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For other uses, see Gaze (disambiguation).
Hieronymus Bosch's The Conjurer. While other figures observe objects within the painting, the woman in green observes the viewer. The painting thus makes the viewer aware of being on display.

Gaze refers to the vision-act. In the psychoanalytical theory of Jacques Lacan, gaze is the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. This concept is bound with his theory of the mirror stage, in which a child encountering a mirror realizes that he or she has an external appearance. Lacan suggests that this gaze effect can similarly be produced by any conceivable object such as a chair or a television screen. This is not to say that the object behaves optically as a mirror; instead it means that the awareness of any object can induce an awareness of also being an object.

History of the concept[edit]

Numerous existentialists and phenomenologists have addressed the concept of gaze beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre.[1] Foucault elaborated on gaze to illustrate a particular dynamic in power relations and disciplinary mechanisms in his Discipline and Punish. Derrida also elaborated on the relations of animals and humans via the gaze in The Animal That Therefore I Am. The Gaze is assumed to be a white heterosexual man looking at the female body in appreciation of her curves. In film, this gaze is present during a sex scene as camera focuses on the body of the female and the facial reactions of the male. [2] The gaze is also present in other forms of technology other than film. It is also present in video games and even in comic books. In these types of mediums the gaze is present by making the woman sexually appealing by emphasizing her large breasts and hourglass figure rather than her face. [3]

Systems of power and the gaze[edit]

Michel Foucault first used the term "medical gaze" in The Birth of the Clinic to explain the process of medical diagnosis, power dynamics between doctors and patients, and the hegemony of medical knowledge in society. He elaborated on the gaze to illustrate a particular dynamic in power relations and disciplinary mechanisms in his Discipline and Punish, such as surveillance and the function of related disciplinary mechanisms and self-regulation in a prison or school as an apparatus of power.

The gaze is not something one has or uses; rather, it is the relationship into which someone enters. "The gaze is integral to systems of power and ideas about knowledge."[4] Three main concepts that Foucault introduced are panopticism, power/knowledge, and biopower. These concepts all address self-regulation under systems of surveillance. This refers to how people modify their behaviour under the belief that they are constantly being watched even if they cannot directly see who or what is watching them. This possible surveillance, whether real or unreal, has self-regulating effects.[5]

The "male gaze" in feminist theory[edit]

In her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Laura Mulvey introduced the second-wave feminist concept of "male gaze" as a feature of gender power asymmetry in film. The concept was present in earlier studies of the gaze, but it was Mulvey who brought it to the forefront. Mulvey stated that women were objectified in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera. Hollywood films played to the models of voyeurism and scopophilia.[6] The concept has subsequently been influential in feminist film theory and media studies.[citation needed]

The male gaze[7] occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman's body, for instance.[8] The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, as well as for the spectator who is watching the film. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. This adds an element of 'patriarchal' order and it is often seen in "illusionistic narrative film".[9] Mulvey argues that, in mainstream cinema, the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry.[citation needed]

This inequality can be attributed to patriarchy which has been defined as a social ideology embedded in the belief systems of Western culture and in patriarchal societies. It is either masculine individuals or institutions created by these individuals that exert the power to determine what is considered “natural”.[10] Over the course of time, these constructed beliefs begin to seem ‘”natural” or “normal” because they are prevalent and carry out unchallenged, thus arguing that Western culture has adopted a dyadic, hierarchical ideology which sets masculinity in binary opposition to femininity thus creating levels of inferiority.[10]

Mulvey's essay also states that the female gaze is the same as the male gaze. This means that women look at themselves through the eyes of men.[11] The male gaze may be seen by a feminist either as a manifestation of unequal power between gazer and gazed, or as a conscious or subconscious attempt to develop that inequality. From this perspective, a woman who welcomes an objectifying gaze may be simply conforming to norms established to benefit men, thereby reinforcing the power of the gaze to reduce a recipient to an object. Welcoming such objectification may be viewed as akin to exhibitionism.[citation needed]

The possibility of an analogous female gaze[12][13][14][15] may arise from considering the male gaze. Mulvey argues that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze…" Describing Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by Jean Rhys, Nalini Paul indicates that the Antoinette character gazes at Rochester, placing a garland upon him, making him appear heroic: "Rochester does not feel comfortable with having this role enforced upon him; thus, he rejects it by removing the garland, and crushing the flowers."[citation needed]

From the male perspective, a man possesses the gaze because he is a man, whereas a woman has the gaze only when she assumes the male gazer role — when she objectifies others by gazing at them like a man. Eva-Maria Jacobsson supports Paul's description of the "female gaze" as "a mere cross-identification with masculinity", yet evidence of women's objectification of men — the discrete existence of a female gaze — can be found in the "boy toy" ads published in teen magazines, for example, despite Mulvey's contention that the gaze is property of one gender. Whether or not this is an example of female gaze or rather an internalized male gaze is up for debate, along with the other ideas on this subject. In terms of power relationships, the gazer can direct a gaze upon members of the same gender for asexual reasons, such as comparing the gazer's body image and clothing to those of the gazed-at individual.[citation needed]

