Notes on ‘White’ by Richard Dyer


  • Can whiteness be a category -like eg. Blackness in film?
  • Most ‘minority’ analysis – on women, black, gay etc…. concentrates on how these groups are portrayed and represented, as part of the analysis of the way they are subordinated
  • But concentrating on these groups, without showing ‘the norm’ alongside them reinforces their ‘oddity/ differentness’.
  • Concentrating on the ‘norm’ eg the dominant category can also work to redress the balance – this has mainly been done with an analysis of the construction of ‘masculinity’


  • the author states that it is ok for a writer on the ‘dominant’ to be part of the dominant group ( eg. White and male). He should not go overboard on self criticism, but must acknowledge it may have an effect on his writing.
  • White v black is not just about ethnicity, and we have many everyday examples where the norm is white cf black.
  • White is light v black is dark- safe v dangerous
  • White is good and black is evil- the bible. Even these which may seem obvious are constructed….. it’s certainly possible to think of light/white as dangerous and black/dark as safe ………examples…
  • Black is often thought as a colour and white as a background or nothingness (white paper, white light) . Scientifically white is all colours and black is the absence of colour.
  • This resembles the idea that the ‘norm’ is white= everything, and black is somehow different.
  • Even in calls to the ‘nation’ (which seem inclusive of many groups), does it really include Black -in the case of Britain- or is white an underlying additional assumption of the norm here??, like we assume whiteness in addition to the norms of class, gender, heterosexuality……


  • Because it’s often assumed in the background whiteness is often hidden as a category in itself ( except in extreme case such as racism…)
  • It also makes it hard to analyse…. Unlike black. So we have the eg. Brief encounter which becomes about middle class- not White, but we have The colour purple which is about Black, before poor…….
  • The film ‘Being white’ shows vox pops of white people who ,in practice, are unable to define themselves as white, but always as subcategories of white- eg. Jewish….
  • Dyer suggests several areas that might be useful in analysing this difficult characteristic of ‘white’- eg. Portrayals of white in racist extremism, or in non-white film. Or if exchange white characters with black ones in iconic white films…..- what does it say about whiteness? (the commutivity test)


  • All these methods need to contrast white with non-white (and this is not the case with the analogous analysis of say portrayal of blacks, or American Indians).
  • Three cinematic films are mentioned where whiteness is analysed through the presence of non-white others, Simba, Jezabel , and Night of the Living Dead. The three cover a wide range of cinema characteristics (budget, style, subject etc…)
  • Definition coterminous=covering the same area.
  • Dyer looks at what is similar about the portrayal of whiteness in all 3 (diverse) films, but admits that due to whiteness’s resistance to being categorised there is an inevitable massive variation in whiteness in films.
  • Nevertheless, ‘all 3 films share a perspective that associates whiteness with order, rationality, rigidity….’ (ref) and a sense (in very different ways) that whiteness is being contested.
  •                                                                                                                                                   p.461
  • all 3 make reference to potential loss of dominant state of the whites-Simba- the uprising of the Mau-Mau against British occupation, Jezebel-the abolition of slavery in the USA, and ‘Night’ (implicitly) the various power struggles of the black people in 1960’s USA.


  • Dyer says that the sense of otherness in these films is based on ‘existential psychology’- introduced by Sartres where ‘an individual becomes self-aware by perceiving its difference from others’ (sounds a little like Lacan’s mirror phase, but this involves a misapprehension/false perception  about ‘no difference’ with another individual (the mirror image)
  •  This existential pysychology has been discussed by numerous authors , but Dyer concentrates on how it is played out in the films…
  • In each film Whites are dominant but dependent upon Blacks in some way, and they realise this (differently) in all 3 films.
  • This dependency delegitamises the white dominance, and Dyer’s fascination is in
  • how the films struggle to hang onto a justification of white dominance, however difficult it is to do.


  • The film is British, and is a ‘colonial adventure’ story, where the hero achieves ‘personal growth’.


