an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 1, July 2004, ISSN 1552-5112
Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1973) has inspired a tremendous body of work discussing the pleasure the viewer feels when engaged in the objectification process that occurs when looking at the human form, primarily in cinema, but also in other visual art forms. Theorists have discussed men looking at women, women looking at men, men looking at men, women at women, men looking at men looking at women. The common element in all these works is that the viewer has all the power, and therefore all the pleasure, and that which is being looked at has little or none. This pleasure is scopophilia; the pleasure of looking. This term was coined by Freud in his Three Essays on Sexuality. Mulvey neatly summarizes Freud’s definition in her paper as looking itself as a source of pleasure that exists independently from the erotogenic zones, just as, there is pleasure in being looked at. However, Mulvey then fails to address the last part of the definition in the rest of this work, and neither do those who comment upon her essay.
As a character actor, when I first was introduced to Mulvey’s work and the ensuing commentary, something seemed to be lacking. When mentioning this thought to others, I asked “What about the pleasure that the actor or actress feels when performing, or the visual artist when displaying her work?” “Exhibitionism” I was told; but that did not seem a well thought out response. Just as the pleasure of scopophilia has been differentiated from simple voyeurism, the pleasure of being looked at needs to be distinguished from simple exhibitionism. I will address this lack of clarification from my experience as a visual and theater artist and a gay man, propose a term to signify this clarification, and discuss some contemporary phenomena.
Pleasure in Being Looked At—Voyeurism: Scopophilia: Exhibitionism:?
As I pointed out earlier, Mulvey herself recognized Freud having defined scopophilia as having reciprocal pleasures, that of looking and that of being looked at. Due to the overwhelming perception of modern theorists of scopophilia meaning only the first, I would like to propose a term to finish this equation. Scopophilia literally means “love of looking” The term I am suggesting for its inverse is epidexiphilia. Just as scopos is Greek for “look” and philos is one of the words for “love”, epidexi is Greek for “display”, and combined with philos gives epidexiphilia, the love of displaying. This is one explanation for such contemporary phenomena as the show Survivor, or the Web cam sites on the Internet where men and women allow their daily lives to be observed by complete strangers. There are hundreds of sites where men are displaying, to women or other men, their phalli, or underwear, asses or chests, underarms or legs. Interestingly, a very high percentage of them showing their bodies to other men claim to be straight. What can be motivating them? Why would they display for other men? Not money, a great percentage of these sites are free. These sites deny Mulvey in her assertion that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification…man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like” (Mulvey 967). These men are deliberately objectifying themselves for other men. Their pleasure exists in the knowledge they are being watched. Once again, the pleasure is due in no small part to the choice of displaying oneself, and demanding an equality of power - many participants subtitle their images with the dictum “no cam, no chat”. The Internet cam sites allow the fluid exchange of roles of viewer and displayer, both roles can and do occur simultaneously, blurring the role boundaries.
It is also of interest that many of these men deliberately fetishize their bodies into the component parts. While this may in part be due to the small viewing area of these sites—typical is a resolution of 160 x 120 pixels—this self fragmentation may also be a reflection of the “disintegration of the ego” in contemporary society as mentioned by Shannon Spanhake in Telepresence as the Ultimate Intimate: Human Desire, Narcissism and Teledildonics. When the human ego is most at risk of dis-integration, the need for confirmation of self- hood by others rises commensurately. When stressed, the ego falls back to the juvenile genital display. Perhaps stress to the ego is one constituent of the phenomenon of situational homosexuality in institutions such as the military, prisons and religious orders. These organizations amplify the modern ills of isolation, high stress, and anonymous subjection to authority.
And what about the free sites that just show people going about their daily lives—cooking, doing homework, watching TV, etc.? There must be some pleasure in this or else they would not be doing it. Could it be a frustrated desire to experience epidexiphilia? It will be interesting to see if these sites persist or if they disappear once the novelty wears off. It seems that there is some relationship to television shows like Big Brother and Survivor. These reality shows offer the illusion of national, if not world celebrity to the common man and woman. Many people would be willing to expose themselves to media scrutiny for little or no recompense. Talk shows depend on that to fill their chairs every day. The prizes offered by the producers of Big Brother simply guarantee them a wider choice of acceptable (read attractive) contestants.
