This paper was part of my comp exams, or qualification exams, that I needed to complete before being allowed to do my dissertation. This paper basically serves as the backbone for how I understand reception studies and how I do such research.
In this paper I will discuss three approaches to understanding audience reception — primarily in how they differ from each other will the first consideration, but the story does not end there. The goal of this writing is to bridge these three approaches to illustrate how they can holistically answer the questions below, creating in synergy something greater than they could create individually. Indeed, it will hopefully become evident during this comparison that for all their differences, there are some underlying commonalities that can serve as a basis for the three to speak to one another. The first part will consider how they answer these questions: What is an audience? What is reception? What is the importance of understanding audience reception? Each approach has a unique epistemological and methodological stance for answering these questions, and I will use these three questions to structure how the approaches have historically considered the questions and constructed their answers. In the second part, when I use all three approaches to understand the reception of a recent Hollywood film, I will attempt to demonstrate that by taking all three together can we achieve more fully realized answers.
The first thing I must do is clarify that in terms of communication and media studies, I see two fields with different approaches to the study of a person’s media engagings. Because of this, I am separating the communication and media studies approach in two: quantitative media studies and qualitative media studies. The former is more concerned with matters of pragmatic application of media uses and effects studies to better society through public policy or education. The latter is more concerned with the role of the media in legitimizing power structures and the extent to which people either resist this legitimization process or reinscribe it through their everyday actions. Each field has its own approach to answering these questions that are different from the approach taken by traditional film studies, with its basis in literary studies. Also, each field rarely engages in dialogue with the other and, even if it does, this dialogue could use to be more amicable. Thus there is a need for dialogue among these three points of the triangle that surrounds the study of media engagings.
Quantitative media studies approach to audience reception
What do I mean by quantitative? Communication scholars who study the media from a quantitative perspective tend to conduct research where the ultimate focus is on predicting the magnitude and/or occurrence of some phenomenon. Even when studies seek to describe or explain some phenomenon, this is usually to serve the ultimate goal to allow for the possibility of changing or controlling the phenomenon. For example, research into violence on television could begin with describing the amount of guns seen and used during primetime; this study may be followed by attempts to explain why there are so many guns on at this time. However, the main question is: do people want to watch shows with such depictions and why, and what is the impact of watching these types of show? The first part of the question is usually broached by those of the uses-and-gratifications approach, while the latter part is the purview of researchers interested in media effects.
Especially at the important final stage of predicting, quantitative research relies on gathering large, random samples of individuals from across a variety of presumably important contextual factors (i.e. demographic categories, geographical locations, viewing habits, etc). Gathering such a participant pool hopefully gives the researcher a representative sample, thereby allowing the researcher to generalize or extend any findings to the larger population. Being able to generalize, and indeed make any claims regarding the findings, is dependent upon the use of a range of statistical tests to describe, confirm or refute the researchers’ questions or actual hypotheses regarding the phenomenon. All of these systematic and methodical activities are enacted to better allow for objectivity, replicability, and parsimony — all of which are hallmarks taken from natural sciences and applied to social sciences as definitional for what science is.
What is an audience? The first conceptualization of the audience in American quantitative media studies largely referred to a mass of undifferentiated people who are anonymous to the producer of the mediated message(s) and become a collective of unorganized individuals centered on the use or exposure to a particular media text (Glynn, Herbst, O’Keefe & Shapiro, 1999; McQuail, 1997). More modern conceptualizations see the audience as a network of people who have the potential to interact with one another about a particular object of interest in the media. Either way, audiences are studied as collectives, aggregates of individuals; an individual when studied is more typically referred to as an audience member or media user. The millions of Americans watching a presidential debate would be the audience of that debate. When such a group is organized with the ability to influence some social institution, and thus society by extension, this collective is referred to as a public. If their opinions about the candidate’s performance gets that candidate elected, those millions of Americans become that candidate’s public. For some, this move from audience to public is a desirable distinction for pragmatic reasons — health and political communication scholars are interested in those groups who actually engage in behavior based on their media engagings. However, in terms of understanding entertainment media audiences, such as film, the audience as defined is the main focus, and this would apply whether the research is on why the audience uses the media, or what affect the media has on the audience. The audience is typically categorized based on demographic characteristics. This segmenting of the audience is driven historically by two imperatives: the desire to better persuade people, and the goal to better protect the vulnerable.
Research on media engagings has increasingly considered what aspects of people may influence whether or not the media has an impact on them. Advertisers, who are solely interested in persuasion, have used this research to more narrowly target potential consumers. Dallas Smythe (1995) pointed out the extent to which television is in the business of selling potential audiences to advertisers, and his analysis of the television industry is applicable to the majority of the media industry as it operates today. As the American media industry is advertiser driven, the media industry is compelled to “understand” who the audience for any of their products is at any given time. Segmenting by demographics, such as the classic 18-49 year old middle-class males, has become a standard means for targeting people.
