Mulvey’s one-dimensional system

English translation of ‘Mulvey’s eendimensionale systeem. Bij dezen dan voor het laatst “Visual Pleasure”’, in: Versus, no. 2 [1986]: 35-54.

A last look at ‘Visual Pleasure’

Heidi de Mare Translated by Gawie Keyser


Feminist film theory posits a game of questions and answers that have largely remained unchanged since the seventies. Elsewhere I have tried to examine this statement in detail. I would like to resume my hypothesis, albeit in a different manner, and in doing so explore anew the nature of the central text in feminist film theory: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey.

In ‘Van horen zien’ I have shown what the purpose of Mulvey’s proposition is. She has developed a strategy to study the classical Hollywood film from a feminist as well as a theoretical standpoint. This strategy has received the support of a whole generation of feminists from inside and outside of the world of film theory. In this article I would like to take a closer look at the other side of the coin. In doing so I will question the theoretical tactics that form the basis of Mulvey’s program. I will show how Mulvey uses the notion of castration anxiety to create a watertight – but one-sided – system.

Secondly I would like to show the consequences of this way of thinking concerning the treatment of filmic images. Lastly I shall try to put forward conclusions – on the one hand by describing the theoretical impasse that has resulted from the massively positive reception of ‘Visual Pleasure’ within the current feminist film theory, and on the other hand by asking the question if a feminist film theory is even possible in light of Mulvey’s influence. Does the need for another kind of feminist film theory still exist, perhaps of the kind presented in the writings of Claire Johnston?