Laura Mulvey’s Legacy

Review of Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers (eds.), Feminisms. Diversity, Difference, and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures , ISBN 9789089646767, 275 pages, no images, € 39,95 Volume in The Key Debates. Mutations and Appropriations in European Film Studies, Series Editors Ian Christie, Dominique Chateau, Annie van den Oever Amsterdam University Press 2015

Scary movie-scholars?!

Heidi de Mare


It is now some thirty years ago that I read Laura Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' for the first time, ten years after its publication in 1975. As a Dutch feminist, educated in Art & Architectural history and Film studies, I was intrigued by her propositions. Looking back, I realize that two of her statements have been - and still are - guidelines in my research: her well-known phrase "Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look", as well as her remark on Renaissance perspective as the origin of Hollywood cinema as a patriarchal representation system. Consequently I was curious to know more about both statements. Therefore, since 1985, I have been analysing the moving image - film as well as television drama - trying to understand how it is organized in audio-visual terms, and what this means for the fictional characters in relation to the narrative. At the same time, I dedicated my dissertation to understanding the changing role of the image in early modern European art, architecture and science. As it turned out, both visual domains, though historically separated by several centuries, are related. But not in the way Mulvey suggested in 1975 and many of her followers believed.

The latter, i.e. the fact that her arguments were broadly accepted in feminist film theory can be explained by the fact that Mulvey's logic in 'Visual Pleasure' was as simple as it was effective because of her political use of impressive psychoanalytic terms. As early as 1986, I have been arguing in 'Laura Mulvey's eendimensionale systeem. Bij dezen dan voor het laatst "Visual Pleasure"' - see article 12 in our volume with an English translation - that Mulvey's explanation is one-dimensional and ahistorical. This combination was politically fruitful in the early days of academic feminism. Although not meant to be academic, as Mulvey underlines today, her ideas have become basic in film studies. Moreover, Cultural, Media and Visual studies take Mulvey's propositions as an indisputable truth. While in the last decades I found references to her statements everywhere, often in domains that have nothing to do with film or visual culture. The publication of the volume Feminisms - Diversity, Difference, and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures, edited by Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers, made me curious. I wondered to what extent forty years later her arguments have been digested, reproduced and adjusted or criticized within (feminist) film studies.