Feminist Film Criticism, seminar

The Piano and ‘the Female Gaze’

by Diana Saco

Paper written as a companion piece for guest presentation to the Minnesota Humanities Commission’s Teacher Institute, Seminar on “Screening Society: Film as Art and Culture,” organized by Clay Steinman, Chaska, MN, November 1994.


© 1994 Diana Saco. Permission to reproduce, distribute, and/or quote from this work for non-profit, educational purposes is freely granted, always provided that proper reference to the author be included and that this notice accompany copies of a section or more of text. Reproduction and/or citation for profit and/or non-educational purposes is expressly forbidden without prior consent from the author.

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”[1] is a well-known work in the area of feminist psychoanalytic film studies. Drawing from Freudian theory, Mulvey attempts to explain how it is that the spectator’s subjectivity (or sense of self) is constructed in the visually pleasurable process of watching films. Her focus is intentional: part of Mulvey’s argument is that mainstream films follow a particular format or narrative structure that shapes how we watch films. Her aim is to take that structure apart (or ‘deconstruct’ it) in order to show how classical narrative cinema, to use Althusser’s (1971) terms, hails or interpellates spectators into a “masculine” subject position.[2]



Mulvey argues that the sequence of “looks” in classical narrative cinema — i.e., that the spectator looks, the camera looks, the ‘male’ character looks, and the ‘female’ character is looked at — sets into motion a series of unconscious psychological mechanisms which re-create the film viewer as a gendered subject. The spectator sees through the eye of the camera which in turn ‘sees’ through the eye (or ‘I’: meaning, the constructed gendered and sexual identity) of the character who does the looking. According to Mulvey, the character possessing the look in classical narrative cinema is almost always marked as ‘male’. For this reason, she argues that the ‘gaze’ in mainstream films is always male. Through this privileged gaze, film viewers, regardless of their actual gender, are treated (and hence re-constructed) as masculine subjects.

The masculine subject emerges through two primary processes working in tandem: narcissistic identification with male characters (ego identification) and voyeuristic objectification of female characters (‘other’ objectification). These processes transform “the look” into a sexual “gaze.” The ‘female’ object of the gaze, according to Mulvey, is transformed into an object of desire. In other words, the female character functions as an object of desire for the male character. This is graphically depicted in films through a series of ‘eye-line matches’: close-up shots of the male character looking (with apparent pleasure), intercut with shots of the female character’s body (a bit of the leg, her rump wiggling as she walks, her breasts, etc., with less and less left to the imagination as censorship standards are relaxed). These eye-line matches work, conventionally, to signify the notion that the male character is looking at the female character and is apparently desiring her. Furthermore, to the extent that we, as film viewers, are ‘invited’ to identify with the male character (and to the extent that we accept this invitation), the female character becomes an object of desire for us. It is in this way that mainstream films constitute viewers as masculine subjects.

A crucial aspect of Mulvey’s psychoanalytic film theory is what happens to the female image in the process of objectification. Within psychoanalysis, sex is a taboo: the source of all kinds of problems that plague the human psyche. In particular, the masculine subject fears losing himself (his power) to his sexual passions. Freud’s rather grim metaphorical phrase for this was the ‘castration complex’. Following this, Mulvey argues that the female image is threatening because ‘she’ signifies the threat of castration. Mulvey argues that the male unconscious seeks two forms of scopophilia (visual pleasure) which work to lessen the displeasure associated with castration anxiety. Voyeurism, the first of these forms, involves a process whereby the object of the gaze is made responsible for the viewer’s anxiety. The voyeuristic gaze, therefore, is controlling, for it seeks to exercise power over its object by marking ‘her’ as “the bearer of guilt” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 11). Furthermore, the voyeuristic gaze is sadistic, marking the object of the gaze as punishable. For Mulvey, this process is typified in film noire, a narrative structure in which the female character is treated as guilty, and is devalued for her sins and either punished or saved.

Fetishism, the second form of visual pleasure, involves the disavowal of the castration threat through the adoption of a fetish object (a fragment of the female image or the entire image as spectacle) to stand in for the penis. Rather than controlling and wanting to punish the female object of desire, the fetishist raises the object of desire to the level of spectacle. According to Mulvey, fetishism leads to the over-valuation of the female image, as typified in the cult of the female movie star (pp. 13-14). The upshot of all this is that ‘woman’ in mainstream film is constructed either as a wanton and evil sexual object (‘the whore’) and therefore worthy of punishment, or as a very good asexual object (‘the madonna’; though not Madonna!) and therefore worthy of distant adoration. Neither option allows for the depiction of women as subjects in their own right. The ‘gaze’ (an action, and therefore performed by a subject) is, on this view, always male.

Mulvey’s essay (now nearly twenty years old) helped set the agenda for subsequent feminist film theory. It touched a cord with feminist analysts, helping them articulate something about mainstream film which a number of them had apparently suspected. In this respect, it was (and probably still is) a very important piece. Despite this, Mulvey’s argument has a number of shortcomings. In particular, subsequent feminists have been unsatisfied with the notion (which Mulvey developed in a later piece[3]) that even female film viewers identify with the male gaze (going through a kind of psychic gender transformation). Consequently, they have suggested that Mulvey’s argument leaves a number of issues unanswered. What happens when women watch films? Similarly, what happens when the film protagonist is a female (as in The Piano)? Inasmuch as viewers ‘identify’ with the main character, aren’t they, in this case, (re)constructed as feminine subjects? Furthermore, what happens when male characters are made the object of desire in films (an issue also suggested in The Piano, in a scene in which “Ada” undresses her husband, the camera lingering on his naked buttocks as she begins caressing him there)?

