views updated Jun 11 2018


The gaze or gazing has several different meanings, all associated with the sets of gendered and sexualized relationships often implicit in scenes of viewing. Gazing may be a simple intellectual exercise of the senses, a form of entertainment, the central activity in sexual scenarios, a constituent of psychical formation, or a mode of control and discipline. Gazing may produce sexual pleasure through seeing, being seen, or producing discipline and control. Gazing requires and also produces sets of relationships between the one who looks and the image or object being seen, which themselves have become inscribed in art, especially as fine art has historically become more personal and commercial. Gazing as a form of surveillance represents sets of power relationships between those being scrutinized and those who watch. The relations linked to gazing have also become a part of the psychological mechanisms for self-realization, identification, and presentation.


To gaze is to look at something, often with concentration, curiosity, or pleasure. Simply gazing is more a practice of contemplation or fascination than it is either a manifestation of voyeurism (looking for the purposes of sexual pleasure) or a practice of surveillance or control associated with various forms of punishment. Gazing constitutes a large portion of cultural activity in modern societies. Theater, film, and television all offer themselves as spectacles to be seen, and form themselves in relation to viewers' predilections. Other venues for gazing include sports, zoos, casinos, travel and sightseeing, and even computer games. As viewers find pleasure in these entertainments, they rarely think about either how the displayed activities are actually arranged to be seen or what power relations there are between the display and the viewer. Viewers often feel they have a choice in how and what they watch, though they are equally powerless to change or often even participate in what they see. Computer games bring a measure of control to the gazer.

To gaze may well muster curiosity, sexual pleasure, and issues of power. Sexualized control scenarios tend to gender this power, especially in so far as gazing is associated with active volition, whereas the image or object to be looked at is associated with passivity and sometimes victimhood. In its connections to the activity and phallic character of looking, gazing is often associated with masculinity and looking with sexual aggressiveness. The image or object to be looked at is associated with femininity and passive objecthood. Thus, in its most extreme forms, gazing is linked both to gender stereotypes and to less traditional sexual satisfactions such as scopophilia, or pleasure in watching, and the passive/active dynamics of sadomasochism.

Voyeurism and scopophilia are most often practiced by males, sometimes in public spaces such as strip shows and pornographic films, sometimes privately as with pornographic magazines and Internet sites, and sometimes illegally and covertly as peeping toms. Often voyeuristic activities are restricted to certain areas and to adult consumers; sometimes voyeurism is a crime. Exhibitionism, or setting out one's sexual organs to be seen, is practiced by both males and females, often, though not always, as a component of sexual arousal. Males constitute the majority of those who expose their genitals to strangers; doing so constitutes the crime of indecent exposure. Sigmund Freud theorized that those who enjoy exhibitionism also wish to look, while those who look also wish to be seen.

Gazing also reflects and effects a complex distribution of power that in its sexualized form constitutes sadomasochism, or sexual pleasure derived from taking or relinquishing power. To be constrained as the object of someone else's gaze is to be in the watcher's power. The viewer may wield sadistic power in humiliating what he or she watches. At the same time, the one who offers her- or himself up to the gaze might exert a certain power in commanding the gaze as well as in delaying or withholding full view. The one who watches may be constrained from doing more than watching, experiencing a type of bondage produced by the rules of viewing. Most often what is offered for view is presented in costumes designed to constrain movement, limit access, and signal the distribution of power via leather, chains, harnesses, and masks.


Though much less obvious, similar power relations exist in fine art, where paintings and sculpture not only present an object to be viewed, but also arrange this object in ways that define how it should be viewed, inscribe within each work the point from which the art should be seen, and finally often suggest that viewers themselves are being regarded by the work. Fine art paintings represent a network of gazes. Some of these gazes are overt such as painted subjects who are looking at something or someone, also in the painting, which or who is glancing at something beyond the frame of the painting, or returning the gaze of those who are looking at the painting itself. The network of gazes also includes gazes that are implied from the angles in which the painted subjects are rendered, or the operation of perspective, which points back to the point of view from which a painting's perspective originated. This network can also be extended to include enframed sets of gazes, such as when the subjects of a painting are themselves looking at another painting, or when film characters are looking at paintings or at another film or television.

