The Gaze

Lacan and Freud are the prominent theorists in which all psychoanalysis, media and communication theory is based. Without freud’s work on the Id and the ego, teamed with Lacan’s work on the ‘Real’ the ‘symbolic’ an ‘the imaginary’. Theorists like the notorious Laura Mulvey couldn’t have produced such an important work as ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. There is on going debate as to whether or not Mulvey’s work on ‘The male gaze’ is considered to be apparent today due to some problematic inconsistencies in the claims Mulvey makes, yet despite this, cinema wouldn’t be where it is today without her work.

Mulvey’s (1975) concept of ‘The Male Gaze’ that the cinematic context works as an embodiment of the experience, and suggested that there were pleasures that the cinema offered the spectator. That being ‘scopophilia’, ‘in which looking itself becomes a form of pleasure’.(1975:806) Mulvey goes on to explain Freud’s ideas of voyeurism, ‘desire to see and make sure of the private and forbidden’ Mulvey relates these ideas to the context of the cinema and expands on Freud’s later ideas of ‘The peeping tom’:

‘Although the instinct is modified by other factors in particular the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object […] voyers and peeping toms, whos only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense an objectified other. (1975:806)

Mulvey’s prominent argument is that to be embodied though the cinematic state of voyeurism spectators must subject themselves to ‘the male gaze’. This works through the way the spectator sees within the second look, watching the film. Yet all looks that Mulvey outlines constitutes to ‘the male gaze’. The third look which is seen onscreen though the characters perceptions, Mulvey states ‘Women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact’, where as male protagonists are to be considered as active. (1975:809). Mulvey saw women’s place in Hollywood cinema to be represented through phallocentric order, as the symbolic ideal of the woman has connotations of castration that is seen to be threatening by man. Women are seen to be a signifier for the male other, Mulvey explains:

‘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 woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.’ (1975:833-834)

It could be argued that there is some reason within Mulvey’s work yet due to the fact Mulvey biasedly ignored films which were exceptions to her rule meant that ‘the male gaze’ is problematic in it’s delivery. Willmen(1976) challenged mulvey’s concept of the male gaze by stating that ‘even the classic American cinema can mobilise both the sadistic and the fetishistic modes of looking in relation to figures other than images of women’ (1976:102). The fact that the spectator within the cinema context must identify with the male in order to be embodied is problematic due the fact that Mulvey disregards the concept of a woman perhaps feeling embodied by identifying with a present female character, or perhaps the female spectator could have sexual fantasies towards a female character, Mulvey’s paper although highlights issues of the patriarchal institution that is cinema but also reinforces these issues by not taking into consideration the other.

Mulvey argued that there were three prominent looks that occurred when engaging in a cinema context:

‘the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.’ (1975:843)

Willmen (1976) extends on this and suggests that there are four looks within cinema, which are apparent instead of three:

‘The fourth look is not of the same order as the other three, precisely because the subject of the look is an imaginary other, but this doesn’t make the presence of the look any less real’ (1976:48)

Willmen’s concept of the fourth look is derived from the fourth wall within cinema, the fourth wall is considered to be the holder of illusion as if the fourth wall is broken, (the characters talk to the audience), the suspension of disbelief is broken along with the illusion and the spectator is more conscious of the spectacle. Goldsmith(1998) elaborates on Wilman by explaining:

‘the direct address of the porn film, in offering itself to be looked at, invigorates the fourth look to the point where the position and activity of the viewer are threatened, and the viewer risks becoming the object of the look’(1998:7)

The fourth look in cinema is the concept of the film spectacle looking back to the spectator. In an article written by Goldsmith summarises Willmen’s concept of the fourth look:

‘The fourth look is the look which marks itself in the light from the projection reflected back on to the faces of the audience and ‘constitutes the viewer as visible subject (107)’ (1998:6)

I found the fourth look while watching the live action adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016), not the entire picture, but a particular scene, when Mowgli must leave the pack.


Raksha, Mowgli’s adopted mother begs for Mowgli to stay and exclaims that ‘This is the only family he has ever known’. Pathetic fallacy is at play within the scene and the heavy down pour teamed with the somber music creates an emotional reaction within myself. Raksha says ‘never forget this, you’re mine to me, no matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son’. It’s at this point I find a tear rolling down my cheek and the emotional reaction becomes too poignant to fight off anymore.

In an article by Wheeler Dixon (1995) he quotes Ladlow that ‘This is a film about you, not it’s maker’ (1995:2) I can see how the film has sparked an emotional reaction in myself because of my subjectivity and events that have occurred in my life which make this scene resonate so deeply within myself, Dixon continues to elaborate on camper:

‘As a function of this “looking back” we (the viewers) are, “in a sense… more aware of our own reactions [to the film] than we are of the film itself” (camper 76-77)’

The way in which a scene with predominantly CGI characters can move me so much says less about the film and more about me, it’s not that I’m moved so strong because of what’s happening in the film but more because of what has happened to me. Because I have been left behind by my family before, I can feel the same way the character Mowgli must feel and I only with that I had someone say to me what Rashka said to Mowgli. It might seem really strange to some that a film about a young boy living in the jungle can make me so emotionally provoked, but I think it says a lot when put in relation to Mulvey’s ideas. I am a white western female and I identify with a young boy in the jungle, Mulvey would argue that this cannot be the case because I’m not identifying with my gender. This makes me think that the concept of the fourth look is more prominent in todays cinema and it makes sense that some films will provoke more of an emotional reaction in some and not in others. Our personal subjectivity and social context play a major part in how the film looks back at us. Our whole lives, events, family history, traditions all make up our identities as individuals and in turn this will then affect how we watch a film and what characters we identify with. I was never aware before how or why I have such strong reactions to certain films before where my peers haven’t, now I know it’s all down to how the film looks back at me combined with my subjectivity that sparks an emotional reaction. I think it will be so interesting now that I’m aware of this fourth look, I will be able to decode and acknowledge these emotional reactions and understand myself a lot more.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), pp.6-18. The Jungle Book. (2016). [DVD] Disney: Jon Favreau.

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