WILLA v3 - Feminist and Other (?) Pleasures

Volume 3
Fall 1994

Feminist and Other (?) Pleasures

Alayne Sullivan

Many readers may recognize, in my title, an all too obvious reference to Laura Mulvey's text Visual and Other Pleasures. Before I align the conceptual thrust of this paper with particular elements of Mulvey's work, I want to describe the context in which her work was explored. For the past several months, I have been teaching a post-graduate course in an English Education program call Perspectives on Popular Literature in the English Classroom. Within the context of this course, we read various selections of popular literature: two romances, a detective novel, a western, and a work of science fiction. In reading the literary works for the course, we brought to bear a range of perspectives that strongly shaped our interpretive angles on and impressions of these books. For example, we read Robert Waller's The Bridges of Madison County and Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale , and considered them in light of the statements their huge readership made about the aesthetics of pleasure, romance, and entertainment via popular culture. We read Lawrence Block's murder mystery A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and considered it in light of Mulvey's "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure' and Narrative Cinema." We did the same with the western novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and William Gibson's science fiction Neuromancer, and, as well, considered issues of curriculum, reader-text transaction, and especially prevailing popular emblems therein of archetype and mythology.

As we read each one of these works, we juxtaposed them with film, television, video, music, and also journals, magazines, and "news-stand" publications that ranged from The National Enquirer to the New York Post. We were especially sensitive, in doing all this, to the "leaky" intertextual boundaries that bring all these romances and murders and westerns and sci fi adventures into such close relationship with other venues. As John Fiske put it:

Because of their incompleteness, all popular texts have leaky boundaries; they flow into each other, they flow into everyday life. Distinctions among texts are as invalid as the distinctions between text and life. Popular culture can be studied only intertextually, for it exists only in this intertextual circulation. (126)

The word text is used here to signal not just a paper and/or cloth-bound sheaf of pages but just about any phenomenon that represents a body of images that are coherent in some way. With that statement in mind, we can regard a popular video, music selection, a film, a TV show, a popular magazine, and so on as a text. These texts are read by millions upon millions of viewers, listeners, and readers, in the more traditional sense of that word, every day. Thus, in the course, we read the many texts of popular culture alongside the popular literary texts, all the while taking stock of the statements such material made about the culture in which we live. Now then, where do these remarks leave us with regard to Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure" and the "other pleasures that are signalled by the title of this article?

The Spectator Position and Masculine Identification

Early in the Popular Literature course, the students were invited (make that, assigned) to read Mulvey's "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure' and Narrative Cinema" inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun. It is an article in which Mulvey reflects on an earlier and very well known article that she had written. The earlier article is about the images of women on screen. As Mulvey puts it, "I was interested in the relationship between the image of woman on the screen and the 'masculinization' of the spectator position.... In-built patterns of pleasure and identification impose masculinity as 'point of view' ..."(29). In the article the post-graduate students read, Mulvey pursues two other lines of thought. Again, her own words represent those thoughts most accurately:

First, ... whether the female spectator is carried along, as it were by the scruff of the text, or whether her pleasure can be more deep-rooted and complex. Second ... how the text and its attendant identifications are affected by a female character occupying the centre of the narrative arena. So far as the first issue is concerned, it is always possible that the female spectator may find herself so out of key with the plea sure on offer, with its 'masculinisation,' that the spell of fascination is broken. On the other hand she may not. She may find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides. It is this female spectator that I want to consider here. (29)

In considering Mulvey's (after) thoughts on visual plea sure and narrative cinema, we were studying the applicability of her remarks to popular narrative fiction. We were depending on the intertextual bonds between such "texts" for the relevance of remarks about narrative cinema for the study of popular fiction and culture.

Ultimately, what I want to explore here is the dramatic and surprising reaction (at least to me!) of many of my post-graduate students to Mulvey's thoughts about the female spectator/reader who finds herself "secretly and even unconsciously enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides" (29). The key ideas, then, orienting my own text are expressed by the following three questions: (1) What are the essential elements of Mulvey's consideration about this female spectator?; (2) What were the essential elements of the students' dramatic and surprising reactions to Mulvey and other female theorists aligned with her position?; and (3) What do their reactions signify for the "other" pleasures pointed to in my title?

