Here’s Looking at You, Kid: A Critical Evaluation of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”

Introduction: Establishing the Gaze

In the short sequence from The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Darabont) where Andy meets Red during a screening of Gilda (1946, dir. Charles Vidor), Rita Hayworth is met by cat-calls and wolf-whistles from the crowd of rowdy men when she appears on-screen. “This is the part I really like. This is where she does that shit with her hair” Red tells Andy as he anticipates her appearance. The explicit objectification of Hayworth in this sequence is emblematic of the cinematic male gaze established by Laura Mulvey in her landmark 1975 essay “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”.[1] Hayworth’s body is presented on-screen to be gazed upon by men for their own pleasure.

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” is a work that, over forty years later, is still being highly praised and criticised across a range of academic scholarship in film studies and beyond. Jackie Stacey (1994) has praised the “significance” of Mulvey’s essay as work that

cannot be underestimated, feminist film criticism has shown a continuing preoccupation with the questions of pleasure, spectatorship and gender identity foregrounded in her work. Although they offer critiques of Mulvey’s position, many of these responses have nevertheless continued to address the kinds of questions she posed, demonstrating the enormous significance of her contribution (p. 50).

Part of the significance of “Visual Pleasures” was that it was written at a crucial time for feminist film theory. The early 1970s was the beginning of the second-wave feminist movement which was an impactful time for women’s cinema. B. Ruby Rich (1999) traces a brief chronology of the major events of feminist filmmaking and criticism in North America and the UK in the period between 1971 to 1977 which saw a multitude of various events and publications devoted to the contribution to women and cinema emerge in New York, Edinburgh, and Toronto (p. 42). Therefore, Mulvey’s call for a revolution to, as she phrases it, “free the look of the camera” (p. 69) to create a new radical feminist cinema can be understood as a battle cry of second-wave feminism at that time.

Sue Thornham (2015) highlights that Mulvey’s essay generated almost immediate academic debate as soon as the next publication of Screen (p. 883) which is illustrative of the catalyst effect that Mulvey’s work has had on feminist film theory. Mulvey’s work is still being cited in contemporary scholarship and has now found its way into videogame studies which should be recognised as a testament to the impact that her essay has had beyond the cinema screen. The most common criticism of “Visual Pleasures”, however, lies in its neglect to recognise the non-straight-male spectator. Mulvey’s use of Freudian psychoanalysis means that her essay can only account for male spectatorship and thus ignores the female spectator. Additionally, Mulvey’s writing assumes that the male spectator is heterosexual which has left ample space for scholars of queer theory to interpret the cinematic gaze for a queer spectatorship.

Over the years, there has been much written on Mulvey’s work across the globe. Hu Ying (1999) has appropriates the gaze to the representation of women in Chinese cinema, Karen Schwartzman (1999) appropriates the gaze within Venezuelan cinema, and Erfani (2012) illustrates that a psychoanalytic approach would not be appropriate to an Iranian sensibility (p. 116). To keep this essay focussed, however, attention will only be paid to Western scholarship. The aim of this essay, then, is to provide a close critical analysis of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” This will be accomplished in three main steps: first, to outline Mulvey’s essay to demonstrate how she structures her cinematic gaze. Secondly, to establish how the male gaze can be utilised in film studies with brief textual analysis using Mulvey’s work and how her work has been incorporated into video game studies. Finally, utilising a range of other theorists influenced by Mulvey, this essay will account for the missing female and queer spectatorships within film studies to show how Mulvey’s gaze has been altered.

Constructing Mulvey’s Gaze

Mulvey (1999) usefully divides “Visual Pleasures” into three main sections (not including her summary) each with their own subsections that gradually builds upon her argument. She begins by firstly justifying her use of psychoanalysis “as [being] a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (p. 58) before then going on to show how pleasure is gained from looking (scopophilia) and, more crucially, how women are “coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (author’s emphasis, pp. 62-63). In Mulvey’s view, “the man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense as the bearer of the look of the spectator” which, in turn, subjugates the female body (p. 63).