Components of Epidexiphilia
One of the reasons that the idiom “scopophilia” has acquired such widespread use is its ability to convey a complex and multi-layered relationship in one word. Epidexiphilia has several components. Some of these are...
1. The infantile relationship with the Mother
2. Lacanian mirroring
3. Genital display
4. The Phallus
These complexes of elements interact to give rise to the pleasure one feels from displaying oneself or one’s work or possessions.
1. The Mother
The first vision the infant associates with pleasure is the mother’s face. When being fed, the child looks up at the mother; in fact, when a child is being held and fed in ones arms, it is difficult for him to see anything else. The child gazes at the mother and, importantly, she gazes back. The child is aware of her look and desires it. If she is distracted by something else in her presence for too long, the child will do something to regain her attention, to compel her look. Her look affirms the child’s presence, and becomes linked with a sense of well-being. Her look also becomes linked with pleasures of nascent erotogenic stimulation. When bathing the infant or changing soiled diapers, the mother stimulates and looks at the child’s genitals. The stimulation is pleasurable, the discomfort of the soil against the skin is relieved, and often-agreeable feeling powders and lotions are applied. The mother is looking at and touching the child’s entire body, once again reinforcing the sense of self. We see young children often checking when at play or other activities to make sure she is looking at them, particularly when surrounded by strangers.
This pleasure also becomes associated with those occasions when, parts of the body normally hidden from view, the genital and anal areas, are unclothed. I can remember my younger siblings, and now my nephews and nieces, on occasion of being readied for the bath, running through the house, delightedly yelling, “Look at me! I’m naked!” They are recapturing the pleasure of the mother’s look, asking others to reaffirm their personhood. The child must be taught to feel shame at nakedness, and whence learned, genital display becomes more secretive or even displaced to objects associated with the child. Instead of showing a stranger their genitals, they will show a favorite doll or toy.
2. Lacanian Mirroring
Jacques Lacan has analyzed and described the moment when a child recognizes that the image in the mirror is herself. This moment occurs at the stage of development before the child has acquired good motor skills and so the image is seen as a better version. Because it is impossible to see one’s own face or some other parts of the body, the mirror image is more complete: over all a more perfect being. This is a crucial revelation for ego development that leads the way to future identification and empathy with others. Mulvey points out that the mirror image “constitutes the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition and identification and hence the first articulation of the ‘I’ subjectivity. This is a moment when an older fascination with looking . . . collides with the initial inklings of self-awareness. Hence it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image that has found such joyous recognition in the cinema audience” (967). We learn to look for our “reflection”, that more perfect being, in others and in their images. We compare ourselves to the other, and desire the approval of their look—you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
An interesting set of experiments demonstrates that at least one other species reacts to the mirror as an image of self and allows comparison with the animal kingdom. A chimpanzee was shown her reflection in a mirror, and allowed to explore the image. When she became accustomed to it, the mirror was covered. The researcher distracted her attention and surreptitiously placed a red dot on her forehead. When certain that she was unaware of the dot, the mirror was uncovered. After a significant pause, the chimpanzee reached up to touch the dot, not to the reflection, but to her own forehead. From this reaction, the researchers suggest that she experiences a Lacanian sense of self and other. If this is true, can we surmise that she experiences looking in other similar ways? Does she too, look for approval of the look? Is it possible that other advanced animals have a sense of self and desire the look of others?
3. Genital Display
In Biological Exuberance, Bruce Bagemihl discusses the wide range of sexual activity among animals. He demonstrates that every type of sexual behavior that exists in humanity also has representation in the animal realm. One of these behaviors is that of genital display of all genders (including the intergendered), that usually, but may not always lead to sexual contact. He demonstrates that such displays cross or usurp boundaries like caste, age or even species. Display occurs even when there is no possibility of reproduction (e.g. as when both participants are of the same gender, outside of the breeding season, or advanced age). Of course, such play may encourage group unity, but it would seem that the major reward for the individual is pleasure. Genital display can also be displaced into secondary sexual characteristics, (e.g. the peacock’s tail). Some species even have a specialized set of behaviors when displaying for the same sex. Male ostriches have a special pirouetting dance that is only performed for other males. When engaging in these behaviors, the animal displaying often exhibits clear signs of pleasure. If displaying oneself for approval is pleasurable for these animals, is it not fair to suggest that there is pleasure for the human that compels the look of others?
