Whilst these notes are concerned more generally with ‘the gaze’ in the mass media, the term originates in film theory and a brief discussion of its use in film theory is appropriate here.
As Jonathan Schroeder notes, 'Film has been called an instrument of the male gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexual fantasy from a male point of view' (Schroeder 1998, 208). The concept derives from a seminal article called ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ by Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist. It was published in 1975 and is one of the most widely cited and anthologized (though certainly not one of the most accessible) articles in the whole of contemporary film theory.
Laura Mulvey did not undertake empirical studies of actual filmgoers, but declared her intention to make ‘political use’ of Freudian psychoanalytic theory (in a version influenced by Jacques Lacan) in a study of cinematic spectatorship. Such psychoanalytically-inspired studies of 'spectatorship' focus on how 'subject positions' are constructed by media texts rather than investigating the viewing practices of individuals in specific social contexts. Mulvey notes that Freud had referred to (infantile) scopophilia - the pleasure involved in looking at other people’s bodies as (particularly, erotic) objects. In the darkness of the cinema auditorium it is notable that one may look without being seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience. Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen. She declares that in patriarchal society ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’ (Mulvey 1992, 27). This is reflected in the dominant forms of cinema. Conventional narrative films in the ‘classical’ Hollywood tradition not only typically focus on a male protagonist in the narrative but also assume a male spectator. ‘As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence’ (ibid., 28). Traditional films present men as active, controlling subjects and treat women as passive objects of desire for men in both the story and in the audience, and do not allow women to be desiring sexual subjects in their own right. Such films objectify women in relation to ‘the controlling male gaze’ (ibid., 33), presenting ‘woman as image’ (or ‘spectacle’) and man as ‘bearer of the look’ (ibid., 27). Men do the looking; women are there to be looked at. The cinematic codes of popular films ‘are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego’ (ibid., 33). It was Mulvey who coined the term 'the male gaze'.
Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator: voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt - asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29). Fetishistic looking, in contrast, involves ‘the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. This builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself. The erotic instinct is focused on the look alone’. Fetishistic looking, she suggests, leads to overvaluation of the female image and to the cult of the female movie star. Mulvey argues that the film spectator oscillates between these two forms of looking (ibid.; see also Neale 1992, 283ff; Ellis 1982, 45ff; Macdonald 1995, 26ff; Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 77-9).
This article generated considerable controversy amongst film theorists. Many objected to the fixity of the alignment of passivity with femininity and activity with masculinity and to a failure to account for the female spectator. A key objection underlying many critical responses has been that Mulvey's argument in this paper was (or seemed to be) essentialist: that is, it tended to treat both spectatorship and maleness as homogeneous essences - as if there were only one kind of spectator (male) and one kind of masculinity (heterosexual). E Ann Kaplan (1983) asked ‘Is the gaze male?’. Both Kaplan and Kaja Silverman (1980) argued that the gaze could be adopted by both male and female subjects: the male is not always the controlling subject nor is the female always the passive object. We can ‘read against the grain’. Teresa de Lauretis (1984) argued that the female spectator does not simply adopt a masculine reading position but is always involved in a ‘double-identification’ with both the passive and active subject positions. Jackie Stacey asks: ‘Do women necessarily take up a feminine and men a masculine spectator position?’ (Stacey 1992, 245). Indeed, are there only unitary ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ reading positions? What of gay spectators? Steve Neale (1983) identifies the gaze of mainstream cinema in the Hollywood tradition as not only male but also heterosexual. He observes a voyeuristic and fetishistic gaze directed by some male characters at other male characters within the text (Stacey notes the erotic exchange of looks between women within certain texts). A useful account of 'queer viewing' is given by Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman (1995). Neale argues that ‘in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explictly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated, its erotic component repressed’ (Neale 1992, 281). Both Neale and Richard Dyer (1982) also challenged the idea that the male is never sexually objectified in mainstream cinema and argued that the male is not always the looker in control of the gaze. It is widely noted that since the 1980s there has been an increasing display and sexualisation of the male body in mainstream cinema and television and in advertising (Moore 1987, Evans & Gamman 1995, Mort 1996, Edwards 1997).
Gender is not the only important factor in determining what Jane Gaines calls 'looking relations' - race and class are also key factors (Lutz & Collins 1994, 365; Gaines 1988; de Lauretis 1987; Tagg 1988; Traube 1992). Ethnicity was found to be a key factor in differentiating amongst different groups of women viewers in a study of Women Viewing Violence (Schlesinger et al. 1992). Michel Foucault, who linked knowledge with power, related the 'inspecting gaze' to power rather than to gender in his discussion of surveillance (Foucault 1977).