Gaze (20TH CENTURY)

Feminist theory of presentation of women in culture.

Women are presented in works of art and literature, and particularly in film, through three principal male perspectives or ‘gazes’. Each divides by gender, and treats women in a demeaning way as objects of male voyeurism.

Source:
Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (London, 1989)

In psychoanalysis

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

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

The concept of the male gaze was first used by the English art critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing, a series of films for the BBC aired in January 1972, and later a book, as part of his analysis of the treatment of the nude in European painting. It soon became popular among feminists, including British film critic Laura Mulvey, who used it to critique traditional media representations of the female character in cinema.[6]

In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 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.[7] The concept has subsequently been influential in feminist film theory and media studies.[8]

The feminine gaze

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. Film director Deborah Kampmeier rejected the idea of the feminine gaze in preference for the female experience. She stated, “(F)or me personally, it’s not (about) a female gaze. It’s the female experience. I don’t gaze, I actually move through the world, feeling the world emotionally and sensorily and in my body.”[9]

Imperial gaze

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.[10] From the perspective of the colonised, the imperial gaze infantilizes and trivializes what it falls upon,[11] asserting its command and ordering function as it does so.[12]

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.”[13]

White gaze

The oppositional gaze

In her 1992 essay titled “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectatorship”,[14] 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[15] contextualizes the (male) gaze and its objectification of white women, hooks essay[14] opens “oppositionality [as] a key paradigm in the feminist analysis of the ‘gaze’ and of scopophilic regimes in Western culture”.[16]

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.[17]

Postcolonial gaze

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.[18] 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.[19] 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”.[20] In essence, this means that the colonizer/colonized relationship provided the basis for the colonizer’s understanding of themselves and their identity.[19] 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.

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