Gender, Sexuality, And The Image
In addition to race-based critiques of dominant visual representation and its profound connection both to dominant modalities of the visual and to socio-subjective organization, scholars—particularly film theorists—have also examined the visual field in terms of its implantation in the organization of gender and sexuality. Most famously here, perhaps, is Laura Mulvey's work "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975). Undertaking an analysis of Hollywood's development of scopophilia or "pleasure in looking," Mulvey understood Hollywood narrative cinema to be developing and narrativizing a particular image of woman: "Woman … stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" (p. 199). She further comments, "As an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking" (p. 199). Though it has already been suggested here that cinema itself may be considered to be part of the dominant order that forms the unconscious itself, this dialectic for Mulvey results in the effective evacuation of the subjectivity of woman as representation, and perhaps (this has been debated in terms of the question of female spectatorship) as a concrete individual person. Without rehearsing the entire argument, suffice it to say that Mulvey sets out to attack the film industry's "satisfaction and reinforcement of the [male] ego," and understands the film industry to be effectively maintaining if not producing and intensifying patriarchal society and its domination/exploitation of women. In writing, "It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article" (p. 200), Mulvey crystallized a central point of her analysis: the link between pleasure, the production of subjectivity, and domination in patriarchal society.
While other theorists of cinema and of the visual, including Mary Ann Doane, Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Kaja Silverman, Linda Williams, and many others, offer differing and sometimes conflicting analysis of the organization and function of the visual in contemporary society, nearly all agree that what takes place in cinematic, televisual, and later digital media regarding the organization of gender and sexuality is not to be understood as a collection of unique instances but rather as at once symptomatic of social life and often productive of aspects of social life. Taken as a whole, mass media exert tremendous pressure on the organization of the psyche and the patterning of social performance. The critique of mass media's function has the power to alter its reception and therefore to transform its function. The possibility of such an analysis of images, and of an understanding of their processes, has been put forward under various nomenclatures, from semiotics to visual literacy to media theory.
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