  • Dyer describes the film’s narrative as a discussion of the serious issue of the Mau-Mau uprising, with different symbolic groups or individual people representing different attitudes to the problem
  • Finally, the hero (Alan) is the main symbol- his growth is allowed through engagement with the problem.
  • The film involves a complete binary separation of the black and white cultures -with no in-between or meeting.
  • This separation is achieved through cinema effects (symbols…..)
  • Basically white is rational, safe, organised modernity etc… and blackness is the complete antithesis of this….
  • The meetings of the whites and blacks are contrasted to illustrate how they represent these characteristics.
  • The whites- early evening, light, indoors, ‘high-key lighting’, orderly, speech only,
  • The blacks- the binary opposite, including excited gestures, unintelligible speech, and physical movements such as daubing with blood and entrails….


  • |The idea of ‘boundariness’ is used throughout the film, characteristic of dominant groups in general they have boundaries- eg. Rows, order, uninterrupted speech……but also the setting of boundaries is characteristic of the white/male especially .
  • Dyer says the film is racist ‘in the broadest sense’, but not the narrower one. The film believes that the blacks can evolve and achieve all the progressive characteristics of ‘whiteness’.
  • Several liberal characters believe in the ability of the Mau-mau to do so (including, in the end, the hero Alan), whereas the conservative whites do not.
  • As a reinforcing of this potential, the character of Peter is black and specifically has all the necessary characteristics (Doctor, educated, rational, humane, liberal….) of Whiteness.
  • But- those who believe in the potential evolution are subordinated to others in the film, and in the end liberalism is overcome, Peter dies, and the whites rescue Alan’s farm from the Mau-Mau attack.
  • The film believes in the possible evolutionism of Blacks to whiteness (though it fails in the end), but this Fixity of ideas about how colonised people should act (to be ‘better’ people-more like the colonisers) , or more generally in the how we see the behaviour of any ‘other’ group, is ‘deeply disturbing’ (ref).


  • The opening sequence is discussed- how filmic techniques are used to symbolise the binary opposites of white and black. Eg. The white viewpoint is given by, steady aerial shots (give the best view), modernity of the plane, bringing the hero to Africa. Black characteristics include pain, blood, death, fear, untrustworthy, primitive.
  • Binarism is shown by both the film techniques and through the narrative.
  • Aspects of the hero include- resolving the conflict, his adventure and personal growth,
  • Colonialism as a landscape allows white males values to flourish, it holds, adventure, discovery, needs taming, conquering etc….
  • It also requires ordering, rational control , authority….etc…
  • Through his development of responsibility through the film, he wins the love (and hand) of Mary


  • other films have explored the idea of colonialism eg. Black Narcissus.
  • They often end in acknowledgement of failure
  • The hero Alan also fails throughout the film…….. he fails to keep the farm, to protect Peter, to catch the Mau-mau leader……..
  • The failure shows an anxiety towards the Black threat of the mau-mau.
  • Simba endorse white superiority of values, but shows an anxiety that they will work against the problem (blackness).





Project-Black. In your BLOG……

Fanon is writing from the point of view of a black colonial, a second-class citizen of his own country (although in French law he was a citizen of France).

  • What are his key points and how do these relate to visual culture?

        Many artists of Afro-Caribbean, African or Asian family origins working in Britain, the country of their birth, make work dealing with their take on, for want of a better term, blackness. Find such a work and make notes and annotations to explain this. Chris Ofili is just one such artist but there are many others.



Notes on ‘The fact of blackness’ by Frantz Fanon


  • The author came into the world with an idealism which was removed by his becoming ‘an object’.
  • He suggests that within the world of black people he felt ok- not different-omething like a natural state.
  • But when he was seen by ‘the other’, by whites, the change in him was very physical-like a chemical reaction. They looked and behaved towards him as different
  • Colonized peoples (is this another term for black? Or is it more general?) seem to have a fundamental Flaw in their world view. …They can only understand themselves as black- in relation to the white man. The author believes the converse is not true.


