Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure & Narrative Cinema” Without All the Psychoanalytic Theory

I’m writing this to use in my lower-level classes where I want to talk about the main argument in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema,” but I don’t want to have to teach the students three years of Freud and Lacan before they can understand it. This is me dis-embedding Mulvey’s main argument from all the theoretical framing she uses.

In a patriarchal society like ours, women’s suffering is a source of enjoyment. In everything from operas to films to pop songs, women’s suffering, objectification, oppression, battery, murder, bullying, they’re all methods for generating aesthetic pleasure. Way back in the 70s and 80s, Laura Mulvey, Susan McClary, Catherine Clement and plenty of other feminist theorists showed how artworks cut up, dehumanized, eliminated, and often just straight up killed both women characters and feminized compositional features, and that this treatment of women and feminized compositional features worked, both narratively and formally, to produce pleasurable aesthetic experiences.

Mulvey argues that the pleasure we take in Hollywood cinema–the pleasure of losing ourselves in the film, for example, or of experiencing the protagonist’s victories as our own–is possible because the camera’s gaze obscures the conditions of the film’s production (the fact that is a film), i.e., the fourth wall. (This parallels the way liberalism’s proceduralism obscures the conditions of society’s production (histories of white supremacy, for example), and thus makes it possible for us to feel proud and happy to live in an equal, just society, blissfully ignorant of the way liberalism naturalizes white supremacist patriarchy.) With the fourth wall obscured, we adopt the camera’s gaze as our own (thus, “the male gaze”). And what does it see? What does the protagonist in the film enjoy? Often, it’s women’s bodies as sexualized objects, women as problems to conquer not people to interact with. For example, Mulvey notes that many “classic” Hollywood films show women’s body parts (a leg, a declotage, etc.), but not women as whole beings–the camera literally butchers women into their most tasty, delectable cuts. Cutting up women, objectifying them, that’s what we like, aesthetically, in classic Hollywood cinema.

Similarly, McClary shows how Bizet’s Carmen feminizes chromaticism, and uses that chromaticism to create the most musically pleasurable and memorable moments in the opera. It generates the dissonance tension that we then enjoy hearing resolved, harmonically. So the feminized compositional element–chromatic dissonance–has to be highlighted, called forth, made obvious so that it can then be eliminated (via tonal resolution, for you music theory nerds). Feminized elements need to be noisy and loud so that their silencing feels like a relief.

(Or, as Mulvey puts it, “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of the spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.”)

McClary talks mostly about music, but Clement’s analysis addresses the plot of Carmen and other operas. They all seem to turn on the execution or death of a woman character: Butterfly, Carmen, Mimi…These stories so many people love, feel deeply emotionally connected to, and which bring them great pleasure, they’re so, so misogynist, and the misogyny is likely part of what we enjoy in and about them.

This is also true of lots and lots of pop music: there soooo many songs of every genre of pop music that use women’s suffering as a source of musical and narrative pleasure. For example: “I Fought The Law” is an old song that’s been covered a bazillion times by a bazillion performers in a ton of genres. It’s a song about some dude killing his female partner: “killed my baby, felt so bad/guess my day is done.” (This is also why it works so brilliantly as a way to poke at Dan White’s ability to avoid conviction for Harvey Milk’s assassination.) I mean, I love The Clash’s version of it, even though I know it’s a song that treats violence against women as no big deal. Often, male performers (and fans) objectify, harass, and bully real and/or fictional women as a way to bond among themselves. Women are just there as an excuse to enjoy each other’s company–like beer or a football game or something. Take, for example, this article about violent misogynist lyrics in contemporary noise-punk, which compares the excessive violence of the lyrics with the banal violence women and gender minorities face every day, especially on social media.

Mulvey is talking about the camera’s gaze and the fourth wall. The fourth wall is the convention of pretending that what we are seeing on screen (or on stage) is authentically real, and not a fiction constructed by things like a script, acting, and, above all, the camera’s (and director’s, editor’s, etc.) chosen perspective. It’s like the camera is hidden behind a fourth wall: we can see three walls, and we assume that another wall is behind us, not a soundstage and a bunch of crew members (think, for example, of the SNL set: three walls on screen, and then a soundstage and audience behind the camera). When characters in, say, The Office speak directly to the camera/audience, they break the fourth wall by acknowledging the camera’s existence. Narrative cinema, however, never breaks the fourth wall:

The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world that unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience…conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world (835-6).

