Posted by: Casey L | October 21, 2018

Mulvey and Movie Marketing

A movie poster is a pitch, a promise of sorts. At best, it captures what the genre, themes and conflicts will be in the film, and thus the reasons it deserves your attention (and money). There are plenty of tropes in movie posters that are more obvious than others, but focusing on conventions can obscure the underlying principles. Mulvey’s passive/active theory, of “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look,” is the central theory that can be applied to movie posters.

I am not setting out to argue that these films or their marketing teams made misogynist miscalculations. My intention is to practice (and invite others to practice) analyzing that which is mundane and ubiquitous using the tools that Mulvey provides. To do so, I have chosen posters featuring women from some of the 2017 and 2018 Academy Awards nominees.

ARRIVAL (2016)

arrival poster

Source: Amazon

How do Mulvey’s principles apply in films with female protagonists? More specifically, for the sake of this post, how do her principles apply to the film posters when the films have female protagonists? Amy Adams is the biggest face of the actors featured on the poster. Viewers are meant to empathize most with her in the film, to feel as she feels. Is this why her face is the most free of emotion, so viewers can project their own meanings? Both Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker’s characters have faces caught mid-reaction, mid-look, faces wrinkled with thought. One would think they have more active roles, while Adams is passive. Although Adams’ eyes are pointed toward something, she is not grounded in a particular active moment in the film, unlike Whitaker and Renner, who are cut out of scenes. This, combined with the intensity of the airbrushing on her skin, is reminiscent of the Disney princess controversy from five years ago—is it better for the female character to be beautiful than to show emotion?

The marketing roots the film in the past. Mulvey’s argument has to be adapted to fit analysis of a frame that does not mirror the film. “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (837). Because Adams’ character is the lead, she becomes suspended in order to maintain the flow of action: the sun rises to shine on her face, as though the very nature surrounding her is geared toward beautifying and illuminating her for the gaze. In the poster, her agency (specifically, as a viewer may glean from the trailer beforehand, her ability to communicate with aliens) is directly associated with her pure skin and a feminized openness to ideas (or influence).


THE POST (2017)

the post poster

Source: Amazon

The Post has by far the most abstract poster in this analysis. The human form is set aside, featuring two human figures, both of whom have a clear gender. Nothing is in the center of the poster to draw the eye in, until it finds Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in the corner. Streep’s name and person are above Hanks’, and yet, she is still set off on an angle that seems fairly nonsensical, frozen. If Streep’s calves and heels were insufficient in marking her, one can use the names on the poster to interpret the female form. Streep’s character has a higher level of decision-making power, but is not the most active figure in terms of advocating for the film’s central news story. Hanks is the only moving figure suggested in the entire image. It is clear the pair have been pasted into this scene, because his gaze doesn’t quite make sense (is he looking at her feet, or a bit higher?). Still, with a suit the same color as the steps, and he is closer to the corner, suggesting his normativity and emphasizing Streep’s character as subversive.



hidden figures poster

Source: Amazon

Unlike the slightly confused layering of characters in the Arrival poster, the Hidden Figures poster makes it clear how large of a share the protagonists have in the film. Their height is exaggerated from the camera angled up at them, giving a higher degree of power than an angle that appears to point down or straight. Confidence and dominance in the frame makes clear the film as a historical and patriotic project. The representation of three Black women on a (mainstream—compare with Daughters of the Dust) film poster is groundbreaking, let alone that they take center stage.

Taraji P. Henson shares a column with Kevin Costner, who matches her front-facing gaze. as though there was some anxiety in the marketing team that her gaze had to be offset, or supplemented. Color editing is a slight sidebar here—by reducing the saturation, their faces have a pallid note, though not to the level of instances of whitewashing in magazines. The color of their lipstick, on the other hand, have likely been enhanced to reinforce their femininity. The airbrushing tradition has persisted, as well as, in Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer’s case, the ability of the viewer to gaze the posing female face as she is unaware.



phantom thread poster

Source: Amazon

In this poster for Phantom Thread, the female protagonist and love interest could be posing for the viewer, or the viewer could be looking without her knowledge. At the same time that the viewer can freely look at the protagonist (Vicky Krieps), they don’t have to directly compete with the male protagonist (Daniel Day-Lewis). The lighting has put the curves of her body in greater relief; other than the title in a white font, her skin is the brightest part of the image. “To-be-looked-at-ness” is center stage of this poster, and the viewer can project into the huge blown-up gaze of Day-Lewis. Using Mulvey’s argument, the male viewer can find his place as an erotic actor and possess the woman in the frame.

Only after seeing the film may some of these assumptions complicate the poster, and conclude that this framing is a comment on the dynamic between the two characters. Because Alma in Phantom Thread is supposed to wield power over Woodcock (his name proof of an exaggerated male erotic gaze), understand him like others have not, it is significant that her passive gaze is reframed to imitate looking at him. Still, viewers of the poster (and, arguably, the film) are allowed to indulge in the female form as passive and pristine. In order to draw people into theaters, Krieps’ figure is used as a marketing tool.


Although it is easy to dismiss some film posters as objectifying women, it is more difficult to parse through the meaning of posters that are less overtly so. The phenomena of the poster raises important questions about the commodification of the female form, the effectiveness in films aiming to shed themselves of sexism and how one can imagine an un-objectifying poster. For now, the common thread is a promise to the imagined viewer that they (he?) will be able to watch beautiful women at their leisure.

As I wrote this post a week before posting, I was more informed by Mulvey than our readings on Victorian advertising, so I would be interested to hear how others may apply the latter to modern marketing, or in general. Also, I would be interested to read feedback both on my analysis and if others want to offer their own of different posters or their application of Mulvey.


Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: