Reading Guide to Mulvey on Cinema and Psychoanalysis

by Dave Harris

(NB see the linked critical discussion in the file relating to the Screen 'special' on difference -- here)

Three pieces are summarised here, ranging over a decade, and featuring some important changes in perspective...

Mulvey L 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen, 16, 3, Autumn 1975

NB this piece is collected in several readers as well, including Screen (1992), and Bennett et al (1981) Popular Film and Television, London: BFI Publishing ( in an abridged version). Page numbers for quotes below refer to the version in Thornham, S (ed) Feminist Film Theory: a Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

The particular fascinations of film may be 'reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him' [sic] (page 58), especially by considering sexual difference. 'psychoanalytic theory... [becomes]... a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form' (58).

Phallocentrism relies upon the image of  'the castrated women [sic]' (58). Woman as lack produces the phallus as symbolic presence.  Recent material in Screen has shown how the female form 'speaks castration' (58). Women symbolise the castration threat through the lack of a penis, and raise children so they can enter the symbolic order. Women do not enter the symbolic themselves, (and can have no desires of their own) 'except as a memory ... memory of maternal plenitude and memory of lack' (59). Both of these options are found in nature, or anatomy, as in Freud [a hint of the old biologism here? -- see the file on Screen theory]. Women bear 'the bleeding wound', existing only in relation to castration. When women bear children, these are desires to possess a penis -- the child has submitted to the law of the symbolic order, or '[kept] down with her in the half light of the imaginary' (59). Women thus stand as an Other to males: men live out fantasies and obsessions 'through linguistic command by imposing them' on women (59).

This expresses very well the frustrations for women in phallocentric societies. It helps women articulate the problem, and presents them with a major challenge -- how to fight while still caught within the language of patriarchy. Alternatives are unlikely, but patriarchy can be analysed, especially via psychoanalysis. However, even psychoanalysis has not developed very far and actually exploring female sexuality and its relation to the symbolical order.

Despite the emergence of alternative cinemas and new developments in technology, Hollywood still dominates, mainly because of its skill in manipulating verbal pleasure -- 'mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order' (60). Thus erotic pleasure and the central place of the image of women needs to be analysed. Such analysis deliberately sets out to destroy naive pleasure in watching the narrative fiction film. The past is to be left behind, or transcended, 'in order to conceive a new language of desire'.

A major source of pleasure for the viewer is scopophilia -- the pleasure in looking and in being looked at. Freud suggested scopophilia was an important component of sexuality, although he restricted this to childish activities in seeing, especially other people's genitals. Scopophilia can develop into a perversion, obsessive voyeurism, which involves gaining satisfaction from 'watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other' (61).

Scopophilic pleasure is available in the cinema, since the viewers watch in an enclosed world, where images appear apparently regardless of who is watching. Thus the spectators seem to be looking in on a private world, and can project their desires on to the actors. Conventions of mainstream film also focus on the human body, and 'Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic' (61) . This provides the pleasures of recognition.

Lacan described the mirror phase as a crucial stage in the development of the ego. The child sees an image in the mirror as a more perfect and idealised version of himself ( as in narcissism) -- hence recognition is combined with a misrecognition, and a mirror image gets taken as an ideal ego, and the basis of models of others. This is an alienating moment, but it also marks an entry into the social symbolic order. It is no coincidence that an image provokes this phase, not the perception of the real object, such as the mother's face. The tension between image and self-image is established too, and this leads directly to film and the processes of recognition in  the cinema audience. The film is fascinating enough to 'allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego' (62). The images presented by the film enable a temporary sense of forgetting and also the observation of 'ego ideals as expressed in particular in the star system'. The whole process is 'nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition' [in Lacan].

