December 13, 2015

The Male Gaze in Retrospect

Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images
James Stewart in "Rear Window" (1954). In that and other Hitchcock films, Laura Mulvey wrote, "the look is central to the plot."
In 1975, the avant-garde filmmaker Laura Mulvey published her landmark essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in the journal Screen. Bringing feminist theory to bear on a new wave of psychoanalytic film criticism, the essay set out to demonstrate how the structure of Hollywood films — camera angles, lighting, editing — foisted a masculine point of view on audiences watching passive, eroticized female objects. Mulvey’s notion of the "male gaze" made waves not just in film studies (four members of Screen’s editorial board resigned in protest of it and other psychoanalytic criticism) — but also across much of the humanities.

Forty years later, mainstream journalists casually toss off the phrase "male gaze" and it’s the name of a San Francisco post-punk band. But much has changed: Successive generations of feminists have debated women’s agency — for example, as not just subjects but also consumers of pornography. The notion of the lesbian gaze has gained currency. With the rise of social media, both men and women participate in a self-presentation that makes them the objects of the gaze as often as they are the gazers. Even the neat division of people into male and female seems, to many people, archaic.

Is Mulvey’s theory still relevant? How has it been most productively applied? How does it need to evolve? Here, four scholars reflect on those questions, and Mulvey responds.

The players in films may have changed over the past 40 years, but the narrative remains the same.

Its opacity notwithstanding, Mulvey’s theory cleared the way for further challenges to "the look" of others.

Mulvey’s essay captured an enduring ambivalence about cinema.

Four decades later, Laura Mulvey’s "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" continues to illuminate.

The essay spoke for and through its time, writes the essayist herself. But now she sees that it was rooted in her own relationship to Hollywood.