In contract to Kuhn’s suggestion that the desire for play motivates us to watch film (see my previous post here), Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, posits that enjoyment of film stems from more voyeuristic pleasure. In this reading of film the characters onscreen are objects that exist to be looked upon by the curious viewer. Rather than stepping into the fictional world and making it our own, pleasure stems from the more passive role of an outside observer who watches the story and lives unfold on the screen before them. This theory puts emphasis on visual information as the tools to create a pleasurable experience, making the background and history a secondary concern.
Mulvey locates the development of this theory in the patriarchal history of film, which cultivates in the phenomena known as “male gaze”. The male gaze prioritises the viewing exchange of heterosexual men in the story, positioning them as the active watcher and women as passive watched. Often the narrative is presented from the point of view of these men, they are the (usually) sympathetic protagonist, while female characters are the mysterious other who draws their attention (and often desire). Sometimes the position of being watched is invited, with a woman knowingly drawing the attention of the man, but it is just as often uninvited and the woman is unaware of being looked upon.
The concept continues from narrative POV to actual camera perspective and the objectification of female bodies. Informed by the implied sexual interest of the heterosexual male, more shots focus on the breasts, buttocks and legs of female characters. Mulvey’s theory relates these views back to patriarchal effect- because heterosexual men make up the majority of the film industry, their products reflect their interests. In the gaze of the male gaze, their interest is the sexual appeal of women and so the camera seeks out certain views, despite their irrelevance to the narrative.
Mulvey, L., 1975, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 6-18.
2017, Male Gaze, TV Tropes, viewed 08/04/2017, <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MaleGaze>.
If anyone is interested (and because the male gaze is not limited to film) The Hawkeye Initiative is a beautiful project that recreates the hypersexual and questionably possible poses of female comic characters with their male counterparts.