Thus we have a contradiction between two kinds of pleasure -- scopophilic and narcissistic. Scopophilic pleasure involves seeing others as objects of sexual stimulation. The second kind of pleasure comes from recognising or identifying with the image, a narcissistic pleasure, to do with the constitution or maintenance of the ego. The subject himself is split in pursuing these two kinds of pleasures -- there is an erotic identity, arising from sexual instincts, and (ego) identification, more to do with ego and their energies. This contradiction is a major aspect of the perception of the subject -- 'the imaginised, eroticised concept of the world' [the Lacanian Imaginary]: this subjective perception 'makes a mockery of empirical objectivity' (62). Cinema offers a particular version of reality which enables these contradictory pleasures to co-exist. However, pleasure is accompanied by threats to the ego -- images of women crystallise this tension.

Pleasures in looking have been split between active/male and passive/female. The male gaze is 'determining', and female figures appear in accordance with male fantasies -- they 'connote to-be-looked-at-ness'(63) , as in conventional erotic spectacles like strip-tease. In mainstream film, there is both spectacle and narrative, and here, the presence of women can threaten the flow of narrative, by freezing the action in 'moments of erotic contemplation'. This means that women have to be reintegrated into the narrative -- indeed, their role in narrative is almost entirely to make the hero act in the way he does. An exception here involves the development of the 'buddy movie'-- Mulvey cites Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- where the 'active homosexual eroticism of the central male figures can carry the story without distraction' (63) [and without any threat to the conventional sexuality of the male audience?].

Traditionally, though women are erotic objects for the characters and for the spectators, leading to a combination of looks -- sometimes, when women are performing as showgirls, the two looks can be unified, and this is also commonly achieved in conventional narratives. Women performers can add extra pleasure of a sexual nature. However, occasionally, the 'sexual impact of the performing woman [can take] the film into a no-man's-land outside its own time and space', and can destroy perspective, appearing as a 'cut-out or icon' (62). [Examples here are 'Marilyn Monroe's fist appearance in  The River of No Return and Lauren Bacall's songs in To Have and Have Not' ( 63)]

The split between active and passive stances also dominate conventional narrative. '... the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up... [mean]... the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like[ness]' (62). As a result there has to be a split between spectacle and narrative, and men have to be given the active role of forwarding the story [as a kind of excuse, or pretext, or because of the extra demands of patriarchal ideology?]. Men control the 'film fantasy', and also gain power by representing the look of the spectator. This follows because the spectator 'identifies with the main male protagonist' [in an aside, Mulvey acknowledges that there are female main protagonists in films too, pleads lack of space to discuss these, and suggests that these main protagonists are not as strong as they appear -- but see below]. This identification enables the spectator to enjoy the controlling power of the male performer -- the latter becomes the more powerful ideal ego as in the mirror phase. Camera technology, including deep focus, unobtrusive movements and editing [i.e. realist technique] lend support to this idea of male control of a 3-D environment, and the action.

Thus one look involves the spectator 'in direct scopophilic contact with the female form', while another enables identification with male performers who are in control of the action and the woman. However, women also signify lack, and thus pose a threat of castration. [ The lack of a penis is again seen as 'visually ascertainable...evidence on which is based the castration complex' (65) -- biologism, again]. Thus women as icon also threaten and cause anxiety. Men respond by re-enacting the trauma ( via investigation and demystification of women); [less healthy?] by punishing 'or saving' the guilty object ('the concerns of the film noir' ( 65)); by substituting the threat into a fetish, 'so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous' (65) ('overvaluation, the cult of the female star'). The first two reactions lead to voyeurism, and sadism, asserting control and subjugating the guilty person. 'This sadistic side fits in well with narrative. Sadism demands a story...' ( 65), and linear time. Fetishism can go on outside of time, ' focused on the look alone' (65).

Only Angels Have Wings, and To Have and Have Not are cited of examples of how narrative delivers the main female character into the hands of the main male protagonist, and thus delivers pleasure to the identifying spectator] Hitchcock and Sternberg also offer examples of variation. Sternberg, in creating images of Dietrich, 'produces the ultimate fetish' (65), almost dispensing with the identification mechanism in order to provide direct scopophilia pleasure for the viewer. There is almost no controlling male gaze, but concentration upon Dietrich directly as an erotic image. There is 'cyclical rather than linear time' (66), as plots revolve around misunderstandings: Dietrich offers maximum erotic meaning 'in the absence of the man she loves in the fiction' (66): the man 'misunderstands and above all does not see' (66).