Mulvey was not the first to harness psychoanalysis to establish a cinematic gaze. Thornham indicates that Mulvey’s use of psychoanalysis follows an established tradition in the early 1970s of French theorists such as Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry who also used the work of Freud and Jacques Lucan to frame the cinematic apparatus to create a cinematic gaze for the spectator (p. 53). To quote a passage from Baudry and Williams (Winter, 1974-1975):

The “reality” mimed by the cinema is thus first of all that of a “self.” But, because the reflected image is not that of the body itself but that of a world already given as meaning, one can distinguish two levels of identification. The first, attached to the image itself, derives from the character portrayed as a centre of secondary identifications, carrying an identity which constantly must be seized and re-established. The second level permits the appearance of the first and places it “in action” – this is the transcendental subject whose place is taken by the camera which constitutes and rules the objects in this “world.” Thus the spectator identifies less with what is represented, the spectacle itself, than with what stages the spectacle, makes it seen, obliging him to see what it sees; this is exactly the function taken over by the camera as a sort of relay (p. 45).

To this, Mulvey (1999) has responded that the “[r]ecent writing in Screen about psychoanalysis and the cinema has not sufficiently brought out the importance of the representation of the female form in a symbolic order” (p. 58). Nevertheless, the foundation of her argument can still be identified in Baudry and William’s work: a) that we recognise our “self” within the image of protagonist on-screen as a means of identifying with their perspective and b) the voyeuristic nature of the camera (the transcendental subject) is to code the subject based on how it is to be interpreted as a visual spectacle.

The recognition of the “self” on-screen stems from Jacques Lucan’s theorisation of the mirror stage in which the child who sees their reflection, as Mulvey explains, “imagines their mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body” (p. 61). Thus, the “glamorous characteristics” of the male protagonist are “not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror” (p. 64). It is through the identification with the “self” that the spectator identifies with the protagonist and vicariously gazes upon the female body through the eyes of the male character.

Furthermore, Mulvey stresses that a psychoanalytic approach hinges upon sexual difference; the threat of castration that the female body holds over the male. It is therefore critical in Hollywood cinema that the female body is contained and controlled in the narrative often through marriage and, since the male protagonist is representative of the spectator’s on-screen “self,” “the spectator can indirectly possess her too” (p. 64).

Through the gendering of existing psychoanalytic approaches to apparatus theory, Mulvey argues that Hollywood cinema operates within a patriarchal structure. The male is the active voyeur, the ideal reflection of the spectator to identify with, whereas the female passive and to be looked at, controlled, and ultimately possessed by the spectator vicariously through the male protagonist. Before continuing with a discussion of the neglected female and queer gaze, it is worthwhile here to demonstrate the usefulness of Mulvey’s essay by deploying her framework in analyses of female representations across cinema and videogames.

Applying Mulvey’s Gaze: From Marilyn Monroe to Lara Croft

Although her construction of the cinematic male gaze is one-dimensional in its scope by only calling attention to the overt objectification and sexualisation of the female body in mainstream Hollywood cinema for the male spectator’s voyeuristic pleasure, the simplicity of her methodology allows for her framework to be applied to various cinematic texts to examine the depiction of the female body. In her essay, Mulvey (1999) points towards the “show-girl” character specifically as a narrative device that unites both the gaze of the male characters on-screen and the spectators’ “without breaking narrative verisimilitude” (p. 63). Furthermore:

conventional close-ups of legs…or a face…integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys…the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude, to the screen (p. 63).

She highlights Marilyn Munroe as a specific example of the show girl character. Although Mulvey does not give any detailed textual analysis herself, a brief analysis of Munroe’s performance of “I Wanna Be Loved by You” from Some Like It Hot (1959, dir. Billy Wilder) can illustrate the validity of Mulvey’s work to analyse female representation.