  • the customs and history of black men were wiped out by white men, because their culture and civilisation was different.
  • In the 20th C, the author remembers talking about ‘the black problem’ with friends, but he thought everyone was equal, and the differences between people seemed like an abstraction.
  • This changed massively when he began to meet white men, or more specifically their eyes…..
  • In the white man’s world the author describes a different schema which governs his sense of self. His sense of his consciousness being set apart from his body, perhaps a little like that of women in John Berger’s text on the nude in art??
  • He is always aware of how his body is moving in space and time- it’s never completely instinctual and natural-because he is always observing himself-like Berger’s woman who is both surveyed and surveyor (here the white man is equivalent to Berger’s observing man)
  •  He had both a sense of himself as a black body (the corporeal schema), but also a sense which came not from anything bodily, but through how he was viewed by ‘the other’-the white man, which was based on ‘stories and anecdotes’.
  • He next describes an incident where his blackness was raised by a white man (albeit a child)


  • as the child ratchets up the tension shouting ‘Look, a negro!’ several times, Fanon moves from initial amusement to nausea.
  • His description of how he changed throughout this encounter is difficult to grasp completely, but he says he ‘crumbles’ from a ‘corporeal self’ (implying that he was inhabiting his own body in unison here) to a ‘racial epidermal schema’ (ie. One defined by being Black with respect to the whites) which seems to involve something of the feeling described earlier (a disembodied consciousness).
  • He seems to have become embroiled in a negative train of thoughts about his blackness, and many stylised characteristics of negroes (ie. Those which prejudiced whites would dwell on).

These negative thoughts seem similar to the imaginary world set up through ideologies. He was subjecting himself at this point to a racist ideological view?

  • ‘On that day’ fanon says, he became an object- against his will (it’s not entirely clear whether this was the first time it happened- the start of his being objectified, and separated among white men)..
  • The child becomes more racist, and his thoughts continue to spiral with caricatured and mean descriptions of the negro, and by extension himself. He is ugly, mean, bad, angry…
  • The author makes comparisons with another ‘different’ group- the jews. The jews are anxious about how people think they might act-in stereotypical jewish ways (‘their conduct is perpetually overdetermined from the inside’).


  • But unlike the jews, Fanon is instantly recognisable as an ‘other’ based on indelible skin colour-not actions which can be hidden (he is over determined from without).
  • Fanon implies that from this movement, he begins to move slowly, to find life difficult and restricting, he is changed from his natural self into one completely determined by the white man.

Project-Images of women. In your BLOG……….

  • Using only newspapers and magazines as your source, construct a visual essay illustrating the visualisation of women today. There should be at least 12 images in your essay. Then do the same again but taking an opposite position.
  • Make a collection of images of nakedness and the nude, annotating them to indicate which they represent, how and why.

Visual essay 1-Visualisation of women


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Visual essay 2-Visualisation of women

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Project- Images of woman.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Chapter 3- Notes.


  • The presence of a man and woman are not equal conventionally
  • Man’s presence is related to his POWER and is directed at OTHERS


  • A woman’s to her OWN SELF and what can be done to her.
  • Women are surveyed by men and to maintain some control, women also survey themselves.
  • A woman’s identity is split into two- the surveyor and the surveyed.
  • Women treat the surveyed part as they would want to be treated by others

P 47.

  • Men ‘act’, women ‘appear’
  • The nude in European painting tells us something about how women have been seen in the past


  • In Genesis, man and women became ‘naked’ due to their changed consciousness after the apple incident
  • God punished the woman, by making her serve the man.


  • This story was painted in medaevil times-the shame was about each other
  • By Renaissance times the shame was with respect to the viewer.
  • When secular painting began nudes other than adam and eve were painted , but always being Looked at by the viewer.

What changed in society such that now the viewer is important? Does the ‘adam’ character leave the picture and view the eve character (the nude?)


  • Often the woman was watched as part of the narrative of the picture eg. Susannah and the elders
  • Sometimes she looks in a mirror ( thus views herself also)….


  • In The Judgement of Paris women are not just looked at, but a beauty contest. The winner becomes the prize, the losers are not beautiful……… ….


  • Interestingly, other non-European art traditions do not have the women passive and looked at. They are instead engaged in sex activities with the same engagement as the man.
  • As opposed to nakedness, the nude seems to be a conventionalised view of women. It started with painting and art (Kenneth Clarke thought it a ‘form of art’) but can also be seen in media like photo’s  and magazines, and also relates to Real sexuality today.