 In Hitchcock, by contrast,  the male hero always sees what the audience sees. There are scopophilia moments, 'oscillating between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination', and the male heroes usually lose their respectability ('His heroes are exemplary of the symbolic order and the law'(66)) by succumbing to erotic drives. Sadistic subjection, and voyeuristic gaze are both directed at women, thinly justified by acting in the name of legalised power, or because the woman is classically 'guilty' --  'evoking castration, psychoanalytically speaking' (66). Viewers are encouraged to identify, through devices like 'liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist' (66). [A more detailed discussion of Vertigo ensues -- it demonstrates an interesting opinion that the viewer in Hitchcock films can feel uneasy, complicit, 'caught in the moral ambiguity of looking' (67), almost as if the sexual pleasures are too blatant, and too thinly disguised by the apparent morality of the film, its 'shallow mask of ideological correctness'].

Thus psychoanalysis is relevant to understanding pleasure and unpleasure in traditional narrative films. The mechanism of looking supplemented by more active forms of male control 'adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favourite cinematic form -- illusionist narrative film' (68). Psychoanalytic analysis argue that women can only signify castration, and this threat is countered by 'voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms' (68). None of this is intrinsic to film, but film happens to be able to illustrate them perfectly by manipulating the look. Cinema can add the pleasures of looking to narratives about control and these become part of the spectacle too 'producing an illusion cut to the measure of [male] desire' (68). The relation between cinematic codes and 'formative external structures' needs to be understood before this dubious pleasure can be challenged. [It has been assumed so far].

A beginning might involve breaking down the look into three stages -- the camera, the audience, and the characters. Films conceal the effects of the first two, in the interests of achieving 'reality, obviousness and truth' (68). However, the threat of castration connoted by the female image requires constant work if it is not to 'burst through the world of illusion' (68) [and there is the danger of freezing the narrative into fetishism]. In such circumstances, some direct identification by the spectator takes the place of the more narrative based forms of involvement. [I don't think Mulvey is recommending this as a way to break the hold of the narrative, of course, since women would still be fetishised I do think some female stars to have this power to stop narratives -- Marilyn Monroe springs to mind -- but I am not all sure this needs to be fetishistic. When she sings in close-up in Some Like It Hot, we become interested in her not only for her body, but because we see the actress as well as the performer? In other words, this is more like an identification with women performers as well as with men? See Stacey on homosexual identifications as well -- in this file]

It becomes important to oppose these conventions, as radical film-makers do -- to make us aware of the look and how it is produced by the camera, and break the detachment of the audience [ see MacCabe on this too]. This may end the conventional pleasures of film, but women in particular should not regard these changes 'with anything much more than sentimental regret'. [NB bell hooks in her account of black women reading film says this sentimental regret is typical of white feminists -- black women never identified so strongly with film narratives, always felt uneasy and unable to locate them selves in them, and soon developed a critical ability to resist the pleasures of the film -- see her piece in Thornham).

Mulvey, L 'Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946)' in Thornham, S (1999) (Ed) Feminist Film Theory A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

NB This essay is published in a number of other places as well. Its original location was the journal Framework, 15-16-17, summer 1981, pp 12 -- 15. Page numbers for quotes refer to this version in Thornham

The original essay (see above) focused on the 'masculinisation' of spectators (who might be men or women). It is a matter of identifying points of view, and spectator positions. This essay follows up an interest in melodrama and in the woman spectator in particular: is the female spectator dominated by the text, and how does having a female character central to the narrative affect the analysis? Female spectators may simply dissociate from the masculine pleasures of film. However, they may also identify with the hero and enjoy a certain freedom as a result, and this is the option that will be explored here. Films to be discussed are chosen which show 'a woman central protagonist is shown to be unable to achieve a stable sexual identity, torn between the deep blue sea of passive femininity and the devil of regressive masculinity' (page 122). These dilemmas relate to the dilemmas of the female spectator -- both display and 'oscillation...a sense of the difficulty of sexual difference' (123). Freudian theory will help clarify this again.