With respect to Laura Mulvey's essay, note the following points stressed by Mulvey in a 2011 interview with Roberta Sassatelli: "First, that the 1975 article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ was written as a polemic, and as Mandy Merck has described it, as a manifesto; so I had no interest in modifying the argument. Clearly I think, in retrospect from a more nuanced perspective, about the inescapability of the male gaze."[16]

Criticizing the male gaze[edit]

Bracha Ettinger criticizes this notion of the male gaze by her proposition of a Matrixial Gaze.[17] The matrixial gaze is not operative where a "Male Gaze" is placed opposite to a "Female Gaze" and where both positive entities constitute each other from a lack (such an umbrella concept of the gaze would precisely be what scholars such as Slavoj Žižek claim is the Lacanian definition of "The Gaze"). Ettinger's proposal doesn't concern a subject and its object, existing or lacking. Rather, it concerns "trans-subjectivity" and shareability on a partial level, and it is based on her claim concerning a feminine-matrixial difference that escapes the phallic opposition of masculine/feminine and is produced in a process of co-emergence. Ettinger works from the very late Lacan, yet, from the angle she brings, it is the structure of the Lacanian subject itself that is deconstructed to a certain extent, and another kind of feminine dimension appears, with its hybrid and floating matrixial gaze.[18]

Ways of Seeing: viewing women in Renaissance paintings[edit]

John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing, stated that "according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome — men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."[19] In Renaissance images nude women were painted almost exclusively for the male viewer. Women are often depicted with their bodies turned towards the viewer while their heads are turned away and gazing in a mirror. The woman is aware of being the object of the male gaze.

This ties into Lacan's theory of the alienation that results from the split between seeing oneself and seeing the ideal. In Renaissance nude painting this is the split that comes from being both the viewer, the viewed and seeing oneself through the gaze of others.[20]

Women and the gaze[edit]

Griselda Pollock, in her article, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity" argues that the female gaze can often be visually negated.[21]Robert Doisneau's photo named "An oblique Look" supports this argument. In the photo, a middle-aged bourgeois couple is looking around art gallery. The spectator view of the picture is from inside the shop but the couple is looking in different places than the view of the spectator. The woman is commenting on an image to her husband, while the husband is being distracted by a nude female painting. The nude female painting is hung with view of the spectator. The woman is looking at another image, but it is out of view of the spectator. The man's gaze has found something more interesting and he has chosen to ignore the woman's comment. The woman is also in contrast to the nude female in the painting, and instead of passively accepting the male gaze, she presents herself as "actively returning and confirming the gaze of the masculine spectator".[21]

Definitions in film theory[edit]

The gaze is characterized by who is the gazer (viewer):

  • The spectator's gaze: that of the spectator viewing the text, i.e. the reader(s) of the text.
  • The Intra-diegetic gaze: in a text, a character gazes upon an object or another character in the text.
  • The Extra-diegetic gaze: a textual character consciously addresses (looks at) the viewer, e.g. in dramaturgy, an aside to the audience; in cinema, acknowledgement of the fourth wall, the viewer.
  • The camera's gaze: is the film director's gaze.
  • The editorial gaze: emphasises a textual aspect, e.g. a photograph, its cropping and caption direct the reader(s) to a specific person, place, or object in the text.

Theorists Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen posit that the gaze is a relationship, between offering and demanding a gaze: the indirect gaze is the spectator's offer, wherein the spectator initiates viewing the subject, who is unaware of being viewed; the direct gaze is the subject's demand to be viewed.

Imperial gaze[edit]

E. Ann Kaplan has introduced the post-colonial concept of the imperial gaze, in which the observed find themselves defined in terms of the privileged observer's own set of value-preferences.[22] From the perspective of the colonised, the imperial gaze infantilizes and trivializes what it falls upon,[23] asserting its command and ordering function as it does so.[24]

Kaplan comments: “The imperial gaze reflects the assumption that the white western subject is central much as the male gaze assumes the centrality of the male subject”.[25]

Postcolonial gaze[edit]

First referred to by Edward Said as "orientalism", the term "post-colonial gaze" is used to explain the relationship that colonial powers extended to people of colonized countries.[26] Placing the colonized in a position of the "other" helped to shape and establish the colonial's identity as being the powerful conqueror, and acted as a constant reminder of this idea.[27] The postcolonial gaze "has the function of establishing the subject/object relationship... it indicates at its point of emanation the location of the subject, and at its point of contact the location of the object."[28] In essence, this means that the colonizer/colonized relationship provided the basis for the colonizer's understanding of themselves and their identity.[27] The role of the appropriation of power is central to understanding how colonizers influenced the countries that they colonized, and is deeply connected to the development of post-colonial theory. Utilizing postcolonial gaze theory allows formerly colonized societies to overcome the socially constructed barriers that often prohibit them from expressing their true cultural, social, economic, and political rights.[27]

