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The Subjectivity of the Gaze

The Subjectivity of the Gaze

Laura Mulvey

To analyse anything, especially as academics or critics, we invent labels and categories, we build vocabularies about our topic and around it. Often, this is useful, since it offers us tools for examination, and naming and defining something can make it easier to notice and hold up to the light. It can give it a clearer outline.

For example, discussions around the male and female gaze have been part of pop-culture these past few years, although the term “male gaze” was introduced by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, so it has been around for a while.

This is valuable discourse, since the assumed viewer of films and TV series has been shifting, as our society has been shifting. ‘Who is making what for whom and for what purpose?’ is always a good question to ask, particularly in a Capitalistic context that runs on marketing and consumption. 

However, in our attempt to categorise and analyse and move from excluding minorities to diversity and inclusion on all levels, I worry that we forget how subjective and unique one’s gaze is. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that an image becomes “a record of how X had seen Y”, that every image “embodies a way of seeing”. In this way, an image is evidence of subjectivity, of the gaze of its creator. Any external reality is being filtered through the internal reality of the beholder. Berger continues his argument by saying that “although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends upon our own way of seeing”. So, what we see and what we take in, when we look at a picture or a screen, is an encounter between subjectivities, between everything that has formed and informed our gaze, and everything that has shaped the gaze of a creator/creators, as well as their creative choices. Every experience of seeing a film or a TV show is an intersectional one, although we might not think of it in those terms. I can call my gaze “female” or “queer” yet, at the end, what I see is not fully shared with anyone else. Every person sees something different, because our gaze is shaped by our cultures and our gender and our sexuality, but it is also shaped by the totality of what has shaped us, by every single event and encounter. As two people cannot be identical, one’s gaze cannot be replicated or truly shared.

When I say that I worry about how we talk about gaze, I don’t mean to say that categorizations are, in themselves, a problem. Outside of being useful analytical tools, I think they can be a means of acknowledging and attending to our identities, as well as to our need to feel like we belong in a group, to feel included. As an audience, we need to feel like our preferences and tastes are being taken into consideration. With films and TV shows specifically, we need to see ourselves on screen which also means that we need to see ourselves represented in writing rooms, we need directors and producers who belong to the groups we, as viewers, identify with. All of us need to be thought of as possible audience members, just for different movies/TV shows. Something needs to be made for all of us. Besides, these categorizations can be a way of challenging power structures, of asking for change. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to be an audience? Who gets to see some version of themselves on screen? 

However, it’s worth considering something Susan Sontag pinpoints in Regarding the Pain of Others, although she is focusing on photography, and not film. Every photograph we encounter “…is always the image someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude”, Sontag writes. Here, she is acknowledging the subjectivity of the gaze, as well as the creative and conscious choice(s) of the artist, yet she is also introducing the inevitability of some form of exclusion. Every story being told is being told in the place of a different story. “I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited,” writes Sylvia Plath in her journal. In the same way, one story cannot represent or engage with all identities, and it cannot agree with everyone’s way of seeing. As I wrote above, I think we need something for every single one of us, which, however, does not mean one movie/TV show/narrative for all of us. I think it could simply mean more, more movies, more tv shows, more books, a polyphony that could start to speak to our subjectivities. 

I am not suggesting doing away with such terms and categorization or embracing amateurism in a way that allows everyone to be a critic and the only criteria left are the language of preference and emotion, and star reviews. I am wondering whether, side by side with all our categorizations and inclusion, we can embrace a mentality and a vocabulary that acknowledges how subjective one’s gaze is. Whether we can have a multiplicity of subjectivities portrayed on screen, an abundance of different stories, by different directors and producers, played by different actors. Whether we can accept that what we see simply cannot be shared with anyone fully, that it is as unique as our fingerprints. There is a loneliness in that, but there is also a kind of freedom. We don’t have to like or dislike the same things as others who share parts of our identities. We don’t have to agree unanimously. There is no need for coherence. Instead, we can examine and embrace and play with our own gaze, our unique way of seeing. 

Written for The Film Dispatch by Maria Schiza. 



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