Freud suggests that femininity is complicated, since both sexes share a masculine phase. There may be a simple process of repression of the masculine tendencies in female sexuality, accompanied by the occasional regression or alternation between masculine and feminine tendencies. Finally, Freud suggests that the libido, the 'motive force of sexual life' serves both masculine and feminine functions and has no sex of its own -- but it happens to be more constrained 'when it is pressed into the service of the feminine function' (Mulvey quoting Freud, her page 124). These conceptions still have problems, such as seeing femininity in terms of masculinity, even as opposition or similarity, but it. describes the shifting process which confronts women as they try to be either active or passive, although the active is increasingly repressed for 'correct' femininity. When female spectators identify with male-oriented films, they 'rediscover that lost aspect of...[their]... sexual identity... [but it is in the form of a]... never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis' (124).

Cinema has inherited these traditions from earlier forms of folk and mass culture, which did not rely particularly on cinematic looks [so this is now a much more deep-seated and widespread phenomenon affecting a lot of women's experience, and it helps draw in some other resources for analysis, as we shall soon see]. Freud's work expands this cultural dimension himself, with references to daydreams and stories which 'describe the male fantasy of ambition, reflecting something of an experience and expectation of dominance (the active)' (125). Conventionally, the erotic place of women is to be passive, to wait, to close the narrative. However, Freud's work can be read as supporting habitual 'trans-sex identification' for women, based on their residual masculinity, the ease of logical identification with narratives stressing activity, and their ability to fantasise in an active manner. However, this is still not an easy form of identification for women.

We can now begin to analyse films such as the Western. [Having made the connection with wider cultural contexts, Mulvey can begin her analysis by drawing upon some classic 'structuralist ' analysis. She intends to define the Western for her purposes as films which convey best the 'primitive narrative structures analysed by Vladimir Propp in folk tales' (126)]. Westerns offer male fantasies of invulnerability, and women occupy a classically passive function. As with folk tales, marriage helps close the narrative in the Western, but this time as an option -- the hero can remain alone, in a 'nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence' (126). Strictly speaking, this does not fit a classic Oedipal trajectory.

The hero is often split between narcissism and social integration. Women are invariably associated with the latter, [adding a gender dimension to the classic dramatic conflicts between good and evil in a folk tale?]. The spectator is also able to fantasise in both directions, rebelling and conforming. An analysis of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance confirms these double pleasures and tensions. There seem to be two heroic protagonists out to defeat the villain, one a symbolic representative of the law, and the other a wilder but more personal representative of 'the good or the right'. The former receives official, symbolic power at the expense of personal submission, while the one possessing 'phallic attributes... has to bow himself of the way of history' (127 ).The straight gets to marry the girl too, it seems, in a classic 'closing social ritual'. Since this ritual is sex-specific, a narrative function is offered for women, in addition to offering visual pleasure when they are looked at. Marriage is an acceptable, symbolic way to signify the erotic.

Introducing a woman in a narrative can also shift meanings, as Duel in the Sun indicates. This is also a Western, but it focuses on a woman caught between two conflicting desires, corresponding closely to the oscillation described above between passive femininity and regressive masculinity. This enables a whole new narrative to be opened up -- there is no need to symbolise woman as erotic, 'the female presence at the centre allows the story to be actually, overtly, about sexuality: it becomes a melodrama' (127). Here, the heroine has to decide whether to legitimate the symbolic by marrying the straight. The two main male characters offer the same options as in Liberty Valance, but here they signify different aspects of the heroine ('Pearl'). Pearl can only oscillate between them, however, unable to find passion with the straight or acceptance in the 'world of misogynist machismo'-- she is 'unable to settle or find a "femininity" in which she and the male world can meet' (128). She is still dominated by the male world: it all ends unhappily in mutual death with macho man. The straight guy eventually marries a 'perfect lady... [who]... represents the correct road' (128), so patriarchy and the symbolic triumph in the end. [For my simple 'reading' click here]

