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.
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