Category Archives: Film

Spectatorship theories- aka How Freud’s seeming silly theories sparked years of critical throwdowns

This theory was born from the curiosity with the human unconsciousness and film theory. Largely due to Freud’s unlikely influence on theorists there trying to connect our subconscious desires (often sexual and eerie judging by Freudian standards) with cinema’s semiotics to answer the questions on media’s effect and why we consume cinema. The theory itself went through three stages:


At first the theory was mainly focused on the Oedipus complex and thus male audience focused. Baudry, Bellour and Metz were the flag wavers of these particular theory: that a boy’s subconscious sexual attraction to his mother and identifying her as ‘she who lacks a penis’ is related to why males go to cinema to watch a film. This Oedipal outlook, of course sounds ridiculous in context, yet there was something else that it led to: voyeurism and viewers’ feeling of supremacy.

Baudry brought up the idea that cinema was an apparatus which is crafted (via filming, scripting, editing etc) in such a way that it obscures the work put into the film (back then they didn’t really have behind the scenes featurettes either) and thus produce a fantasy that tricks viewers. By tricking them into thinking that they know what’s going on and that they construct the ultimate meaning of a film (‘spectator as the transcendental subject’ as Baudry called it, a shorten way of saying it would be audience supremacy), when in fact the viewer is constructed and manipulated by the media. If we watch a pretentious science fiction where they babble nonsense words like ‘orbitorial liquidation is at 90%’, it makes us think that something high tech or complex is going on when in fact it is not.

Bellour added to the pool of spectatorship and by discussing the male viewer as narcissists who identifies themselves with the cinema before desiring it (i.e. wanting to become a character). He thought of cinema as acting as imaginary (viewer’s see a reflection of themselves in the medium) and symbolic (the film’s own language and semiotics as intended by the creators). This concept is mainly concerned with the fact that male viewers loved identifying themselves in a film before having so called ‘desires’.

This theory’s reach goes beyond film as it seems…

Metz would later help conjure up with a theory about the previously mentioned ‘desires’. He argued that cinema used semiotics (codes and signs) to give viewers a sense of lack, By giving what viewer’s think they may lack (heroism, muscles, parkour skills if we are going by action movie standards) and making them identify with the character much like looking into a mirror. Different from Bellour though, Metz believed that the spectator doesn’t really need to see himself in the film before understanding the film’s world. The spectator is ‘all-perceiving’. Whilst there is a heavy emphasis on the male viewer standing in the character’s shoes in order to make sense of a film, Metz also stated that the viewer was able to reject the notion that he is the character and still see films as a work of symbolical fiction- so they can realise that they aren’t James Bond or Van Diesel in reality.

The Oedipal thinking comes in when Metz linked the viewer’s desire for voyeurism with his supposed desire to sleep with his mum- which he suppresses in fear of castration. It was this belief and the popularity of Freud’s theory that contributed to the male-dominance and the male gaze (a term when simplified means, erotic shots of the female body). Other tropes and trends of mainstream hollywood narrative are also said to be inspired by this: strong men who must overcome dilemmas in order to please their father figures/authorities (you know, castration fear and all) and must form a heterosexual relationship at the end (so that the boy could stop worrying about receiving social disgust for sexually desiring his mother).

I could have used the gazillion examples to represent the Oedipal tropes (there are a lot of blockbusters that fits the bill) but instead I thought it would be more interesting to show two that didn’t care for the word subtle. Psycho and Peeping Tom both have protagonists that are obsessed with sleeping with a mother and pleasing a father respectively. Both had mixed reception due to their obviously upfront and gruesome portrayal of said hollywood trends. Now they are considered stone cold classics..

Post 1970s

Unhappy with the male only focus, Oedipus obsessed, one way nature of the spectator theory, Laura Mulvey pioneered the second stage of this theory. By bring to light that a lot of the conventions in cinema, its portrayal of women and the imbalance between male and female portrayal (most of the times┬áthe former is active and latter is passive). She particularly focused on the scopophilia occurrence in cinema; that viewers were in fact gaining pleasure from objectification of the opposite sex (which again reflects Freud’s concepts).


With the need to broaden the theory beyond its Freudian psychoanalysis clutches theorists began looking for other routes, now begins the third stage. Silverman and Studlar proposed cinema as a masochistic pleasure (we’ll now evolved from castration fears to self harm via consuming movies), whereby the spectators enjoy being submissive or passive. Doane furthered the argument by stating that female viewers would alternate between two positions: the masochistic position where she identifies with a passive female character or an active male character. Doane also mentions that it was easier for females to have transvestite desires and switch between identifying with both female and males than males (who sees transvestism as mere comic relief). Mulvey warned this black and white definition and indeed, later on this idea lead to more theoretical dominos to fall.

Like the results to a manga survey I mentioned in a previous post, this film survey shows the gender fluid tastes of a range of female viewers. The male list lacks the films associated with traditional femininity whilst the female’s has a combo of films typically towards men (i.e. Braveheart) as well as the ones targeted to females (i.e. Gone with the wind). It’s possibly these kind of similar trends that persuaded Doane. That or reading too much into Freud.

Modleski put forward how female viewer have an innate bisexuality when it comes to viewing cinema. The reason why there’s such fluidity between female’s desires is because at child stage a girl is attracted to the mother, in later years that desire moves to the father (as that is considered the ‘normal femininity’) but the first love desire never fades- the Freudian influencetranscends time as always. On the other hand male spectators generally hide or push their femininity onto women, however Modleski thought it was possible for his to be bisexually positioned if a male character changes between passive and active roles.

Cowie broadened the argument surrounding spectator’s role in identifying with characters in films. Using the basis of Laplanche’s and Pontalis’s three characteristics of fantasy (the primal scene, the seduction fantasy and the fantasies of castration) she stated that it was possible for viewer to be in all three positions. As the view can identify or place themselves into multiple character perspectives in cinema.

Many has criticised this theory for its narrow focus. For instance gay and lesbian theorists such as the likes of Teresa de Lauretis, Andrea Weiss, and Patricia White have argued that lesbian and gay audiences challenges the very foundations of the spectator theory- that’s largely based on heterosexual desires. Bell Hooks and Jacqueline Bobo also brought up complications of race (especially those of a black female) in relation to the spectator theory and the lack of representations of black females in cinema which causes these reading to occur. Source.

A boy views his parent’s secret dvd and a hilarious, awkward but reasonable (and certainly challenges the theory) explanation of why lesbians may watch ‘gay man porn’ ensures. From the movie ‘The Kids Are All Right’ directed and written by Lisa Cholodenko who has been bring lgbt representation to mainstream cinema in recent times. Credits to Film4 for broadcasting this gem, perfect timing for this post.

The theory has slowly shifted away from being singular (that subject A must be identifying with character A because of reason A) and instead into something more diverse. It’s also interesting to note that factors beyond gender (race, sexuality, creed, cultural backgrounds etc) are being considered to have an effect also on why and how we read into films.

Queer Theory

Whilst often mistaken to be theories just regarding lesbian and gay theories, it is in fact resolved around the idea that we as audiences do not fit in one group or any form of singular identification (i.e. gender). The queer theory challenges the notion that our identities are set, rather it argues that identity is made up of many characteristics and can be unpredictable. We should not be viewed as a collective based on one characteristic as a result.