The sequence begins with a high-angle shot depicting a packed auditorium with Munroe (as Sugar Kane, a singer in a women’s jazz orchestra) just off-centre to the left. There is a cut in time for the second verse of her song which brings us closer to the stage with Munroe now centred in the frame. The camera begins to zoom in on her, isolating her from the rest of the orchestra and putting her face and chest on display as she sings to the audience in the auditorium and camera (the spectator). Point of view shots that cut to the male protagonists, Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon), in drag onstage establish that the (male) spectator is sharing their gaze with them. However, as the men are physically sitting behind Munroe on the stage, the close-up of her is not a literal POV shot. The POV structure is there to show that the men are watching her; the close-up of her face and chest is for the pleasure of the (male) spectator. Moreover, Munroe’s sexual difference is, like Mulvey outlines, contained by the end of the film as she becomes romantically involved with Joe. Since the male hero is the idealistic reflection of the spectator, the spectator possesses Munroe indirectly through Joe thus desexualising Munroe’s character.

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Figure 1: Munroe as spectacle in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Despite “Visual Pleasures” being written in 1975, Mulvey’s theory is still applicable to contemporary mainstream Hollywood cinema. For instance, we can observe Megan Fox’s on-screen representation in the mainstream film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016, dir. Dave Green) as still adhering to the male gaze that Mulvey established forty years earlier. Fox’s character, April O’Neil, may not be a showgirl like Sugar but this does not stop the camera from voyeuristically objectifying her body for the male spectator. One sequence of the film focuses solely on Fox disguising herself as a schoolgirl. Here, the camera follows her through the crowded shopping centre as she changes clothes. There are close-ups of her stomach and chest and a final slow pan up her body when her disguise is complete. In line with Mulvey’s work, the close-ups of Fox’s body eroticise her, they flatten her, make her an icon, and rob the verisimilitude of her character to code her as a sex object for male pleasure.

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Figure 2: Close-up of Megan Fox’s body in TMNT: Out of the Shadows (2016)

Moreover, as evidence of the continuing influence that “Visual Pleasures” has on feminist theory, we can look towards the emerging work within videogame studies where scholars have begun to examine the representation of female avatars. The most commonly examined is Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (1996, Edios Interactive). With her large breasts, tiny waist, and gymnastic flexibility it is not surprising that Helen W. Kennedy (2002) has described Lara as being “the perfect combination of eye and thumb candy for the boys”. One approach which Kennedy uses in analysing Lara’s representation is incorporating “Visual Pleasures” to highlight Lara as “an eroticised object of the male gaze” through “the fetishistic and scopophilic pleasures which [Lara] provides for the male viewer”. Moreover, she goes on to argue that “Lara’s femininity…[is] disavowed through the heavy layering of fetishistic signifiers such as her glasses, her guns, the holster/garter belts, [and] her long swinging hair”.

Similarly, on a less academic basis, the online video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games presented by pop-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian for the online channel Feminist Frequency can be seen to be influenced by Mulvey’s essay. For example, in one instalment titled “Lingerie is not Armour” (2016) Sarkeesian discusses the hyper-sexualisation of the title character from Bayonetta (2009, PlatinumGames) – a youthful witch whose only clothing is her hair that covers her entire body. In the opening scene of the game, Sarkeesian notes that “[Bayonetta] is frozen in time, [she is] the passive object of the male gaze” to give pleasure to the “presumed straight male player.”

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Figure 3: Bayonetta as a “passive object of the male gaze” in Bayonetta (2009)

It should be briefly discussed that Mulvey’s gaze operates slightly differently in videogames than in cinema. One notable distinction is the in-game camera. Whereas the camera in cinema is fixed, the in-game camera of (most) video games can be controlled by the player. Consequently, the extent of the avatar’s objectification is largely down to the player who has the freedom to gaze at whatever part of their avatar they wish within the limits that the game allows – we cannot gaze at Lara’s naked body but can move the camera to focus on her chest or buttocks. Reflecting on her time playing Tomb Raider, McCallum-Stewart (2014) notes that when she was prompted to move the camera up to see a hole in the ceiling, the game’s camera (unintentionally) panned up between Lara’s legs. More crucially, there is a fundamental difference between looking at and playing as a female avatar. McCallum-Stewart emphasises that “players (especially male ones) will happily cross-gender, and do so for a variety of reasons that have little to do with sexuality, appropriation or gender preference”.

