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The Conjurer, by Hieronymus Bosch, shows the bending figure looking forward, steadily, intently, and with fixed attention, while the other figures in the painting look in various directions, some outside the painting.

In critical theory, sociology, and psychoanalysis, the gaze (French le regard), in the philosophical and figurative sense, is an individual's (or a group's) awareness and perception of other individuals, other groups, or oneself. The concept and the social applications of the gaze have been defined and explained by existentialist and phenomenologist philosophers. Jean-Paul Sartre described the gaze (or "the look") in Being and Nothingness (1943).[1] Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), developed the concept of the gaze to illustrate the dynamics of socio-political power relations and the social dynamics of society's mechanisms of discipline. Jacques Derrida, in The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Come) (1997), elaborated upon the inter-species relations that exist among human beings and other animals, which are established by way of the gaze.

In psychoanalysis[edit]

In Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the gaze is the anxious state of mind that comes with the self-awareness that one can be seen and looked at. The psychological effect upon the person subjected to the gaze is a loss of autonomy upon becoming aware that he or she is a visible object. Theoretically, the gaze is linked to the mirror stage of psychological development, in which a child encountering a mirror learns that he or she has an external appearance. Lacan extrapolated that the gaze and the effects of the gaze might be produced by an inanimate object, and thus a person's awareness of any object can induce the self-awareness of also being an object in the material world of reality. The philosophic and psychologic importance of the gaze is in the meeting of the face and the gaze, because only there do people exist for one another.[2]

The gaze in systems of power[edit]

The gaze can be understood in psychological terms: "to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze."[3] In Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2009), Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright said that "the gaze is [conceptually] integral to systems of power, and [to] ideas about knowledge"; that to practice the gaze is to enter a personal relationship with the person being looked at.[4] Foucault's concepts of panopticism, of the power/knowledge binary, and of biopower address the modes of personal self-regulation that a person practices when under surveillance; the modification of personal behaviour by way of institutional surveillance.[5]

In The Birth of the Clinic (1963), Michel Foucault first applied the medical gaze to conceptually describe and explain the act of looking, as part of the process of medical diagnosis; the unequal power dynamics between doctors and patients; and the cultural hegemony of intellectual authority that a society grants to medical knowledge and medicine men. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), Foucault develops the gaze as an apparatus of power based upon the social dynamics of power relations, and the social dynamics of disciplinary mechanisms, such as surveillance and personal self-regulation, as practices in a prison and in a school.

The male gaze[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,[specify] 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.[7]

The feminine gaze[edit]

In Judith Butler's 1990 book Gender Trouble, she proposed the idea of the feminine gaze as a way in which men choose to perform their masculinity by using women as the ones who force men into self-regulation.

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.[8] From the perspective of the colonised, the imperial gaze infantilizes and trivializes what it falls upon,[9] asserting its command and ordering function as it does so.[10]

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."[11]

The oppositional gaze[edit]

In her 1992 essay titled "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectatorship",[12] bell hooks counters Laura Mulvey's notion of the (male) gaze by introducing the oppositional gaze of Black women. This concept exists as the reciprocal of the normative white spectator gaze. As Mulvey's essay[13] contextualizes the (male) gaze and its objectification of white women, hooks essay[12] opens "oppositionality [as] a key paradigm in the feminist analysis of the 'gaze' and of scopophilic regimes in Western culture".[14]

The oppositional gaze remains a critique of rebellion due to the sustained and deliberate misrepresentation of Black women in cinema as characteristically Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] 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".[18] In essence, this means that the colonizer/colonized relationship provided the basis for the colonizer's understanding of themselves and their identity.[17] 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.[17]

The male tourist gaze[edit]

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.[19] This is the representation of the typical tourist because those behind the lens, the image, and creators are predominantly 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.[19]

The Gaze Series[edit]

The Gaze: No Homo, originally a play, was written by actor, writer, director, and producer Larry Powell. The play became a finalist in the 2020 National Playwrights Conference and earned Powell a slot on Playbill's Queer Black Playwrights You Should Know and Support[20]. Due to Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, Larry Powell adapted the play into a new media series and teamed up with Angelica Robinson of Tell Me A Story Productions. The series will make its debut on July 30th.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness, Part 3, Chapter 1
  2. ^ Knausgaard, Karl Ove. "The Inexplicable", The New Yorker, 25 May 2015, p. 32.
  3. ^ Schroeder, Jonathan (1998). "Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research". Representing Consumers: Voices, Views and Visions. New York: Routledge. p. 208. ISBN 978-0415184144. SSRN 1349954.
  4. ^ Sturken, Marita; Cartwright, Lisa. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 94, 103.
  5. ^ Sturken, Marita; Cartwright, Lisa. 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. ^ Sassatelli, Roberta. Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture. Theory, Culture & Society, September 2011, 28(5) p. 127.
  8. ^ Bill Ashcroft et al, Post-Colonial Studies (2000) p. 187
  9. ^ Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema (2002) p. 245
  10. ^ E. H. Yekani, The Privilege of Crisis (2011) p. 100
  11. ^ Quoted in Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory and Criticism (2006) p. 514
  12. ^ a b hooks, bell. "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectator". The Feminism and Visual Cultural Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003: Amelia Jones. pp. 94–105.CS1 maint: location (link)
  13. ^ Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Media and Cultural Studies: Keywords. 2001; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006: Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. pp. 342–352.CS1 maint: location (link)
  14. ^ Griffin, Gabriele, and Rosi Braidotti. Thinking Differently: A Reader in European Women's Studies. London: Zed, 2002.CS1 maint: location (link)
  15. ^ M., West, Carolyn (2012-01-01). "Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an "Oppositional Gaze" Toward the Images of Black Women". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books.
  17. ^ a b c Beardsell, Peter (2000). Europe and Latin America: Returning the Gaze. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
  18. ^ Beardsell, Peter (2000). Europe and Latin America: Returning the Gaze. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. p. 8.
  19. ^ a b Pritchard and Morgan, Annette and Nigel (2000). "Privileging the Male Gaze". Annals of Tourism Research. 27 (4): 884–905. doi:10.1016/s0160-7383(99)00113-9.
  20. ^ "Playbill". Playbill. Retrieved 30 July 2020.
  21. ^ "The Gaze: No Homo". IMDB. IMDB. Retrieved 30 July 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Gardner-McTaggart, A. (Forthcoming), International Capital, International Schools, Leadership and Christianity, Globalisation Societies and Education. Taylor and Francis.
  • 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]