This network of gazes not only reflects the system of ocular angles necessary to produce and reproduce spatial relations—the relative positions of gazer and the objects of the gaze. It also enacts the same kinds of power relations between the ones who look and those who are the objects of the gaze. In fine art, especially as it became more secular during the Renaissance, if a female was the subject of a painting and hence the object of a gaze, the way the woman was rendered in the painting inscribed a particularly gendered way of looking. Female objects were rendered specifically to be pleasing to looking males, a relationship referred to as the "male gaze." As the subjects of paintings became more sexualized, the gendering of the looking gaze became more obviously masculine. The conventions of painting nude women as they have changed through history and styles of art are conventions that reflect the ideals of a heterosexualized viewing scenario in which males gaze at females.

These same power relations transferred from painting to cinema in the twentieth century. Cinema, which like photography uses a lens that reproduces a version of conventional Renaissance perspective relations that center the viewer, also reproduces the gendered network of gazing male and female object. Feminist film theorists of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Laura Mulvey, Jacqueline Rose, and Teresa de Lauretis, described not only the ways this network of gazing works to reproduce gender relations in film, but also the ways cinema tends to elide and/or naturalize the power relations of both gazing and gender. Some film theorists also posed the question of what kinds of art and film might be produced if gender/power relations were altered or reversed. What might happen if women were imagined to be the gazers?


The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1978) employed the network of power relations attached to the acts of gazing in his theories of how individuals became conscious of themselves as mobile, desiring beings. Using the analogy of an infant gazing in a mirror, Lacan accounted for how individuals make a transition from being babies who are immobile and inseparable from their environment to being individuals who are separate. The "mirror stage," Lacan discerned, matched the act of gazing with a moment of recognizing that other, separate beings exist. For Lacan, the gaze does not disappear, but continues to operate as a part of what constitutes individual psychic development and consciousness. The gaze is the sense that one is being seen. It is the feeling that someone is watching, a sense that often curbs behaviors and forces responsibility. In addition, individuals also see themselves seeing themselves—watch themselves as if from outside. Thus, the gaze plays a large role in Lacan's notion of the dynamic relationships that constitute individuals.


This gaze, which operates psychically, has increasingly become a reality as European and North American societies employ camera technologies to observe public behaviors. The surveillance feared by George Orwell in 1984 (1949), and described by the cultural historian and theorist Michel Foucault (1977), exists in early-twenty-first-century systems of cameras set to record the comings and goings of subway riders, lawbreakers at traffic intersections, and convenience store shoppers. Credit agencies track bank activity and credit purchases, grocery discount cards record the food people buy, and marketers and information agencies collect information about many aspects of peoples' lives that were formerly considered to be private. This institutional gaze arguably prevents crimes or enables more rapid law enforcement, but it also provides a psychological curb on peoples' behaviors. If people psychically sense that they are being seen, in reality they are being seen. People are the object of many gazes.

see also Film, Gender and Eroticism: I. History; Gender, Theories of.


Berger, John. 1980. About Looking. New York: Pantheon.

Calvert, Clay. 2000. Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon.

Lacan, Jacques. 1978. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan; ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton.

Penley, Constance, ed. 1988. Feminism and Film Theory. New York: Routledge.

Urry, John. 2002. The Tourist Gaze. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

                                               Judith Roof


views updated May 18 2018

gaze It is unsettling to be gazed at. Staring is a threat for monkeys and apes, and perhaps humans share some trace of this response. On the other hand, good ‘eye contact’ is recognized in most cultures as important for effective interpersonal communication, especially during dialogue. So it may be the combination of looking intently and protractedly without verbal communication that is particularly unsettling or threatening. There was a time when, in the Southern States of the US, it was a sexual offence, punishable by law, for a black man to look overly long at a white woman.

Mutual gaze is, however, one of the delights of lovers; as Shakespeare writes (Sonnet 24):Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.
Francis Bacon went so far as to describe the appropriate pattern of gaze for courtship — ‘sudden glances and darting of the eye’, but not a fixed stare.