  • The author states that to be a nude is to be on display, seen as an object, which can be used as an object. This is different to nakedness.
  • In each nude painting we have a viewer who is unseen, clothed, and male.


  • Nudes are displayed sexually to this viewer, and they are passive, having little sexuality themselves
  • The absence of body hair helps to pacify the women sexually, as it is a sign of sexuality and passion.


  • Sometimes the nude has a lover in the picture, but she usually looks out at the viewer, ignoring the lover-presenting her Front to the viewer-it flatters him.
  • Again- this is European art- it’s different for other cultures.


  • There are a few exceptions to this story of nudes. There are paintings showing a women naked and engaging with a man in the picture-not the viewer.


  • Berger asks about the function of nakedness
  • A large part of the answer is sexual – we see the naked body and want to have it.


  • ‘their nakedness acts as a confirmation and provokes a very strong sense of relief ‘…….’we are overwhelmed by the marvellous simplicity of the sexual mechanism’ (Berger, 1972 p.59)
  • The woman who may have had subtlety and mystery before ( her hair, eyes, her face are part of her personality-a complicated thing, her face is certainly unique) suddenly becomes like all the rest!
  • Berger thinks this levelling out as we view the breasts and genitals is a relief because everything is geared towards one thing SEX, and that Ground’s us in reality.

This is rather a complicated page but has some good ideas……. Berger’s argument seems to rely on the ‘subtlety of expression of non sexual parts cf sexual ones, but are not also the breasts and genitals less ‘unique’ in their form, or at least our ability to distinguish between different ones? Perhaps this explains the feeling too…

p. 60

  • Berger links the previous discussion to the difficulty of making an expressive painting or photo of a naked woman (as opposed to the conventionalised nude).
  • The instantaneous look of nudity before sex/love is banal-because it is a transition between the more subtle expressivities of both the woman’s character , and the mutual act of lovemaking. Making it a conventionalised fantasy is an easy remedy.


  • Ruben’s painting of his wife is discussed as transcending this problem of banal nakedness through
  1. The robe is falling away and concealing therefore there is a more dynamic sense of time (transcending the single instant)
  2. Details such as the dishevelled hair, and the fat on her legs…-which are personal not conventional (admitting subjectivity)
  3. The painting contains a formal break between the upper and lower body- it does not ‘work’ visually. This element of subjectivity- perhaps he was overcome with emotion when painting these bits !- transcends the conventional…(admitting subjectivity).


  • there is an irony and a contradiction in the nude-it represented the extreme individualism of the artist, yet treated women as if they were all the same.


  • women still survey themselves in the 20th and 21 st centuries- doing what men have always done.
  • The nude has become uncommon in contemporary art. The change in attitude can be seen in Manet’s Olympia-compared to eg. Titian’s. She is a prostitute who seems to be at odds with the role she plays.
  • The idea of prostitutes was a strong one in the early 20th C in many artists.


  • the essential role of women as the ‘looked upon’ has not changed much however. 


Looking, observation or surveillance? In your BLOG….

Foucault makes us ask of an image – particularly a naturalistic one and even more particularly in any of the modern media, photography, video etc: Is this the result of looking, observing or surveillance? Are we looking at, observing or subjecting the image and/or its subject to surveillance? And does the contemporary desire to be seen (fashion, the desire for instant celebrity and the associated media exposure), or the seemingly opposite, scopophobic, desire for privacy from the camera, have its explanation in Foucault?

  • Many video artists today use themselves as their subject (eg Lindsay Seers). Think about this in relation to panopticism.
  • Find six images in any medium: two that are the result of looking, two of observing and two of surveillance and explain your choices.

Video artists and the Panopticon

  1. Bill Nauman:  Violent Incident (2012)
  2. violent-incident-bruce-nauman-tate-modern-1345511097_b                                                                 Fig. 1  Violent Incident (2012)
  • In this work Nauman used actors to portray a violent incident around a dinner table
  • The series of screens show the different parts of the violent action- it is as if we see the scenes on company surveillance cameras, and we are security guards (the watcher, the enforcer).In t
  • One of the possible uses of the Panopticon is to watch different criminals in their cells. The different screens here represent the different cells in the Panopticon.