Mulvey’s work still holds relevance in contemporary academia and has even been adopted into video game studies as means of exploring feminist representation of female characters in the same vein as in film studies. Although highly influential, Mulvey’s work has been criticised for its neglect of the female and queer spectator who are not applicable to the heterosexual male gaze that Mulvey adamantly prescribes as the only gaze.

Creating a Female Gaze

A criticism of Mulvey’s work that constantly surfaces in academia is that she ignores the gaze of the female spectator. In “Visual Pleasures,” Mulvey (1999) does briefly acknowledge the existence of female protagonists in Hollywood cinema but immediately dismisses their strength as characters as being “more apparent than real” and she believes examining such characters would take her essay off topic (p. 64). A simple solution to create a female gaze would be, Mary Ann Doane (1999) suggests, to reverse and re-appropriate “the gaze for [the female’s] own pleasure” where she will become the active voyeur and the male body would become the object of the gaze (p. 134). Such a role reversal can be seen in Magic Mike (2012, dir. Steven Soderbergh) where the male stripper is presented as a sexual object gazed upon by the female audience alongside Twilight (2008, dir. Catherine Hardwicke) where the female protagonist is infatuated by and gazes upon the male body of her love interest. However, Doane warns that this role-reversal “simply reinforces the dominant system of aligning sexual difference with a subject/object dichotomy” (p. 134). Further still, the question of how a female gaze can operate within the male-dominated framework outlined in “Visual Pleasures” remains unchallenged.

Mulvey attempts to address the issue of female spectatorship herself in her “Afterthoughts” essay in 1981. Here she remains with her Freudian stance of the original piece and argues that the female spectator “may find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides” (p. 12). Female identification with a male hero, Mulvey believes, is achieved through a trans-sex identification whereby “the female spectator temporarily accepts ‘masculinisation’ in memory of ‘active’ phase…[T]he female spectator’s phantasy of masculinisation is always to some extent at cross purposes with itself, restless in its transvestite clothes” (p. 14). Stacey (1994) argues that Mulvey’s “Afterthoughts” is important as it not only “displaces the notion of the fixity of the spectator position” but it also “focuses on the gaps and contradictions within patriarchal signification” (p. 60). However, she finds Mulvey’s notion of a female trans-sex position worrying: “[h]ow, then, might we conceptualise the identity of the female spectator who actively desires – is masculinity really the only option?” (p. 60). Stacey’s question is one that has been attempted to be answered by a range of critics such as Doane (1999), Teresa de Lauteris (1999), and Rachel Ritterbusch (2008) who each provide their own approach to reclaim female spectatorship.

Doane (1999) has argued that the issue of sexual difference lies within the proximity between the spectator and the screen. Since the female body is on-screen to be looked at, Doane believes that the “female spectator’s desire can be described only in terms of a kind of narcissism” (p. 135). Doane argues that the female spectator has two choices to combat such narcissistic viewing: she can, like Mulvey put forward, “pretend that she is other” by incorporating a trans-sex mode of viewing to distance herself from the female image on-screen (p. 138) or the female spectator “might flaunt her femininity, [producing] herself as an excess of femininity” – what Doane refers to as “the masquerade” (p. 138). In this approach femininity is worn like mask “as the decorative layer which conceals a non-identity” (p. 138). “To masquerade,” Doane states, “is to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one’s image” (p. 139). Both Mulvey and Doane’s approach of female spectatorship hinge on sexual difference; they believe that the female must become Other to participate in viewing. Either they must adopt a transvestite identity or they must wear a mask to allow them to align themselves with the male protagonist to distance themselves from the (narcissistic) female image on-screen. Is a woman unable to watch as herself without adopting a masculine or excessive feminine identity?

