Laura Mulvey (born August 15, 1941) is a British feminist film theorist. She was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford. She is currently professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London. She worked at the British Film Institute for many years before taking up her current position.
During the 2008-09 academic year, Mulvey was the Mary Cornille Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College. Professor Mulvey has been awarded three honorary degrees: in 2006 a Doctor of Letters from the University of East Anglia; in 2009 a Doctor of Law from Concordia University; in 2012 a Bloomsday Doctor of Literature from University College Dublin.
Mulvey is best known for her essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. It later appeared in a collection of her essays entitled Visual and Other Pleasures, as well as in numerous other anthologies. Her article is one of the first major essays that helped shift the orientation of film theorytowards a psychoanalytic framework, influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Prior to Mulvey, film theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz usedpsychoanalytic ideas in their theoretical accounts of the cinema, but Mulvey's contribution was to inaugurate the intersection of film theory, psychoanalysis and feminism.
Mulvey states that she intends to use Freud and Lacan's concepts as a "political weapon." She then used some of their concepts to argue that the cinematic apparatus of classical Hollywood cinema inevitably put the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire and "the male gaze." In the era of classical Hollywood cinema, viewers were encouraged to identify with the protagonist of the film, who were and still are overwhelmingly male. Meanwhile, Hollywood women characters of the 1950s and '60s were, according to Mulvey, coded with "to-be-looked-at-ness" while the camera positioning and the male viewer constituted the "bearer of the look." Mulvey suggests two distinct modes of the male gaze of this era: "voyeuristic" (i.e. seeing woman as image "to be looked at") and "fetishistic" (i.e. seeing woman as a substitute for "the lack," the underlying psychoanalytic fear of castration).
Mulvey argues that the only way to annihilate the patriarchal Hollywood system is to radically challenge and re-shape the filmic strategies of classical Hollywood with alternative feminist methods. She calls for a new feminist avant-garde filmmaking that would rupture the narrative pleasure of classical Hollywood filmmaking. She writes, "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 among film theorists that continued into the mid 1980s. Critics of the article pointed out that Mulvey's argument implies the impossibility of the enjoyment of classical Hollywood cinema by women, and that her argument did not seem to take into account spectatorship not organised along normative gender lines. Mulvey addresses these issues in her later 1981 article, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946)," in which she argues a metaphoric 'transvestism' in which a female viewer might oscillate between a male-coded and a female-coded analytic viewing position. These ideas led to theories of how gay, lesbian and bisexual spectatorship might also be negotiated. Her article was written before the findings of the later wave of media audience studies on the complex nature of fan cultures and their interaction with stars. Queer theory, such as that by Richard Dyer, has grounded its work in Mulvey to explore the complex projections that many gay men and women fix onto certain female stars (e.g.Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland).
Feminist critic Gaylyn Studlar wrote extensively to problematize Mulvey's central thesis that the spectator is male and derives visual pleasure from a dominant and controlling perspective. Studlar suggested rather that visual pleasure for all audiences is derived from a passive, masochistic perspective, where the audience seeks to be powerless and overwhelmed by the cinematic image.
Mulvey later wrote that her article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, rather than a reasoned academic article that took all objections into account. She addressed many of her critics, and clarified many of her points in "Afterthoughts"(which also appears in the Visual and Other Pleasures collection).
Mulvey's most recent book is titled Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006).
Mulvey was prominent as an avant-garde filmmaker in the 1970s and 1980s. With Peter Wollen, her husband, she co-wrote and co-directed Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974), Riddles of the Sphinx (1977 - perhaps their most influential film), AMY! (1980), Crystal Gazing (1982), Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982), and The Bad Sister. In 1991, she returned to filmmaking with Disgraced Monuments, which she co-directed with Mark Lewis.