2.  Gillian Wearing, 2 into 1, 1997

In this series of videos, the artist explored the effects of  hiding a person’s  identity- and how it allowed them to act.

”Wearing placed an ad in Time Out and invited people to come into a studio, put on a disguise and spill their guiltiest secrets. A 36-year-old virgin tells how watching his sister kiss his brother destroyed his life; a woman describes how she drugged and robbed the man who cheated on her; others in Neil Kinnock or George Bush masks own up to using prostitutes, or ghastly revenge on bosses.”

(The Guardian, 2012)

This work examines a crucial part of surveillance- we need to be identifiable as the culprit in order to be punished. Rid yourself of your identity, and it’s like you are not being watched, and it is easier to commit a crime. The people in Wearing’s videos may or may not have committed ‘real’ crimes. Some admitted to things which were not illegal, but which they were ashamed of (whether they were the perpetrator, or an innocent victim). This shame which they carried was like ‘inner crimes’ – and talking about them was like recommitting or being subjected to the crime again. Wearing the masks helped them to discuss these inner psychological crimes.

Analysis of six images

Before I start I’d like to make a distinction between the process of looking at images as carried out by the maker of the image, and by the viewer of the image (the audience). They are the same images, but may be the result of very different mental processes and ‘looks’. For example- a photographer takes a picture of a naked model for a girlie  magazine (or a ‘boyie’ one). He/she may look at him/her intricately- this is a technical work and needs to accentuate the visual clues of sexual availability which maximise the value of the end-image.  This is likely to be a very different look to the simple scopophilic look that the magazine viewer gives the image, on his or her way to powerful sexual thoughts and feelings. A film director like Hitchcock might piece together intricate visual narratives, and be aware of the different looks he wants the audience to give the film. But his own look may be one of intense scrutiny and workmanship- because he knows the images have to be flawless if he is to succeed as a director and artist. The images that follow have been described in relation to the audience/viewer.

  1. The scopophilic look (sexual gratification/stimulation). kate winslet nude celebrity pussy sex scenes sex tapes                                                                                       Fig. 2 A scene from Jude (1996)

Fig. 3 is a film clip of the actress Kate Winslet, from the film Jude. She plays Jude’s wife and this is a prelude to the first time they have sex. The image represents a scoptophilic look- one of pleasurable looking. The actress is pretty, womanly, and is completely naked- and passive. These are strong cues for the scoptophilic look as part of the sex instinct – one progresses from looking to having sex, the eye being an important part of sexual forepleasure (Fenichel, 1999: p. 329).

2.The scopophilic look- identification with the hero.


Fig. 3  Covershot from the film The Judge (2014)

I have just finished watching this film. It is a good example of a central character who I view as the hero, and who I identify with. The psychological characteristics of this form of looking are discussed clearly by Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Mulvey, 1999).

In this film, the central role is taken by Robert Downey Jr. who plays Hank.  Hank has a few bad points, but they are outweighed by his good ones. We learn that he is a hot shot lawyer, has a big house and car, went to an Ivy league college and came top of his class. He’s also funny, popular with women, and good-looking.  However, he has more sensitive side too, and in the film he defends his dad (a Judge) against a murder charge. During this time the lawyer has to deal with his mum’s sudden  death, his return home to a quiet and dull hometown, sibling jealousy, problems with an ex-lover, and a very complicated relationship with his dad.

His dad is recently retired, and suffering from terminal cancer. Hank has to  come to terms with the illness, his father’s frailty, the realities of vomit and diarrhoea which his dad suffers from because he’s on  chemotherapy. As well as the physical side of things, Hank has never been openly loved and nurtured by his dad- who is very closed up with regards to emotions. This is partly due to the fact that he crashed a car when on drugs, and his brother was injured which ruined a promising baseball career. However, at the denouement of the film, we also realise that the Judge could never love Hank because he reminded him so strongly of a felon who he had given a lenient sentence to – hoping he could be rehabilitated, but who later murdered a young girl.  Hank fails to keep his dad out of prison, but does get him off the murder charge. After 7 months the judge is released and dies soon after whilst out fishing with Hank.