The same research that has served advertisers has also pointed out the characteristics of potential audiences that may be most vulnerable to the media’s persuasive abilities. Stemming from media effects concerns from the late 1800s and early 1900s, these special populations were historically researched by media effects scholars under the consternation for what the new mass media were doing to them (Bryant & Thompson, 2002). Children and teenagers have historically been studied in the hope of preventing negative behaviors while promoting socially acceptable ones. Fears of juvenile delinquency have fueled a number of early media studies, such as the Payne Fund Studies (McDonald, 2004), and continue to do so with concerns about school shootings and teenage pregnancies. Much research today continues to segment the potential audience along demographic lines, such as ethnicity, gender, age, and class — overtly to understand how such boundaries may account for media effect differences, and covertly to determine the extent to which these segments can be better persuaded or better protected.
One final point about how the American quantitative media studies conceptualize the audience is the historical polarization between active and passive. Under the aegis of traditional media effects, which when first conceived over a century ago was promoting the “hypodermic” or all-powerful direct effects model, the audience was conceived as being a body of passive individuals (Bryant & Thompson, 2002; McDonald, 2004). This audience was taken to be willing recipients of the media’s messages, and their willingness meant they were highly susceptible to influence. However, midway through the 20th Century, the all-powerful model was challenged by the uses-and-gratifications approach, British cultural studies, and German reception theorists (the latter two will be discussed in more depth below). They successfully demonstrated the active audience, composed of individuals who varied in their selection of, attention to, and interpretation of the media’s messages. Since that point, media effects research has largely moved to a conditional model to account for all factors that may shape the impact of the media on the audience. Current conceptualizations see the audience as sometimes very active and sometimes very passive — it all depends upon who the audience is, and the context in which they are an audience.
What is reception? It wasn’t until the field accepted that the audience could be active that research truly considered the role of the audience’s reception of the media messages. When there was a more passive conception of audience, there was no need to focus on interpretation as it was assumed that everyone received and perceived the content the same way. The Shannon-Weaver communication model was one of transmission, with the Sender given more power over the meaning being created (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003; Jensen, 1987). Since the acceptance of a potential active audience, research that has sought to understand reception has largely focused on individual interpretations of the content of the media message, but rarely to understand the process of meaning-making or sense-making the individual engages in. This research focuses on understanding those factors that could influence the interpretation — do men and women differ in how they interpret sexual images? do people who have a higher need for an adrenalin rush interpret gratuitous violence differently? Along with differences between individuals, research has examined the extent to which characteristics of the text could change people’s interpretations of it, such as the use of informative versus emotional pleas in persuading people to adopt a position on an issue.
Again the focus is on understanding what would influence the overall media effects.
This interest in the impacts on a person’s cognitive processing of a media text is driven by the tenets of some media effects theories and concepts. Albert Bandura’s social learning and social cognitive theories postulated a number of intervening cognitive factors that could mitigate the extent to which a predicted media effect occurs (Bandura, 2002). A litany of potential psychological concepts have been adopted as potential moderators, influencing the extent of an effect, and mediators, influencing the actual occurrence of an effect: identification; parasocial interaction; empathy; need for cognition; sensation seeking, to name just a few. More recently, there has been a growing interest in physiological aspects of interpretation, such as measuring cognitive orientation to a text through line of sight, or measuring affective responses recorded via skin conductance or heartbeats (McDonald, 2004). Again, the focus has been on intervening variables that may improve or impede interpretation, and less on the step-by-step interpretive processing due to the assumption that the individual cannot accurately recall such activities.
What is the importance of understanding audience reception? As is hopefully clearer at this point, the incorporation of understanding individual interpretations over the past half century is chiefly centered on improving the predictive abilities of the results from media uses and effects studies. Defining reception as interpretation has allowed the researchers to further understand all the possible mediators and moderators. This approach has been traditionally, and largely, applied to the idea of a passive media effect; that is, an impact on a person due to exposure that the person may be largely unaware of. Someone who is constantly exposed to violence in the media may not realize they have become desensitized to such portrayals, unless some other person points out his proclivity to laugh at car accidents. The approach can also be applied to understand more active media effects, where the person has consciously decided to apply some aspect of their media engaging to their everyday life. An example comes from Jeanne Steele and Jane Brown’s work on the Media Practice Model (1995), where they demonstrated how teenagers have appropriated specific aspects from their media engagings to construct an identity. Whether it be passive or active media effects, both of which I would consider as a recoding of media messages, interest in reception is driven by the logic that if we can understand how a specific audience segment is interpreting content, then we can better protect or persuade that audience by changing the content or changing the audience.
Qualitative media studies approach to audience reception
What do I mean by qualitative? In qualitative research for communication and media studies, we see the focus not so driven by the goal of prediction but the desire for understanding some phenomenon — reasons for why it exists and explaining the unknown processes behind it, whether the phenomenon is as common as a mother-child interaction or as unique as a despot’s attempt to subjugate a people. It is often the case that the qualitative study will be focused on a single case, or a small group of cases, that is considered to best represent the particular phenomenon being studied.
