Psychoanalytic Theory and Spectators in Film – 2500 words 2.1/1st

Film and Critical Theory: CW2


 ‘Critiques of early psychoanalytical theories have provided a more complex and persuasive picture of the dynamics of spectatorship in the cinema.’ Discuss.


This essay will, first of all, outline some early psychoanalytical theories through presenting the work of Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey. Metz’s work introduced Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis into theories of cinematic spectatorship, and was fundamental in developing concepts such as identification, which have become vital to film studies. Mulvey’s most renowned contribution to the field is her introduction of gender into the dynamic and analysis of the ‘male gaze’ of the cinema. The essay will then consider critiques of these viewpoints. Firstly Modleski’s analysis of Hitchcock’s Rear Window will be presented as a complication and development of Mulvey’s arguments. Next, Mary-Ann Doane’s concept of the masquerade will be considered as a further critique and development of psychoanalytical theories of spectatorship. Studlar’s focus on a Deleuzian masochism over the sadism of classical psychoanalytical theory will be presented, and Shaviro’s argument for the excessive affective force of the image will be outlined, providing an alternative to a theory of spectatorship based on lack. Finally some of Mulvey’s later work will also be presented to suggest that cinematic modes of spectatorship change according to technological as well as theoretical developments. It will be argued that while early psychoanalytical theories have been useful in understanding cinematic spectatorship, critiques have been important and have ultimately provided a more complex and persuasive picture of its dynamics.


Early psychoanalytical theories of the cinema drew heavily on the work of Freud and Lacan in formulating models of spectatorship. This involved the use of concepts such as scopophilia as the pleasure of looking (Mulvey, 1975, p.17), identification as a stage of subject-formation (Metz, 1982, p.42), and fetishism as a form of displacement of the fear of castration (Metz, 1982, p.69). According to Lacan’s work, the subject is born from lack and spends its life trying to overcome this in the search for the fullness of an imaginary plenitude. He outlines the ‘mirror stage’ as a fundamental part of subject-formation, where the infant misrecognises itself in an image that looks like the self yet is whole and other (Storey, 2006, p.80). The work of Christian Metz was fundamental to bringing Lacanian psychoanalytic theory into a cinematic context. For Metz, drawing on Lacan, “the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera” (1982, p.49). In other words, through the use of devices such as point-of-view-shots, as well as the traditional cinematic set-up of a still audience in the dark having larger than life images projected from behind, the cinematic spectator comes to identify, in a Lacanian sense, with the image on screen. The Metzian spectator occupies a transcendent powerful position, distant from the screen, yet identifying with its images. Drawing on such work, another canonical text of classical psychoanalytical film theory is Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). Here she introduces issues of gender into the Lacanian framework, arguing that the cinematic institution assumes and enforces a ‘male gaze’. According to Mulvey’s arguments here, women’s bodies are fragmented as objects of fetishistic desire for the pleasure of the masculine spectator, while also playing a passive role in relation to narrative, in opposition to the active role played by men:


Pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed. (Mulvey, 1975, p.9)


The effect of this is to gender the cinematic gaze specifically as male, as Modleski summarises of Mulvey’s argument, “the film spectator apparently has no choice but to identify with the male protagonist, who exerts an active, controlling gaze over a passive female object” (1988, p.73).


The work of theorists such as Metz and Mulvey has been crucial in formulating dynamics of spectatorship in the cinema. It has also, however, raised many issues and problems, which have been subsequently debated and critiqued in more recent psychoanalytical, post-psychoanalytical, or anti-psychoanalytical theories of spectatorship. One of the main criticisms of Mulvey’s classic argument, for example, is her lack of explanation of the role of the female spectator. As Doane asks, engaging with Mulvey’s work, “what then of the female spectator?” (2003, p.62). Modleski raises a similar critique in her analysis, “what happens when the woman looks?” (1988, p.73). Taking Modleski’s argument first, she uses a close-reading of Hitchcock’s Rear Window to challenge Mulvey’s position. According to Mulvey, the spectator identifies with the ‘peeping Tom’ character of Jeffries in the film, confined to a wheelchair watching the action occur in a building across the street. As he is a voyeur, confined to his seat, we are, according to Metz’s or Mulvey’s position, “complicit with his guilty desires” (Modleski, 1988, p.73). Modleski’s response to this is to use a reading of the film against this view. Firstly she argues that Jeffries is not the all powerful transcendent voyeur of Metz’ theory as he has a miniaturized ‘dollhouse’ view of the building, as much sealed off and separate from his perception (especially his hearing, which Mulvey does not account for in her focus on visual pleasure), as it is laid open for him (Modleski, 1988, p.79). Secondly, against Mulvey’s positioning of the woman as passive in the narrative, Modleski argues that in Rear Window the female character Lisa has a more active role than Jeffries. She has “mobility, freedom and power” (1988, p.79), dominant in the frame towering over him and free to come and go as she pleases. Against Mulvey’s reading of Lisa dressing for the gaze of the man, Modelski argues that it is unfair to criticize the woman for the position she is forced into by the patriarchy. Rather than condemning her interest in fashion as objectification, it could be considered how this position could be reclaimed and used as a position of power and excess of sexuality (1988, p.77). Mulvey’s essay, in other words, does not allow for the complexities of gender roles and gender identification. We do not necessarily identify with the male hero of the film, and the woman’s dress is not necessarily a signal of submission and passivity. The dynamics of spectatorship are more shifting and open to change than the rigidity of Metz’s or Mulvey’s initial model allows.