To this question, de Lauteris (1999) would answer that it is possible for a woman to engage with a cinema text without, as she puts it, being “stranded between incommensurable entities, the gaze and the image”  (p. 91). To de Lauteris, Mulvey’s suggestion that the female spectator can alternate between feminine and masculine positions in their viewing is non-negotiable:

Neither [position] can be abandoned for the other, even for a moment; no image can be identified, or identified with, apart from the look that inscribes it as image, and vice versa. If the female subject were indeed related to the film in this manner, its division would be irreparable, unsuturable; no identification or meaning would be possible. (p. 90)

Lauteris suggests that the female spectator can identify with the active narrative subject of the film whilst simultaneously identifying with the passive object regardless of which is male and which is female (p. 90); “both figures can and in fact must be identified with at once, for they are inherent in narrativity itself” otherwise identifying with the text “would be either impossible…or entirely masculine” (p. 91). If we were unable to identify with both male and female characters, the narrative (or at least half of it) would be lost to us. Herein lies the fault in Mulvey’s gaze: female spectators can identify with both the active and passive characters just as male spectators are equally able to identify with female characters. Women are just as able of identifying with Joe and Jerry from Some Like It Hot as much as men can identify with Bella from Twilight.

Then what of Mulvey’s proposal for a radical cinema, can there exist a cinema that frees the look of the camera? Ritterbusch (2008) believes so, stating that this cinema “highlights the act of showing and, in doing so, creates a distancing awareness in the audience” (p. 36). She uses the film Nathalie… (2003, dir. Anne Fontaine) as a key example of this cinema as it not only draws attention to the camera’s presence (p. 36), it also refuses to show the sexual acts of Nathalie (a prostitute). Her actions are only spoken of which “denies male spectators (as well as others) the visual pleasure they have come to expect” (p. 38). Although the male gaze is denied, Ritterbusch acknowledges that male viewers “cannot be prevented from gazing at and objectifying the female body presented on-screen” (p. 38). After all, she admits, Nathalie is a prostitute and designed to be pleasurable to the male gaze with her skimpy clothing, high-heels, and make-up  (p. 39). Ritterbusch believes that what stops Nathalie from being locked within the male gaze is that she is in control of her image and decides who can gaze upon her and when; clients and moviegoers must pay to see her image, not her body (p. 39).

It is apparent that no matter who or how a text is identified with, scopophilic pleasure is always possible to someone. Perhaps then the only defence against voyeuristic pleasure is for characters, like Nathalie, to remain in control of their bodies. To quote Doane (1988): “the goal of a feminist film must be production of images which provide a pure reflection of the real woman, thus returning the female body as her rightful property” (p. 225).

Queering the Gaze

In “Visual Pleasures”, Mulvey (1999) does briefly acknowledge the existence of “active homosexual eroticism” in the ‘buddy movie’ genre but only as a method for “the central male figures [to continue] the story without distraction” from the interrupting female body (p. 63). Mulvey ultimately ignores any possibility for queer interpretations of the gaze by focussing singularly on the gaze of the heterosexual male which has left room for scholars such as Holinger, Todd, and Halberstam to queer Mulvey’s gaze.

Following on from the discussion of female spectatorship, there is also the existence of a lesbian look which is accessible to both lesbian and heterosexual women. Drawing from work by de Lauteris and Stacey, Holinger (1998) argues that, although lesbian films do exist within avant-garde cinema, mainstream cinema produces what she refers to as the “ambiguous lesbian” film. These films, she writes,

have attained considerable mainstream popularity with both lesbian and straight female audiences by refusing to identify itself unequivocally as a portrayal of female friendship or of lesbian romance. The sexual orientation of its female characters is never made explicit, and viewers are left to read the text largely as they wish (p. 6).

Lesbian spectators can “see the two women as lovers” whilst heterosexual women can maintain that they “could be just friends” (p. 7). Therefore, the audience can have “the voyeuristic satisfaction of seeing two beautiful women interacting in sexually provocative ways on the screen without overtly challenging heterosexist norms” (p. 7). Ultimately, Holinger contends that this positioning

challenges the exclusive male prerogative to control the filmic gaze and reconfigures this gaze so that it reflects a new female relation to desire…Its radical potential involves not only reciprocity but also an association between female subjectivity and agency and a refutation of an all-encompassing natural male-female opposition as the defining principle of subject formation. (p. 12)

Under Holinger’s framework, the lesbian look is not as objective as Mulvey’s gaze. Holinger acknowledges that the desire between the female couple is largely subjective; they can be read as an erotic couple or simply just as friends depending on the spectator’s sexuality or preference.