Where quantitative studies desire the ability to reliably apply the study to a large, heterogeneous population, the qualitative study tends to be more concerned with validly representing the phenomenon being studied. Validity is oftentimes given if it appears the work thoroughly replicated the section of reality being studied. This approach then calls for more in-depth data collection and analysis, usually under the banner of ethnography, and also seeks to either explain or account for any deviance from what would be expected of the phenomenon. As with quantitative work, the expectations the researcher has for the data collected can be formed either a priori, with theories that have already been developed, or through procedures that call for grounded constructions of theories based on the data accumulated.
What is an audience? Qualitative studies of media engagings come largely from the field of critical and cultural studies, and it is this approach that usually receives the moniker of reception studies. At the turn to the 20th Century, this focus began under the Marxist concern that the working class is continually reinscribed into their oppressive position by the owners of production, who owned the means by which to create and normalize cultural values and ways of life that accounted for this reinscription. This concern was evident in the German Frankfurt School, who echoed the concerns of the passive audience discussed from the quantitative media studies. The rise of the mass media was seen as another way to maintain the repressive status quo, to the extent that some critics both overtly and covertly ridiculed the “low brow” culture propagated by the mass media (Hall, 1980/96; Turner, 1996). The audience of interest was the working class, who had a great interest in the mass media — particularly because it was far cheaper to consume than what would be considered high class culture, such as novels, theatres and opera. The mass media was lambasted as unworthy of scholarly attention, and audiences of such products were both pitied and derided — a view that remains to some degree today, from both sides of the political spectrum (Morley, 2006).
This notion of the mass media audience was challenged, again in the middle of the 20th Century, as a critique of the passive audience and the derision of low brow culture. Cultural scholars, such as those at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies, argued that if culture is the location of meaning for the lives of people, and if the media was providing this culture for the working classes, then the media merited serious consideration by cultural studies (Hall, 1977; Turner, 1996). Moreover, a number of cultural scholars became interested in the idea that although the media may be serving to further the oppression of certain peoples, it was mostly doing so through Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. If the powers wanted to remain as such, then they required the consent of the people, which could be obtained through the media. However, hinging this relationship on the people’s consent opened the door to the possibility that the people could resist such attempts.
These British cultural studies turned to studying specific audiences who were actively resisting the dominant power structure in some way. A particular focus turned to subcultures that embodied attitudes and behaviors that set them apart from mainstream, normative culture, such as Dick Hebdige’s (1979) study of punks, glams, and other musical subcultures from Britain in the 1970s. A pattern was set similar to quantitative studies, where an audience or subculture was identified and categorized based on their resisting activities or some sociodemographic characteristic that labeled them as more likely to be oppressed, such as Blacks, women, homosexuals, working class, etc. This labeling was based on cultural studies philosophical assumptions about the political implications of such classifications. It is believed that certain social classifications are more oppressed by society, and that these oppressions will be apparent in how the members of that class interact with the media.
Thus, as with their quantitative brethren, these qualitative scholars saw, and to certain extent to do this day, audience in segments. But these segmentations were not due to desires to better understand how to persuade or how to protect. Instead, in studying the collection of individuals as gathered around a specific media text, this approach sought to understand how they made sense of the text in comparison to their everyday lives — to understand how important these texts were in reaffirming the audiences’ positions in society, and to what extend these texts were being used to challenge these same positions.
What is reception? As with the quantitative contingency, under the conception of the audience as passive dupes of the ideologically driven mass culture, there was little attempt to understand how the people made sense of the media texts. The emergence of the British cultural critiques spearheaded the need to understand how these various audiences were receiving and interpreting the media texts. If one believes such audiences are able to actively resist the ideological meanings in these texts, then one needs to explain why this was and to demonstrate how it was occurring.
Since the 1970s, the majority of this impetus has been driven by the work of Stuart Hall, mainly his piece discussing encoding/decoding. Briefly, the piece outlined how the producers of media texts encode their messages with values and meanings that are in line with the dominant ideology of that society; however, when the text is decoded, or interpreted, by the audience member, he or she does not necessarily have to accept the message as is (Hall, 1973/93). According to Hall, the audiences may negotiate what the text means by accepting those aspects that seem to best fit with their lives and discarding those that do not apply. This process could reach the extent where the audience member, or an entire audience (again, segmented in some way), has decided to oppose the entire text, such that they do not accept the dominant meaning in the text because it does not apply to what they experience. Hence in this approach do we see a challenge to transmission models of communication, as meaning is theorized to develop through the process of engaging with the media (Allen, 1992). This theoretical approach echoed the now classic cry of semiotician Roland Barthes in his 1968 essay, declaring “death to the author” as the singular location of meaning in a text.