As we begin to look at a summary of the essential elements of Mulvey's consideration about the female who enjoys her freedom of action and control in a narrative world where she identifies with a 'masculinized' hero, it is critical to first know a bit about the popular literary texts we were reading in our course at that time. One was Block's A Dance at the Slaughterhouse ; the other was McMurtry's Lonesome Dove -- both popular by any standard. I think it's fair and accurate to say that these texts could be summarized as having strongly male protagonists, wherein the action of the stories was centered on the subject of their quests and intrigues. It was the males(s) whose actions controlled the storyline, the male(s) around whom the other characters revolved, the males who had the power to pursue the acts defining the narratives. The women who were integrally involved in the evolution of the stories were either killed off in the opening sequences (in a grisly murder-rape, as in the mystery thriller) or were primarily adjuncts -- embellishments even -- to the motives, dreams, and emotional viccisitudes of the male characters. Actually, many of the women in the stories to which I refer were whores, bought and paid for by the men whose pleasure they serviced; McMurtry's descriptions of the acts from which such pleasure derives is rendered with what often seems comic dryness. Mulvey wonders if the female spectator is sometimes "carried along by the scruff of the text"; in the case of the western epic novel, it may well be not untrue to maintain that the one central female protagonist is carried along by the scruff of the cowboy's quest. I offer these summaries (puns and all) with full recognition of the biased slant they carry, but take full advantage of the reader's prerogative, claimed by reader-response criticism, to "write" the text from a personal perspective. And that perspective, as regards the summaries of these popular texts, is that they are unquestionably male-centered. In subsequent pages of this article, I'll also deconstruct the characterization of "male-centered" I have expressed here.

In her "afterthoughts" article, Mulvey tells us quite clearly that she is "concentrating on films in which a woman central protagonist is shown to be unable to achieve a stable sexual identity, torn between the deep blue sea of passive femininity and the devil of regressive masculinity" (30). Mulvey looks to Freud in establishing the context for her argument. She cites his view of femininity -- that it is complicated by the fact that it emerges out of a period that he sees as masculine for both boys and girls. Mulvey tells us, "I will only emphasize here that the development of femininity remains exposed to disturbances by the residual phenomena of the early masculine period. [....T]here is a repeated alternation between periods in which femininity and masculinity gain the upper hand" (30). She goes on to say that Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure "allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bed-rock of feminine neurosis" (31). The active/masculine convention structures most popular narratives says Mulvey . She argues: "The 'grammar' of the story places the reader, listener of spectator with the hero" (32), and that "trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature" (33). And now, what about the texts wherein a woman protagonist is central and where she is unable to achieve a stable sexual identity torn between passive femininity and regressive masculinity? How is that narrative thread played out in Duel in the Sun , and what significance does Mulvey's analysis of that text hold for the questions directing this article?

Mulvey explains that Duel in the Sun "consists of a series of oscillations in [the woman protagonist's sexual identity ... between different desperations.... Pearl is unable to settle or find a 'femininity' in which she and the male world can meet. In this sense, although the male characters personify Pearl's dilemma, it is their terms that make and finally break her" (36). The woman, as central character, cannot accept a correct married femininity, according to Mulvey's analysis (in light of Freud we must remember) or find a place in the macho world either. And now for one last time, I must enter Mulvey's words before we can begin to speak of my graduate students' strong and exclamatory reactions to Mulvey's text:

