In class last week, Professor McCoy brought up a quote from Laura Mulvey referring to women ‘as [the] bearer[s] of meaning, not [the] maker[s] of meaning.’ This quote, when repeated in class was from Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, though it was said without supplying background information on the piece. That being said, my initial thought upon hearing the quote was also ignorant to the context of the piece, and got me thinking about the concept of meaning, and if it is really possible for anyone to make meaning, or bear it at all.
Let me explain a little bit about the essay. Mulvey’s context places her statement at the end of the second paragraph. In that space, she argues that it is the ‘unconscious of patriarchal society [that] has structured film form’ (Mulvey). She discusses how women are represented in film almost as a kind of threat of effeminacy for the male, as well as a foil or juxtaposition to highlight male masculinity, male strength, and power. Woman, in this sense, is the object of desire for the masculine, as well as a creature in desire of the masculine; Mulvey’s argument places women in film structure as revolving around the male, a ‘signifier for the male other’ (Mulvey).
Oddly enough, this concept reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend last year. We were both learning more about film and film technique, and we encountered something close to the concept Mulvey spoke of: of the amount of women in a scene indicating the lack of men. One of the things we noticed (and went on to fact-check) was that it was strange for us to watch a scene in which there was an equal or greater amount of women compared to the number of men. When we researched it to figure out if we were simply imagining this, we found that it is actually a sort of norm to include copious amounts of men in a scene in comparison to women.
According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which conducts an annual study, 2018-2019 saw less than half of speaking roles in broadcast, cable, and streaming sites given to women, hitting about forty-five percent, which was still higher than the last collection of data, as well as the percentage of speaking roles given to women in the top one hundred movies of 2017-2018, which totaled at only thirty-three percent according to another study conducted by a ‘Women and Hollywood’ interest group. Women comprise half of the population of the real world, but it puts a scene on edge to have that same ratio represented in cinema.
In her essay, Mulvey says that woman is the bearer of meaning because she is objectified by her male counterpart, the mirror to bounce off male meaning, as the man represents the object of meaning, as it often does in other forms of art as well.
Looking back at my original thought before carrying the context of Mulvey’s argument to spin the direction of my own thoughts on the matter, I was left thinking about meaning. True meaning. It’s my belief that meaning can’t be made for a party, it can only be determined by each individual within. I believe that people make meaning for themselves, each person decides what is important and that thing can grow or lose importance as the individual learns and grows into themself.
This being said, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the wording of Mulvey’s quote. I spent a good deal of time thinking over whether anyone can make meaning; once I had begun thinking of that, I started to question the accuracy in anyone’s, not only women’s, ability to bear meaning. If people make meaning for themselves, is it possible to bear meaning? I find it difficult to consider that someone can carry meaning with them for another. My problem with her wording is that I believe people can represent an idea or concept that others can choose to find meaning in, but I don’t believe that ‘bearing meaning’ is the same as this.
Diction aside, the quote still conveys the intended meaning. It insinuates that women, the women represented in film, at least, are incapable of creation or independence of mind, that only men possess that vital ability to form thoughts, think for themselves and recognise the meaning in the world around them. In the context of Mulvey, in discussion of film, it sums up one of the many problems that still exists in the portrayal of anyone that strays from the qualities of straight, white, and male. In this, the issues in film and television portrays the issue underlying in the world that produces them, that is the underlying meaning of the issue, and it is for each to realise on their own, and then decide how to address it.