Hall’s influence remains widespread. Reception studies, as a branch of cultural studies, has typically incorporated or responded to his encoding/decoding model. A number of researchers, such as David Morley (Morley & Brunsden, 1999), Ien Ang (1985), and Tamara Liebes (Liebes & Katz, 1991), have applied the model to their studies of audiences to understand how they decode this or that media text. Such research has focused on comparing what discourse(s) a particular audience constructs from a media text to what the analyst says the text’s “true” discourse is (Jensen, 1994). As with the media uses and effects approach, these reception studies likewise focus on the factors that are thought to influence types of decoding. These factors focus on the sociodemographic categories, but in doing so they rely on their philosophical assumptions regarding ideology to address how the society’s construction of such categories constrains or determines interpretation, with less attention to systematically accounting for audience member’s actual interpretations (Höijer, 1992; Jensen, 1987; Staiger, 2002).
What is the importance of understanding audience reception? Like the media uses and effects approach, cultural reception studies sought understand how the media can influence people. A key difference is that these receptions studies focus on the interplay between audiences, culture, and power in trying to understand how a dominant ideology can be replicated or changed through audience reception. The importance of such work has been in a desire to find the instances of resistance to this domination, and when this domination is reinforced.
Perhaps problematically, there has been more focus on the first type of relationship, in celebrating the resistors and the subcultures that form in opposition to mainstream culture. Critics of this approach have argued that in looking only for the opposition, they may be producing results that cannot be generalized to other types of audiences, thereby eliding over what may be common patterns in reception that all audiences engage in (Jenkins, 2000). Another problem, seen also in the quantitative side, is the tendency to focus on the factors that influence reception without attempting to account for the step-by-step process of reception. Likewise, the focus on factors involves assumptions as to what the researcher believes is a factor, and less empirical data as to what the audience member sees as a factor (Livingstone, 1990, 1994). For example, members of an ethnic group may be placed into the same audience of a media text, with their decoding of that text “explained” by their ethnicity, without asking how they understand their ethnicity as being a factor in their decoding (Liebes & Katz, 1991; Morley, 2006). Instead of focusing on the “black box” processes, people are placed into “crystal boxes” constructed by the researcher. This reliance on factors may indeed explain why currently there is more discussion as to how best to conduct reception studies than there are actual reception studies being conducted (Dahlgreen, 1998; Lindlof, 1991; Livingstone, 1994; Morley, 2006).
Film studies approach to audience reception
What is an audience? It seems like a rather odd observation to make, but while the other approaches have empirically studied various characteristics of media audiences, there has historically not been as much theoretical or empirical consideration in film studies as to what actually constitutes the film audience (Meers, 2001; Staiger, 2002). In fact, early film audiences were mythologized by academics and the public alike as gullible and susceptible to the filmed spectacle — likely to duck under their chairs should the Lumiere Brother’s train leap from the screen into their theatre (Gunning, 1989/04). Interesting, this mythologizing, which to a great extent tied into and fed the media studies research on media effects and passive audiences in the early 20th Century (Jowett, 1993; Stokes, 2001).
Perhaps the closest accounting for who is the audience began in 1970s with the work of understanding the Spectator, who will be discussed in more length below, as a construction of the filmic experience. When film was the only visual medium in early 20th Century, the studios were not as concerned as to who their audience was, relying instead on the mystical abilities of their studio chiefs to know a good movie from a bad movie (Jowett, 1993). Scholars in film studies were concerned about playing into Hollywood’s capitalistic drives as they were likewise interested in the role film played in ideological construction and reinforcement; hence, many were skeptical and distrusting of any empirical research (Stokes, 2001). However, the competition from television, beginning in the 1950s, ended the studio’s dominance. In today’s cluttered mediascape, where in the United States movie theatres are megaplexes and a person of means has thousands of possible ways to spend money for entertainment, there is a stronger imperative for the industry to be concerned with audience demographics. Sometimes the best way to ensure a successful picture with high box office receipts and DVD sales is to target to a selected audience, such as teenagers, families, women, etc., to the point where films are tested for worth before being distributed (i.e. focus groups and prescreenings).
This more recent realization of the importance of knowing the film audience, coupled with the discovery of the perchance to mythologize the first audiences, has led some film historians to more systematically account for the whos, whens and wheres of previous film audiences (Allen, 2006; Meers, 2001; Staiger, 2000; Stam, 2000). Who were the people to watch this or that particular genre? Who were the people that bought the star fanzines? Just what was the reaction of those first audiences to moving images and synchronized sound? There has also been research focusing on specific interpretive communities that become audiences based on their shared interests and ways of interpreting a text (Fish, 1980; Lindlof, 1991). One commonly studied community would be a fan culture around a particular media text, such as Batman (Bacon-Smith & Yarbrough, 1991) or Thelma & Louise (Jenkins, 2000), or media celebrities (Stacey, 2003). However, of all branches of film studies, understanding who the audience is and how the audience makes sense of a film remains least studied (Meers, 2001).
