Reception Theory

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Reception Theory



Reception theory provides a means of understanding media texts by understanding how these texts are read by audiences. Theorists who analyze media through reception studies are concerned with the experience of cinema and television viewing for spectators, and how meaning is created through that experience. An important concept of reception theory is that the media text—the individual movie or television program—has no inherent meaning in and of itself. Instead, meaning is created in the interaction between spectator and text; in other words, meaning is created as the viewer watches and processes the film. Reception theory argues that contextual factors, more than textual ones, influence the way the spectator views the film or television program. Contextual factors include elements of the viewer's identity as well as circumstances of exhibition, the spectator's preconceived notions concerning the film or television program's genre and production, and even broad social, historical, and political issues. In short, reception theory places the viewer in context, taking into account all of the various factors that might influence how she or he will read and create meaning from the text.


It is, of course, impossible to learn the reaction of each viewer to a given film. Instead, the goal of reception theory is to identify a range of possible reactions and interpretations at a particular historical moment. In order to do so, the reception theorist must acknowledge the wide variety of social identities and subject positions that each spectator brings to the cinema. All people possess multiple subject identities, both consciously and unconsciously constructed and maintained, including age, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and class. How the spectator defines herself or himself as a person and as a member of a larger society affects how she or he will view a film. If a film has a strong feminist message, for example, it will likely be viewed differently by a person who considers herself a feminist than by a person who does not. Similarly, a film about racial struggle will probably be read in different ways by audience members depending on whether or not they are themselves members of a racial minority. Thus a spectator will watch films from several subject positions at the same time, and in each cinema experience different positions will be appealed to at different times.

Another factor in how a film is received by an audience member is that person's preconceived notions about the film. A viewer's expectations for a film, and the experience of the film, can be affected by what is known about the film's genre; its actors, writers, director, or other production personnel; the circumstances of its production (for example, if there were reports of problems on the set); and its marketing or merchandising. The conditions of a film's exhibition also factor in to its eventual reception. A film shown in an IMAX theater with state-of-the-art sound will be received very differently from a film viewed in a drive-in theater or on a DVD at home. Furthermore, the circumstances in which a person views a film (with a group of friends, on a blind date, alone) can affect how she or he experiences the film. Social and historical factors must also be considered in reception studies. Finally, audiences watching M*A*S*H (1972) at the height of the Vietnam War, or those viewing Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) during the buildup to that year's US presidential election, would understand these films based on the current social and political climates; audiences who watch these films at other historical moments would most likely have different reactions to them. Reception theory attempts to account for all of these factors in determining how audiences experience motion pictures.

The most important, and at the same time most difficult, task in reception studies is gathering the information necessary to analyze how audiences experience films. Ideally, the researcher interviews audience members to find out their reactions, but even this method is flawed, as individuals may not be aware of their various subject positions or may be unable to fully articulate how or why they interpret a film in a particular way. Despite these problems, this type of ethnographic research is the best way of determining a film's reception. However, when researching older films it is often impossible to interview individuals who saw them during their initial release. Therefore, researchers must frequently turn to other sources to help fill in the blanks.

Media accounts can be a useful tool in learning both how a film was presented and how it was received. Reviews give an idea of how contemporaneous audiences might have interpreted a film, although it is important to remember that the opinions of a professional film critic may not be representative of a large portion of the audience. Other sources of media accounts, such as letters to the editor, gossip columns, and newspaper and magazine articles can similarly help researchers understand a film's reception. Also important are sources from the film industry, including advertising, press releases, and other forms of publicity; these materials can bring to light some of the preconceived notions about the film that viewers brought with them into the theaters. Finally, fan discourse forms a crucial element when attempting to reconstruct how historical audiences experienced films. Materials such as fan letters, Web sites and Internet message boards, fan fiction, and fan clubs are examples of direct interaction between spectators and films, providing researchers with concrete examples of how some fans interpreted a film's meanings. Fan materials also are evidence of the fact that reception does not end when the film does, and the creation of meaning continues after the viewer has left the theater. The use of materials from the press, the film industry, and fan culture as a means of analyzing a film's reception is not ideal, and does not give a complete picture of how audiences interacted with a particular text; however, these sources do provide an impression of how a film was received, and can therefore be valuable tools in reception studies.