To return to the Mulvey paper, she (and others) stress the abusive potential of the look. The unwilling recipient of the look experiences a kind of visual rape, and the power dynamics remain unequal. Women often, and men sometimes have been put into quite ridiculous and humiliating situations as the unwilling object to be looked at, This ensures that the power remains inequitable. Mulvey seems to take the position that the subject of the look is always a passive part of this transaction. But is this so? Just as the child finds confirmation of selfhood and pleasure when compelling the look of others, compelling the look can have its own power when done willingly--there can be no look unless there is something to be looked at. In addition, there is the subconscious sense that the image, that which is looked at, is somehow the more complete being. Putting oneself in the position of being “the looked at” and succeeding at compelling the look equates the self with that completed, more perfect state. The vital element for this transaction to be pleasurable is that one is successful in compelling and controlling the gaze.
4. The Phallus
We can see that display is a natural condition for humans and especially the male. The more flamboyant of most species is the male. For nearly the whole history of art, the male body was acceptable subject for display. According to Edward Lucie-Smith in Adam: The Male Figure in Art, the male nude was at times the superior signifier of physical perfection. It has only been since 1815 or so when, as a late consequence of the Protestant Reformation, western men discarded the use of luxurious fabrics, bright colors and abundant jewelry. We were reduced to looking like clergymen in black suits and white shirts. The ornate Phallic display of costume of earlier centuries often exaggerated what it was supposed to conceal, such as the huge codpieces of the 16th century. Non-western societies retain the male love of display-- feathers, jewelry, make-up, beautiful pattern and color are not seen as effeminate, but as the birthright of humanity. Even in tropical areas where little or no clothing is used men adorn their skin hair and genitals with tattoos, dyes and scarification. Many times these decorations are tied to maturity, and the unadorned male is viewed as a child regardless of his chronological age.
In the 19th century, all that love of display was made to seem a shameful and sinful condition, even somehow bestial and unsuitable for a “civilized” man. Women were pressed into the role of vehicles of visual pleasure, a role she may not feel comfortable with when it is forced upon her. For example, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart coerces Kim Novak to alter her appearance according to his desires despite her protests to maintain her self-identity. No longer allowed to compel the look with bodily accoutrement, the male love of display had to be satisfied in other ways-- big houses, flashy cars, expensive possessions and the flaunting of male privilege. Intriguingly, the male homosexual being already a social outcast, remained the male epidexiphile. Many of the careers that attracted a large percentage of gay men to their ranks encompassed an element of display -- various design fields, visual and performing artists, merchandising, stylists, florists, even morticians.
Lacan differentiates the Phallus, the symbol
and carrier of male privilege, from the penis, that weak and fleshy organ at
ever-present danger of injury. The one
in the position of power can thus be said to have the Phallus, and the Phallus
is the most effective compeller of the look.
The king on his throne must be recognized, the idol must be
worshipped. The king commands who may or
may not be in his presence. The
priesthood has authority over who may approach the Holy of Holies. The actor on stage, even when in a role with
little “sex appeal” (Lord Lafew in All’s Well that Ends Well or Dilwyn Knox in Breaking
the Code) compels the look of the audience, and the approval of their applause
grants him the Phallus. He has displayed
himself and been recognized as the mirror image of perfection and power. The
pleasure he feels is epidexiphilia. In
the Isaac Julien film, The Long Road to
The visual artist experiences epidexiphilia in much the same way, but his phallus is displaced into his creation. I am my art and my art is me. He knows his creation is being looked at, even in his absence, and his approval comes from his peers and critics and is confirmed by the sale of the artwork. This is why immature artists are emotionally conflicted when they sell their art. They are reluctant to give away the phallus because they don’t know if they can get another. The aging actor is resentful of the young talent; the old Phallus is aware of his waning powers and fears death by the young Phallus. But what about the female artist? The process is nearly the same for her. She experiences epidexiphilia when she compels the look. She has the power, and she takes the Phallus. By compelling the look, she ceases being the victim and becomes that most feared of creatures; the Phallic Woman, the Divine Hermaphrodite. Examples of Phallic Women would be Sarah Bernhardt, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and Madonna. Society can tolerate and even celebrate the man with his Phallus, but has difficulty with the Phallic Woman, and all attempts are made to lessen the power of Her Phallus: She is paid less than her male counterpart. Speculations about her sexuality are common. But why should the Phallic woman be feared? Why is she so often accused as being “unnatural”-- unfeminine, unmaternal? She is seen as a threat to the male order, because if she has her own Phallus (most of all, if it is one she made herself) she does not need ours. She really is the complete and perfect being, and if she does not need us, then we are in danger of her abandoning us; Mother does not want us and we can no longer receive pleasure from her.
