Notes on Laura Mulvey: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

April 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

Mulvey uses psychoanalysis to assert that fascination with film, and taking pleasure in watching film, is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual and the social conditions that have moulded him.


She asserts that sexual difference is socially constructed and interpreted (the status quo being hetero-sexuality), and that this interpretation controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.

“Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a weapon.”

Mulvey’s aim with this article is to subvert the ordinary persons enjoyment in the experience of the cinema and turn it back on them as a reflection of the dominant ideology and therefore a tool of oppression used on those who do not fit the traditional. hetero-normative structure of society. This essay is a landmark in the ideological theorisation of the arts circa 1975.

Phallocentrism depends on the image of the castrated woman to give it meaning.

What is phallocentrism?

The woman’s lack of a phallus gives the phallus symbolic presence and meaning. The woman symbolises ‘the’ castration threat (lack of phallus) (assuming that there really is a castration threat). Mulvey then makes an enigmatic comment about the woman raising her child into the ‘Symbolic’. This is then the end of the woman’s meaning. She takes her place in memory; signifying maternal plenitude and lack of penis. The woman can exist only relation to castration and cannot transcend it. The woman is bearer of meaning; not maker of meaning. This is the central tenet of feminist film theory as it applies to the Classical Hollywood cinema.

“Alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obssessions and assumptions.” Radical cinema is by definition a counterpoint to the classical cinema’s aesthetic. The classical cinema is underpinned by the erotic. Erotic pleasure is coded into the classical system and concurrently into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. Mulvey states that she intends to destroy this pleasure through analysis of it. To expose it is to wake up the spectator from their phantasy dream. Her goal:

” … to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film.”


To take pleasure in looking. Children engage in voyeuristic activities. They seek to make sure of the private and unknown/forbidden: curiosity. The active instinct of the human being being needs to be delineated from narcissistic pleasure and behaviour. Mulvey is invoking Freud to assert that these childhood formations are the origin of pleasure in looking. It can be seen here that at the extreme, these formative behaviours could result in perversions, peeping toms and even serial murderers: it is the objectification and eroticisation of the other (that which is forbidden) that could lead to such outcomes. Mulvey asserts that the cinema feeds this desire; it is a re imagining of the childhood curiosity for that which is private and unknown for the adult. The spectator engages in an illusion of looking in on a private world. Furthermore, in the classical system, emphasis is placed on the human form. Scale, space and stories are all anthropomorphic. This is synonymous with Lacan’s mirror phase of the child, wherein, the child recognises his own image in the mirror. The child’s recognition of his image precedes the development of his motor skills and so the child assumes that the image in the mirror is somehow more complete. Visa-vi the adult in the cinema is recalling this insecurity and interpreting it as a nostalgia; a type of pleasure. Self-awareness and looking are intertwined.

What is Mulvey’s new language of desire? With claims such as these Mulvey has to also produce the alternative.






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