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This article is about the concept in the context of looking. For physiological aspects see Gaze (physiology)

A detail from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch

The concept of gaze (often also called the gaze or, in French, le regard), in analysing visual culture, is one that deals with how an audience views other people presented. The concept of the gaze became popular with the rise of postmodern philosophy and social theory and was first discussed by 1960s French intellectuals, namely Michel Foucault's description of the medical gaze and Lacan's analysis of the gaze's role in the mirror stage development of the human psyche. This concept is extended in the framework of feminist theory, where it can deal with how men look at women, how women look at themselves and other women, and the effects surrounding this.

Forms of gaze

Théodore Géricault's Portrait of a Kleptomaniac

The gaze can be characterized by who is doing the looking:

  • the spectator's gaze: the spectator who is viewing the text. This is often us, the audience of a certain text,
  • intra-diegetic gaze, where one person depicted in the text who is looking at another person or object in the text, such as another character looking at another,
  • extra-diegetic gaze, where the person depicted in the text looks at the spectator, such as an aside, or an acknowledgement of the fourth wall, or
  • the camera's gaze, which is the gaze of the camera, and is often equated to the director's gaze.

These are not the only forms of gaze. Other forms include the gaze of an audience within a "text within the text", such as Lisa Simpson and Bart Simpson watching the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons, or editorial gaze, whereby a certain aspect of the text is given emphasis, such as in photography, where a caption or a cropping of an image depicting one thing can emphasize a completely different idea.

Other theorists such as Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen provide the idea of the gaze as a relationship between offering and demanding gaze: indirect gaze is an offer by the spectator, where we initiate the gaze, and the subject is not aware of this, and direct gaze is a demand by the subject, who looks at us, demanding our gaze.

Gaze can also be further categorized into the direction of the gaze, where the subjects are looking at each other, apart, at the same object, or where one is gazing at another who is gazing at something else.

Effects of gaze

Gazing and seeing someone gaze upon another provides us with a lot of information about our relationship to the subjects, or the relationships between the subjects upon whom we gaze, or the situation in which the subjects are doing the gazing.

The mutuality of the gaze can reflect power structure, or the nature of a relationship between the subjects, as proposed by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, where this "tell[s] us who has the right and/or need to look at whom".

Gazing can often reflect emotion without speech - in Western culture, continued staring upon another can be quite unsettling upon the subject.

Although it may appear that "gaze" is merely looking at, Jonathan Schroeder tells us that "it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze". The gaze characterizes and displays the relationships between the subjects by looking.

This idea forms a basis of feminist analysis of texts.

Gaze and feminist theory

The gaze is used in feminist theory as a means to demonstrate power asymmetries by what is termed male gaze, whereby a man gazes at a woman. Such feminist theorists posit that since it is almost always the female who is being gazed upon by the male, the man exhibits power over the woman.

This form of gaze can be the sexual gaze by a man towards a woman (so called "making a pass"), or the gazing of an image of a woman in some text or in the media. Laura Mulvey identifies the action of 'possessing' a gaze as being an intrinsically male (the "male gaze"), and identifies the action of being gazed upon with the female. This relates to binaries of male/active, female/passive.

This idea of power relationships within the gaze can be continued to analyse gendered power relationships in the depictions of women in advertising. Some advertising presents women in a sexual manner, and it is argued that this degrades women because of the power that the gaze provides for heterosexual men viewing these advertisements. Furthermore, Erving Goffman in Gender Advertisements describes that in his study the placement of men was higher than that of women in an advertisement. This positioning forces the gaze asymmetrically, the male must look down to the woman, and the female up to the man.

Responses to "male gaze"

Male gaze in relation to feminist theory presents asymmetrical gaze as a means of exhibiting an unequal power relationship; that is, the male imposes an unwanted gaze upon the female. However, this may not necessarily be the case; many societies have women who enjoy being gazed upon, models and beauty pageants in Western society for example seem to welcome the male gaze. Some second-wave feminist viewpoints would argue whether these women are actually willing, noting that they may be merely seeking to conform to the hegemonic norms constructed to the benefit of male interests that further underline the power of the male gaze. Evolutionary biological explanations for the male gaze also exist.[citation needed]

The question of whether a female gaze exists in contrast to the male one arises naturally in considering the male gaze. Mulvey, the originator of the phrase "male gaze", argues that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze...". Nalini Paul describes Wide Sargasso Sea, where the character Antoinette views Rochester and places a garland upon him to appear as a hero, and "Rochester does not feel comfortable with having this role enforced upon him; thus he rejects it by removing the garland and crushing the flowers."

In the perspective of male gaze as merely possessing a gaze, the position of a female possessing the gaze is then the female assuming the male gaze. Eva-Maria Jacobsson supports this by describing a "female gaze" as "a mere cross identification with masculinity".

However, disregarding the viewpoint of gendered possession of gaze as proposed by Mulvey above, there is evidence to support a view of a female gaze - at least as an objectification of men - in texts such as advertisements and teenage magazines. The view that men are somehow reluctant to be gazed upon was also not necessarily supported, for example, at an exhibition called The Female Gaze, where female artists studied the male form. Therese Mulligan mentioned "[t]o get these men who had leered at her on the street to strike these poses was amazing. And you could tell that they loved being looked at by her. These guys aren't attractive, but they sure think they are."

The gaze can also be directed toward members of the same gender for several reasons, not all of which are sexual, such as in comparison of body image or in clothing.

Gaze and psychology

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, an early and influential theorist of child development, found the concept of the gaze important in what he termed "the mirror stage", whereupon children gaze at a mirror image of themselves (usually an image of themselves in an actual mirror, but a twin brother or sister can also function as a mirror image) and use this image to derive a degree of coordination over their physical movements. Lacan therefore linked the concept of the gaze to the development of individual human agency. To this end, he transformed the concept of the gaze into a dialectic between what he called the ideal-ego and the ego-ideal. The ideal-ego is the image of imaginary self-identification - in other words, the idealized image that the person imagines themselves to be or aspires to be; whilst the ego-ideal is the imaginary gaze of another person who gazes upon the ideal-ego. An example would be if a famous rockstar (a category of identification which would function as the ideal-ego) secretly hoped that the school bully who tormented them as a child was now aware of his or her subsequent success and fame (with the imaginary, fantasmatic figure of the bully functioning as the ego-ideal).

Lacan later developed his concept of the gaze even further, claiming that the gaze does not belong to the subject but, rather, the object. In his Seminar One, he told his audience: "I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze" (Lacan, 1988, p. 215).


  • Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory - see External links.
  • 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 One: Freud's Papers On Technique (1988)
  • Lutz, Catherine & Jane Collins: The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. (1994)
  • Mulvey, Laura: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975, 1992)
  • Notes on The Gaze (1998) - see External links.
  • Paul, Nalini: The Female Gaze - see External links
  • Schroeder, Jonathan E: Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research.

See also

External links

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