Osirus is dead by the hand of Typhon
and cut into fourteen pieces. The fishes
in the Nile have eaten his Phallus, and
It has been a widely accepted axiom that the gaze is a masculine function due to the fact that men are primarily visually stimulated while women are aroused by touch and proximity. Incongruously, as Suzanne Moore points out in her article Here’s Looking at You, Kid: “It is well documented that women tend to be able to name slight visual discriminations in color....Advertisers aim their more obscure ‘lifestyle’ ads at women, who are able to pick up minute visual details with great ease. Campaigns aimed at women sometimes deliberately play upon the ability of women to decode the visual clues that signal class and status, such as furniture or interior design” (49). While I am not denying that there is some difference in the way men and women relate to image, I do question if the degree is naturally as substantive as claimed or if it is due in large part to cultural training. Do boys get the same training in say, color determination, as girls or are they in fact actively discouraged from noticing such details? When a girl is taught the difference between lavender and mauve, is a boy just told that “they are both just kinda' purple”? Boys are steered away from bright colors and patterns, and their clothes tend more towards denim and flannel rather than satin and chiffon. When being dressed for a special occasion, the girl is often primped and curled and fussed over her appearance, while the boy is taught that a clean shirt and a comb is all he needs. He mustn’t be overly concerned for his image, lest he become a “dandy” or worse, a homo.
It is my belief that epidexiphilia and scopophilia are a natural part of human heritage. Our sense of sight is one of the most discriminating in the animal kingdom, and we are acutely aware of the presence of eyes in our environment. An interesting perceptual experiment demonstrated that a pair of dots placed in a blank field, starting far apart and moving closer, were always seen as “eyes” at a certain ratio of distance apart to size, and this ratio fell within the margin of divergence of human eyes when looking directly at the subject. This result was the same across all social divisions, ages and cultural boundaries or literacy levels. It would seem to be “hard wired” in the brain and not a product of imprinting.
It is interesting to see the
indulgence of men in epidexiphilia when they are in a context without societal
strictures such as the privacy of the home, or narrowly approved arenas such as
locker rooms, athletic events, parades.
The Internet chatroom becomes an extension of the home space, and the
active viewing that occurs is in contrast to the passivity of watching a film
or television. Yet film theory which is
primarily about the ‘gaze’ of the cinema cannot be simply mapped on to other
media. As John Ellis points out “TV is
more about the look, and the glance and sound” rather than the “overwhelming
cinematic gaze.” Video, which puts
control of the image into the hands of the viewer, may involve altogether
different relations of looking.
Recognizing the contradiction between public and private contexts in
which these images are viewed, as well as the difference between the images
themselves, means that we cannot be satisfied with a theory premised on a
unified spectator sitting alone in a darkened cinema (
The recognition of epidexiphilia as being a human quality rather than a gender-based one, allows the female viewer to engage with the female image by empathizing with her pleasure of display rather than having to go through a complicated transvestitism: She can vicariously enjoy being the Phallic woman rather than having to take on a male viewpoint. The difference is whether control of the transaction of the look is held by the subject of the look or the one looking. Let’s acknowledge the human need to be looked at, and the pleasure that occurs when one is allowed to freely engage with others on this level.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 1, July 2004, ISSN 1552-5112
Bagemihl, Bruce. Biological Exuberance: Animal
Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Adam: The Male Figure in Art.
Moore, Suzanne. “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” The
Female Gaze. Ed.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative
Cinema.” Art in Theory 1900-1990: an Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood.
Blackwell Publishers. 1992