When Mulvey (1975) wrote about the psychological importance of the male gaze, most women would have recognized in her description of the dynamics of phallocentrism and the male observation of women their own experiences. Mulvey argued that men use their ability an authority to look at women as a means of maintaining their power in a patriarchal society, and this use of the gaze is something that women often encounter in their lives. Applying a psychoanalytic approach to film criticism, she compared the force and intent of men's physical penetration of women's bodies with the psychological penetration and control that men can assert over women by capturing them with their eyes, their gaze. The ways that men look at women in movies and television shows reflects this use of the gaze as essentially a weapon that can be used to intimidate women. The power of the gaze in visual media can be even more powerful than it is in non-mediated life, for in the realm of visual media the gaze of the men looking at female characters is underscored by the power of the male (and presumed male) viewer.
Constructing and Deconstructing the Gaze
This perspective that Mulvey laid out was one of the most important principles in film criticism over the next decade, with scholars a filmmakers lining up on different sides as some agreed with her -- especially in terms of the power dynamics implicitly coded in the films created during Hollywood's Golden Age (centered in movies made in the 1940s) -- while others disagreed. Those who questioned the usefulness of Mulvey's theoretical model (which she herself would later question) arose primarily from those who objected to Mulvey's exclusive focus on heterosexual relationships. Mulvey presumed that the audience for the cinematic portrayal of women's bodies was comprised of men, a presumption that other critics problematized. Certainly some of that audience is male, but women also look at women's bodies with various levels of sexual interest and attraction.
An important point more suggested than made explicit by Mulvey's analysis is the point that each one of us (regardless of sex or gender) brings a specific context to how we read gendered bodies and how we understand the role and power of the audience. We each, as viewers (that is, as consumers of visual media) bring preconceived social constructs to mediated images so that our gaze acts as both filter and imprinter of these social codes. As members of any audience, we gather cues from our context to understand what we are seeing: We learn from watching how to see and be seen and how to merge these two actions as we fulfill our functions as consumers of visual images.
To deconstruct Mulvey's concepts of the gaze accurately it is imperative to understand its essentially tautological nature. Tautology is essentially cyclical, and it was the recognition of this fact by first other scholars and then Mulvey herself that allows her model to become more useful through refinement. Her model is far more limited than she initially suggested; this does not, however, mean that it is not still a powerful tool.
Mulvey argued that since the society in which films were made was itself patriarchal, then the films must reflect (and reinforce) that patriarchy. This makes a good deal of sense, especially if one's intellectual foundation is psychoanalytic in nature, but it is logically shaky. That shakiness becomes clear when one applies her perspective to a visual text very different in key ways from a 1940s movie -- an episode of the television show Sex and the City. This series was aimed primarily at a female audience, which calls into question how one can read the ways in which women's gaze of women's bodies changes the nature of the view.
An essential limitation of Mulvey's hypothesis is one that is suggested by Foucault, which is that there can be no proper analysis of power that does is in any way independent of the actual people in their daily relations. In The subject and the power, Foucault describes that all power relations "are rooted deep in the social nexus" and that any attempt to reconstitute power relationships as standing outside of society "as a supplementary structure whose radical effacement one could perhaps dream of" is both inaccurate and irrelevant (p. 784).
The key difference between Mulvey's and Foucault's de/construction of the power dynamics of the gaze (and other aspects of the power choreography between people) is that Mulvey's model allows for an analysis that is in many ways one that stands outside of society because it posits a sort of generically phallocentric society that lacks any of the nuances and negotiations of actual relationships. Mulvey's model, stripped of such nuances, lends itself to an analysis of power dynamics that is hierarchical in a unilateral way. That is to say, Mulvey focuses on the power (and the potential for harm) of the male viewer (because he does in fact have more power) to such an extent that she overly downplays the importance of the constant negotiation of power in any relationship regardless of the overall imbalance of power.
In any case, to live in a society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible
Mulvey's Original Idea of the Gaze
Before deconstructing Mulvey's model of a phallocentric (and heterosexual) gaze, it is important to understand exactly what she was proposing in her original essay. She argues that women's bodies as displayed on the screen (which was derived in no small part from the way in which women had previously been depicted on canvas). Central to her argument is the idea that women on screen stand in as "the Other." This otherness can take on two different forms, occupying that essentialized distinction of the whore and the Madonna. In order for women to serve this function of otherness for the male viewer, she has to be emptied of any intrinsic meaningfulness.
In other words, she has to be stripped of her ability to determine the meaningfulness of her own actions. Mulvey writes:
Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning. (Mulvey, 1975, p. 23).
This assessment of the role that women fill in men's fantasies does not seem to be a significant stretch: Most women have been aware in their own lives that they have been used to fill in a blank space in men's inner lives in which they are viewed (and possibly use) to fulfill an existing function that has nothing whatsoever to do with their own nature, expect to the extent that their gender has allowed them to be emptied and transformed into the Other.
Problematizing (and Further Deconstructing) Mulvey's Model: Why Not Womb Envy?
But while this part of Mulvey's model parallels a more general sense within a patriarchal culture (and the pervasive patriarchal elements of popular culture) will resonate with many women (and surely many men as well), the intellectual basis of her model proves to be more problematic. Basing her model on the original psychoanalytic parsing of gender identity and relationships as defined by Freud (and as refortified by Lacan), she weds herself to a commitment to heterosexuality as normative and over-riding. This is problematic not only for those viewers and viewed who are gays and lesbians, but also to all of those people whose sexual identity is flexible or falls somewhere away from the polar ends of the sexual orientation spectrum that most scholars at least believe to be continuous rather than discrete.
(This concept of sexuality as a spectrum rather than as binary was most clearly developed and forcefully advocated by Alfred Kinsey, who developed his Kinsey Scale of sexuality in the early 1930s. That scale ranges from 0 to 6, with a score of zero designated a person as exclusively heterosexual in desire as well as behavior and a score of six describing a person as exclusively homosexual. He argued in a number of publications -- and this is a model that has been supporting by the research of a number of others -- that very few people are either a zero or a six.)
Mulvey's summarizes the ways in which women's Otherness (and thus her role as the passive and manipulate-able subject of male gaze) is defined through male fear of female biology and reproductive potential:
To summarize briefly, the function of the woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is twofold, she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis and second thereby raises her child into the Symbolic. One this has been achieved, her meaning in the process is at an end, it does not last into the world of law and language except as…