Feminist Cinema and Visual Pain

John Haber
in New York City

Laura Mulvey: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

The workout room is lined with mirrors. On the Stairmaster, a book-rest holds Self. Each self is an anxious image, to be maintained with attention, self-sacrifice, and the risk of pain. But exactly whose attention, amid all these multiple, partial reflections?

For a woman the gaze is obviously, even a little too obviously, male. "The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954)the female figure." That insight is developed in a remarkable essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Let Laura Mulvey take me off the stairs and back to the movies—to Rear Window.

Mulvey goes for a very round target, Alfred Hitchcock: "the satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked." She gazes herself, at Hitchcock's hero, caught helpless from the moment he first sees both the women he will love and a murder. As a man facing a woman, he is caught up in his own power and the movie's ultimate sexism. I can never look at encounters between men and women the same way again, especially when the film hero—or murderer—turns from desire to action.

However, before the attack becomes yet another self-sacrifice, go back to the gym and keep reading. The gaze may be male, like the fiction of my observing a woman's workout, or a tourist's stare. It seems to me nonetheless that the actual gazer is still a woman, just as in the aerobics room a woman seeks her reflection in mirrors, magazines, models, and strangers. If I am right, the best feminist criticism is of a kind that could turn the whole idea of movie heroes and villains upside-down. Mulvey's taking on the role of attacker may be only the beginning of those reversals.

But the woman as the film's eye—how can that be, apart from the perpetual strangeness of Diane Arbus? Can there be such a thing as the female gaze, and what would it look at? Start with the subject of the magazine, the self lost amid appearances, the self in the twentieth century. But wherever is that? While I am standing on my head, a shift from Self to self takes me from the monthlies to former centuries. What if philosophers looked in the mirror, too?

From philosophy to Freud . . .

I am talking about male and female psychology, although photography by David Goldblatt or Zwelethu Mthethwa in Africa has extended the questions to race as well. I want to invoke Freud and Jacques Lacan, another difficult psychologist who has already looked in the mirror with me. I want to celebrate artists who invoke therapy in their work, such as Andrea Fraser. Since they are all difficult, the story has to start a little earlier.

Modernism stands as a critical revaluation of two strongly contrasting traditions, Classicism and Romanticism. Through Descartes and British Empiricism, this century inherits an identification of the self with what it knows and feels, logic and sensation, present consciousness. Through Hegel and Marx, Modernism knows the self by what it excludes, overdetermining forces always out of control.

The classical tradition long dominated in America, calling itself analytic philosophy. Here in the land of free-market choices and self-help, what you see is what you get. Meanwhile, Romanticism led not only to late Marxism, but also to Heidegger and to structuralism. For them, Being is the discourse of the Other, just as words mean what other words can never say alone.

The two traditions have often passed each other by in ignorance and scorn, but they were really never that far apart. Hegel was himself a conscious revision of Kant and Hume. Both trains of thought posit the self as a potential, necessary whole, and yet both also see it as woefully partial, as temporally incomplete. The bundle of sensation might never cohere; the world spirit is merely on its way to a higher self-consciousness as it reflects and absorbs its antithesis. Together the two traditions extended the enlightenment world view, what Foucault would call an episteme.

As maybe the greatest of all modernists, Freud draws seamlessly on both traditions. He allows every conscious intuition its authority. The analyst remains a nearly silent interpreter, while the subject freely associates. Whatever is is right. However, Freud also defines the self in terms of what consciousness excludes. Conscious authority reveals the unconscious it hides and the parental forces that shape its fictions. Immediacy and history can both assert a claim to truth. In a successful case, each must be recovered for the other.

. . . And from Freud to feminism

Later American therapy has given Freud over to the classicists. The patient lies (in both senses) while the therapist, silent and vigilant, demands a self-completeness that no self can ever attain. Lacan's impressive gamble is to appropriate Freud almost wholly for the romantics. No wonder one can turn his gaze on the traditional novel, as I have on Charles Dickens. His unconscious is the Other, and its meanings are determinant.

Lacan locates the Other in two places. First, the mirror stage allows the infant's eye to enact its parents' demands. Second, the unconscious mind derives its meanings from the language of verbal association, a fixed code of differences. Lacan observes the strangeness of the dreams that Freud himself privileged, film-like images to be interpreted only by puns and annotations, like a novel. Paradoxically, then, precisely because the infant fixates on images of self and mother, desire will later be constrained by a written language.

Well before Lacan, Freud surely earned the attention of feminism. By placing sexuality even before the choice of object, he shows gender as a construct. By making desire itself a fairly late achievement, only after the fluid, anxious pleasure of infancy, he allows women to be subjects, with their own desires as a fact, or even a right. By finding in an infant's theater the drama of motherly attention, he puts limits on patriarchy while implicitly inviting fathers to share the role of active care givers.

Freud's own very male investments in a Victorian agenda also deserved their attention from feminists. He has received his share in spades by now, but even at his worst he has been a liberating force, focusing critical readings of the past.

Lacan makes Freud even more relevant. Now anyone, man or woman, can ask what sort of reflection goes into the mirror and what comes out. Boys and girls share that mirror stage. Everyone was once an onlooker and was once seen in pride—and in shame.

But then what happened? The answer is to see the mirror stage through to its end in light of a patriarchy.

Just looking

Laura Mulvey sees it brilliantly: the look is defining, but the male is always the looker, while the female is the observed. The infant's castration anxiety fixates the adult male on the woman's lack of a penis and its threat of unpleasure. To paraphrase her very, very closely, film takes up a man's need to demystify, devaluate, and overvalue the woman. Movies must learn to break with convention, "to free the look of the camera into . . . passionate detachment."

