I would like to open / continue discussion on Laura Mulvey's well know Visual
Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema. Although written twenty years ago it
still appears to extend a great deal of influence in areas of scholarship
around film, poststructuralism, the visual arts and cultural criticism. To
me there are a number of objections that should be raised about this essay
and its reception but are they being raised? Most specifically are they
being raised in the classroom? As an independent film maker with no
university affiliations I have no direct way of knowing. So, assuming that
the article is being widely taught and read I pose the following questions.
I also assume that these issues have been raised before and would appreciate
article references ( I understand that Victor Burgin has written on the
topic?) but more importantly I would like to know what participants on SCREEN
- L have to say about this topic of continuing critical import.
1. The title of the article specifies narrative cinema but the article itself
moves between the specificity of Hollywood cinema and the cinema in general,
functionally implying that what is true of Hollywood is true of all cinema.
Even if one rejects my claim that the article does this, certainly Mulvey's
commentators have. Does such wide reception and application of Mulvey's work
reduce the possibility of more subtle forms of criticism necessary for
experimental, independent and feminist cinema?
2. The article makes almost exclusive use of Freudian theory for its thesis
and arguments yet contains no questioning of the relationship between
feminist thought and psychoanalysis or the validity of Freudian theory. The
introduction makes claims about phallocentrism that are explained exclusively
via Freud's view of female sexuality. Isn't this odd? At what time was it
decided that Freud's phallocentrism is the phallocentrism of culture at large
and in addition should patriarchy and phallocentrism be so easily conflated?
What are the consequences of feminist work that relies on patriarchal
structures for its claim to authority? Is this a significant criticism or is
Mulvey deploying a deconstructive method that intentionally uses Freudian
thought against itself?
3. Is Mulvey's use of the terms 'male gaze' and 'heterosexual division of
labor' guilty of a regressive essentialism? This point is important in that
the effects she describes continue to plague the cinema and that she
describes them well but labeling them these terms and refuses the possibility
or complication of multiple relations
between filmic practice, male viewing, the filmic image, images of women and
the symbolic. Certainly heterosexual men -and 'male' use of the camera-
frequently participate in this gaze but we must remember that this does not
define the totality or the essence of masculine viewing / gazing in relation
4. Over the past few years there has been a move -following Mulvey's lead-
to define other gazes such as a lesbian gaze or a feminist gaze. I will not
claim that there is no validity to this but that we should be concerned with
the effect of this project. Does it threaten to essentialize -and worse,
ghettoize- along political, activist and community lines filmic and viewing
practices that do not necessarily need to be treated in this way? I have see
such a move on the internet and in print around the work of Trin T. Min-ha,
Barbara Hammer, Lydia Szjako, Jenny Holtzer and Cindy Sherman among others.
The threat here is twofold, 1) that the gaze is understood as an inherent
characteristic of the artist so they become the voice of ultimate authority
about their own work. And 2) that subtle and overdetermined work is claimed
by a community and this claiming effectively limits the type of criticism and
analysis that can be produced about this work. Yes, communities have the
right to recognize themselves and their concerns in this work but this
claiming should not be allowed to signal that no other type of analysis or
criticism is acceptable.
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