Visual Pleasure Essay, Research Paper
Visual pleasure, derived from images on film, is dominated by sexual imbalance. The pleasure in looking is split between active/male and passive/female. In her essay
“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey asserts the fact that in mainstream films, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed. That is to say,
the woman is both an object of desire and a spectacle for the male voyeuristic gaze. The male’s function is active; he advances the story and controls the gaze onto
the women. Interestingly, the spectator identifies with the male through camera technique and style. In an effort to reproduce the so-called natural conditions of
human perception, male point-of-view shots are often used along with deep focus. In addition, camera movements are usually determined by the actions of the male
protagonist. Consequently, the gaze is dominated by the active male while the passive female exists to support desire within the film. In an attempt to change this
structure, Mulvey stresses the importance of challenging the “look.” One way this is accomplished, is in the film Reassemblage, where the look of the camera is free
from male perspective and dominated more by passionate detachment. In doing this, the filmmaker, Trinh Minh-Ha attempts to destroy the satisfaction and pleasure
derived from images of women in film, by highlighting the ways Hollywood depends on voyeuristic and fetishist mechanisms. Thus, it can be argued that the film
Reassemblage asks the spectator to challenge the relationship between women and visual pleasure.
First, female perspective dominates subject-positioning in Reassemblage. The male is not the possessor of knowledge and he lacks omnipotence. The shortage of
male images in the film attests this point. Consequently, the spectator does not identify with him. Instead, Minh-Ha herself reads the voice-over narration on the
soundtrack. She, as a female, is the possessor of knowledge. Also, at many points in the film, Minh-Ha manipulates and controls how much knowledge the audience
has. For example, Trinh-Ha translates the Senegalese language for us at certain points, while at other times she does not. Also, she tells us that women are the
possessor of fire and truth. Constant images of women working, laughing and talking, force the spectator to identify with these women who are active and
knowledgeable–the equivalent of the male in Hollywood films. Both on screen and off (by way of the soundtrack), female knowledge and activity dominate in
However, it can be argued that the images of women in the film are not all active. Indeed, many shots show women sitting in a static position while the camera looks
at them. The snapshots seem to play upon Hollywood’s style of voyeurism and fetishism, with extreme close-ups of the face, breasts, eyes, lips and mouth. Yet, there
are differences between Trinh-Ha’s film and a Hollywood film. First, she does not restrict the female to this passive position, as Hollywood does. In Vertigo, Madeline
exists in the film as an object that Scottie pursues in the search of truth. She is just a spectacle in the film–obvious from the modeling scene and the fact that Scottie
is constantly spying on her. In Reassemblage, the women are not restricted to only being spectacles. They work in the fields, mash corn, and weave. Secondly, it is
necessary for Trinh-Ha to show static images of women in order to challenge the stereotypical Hollywood system. It is as though she is saying–look at how you are
use to seeing women portrayed–then look at these other shots.
In the latter, the woman is not controlled by the male gaze. Trinh-Ha show us passive shots to emphasize the active ones and to challenge the stereotypes.
Lastly, Reassemblage refuses to create the images of women into an erotic experience for the narrative. When she tells us about a man who sees a slide show on
Africa and then tells his wife “I feel like I’ve seen pornography,” this is the kind of viewpoint Trinh-Ha’s film wants to change. She does this by destroying the visual
pleasure derived from the images. Consider the fact that in Vertigo, Scottie’s spying on Madeline is considered wrong, he must hide the fact that he is looking at her.
In Trinh-Ha’s film, she over exposes the viewer to so-called “erotic” images of women to destroy the magic and pleasure. There are shots of older women, wrinkled,
bare breasted, and working. By bombarding the viewer with naked breasts, lips, mouths, and eyes the mysticism disappears. Whereas in Hollywood, the viewer is only
allowed “stolen glances.” In Trinh-Ha’s film the male gaze is played upon to the point of excess, thus devoiding it of pleasure.
In conclusion, Reassemblage is an example of a film that challenges common notions of visual pleasure as described by Laura Mulvey. Since there is no mediation of
the “look” through the eyes of a male protagonist, knowledge is not gained through his presence. Furthermore, the look of the camera is not meant to disempower
the woman and make her into a spectacle. Finally, Trinh Minh-Ha asks the viewer to question what visual pleasure is in relation to the female body. In her film,
naked images no longer connote the “erotic.” It is said that analyzing beauty destroys it, according to Mulvey, which is perhaps what Reassemblage wants. Yet, both
Trinh Minh-Ha and Laura Mulvey would argue that, for women, a new kind of pleasure lies in transcending these norms, which is beautiful.