Laura Mulvey and Christian Metz

This week’s readings center around the notion of the spectator, and the process by which the spectator identifies with the characters that appear on the film screen. Much like Baudry’s work (and to the chagrin of Carroll), both Metz and Mulvey utilize psychoanalytic film theory to examine the unique relationship between spectator and film. Metz contends that the film spectator is put into a unique position to recognize the dual realness and fakeness of the film projection, leading to a state of self-identification. Mulvey, on the other hand, suggests that many films assume a white male spectator, who then identifies with the film’s white male protagonists, and through the process of the male gaze perpetuates gender inequalities. However, for both Metz and Mulvey, these characteristics of spectator-cinema identification are portrayed as fundamental qualities of the cinematic medium. While I do agree with the bulk of their arguments, I take issue with this supposed universality. Though it is certainly true that even contemporary film texts often reinforce male power dynamics through the spectator-cinema identification processes outlined by Metz and Mulvey, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. There are examples of film texts that do not follow this model and spectator identification, and therefore challenge the supposed universality of Metz and Mulvey’s theories.

Metz’s work builds heavily upon the Lacanian theory of the mirror stage and the notion of self identification. Lacan wrote about the mirror stage, a significant milestone in child development in which a child looks at its own image in a mirror and recognizes itself as an autonomous individual. Metz argues that film is simultaneously like a mirror and entirely unlike a mirror. Cinema is one of the most “real” forms of media, in that it is perceived both audibly and visually, and typically in a highly immersive setting. Thus, it is similar to a mirror in that it offers a reflection, or an image, of reality. However, cinema is also fundamentally deceptive. Everything about the medium is a lie meant to trick the spectator into perceiving something that is not real; even the “motion” aspect of motion pictures is a clever deception–several images displayed rapidly, not real motion. And the spectator recognizes that film is a deception; it is not real. Thus film is simultaneously both like an mirror and unlike a mirror. The spectator must understand and fully acknowledge these opposing views. As Metz writes, “In order to understand the film (at all), I must perceive the photographed object as absent, its photograph as present, and the presence of this absence as signifying” (609).

Therefore, Metz argues, the film spectator is forced into a strange position of both accepting a film text as real, but only real because they understand that the circumstances of the film projection make it unreal. Metz suggests that “the spectator identifies with himself,” rather than an explicit identification with a character within the film screen (605). This is because unlike an actual mirror, the spectator is notably absent from the images that appear on the screen. The one thing that will never be projected on the film screen is the spectator’s own body. This absence forces the spectator to recognize his or her own position, and thus self-identify.

Mulvey, on the other hand, argues that spectator-cinema identification takes place in a different fashion. In her view, the formal characteristics of the film medium places the spectator in a position to identify with the film protagonists, who are generally white males. She argues that modern Hollywood cinema consists of two primary characteristics: Scopophilia and Identification. Scopophilia refers to the pleasure of looking (in a sexual sense) and taking other people as objects. Identification is used in the Lacanian sense, in which the spectator, in a narcissistic manner, sees him or herself as the film protagonist. However, this process of identification has significant implications for issues of gender equality because of the gendered characteristics of film texts. Mulvey argues that Hollywood cinema traditionally assumes a white male spectator, and thus creates white male protagonists for the spectator to identify with. Furthermore, films will also utilize female characters as objects to serve the protagonist’s (and by extension, the spectator’s) scopophilia. Mulvey writes that in film, women are the “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning,” underscoring the role that is ascribed to them by the male film producer, the male film protagonist, and the male film spectator (621).

Mulvey’s argument is that women exist in film because of their “to-be-looked-at-ness” and thus serve the male power held by film producers, protagonists, and spectators. She claims that this power is upheld through the use of three separate gazes: the male protagonist watching the woman, the (male) spectator watching the woman on the screen, and finally the camera itself, which also watches the woman. For Mulvey, this male-gaze is utilized to maintain the male power structure, and negate the potential threat to male power presented by the female. Citing Freud, Mulvey asserts that male power can only exist because female power does not. Therefore a woman, and her lack of phallic power (both literally and metaphorically) represent a threat to the males’ currently held power. Thus, putting her into a position of “to-be-looked-at-ness” mitigates this threat to a certain extent. To contrast Metz’s argument, Mulvey’s writing centers around the claim that the film spectator does identify with the film spectator, and not just with himself. Whereas Metz claims that film is both like and unlike a mirror, Mulvey asserts that film does serve as a reflection of the spectator, and that this spectator does identify with the protagonists. Even in her followup essay, Mulvey reasserts many of the same points. She does address questions of female spectatorship, but claims that they still exist within the same male-dominated power structures. Either the female spectator has to “become male” in order to identify with a film, or in the case of female protagonists, they cannot solely exist as a strong female figure. Mulvey suggests that female protagonists may exist, but are either placed alongside strong male figures, or are given a masculine point of view that forces them to abandon their femininity and return to that original state of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Mulvey writes that “Her inability to achieve stable sexual identity, is echoed by the woman spectator’s masculine ‘point of view’” (123). Therefore, Mulvey reasserts her original claim that film, through the spectator-cinema identification process, creates reinforces male-female and other gender inequality issues.

Some contemporary media texts have been highlighted as potential examples that contain strong female protagonists may challenge the dominance of the male gaze. However, much like Mulvey suggests in her afterthoughts, many of these supposed strong female protagonists nonetheless serve to reinforce the dominance of male power. This is not a new phenomenon, and has always been an issue within cinema. For instance, in the 1933 film Baby Face, Barbara Stanwick’s character use her sexuality to her advantage and works her way to a top position at a large corporation, usurping and exploiting traditionally powerful men along the entire way. However, due to the restrictions of the Production Code Administration, the film was forced to conclude with a scene that reaffirms the traditional power relations. At the end, Stanwick’s character admits the folly of her ways, decides to marry a man, and settles into the traditional role of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Though the Production Code has long been abolished, this problem still exists in contemporary media. Consider, for instance, the fundamental differences between the reality television shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. The difference between the two should be a simple switch of the participants’ genders, but this is not the case. From the many differences in presentation, “rules” of the game, and overall audience perception, the two are considerably different from one another. The Bachelorette’s “protagonist” is a reject from a previous season of The Bachelor, already setting her and the show up to be in an inferior position. Furthermore, despite the female protagonist, the season still ends with a male proposing to the female–it could not exist the other way around, as it would challenge the traditional gender roles.

Metz and Mulvey might take this as evidence that their notions of spectator-cinema identification remain true. While this may appear to be the case, there are some important limitations to their theories that I want to identify. Metz and Mulvey argue that their theories are universal to all cinema, and are a fundamental quality of the medium. However, these effects are created through the individual texts, and not necessarily through the cinema apparatus. There are many example of cinema that, even when projected and presented to a spectator, do not invoke the same sense of spectator identification that Metz and Mulvey invoke. For instance, many of Hayo Miyazaki and other Studio Ghibli films do not create the suspension of disbelief in the same fashion, and certainly do not reinforce or create the male gaze like Mulvey writes. To avoid being overly long-winded, I will conclude with this point: Metz and Mulvey describe interesting spectator-cinema identification effects; however, these effects are created by individual film texts, and are not necessarily inherent to the cinema medium itself.

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