The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both. Power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman … True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness – the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong.
Given that thirty-nine years have elapsed since the publication of Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, it’s disappointing to find her critique still relevant to any number of films being produced today. But what struck me on a recent re-reading of the piece was not the its application to film but rather to a whole new medium that’s opened up in the intervening decades: the internet. Particularly fascinating (horrifying) is the argument’s relevance to the treatment of women in online spaces: a relevance that, I would argue, is enabled by certain filmic qualities inherent in online existence – qualities that, I suggest, were informed by film itself.
I am not saying that film and the internet are analogous. However, there are some key similarities that are worth exploring. Mulvey talks at length about ‘scopophilia’ (the pleasure of looking) and the voyeurism inherent in sitting in a darkened theatre, invisible spectators of another’s (albeit fictional) life. There is the suppression of the ego and ‘projection of the repressed desire onto the performer’ – similar to the processes involved in reading – that allows this to happen. The voyeurism of spectatorship – watching videos, photos, or other people’s lives unfold on the personal cinema of our computer screens and smartphones, as if this is all ‘there to be seen’ and put there for our pleasure alone – this, the internet delivers in spades.
Narrative is similarly plentiful. Stories abound, from the news to Reddit to fan-fiction forums. On a larger scale, entire ‘happenings’ occur exclusively on the internet, falling into the curves and peaks instantly recognisable to those familiar with the narrative arc: stories, hashtags and videos spread, go viral, climax and fade away; internet petitions circulate, gather traction, enact change and disappear. Wikileaks announces upcoming ‘dumps’, hackers warn that they will be releasing thousands of stolen Snapchats, and the world waits with bated breath to see what will happen.
Like film, the internet is populated with flattened characters. We are all reduced in one way or another to images of ourselves in online spaces, whether it’s advertising our most employable selves on LinkedIn, posting and commenting on Twitter or discussion forums, or unspooling our life for ‘friends’ on Facebook. Moreover, in a world where it is increasingly difficult to escape one’s own identity, the internet is one of the last remaining spaces where identities can be fashioned and discarded at will. Just as actors in films are simultaneously themselves and not, real-world identities on the internet jostle with the invented, sometimes with no way of telling them apart: usernames stand for people but sometimes don’t; meaning and accountability slip away. Online, we are all actors: it’s just that some are more actor than others.
Mulvey compares the process of viewing actors with the recognition/misrecognition of the child-self in the mirror – the projection of the ego onto its ideal image – as described by Lacan. It follows that cinema exemplifies a key Freudian dichotomy: the suppression of the ego in service of scopophilia, and the identification of the ego with its ideal, onscreen counterpart.
‘The cinema,’ Mulvey writes, ‘has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it.’
But unlike cinema, there is not one creative team shaping and honing an end product for online audience consumption: ‘the internet’ is a place we create ourselves. Content, interest and visibility are all influenced by our individual reactions and browsing behaviours (and in the case of targeted advertising, tailored to our supposed preferences). It is a space we navigate alone, steered by our needs and desires. Narratives can be shaped by other people or ourselves. If you don’t like the way a story (a poorly-written article on Wikipedia, a real-world animal rights violation you could bring to the attention of Change.org) is unfolding there is an unprecedented potential: to change the narrative.
As both reflection and distortion of real-world society, the internet reproduces many of the world’s social prejudices. Despite its multi-authoredness, the ‘world wide web’ remains a domain overwhelmingly shaped by and for the male gaze – as a visit to any standard porn hub will confirm. While sites and forums promoting alternatives to heterosexuality-through-the-lens-of-masculine-desire are many and varied, they remain just that: alternatives. This idea of ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look’ is central to Mulvey’s analysis. In film, woman ‘holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire’. She is merely a sexual interjection, important insofar as her existence influences and affects the man. Meanwhile, Mulvey argues, the (heterosexual) male ‘cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’ that woman does on-screen; therefore his role must be ‘the active one of advancing the story, making things happen.’ Thus the male character is positioned as the ‘more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego’ of the male viewer, a figure the viewer can identify with and inhabit. It follows that erotic control and possession of the female by the character on screen is engineered to be shared, inhabited even, by the male viewer. Nowhere is this more aptly illustrated than in mainstream heterosexual porn: use of perspective and shots lingering on the female form in coitus invite the viewer to put himself in the place of the male performer, who serves as a cipher, the ego ideal of the viewer’s fantasy.