What is reception? The idea of an audience’s reception in film studies has largely been based on the idea of the spectator. Which is to say, as film studies has routinely been uninterested with the real audience of films, it cannot be expected that they would be interested in the actual reception and interpretation of films. The spectator has for the most part not been a real person that a film studies scholar can find in a theatre. Instead, the spectator is akin to literary theories on the reader: it is a person who is presumed to exist at the time of reception based on the features of the text (Staiger, 2002). Looking at this concept through the historical trajectory of will hopefully clarify this point.
Early film theories, from both actual film directors and the first film critics, were primarily focused on understanding what the features are in film that separates it as an aesthetic piece to be experienced by people (Staiger, 2002). There were discussions about how cutting from one scene to another, lighting an actor in a particular way, framing a shot with a certain camera angle, and so forth would have an effect on the person sitting in the dark theatre. In ways similar to how media uses and effects researchers argue that specific text features can have specific persuasive results, film theorists would point to a particular film feature as eliciting a particular effect. For example, Sergei Eisenstein wrote about and produced montage editing that juxtaposed two unrelated items together temporally — one shot following another — with the intended result that the Spectator would generate a new meaning from these discrepant images, with the intention of matching the director’s original meaning. By focusing on the features of texts, as their literary counterparts had done, the film theorists constructed an implied Spectator who would have to react to the film in the ways dictated by the film’s auteur.
Indeed any conception of an active audience, of a person who could potentially react against the film, was presumed to be a negative thing. Eisenstein worried that an active spectator would misread the sociopolitical commentaries of his montage films if they did not have the same historical and contextual background (Staiger, 2002). Rarely were audiences allowed to have a role in constructing the meaning of the film. Film theorist Hugo Münsterberg was perhaps the first to study the viewer’s perceptions of film. As a “proto-cognitivist”, he did see a role for the filmgoer, as the film supplied data each spectator differently interact with based on experiences and contextual background (McDonald, 2004; Staiger, 2002). However, Münsterberg was largely alone, as the great extent of early film theory revolved around how the structure of film texts produced certain effects in the audience.
Tied in with these text-centric, or apparatus theories, spectator theories highlighted the works of psychoanalysts who attempted to uncover the latent, universal properties of humans. Psychoanalytic theories were imported to film spectatorship in the 1970s to explain how the features of the films could produce the effects they did (Staiger, 1992; Mayne, 1993; Moores, 1994). Christian Metz employed Lacanian concepts of the imaginary and the “mirror” to describe the type of identification a spectator is allowed to engage in, while using Freud’s views on fetishes to explain how the spectator is pleasured by the experience (Metz, 1975/04; Penney, 2007). Laura Mulvey focused on concepts like voyeurism and fetishism to explain how male movie directors create a “male gaze” in their cinematography to further subjugate women for the pleasure of the presumed male spectators (1975/06).
As with other cultural theories on the monolithic power of the media to influence, spectator theories postulated a passive audience reception (Staiger, 2002) that believed all films would affect all viewers in the same psychoanalytical and ideological ways (Hietala, 1990). Louis Althusser’s work on ideology and society’s ability to interpolate subjects was adopted to explain how a film text could “suture” the spectator into a specific viewing position, thereby ensuring certain reactions to the text (Mayne, 1993; Stam, 2000). It was theorized that one could analyze the text’s features and extrapolate who would be the implied and ideal spectator, the one who would truly understand the intentions of the film. With this conception, there was no need to seek out the real spectator, as the spectator existed no where but in the moment(s) of his engagement with that particular text (Moores, 1994; Prince, 1996).
With all of this occurring in the 1970s, the influence of Hall’s encoding/decoding did not reach film studies until the 1980s when it provided theorists ammunition to challenge the concept of the implied spectator. While cultural reception studies focused largely on television texts, film studies appropriated the approach to challenge text-centric theories and began to call for examinations of how film-goers actually respond to film texts. The call was to establish the historical and material conditions that account for how their different receptions (Mayne, 1993; Staiger, 1992). However, such a move, while removing the “ideal” spectator from being constructed by the film, falls into the same problematic associated with encoding/decoding research — the presumption that the filmgoer is instead a product of social and historical factors as much outside of the filmgoer’s control as the structure of the film text. The spectator was conceived as being an “ideal” representative of the social category into which the researcher placed them (Staiger, 2000).
But Hall’s influence was not the only one used as a challenge to apparatus theories. Another line of criticism focused on the tenets of cognitive psychology. In the 1980s, theorists discussed the schemas, or specific meaning-making strategies, spectators could employ to comprehend and interpret a film (Bordwell, 1989; Sweeney, 1995). These theorists explained how a text may provide some of the information a person needs to make sense of a film, but that other cognitive structures inherent to the individual filmgoer, and thus potentially differing between members of the same audience, also plays a role in the ultimate construction and understanding of the film (Gerrig & Prentice, 1996; Hietala, 1990; Knight, 1995). From this approach, the meaning of the text is not something contained within the text that needs to be uncovered; instead, it must be constructed by the spectator from cues provided by the text (Barbatsis, 2005; Bordwell, 1989; Staiger, 1992).