A very similar plot is found in another Vidor film Stella Dallas. These narratives show shifts in 'Oedipal nostalgia', since none of the personifications can really be seen as parental figures. Instead, 'they represent an internal oscillation of desire, which lies dormant, waiting to be "pleasured" in stories of this kind' (129).

Female spectators [might? must? should?] experience a reawakening of a fantasy of activity, normally repressed by correct femininity, but this is only possible through a 'metaphor of masculinity' (129). As such, there is no real way out for femininity -- there is the romance of the rebellious last stand against patriarchy, or a periodic masculinity followed by repression. Pearl also demonstrates the 'sadness' of masculine identification, which is never fully acceptable even by macho men. 'So, too, is the female spectator's fantasy of masculinisation at cross-purposes with itself, restless in its transvestite clothes' (129).

Mulvey, L (1985) 'Changes', Discourse, Fall, 1985: pp 11 -- 30.

Page numbers here refer to the original.

Gender politics have moved on and something new is required [and something new in academic terms?]. Conservatism in Britain has taken hold, with a new narrative of its own, announcing a new beginning and thus being able to 'catch public popular imagination by clothing complex political and economic factors in binary pairings around an old/new opposition' (11). It seems necessary to revive feminist avant garde struggles, and also approach the wider context, especially 'the interaction between narrative and history, contradiction and myth...' (12). Thatcherite closures of narrative must be resisted, and new thinking undertaken by radicals, rather than just nostalgia. Mulvey examines her own principles first.

The original article [above] is 10 years old, and some of its formal aspects might be related to the specifics of the women's movement at that time. Oppositional culture has changed, and the symbolic order might have changed -- psychoanalysis may be less relevant [and Cultural Studies on the ascendant?].

There is an awareness that the notion of difference can be domesticated by representing it as a system of binaries or polar oppositions. In Freud, metaphor plays an important role, and the early ambivalence of psychic drives is disciplined by the Oedipus complex, which organises them around appropriate notions of gender. But the drives themselves were only 'back - named' in gendered terms by Freud, recognising the endpoint, the  'grammar of sex roles in myth, folk tales, cinema, in fact in popular cultural representation in general' (13). In those forms, they get filled out with other binaries --'public/private, nomadic/stable, sun/moon, mind/body, the law/sexuality, creator of culture/close to nature, etc' (13). But there is still a gap between these mythical representations, and lived experience, between domesticated and stable distinctions and 'uncertainty, difficulty and confusion' (13). [Getting to sound pretty gramscian here?]

Myths tend to reduce complexity to binaries, as in Levi-Strauss. They can be between or outside these binaries -- they can only be inverted. The early work, using active/passive and masculine/feminine binaries [politically] requires another stage, alternatives which break out of the 'double bind of binarism' (14).

The original article was a polemic and challenge. This excitement compensated for the loss of pleasure in viewing conventional films. It might also explain the excesses of the Mulvey films made with Peter Wollen --'a scorched earth policy or return to zero' (14). Wollen drew on Godard [see file] in his attempts to invert the values of conventional cinema, and Mulvey and Wollen did the same [in their film Penthesilia]. [I have not seen this one, but I have seen their Amy, and it looks similar in form -- disruptive camera work, not allowing any female characters to be the subject of a prolonged gaze, breaking the barriers  between film and audience, telling the story as episodes rather than as one continuous conventional narrative]. However, such inversions rely on the audience knowing the conventions and dominant codes already, and thus risk being domesticated into a binary again.

