"The Patriarchal Gaze" by Nancy

The Patriarchal Gaze

To What Extent Women Are Controlled And Guided by the Look As Is Reflected In Mainstream Culture

Understanding the role of women as defined by the male gaze is central to understanding women’s position in society. Though this may not necessarily be common knowledge, we can all buy the argument that a woman’s place in society’s stratification is defined by the outward manifestation of her person, and that person is identified first and foremost by her gender. Simone de Beauvoir claims that women are defined as “others” or as “not male.” This differentiation would not be possible if women were not recognizable by sight as not male. Considering this, it is logical to look to film, a major form of visual popular culture, and its associations with visual representations and the gaze. The gaze in film is basically the outlook of the camera. Because the outlook of the camera fosters identification with the audience, the gaze can be used as a powerful discourse. Beginning with the Laura Mulvey article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the representation of women in culture, and popular culture in particular, has been dissected. In her opening paragraph, Mulvey outlines, “...the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (Mulvey 57). This dissection in film allows women to realize the extent to which the controlling discourse flows over from popular culture and effects everyday issues. According to Mulvey, women are always the objects of the gaze, never the possessors of the gaze. In the case of film, control of the camera and therefore the control of the gaze is almost always firmly settled in the male sphere. However, as Mulvey understands, the camera, not just cinematic technology, can be thought of as a symbol and applied to patriarchal control in society at large. It is in this light that the camera can be considered an instrument of patriarchal subjugation. For example, many aspects of life that women accept without thought (high heels for instance) are actually part of, or results of, very definite stereotypes about and concerning women. To bring Freud into the bedroom, so to speak, is to recognize that all aspects of our lives, even the private and personal, are affected by the extending arm of film and popular culture; generally classified as harmless, but psychologically significant. Mulvey writes, “...unchallenged mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. In the highly developed Hollywood cinema it was only through these codes that the alienated subject, torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in fantasy, came near finding a glimpse of satisfaction: through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions” (Mulvey 59). Consciously or not, as Mulvey and her followers assert, a standard of normalcy and acceptability is presented and perpetuated through these mainstream manifestations of popular culture. Therefore, who controls the popular discourse and what they have to gain from its perpetuation become important.

The dominant popular discourse, for instance, only accentuates the fact that women, in the majority of societies around the world, live lives of spectacle. Mulvey categorizes women as, “the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey 58). As Mulvey’s statement suggests, unlike males, females seldom find themselves in the role of spectator, or in the case of film, in the role of control. Women form the spectacle. They are the objects while males are generally the subjects. In film, the camera almost always assumes the gaze of the male. Therefore it is he who moves the action while women have little access to the camera and/or control of the narrative. The camera seems to constantly watch women as it does not do with men. Almost always the camera assumes a male perspective and a male gaze in the narrative. It is the male that the audience, whether male or female, relates to because it is a male gaze that moves and controls the camera. Mulvey explores the reasons for this strident male control by delving into Freud and physchoanalytic discourses.

Psychoanalytically, Freud termed and explained the voyeurism that is attached to the predominant male gaze as fetishism. Because there are little to no instances of male objectification in popular culture or everyday life (Mulvey 63), the burden of scopophilia, the active pleasure of looking (Mulvey 58), falls squarely on the male gender. The exclusive male control of the medium of film requires that any pleasure derived is in a male context. If women are to gain pleasure from film, they do so by assuming the male gaze and accepting themselves and other women as objects. Freud postulates that scopophilia and fetishism originate from the Oedipal Complex. The young male child is exceptionally close to the mother. However, he soon becomes aware of a lack in her, meaning the penis (Mulvey 57). He also feels competition with the father in his desire to return to the perfect utopia of the womb. Because of this purposed threat of the father, the male child grows to regard females in the light of the desire for the mother and the paranoia of the lack. But, because women do not have a penis, the male child must fetishize a particular aspect of women in order to center his desire on the correct object. From hence develops the male obsession with female legs, for example, and the phallic stand-ins, high heels. Following this line of thought it is easy to see why men seldom shrink from obvious visual perusal of the female body and why gazes along the same lines are seldom directed back by women. Mulvey goes on to say that, “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world” (Mulvey 57). Like Freud’s theories, the spectacle of film as it is recognized today, cannot exist without its female instrument of spectacle. Without women to provide a counter weight to phallocentrism and give the male gaze something to control, neither could exist. If women in film, and in society as a whole, are to escape the patriarchal objectification of the male gaze a new neutral gaze must be developed.

The creation of a new form of cinematic pleasure and non-gendered look cannot be accomplished without following the path of Mulvey and others. Everyday accepted images must be dissected in order to advent new roles of spectator and spectacle. It is crucial to understand the processes of male gaze and female spectacle. Without a comprehension of the forces at work beneath dominant popular culture and the realization that women really are represented as objectified spectacles, there is little hope of developing a non-objectified female subject.

The creation of a new form of cinematic pleasure and non-gendered look cannot be accomplished without following the path of Mulvey and others. Everyday accepted images must be dissected in order to advent new roles of spectator and spectacle. It is crucial to understand the processes of male gaze and female spectacle. Without a comprehension of the forces at work beneath dominant popular culture and the realization that women really are represented as objectified spectacles, there is little hope of developing a non-objectified female subject.