Hank manages to cope with all this and still remain cool, funny and good-looking. Yes this is a dream Holywood film, but I did identify strongly with Hank- he was a good man who returned to his home town to look after his dad. He had to cope with women problems, family problems, and the loss of his parents. Mulvey has it that my identification with this ideal character is built upon a ‘…more complete, more powerful ideal ego’ that is akin to the view of the child’s reflection in the mirror during Lacan’s mirror stage (Mulvey, 1999: p. 385).

3.Surveillance (I)

Police handout image taken from CCTV footage shows London bombing suspects at at Luton train station in central England

Fig. 4 CCTV camera footage (2005)

Fig. 4  shows an image from a surveillance camera, taken of the London ‘7/11’ terrorist bombers in 2005. Surveillance can be defined as ‘the monitoring of the behaviour, activities, or other changing information, usually of people for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing, or protecting them’.  (Wikipaedia, 2017).

Here we can see important information on the screen- exact time and dates, and the camera location. This was taken by a CC-TV camera, and shows that it is situated above the people, and may therefore be unseen in ‘normal’ circumstances. We can also clearly see the faces of two men. This sort of data can be used by the police, the Crown Prosecution service, and the legal system as evidence in prosecution of criminal cases, thereby incarcerating (or some other method of punishment/rehabilitation) criminals and protecting the public in future.

4.Surveillance (II)

Gin Lane 1751 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

Fig. 5 Gin Lane (1751)

This is a print by William Hogarth. The artist used the image as part of a campaign against the uncontrolled production and sale of cheap gin in. The artist has included scenes of violence, child cruelty, drunkenness, civil breakdown and general chaos.  

The artist may have made the etchings from direct sketches of the drunken debauched people, or may have made them up. Whichever was the case, he has produced an image which documents the chaos  in London (he seems to be largely unobserved), and which increased the awareness of society to  a specific social problem. This awareness brought about a reduction in the number of gin shops, and a reduction of the drink-fuelled social problems, through legislation (The Gin Act) by the powerful force of government. In this respect the original image has characteristics of a surveillance.

5. Observation (I)

Amongst the definitions of Observation, we can find

  • The ability to notice things, especially significant details
  •    a statement based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed.

(Oxforddictionaries, 2016)

The first definition seems very like what we expect of an artist- we sometimes define an artist as ‘someone who notices visual details’. The second definition seems to suggest that as well as simply documenting details, one who observes may also state a view on what he has seen. This too is often the case with artists in their work, and some artists have been rather political figures.

5. Observing the significant details

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1602-03 (oil on canvas)

Fig. 6 The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1602-3)

This beautiful image is Caravaggio’s rendering of the biblical story of Doubting Thomas, who only believed that the man before him was Christ when he was able to stick his finger into the wounds of his crucified body. The artist  has beautifully caught the following details…

  •  The look of doubt-surprise  on the face of the old Thomas- the deep wrinkles in the forehead, the slightly doddery look of an old man, the way he seems to look away as if to increase the sensitivity of this power of touch.
  • The gentle softness of Christ’s robe
  • Jesus’s gently guiding hand
  • The strange and incongruous shape and depth of a skin pocket produced by a centurion’s spear.
  • The intense effort of looking and feeling -of all the men-  no other background features are shown- the background is in deep shadow (this is an example of Tenebrism)


Observation which involves a statement

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas)

Fig. 7 Landscape with the fall of Icarus (c. 1555)

Brueghel’s painting is more than just a lovely descriptive image; it tells us a deep truth about tragedy in our human lives;- that we do not always experience tragedy at the same time, and that much of the ‘mechanics’ of the world simply does not recognise the existence of Human tragedy.

Here we see the death of Icarus- he has flown too close to the sun using Wings that his father made for him. What should have been exciting and fun has turned into tragedy- the loss of a son.  We also see a landscape with a farmer ploughing his fields, a shepherd with his sheep, and many ships in the sea- all oblivious of the tragedy, all going about their routine, mundane lives.

