The Love of Looking at the One Who is Lacking
Pulp Fiction, an iconic piece of pop culture written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, holds the audience at rapt attention with every scene. As in most of Tarantino’s work, there are no coincidences in this film, everything is purposeful and full of meaning. That being said, there are those who might interpret instances in the movie rather differently than Tarantino had originally intended. Among those are Luce Irigaray and Laura Mulvey, brilliant minds in their own right, each with a unique approach to literary theory. In addition to applying the unique insight of each theorist to an individual Pulp Fiction scene, I will attempt a hypothetical assessment on behalf of each theorist in response to the other’s interpretation, comparing and contrasting ideas in an attempt to discern what one might make of the other’s observations.
In her essay, “This Sex Which is Not One”, Luce Irigaray rejects Freud’s infamous model of female sexuality, the idea that women are failed men who “lack” a penis (the only sexual organ of recognized value) and thus suffer from penis envy. She argues instead that women are so much more than the “other” opposite men and are, in fact, of a plural sexuality that cannot be defined in terms dictated and perpetuated by a patriarchal society. In this paper I will examine the scene in Pulp Fiction between John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, and Uma Thurman’s Mrs. Mia Wallace when they first meet and go for dinner to Jack Rabbit Slims through the scope of Luce Irigaray with a focus on feminine “lack” and the “female imaginary”.
Laura Mulvey writes in an excerpt of her work, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, that “the camera work and editing of classical Hollywood films reduces filmed women to objects of a gaze” (Mulvey, p231), a voyeuristic-scopophilic practice that robs women of any sexual autonomy while simultaneously remanding them to a subservient role in a phallocentric diegesis. Mulvey claims that film serves as essentially a mirror through which an audience looks to recognize themselves and in doing so constructs an identity or ego that is more perfect than the reality, “the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it” (Mulvey, p235). I would like to examine the scene in Pulp Fiction when Mrs. Mia Wallace overdoses and is ultimately saved with a shot of adrenaline to the heart by Vincent Vega, and how the diegesis of these scenes reinforce the scopophilic ideals of female objectification.
When the audience is initially introduced to Mrs. Mia Wallace, with the title screen of this particular chapter of the film, we understand that it will include “Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace’s wife”. Just from the title alone the audience can infer that Mia is important only as she pertains to her husband. She lacks significance; if not for her husband she would be worth even less, or worse – nothing at all, a negative worth not unlike her sexual organ, “which is not one organ, is counted as none” (Irigaray, p260). Vincent Vega is essentially her keeper while Marsellus himself is out of town on a trip. Vincent is tasked with looking after a valuable commodity that is Mia, who belongs exclusively to Mr. Marsellus. Both Vincent’s job and his life depend on Mia staying happy and healthy, in the same state as Marsellus last saw her. As Irigaray reminds us, “For woman is traditionally a use-value for a man, an exchange value among men; in other words a commodity.” (Irigaray, p262), so Mia represents an exchange value between Marsellus and Vincent.
The audience hears Mia long before they see her. There seems to be an intentional eroticizing of her voice, she speaks in low, breathy, seductive tones. As Vincent enters the home, Mia does not appear to be physically present, the audience instead sees a glimpse of her from behind in what looks like a surveillance room, the next image is an extreme close up of her lips, bright red and animated. Close ups of her hands, hair and bare feet follow, “While her body finds itself thus eroticized and called to double movement of exhibition and of chaste retreat in order to stimulate the drives of the “subject”, her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see.” (Irigaray, p259) Her entire existence up to their arrival at Jack Rabbit Slims, is one of lack or absence. Her home lacks color, decorated predominantly in white. She lacks a complete body, represented instead by fragmented parts. Even cocaine, her drug of choice, lacks the phallic pentetration symbolic of Vincent’s heroine syringe. When the penis is viewed as the only sexual organ of recognized value, women experience “penis envy”, thus Mia is assigned worth only as she contributes to the masculine subject within the dominant phallic economy.
Because women want only to desire a penis themselves, Mia is, “more or less (an) obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies. That she may find pleasure there in that role, by proxy, is possible, even certain. But such pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar state of dependency upon man.” (Irigaray, p259). Going back even before Freud, one is struck by the construction of female sexuality by a patriarchal society, the idea of femininity and woman as an identity is formed and given meaning by men. Such is an impossibly narrow and inaccurate scope to view all of woman kind through. Irigaray suggests that, in a culture claiming to count everything, woman is not merely one (as a male penis) nor even two, but plural. Women have sex organs all over their bodies, thus their pleasure is, “more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is commonly imagined – in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness.” (Irigaray, p261). Sitting in the car booth at Jack Rabbit Slims, Mia tells Vincent she’s going to the bathroom and that he should think of something to say while she’s gone. Her “lack” or absence, further empowers Vincent, reasserting his leadership and importance. This follows her asking Vincent what he thinks, as she watches him intently, almost agitated, especially animated, asking him to role her a cigarette (arguably a phallic symbol itself), seemingly saying one thing while implying another – plural in her thoughts and desires. “This is doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious . . . not to mention her language, in which “she” sets off in all directions leaving “him” unable to discern the coherence of any meaning” (Irigaray, p261), Mia is at once both aggressive and innocent, she is undefinable as any one thing. Her inherent eroticism and implied desire, “is often interpreted, and feared, as sort of insatiable hunger, a voracity that will swallow you whole. Whereas it really involves a different economy more than anything else, one that upsets the linearity of a project, undermines the goal-object of a desire, diffuses the polarization toward a single pleasure, disconcerts fidelity to a single disourse . . .” (Irigaray, p261), Mia – all women – are the female imaginary, full of multiple meanings and purposes, undefinable within the boundaries created and maintained by a phallocentric, patriarchal society.