The masculine identification ... reactivates for [the female spectator] a fantasy of 'action' that correct femininity demands should be repressed. The fantasy 'action' finds expression through a metaphor of masculinity [that] acts as a straitjacket (37). I have argued that Pearl's position [the woman protag onist] in Duel in the Sun is similar to that of the female spectator as she temporarily accepts "masculinisation' in memory or her 'active' phase. Rather than dramatizing the success of masculine identification, Pearl brings out its sadness. Her 'tomboy' pleasures, her sexuality, are not fully accepted by Lewt [her potential fiancee] except in death. So, too, is the female spectator's fantasy of masculinisation at cross purposes with itself, restless in its transvestite clothes. (37)

And so, we are presented with narrative situations via Mulvey's text that feature a female protagonist "trans sexually" identifying with an active masculinity. And we must be clear about Mulvey's point here: just as the female protagonist does not sit easily with this role, just as she experiences a restless sadness thereby, so too is the female spectator at crosspurposes with herself -- restless, unstable, and unfulfilled. Where does that leave us?

Reacting to "Masculine Spectator Identification"

Let's remind ourselves once again of the point at issue here. We are presented with the spectre of a female spectator secretly -- perhaps unconsciously -- enjoying the freedom of action and control that identification with a hero provides. This female spectator, in temporarily accepting masculinisation in memory of her "active" phase, is like the central woman protagonist in some films. Both resist a "correct" feminine position, shift "restlessly in borrowed transvestite clothes" (33), and are at crosspurposes with themselves.

Well, I think I have succeeded in representing Mulvey's argument with reasonable accuracy. Many -- not, all, but many -- of the female students who read her article were, to put it quite simply, enraged! They sputtered with anger, primarily for two reasons. The first was that they felt themselves to be rather objectified in psychoanalytic terms, without their permission, according to a value system (Freud's) that they DID NOT buy into. The second, and by far most compelling of the reasons for their fury, was that they felt judged and criticized for, in fact, "enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides" (29). They were mad as hell at me for suggesting that the perspective afforded in Mulvey's article might represent a valid angle on their happy identifications with the protagonists of the murder mystery and the western epic we read. Why could they not identify with the power and action and freedom of the male role? They loved these stories and lived happily in the worlds constructed through their identity with the (primarily male) action. They travelled north with the cowboys until they too eventually reached Montana with the three thousand head of cattle, and they lived a happy vicariousness with all of the adventures along the way. They were one with Matt Scuddeer as he solved the murder and took the law into his own hands, as it were, at the end of that story. Just who was I, or Laura Mulvey for that matter, to characterize their identification as "restless in transvestite clothes," or as "sadness," or worse yet, as a "regressive boy/girl mixture or rivalry and play?!"

I now raise a series of rhetorical questions. They are questions that were put to the students and discussed at great length throughout the course. The first is: Did my students quite see that in being fully and happily satisfied in their identifications with the male "action" of the popular literature we read, they were one with a masculinity that, at least in the stories, objectified and puppeteered the women into rather powerless and often abused circumstances? Did they so completely lack identification with the female characters that they felt not at all compromised by their oneness with "the guys," and thus see no contrariness therein? Why did they feel that personally enraged at a characterization of "the female spectator's fantasy of masculinisation" deemed as "restless and unfulfilled in its transvestite clothes"? Was it Freud's depiction of femininity that bothered them so? Finally, even in the context of Schweickart's and Fetterly's views on the roles of women readers responding to predominately "male" fiction, did the women to whom I refer not want to reconsider their angry opposition to the potential snags their identifications posed?