A reception analysis of a film will use all of these methods to arrive at an understanding of how the audiences interpreted and understood the text. For an analysis of the reception of The Sound of Music (1965), for example, a researcher will start by considering the various factors that might have influenced how the film was viewed. How might individuals experience the film based on their subject positions? Would a woman interpret the character of Maria as progressive because of her strong will and outspokenness, or regressive because of her positioning as a caretaker and nurturer to others? How would the film's meaning change for different age groups, considering the inclusion of characters ranging in age from young children to senior citizens? What effect would the film's depiction of Catholicism have on viewers of various religions, or viewers who are not religious? How would the absence of racial minorities in the film affect the interpretations of spectators of diverse races? Along with questions of interpretation based on subject identity, a reception studies analysis of The Sound of Music would try to determine what sort of preconceived notions about the film viewers brought with them and how those notions affected their understanding of it. The fact that it is a musical would create a certain set of expectations in the minds of viewers, and people who were familiar with other works by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, or who had seen the stage play on which the movie is based, would have a further set of expectations for the film. Production issues could have played a part in reception; viewers who knew that leading actor Christopher Plummer's singing voice was dubbed by another actor might have interpreted the film, and especially his songs, differently than viewers who did not have that knowledge. Audiences who saw the film projected in 70 mm during its initial run, and those who have seen the film in later years on television, video, DVD, or in screenings of Sound of Music sing-alongs, all have had different experiences of the film that would have an effect on its reception. Social and historical factors in 1965, the year of the film's release, would also have shaped the ways in which audiences interpreted the film's messages.

Despite all of the many factors involved in a film's reception, reception theory does not claim that a film's meaning is entirely open. On the contrary, there are limits to the potential meanings and interpretations that can be attached to a film. Social, cultural, and historical factors, elements of production and exhibition, and generic conventions and expectations restrict the ways a film can be interpreted. Spectators are constructed by their environment, and this affects and ultimately limits the ways in which they are able to view and understand cinematic texts.


Reception theory is grounded in history, rather than philosophy, and as a result it is primarily concerned with uncovering how actual spectators interact with films. This is unlike many other major film theories, which posit an idealized, ahistorical spectator who passively absorbs meanings and messages embedded in the filmic text. Most of the classical film theories developed in the 1960s and 1970s, including structuralist, auteurist, formalist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theories, argue that the text is the site of meaning. These theories are concerned with how viewers are affected by films, but the audiences they describe are comprised of idealized, homogenous spectators who all react to films in the same way, regardless of differences in race, gender, and other identifying factors. Much of classical film theory was influenced by the work of French theorists who, beginning in the late 1960s, argued the importance of ideology in various systems of representation. According to Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, the capitalist system operates through the use of so-called repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) such as the police, government, and military, and also through ideological state apparatuses (ISAs), which include schools, the family, religion, and media systems. RSAs are public institutions and function primarily through repression and violence. ISAs, on the other hand, function through ideology and work by enticing individuals to accept subject positions which benefit the dominant classes and perpetuate capitalism. According to this theory, the mass media, as an ISA, transmits the dominant ideology to passive spectators who internalize this ideology and become cooperative members of the capitalist system.

Althusser's theory of the media as an ideological state apparatus was embraced by classical film theorists, who examine the ways that the cinema influences spectators by analyzing the cinematic texts. These theorists assume that audiences will passively receive a film's ideological messages. Social identities and individual subject positions are not considered, nor are the conditions of exhibition or the social or historical moment. A major criticism of classical theories, then, is that the spectator is ahistorical and idealized, and plays no role in the creation of a film's meaning. Reception theory rejects this classical construction of the spectator, and instead focuses on viewers in the material world, and how they have actually read and understood media texts.

