this unit and films of your choice, with attention to mise-en-scene and narrative structure.

Studlar challenges Mulvey’s theories on the male scopic pleasure as the bearer of control. Studlar also challenges Mulvey’s statement of the female as ‘lack’ and instead suggests a sense of power from this lack; the female as a film complexity, being not necessarily the subject of the male gaze but rather the holder of the gaze.

Firsly, I will discuss Mulvey’s theories and Studlar’s challenges, and compare and contrast the two. After discussing both theories in relation to one another, I will then call on examples from classic and contemporary cinema to justify my arguments and discuss the trends of Contemporary cinema with regards to psychoanalysis.

In article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey argues in mainstream cinema, in relation to patriarchal society, women are being portrayed as an erotic object to be looked at in movies as well as an attraction to male gaze. Her theory explains that women are playing passive part in movies while men hold the strong and active character and play as a prominent subject. Therefore, Mulvey’s theory on male gaze is determined as a sexual pleasure in which male are able to obtain by looking at portrayal of female. (Laura Mulvey (1975). “Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Gerald Mast, Cohen & Baudry (eds). Film Theory: An Introduction. 5th ed, pp 746-757.

Objectification of women in classical era and contemporary cinema as erotic and sensual figure is still applied. Mulvey’s work in this theory has been supported by feminist theory; it can be seen in the following quote from literary critic’s standpoint:

“In 1975, when Laura Mulvey published her groundbreaking study of woman in film her position as a signifier for the male other, as a projection of male fantasies, and, finally, as a bearer not maker of meaning she gave new shape and direction to the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies, motivating scholars in many subject areas to examine and, most interestingly, re-examine the political, cultural, social and literary achievements of women through the ages” (Despotopoulou, 569). (Despotopoulou, Anna. “Fanny’s Gaze and the Construction of Feminine Space in Mansfield Park” Modern Language Review 99 (2004): 569-583)

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Films such as The War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing from Another World (1951) give close to no female role/s who take part in advancing the narrative. But that is not to say that all films painted women as an “indispensible element of spectacle” (Mulvey 750). For example the 1939 film The Women by Metro–‐Goldwyn Mayer Productions is notable for its all–‐female cast. Although the content of the film could be argued, this is a clear example of women controlling the film narrative.

Furthermore, her theory of male gaze can be seen in film “Fifth Element”. The character “Leelo” which is played by Milla Jovovich in the movie portrayed her as passive object erotic to be looked at. In mise-en-scene and narrative term, it can be shown that her character was touted as “the Supreme Being” and regarded as the ultimate weapon to counteract the attack from the evil being harming the world. However, the Supreme Being is also subjected to objectification with repetitive display of her breasts, body and being gazed by the casts (which, in effect, also enables its spectators to look at her in an erotic manner). While she is labeled as the Supreme Being, she certainly looked inferior, weak and vulnerable to Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Korben was the one who rescued her after being shot in the air duct.

“Mulvey argues women are regarded as fetishistic display for male viewer’s pleasure and the spectators embodies the subject (the active role), while the narrative film stands for the object which is the passive position” (Carolina Hein, 2006, p. 4).

Her concept of “to-be-looked-at-ness”, exemplifies that women were simply shown on screen in classic Hollywood in order to provide men with visual pleasure and have an erotic impact. Mulvey argues that the distinctive key protagonist within a classic Hollywood film was male and the audience members where similarly typically expected to be men. In classical era as well as contemporary cinema, women are generally passive characters who looked to males for protection and rescue.

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Gaylyn Studlar’s theory of Masochism and Perverse Pleasure refutes Laura Mulvey’s theory of Male gaze. According to Studlar, the viewing pleasure are transmitted to the spectators is derived from total submission to the female. Her theory believes that by using masochism, women are portrayed as idealized power figure, which are both dangerous and comforting, not such as discarded object (Studlar, 1985) (Gaylyn Studlar (1985) “Masochism and the perverse pleasure of the Cinema”, in Gerald Mast, Cohen & Baudry (eds). Film Theory: An Introduction. 5th ed, pp 773-790).

In my point of view, Studlar’s theory of masochism enables bisexual dualism. It means this theory creates an ability of freeing up gendered subjectivity to spectators in mainstream cinema. It technically enables viewer to see both genders, male and female as powerful object. Moreover, this theory confirms the conventional perception of women’s incapacity, means that it can influence and change people’s perspective towards woman as being lack and weak.

In classical era, movie like Alien (1979) exemplifies women as powerful character. The female character Ellen Ripley leads strong, independent and professional women character. In Alien, Ripley is the strong female character who makes active judgments and survives what is trying to kill her. The male character’s activity is largely passive – most die quickly, others wait for her command. It is Ripley who makes the plan to defeat the alien which works, while the ‘powerless’ male Captain makes bad judgments as his unsure plan fails. (Movie analysis: Women in horror films: Ripley, the alien, and the monstrous feminine by Daniel Stephen, http://www.helium.com/items/132886-women-in-horror-films-ripley-the-alien-and-the-monstrous-feminine).

Studlar’s theory in submissive masculine look term, the masculinity factors which are men supposed to portray is symbolized through women character. Instead of being passive character in the movie, Ripley plays as an active and protagonist character which is the opposite of Mulvey’s theory of male gaze. Ripley holds the “gaze” from the beginning of the movie until the end of it. One of the final scenes of the film takes place in an escape pod where single–‐handed, Ripley manages to overpower the invading alien. Ripley is shown as a character that is able to complete tasks that men were otherwise unable to complete. Likewise, Alien’s representation of feminism shows women as “alien to themselves” (Jeffords 74). Jeffords, Susan. “Battle of the Big Mommas: Feminism and Alienation.” Journal of American Culture 10.3 (1987): 74.

This portrayal of women releases the character of Ripley and eventually feminism. Ripley is shown as a ‘Company Woman’, reaffirmed at the end of the film when “despite The Company’s betrayal of herself and the entire crew, [she] disposes of the alien only to sit down and complete her captain’s log” (Newton 297). Newton, Judith. “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien in Symposium on Alien.” Science Fiction Studies 7. Ed. Charles Elkins. 1980. 297.

Her place in this Company Creates the questioning of her position in a patriarchal society.

Another example of Studlar’s theory in contemporary cinema is Disney movie called “Mulan”.


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