Holinger argues that an authentic lesbian film would deny the male gaze by not explicitly showing the characters’ sexuality (p. 10) but this is not always the case. Like Nathalie…, there is nothing to prevent the male from viewing the (ambiguous) lesbian couple for his own pleasure. For example, Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche), the coming-of-age drama of a young girl discovering her sexuality, can be seen to overdo depictions of lesbian desire and fall into the male gaze. The sexual relationship between Adele and Emma is excessively explicit. Scenes of the couple’s intimacy are prolonged and the camera gives its undivided attention to their bodies, showing every aspect of their acts. Unlike Nathalie, Adele and Emma are not in control of their bodies. The camera intrudes on their intimate moments allowing their bodies to be seen by all.

Furthermore, Mulvey’s own evidence can be queered. In her essay Mulvey (1999) uses Hitchcock’s films as evidence to support her argument as most of his films, she believes, use voyeurism as their subject matter (p. 65). Mulvey contends that in Rear Window (1954) Lisa is “a passive object of visual perfection” whereas Jeff voyeuristically observes her from his spectator position which puts him “squarely in the fantasy position of the cinema audience” (p. 67). By providing a queer reading of Hitchcock’s work, Todd (2008) further establishes the flexibility of the cinematic gaze. He explains that

queer theory has the potential to reappropriate…films in subversive or radical ways by problematising notions of spectatorship altogether. By this process, we might further complicate our understanding of women characters within Hitchcock’s films and begin to think about them in ways that move beyond the divides of active/passive gaze/object-of-gaze paradigm (p. 55).

To Todd, pleasure derives from reading Hitchcock’s films the “’wrong’ way” (p. 57). He writes of gaining pleasure by subverting the heteronormative reading through a “transgressive refusal to follow any…rules of looking” to free himself and Hitchcock’s women from Mulvey’s “restrictive…model of gendered spectatorship” (p. 57).

When Todd tells of his experience of watching Rear Window, he describes how part of him identified with Lisa. Whereas Mulvey reads her only as the passive object, Todd reads her as both “a female object of desire to be gazed upon and an active subject who defies passivity” (p. 59). In Todd’s reading, Lisa blurs masculinity and femininity. She embodies the femininity of the fashion world but also embodies a masculine sense of adventure that Jeff lacks and remains unharmed after the film’s events (pp. 59-60). Though “Visual Pleasures” contends for a singular heteronormative male reading of a film text, Todd has demonstrated that even the most heteronormative films can be reinterpreted through a queer lens to go against the grain of traditional gender binaries.

One could also argue that Mulvey’s notion of trans-sex identification is a mode of queering the gaze as the women is said to take the position of the male. However, Judith Halberstam (2005) argues in her construction of the transgender look that Mulvey’s “Afterthoughts” as well as Doane’s “Masquerade” “requires no real understanding of transvestism” (p. 141). To Halberstam, the transgender look is difficult to pin-down “because it depends on complex relations in time and space between seeing and not seeing, appearing and disappearing, knowing and not knowing” (p. 129). The transgender look is not reliant on gender binaries discussed thus far, it requires the spectator to “see what is not there and desire what is” (p. 134). The transgendered body dismantles predetermined gender binaries and can mean different things to different people. To quote Halberstam:

For some audiences, the transgender body confirms a fantasy of fluidity so common to notions of transformation within the postmodern. To others, the transgender body confirms the enduring power of the binary gender system. But to still other viewers, the transgender body represents a utopian vision of a world of subcultural possibilities  (pp. 156-157).

Halberstam’s identification and recognition of a rise in transgender cinema points towards a continuing development of gender representation in film. The transgender body does not now exist only in queer cinema, it has emerged recently in mainstream Hollywood within the Oscar winning film The Danish Girl (2016, dir. Tom Hooper). The emergence of the transgender body in mainstream Hollywood adds yet another complexity to Mulvey’s gaze. Operating outside of heteronormative gender binaries, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to subject the transgender body to the male gaze.

Conclusion: Who’s Looking at Who?