Because of their interest in film as a medium for ideology, classical film theories are overwhelmingly textactivated, operating from the assumption that meaning is created in the text and that the text determines the viewer's response. An alternate theoretical viewpoint is reader activated, which examines the features of readers and how those features affect the reading experience. While reader activated theories account for varying interpretations among readers, however, they still tend to make generalizations about individual interactions with texts and not to contextualize the reading experience. Janet Staiger proposes a third approach, a context-activated model which looks at the historical circumstances surrounding reception to place the reader/spectator in context. Context-activated theories examine everything from the individual's subject position to the text's mode of production and the circumstances of exhibition. The sum of these events gives meaning to the viewing or reading experience (Interpreting Films, pp. 45–48).

Drawing from Althusser's concept of ideological state apparatuses, and using context-activated theories, British cultural studies analyzes the ways that spectators interact with texts in specific contexts to create meanings. Originating in Marxist philosophy, British cultural studies sees the media as an influential communication tool controlled by those in power; the groups who control the media control the message, thereby maintaining their dominance. Where British cultural studies differs from classical film theory is in its conception of the spectator. Because the messages conveyed by the media are complex and varied, so are the interpretations available to viewers. The audience, then, is not uniform as in classical film theory, but rather heterogeneous and capable of interpreting a text's messages in a multitude of ways based on contextual factors. British cultural studies suggests three frameworks for reading texts, based on the work of theorist Stuart Hall: a dominant, or preferred reading accepts completely the ideology of the text, while an oppositional reading absolutely opposes the ideology involved; a third type, negotiated reading, both accepts and opposes parts of a text's ideology in order to suit the specific needs of the individual (pp. 136–137). These frameworks have proven useful for reception studies as a means of theorizing the wide variety of interpretations and meanings that viewers take from texts. Both British cultural studies and reception theory agree that the spectator's interaction with the text is complex, and that, unlike the passive, idealized spectator found in classical film theory, viewers can and do question and oppose the ideology presented to them by media institutions.

The framework of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional readings is not without problems, however. Because viewers can hold multiple positions towards a film text at once, most every reading becomes negotiated; in fact, the tripartite framework has since been replaced by a continuum ranging from dominant to oppositional. Furthermore, British cultural studies assume that oppositional readings are automatically progressive, and that dominant readings are regressive. However, if the ideology embedded in the text is itself progressive to begin with, then a dominant reading may be the preferred reading. Finally, Staiger offers criticisms of two fundamental assumptions of British cultural studies: first, that all media texts reproduce the dominant ideology, and second, that readers fit neatly within socioeconomic categories (1992, pp. 73–74).

Part of the reluctance on the part of film theorists to turn to reception studies is based in the historical uses of audience analysis. Beginning in the early twentieth century, research on how films were being interpreted by audiences was used to advocate censorship. Reformers worried that spectators, especially children, were negatively influenced by what they saw onscreen, and they fought to ensure that the messages in films would be "appropriate," in their view, for impressionable viewers. Later, the film studios turned to audience research in the form of demographic information to learn how to market their films. But although the use of reception analysis for the purposes of censorship and marketing has contributed to film theorists' distrust of reception theory, reception theory has recently gained acceptance and is now acknowledged to be an important method of analyzing how audiences experience and interpret films.

SEE ALSO Exhibition;Film Studies;Fans and Fandom;Ideology;Spectatorship and Audiences


Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, 127–186. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/Decoding." In Culture, Media, Language, edited by Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis, 128–138. London: Routledge, 2002.

Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Jancovich, Mark, and Lucy Faire, with Sarah Stubbings. The Place of the Audience: Cultural Geographies of Film Consumption. London: British Film Institute, 2003.

Mayne, Judith. Cinema and Spectatorship. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Staiger, Janet. Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

——. Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Stokes, Melvyn, and Richard Maltby. Hollywood Spectatorship: Changing Perceptions of Cinema Audiences. London: British Film Institute, 2001.

Kristen Anderson Wagner