The fourth wall makes the existing arrangement of things on the screen seem like how they actually, really, naturally are, unaltered by human (or mechanical, or divine, or any other kind of) intervention. But as we know, films and TV shows and videos are the result of some very specific choices and frameworks. The whole point of the fourth wall, and the cinematic conventions that construct it, is to disavow the conditions of the film’s creation and make it seem like we’re watching something that really, truly, actually happened IRL. As Mulvey explains:

There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator), fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth.

Narrative films are shot in a way to make audience members seem and feel like they are right there in the scene with the characters–that’s what it means to assimilate the first two looks to the third. All the creative work done by the camera and interpretive work done by spectators gets erased; it seems like we are watching reality itself, truth untouched by bias or perspective of any sort, let alone carefully constructed to unfold in a certain way.

In this way, narrative cinema adopts the idea and practice of seeing that philosopher Alia Al-Saji calls “objectifying vision.” Objectifying vision has a very narrow focus; it can see “only what can be observed and measured, what can come to count as an object” (Al-Saji 377). It cannot see processes or other time-based, 4D phenomena (like histories or futures). Objectifying vision can see only individuals in the present, because that’s the only thing it ever looks for. It overlooks two important things. First, it obscures the habits and methods we use in learning and practicing seeing–what Al-Saji calls, drawing on philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the “historical” dimensions of vision (Al-Saji 379). As Al-Saji argues,

This self-erasure is what allows habits, once acquired, to appear effortless and “natural.” It means that a particular visible physiognomy of the world appears as a given of that world and objecthood a “natural” property of the visible. In this way, objectifying habits of vision are “naturalized” and habitual configurations or structures of visibility are inscribed as in-themselves features of the world—both of bodies and things” (378).

Overlooking the fact that we had to learn to see in a particular way, and that we’re using learned, culturally transmitted habits to bring our seeing into a very particular kind of focus, objectifying vision makes it seem like the effects or filters our habits of seeing apply to the things we see are actually natural features of the objects themselves. The second thing objectifying vision obscures is the fact that all vision is framed, or happens through a frame: “This vision also overlooks the dimensions of visibility that allow objects to come into focus, even while making use of these very dimensions to differentiate and define objects” (Al-Saji 378). In the same way narrative cinema obscures the existence of the camera, objectifying vision obscures the constructedness of both vision itself and the content of our vision. In other words, objectifying vision obscures the “material” dimensions of vision (Al-Saji 379).

The main political theories and practices used in 20th and 21st century liberal democracies (like the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, etc.) understand society through objectifying vision: they obscure the historical and material dimensions of our existence together and focus only on individuals in the present. The law, and the idea that we are all formally equal before the law, regardless of our economic, physical, and social differences, these create the fourth wall that obscures both histories of inequity and oppression (whose lingering and ongoing effects we still experience) and the cognitive and ideological framing of this idea that everyone is equal before the law. Even though the law generally recognizes that groups it used to formally and explicitly exclude from full legal personhood–women, non-whites, disabled people, non-Protestants–are now formally and explicitly included under the law’s protections, cultural practice and habit hasn’t caught up to the law–changes in the law don’t necessarily trickle down to cultural practices, habits…those good ol’ historical and material dimensions of life.

So the point is: both in art and IRL, things like sexism, racism, ableism, all that–they hide behind habits and techniques of seeing/”seeing”-as-metaphor-for-knowing that build a fourth wall. These habits and techniques make humanly constructed phenomena (like misogyny, sexist treatments of women characters, the tendency to kill off lesbian characters in TV shows, etc. etc.) appear as natural and true, as accurate reflections of how things really are. From this “objectifying” perspective, critiques that point out how the historical and material dimensions of a thing lead it to be biased against women, non-whites, and other oppressed groups seem biased. Biases in habit and in technological construction hide behind the fourth wall, and if we stay within the camera’s or the law’s frame, we’ll feel like our perspective is the unbiased real truth…when in fact it’s the farthest thing from it.
So Mulvey is arguing that the fourth wall makes the camera’s (and director’s, and editor’s, and the whole crew’s) and the hetero man protagonist’s objectification of women characters seem like a truthful and unbiased reflection of how reality works. It naturalizes the dynamic of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look” (Mulvey 840), presenting this dynamic not as something scripts and cinematography built and designed, but as a natural feature of people themselves. I’m arguing that Mulvey’s idea of the fourth wall and its role in film illustrates something that also happens in mainstream notions of politics, society, and government: when we focus just on individuals as they are in the present, we build a fourth wall that obscures histories and ongoing material practices/habits that shape reality in unequal, biased ways.