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  • Writer's pictureESSMAT SOPHIE

The concept of the gaze from different theoretical perspectives

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

The concept of the gaze and an expanded awareness of it can be applied extensively in the analysis and criticism of literary texts. To understand the gaze, it is necessary to first dissect Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts about the subject versus the object.

Humans, according to the field of philosophy, are subjects, which implies that they are capable of thinking and feeling, as well as having thoughts, emotions, desires, goals, and interests. Thus, humans are subjects capable of having their own consciousnesses. As a result, everything surrounding humans constitutes objects. Sartre initially expressed these ideas in Being and Nothingness, a key text in the development of existentialism. Vaz argued, this dichotomy, of self-as-object and Other-as-subject, for Sartre, is the essential concept of interpersonal relationships.”[1]

According to Sartre, we are not limited to our own personal subjectivity; we exist in connection with other people as well. Later, he discussed “the look,” or what we can call “the gaze.” This gaze is essentially a realization of sorts—when someone realizes their existence and sees the self as a conscious being, they see another person, and that person is gazing at them. As a result, when other people look at us, we realize that they have conceptualized us as objects in their world because every one of us has our own subjective reality. We are aware that everyone lives in their own world, and when they look at us, we cease to be subjects and are transformed into objects in their eyes, which is how they see and perceive us. The way other people look at us profoundly impacts us. In other words, “the Other is that which interrupts one’s lived experiences and affects the very structure of the self.”[2]

We subsequently discover that we are doing the same thing—looking at others, objectifying them, and transforming them into objects because everything in our environment is ultimately an object to us. We are the only thing that is not a thing; we are the only thing that is a subject. As a result, this phenomenon makes us realize that we are both looked at and looking at and that we are both objectifier and objectified. We exist as objects in someone else’s reality, and we create others and objects in our own.

This type of gaze described by Sartre is an objectifying gaze. Some feminists later developed another sort of objectifying gaze which is the idea of the male gaze. Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” elaborated on this kind of objectifying gaze. She talked about women as images and passive objects and men as bearers of the look and active subjects: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”[3] She further discussed the male gaze from a cinematic perspective, examining how everything in film is oriented around the male viewpoint. In cinema, it is assumed that the audience is male, and thus, movies accommodate the male gaze. That is why, in cinema, women are objectified and seen and shown as objects.

This objectifying gaze is a form of oppression. Women are objectified in our culture in such a way that they are then expected to accommodate the male gaze and appear appealing. If women do not adjust to the male gaze and do not appear attractive, then they are not perceived as valuable human beings.

Later, bell hooks claimed that Mulvey was right but argued that Mulvey did not go far enough. Mulvey failed to consider the plight of Black people, a racial group that had long been overlooked by feminist theory. In many major forms of feminist theory, non-White people were completely excluded from the analysis and discussion, an issue that also applies to various critical theories. hook’s oppositional gaze argues that there is a lack of representation or simply insufficient representation of Black women. This gaze is essentially a sort of rebellion against the oppressive kind of gaze; the oppositional gaze is where one stands in defiance of something, opposes it, and actively combats it.

In reflecting on her childhood experiences in which her parents punished her for staring, hooks highlighted that there is a long legacy of Black people in the United States and elsewhere being punished for staring as well. Looking was considered an act of opposition and resistance, and a gaze was more than just a gaze. Staring was seen as “confrontational, as a gesture of resistance, [and as] challenging to authority.”[4] hooks’ oppositional gaze thus goes beyond the sexualized, gendered gaze described by Mulvey, which highlights the psychoanalytic aspects of the gaze, with phallocentricism being one of its main characteristics. hooks’ discussion disrupts power, as the gaze she described is not only gendered and sexualized but also racialized. Furthermore, hooks introduced an intersectional approach to the gaze, asserting that we must consider the history of race and recognize looking as a function of race and racial power dynamics. Experiences of being told not to look have caused Black people to develop what hooks called an oppositional gaze rooted in “defiance and critical interrogation.” In addition, the Black woman’s gaze goes beyond a phallocentric gaze and has its own agency.

hooks’ oppositional gaze is not about looking abstractly; it is about looking at television, cinema, or other screens. In hooks’ segregated childhood neighborhood, when a Black woman watched television, she saw certain depictions of Black people meant to confirm the racial dynamics dominant at the time. Looking at these images, hooks would interrogate them, determining that they were not accurate reflections of her life but representations of certain people’s ideas about how Black people lived. When Black people gained the authority and wealth to make films, the depictions continued to be inaccurate or biased. Something was still lacking. These Black filmmakers were men, and their films reflected their interests. As a result, similar oppressive and stereotypical images were depicted, but this time, it was at the expense of Black women only. However, the oppositional gaze interrogates, and from that interrogation, a desire to create different images is born. hooks argued that the Black female oppositional gaze offers a new way to look beyond resistance to White supremacy and gender inequality. Instead, it can read ruptures or breaks in both White and male gazes, creating looking relations in which visual delight is produced by “the pleasure of interrogation.”[5] This sort of gaze looks for and creates images that affirm the possibility of Black women’s freedom, seeking recognition of the agency of Black female spectators.

