When film studies began to establish itself as an academic discipline in the 1970s, film theorists looked to other fields, most importantly semiotics and psychoanalysis, for cues on how to best articulate the ways in which film functions as a system of language. Both semiotics and psychoanalysis are based on the understanding that larger structures or systems govern the ways in which individuals engage with the world. These structures are inescapable; individuals have no control over their position within them and are subject to their processes. Film theorists saw many parallels between the pleasurable experience of watching a film in a darkened theater and psychoanalytic discussions of unconscious states of being.
In accounting for the process of how a spectator experiences a film, theorists drew on Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan's theories of early childhood development, suggesting that the process of watching a film recreates a similar dynamic between what Lacan called the imaginary and symbolic worlds. Because film language works so effectively to make the viewer feel as though he or she were enmeshed in its world, the spectator is able to relive the pleasurable state of being in the imaginary stage again. Psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship make several assumptions that raise doubts about its ability to serve as a suitable model for understanding film viewing. First, in this model the spectator is always rendered a passive subject of the film text, subject to its meaning system. This suggests that film spectators do not have control over the ways in which they view films and the meaning they take from them—that, in fact, every spectator receives the same meaning from a film. Also, because Lacan's notion of Oedipal development is experienced only by the male child, psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship are pertinent only when applied to (hetero-sexual) male spectators. Furthermore, these theories do not take into consideration cultural and historical variants, implying that all (male) film viewers will respond to film language in the same way regardless of their historical, cultural, and political context.
Although the psychoanalytic model remains important within academic film studies and continues to produce active debates, its assumptions have been challenged by several theoretical positions that pose alternative ways of thinking about the film spectator. In her influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), Laura Mulvey takes a feminist stance toward the implicit gender dynamics of psychoanalytic theories of spectator-ship by further interrogating the male specificity on which the entire framework rests. Like the development process, in which only the male child can enter into the symbolic world where language has meaning, she argues that film language is dictated by a male-controlled system. Film language is both controlled by men and designed for the benefit of male pleasure, which is inextricably linked with looking, voyeurism, and the objectification of the female image. Mulvey argues that, because the language of narrative cinema mimics aspects of the stage, film only serves to perpetuate a type of male-driven patriarchal language that facilitates male visual pleasure. As a result, female spectators have no access to it other than through the male gaze that consistently objectifies the female spectator's onscreen counterpart. Therefore the only pleasure that female spectators derive from it is masochistic (the pleasure in one's own pain). Mulvey argues that female spectators will be able to find true pleasure from films only by inventing a new type of film language that is not driven by narrative.
Mulvey's article posited a comprehensive paradigm that was difficult to overcome. Yet the work that followed succeeded in posing alternatives to her argument or expanding its framework. One of the main paths of research in this area focused on the potential for female film spectators to establish a different type of relationship with films specifically made to appeal to them—referred to as women's pictures, weepies, or melodramas. Because these films feature female characters and focus on female issues, theorists raised compelling questions as to whether this more feminine mode has the potential to challenge male-oriented film language. Following the lead of feminist theorists who debated (to varying degrees) the assumption that the subject or spectator implied by psychoanalysis is male, other film theorists responded to the psychoanalytic model by contesting its inherent dismissal of historical and cultural conditions, specifically those of race and sexual orientation. The emphasis of these alternative readings was both to argue for an active spectator-ship informed by one's cultural and social position and to suggest the possibility for oppositional or alternative readings that deviate from the dominant (Caucasian, heterosexual, male) one set forth by mainstream cinema.
For instance, Manthia Diawara argues that psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship ignore the impact race has on a spectator's reading of films, contending that viewers have the potential to resist dominant readings and establish oppositional perspectives. He argues that it is therefore possible for African American spectators to identify with and resist Hollywood's often limited image of blacks, which Caucasian spectators do as well. In other words, a spectator's race does not determine his or her response to a given film. The feminist film theorists bell hooks and Jacqueline Bobo augmented this discussion of race and spectatorship by arguing that even more complex readings arise for African American female spectators because of their double exclusion on the grounds of gender and race.
Gay and lesbian theorists have also made significant contributions to the "rereading" of film spectatorship. Teresa de Lauretis, Andrea Weiss, and Patricia White, among others, suggest that lesbian spectatorial desire challenges the traditional heterosexist paradigm, creating a dynamic of desire outside of previously theorized notions of spectatorship. If lesbian spectators are outside of the traditional heterosexual system of desire, then they pose a significant threat to previous theories of spectatorship.
Signifying a departure from psychoanalytic concepts, an increasingly prevalent discussion within film studies of spectatorship focuses on the historical development of audiences in the early film industry. By unearthing archival documents such as box-office records, studio files, and periodicals of this era, film historians have pieced together accounts not only of how audiences responded to early films, but also of how changing audience expectations affected the evolution of the film industry and film language.
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