The lover's gaze may be accompanied by enlargement of the pupil (a ‘wide-eyed’ look) — a sign of activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Experimental psychologists have shown that if male subjects are shown two copies of a photograph of a girl, one modified to enlarge the pupils and the other to make them smaller, the subjects will describe the girl with the larger pupils as more attractive, even if unaware of the size of the pupils. Presumably the involuntary enlargement of the pupil acts as a signal of sexual arousal. Indeed, Southern European women are said to have put extracts of the plant Deadly Nightshade (containing the drug belladonna or atropine) into their eyes to enlarge their pupils, in order to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.

When we gaze directly at an object, we hold our eyes in such a position that the image of the object falls on the central, specialized region of the retina — the fovea or macula — where visual acuity and colour vision are best. If we look around a scene, thinking that our eyes are roaming smoothly, they are, in fact, making a series of step-like shifts of gaze. The line of sight or direction of gaze rests briefly on one object, before jumping to the next, as often as three or four times a second. Even when we try to fixate — to look fixedly in one direction — tiny shifts of gaze still occur. This pattern, in which the line of sight is either briefly fixed or rapidly jumping to another position (rather than slithering around), is characteristic of any situation in which the visual surroundings are stationary. This is true even if the head is moving, because as the head rotates, signals from the organ of balance (the vestibular system) trigger the powerful vestibulo-ocular reflex, which automatically causes the eyes to rotate through the same angle, in the opposite direction. So, remarkably, movement of the head does not cause a change in gaze. Only an active shift of the eye in the orbit alters the line of sight.

Perhaps because the fixity of the line of sight is so nicely maintained when the head is moving, ‘gaze’ has come to have a technical meaning for scientists who study eye and head movements. It means the ‘position of the line of sight in space’, rather than its direction relative to the head.

Even though our eyes are constantly shifting from place to place, visual perception occurs almost exclusively during the brief pauses. Very little is seen during a shift of gaze. The ability to maintain gaze can be profoundly disturbed by damage to the brain stem or hindbrain. Another, now rare, cause of difficulty in maintaining gaze is damage to the hair cells of the inner ear by high doses of particular antibiotics. Not only is hearing affected but so too is the sense of balance, because hair cells in the organ of balance in the inner ear are also destroyed. These hair cells normally detect head rotation, so the vestibulo-ocular reflex is affected and gaze becomes unstable. There is a well known account by a patient (who happened to be a physician) who suffered from this condition, which described how difficult it was to read because even small head movements shifted the line of sight unexpectedly.

Stuart J. Judge


Argyle, M. and and Cook, M. (1976). Gaze and mutual gaze. Cambridge University, Press.

See also autonomic nervous system; eyes; eye movements.


views updated May 11 2018

gaze Laura Mulvey first introduced the theory of the gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Screen magazine (1975). She argued that women are objectified and stereotyped on the screen because of the way cinema is structured around three male ways of looking—or ‘gazes’. First, the way the camera looks in any filmed situation is voyeuristic, as most films are made by men; second, there is the gaze of men within a particular film itself, which is structured to make women appear as objects of their gaze; third, there is the gaze of the actual male spectator. Mulvey's theory was much influenced by Jacques Lacan's ideas about psychoanalysis. It has become important in feminist art theory and it has since been argued there is a female gaze as well as a male gaze.

Sociologists are increasingly beginning to consider the importance of visual representation in everyday life; arguably the distinction between social analysis and visual representation has become less clear-cut. Elizabeth Chaplin's Sociology and Visual Representation (1994) contains a good discussion of some key areas. The concept of gaze is increasingly seen as being important to the discussion of more traditional sociological topics—such as that of the family. Thus, for example, drawing on Michel Foucault's theory of the panopticon, as well as Bryan Turner's writings about the body, David H. J. Morgan has argued that the parental gaze over children is an important aspect of surveillance within families (see Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies, 1996).


views updated Jun 11 2018

gaze / gāz/ • v. [intr.] look steadily and intently, esp. in admiration, surprise, or thought: he could only gaze at her in astonishment.• n. a steady intent look: he turned, following her gaze offices screened from the public gaze. ∎  [in sing.] (in literary theory) a particular perspective taken to embody certain aspects of the relationship between observer and observed, esp. as reflected in the way in which an author or film director (unconsciously or otherwise) directs attention: the male gaze.DERIVATIVES: gaz·er n.


views updated May 21 2018

gaze vb. XIV. of unkn. orig.; poss. rel. to the base of ME. gawe stare (see GAWK).