Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception

Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception

Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception

Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception


Film and television have never been more prevalent or watched than they are now, yet we still have little understanding of how people process and make use of what they see. And though we acknowledge the enormous role the media plays in our culture, we have only a vague sense of how it actually influences our attitudes and desires.

In Perverse Spectators , Janet Staiger argues that studying the interpretive methods of spectators within their historical contexts is both possible and necessary to understand the role media plays in culture and in our personal lives. This analytical approach is applied to topics such as depictions of violence, the role of ratings codes, the horror and suspense genre, historical accuracy in film, and sexual identities, and then demonstrated through works like JFK, The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, and A Clockwork Orange. Each chapter shows a different approach to reconstructing audience responses to films, consistently and ingeniously finding traces of what would otherwise appear to be unrecoverable information.

Using vivid examples, charting key concepts, and offering useful syntheses of long-standing debates, Perverse Spectators constitutes a compelling case for a reconsideration of the assumptions about film reception which underlie contemporary scholarship in media studies.

Taking on widely influential theories and scholars, Perverse Spectators is certain to spark controversy and help redefine the study of film as it enters the new millennium.


This is a collection of essays which, with one exception, have been written since I published Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema in 1992. As a group they constitute a continuation of the research agenda that I presented there—a historical materialist approach to audiences and media reception. I believe that contextual factors, more than textual ones, account for the experiences that spectators have watching films and television and for the uses to which those experiences are put in navigating our everyday lives. These contextual factors are social formations and constructed identities of the self in relation to historical conditions. These contexts involve intertextual knowledges (including norms of how to interpret sense data from moving images and sounds), personal psychologies, and sociological dynamics. The job of a reception historian is to account for events of interpretation and affective experience.

What constitutes my advancement in this collection is an attempt at a more felicitous way of describing the specific acts of reception and making of personal meaning. This schema for considering reception events is developed in chapters 1, 2, and 3. It is an attempt at a synthesis of research done on reception but also recent work on fans, stars, and, in general, cultural studies. As far as I am aware, no one has tried to go beyond describing readers' responses in either a very general way (readers take up the position offered by the text, they resist it, or they negotiate it) or very specific ways (at best, lists of what readers do in creating alternative texts or in identifying with stars).

I am describing the rest of the essays as case studies, which does not mean that patterns are not presented. In every case, I link the specific traces of reception to broader historical circumstances. What is not possible to argue is a “master narrative”: for example, that social class is the fundamental cause for all responses to films. That is because I believe that individuals have multiple (albeit socially constructed) identities. These identities, as well as specific historical situations, intersect to . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.