Throughout the last three weeks in English 403, the concept of power has emerged as a central theme in almost all of our readings and class discussions. Generally defined by Merriam-Webster as the “possession of control, authority, or influence over others,” the word “power,” as we have seen, is not only employed in order to demonstrate the strength of a person, group of people, or an entity, but is also utilized as a method for creating or bringing focus to a dichotomy that exists between those that possess power and those that face subjugation under that specific source of power (“Power”). For this reason, analyzing the ways in which different works engage with the concept of “power” and its effects allows individuals to identify the multiple, unique facets of various power dynamics and gain a better understanding of the seemingly universal precursors that must exist in order to enable the possession of societal power.
Two works that seem to make the most significant use of the word “power” include Judith Fetterley’s Introduction to the Resisting Reader and Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Fetterley’s piece, she grapples with the idea that American society and literature feel a “commitment to the maintenance of male power” that directly causes and encourages “powerlessness [to] characterize women” (994, 992). Similarly, in Mulvey’s piece, she also describes a lack of power amongst women by analyzing how films have encouraged a reality based in “sexual imbalance” in which “the active power of the erotic look” is held solely by men (668, 671). Although both writers are concerned with the societal promotion of female powerlessness, it is their analysis of “power” in regard to different mediums that is most revealing. For Mulvey, “power” is a visual concept. She argues that films utilize women as “objects of sexual simulation through sight” by purposefully depicting women as sexual beings that exist solely for men’s visual enjoyment (672). In addition, it also a woman’s appearance, or “visually ascertainable absence of the penis,” that causes her to be relegated to the periphery and made powerless (672). In contrast, Fetterley is not focused on the visual aspects the define “power,” but rather, on the way in which education and literature determine “power.” For Fetterley, one’s power stems from the written works with which they interact and the authors that they are exposed to. For this reason, Fetterley believes women are powerless because they are taught through literature that they must think and act like men and become “intellectually male” (996). In this way, although Fetterley and Mulvey both point to a sexist societal hierarchy that renders men powerful and women powerless, their differing engagements with “power” enable one to understand the various ways in which person(s) achieve and maintain power at the societal level.
In addition, it is also significant to note the way in which the word “power” in both of these works is often accompanied by the word “unconscious” or “universal.” While Fetterley and Mulvey wrestle with different channels in promoting gendered power dynamics, they are unified in their assertion that people within society have been unconsciously molded by social formations into expecting and accepting a patriarchal society and its “universal” norms. By utilizing the words “unconscious” and “universal,” Fetterley and Mulvey not only emphasize the pervasiveness of male power, but recognize that power dynamics are often so ingrained in a culture that they are not fully recognizable or actively thought about by that culture’s members. In this way, Fetterley and Mulvey not only shed light on the tight link between “power” and culture, but stress that power can only be shifted if people recognize what societal institutions and conventions have enabled those powerful persons or entities to thrive.
Fetterley , Judith. “Introduction to the Resisting Reading.” Reader-Response Criticism , pp. 990–998.
Mulvey , Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema .” Psychoanalytic Theory , pp. 667–675.
“Power.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2017 Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power.