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  • Women as Subject and Object of the Gaze in Tragedy*
  • Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (bio)

The project of this article, and of this volume as a whole, must be situated in contemporary interest in the related topics of the ‘gaze,’ the body, and performance.1 Gaze theory is indebted to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, which postulates the infant’s gaze in the ‘mirror stage’ as formative of its subjectivity: the infant looking at himself in the mirror is jubilant in his misrecognition of the wholeness of the image as a sign of his own physical integration, but soon experiences alienation (Lacan 1977).2 Thus, following existentialism and Sartre in particular, Lacan recognizes that there is another gaze or look outside that of the subject’s own (Lacan 1981, 67–78, 84; Sartre 1956, 252–66). That external gaze is also significant in Foucault’s notions of discipline and spectacle exemplified by the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, where the inmates are visible at all times, but the guards are invisible: “visibility is a trap” (Foucault 1977, 200–7).

These concerns are also of central interest to feminists who, since the time of Mary Wollstonecraft, have engaged with the problem of women as objects of the male gaze.3 As is often pointed out, John Berger (1972, 47) made the important claim that woman in culture is “to be looked at”:

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Lacan (1981, 75) says something similar in his work on the gaze: “At the very level of the phenomenal experience of contemplation, this all-seeing aspect is to be found in the satisfaction of a woman who knows that she is being looked at, on condition that one does not show her that one knows that she knows.4 Going further, Laura Mulvey argued that in mainstream cinema woman is the passive object for the active male gaze; furthermore, she claimed (esp. 1989b, 19–26) that that structure of viewing is fundamental to male power. Her work has been challenged and developed by others, in particular by those arguing that there are other spec-tatorial positions for women in the audience.5 In a subsequent collection of her essays, Mulvey modified some of her early statements by putting them in the [End Page 195] context of particular moments in feminist politics (1989a, vii; 1989c; see the excellent summary in Stewart 1997, 13–9).6 These hypotheses about the masculinity of the filmic gaze, and its role in objectifying women, raise important questions for my consideration of the gaze in tragedy.

We clearly cannot simply apply modern theories to antiquity, especially a theory of cinema to ancient theater, where, for one thing, many points of view replace single lens of the camera. Moreover, the visual regimes of antiquity and codes of gendered behavior were different from our own. Boys and men were the objects of the gaze, and the primary sign of respectable women’s relationship to the gaze in antiquity was their modesty or aidôs; that in turn was related, at least in ideology, to their relegation to the private sphere, not to be looked at, and to their stereotypically downcast eyes when in public.7 A woman’s failure to lower her eyes might even be taken as a sign of prostitution (Cairns 2005a, 134); hetairai and pornai were in part defined by the fact that they were available to be admired in the case of the former, and possessed in the case of the latter. In a comic fragment from Philemon’s Brothers, the prostitutes “stand there naked, lest you be deceived: look everything over … The door’s open. [Price] one obol; jump right in” (fr. 3 K-A; translation by Kurke 1999, 197). Other comic writers similarly give the impression that women for sale stand about naked, or in transparent garb, and can be bought cheaply (Euboulus, Pannychis, fr...


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