Biography of Laura Mulvey

Laura Mulvey was born in Oxford in 1941. After studying history at St. Hilda's, Oxford University, she came to prominence in the early 1970s as a film theorist, writing for periodicals such as Spare Rib and Seven Days. Much of her early critical work investigated questions of spectatorial identification and its relationship to the male gaze, and her writings, particularly the 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," helped establish feminist film theory as a legitimate field of study.

Mulvey’s article argues mainly that the cinematic apparatus (specifically of classical Hollywood cinema) inevitably puts the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire. In classical Hollywood cinema, viewers are encouraged to identify with the protagonist of the film, who tends to be a man. Meanwhile, female characters are, according to Mulvey, coded with "to-be-looked-at-ness." Mulvey argues that the only way to annihilate this "patriarchal" system is to radically deconstruct the filmic strategies of classical Hollywood with alternative methods. She calls for a new feminist avant-garde filmmaking that will rupture the magic and pleasure of classical Hollywood filmmaking. “It is said that analysing pleasure or beauty annihilates it. That is the intention of this article.”

"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was the subject of much interdisciplinary discussion that continued into the 1980s. Critics of the article objected to the fact that her argument implied the impossibility of genuine 'feminine' enjoyment of the classical Hollywood cinema, and to the fact that her argument did not seem to take into account spectatorships that were not organised along the normative lines of gender (for example, a metaphoric 'transvestism' might be possible when viewing a film—a male viewer might enjoy a 'feminine' point-of-view provided by a film, or vice versa; gay and lesbian spectatorships might also be different). Mulvey later said that this article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, rather than a coldly reasoned academic article that took all objections into account. However, she addressed many of her critics in a follow-up article "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'" (which also appears in the Visual and Other Pleasures collection).

Between 1974 and 1982 Mulvey co-wrote and co-directed with her husband, Peter Wollen, six projects: theoretical films, dealing in the discourse of feminist theory, semiotics, psychoanalysis and leftist politics. The first of these, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) explored concerns central to Mulvey's writings: the position of women in relation to patriarchal myth, symbolic language and male fantasy. Penthesilea represents an experimental British venture into territory pioneered by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard. With its counter-cinema style and relentlessly didactic approach, however, its appeal was inevitably limited to a restricted audience.

The most influential of Mulvey and Wollen's collaborative films, Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), presented avant-garde film as a space in which female experience could be expressed. Remarkable formalistic innovation, notably 360-degree pans, inform the film's content, describing the mother's loss of and search for identity. The result is a challenging, forceful and intelligent film.

AMY! (1980), a tribute to Amy Johnson, is a more accessible reworking of themes previously covered by Mulvey and Wollen, but it is ponderous and slow. Far from a conventional biopic, the aviator is used as a symbolic figure, her journey exemplifying the transitions between female and male worlds required by women struggling towards achievement in the public sphere.

Crystal Gazing (1982) represented a departure from the emphatic formalism of Mulvey and Wollen's earlier films. It demonstrated more spontaneity than previous works, both in performances and in the storyline, elements of which were left undecided until the moment of filming. Bleak, but with playful touches, this representation of London during the Thatcher recession was generally well received, despite criticism of Mulvey for the lack of a feminist underpinning to the film. She admitted she had been reluctant to incorporate feminist polemics fearing they would unbalance the film.

Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982) and The Bad Sister (1982) followed, revisiting feminist film issues. After these, Mulvey did not return to film-making until 1991 when production began on her solo project Disgraced Monuments, an examination of the fate of revolutionary monuments in the Soviet Union after the fall of communism.

Laura Mulvey is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Study Guides on Works by Laura Mulvey