I suppose a question that might be posed to me by readers of this article would aim to find out why I would have assigned, in the first place, popular literary texts that represented such "traditional" male-centered plots. A quick response to that last statement would have to point to the rather prevailing circumstance of much of the world of popular literature: as long as it consists of westerns, horror, science fiction,and detective works, with romances that so predominately feature women yearning to love and domesticate men (as per Radway's analysis of much of the widely popular world of romance fiction), we will be faced with a huge overload of "traditional" male-centered plots, and/or women centered texts that capitulate to and set out to titillate a male world. In truth, many of the texts selected for the course were guided by simple criteria. These criteria were to examine what was popular (i.e. being most widely read or "consumed" by a mass of readers) among the various genres of popular fiction and to read in the course what was being read by millions of readers of the texts of popular culture. I had not read any of these texts prior to teaching this course and depended on the well informed opinions of merchants at prominent New York City book stores to guide me toward what was, in fact, "popular" fiction. To briefly address a point previously posed, my vehemently angry female students did not at all buy into Fetterly's account that "the cultural reality is not the emasculation of men by women, but the immasculation of women by men. As readers and teachers and scholars, women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view and to accept as nor mal and legitimate a male system of values, one whose central principles is misogyny" (xx). These women did not at all feel they were undergoing a literary schizophrenia -- that they were in Schweickart's words, "ratifying the equation of maleness with the universe" (42), or that they were complicit with a patriarchal ideology that "draws [women] into a process that uses her against herself" (42). What then did these women feel, and why were they so angry at the positions held by Mulvey , Schweickart , and Fetterly ?

According to them, they did not feel the least bit "immasculated" by the texts that they read. They identified -- put it in their terms -- fully with the (male) action and adventure, BUT did emphatically not feel "restless in transvestite clothes"; did not feel sadly unfulfilled; and did not feel torn between passive femininity and regressive masculinity. The female readers to whom I refer expressed their identity with the power and action and freedom of the male characters and did NOT see themselves at all imbricated, in that identification, with a double oppression. They did not feel a powerlessness resulting from an "endless division of self against self, the consequence of the invocation to identify as male while being reminded that to be male -- to be universal ... is to be not female" ( Fetterly , original italics, xiii).

Other Pleasures

The pleasured identification, experienced and vehemently defended by certain women in the popular literature course, was with action, freedom, and power. The identification was not with the males themselves, not with the male gender and male sexuality, but with the centrality of the power, freedom and adventure of the protagonists' experience. This is the way it was explained by these women in the many discussions we had on the topic throughout the course. Insistently, the women referred to herein maintained their interpretive strategies not as androcentric, but as essentially feminist. According to them, they were, indeed, taking control of the reading experience. They were desexualizing the text -- connecting to the existence behind it, affiliating themselves with and appropriating as "theirs" the power and the freedom of the story. They were rejecting the position that the actions or "grammar" of the story placed them with the male hero(s). The pleasure they derived depended on identification with, again, freedom and power. It was irrelevant to them that the characters who had such freedom and power in the many popular texts they read were male.

The most outspoken of the students opposing Mulvey et al. strode into my office later in the week with a copy of Naomi Wolf's Fire With Fire . This was the feminism she embraced. This particular student, along with others in that course, articulated their impression of Wolf's message. It was not an active masculinity or a striving to be masculine that they sought or even a fulfillment of their "tomboy" sexuality. If there were any theoretical position that spoke for the depth of their identity with the popular murder mystery, science fiction, and western novels that they read, it would be that expressed by Wolf , and certainly not Freud via Mulvey . Wolf says:

I am arguing ... that the current split, fashionable in parts of the progressive community, into male -- evil sexually - exploitative - rational - linear - dominating combative - tyrannical -- on one hand, and female -- natural - nurturing - consensus-building - healing - intuitive - aggressionless - egoless - spirit-of-the-glades -- on the other hand, belies the evidence of history and contemporary statistical reality. It denies the full humanity of women and men. And it creates a new version of the old female stereotype that discourages women from appropriating the power of the political and financial world to make power at last their own. (149)

It was put to me, by the women who most vehemently opposed Mulvey and company, that my characterization of many of our texts as "male centered" was a capitulation to the "victim feminist" worldview. This view holds for women seeking power through and identity with powerlessness. Wolf says, "[i]t dismantles the possibility of creating a prowoman vision of leadership, and a new kind of hierarchy based on merit" (149).

