Below are my notes in Laura Mulvey’s Essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. It is a compilation of my understanding of the major points of the essay, as well as its application in the image of the “violent female”.
Woman as bearer of meaning
- Phallocentrism and all its manifestations depend on the image of the woman, particularly the castrated women, in order to make sense of its ideology.
- Her desires and existence are encapsulated in her longing to transcend her castration. She has no other meaning apart from being the bearer of the bleeding wound.
- She is nothing but a signifier of the male “other” in a patriarchal culture, where her role is to fulfill his desires, obsessions and fantasies.
- In the patriarchal subconscious, the woman plays two main parts:
- Her lack of a penis represents the threat of castration
- Once she fulfills her function of bearing a child, she raises it into the symbolic by raising the child as a signifier of her desire to possess a penis.
- Her purpose, once fulfilled, puts her meaning into an end. She is now meaningless and is left only as a memory in the world.
- She is not a maker of meaning, but tied to her place in silence as only a bearer of it.
- The dominant ideology dictates that any form of analysis or criticism of pleasure or beauty, destroys it.
- A woman’s challenge is to fight the dominant ideology coursed through a structured language, while tied to the limitations of her reality under a world of patriarchy.
- In terms of cinema, historically, despite the strong ideological language in place, an alternative cinema was able to develop. However, it still adapted the formality of the dominant ideology.
- A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.
- With the mainstream cinema still unchallenged, it is continuously coding the language of the patriarchy.
Pleasure in Looking at the Human Form
- Cinema provides a sense of scopophilia, meaning the love of looking, and pertaining to the predominantly male gaze encapsulated in mainstream film.
- Looking generates pleasure as much as being looked at does. The former is stereotypically male’s, while the latter is a pleasure stereotypically assigned to females.
- Too much looking, on the other hand, may lead to obsession and perversion, wherein sexual satisfaction can only be achieved through looking.
- Cinema’s tendency for exhibitionism gives power to the lookers by enriching their experience of their voyeuristic fantasies through the projection of the objects of their repressed eroticism.
- Mainstream film, above all, focuses on the human form through camera movements, space, scales, and stories.
- There is a romantic affair between the image and self-image which found itself extremely expressed in the medium of film. This generates such overwhelming recognition from the audience.
- In the pleasure of looking, there are some contradictory aspects:
- First, scopophilia arises from pleasure in looking by using another person as an object of sexual stimulation. This is a sexual instinctual function.
- Second, innate narcissism and the ego results in identifying with what is being seen. This is an ego libido function.
- Both aspects have to be incorporated into an ideology to gain meaning.
Woman as the image, Man as the bearer of look
- What is essential and highlighted in a woman is her “to-be-looked-at-ness”. The male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female who is characterized and styled for maximum erotic and visual impact.
- A woman’s presence is a staple in a typical narrative, but her character’s visuals tend to freeze the storyline in order to give focus to eroticism.
- Budd Boetticher said: “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
- The woman functions both as an erotic subject for the male characters, and the male audience. The male gaze stikes her from within and outside the screen.
- On the contrary, the male cannot bear the burden of being objectified. Thus, his role is to forward the story when the woman freezes the narrative with her visuals.
- He commands the scene and generates all the action needed.
- The woman’s presence cannot command the story because her imagery beyond sexual objectification is that of castration and, thus, unpleasure. Women exist mainly for sexual difference and objectification.
- She is an icon displayed for the enjoyment of men. If this purpose is unfulfilled, she is just an image of pain and anxiety.
- When the male is reminded of the castration anxiety by the woman, he escapes by:
- Investigating and trying to demystify the woman, and devaluating and punishing her
- He forces a change in her, in a battle of strength and sanity, ultimately trying to defeat and destroy her
- If unsuccessful, he substitutes her for another object of his fetish, or turns her into a fetish so that she becomes an object of lust, and not anxiety.
- The woman knows that her role is to perform for the male to keep his interest. But in the process of performing for him, he attempts to break her down and expose her.
- Cinema has invoked scopophilic instinct in its audience, as well as the ego libido.
- Women represent castration threats which are absorbed by voyeuristic tendencies and are fetishized so as to reduce anxiety.
- Cinema builds how a woman should look because the focus is on her to-be-looked-at-ness
- Cinema highlights this by controlling time through the narrative and the editing, as well as space.
- “Cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.”
- Cinema encapsulates three different looks:
- that of the point of view of the camera as it records
- that of the audience as it watches the film
- that of the characters within the illusion of the screen
- As soon as fetishist representation of the female image breaks the illusion of the screen, and the fully erotic image is exposed to the viewer, the woman is fetishized, frozen, and emphasized to keep the spectator from looking at, thinking of, any doing anything else other than wallow in her imagery.
Realizations: Relationship to the Violent Female
It was previously stated that when the male is reminded of the castration anxiety brought about by the woman, he escapes by, first, trying to demystify her. This happens during the typical treatment of films when it comes to violent women. Men are usually depicted at the peak of their curiosity, treating the female as if she were an experiment or a scientific subject. He tries to break down the “mystery” behind her violence. This way, the violence of the woman is not the focus, but rather, it is the male ego and his perseverance in examining the subject that is highlighted.
If the man’s ego, strength, and knowledge end up being challenged or threatened by the violence of the woman, he tries to devalue and punish her. The film typically supports the devaluation of the violent female by showing her in very vulnerable positions. She is reduced to an animal being punished, rather than a troubled human being. The male punishes, mocks, and tortures her in an attempt to change and, eventually, demystify her. If he fails to do so, he makes it his mission to destroy her. This is why most violent women in films end up dying a cruel fate. It is the female who conforms to societal stereotypes who end up surviving in the story.
Lastly, if the man cannot destroy her, in a desperate attempt for his ego to prevail, he ends up fetishizing her. The film usually romanticizes this by making the male fall in love with the violence of the female, or embracing her nature and even sharing in her pursuits. This way, violent or not, the female is back to playing the role she was meant to play — the object of his lust and fantasies. She could not and will not be able to escape because, at the end of the day, it will always be about the male ego, the dominant ideology, and the eyes within and in front of the screen, which she is made to serve.
Possible topics for further discussion:
- The language, practice, evolution, and analysis of the scopophilic instinct and ego libido towards the female object in Philippine Cinema
- The ideology of the patriarchal order in Philippine Cinema
- Evolution of a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness in Philippine Cinema, or in certain auteur’s works — this will be technical and will look into film form and elements, as well as psychology.
- Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, Volume 16(3), 6-18.