Their film Riddles of the Sphinx tries to develop a more positive questioning at the symbolic order, by looking at motherhood as it appears in patriarchy [and not as attempting to '[replace] the phallus as signifier with the body of the mother' (14), as some critics have alleged]. The idea was to recapture the excesses of motherhood, beyond that which is described in patriarchy.

Patriarchy never completely dominates language. Psychoanalysis can change what can be spoken, and so can feminist and black power resistance movements, as in consciousness raising, bringing new areas of experience into language. Speaking [out] itself might therefore challenge the symbolic order, even if restricted to a 'discourse of negation' as a starting point (15).

Lacanian work has ended in impasse. There is an unfortunate 'retreat into the intricacies of theory', which devalues the activist wing of feminism, but also his concepts have reached a logical limit, as exposed by Stephen Heath [see file for a brief resume of Heath's critique via Merck]. Basically, we need to move from formal binary oppositions between men and their Other, to more concrete and historical specific relationships between men and women. Men have not always had total 'access to symbolisation', for example (16).

The attempt to confine femininity to mere Otherness may represent an impossibility in practice, and only raises the question of female desire: however, Lacan's work makes it impossible to enquire any further. Hence there is a 'blocked relation between woman and the symbolic' (16), which Lacan cannot unblock. However, this excess of femininity, stretching beyond the symbolic attempt to confine it, can become 'the site for struggle, confrontation and changing history' (17). Such struggle would refuse to be confined within a binary, and this refusal would clearly weaken the conventional notion of 'masculinity' too.

Those who do not have access to symbolisation are seen as 'non-creative'. Feminists can struggle by negating this negation itself, as in avant-garde practice, especially with feminist challenges to male artists' monopoly. However, politics also involves other oppositions, including ones based on racial terms or class terms [well nearly -- Mulvey uses the strange opposition 'peasant/noble in feudal society' -- page 17]. Here too, Others embody in appropriate qualities are, which also 'link the oppressed to nature, and the dominant to culture' (17). After feudalism declines, women come to be the main representatives of nature. Binary oppositions like this appear immediately sensible, acting 'to mean something by themselves' (Mulvey, quoting Barthes' Mythologies, her page 18).

For Lacan, there can be no alternative language, but Kristeva argues that there are aspects that cannot be contained by the symbolic -- the semiotic -- that arise in the pre-Oedipal stage, and act as a source of a whole poetics and a 'discourse of otherness' [that is, about the experience of otherness].  Kristeva on the primary bond with the mother helps valorise motherhood too. There may also be a link with colonial revolts drawing upon the old mother goddesses. The Mexican example of such a revolt drew upon a religious tradition that was not incorporated into a binary by the symbolic order, but offered 'fantastic hybrid culture'. Kristeva was impressed by the social upheavals in medieval carnivals (via Bakhtin, apparently). Carnivals inverted the usual binaries, but also celebrated excess, and the comic. Bakhtin's examples are not identical with, but  'reminiscent of women's cultural sphere' (19): feminine cultures can become transgressive, asking their own questions about tradition and history.

However, Mitchell suggests that these apparent exceptions to psychological and social order may exist within a tolerance established by the law anyway: somehow, transgression has to try to establish a whole new law of the symbolic. The need is to go beyond metaphor and gesture into language. However, even inversions could have a destabilising effect. What is required to investigate this is a 'tripartite structure... [focusing on]... process rather than mythic image... metonymy rather than metaphor... linked chains of events rather than polar opposition' (21).

Propp emphasises the narratives of myth rather than static binaries. The classic narrative has three stages [usually rendered as equilibrium (quiet western town ) - disruption (bandits ride in ) - new equilibrium (townsfolk quell the disorder and learn about themselves)]. Mulvey has a more formal definition [not sure I know what it adds] , noting that only the first and second stages are static, and adding that 'the second... [stage]... causes the third' (21). The middle section adds drama and pleasure in disrupting the laws of normality, and celebrates transgressive desire. This structure can even be found in the Oedipus story. The social context of the Oedipus story was also a period of social instability and class struggle, which the story also represents symbolically.