Originally written in 1975 as a cry for radical change, Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures” is still being debated in film studies as well as being adopted into the emerging academic practice of video game studies. Due to its longevity and influence across academia, it would be impossible to deny the importance of “Visual Pleasures” as a text within film studies. By gendering existing psychoanalytic theories of the cinematic apparatus, Mulvey demonstrated the unconscious patriarchal practices of Hollywood cinema which positioned women as passive objects for male voyeuristic pleasure.

Her methodology is straight-forward enough for it to be applicable to various texts in cinema and video games in analyses of female representation but her one-dimensional approach to her gaze is too simplistic to be fully effective. In Mulvey’s view, all mainstream cinema is heteronormative and viewed by a presumed straight male audience. There is no space for the female spectator – they must pretend to be other to participate in viewing, nor is there space for queer readings in her essay. This absence has been justly criticised by a range of scholars who have re-appropriated her work to suit different modes of spectatorship. Unlike Mulvey proposes, there are various lenses a spectator can use in viewing a film regardless of their gender or sexuality. Spectators can identify with any character and partake in alternate or queer readings if they wish. There is no one way of reading a film.

Though we may be able to read a film how we wish, this does not prevent a viewer from objectifying a character. The only defence against becoming a passive object is dependent on the extent of the control that character has over their body. If the character is in control of their body they are not simply passive objects, rather, in line with Doane, their body is returned as their rightful property, not a sex object for the spectator.

Cinema may have changed since 1975 but voyeurism and objectification of bodies are still plentiful within Hollywood cinema as well as other visual media. The cinematic gaze is therefore still a relevant area of film studies. With more varied representations of gender and sexuality emerging within contemporary Hollywood cinema, there is no single theory that can account for all possibilities of spectatorship. The who and what they are gazing at is more multifaceted than Mulvey first put forward but her formulation remains largely unchanged: someone is gazing at something for some form of visual pleasure. It is for this reason why “Visual Pleasures” is held so prestigiously in film theory despite its faults.


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Schwartzman, K., 1999. “The seen of the Crime”. In: D. Robin & I. Jaffe, eds. Redirecting the Gaze: Gender, Theory, and Cinema in the Third World. New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 205-255.

Stacey, J., 1994. Star Gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thornham, S., 1999. “The Language of Thory: Introduction”. In: Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 53-57.

Thornham, S., 2015. “On ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'”. Feminist Media Studies, 15(5), pp. 881-884.

Todd, I. S., 2008. “Hitchcock’s ‘Good-Looking Blondes’: First Glimpses and Second Glances. In: M. Block, ed. Situating the Feminist Gaze and Spectatorship in Postwar Cinema. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 52-66.

Ying, H., 1999. “Beyond the Glow of the Red Lantern; Or, What Does It Mean to Talk about Women’s Cinema in China?”. In: D. Robin & I. Jaffe, eds. Redirecting the Gaze: Gender, Theory, and Cinema in the Third World. New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 257-282.



Blue is the Warmest Colour, 2013. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. France: Wild Bunch.

The Danish Girl, 2016. Directed by Tom Hooper. USA: Working Title.

Gilda, 1946. Directed by Charles Vidor. USA: Columbia Pictures.

Magic Mike, 2012. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. USA: Nick Wechsler Productions.

Nathalie…, 2003. Directed by Anne Fontaine. France: Mars Distribution.

Rear Window, 1954. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Patron Inc.

Some Like It Hot, 1959. Directed by Billy Wilder. USA: Mirisch Company.

The Shawshank Redemption, 1994. Directed by Frank Darabont. USA: Castle Rock Entertainment.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, 2016. Directed by Dave Green. USA: Nickelodeon Movies.

Twilight, 2008. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. USA: Temple Hill Entertainment.


Bayonetta, 2009. Platinum Games.

Tomb Raider, 1996. Eidios Interactive.

[1] “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was originally published in an issue of Screen in 1975 but this essay cites it from a collection of essays from 1999 edited by Sue Thornham.




One thought on “Here’s Looking at You, Kid: A Critical Evaluation of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”

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  1. I agree with your conclusion. The ‘gaze’ concept is an interesting idea but it is too simplistic and rigid to account for the way a film relates to the audience. Well-written essay – though the correct spelling is Monroe. Cheers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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