As previously stated, the male gaze is discriminatory, but another more explicit discriminatory gaze is one associated with more colonial or postcolonial types of gaze, such as Fanon’s ideas about the colonizer and colonized gaze presented in his book Black Skin, White Mask or postcolonial gaze in Edward Said’s orientalism argument.

The colonizer’s gaze is essentially an implicit form of violence. Colonized peoples were not considered humans. Fanon claimed that when the colonizer/White person saw a colonized person and stared or gazed at them, the colonizer transformed the colonized into an inferior object to himself. This is more reflective of looking at a slave, as opposed to a master’s gaze.[6] This is also similar to hook’s argument that when Black people were enslaved, they were not allowed to stare. If the slave looked at the master, the master beat the slave. According to Sartre’s argument, when someone looks at someone else and the other person looks back at that person, it leads to the development of a relationship. They both recognize the other as an object, and they both respect each other’s objectivity while simultaneously affirming their own subjectivity. Therefore, if a slave stares at their master, the master can detect thought and comprehension behind those eyes, which is dangerous. For example, this may make the master feel terrible about slavery as an institution, and the slave master might then consider the possibility of slave rebellions and the eventual awareness that slaves could truly perceive themselves as equal to their masters.

However, the colonizer does not allow the colonized to engage in the act of gazing equally and forbids the colonized from seeing them as equal to the colonizer. Consequently, the colonized will inevitably internalize the colonizer’s gaze and start to perceive themselves and the world through the colonizer’s eyes.[7]

Edward Said also adopted a postcolonial stance when he discussed how the West, which underpins the White gaze, looked at Oriental or Eastern nations and described how they saw the people or nations in those regions. White Westerners who explored the East compared it to the West. They used their observations to argue that the West is rational, hardworking, moral, etc. by describing the East as sensual, irrational, exotic, etc. This binary perspective on people from the West and East, as well as a peripheral view of Eastern people, turned Easterners into objects with a distinctive character that Westerns then considered inferior to themselves.[8]

The other type of gaze is a more regulatory/disciplinary gaze. Foucault developed the concept of panopticism based on Jeremy Bentham’s panoptic jail system. He came up with the concept of a perfect prison: a cylindrical circular building with all the cells facing a central guard tower. There is only one guard inside the tower, and the visibility of the guard might be obscured by a bright light or other objects. Nobody in prison is aware of whether they are being observed by the guard. At the same time, the guard is unable to keep an eye on everyone every minute. Because there is only one guard and so many cells, the likelihood of one being spotted is extremely low. However, prisoners have no way of knowing whether the guard is looking at them. Therefore, prisoners are powerless. Enforced self-regulation is the aim of this kind of prison. Prisoners refrain from acting because they are terrified of being observed at any moment.[9] According to Foucault, we have built our own panopticons as well. We cannot engage in certain acts that may be socially unacceptable because we are afraid of being watched. Someone could be observing us at any time, and they could gaze at us without our knowledge. Therefore, “visibility is a trap.”[10] This form of self-regulation has become more common in the age of the surveillance state. There are cameras everywhere, and we do not want to do certain things because we are worried that the neighbor, for example, might be watching us. We are worried that someone is looking at us or that someone will comment on what we do. Therefore, we are compelled to control our behavior. In such a situation, the police do not need to exert an oppressive amount of pressure on us; we are already oppressing ourselves and our desires, and we control and police our actions.

As we can see, both objectivity and subjectivity are socially constructed, and the idea of the gaze from various perspectives can be adopted by literary or cultural critics. All these different aspects and analyses of the gaze are interrelated and linked to each other. Fanon’s insight into the gaze is closely related to Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Additionally, Mulvey's essay on visual pleasure is connected to bell hook's oppositional gaze. These two also related to Foucault and Fanon's gaze insight. The aim of the gaze, whether this relates to the discriminatory gaze, oppositional gaze, or regulatory gaze, is to put the other person under constant scrutiny and control. It is a matter of power. There is power in looking at and passivity in being looked at.


Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, ed. and trans. R. Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008.

Nielsen, Cynthia R. "Resistance through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities." African Identities 9, no. 4 (2011): 363-85.

Parker, Robert Dale. Critical Theory : A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature : Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. Fourth ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Sharma, Pallavi, and Archana Barua. "Analysing Gaze in Terms of Subjective and Objective Interpretation: Sartre and Lacan." Human Studies 40, no. 1 (2017): 61-75.

Vaz, Angelina. "Who's Got the Look? Sartre's Gaze and Foucault's Panopticism." Dalhousie French Studies 32 (1995): 33-45.

[1] Angelina Vaz, “Who’s Got the Look? Sartre’s Gaze and Foucault’s Panopticism,” Dalhousie French Studies 32 (1995): 33–45. [2] Pallavi Sharma and Archana Barua, “Analysing Gaze in Terms of Subjective and Objective Interpretation: Sartre and Lacan,” Human Studies 40, no. 1 (2017): 61–75. [3] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Robert Dale Parker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 236. [4] bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” in Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Robert Dale Parker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 270. [5] hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators”, 274. [6] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, ed. and trans. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 93–149. [7] Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities 9, no. 4 (2011): 363–85. [8] Robert Dale Parker, Postcolonial and Race Studies, “How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 307–308. [9] Michael Foucault, “Panopticism,” in Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Robert Dale Parker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 494–495. [10] Foucault, “Panopticism,” 497.

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