Social rituals can also be analysed in this way, as participants escape at stage two and are reintegrated at stage three. Rights of passage illustrate this structure, with the initiate occupying a separate 'liminal' state, often embodied by a physical journey across boundaries. Indeed, journeys are often metaphors for social transitions, beginning and ending with a state of being at home. Sexual maturation also follows the structure. Hitchcock films often do as well, as an ordinary hero encounters 'a world turned upside-down' (24).

The political point is to ask whether the second, liminal state can resist subsequent reintegration. Analysts of carnivals differ here. In analysing Roman carnivals, Ladurie argued (apparently) that the periods of disorder could be learning experiences, spaces for thinking out progressive political forms. Carnival can also provide a language of resistance (25) [and there is even a link with the work on subcultures as resistance through rituals -- see file on the famous gramscian stuff]. Here too, 'symbols... [can act]... as a primitive language for the oppressed' (27) [the actual example is provided by Cosgrove in a piece in History Workshop Journal -- Mulvey's page 25, and see note 23, page 30 --'for many participants... [spectacular street styles]... were an entry into the language of politics, and inarticulate rejection of the "straight" world and its organisation']. Thus liminal moments can at least supply symbols, and even 'a language that speaks for the oppressed' (26) [albeit a limited and localised one].

Thus symmetry and dualistic opposition, as in the first Mulvey piece, have little political potential, and also block theoretical advance. Binaries were already breaking down, in fact, by reference to the notion of sexual difference and castration -- strictly, castration anxiety provides different experiences of disruption and prohibition for males and females. Now, this non equivalence is seen as 'a mechanism for distributing power' (26): boys merely have to undergo transitions, while girls have to switch genders, or move into 'masquerade and inversion, into politics and desire', which options  are never closed or integrated.

There is a shared dimension to the unconscious, and this affects both culture and politics. Feminism has politicised psychoanalysis, and this has led to cultural criticism, especially film theory, 'But there is still a missing link or term... [to]... describe the contribution the unconscious makes to the political and social structures we live within' (27). If we see the Oedipal myth as an example of the classic model of the narrative, the middle phase might be a special source of excess and the carnivalesque [Mulvey says this could even help to explain Freud's findings that the Oedipal experience often ends in failure, especially for women].

We're still not in a position to offer a whole alternative symbolic, but there is more space 'on the threshold, the liminal area between silence and speech, the terrain in which desire merely finds expression' (28). There are different possibilities of carnival as a model here as we have seen. However, it is admitted that 'the liminal phase is closely linked with closure' (28), and this produces symptoms [of repression?] which appear 'most clearly in popular culture, whether folk tale, carnival or the movies' (28).

Finally, cinema is primarily a narrative form. The challenge is to try to develop an ending that is not a closure, to express the state of liminality as an instrument for 'maintaining heterogeneity within the symbolic, and subjecting myths and symbols to perpetual re-evaluation' (28). It can at least provide images 'which simultaneously express collective desires and impose coherence on the infinitely numerous and infinitely varied data of experiences' (Mulvey quoting Nash Smith, her page 28).

Feminists especially 'should insist on the need to prolong the middle phase, that so easily becomes masked or telescoped behind binary opposition, the point of disruption and contradiction, the point at which politics can be inserted into both cultural and psycho-analytic terrains' (28).

[I think Mulvey heard the siren call of British activism and its critiques of Screen theory -- see file --  in writing this piece as well as the specific demands of feminist activists and those tired of the theoreticism of Lacan. The piece also marks the emergence of  a new successful academic division of labour -- 'Cultural Studies'  -- to replace or contain Film Studies per se? That would have been very helpful for those seeking to widen out from film into other more popular aspects of culture, essential to close the gap between Hollywood and patriarchy in general, as  is foreshadowed in the second piece above?]

files and notes on other people and topics