These arguments also stem from the preliminary theorizing done by German literary scholars in the 1960s and 1970s as to the role of the reader — a movement seen as the foundation for reception studies in the humanities (Allen, 1992; Holub, 1984). With his background in phenomenology, Roman Ingarden developed the idea that texts contain points of indeterminacy, or gaps, where the reader has to supply her own information in order to “see” what the text is “saying” in her head. These gaps could also be filled in an infinite number of ways because they are reliant on what the reader brings to the text, such that the same reader may engage with the same text differently if the first time he was happy and the second time he was sad (Holub, 1984). Wolfgang Iser adopted Ingarden’s gaps to explain how the reader moves through a text; a reader has a “wandering viewpoint” and use what the text has provided to construct expectations for what will come, thereby creating a true “page turner” (1978). Iser argued that the placement of the gaps was strategic, so as to manipulate the way in which reader had to fill them to move on. While these theories were developed specifically for literary texts, film studies and reception studies, scholars have adopted the idea of “gap-filling” to explain the role of the spectator in constructing the film’s meaning (Allen, 1992).
A third avenue of criticism focused on the pleasure a person received by watching a film. Again, the concepts from psychoanalysis were appropriated to the extent that they can explain how a film provides for a filmgoer’s fantasy. Judith Mayne (1993) argued that approaching film-going as an aspect of fantasy fulfillment removes the problem of fixed positions that plagued the theories of the Spectator. Instead of seeing a spectator forcibly sutured into a fixed way to respond to a film, she argued that a person could get pleasure from a text by choosing the position he or she took. Clearly affected by Hall’s encoding/decoding, her argument allowed for a resistant film-going experience. Also, by being so involved in constructing what comes next, based on our experiences and knowledge about how films are constructed (such as genre conventions), we can feel satisfaction when our ideas for what will happen next are proven correct by the film (Knight, 1995). Carl Plantinga outlined five sources for spectator pleasure (1995): orientation and discover; visceral experience; empathy and character identification; narrational structure; and, reflexive criticism and appreciation. Cued by features of the film, pleasures can result from cognitive or affective reactions to the film, emotional reaction to the narrative, and recognition of the film’s intertextual nature.
However, despite all the critical arguments against classical Spectator theories, the concept of audience reception remains text-centric. Martin Barker argued cognitivists are only interested in the formation of the film and “the conditions of comprehension.” (2006, p. 134) or, in the case of the affectivists, the conditions of pleasure. Instead of an “implied” or “ideal” spectator, cognitivists argue for a “competent” spectator who is able to properly fill in the blanks to make sense of the film (Staiger, 1992). Even Mayne, Brown and Plantiga, who allow for more personal input in determining pleasure, point to the importance of textual features in structuring the types of pleasure experienced. While espousing the influence of individual differences, little has been done to empirically account for these individual differences in how the real spectator subjectively experiences a film (Prince, 1996; Stokes, 2001). Gerrig and Prentice (1996) sought to study the co-construction of a text, but based their results more on assumptions about individual reception. Staiger (2000) conducted historical document analyses of reception by studying critics and public discourse on how well a film was received. As with studies on fan cultures as audiences, there have been ethnographic studies of specific audience receptions, yet again little has been done to understand a specific filmgoer’s reception. The lack of empirical research on the individual may be due to those who see only dangerous, unwieldy plurality and chaos as the end result (Bagley, 2001).
What is the importance of understanding audience reception? At first glance, the answer to this question would differ greatly from how both media studies fields would answer it, with their concern over persuasion and protection. The answer can be seen in how reception studies essentially remain a theoretical pursuit instead of an empirically pragmatic one. Because both film studies in general, and reception studies in particular, come out of literary studies, there remains an interest in understanding the text and thus a tendency to see meaning as an inherent quality of the text. Even the German reception theorists, while allowing for what the reader brings to the meaning-making process, were not about to give up everything to the reader (Holub, 1984). Iser, with his balancing act between textual gaps and reader bridging techniques, would come to be challenged by Stanley Fish, who argued for the primacy of the reader in the intersection with the text due to the necessity all interpretation being pre-existent in the reader (Fish, 1980; Fish, 1981/96; Iser, 1981/96). Umberto Eco agreed in the importance of the reader, but argued against the completely open, highly polysemus text: “You cannot use the text as you want, but only as the text wants you to use it.” (1979, p. 9). Thus, as with some communication scholars, engaging in philosophical discussions of audience reception of film is part of the desire to understand where meaning lies: in the auteur? in the text? in the spectator?