However, according to Mulvey, the voyeuristic possession of woman is not enough, because ‘the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men … always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.’ Psychoanalytically speaking, her presence alone – penis-less, therefore symbolic of lack and the fear of castration, that is, a loss of power – is a threat that must be neutralised. In Hollywood cinema of the mid-twentieth century, this was achieved in two ways: by fetishising the female image beyond the point of threat (an obsessive focus on physical beauty in and of itself, the pure objectification of woman) or by ‘investigating’ the woman character: interrogating her, ‘demystifying her mystery’, ascertaining her guilt and punishing or forgiving her forthwith. This latter path lends itself well to narrative, Mulvey notes: ‘Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat, all occurring in linear time with a beginning and an end.’
Of course, Mulvey is referring specifically to the visual pleasure inherent in looking at the female form on the cinematic screen. Women in life and online are involved in a whole network of pleasures, not just visual but textual, physical, intellectual. Off-screen, women are not confined to a script: they have agency, opinions, an ability to communicate and shape the world. If the mere image of a woman in mid-twentieth century cinema represented a threat, is it so surprising that real-world females who take to the internet to think, to express themselves, to advance their own stories and the stories of others, are seen as an aberration, a threat, something to be neutralised as swiftly and effectively as possible?
Because this is exactly what’s been happening – except that on the internet, people aren’t just spectators, but creators of narrative too. And so it is that hackers can target private, intimate photos of female celebrities and splash them about online with no fear of reprisal, because, unbelievably, there is a deep-seated sentiment that this was necessary: that a beautiful woman must be exposed, that her sexuality somehow disqualifies her from the right to be successful (it is a mark of the power of celebrity fetishisation that the pressure has so often been on the woman to apologise for the unlawful sharing of her own private files). Erotic control of the woman passes from her to whoever chooses to click on the links. She is demystified and voyeuristically possessed.
On the internet, the narratives of investigation and punishment of women are not circumscribed by fictional, filmic conventions. They are not confined to a screen. Thus the terrifying real-world implications for women like Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and Jenn Frank – all vocal females in a male-dominated industry – who have suffered torrents of abuse, violations of privacy, and violent threats fierce enough to force some out of their homes or careers for safety. This has all been done under the guise of ‘fighting for journalistic integrity’, a claim cited by supporters of ‘Gamergate’. And it’s not just these women: violent, misogynistic trolling has become central to the experience of politically and socially active women online today. In all cases, observe the sense of justification expressed by the trolls in question: the women have been investigated, found guilty (in Zoe Quinn’s case, of being a ‘cheating whore’), and must be punished. Discussions of whether these ‘punishments’ even befit the ‘crimes’ are, notably, absent.
How has all this come to pass? I suggest it has been informed by nearly a century of film in which narratives, overwhelmingly, were shaped to satisfy the male gaze, and in which women were treated in one of two ways: fetishised to the point of object-status (loss of humanity), or investigated, found guilty, and punished by man (loss of agency). I suggest that the inherently filmic qualities of the internet – its scopophilic potential, its narrative flow, its detached, flat characters – have given rise to similar expectations of narrative, a similar sense of masculine entitlement regarding the roles of visible women. In cases where women pervert the course of that narrative, certain users have taken it upon themselves to neutralise their threat. Overwhelmingly, this has taken the form of sadistic ‘punishment’ narratives, which users can either enact, or voyeuristically watch. And for all the flattened characters and empty avatars populating internet spaces, many of them are real-world individuals experiencing in real time the disturbing, dangerous forces identified by Mulvey – but no longer relegated just to the screen.