W.H Auden wrote a powerful poem on this painting (see below)

Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(Auden, 1940)


Fig. 1  Nauman, W. Violent Incident (2012) at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 2   A scene from Jude (1996) [still from film] available online at %5Baccessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 3  covershot from the film The Judge(2014) [photograph] available online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 4 CCTV camera footage (2005) available online at  [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 5 Hogarth, W. Gin Lane (1751) [Etching and engraving on paper] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 6 |Carravagio, M.  The incredulity of St. Thomas (1602-3) [oil on canvas] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fig. 7 Bruegel, P. Landscape with the fall of Icarus (c. 1555) [oil on canvas] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].



Auden, W.H. (1940) Musee des beaux arts (poem) online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

Fenichel O. (1999) ‘The scoptophilic instinct and identification’. in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 327-339

Mulvey, L. (1999) ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 381-389

Oxforddictionaries (2016) Surveillance [definition] online at [accessed 24th July 2017].

The Guardian (2012) gillian-wearing-whitechapel-gallery-feature [online] at %5Baccessed 24th July 2017].

Wikipaedia (2017) Surveillance (definition) online at [accessed 24th July 2017].










Project -Gendering the gaze


Visual pleasure and narrative cinema

by laura Mulvey.


Mulvey sets out some the ways cinema can give us pleasure

Pleasure of looking

  1. Scopophilia (the pleasure of looking)
  • Freud developed this idea as one aspect of the human sexual instinct. This occurs in children, when they are looking at their private parts (genitals) or areas of excretion, in the retrospective looking at the ‘primal scene’ ( the parents having sex), and develops further into looking at another as an erotic object (you want to have sex with ?).
  • This scopophilia can become pathological through the gaining of sexual satisfaction either through looking alone (voyeurism), or through looking at objects which are non-sexual (fetishism). Sexuality develops as an instinct, but with restraints through the ego.


  • Film has developed techniques which makes it ideal for conveying the voyeuristic relationship of the spectator.
  • for example in the cinema auditorium they are in darkness and separated from everyone else (both the other spectators, and the lit screen….), and the movie plays out as if it does not recognise that the spectator exists

2.    Development of the narcissistic  elements of looking

  • These aspects relate directly to Lacan’s mirror stage.
  • The child recognises himself in the mirror (and thus an image which is both himself and other), but the image is misrecognised as being more ideal than present reality ( eg. in physical capabilities/dexterity).
  • This is the initial recognition of the I as a subject (relating through other)
  • This ideal self is part of their ideal ego, and is preliminary to the recognition of self through others.
  • This corresponds to the spectator s look at the screen and their recognition of an’ ideal self’ (the mirror and its reflection also corresponds to the film screen and its contents)
  • In both child development and the film, there is a tension between the real self and the ideal self (translated into pleasure, and un-pleasure).- for the spectator, the actors act out ordinary (and extra-ordinary) events, but are also extraordinary eg. through their fame, looks, money etc…


  • The cinema allows spectators both a loss of ego  ( eg… ‘I forgot who I was during the film’) and a recognition of ego (through the film narrative and characters).

In summary these are 2 contrasting forms of looking

  1. Scoptophilic- separates the subject from the object of its gaze, functions as sexual instinct
  2. Narcissistic- the subject identifies his ego with the screen character, and functions as ego libido (forming identification processes)
  • Both these are at play in the formation of the human (and a film), but are opposites re. pleasure (id. Gratifies, ego restrains?) ,
  • Both are a way of making our own reality through the imaginary
  • The cinema has developed a way of showing these two opposing concepts, using language and symbols (the film’s symbology, Lacan’s symbolic stage), and articulating desire.

Women as an image, for the man to look at

  • Women in films exemplify their sexual desirability through being the object of the male gaze  (Active man/passive woman)


  • The woman is often set aside from the action and the narrative. It is the male actor who ‘does’ and drives the narrative, often as a response to the woman.
  • Women are objects of erotic desire to both men within the film, and the spectator without the film.
  • The ‘show girl’ allows this object to be viewed by both within a smooth narrative

I don’t quite understand this……….. why is this any different to eg. A girl who is simply acting as if the spectator is not watching? …is it that the spectator in the film represents the spectator  in the cinema ??