Well, yes and no. As Barbara Kruger, the artist, has joked, male or female, one has to be remarkable to skip the mirror stage. What happens next is what counts. For a man, the mirror is indeed only a stage, on the way to fuller integration of the self. The boy looked—and was observed—so that the man can act. A woman, in contrast, is deprived of her potential scope of action. She can still function as that image, but her range of action may be forcibly cut off.

The gaze will be defined as the Other, more often than not the mother or the man, but the looking will increasingly be the woman's, not excluding women in painting. The magazines and mirrors (not to mention the smoke) are for her and her alone. Think of the women reading Self, or think of fashion trends: with only a slight fear of sounding sexist, I can say that women change styles with at least one eye on what girlfriends and mothers would say, but without consulting me.

I bet every heterosexual man has watched his significant other tell him how she looks best in the act of applying makeup he dislikes, while demanding and receiving his approval. I bet every man has watched female fashions change out from under him. I myself must admit that I never asked for pierced ears back when women all got them pretty much simultaneously. It was around 1987, I think. Your mother should know.

Passive observers

In each case women take pride in traditionally female symbols. Often they have drawn on images of minority women, attempting to gain independence by means of the cultures in which women have been especially derogated. Something similar is at work when painters like Florine Stettheimer or Frida Kahlo draw on primitivism. Their artistic rebellion, like pretty much every avant-garde, had to remain as double-edged as Modernism—often courageous, sometimes just proud, and also probably a failure.

A man, meanwhile, must use the gaze as a means to action or find himself pretty much cut off from manhood, displaced back to the mirror stage. For a woman, window shopping is part of the fun. For a man it is a kind of castration, just as a woman in Lacanian terms is often held to be a castrated man. The guy at the edge, looking without acting, is missing something. Think of the male wallflower, and I have to say I know that role by heart.

Looking is supposed to be a stage toward becoming or taking, even if only in a Playboy fantasy. However, sexual ambiguity, between the gaze and the gazer, enters as soon as the gazer is locked into the role. In Mulvey's examples, Vertigo and Rear Window, looking is isolated from doing and linked to a physical disability, echoing the castration anxiety. Vertigo can mean falling uncontrollably; James Stewart has a camera and a rear window, but also a broken leg and seeming helplessness before a crime.

Sexual ambiguity does not altogether harm Mulvey's attention to Hitchcock. Maybe it even improves sympathetically on her. In these movies, she sees a man punishing a woman for being a woman, for being symbolically a castrated young man. I see the drama of a man tempting danger to recover his potency, his mobility, and "the girl." As with the woman on an exercise machine, self-assertion now comes with considerable risk. When a woman gets behind the video camera, the risks can recover a contentious history or the edge of feeling. When a male artist pretends to act as a woman, the sexuality can be overwhelmingly powerful and yet bleak.

The photographer in a wheelchair corresponds to the man behind the movie camera—and, still more dizzyingly, to the man confined to a theater seat. The meaning of their passive observing has changed. Just as Stewart loses the hero's scope of action, the male director and moviegoer are no longer simply exploiters of comfortable thrills. They are simply on the spot. Meanwhile, the female moviegoer is put in a role that she knows all too well from back on my gym floor, eying and admiring herself, hoping for a happy ending.

Limited to art

Anxiety is so important to art because art, like any craft, is historically male yet "limited" to looking. No wonder artists (and scientists) are wimps. Anxiety also powers paintings that turn the male viewer back on himself. Video artists may even find a model for that in Hitchcock himself.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, for example, is often said to found Modernism on Picasso's male superiority before whores. Griselda Pollack, another British feminist, has offered a superb statement of its gender roles. But even she overlooks those fruit with nasty edges sticking up in the foreground. Like a scimitar, the melon mimes his prick—and begs to slice it off. What seems threatening is that a male, used to gazing in order to pick and choose from his whores, now has to face them as merely an onlooker, and they can face back. The museum visitor too finds himself transformed from consumer to dangerously passive viewer.

Mulvey cites Freud only to equate adult drives with infant sexuality. Hitchcock suggests that scopophilia is always present but far too dangerous ever to accept. It may be the traditional film maker and not Mulvey who best grasps the child's passage into gender.

She may miss the double-edged power of old, sexist art forms, even as she draws out their complexity with so much insight and originality, even as she also demands entirely new thrills. From the first daguerreotypes, photography had served as erotica, and then something changed—but what? Whether in movies or in painting, Modernism is about unfamiliar challenges within an all-too-familiar paradigm.

Mulvey gets this principle right, but a feminist psychology is only gradually emerging. Her esthetic is still locked into a prefeminist literalism, an almost male confidence that old roles are uncomplicated, if baneful. Not surprisingly, in another essay she describes Tina Mondotti, the photographer, as Edward Weston's abstractions plus peasants and bandoliers. She identifies revolutionary art with revolutionary subjects.

The challenge is still to move from a "woman's picture"—be it about Meg Ryan or a revolution—to a feminist cinema rather than male videos. And that movement will inevitably take place within a rich vocabulary defined by older movies.

Have I let her trap me into the romantic narrative of emergence after all? Or is it more the classical need for immediate and final truths? As a Canadian woman and a male movie fan, both pretending to speak to British feminism and to filmmaking, Mulvey and I are both insiders and outsiders to a tradition. With luck, that stance echoes the multiple reflections of the mirror—and the movies.

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Laura Mulvey's "Feminist Cinema and Visual Pain" is reprinted in her book Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana University Press, 1989).


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