The concept of the spectator gaze was central to the development of theories of cinema and art history, emerging primarily in the 1970s. Its origins most likely lie in Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of the look (in French, le regard) and the extension of that theory into psychoanalytic theory by Jacques Lacan. This theory postulates the position of an idealized spectator (of cinema, for instance) and the idea that an image (still or moving) is defined by a particular kind of gaze upon it.
The concept of this ideal spectator is central to theories of cinema that find their foundation in psychoanalysis and semiotics, and what have been termed the apparatus theories of early film theory, which focus on the technology of cinema exhibition as a metaphor for viewer consciousness. The spectator designates an abstract subject position of an imagined viewer of cinema, though it might be occupied by particular viewers of cinema in various contexts. Thus, theories of spectatorship are theories of address (how cinema or other image systems are seen to address viewers) rather than a theory of actual reception (what particular viewers do in response to image texts).
The concept of the gaze emerged in the context of 1970s film theory most obviously in relationship to two texts: Laura Mulvey’s canonical essay “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” (1975) and John Berger’s well-known book (which was part of a broader collaboration) Ways of seeing. In Mulvey’s formulation, Hollywood cinema creates several intersecting gazes: the gaze of the male protagonist upon the female subject in the film, the gaze of the movie camera upon the actors, and the gaze of the spectator upon the screen. Mulvey used psychoanalysis to postulate that this intersection of gazes is defined within classic Hollywood cinema as a “male gaze.” This refers not simply to the gaze of actual male spectators upon the screen, but to an overarching male gaze through which all spectators, including female spectators, must look. Mulvey theorized that this created a kind of masochistic subject position for female spectators.
Likewise, Berger argued that throughout the history of art, the depiction of women has been one in which the gaze is defined as male, with female figures often turned away from male figures within the picture frame and toward the spectator himself. Berger famously wrote that in the codes of representation throughout the history of art, “men act and women appear” (1972, 47); thus the male gaze defined a look upon a passive female figure. It is central to these concepts of the gaze that the person looking retains power over the person who is looked upon, and the looking is not only powerful and voyeuristic but pleasurable. Mulvey’s concepts hinged on the idea that such looking is inherently sadistic in its voyeurism. It is also central to the theory of the gaze that image texts define the gaze that looks upon them. Thus, in this formulation, an image such as a Hollywood film determines (and limits) the particular kinds of gazes that can look upon it, no matter the identity of the person actually looking.
The model of psychoanalytic-semiotic theory that produced the concept of the gaze has been debated and critiqued over the past two decades, and has been updated and modified by many theorists, including Mulvey herself. In particular, the unitary aspects of the original model of the gaze have been questioned and reconfigured over time. The ahistorical aspects of the psychoanalytic model, its overemphasis on sexual difference, and its dependence on the model of a fixed spectator all limited the extent to which the theory of the spectator might apply to other contexts and media.
This rethinking of the concept has given way to a broad range of theories about different kinds of gazes, a pluralism of potential gazes, and different ways of thinking about spectator identification with images. Thus, many theorists have proposed models of negotiation for understanding what spectators do with particular images, rather than the model of a spectator who is positioned by a film text. Such theorists have proposed not only categories such as black spectatorship and lesbian spectatorship, but also the idea that the study of actual spectators in particular socio-historical contexts could be more useful than the limited notion of an abstract, ideal spectator. The concept of the spectator gaze is thus used today to characterize a diverse range of strategies that viewers use when looking at and identifying with images.
- Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
- Hansen, M. (1991). Babel in Babylon: Spectatorship in American silent cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Mayne, J. (1993). Cinema and spectatorship. New York: Routledge.
- Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18.
- Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and other pleasures. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Rodowick, D. (1991). The difficulty of difference: Psychoanalysis, sexual difference, and film theory. New York: Routledge.
- Williams, L. (ed.) (1994). Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.