Understanding where meaning lies may be an interesting philosophical discussion, but it can also have aesthetic and pragmatic implications. On the aesthetic level, the discussion centers on the role the spectator has in determining the beauty or worthiness of art (Staiger, 2005). Does the critic who derides a film or the fan that applauds it get to have the final say in whether or not the film is worthy? If the meaning of the text is only in the creator of the art work, then it should not matter what anyone else says about it. However, if the receiver of the text has some role to play in determining the overall meaning of the art, then their opinions of the piece do matter (Holub, 1984). While this distinction is important for discussions of what films are masterpieces, there are also more pragmatic applications — box office receipts. If the worth of a film is determined in part by how the audience receives the film, and that worth will then determine the extent to which the movie producers can recoup their production expenditures, then it becomes an economic imperative to understand audience reception.
Hypothetical case study: Women’s pleasurable encounter with the sex comedy, Superbad.
Despite their differences, and I would argue because of them, the three approaches portrayed above can be synthesized into an understanding of how to approach audience reception of film, and by extension other media texts. The weaknesses of one approach can be offset by the strengths of another, and in their combination can holistically provide for an analysis that none could accomplish individually. In this endeavor am I joined by researchers from across the three approaches (Bagley, 2001; Jensen, 1986; Livingstone, 1990; Meers, 2001; Schrøder, 2001).
In a preliminary attempt to show how such a synergy is possible, I will discuss my reception of a recent Hollywood hit, Superbad. I choose this film because I saw it with two of my peers, both women of approximately my age. One of my friends was particularly eager to see this film, as she told us she had been saying to people all day: “I’m going to see Superbad tonight, and it’s going to be super good!” In the theater on the opening Friday night, there were quite a number of young women in attendance, and I can easily recall very vocal females expressing their pleasure from the film via their ribald comments and loud laughter. And I will admit, I was laughing along with them, as I found the film to be genuinely hilarious and have subsequently recommended it to friends and family.
Why do I focus here on the reception of women to this Hollywood comedy? Because Superbad is the latest teenage sex comedy targeted to the male teenage and young adult audience. In his rather negative review for The Hollywood Reporter on August 7th, Stephen Farber said “Guys who are the same age as the characters will whoop it up, but the film won’t reach beyond that young male demographic…”. The movie is another in the line of raunchy comedies, with predecessors like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, American Pie, and Eurotrip, where the main storyline focuses on adolescent males’ attempts to hook up with the woman of their dreams, and along the way get involved with drugs, alcohol, and a variety of profane or disgusting situations. This genre of films is clearly targeted to a young male audience, which raises concerns as to the effects the portrayals of masculinity and sex have on this audience (Greven, 2002; Pearce, 2006). Superbad has the same generic conventions: Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are graduating seniors looking to score at a party, but who must endure a series of tribulations involving illegally purchasing alcohol, cocaine addicts, and immature police officers before they come to learn that their friendship is the most important relationship of all.
Even with this rather wholesome moral, the movie is clearly aimed at a young male audience, and this is where theories of the Spectator can be applied. Mulvey’s male gaze approach can provide evidence for the extent to which the film is intended for a male spectator (1975/06). The male gaze approach provides us with ideological slant on the film as it demeans women through objectification while employing Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to explain the effect on the spectator. A shot of a teenage girl, focusing on the thong underwear she is wearing, becomes the point of view of the teenage boy who is following her. The spectator’s view of this woman is thus to identity with this boy’s apparently lustful perspective. The argument is that any sense of pleasure that can be had from the shot is through identifying with the lust of the teenage boy. Thus, it is easier for men to receive pleasure from such a voyeuristic shot, as they are expected to fetishize the female body into an object of lust as a means of allaying their castration fears. Critics working with this theory could argue that women would have false pleasure if they have internalized this portrayal as the accepted and thus acceptable way they should act — that a woman’s pleasure comes from not challenging the subjugation of their gender (Berger, 1972). This approach could go some way to explain why men liked the film, as it was intended for them to like it based on the heteronormative assumption that all young American men like sex with beautiful women. But how can this explain mine or my friends’ reactions, being three feminists who take offense at such subjugation of women?
The uses-and-gratifications approach from quantitative media studies could provide insight into the motivations for me and the other women who have liked this film. Researchers would conduct a study, either through interviews or surveys, to try to ascertain our expectations and motivations for selecting the film, and the extent to which both were fulfilled. Those researchers interested in media effects would try to link our reasons for seeing the movie to any attitudinal or behavioral effects, either short term (did we feel like having risky sex that night?) or long term (did it change how we think about the role of sex in male/female relationships?). An even more complete picture would be ascertained by asking about our reception of the film — our evaluation, our understanding of it — as they try to establish the factors that play a role in how we interpreted the film.
However, these researchers may be more interested in separating the audience into male versus female, and seeing how our reasons for using the film and reception of the film differed with an interest on how these differences could account for the different impacts of the film. As the researchers wouldn’t talk just to me, and thus probably wouldn’t talk to me in any depth, they might miss out on my nuanced reception of the film’s romantic narrative and how my equating that with female romantic comedies made the film more acceptable and thus enjoyable to me. While these may be problems with this approach, what the studies would help uncover is the reception of the actual filmgoer, moving away from the assumptions of the implied spectator, thereby showing that women found the movie pleasurable and not because they were sublimating themselves to patriarchal domination.