Privileging the Male Tourist Gaze

The tourism image is created through cultural and ideological constructions and advertising agencies that have been male dominated. What is represented by the media assumes a specific type of tourist: white, Western, male, and heterosexual, privileging the gaze of the “master subject” over others.[10] This is the representation of the typical tourist because those behind the lens, the image, and creators are predominately male, white, and Western. Those that do not fall into this category are influenced by its supremacy. Through these influences female characteristics such as youth, beauty, sexuality, or the possession of a man are desirable while the prevalence of stereotypes consisting of submissive and sensual women with powerful “macho” men in advertising are projected.[10] The signs and fantasies privileged within tourism marketing are regularly masculine-oriented and exclusively heterosexual. Females and sexual images are used to depict the “exotic” nature of a destination with the airline that takes you there and sometimes being the central motive for the visit. These representations of gender and heterosexuality have exemplified and eroticized women as commodities which are there to be experienced.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness, Part 3, Chapter 1
  2. ^ "Male Gaze". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  3. ^ "Male Gaze". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  4. ^ Sturken, Marita; Cartwright, Lisa. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 94, 103.
  5. ^ Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 106-108.
  6. ^ Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 76.
  7. ^ Streeter, Thomas; Hintlian, Nicole; Chipetz, Samantha; and Callender, Susanna (2005). This is Not Sex: A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose. web essay about the male gaze in advertising. Retrieved from
  8. ^ TV Tropes Foundation (date unknown). Male Gaze in TV and film. Retrieved from
  9. ^ Mulvey, Laura: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975, 1992), p. 14.
  10. ^ a b c d Pritchard and Morgan, Annette and Nigel (2000). "Privileging the Male Gaze". Annals of Tourism Research (27.4): 884–905. 
  11. ^ Sassatelli, Roberta. Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture. Theory, Culture & Society, September 2011, 28(5) p. 127.
  12. ^ Modules on Lacan, On the Gaze
  13. ^ A Female Gaze? PDF (96.7 KiB)
  14. ^ The Female Gaze
  15. ^ Salon Life, The Female Gaze
  16. ^ Sassatelli, Roberta. Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture. Theory, Culture & Society, September 2011, 28(5) p. 128.
  17. ^ Ettinger, Bracha. The Matrixial Gaze. University of Leeds, 1995
  18. ^ Ettinger, Bracha. "The With-in-Visible Screen." In: Catherine de Zegher (ed.), Inside the Visible, MIT Press, Boston, 1996.
  19. ^ Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Group, 1972. p. 45,47
  20. ^ Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 81.
  21. ^ a b Pollock, Griselda. "Modernity and the Spaces for Femininity". Routledge, 1988. pp. 50-90.
  22. ^ Bill Ashcroft et al, Post-Colonial Studies (2000) p. 187
  23. ^ Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema (2002) p. 245
  24. ^ E. H. Yekani, The Privilege of Crisis (2011) p. 100
  25. ^ Quoted in Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory and Criticism (2006) p. 514
  26. ^ Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books. 
  27. ^ a b c Beardsell, Peter (2000). Europe and Latin America: Returning the Gaze. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. 
  28. ^ Beardsell, Peter (2000). Europe and Latin America: Returning the Gaze. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. p. 8. 


  • Armstrong, Carol and de Zegher, Catherine, Women Artists at the Millennium. MIT Press, October Books, 2006.
  • de Zegher, Catherine, Inside the Visible. MIT Press, 1996.
  • Ettinger, Bracha, "The Matrixial Gaze" (1995), reprinted as Ch. 1 in: The Matrixial Borderspace. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  • Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory — see external links.
  • Florence, Penny and Pollock, Griselda, Looking back to the Future. G & B Arts, 2001.
  • Jacobsson, Eva-Maria: A Female Gaze? (1999) — see external links.
  • Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen: Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. (1996).
  • Lacan, Jacques:Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. NY & London, W.W. Norton and Co., 1978.
  • Lacan, Jacques: Seminar One: Freud's Papers On Technique (1988).
  • Lutz, Catherine & Jane Collins: The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic (1994). In: Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R. 1990-1994. Edited by Lucien Taylor. New York: Routledge. pp. 363–384.
  • Mulvey, Laura: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975, 1992).
  • Notes on The Gaze (1998) — see external links.
  • Pollock, Griselda (ed.), Psychoanalysis and the Image. Blackwell, 2006.
  • Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 94, 103.
  • Paul, Nalini: The Female Gaze — see external links.
  • Pollock, Griselda, "Modenity and the Spaces of Femininity". Routldge, 1988.
  • Schroeder, Jonathan E: Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research.
  • Theory, Culture and Society, Volume 21, Number 1, 2004.

External links[edit]