These points are developed in Doane’s critique of Mulvey’s work. According to her argument, returning to Freud, while the male viewer can be distanced from the body in his consumption of the image through voyeurism, it is not so easy for the female viewer who ‘over-identifies’ with the image, “that body which is so close continually reminds her of the castration which cannot be ‘fetishized away’” (2003, p.65). Doane’s way of escaping this over-identification in a specifically feminine experience of spectatorship is to introduce the concept of the masquerade. Firstly she outlines the potential of a ‘transvestitism’ of spectatorship. The female spectator must play the masculine role in order to experience pleasure from the male gaze of the cinematic apparatus (2003, p.66). This draws on Mulvey’s own modifications of her original theory, where she pays more attention to the possibilities of female spectatorship, arguing that female spectators can take pleasure and challenge the norms of femininity, but only through ‘the metaphor of masculinity’ (Mulvey: 1999). This for Doane, however, does not go far enough. It is “recuperable” into an established gender dynamics as it is “understandable that women would want to be men” (2003, p.66) from the perspective of the patriarchy. The masquerade, on the other hand, suggests that “a woman might flaunt her femininity, produce herself as an excess of femininity, in other words, foreground the masquerade” (2003, p.66). Rather than playing the role of a man, through strategies of excess, the female spectator reveals femininity precisely as a mask, as a performance, allowing for the critical distance that over-identification disallows, “to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and the image” (2003, p.66). Doane’s is a complex argument, but it can be seen how she uses and develops psychoanalytic theory in order to critique some of the assumptions of Mulvey’s model. The spectator is reconfigured not merely as voyeur, but as active performer, drawing attention to the constructed and contingent nature of gender rather than being forced into its pre-assigned categories.


Another approach to critique comes from the work of Gaylyn Studlar. She aims to replace the ‘sadistic’ model of classical psychoanalytical theory with a ‘masochistic’ model drawn from the work of Deleuze (Studlar, 1985, p.605). This allows for an approach which moves away from issues of female lack, sexual difference and castration as “in masochism, as in the infantile stage of helpless dependence that marks its genesis, pleasure does not involve mastery of the female but submission to her” (1985, p.610). This complicates the binary opposition presented in Mulvey’s essay between woman as object of the gaze and man as pleasured subject, suggesting the possibility of identification with the woman, even when she is the object of gaze and passive in narrative, “the female in the masochistic aesthetic is more than the passive object of the male’s desire for possession” (1985, p.610).  Again, it can be seen, that while taking Mulvey’s essential arguments, critiques allow for a more complex analysis of spectatorial dynamics.


