‘Visual Pleasure’ at 40: Laura Mulvey in Discussion
British Film Institute
Tuesday 21 April, 2015
‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ features in
Visual and Other Pleasures
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
The notion of an event designed to celebrate the anniversary of an essay’s publication—with the author present, enthroned and ready to receive due deference—is often enough to stir feelings of profound queasiness. Such displays of hagiographic adulation on the part of institutions can very easily seem designed only to cement the conviction that ideas from then matter more than ideas from now, and that the worthwhile is, in fact, the safely incorporated, the neutralised, the canonised. Perhaps the fact that an essay is forty years old should be proof enough that it is time we moved on and found a new text to revere. But there are essays which are different, which, for reasons often difficult to articulate, remain not only fascinating but fresh, not only exciting but explosive.
Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ was first published in Screen in 1975. It was not written by Laura Mulvey the distinguished professor of film and media studies, because such a Laura Mulvey did not yet exist. It was, rather, written by Laura Mulvey the political activist, the holder of a third from Oxford in History and no postgraduate degree. The dynamic political investment of its writer may go some way to explaining the passion and urgency of the text, while her non-academic status perhaps hints at how the essay is able to escape the sometimes stultifying timidity of scholarly writing. Instead, the essay tackles its subject—the representation of the body, particularly the female body, in popular cinema from Hollywood’s “Golden Age”—with the insights of political theory and the thrilling verve of a manifesto. And it is as a manifesto for a series of essential changes to gendered screen representations that the essay still resonates; the Hollywood conventions so wittily and so unsentimentally scrutinised by Mulvey remain in place in so much of the highly conservative output of Anglo-American film.
This is not to argue that the essay is not the product of a very particular time. It was devised in a specific cultural moment in which, through radical reading groups and avant-garde art, psychoanalysis was being reconceived as a political weapon in the fight for equality. The writings of Freud and Lacan were being reappropriated, stripped of their own latent misogyny, and made to work on behalf of radical feminism. The misrecognition at the heart of the Lacanian mirror stage—a thetic moment in the psychic development of the infant in which it constructs an ideal ego from a reflected self deemed to have far greater motor capacity—is reimagined as the defining inception of the gaze, a moment recreated endlessly in the pleasurable misrecognition of self on the cinema screen as the hero’s gaze becomes the viewer’s own. This narcissistic gaze is paradoxically coupled with the more distanced, scopophilic pleasure of watching the film’s apparently private diegetic world undetected, the two combining to construct “a beautifully complementary fantasy world” focused on the passive, narrative-arresting female form.
The dialectic at work in the reconciliation of the libido (scopophilia) and ego (narcissism) finds a formal equivalence in both the precise structure and the wider strategies of the essay. The tripartite sections of the text typically consist of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis; Mulvey describes this as the essay’s visual plane, the way in which its form on the page creates a sense of dialectic progress. This, in turn, echoes the dynamic synthesis of Marx and Freud, forged by the New Left of the 1970s, in which a developing sexual economy, structured around the notions of fetishism central to both writers, tied woman “to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning.” It is a comforting myth that this dimension of the patriarchal symbolic order has been forever dismantled. However—and, it must be admitted, this is somewhat pre-emptive—it is unlikely that any of this summer’s Hollywood box office wonders will do anything to challenge the conventional narratives through which “man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman…” The delight of the twin voyeurisms of the pleasurable gaze from a distance and the shared look of the hero will, no doubt, stimulate many an audience member in darkened auditoriums this year.
And so, the essay deserves celebration because, in its treatment of the notorious male gaze, it addresses material which acquires a new pertinence—and perhaps new urgency—for each generation of cinephiles. It is the only essay which can boast being both the most cited text in the history of film theory and the subject of a joke in Parks and Recreation. To straddle so spectacularly the worlds of academia and popular culture, to have currency in esteemed journals and hit sitcoms, is a unique achievement, and demands that the iconic status of this short essay be taken seriously. Notoriously, it has its detractors, who claim that Mulvey’s undeniable hyperbole and generalisation render the essay crude and without rigour. Mulvey herself argues that she did not desire the essay’s argument to be nuanced (which may explain the omission of counter examples from melodrama and other classic Hollywood genres); instead, the essay is a provocation demanding a response, calling for a defence of the strategies of looking insisted upon by mainstream narrative films for many decades. This defence has not been forthcoming, and, instead, the would-be defenders of this cinema of gendered gaze have chosen to attack the virtuosic style of the essay. This has proven to be a flawed strategy as, regardless of their critique, the essay’s most controversially polemic statements—”It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article”—are also its most sensationally galvanising. And its simplest statements—”Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic”—are, saturated with significance, also its most poetic.
On 21 April, an august triumvirate of institutions (the BFI, Cambridge University, and Screen) collaborated on staging a celebration of the essay, with a birthday panel of luminous figures from the worlds of film and film studies. Filmmakers Isaac Julien and Joanna Hogg discussed the influence of the essay’s politics on their own practice. They argued, with the essay, that filmmaking, stripped of its submissiveness to commercialism and its conventional narratives, can become an act of theoretical knowledge building. This insight—demonstrated also by Mulvey’s parallel career as a filmmaker—can be seen in Julien’s defiant films on race politics and Hogg’s dissection of contemporary gendered relations. Academics Mandy Merch, Tamar Garb, and Emma Wilson discussed the essay’s radical impact on academic discussions within and beyond the arts, as it opened up the idea of pleasure to interrogation and exploded the notion of disinterested looking. “Mulvey’s Manifesto,” as it has been described, launched a new vocabulary for academics and artists to articulate their political encounters with the world. And, with its heady combination of French theory and popular American culture, it was a resounding slap in the face for the stuffy, self-preserving world of 1970s High English academia. Suddenly, anything and everything could and should be studied.
The evening, though, fundamentally served as a reminder of the unique and overwhelming contribution of Mulvey herself. In her own reminiscence on the origins of the essay, she recalled how the 1970s were a moment of enormous political energy, during which there arose an unprecedented consideration of the politics of the body. Debates around sexuality and gender (the place of gays, abortion, attitudes to rape) became ubiquitous, and the law reflected the fast shifting ideas. These debates, suggests Mulvey, belonged primarily to legal and political thinkers, motivated, perhaps, by a wider discourse but ultimately given shape by a professional few. However, hand in hand with this developing politics of the body, necessarily went a politics of the representation of the body. The exploitation of women, of homosexuals, of people from racial and ethnic minorities, of the disabled—this was happening also in the fantastic and obsessive recording of their bodies in text and image. This politics of representation—a politics to which ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ makes a unique contribution—is a discourse in which theory became and becomes a political weapon, and in which the academic humanities make one of their most profound and essential contributions. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ may be forty years old, but it has not has lost its ability to rouse an audience and demand of the humanities something ever more dynamic and ever more subversive.
Benedict Morrison  is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor in Chief of the Oxonian Review.