  •  Often women are introduced / seen as a face, legs, (breasts??) only – this breaks the narrative flow and the illusion of reality….. it becomes a flatter world, less real and more ‘iconic’.

2.Narrative structure

  • The spectator identifies with a strong male lead/hero who is powerful through his narrative function. The scopophilic look of the hero coincides with that of the spectator. These two strands make the man omnipotent.


  • the male hero is not the object of the scopophilic gaze, but of the identification of the spectator.
  • His space in the movie is more multi-dimensional- and is seen within a landscape, not separated from it.
  • Camera technologies such as deep focus (?? Where there is a large field depth front-back and all is in focus  -which corresponds to reality?, cf with other sorts where not all areas are in focus- more ‘arty??’) ), camera movement (mimicking the hero’s movements, and  seamless editing- which gives the illusion of reality)
  • Often in a film the female lead will transit from the object of the spectator’s (and therefore anyone’s) scopophilic gaze, to the sole property of the male lead (she falls in love with him). The spectator still possesses her- due to his identification with the male lead as ideal ego. eg in the film ‘Only angel’s have wings’.
  • But the women’s presence is also a reminder of the lack of a penis, and castration, which makes men anxious. This castration anxiety is finally overcome through the Oedipus/father phase of Freud (if we believe in Freud’s phallocentric theories – and many don’t).


Ithis anxiety can be overcome in 2 ways by menExploring the women, finding her guilt, punishing her or saving her for her role as ‘castration icon’ this is voyeuristic and fits with narrative developments…… often relating to sadisms(???)

  1. Replacing the woman with another object that is a fetish for  Reassurance (not castration) , or replacing the woman as a fetish who is therefore no longer dangerous. (scopophilic fetishism).
  • Both these ways are used by Hitchcock in his films.
  • Hitchcock ‘s films are usually based around the identification with the male lead. He is GOOD (eg. The policeman/ the law in Vertigo), she is found to be GUILTY ( implying the castration anxiety…..). She is forced to be the object of both scopophilia, and of the desire of the hero.
  • Spectator’s identify with hero and narrative via both symbols in the narrative and film effects ( hero’s view is the camera’s)
  • Spectator’s view of the reality of the film, is a parody of the spectator/screen relationship of the cinema


In Vertigo

  • Camera angles are subjective
  • Scottie is the centre of the narrative- his view
  • He is voyeuristic and sadistic….. he is a cop, but was a lawyer……so he voluntarily changes career to allow  his  narrative……..
  • He voyeuristically follows her (Madelaine) and falls in love, narrative includes …..following/spying /questioning of her……establishing GUILT, then
  • Later he makes JUDY a fetish for Madelaine, she has to act like her/look like her, and she plays the role of watched/exhibitionist…..
  • He establishes her guilt….she is punished……..
  • And the spectator is guilty of all these actions of the hero (antihero)…..

p.388 and p.389

a summary, but adds a wider perspective to the previous discussion

the author sees in films a contradiction relating to the idea of ‘looking’.

The looks that are necessary for the film to work and to give the illusion of a reality are the scopophilic and voyeuristic looks.

These looks, and the whole structure of the film, are constantly threatened by the image of the female as ‘castration anxiety’-which cuts through all the illusion.  Once the woman appears as an erotic object, she represents fetishized castration fear, and any illusion to the film’s complex reality is shattered.

Radical film-makers are already breaking down traditional ways of ‘looking’ in a film.

the camera can be made free – in time and space… does this mean it can flip more  clumsily between times and space- eg. different less ‘constructed’ editing process? What about viewing the camera as in a documentary where it is allowed.

the audience can be made free- they are allowed to be detached (not identifying), and aware (of the dialectics)…..  and discourses? and binary oppositions? that are occurring…is this allowing them to  deconstruct the film as part of the viewing??

the author ends by saying that this new approach to film  reduces the presence of the ‘invisible guest’ (I think this means the castration fear ).

Women who have been subjected to the auspices  of a traditional  phallocentric  film industry and film techniques will not mourn its passing!!!



Mulvey, L. (1999) ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 381-389