In short, Mulvey’s theory has not really provided a space for theorizing the possibility of a female gaze. In this respect, her psychoanalytic framework remains far too deterministic. While the explanation she provides on the basis of this framework is compelling in a lot of instances, it assumes that viewers are always invited to adopt a very narrow ‘way of looking’ at films and that they always accept that invitation. This first assumption implies that mainstream films are only structured in one way: that is, around a male gaze. Not surprisingly, this has led Mulvey (and other’s taking her lead) to propose and develop avant-garde films, films employing a different structure, in order to flout mainstream cinematic conventions. Part of the problem with this approach is that too few cinema goers actually experience pleasure in watching avant-garde films. So how successfully ‘revolutionary’ would this tactic be if, in fact, few people are interested in watching experimental films in the first place? Furthermore, it isn’t necessarily the case that all mainstream films are structured around a male gaze. What about melodrama, which usually has a female protagonist? The existence of melodrama suggests that mainstream film texts can be ‘authored’ and ‘structured’ in a variety of ways. Mulvey’s second assumption implies that mainstream-film viewers are very passive spectators, accepting the ‘way of looking’ which is ‘dictated’ to them by the way a given film (or mainstream narrative film, more generally) is structured. In contrast to this second assumption, recent film theorists argue that film viewers are much more active. Spectators can ‘engage’ or ‘read’ a film text in a variety of ways, ways not dictated by and perhaps even diametrically opposed to the privileged structure of the film.

Scene from The Piano depicting Ada looking. The eye-line match seemingly presents her as the subject of the gaze, rather than its object.

The Piano was written and directed by a woman (Jane Campion). For some film analysts, this fact alone implies that the film may be authored and structured from a ‘feminine’ point of view. Easy conclusions like this one are based on rather essentialist notions about masculinity and femininity. Without falling into that trap, we could note, however, that the film’s protagonist is female (“Ada,” played by Holly Hunter), and this does, to some extent, invite a different kind of gendered identification. Furthermore, the film also includes scenes depicting a male character as the object of desire (Ada’s husband, played by Sam Neill). Despite these apparently ‘progressive’ differences, however, the film arguably also reproduces some rather traditional mainstream conventions for depicting women in film. For example, according to feminist theorists, ‘woman’ in mainstream cinema seldom has a voice of her own (metaphorically speaking), in the sense that female characters are typically depicted as saying and doing what ‘men’ would have them say and do. In the film, this metaphorical convention is reproduced quite literally: Ada is a mute. Furthermore, her primary means of expression (the piano) is subject to the whims of the male characters. Ada’s husband sells the piano to Baines (played by Harvey Keitel), and Baines then proceeds to blackmail Ada, promising to return the piano to her in exchange for sexual favors. Similarly, despite the fact that Baines begins his ‘seduction’ of Ada by coercing her to perform these sexual favors, Ada falls in love with him: arguably, this is part of the ‘screw-them-to-awaken-their-erotic-urges-and-get-them-to-fall-in-love-with-you’ school of thought. This eroticizes sexual harassment in a way that seems passé (and even perverse) in a post-Anita Hill era (if, indeed, we can be said to live in such an era).

If the ‘female gaze’ can be viewed, broadly, as a way of understanding what possibilities exist not just for a feminine (or feminist) ‘way of looking’, but also for a feminine/feminist way of talking and being, The Piano clearly raises some interesting questions in this vain. However, rather than simply assuming that the film ‘creates’ a female gaze (because it was written and directed by a woman, because it is a woman’s story, because so much of it proceeds from a woman’s point of view), we need to consider the structure of the film as a whole (in terms both of its ‘progressive’ and its ‘traditional’ elements), and we need to think about our own engagements with the film. Only then can we determine what it tells us about the possibilities for a ‘female gaze’.



1. In Screen 16(3), Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18. Reprinted in Constance Penley’s (ed.) Feminism and Film Theory, 1988.

2. Louis Althusser was a structural marxist who used these terms to explain how workers’ consciousness was shaped, ideologically, by the capitalist structure so that workers wouldn’t develop a working-class consciousness. He argued that “ideological state apparatuses” ‘hailed’ persons into certain subject positions (for example, as ‘middle class’, instead of the more revolutionary subject position of ‘working class’). ‘Hailing’ is, in this sense, a kind of ‘invitation’ that actually works to ‘situate’ people — specifically, to coerce them (in non-apparent ways) into seeing themselves in particular ways. For example, the “Hey, you there!” of the policeman constitutes the person addressed as a particular kind of subject (a ‘suspect’, perhaps) within a particular structure of authority. Even though the person addressed may be innocent of any crime, he still may feel guilt, as if he had done something, simply by virtue of how he is reconstituted by the policeman’s hailing within a legal structure of authority. (See, Louis Althusser. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. by Ben Brewster. London: Monthly Review Press.)

3. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun.” Framework 15/16/17, 1981. Also reprinted in Constance Penley’s (ed.) Feminism and Film Theory, 1988.

URL: http://cyberingdemocracy.com/the-piano-and-the-female-gaze
© 1997-2011 by Diana Saco. Created April 30, 1997. Last updated March 8, 2007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright 2017 - CyberingDemocracy.com, Diana Saco and Saco Media LLC. All rights reserved.