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

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