Abstract from “The transformation of gender representations in Alien and Mulholland Drive” essay by Toby Woollaston – 2010

In her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (written in 1973 and published in 1975 in Screen) Mulvey argues that the cinematic world is ordered with sexual imbalance.  It is usually the male protagonist that progresses the narrative, and the female character that occupies a more passive role.  Mulvey places women at the center of cinema’s inherent male oriented scopophilia.  If this is the case, then it could be strongly argued that the postmodern identity of women within cinema is tainted by notions of objectification.  So, are such identities inherent all feature films?  I will use Mulholland Drive and Alien as examples to highlight problems with Mulvey’s position, and to demonstrate where the protagonist’s identity disenfranchises the established traditional male dominated power structure within cinema, showing her femininity as active and celebrated, rather than abject or masculinised.  I will argue that both of these films display postmodern identities with their female protagonists that do not fit well with Mulvey’s model, exploring notably lesbianism within Mulholland Drive (2001) directed by David Lynch, and transvestism within Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott.  This in turn has heavy implications for the male viewer and where his “gaze” is positioned.

Alien and Mulholland Drive offer the chance to explore a feature film where its chief protagonist is female rather than male.  In doing so, they also raise challenging questions about the nature of the postmodern identities of their protagonists, especially given the undeniable gender transformations they undertake within these two films. For example, what is the gender representation of Alien’s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)? What is the gender representation of the chief antagonist, the titular Alien? Do these representations change throughout the film, and if so, is this indicative of Mulvey’s later theory of “gender oscillation”? Finally, are Alien and Mulholland Drive situated as a feminist text?  Alien specifically also offers the opportunity to explore Carol Clover’s theory on the last surviving female protagonist that often exists in many horror films. Most contemporary critics have assumed the stance that since women are the traditional abject victims in horror, the genre is anti-feminist in its expression of female sexuality. Clover’s view poses a radical about face from traditional pro-feminist views, such as Mulvey’s ideology regarding the surviving female protagonist (“final girl”) in contemporary horror films. Clover claims that the “final girl” is indeed empowering for the female spectator. She also breaks new ground from Mulvey’s earlier work, claiming that it is also the male viewer that identifies with the last surviving female protagonist.

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