Since the beginning of motion pictures, men have mostly been in charge. Men own the studios, and usually males are the writers, directors, and producers. This disparity has somewhat lessened over the past few decades. While still in the minority, women such as Sofia Coppola and Katheryn Bigelow have found mainstream success and made powerful films. However, some media critics have pointed out that they are still stuck in a male-dominated mode of representation. Feminist writers often criticize the way women are portrayed in films. Laura Mulvey is one of them, and many of her ideas have merit.
Laura Mulvey is an important feminist thinker who was born in the UK in 1941. She worked for the British Film Institute, and made some movies herself. One of her essays, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was highly influential. She claimed that most mainstream films were a result of the “patriarchal unconscious.” She claimed that classical narrative cinema reinforces gender stereotypes in order to keep society controlled by males.
Looking at films throughout history, it's easy to find evidence for these claims. After all, most movies are about a serious problem being solved by an individual male. Women are usually weak, or in trouble, especially in films released before the 1960s. A good example is the western genre.
Actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood portray strong, independent heroes, while women are either whores or passive and innocent. Action movies almost always have a male protagonist as well. The villain is also male; women aren't considered strong enough to equal a man. Heroes such as James Bond in the 1960s would basically force women to have sex, with them eventually giving in.
Movies from the 1940s and earlier are often more pronounced in their sexism. For example, in The Big Sleep, the film ends with Humphrey Bogart asking, “What's wrong with you?” Lauren Bacall replies, “Nothing you can't fix.” The implication is obvious; the woman needs to be “fixed” by a man. Most of the popular films of the 20s and 30s starred men, such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or the Marx Brothers. Most of the other memorable films from this period were mainly about men as well, including Battleship Potemkin, M, Frankenstein, The Grand Illusion, and Citizen Kane.
Horror movies often are accused of furthering stereotypes as well. Women are usually portrayed as helpless victims doing idiotic things that get them killed. At best, they can manage to scream in a high pitched voice.
The role of women in film has changed somewhat in the past few decades. Perhaps due to the critiques by feminists, women are getting more proactive roles. They are no longer perpetually passive and ineffective. Many action films of the 1990s and 2000s have starred women, such as Kill Bill, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Ultraviolet, and Catwoman. However, these movies still seem to be a male fantasy. The stars are almost always traditionally attractive, and wear tight or revealing clothing.
Most popular movies are still about men, despite the advances that have been made. Consider the all time top ten grossing films worldwide(as of 2010). Number 1 is Avatar with a male hero and villain. There are 3 Harry Potter flicks in the top 10, obviously these have a male lead character. There are a few important female characters in Harry Potter, but they are greatly outnumbered by men.
The Dark Knight and 2 Pirates of the Caribbean films are in the top 10 as well, both starring men. Titanic is the only one with a female lead, Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet are about equal in importance.
Furthermore, all of the films in the worldwide top ten were written and directed by males. Katheryn Bigelow was the first female to win the Best Director Oscar, and that happened recently, in 2009. Before her, there were only three female nominees, all since the 1970s. Women have had more success winning Academy Awards in the writing categories, however. Perhaps this is because the director is considered a leader who needs to take charge, a stereotypical male trait.
Many film theorists applied the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud to film. Mulvey felt that psychoanalysis could “reveal the patriarchal unconscious”, but also that psychoanalysis was itself sexist and part of this unconscious. So she wanted to find a way of thinking that isn't as “gender-biased.” According to Daniel Chandler, “Laura Mulvey did not undertake empirical studies of actual filmgoers, but declared her intention to make ‘political use’ of Freudian psychoanalytic theory... in a study of cinematic spectatorship” (Chandler, 2000).
To this end, she used to the term “scopophilia.” There are two types of scopophilia, erotic and narcissistic. Erotic is sexual attraction to another person. According to this way of thinking, erotic scopophilia usually involves a female character, who is static and in a flattened image.
With the narcissistic kind, the viewer is “gazing at image because it is like ourselves.”According to Mulvey, this kind is, “developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen” (1975). The male viewer identifies with the idealized image of a male, who is in the center of a more 3-dimensional space.
Mulvey also included the idea of “three different looks.” This refers to different ways that movies are viewed. The first look is the camera recording the action. The second one is the audience watching the film.
The third look is character looking at each other within the story. Mulvey claims that looking is active and being looked at is passive. Female characters are usually looked at by men, or the “center of the gaze.”
The term “male gaze” was created by Mulvey (Chandler, 2000). This means that film audiences are put in the mindset of a heterosexual male. Female bodies are often the focus of shots, objectifying them. This make a decent amount of sense; it much more common to have scenes of female nudity than male. This often causes women to feel like they are just sexual objects in the eyes of men.
Mulvey says in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, "The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (1975)."
This relates back to psychoanalysis in that Mulvey considers mainstream cinema to be a result of male fantasies. Often these fantasies are subconscious and stereotypes may be reinforced unintentionally.
Mulvey called for drastic changes in the way films are made. At the end of her “Visual Pleasure” article, she states,
"The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions (already undertaken by radical filmmakers) is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment (1975)."
Mulvey clearly thought that breaking the rules of classical Hollywood cinema would change the male-dominated hierarchy. However, some radical filmmakers have come and gone and made some movies far removed from your typical Hollywood blockbuster and cinema is still arguably just as sexist and stereotypical. Many film conventions concerning gender stereotypes are still in place, even though they are often inverted or used ironically.
Since motion pictures were invented, they were mostly made by and about men. Westerns, action flicks, and films noir are just a few examples of genres that portray men as taking charge and solving all the problems. Feminists made some gains the 1960s and 70s and now women are getting more important roles. However, most popular films still are made by, and starring, men.
Mulvey viewed these facts as a result of the “patriarchal unconscious.” She used Freudian theories, but also found them sexist. Mulvey introduced the terms “scopophilia” and “male gaze”. Women are often being looked at in movies, and it is usually the men who are doing the looking. She claimed that films put the viewer in the perspective of a heterosexual male and called for the breaking of cinematic standards and rules.