Taking a different approach, Steven Shaviro’s work has been important in challenging some of the assumptions of classical psychoanalytical models of spectatorship. Rather than focusing entirely on gendered feminist critiques, Shaviro introduces some of the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari in order to critique the basic assumptions of Lacan-centred psychoanalytical spectator theory. Film theory, he argues, has allowed too much dominance to Lacanian post-structuralism with its focus on lack, on voyeurism, and on signification (1993, pp.13-15). What this has disallowed, he argues, is any force or power for the image itself to move the spectator in surprising and unpredictable ways. In classical psychoanalytical theory, “images are kept at a distance, isolated like dangerous germs” (1993, p.15). For Shaviro, images do not remain at a safe distance, but have an excessive force and power to affect the spectator. A consideration of the impact of horror films for example must account not only for the transcendent spectator in a position of power achieving pleasure through watching the image on the screen, but also the shock and revulsion that the image forces upon the spectator. Shaviro inverts the dominance of the gaze through this return to the power of the image, “it is not the gaze that demands images, but images that solicit and sustain – while remaining indifferent to – the gaze” (1993, p.19). He gives the examples of films such as Andy Warhol’s experiments using a fixed camera and long real-time events with little or no action (1993, p.19). The point here is that while psychoanalytic theory may seem to apply to some films, it cannot work as a universal theory, particular in relation to more experimental work which does not fit so easily into its framework. ‘Oedipilization’ as the fixing of the dynamics of film spectatorship into the Freud-Lacan model of subject-formation, he argues, is too much of a neat categorization, which does not account for the affective force of cinema (1993, p.22). For Deleuze and Guattari, in contrast with Lacan, desire precedes and is in excess of the subject, and the Oedipus model functions as a repression, rather than a model, of desire (2004, p.3). As Shaviro argues, “the point of the theory is to oppose the finality of deep structures, and to elicit and amplify the forces of potential change” (1993, p.22). The theorizing of a subject, in other words, who is modified and affected by the power of the image, rather than in a position of power to consume it, allows for a potential of change and transformation not present in early psychoanalytical models.


Another point of critique comes from the later work of Mulvey herself. As cinematic contexts change, so must its theory, as the way that people watch films shifts with changes in digital technology, “Then, in the 1970s, I was preoccupied by Hollywood’s ability to construct the female star as ultimate spectacle…now, I am more interested in the way those moments of spectacle were also moments of narrative halt” (Mulvey, 2006, p.7). Her new theories of spectatorship, where, rather than absorption, images can jolt the spectator out of traditional categories, draw on developments such as the culture of pausing and rewatching DVDs and the impact this has on cinematic spectatorship.


To conclude then, it can be argued that critiques of early psychoanalytical theories have provided a more complex and persuasive picture of the dynamics of spectatorship in the cinema. Modleski’s critique showed that, even in the same Classical Hollywood Narrative film texts that Mulvey discusses, it is not always the case that such a binary opposition exists between active male subject and passive female object. Furthermore, the objectified position of the female need not necessarily be one of submission but could have a power of its own. Modleski’s reading reveals the inflexibility in Mulvey’s position, and allows for greater agency on behalf of the viewer. Doane’s critique has been useful in formulating a more fully developed account of the potential of female spectatorship. Her concept of masquerade in particular, has added to the dynamics of spectator complexity in a useful way, allowing a consideration of performance and performativity of gender to enter into the debate. Studlar’s shift from an emphasis on patterns of sadism to those of masochism allows for a consideration of how the female figure can still be the object of identification despite being the passive object. Taken together, this work allows for a far fuller dynamic of the complex relations at play in cinematic spectatorship. Finally, the work of Shaviro, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of desire allows for a more thorough critique of the assumptions of Lacanian-centred psychoanalytical spectator theory, considering the importance of the affective force of the image itself. It could be argued that all of these theories of spectatorship are, to a certain extent, historically specific. Classical psychoanalytic theory seems to make more sense when considered in relation to conventional cinema viewing experiences of Classical Hollywood films. Shaviro’s analysis takes into account the multiplicity of other screen-based media which affect how we engage with cinema, drawing for example on video-art work such as Andy Warhol (Shaviro, 1993, p.19). Mulvey’s more recent work has acknowledged that contemporary spectatorship has been radically altered by the impact of contexts such as digital technology leading her to develop new theories such as ‘pensive spectatorship’ (2006). As technologies and cinematic forms change, so must theories of spectatorship, and while early psychoanalytical models have been vital to the history of film theory, their constant critique and modification is important.























Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2004) Anti-Oedipus. London: Continuum.


Doane, M.A. (2003) ‘Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator’, in A.Jones (Ed.) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, pp.60-71.


Metz, C. (1982) The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Modleski, T. (1988) The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. London: Routledge.


Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, pp.6-18.


Mulvey, L. (1999) ‘Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in S.Thornham (Ed.) Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, reprinted at, [accessed 4/1/11].


Mulvey, L. (2006) Death 24 x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion.


Shaviro, S. (1993) The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Studlar, G. (1985) ‘Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema’, in  B.Nicholls (Ed.) Movies and Methods: An Anthology: Volume 1. Berkeley: University of California press, pp.602-624.


Storey, J. (2006) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. London: Pearson.