The pleasure my students derived from their identities with many of the popular literary texts that we read was based on their bonds with the power and freedom represented. And the pleasure they derived from listening to, watching, and reading the many other "texts" aligned with the popular literary ones was based on a similar principle. Passionately, these women revelled in the action adventures of the protagonists. They took ownership of Wolf's words in explaining their delight: "[I]n our heart of hearts we are not at all sure that those aggressive, controlling, dominating, and violent impulses are so alien to us after all" (150). To be sure, they reviled the murderous rape and cruelty inflicted but they were not prepared to identify with powerlessness of the "victims" nor equate their identity with the power and action of the stories with a repressed masculinity. And for me, they said, to depict many of the elements of our many "texts" as male-centered, androcentric exclusion or immasculation of their beings was infuriating.


I have learned a great deal both from writing these few informally expressed thoughts and engaging in the dialogue yielded in Perspectives on Popular Literature in the English Classroom. While I cannot look easily away from a world where power is, in fact, wielded in ways that maim and disenfranchise women, perhaps I can begin to look at the phenomenon of power without its constant clothing of gender. Can I? I leave the issue with many more questions than answers. And just when I think I can see what Wolf and my students are talking about, my experience of the film, Cape Fear returns. This is a story whose central narrative thread is directed by acts of such blood-curdling violence toward women that fury catches in my throat all over again as I remember it: as female viewers, we watch as one woman is hideously and graphically brutalized by a rape and two others are threatened by it throughout the remainder of the story. Naturally the protagonist -- the one whose actions direct the story -- is a man. Quite simply, rape is the determining variable of the storyline. This one text looms, for me, as a representative metaphor for a broad swath of the meta-text of popular culture: women are props for a storyline that so very often in music videos, TV programs, and documentary news journals features against them.

I hurry to remind myself that I may be buying into the trap of victim feminism. But I cannot quite -- not yet anyway -- rid myself of the visceral and gendered nature of my responses to the omnipresent and often dangerous alignment of male gender with action and power and female gender with relative lack of action and power. Perhaps in embracing, and yes identifying with, all of the wonderful action and adventure and power in these stories, I might eventually be able to stop noticing the huge dimensions and many difficult manifestations of the male/power association. Wolf's work strikes me as a call to start seeing the sociocultural and political elements of power in the world in non-gendered terms. It is a call to start seeing and celebrating elements of beneficent power and equality.

Wolf's title, Fire With Fire , implies a battle: combat based on an eye-for-an-eye principle of justice gained through clashing. Perhaps it is now irrelevant that such an image comes from the patriarchy of old biblical times. A central tenet of feminism, expressed by female and male feminists alike, has been non-violence. I cannot help being swayed and impressed by many of the principles raised by my students and by Wolf as they "enlisted" her in their opposition to Mulvey and others referred to. Rather than retain, however, the aggressive, control ling, dominating, and violent impulses of power that Wolf maintains "may not be so alien to us after all" (150), I am left thinking that I would rather work to transform the nature or power -- keep its drama and allure while seeing it evolve to become primarily restorative and sustaining. The popular culture we "read" via the many texts of our lives needs at least some room for identification with a power that need not wreck psychological and physical havoc on the beings of its heroes and heroines.


Block, Lawrence. A Dance at the Slaughterhouse . New York: Avon Books, 1992.

Fetterly, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture . New York: Routledge, 1989.

Flynn, Elizabeth A., and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, eds. "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading." Gender and Reading Essays on Readers, Texts, and Context s. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1986. 31-62.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

McMillan, Terry. Waiting to Exhale . New York: Pocket Star Books, 1992.

McMurtry, Larry. Lonesome Dove . New York: Pocket Books, 1985.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures . Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Waller, Robert. The Bridges of Madison County . New York: Warner Books, 1992.

Wolf, Naomi. Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century . New York: Random House, 1993.

ALAYNE SULLIVAN's scholarly interests lie in the areas of reader response criticism and aesthetics. Recent and ongoing research projects and publications have focused on the nature of adolescents' aesthetic engagement with literature. Sullivan's work also encompasses an interest in African-American Literature and Popular Literature. She is at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Copyright 1994, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Sullivan, Alayne. (1994). Feminist and other (?) pleasures. WILLA , Volume III, 14-18.