Laura Mulvey also recognizes the phallocentrism within the film industry where the castrated woman is meant to give order and meaning to the world, the woman represents the male “other”, “bound by symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning.” (Mulvey, p232). Mia Wallace certainly follows this depiction, valued only in relation to men, she represents value and meaning but does not create it nor wield the power to change it. Mulvey argues that women exist in film as the objectified aesthetic for the spectator, a scopophilic pleasure structure that reflects the perfect (patriarchal) ideal of feminine identity. After Vincent and Mia return from Jack Rabbit Slims, Mia puts on some music while Vincent excuses himself to the bathroom. The audience then watches as Mia finds a song and proceeds to sing and dance to it. The camera appears to follow her as a person would, were they in the house with her, adopting a voyeuristic perspective that moves behind furniture and between rooms, “the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer.” (Mulvery, p234). Meanwhile Vincent is in the bathroom, rehearsing what he will say to Mia in the mirror, debating how he will control or guide the situation – as though he is the only one with the power to do so. This scene differs noticeably from Mia’s bathroom scene in Jack Rabbit Slims in that she (and the other women) stare directly into the camera, as though the audience were a literal reflection of themselves (or vice versa), whereas as Vincent is shown looking into a mirror from a side angle, allowing the audience to view his reflection as opposed to providing it. Like Jacques Lacan’s mirror phase, the audience identifies with the actors on screen as though it were a mirror, their misrecognition of a more perfect self-image being the very purpose of film and fantasy, “The sense of forgetting the world as the ego has come to perceive it . . . is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition.” (Mulvey, p235).
Scopophilia, the pleasure or love of looking, is not a radical idea in the realm of cinema, a world populated by people paid to be looked at. However, it becomes a sexist and oppressive practice when, “Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.” (Mulvey, p233) In this world dictated by sexual imbalance, the male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female role and aligns its masculine identity with the male role, the expectation of females as passive while males are active. Women are intended to hold the gaze, to play to and signify male desire. When Mia discovers Vincent’s bag of heroine, she mistakes it for coke, snorts a line and promptly begins to overdose, falling unconscious. In doing so Mia provides an escape for Vincent from the castration anxiety presented by her phallic “lack”, by creating an opportunity for Vincent to save her by plunging a syringe of adrenaline into her heart. In taking control of the situation and administering the dose of adrenaline, Vincent “controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralize the extra diegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle.” (Mulvey, p237). A sadist scopophilia, this scene brings pleasure in ascertaining the guilt of the castrated “other”, where Vincent asserts control and Mia is punished by overdosing then forgiven when injected with the adrenaline.
Were Irigaray to pontificate on Mulvey’s interpretation of Mia’s overdose and the scenes immediately preceding it, I believe she would focus on different parts within the same scenes without disagreeing with Mulvey. For instance, Irigaray might interpret Mia stealing Vincent’s heroine and snorting some, as her deriving pleasure from nearness, trying to obtain the phallic symbol that, by nature, she can never appropriate for herself. She wasn’t looking for drugs in his pocket, she was not obviously aware of any specific desires, rather Mia appeared “ready for anything, even asking for more, so long as he will “take” her as his “object” when he seeks his own pleasure. Thus she will not say what she herself wants; moreover, she does not know” (Irigaray, p259), Mia is aware only that she desires Vincent’s company and appears complacent to let him call the shots. Irigaray would note the multiplicity of contradictions related to the female image as a castration threat, acknowledging that the female imagery can and should endanger the unity of the diegesis and one dimensional fetish of scopophilia.
Mulvey’s take on those scenes at Jack Rabbit Slims would likely agree with Irigaray’s perspective of feminine “lack”, that the castrated woman forms the patriarchal unconscious and is reduced to a commodity exchanged among men. Mulvey might argue that Mia leaving Vincent to think as she does a line in the bathroom mirror, supports the idea that the male subject cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification, rather he controls the film fantasy (it is his duty to direct the conversation), and thus Mia takes the audience with her in the bathroom to gaze into as she is gazed upon. Mulvey would also concur with Irigaray on the phallic symbolism of the syringe, taking it one step further as a representation of castration anxiety – death to the female, salvation to the male.
Both Mulvey and Irigaray provide their audience with unique tools to examine cultural ideals of femininity and gender expectations in cinema. Irigaray focuses primarily on themes of multiplicity, and the female imaginary that lacks only the means to define itself within the erotically coded language of a patriarchal society. Mulvey centers her argument on scopophilia and the consequences of a paradoxical castration complex. I think the beliefs of each theorist compliment the other and that using their unique perspectives in collaboration provide the reader (or watcher) with a wider scope and larger toolset with which to view and analyze a given scenario. I didn’t see many potentially conflicting viewpoints so much as varying methods in approach between their theories, and would like to believe these two women would find much to discuss between them in addition to complimenting insights. Mulvey saw cinematic codes that, “create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.” (Mulvey, p241), while Irigaray strengthens such argument, agreeing that, “ the condition of underdevelopment arising from women’s submission by and to a culture that oppresses them, uses them, (and) makes of them a medium of exchange, with very little profit to them.” (Irigaray, p263)