Those researchers approaching with a more critical/cultural standpoint may be able to better illustrate this objection to the assumptions from the male gaze analysis. In conducting in-depth interviews, the researchers would spend the time to actually have me discuss how I negotiated the raunchy sex comedy into a more feminine romantic comedy. They could see my negotiated decoding of the implied, dominant meaning, based on my previous experiences with the genre of romantic comedies, so that I can create something more acceptable to provide me with pleasure. However, they may ascribe this reception to my being a woman, indicating that this is how I, like other women, have come to handle the consistent hegemonic depictions of sex and love in masculine-intended media texts. While this may explain part of my overall reception of the film, as it is based on the aforementioned moral of the story, how could it explain my moment-by-moment pleasure of the text, those moments that caused my laughter?
A final approach to understand my reception of this film would come from taking the reception theory of Iser, the cognitive approach of people like Bordwell, and couple them with the Sense-Making Methodology of Dervin (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003). This approach would call for a more situated, minutiae examination of how an individual makes sense of her movement through a situation — in this case, the process of interpreting a film. This approach would interrogate my actual reading of the film to examine both how the structure of the text cued my responses and how my thoughts, feelings, and needs influenced my responses to these cues. The goal would be to understand my role in the co-construction of the text: my moment-to -moment sense-making as I judged whether or not I should find any particular textual cue as pleasurable or despicable. A researcher conducting this study would have found that I laughed more at the activities involving the drunk, corrupt cops (influenced by my skepticism towards authority figures and love of satire) as well as anything involving Michael Cera or David Krumholtz acting raunchy (influenced by my previous encounters with the actors on Arrested Development and Numb3rs, respectively, thereby providing an example of intertextuality). Naturally, such a study would be intensive, and in order to combat problems of recall may have to be done as reception was occurring, which would entail the researcher or filmgoer having control over the film’s playback. But it may be possible to conduct such a study post hoc, as I can recall those specific memorable moments that either made me cringe or laugh.
Thus it may indeed be possible to design a research study that could in one fell swoop measure: my needs and expectations for gratifications; factors that may have impacted my interpretation; possible media effects on attitudes and intended behaviors; a more in-depth accounting for why I decoded the film as I did; and, even a more detailed analysis of my major decoding moments. All this could be done with an a priori text analysis that would highlight how the audience would be presumed to respond, thereby serving as a hypothesis that could be empirically tested with the quantitative and qualitative data gathered in the study. Each type and level of analysis would provide new information for explaining the film’s positive reception. But does this mean that moving from the more abstract implied spectator to the more measured actual media user, even to moment-to-moment reception, is a movement from worse to better? I would not make this claim as it would assume some essentialist and linear relationship among the approaches. Instead, I see the movement as one towards complexity, where synthesizing them deepens the understanding of why I thought Superbad was indeed “super good”.
Reflections on the synthesis
If we consider a filmic text to be communicating meaning between the film’s auteur, or encoder, and filmgoer, or decoder, then we should examine the film’s specific features as providing the structure through which meaning is transmitted. Thus we need to understand the intended meanings of the film to know what they bring to a filmgoer’s sense-making; a person can only make sense of something that is presented to them in the first place. However, what sense the filmgoer makes of the film will not coincide 100% with the intentions of the director due to the interpretive baggage the filmgoer brings to the media engaging. The narrative and structural information presented in the film could orient us as to what to expect as well as how to interpret what was happening, but it will be the information we bring in that will ultimately determine what we attend to, and how we attend to it.
As Ingarden and Iser said, the text may generate questions to keep us interested and moving through the text, but that doesn’t mean we won’t generate questions the author never intended us to generate. The encoder of Superbad wanted me to focus on how the boys will get to the party, but I couldn’t help questioning where film was set, where the Evan’s father was, and other questions that were neither cued nor answered by the text. Also, questioning or gap-filling is just one of the types of engaging a person can have while processing a media text. Insighting, identifying, emoting, wondering — these are also possible. All engagings are both triggered by the text, but are also going to be co-determined by individual factors.
While my discussion here has been focused primarily on film texts, this same approach could be applied to any media text. Detailing and patterning the steps of reception, from selection to attention to application, can provide us with more understanding about recoding and a new foundation on which to construct our communicatings about such materials. Film studies theories can tell us what to pay attention to in the text (the themes, the messages, the ideologies, the cues); cultural reception studies can remind us to consider the societal constraints upon both the encoder and the decoder; and, uses and media effects can provide the systematic and pragmatic empirical analytic tools to assist us in generalizability and replicability. And more than that, the three together can provide for a new way of answering the three questions that structured this paper, as well as providing new questions for future work.
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