Observers—sociologists, reformers, inspectors, journalists—have been interested in cinema's audiences virtually since the medium's emergence. Their observations constitute a rich source base for scholars that gives us access, however oblique, into the experiences of moviegoers. As these sources show, motion picture exhibition has been a dynamic social space for subjects marked by gender, race, class, national or regional identity, and age. These various vectors of identity, quite often in concert, shaped how audiences responded to what they saw on the screen, the performative milieu of the theater, and the discursive space of fan magazines and other print venues that published news and advertisements about motion pictures. Around the world, women's filmgoing became a particularly vexed topic, and women emerged as savvy observers of cinema's role in modern society.1 In this short essay, I trace a genealogy (not the genealogy) of feminist scholarship on audiences, sometimes referred to as historical spectatorship, and suggest the generative possibilities of a feminist orientation in historicizing cinema's audiences.

In early scholarly accounts of cinema audiences, most of which focused on the nickelodeon, the contours of women's engagement with cinema were initially subsumed by concerns with class and ethnicity. In their considerations of American cinema, for example, Lary May and Robert Sklar argued that moviegoing became the site of a struggle for control over American mass culture, as the middle classes sought to exert control over the nickelodeon's working-class, ethnic audience.2 When labor historian Roy Rosenzweig wrote about turn-of-the-twentieth-century workers in Worcester, Massachusetts, he recognized moviegoing as a part of a complex of leisure spaces that cultivated a politically active ethnic middle class.3 

This attention to the lived experience of everyday people can also be seen in scholarship from the period that purposefully centered women's experiences in relationship to the cinema. Two scholars in particular were especially influential and continue to be cited regularly. In 1980, immigration historian Elizabeth Ewen took up film as a part of a complex of what she called “agencies of mass impression” that shaped immigrant life in New York City. Leaving the category of woman more or less unproblematized, Ewen argued that motion pictures “became a mediation between traditional culture and the emergent terms of modern life.”4 In 1986, feminist historian Kathy Peiss revisited the lives of young, working women in New York to craft an account of the leisure culture they inhabited, which included the moving picture show. Peiss had taken seriously historian Joan Scott's charge to “examine the ways in which gendered identities are substantively constructed.”5 Thus, rather than focusing on intergenerational conflict, a persistent question in immigration history, Peiss highlighted the role of commercialized leisure, including motion pictures, in the shift from “homosocial to heterosocial culture” and the emergence of new gender norms.6 

A preoccupation with women's relationships to consumer culture likewise animates research that sought to provide a historical grounding for feminist film theory's assertions about the ways cinema addressed female spectators or audiences.7 Miriam Hansen built on the work of Ewen and Peiss, to which she added knowledge of the shift in modes of filmic address from early cinema to the classical paradigm as she sought to understand film's gendered address during the silent period. If Ewen and Peiss understood cinema as part of the commercialization of leisure in urban spaces, Hansen appealed to the more capacious term “consumer culture” to evoke cinema's status as both “agent and object” of a marketplace newly open to women.8 Hansen was explicit in her desire to historicize the insights of feminist film theory. Audiences, she argued, did not encounter the cinema as “an expression of an essential and ostensibly timeless symbolic order.”9 Gaylyn Studlar similarly declared that in investigating how American cinema addressed its presumably female audience in the 1920s, she sought to “complicate speculative theories of spectatorship and gender that posit classical Hollywood cinema as a relatively transhistorical and monolithic entity subjecting women to predictably powerful and oppressive effects.”10 Significantly, while Hansen approached the historical female audience via filmic texts, a method familiar to film studies scholars, Studlar looked to the previously disregarded fan magazine for evidence of how cinema addressed its female audience.

The work that followed drew on both social history and this body of theoretically informed film history. When Lauren Rabinovitz trained her analysis on women in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century, she attended not only to the contours of the social experience of moviegoing but also to the “historically specific relationships between viewer and object seen.”11 In Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (2000), Shelley Stamp revisited the female audience in New York after the nickelodeon craze.12 Scholars had argued that in the transition to classical narrative, which encouraged a genteel form of spectatorship, exhibitors had cultivated middle-class female audiences. Stamp's close analysis of a range of historical sources—advertisements, editorial cartoons, articles penned by concerned journalists, and studies by sociologists, as well as films themselves—showed that even this desirable audience frequently confounded the expectations of exhibitors and society at large. This work, which offered such compelling models for theoretically informed historical analysis, focused primarily on urban areas in the United States and on white women. Patrice Petro's examination of the female audience in Weimar Germany is an important exception, as is Kathryn Fuller-Seeley's account of the role of rural and small-town audiences in the creation of a national film culture.13 

These two bodies of scholarship drew new attention to vectors of identity beyond gender. Scholars working at the intersection of African American history and film studies would address the question of race and historical audiences. For example, Mary Carbine argues that Chicago's African American theaters functioned as “a place where racial identity could be asserted.”14 In her landmark book Migrating to the Movies (2005), Jacqueline Najuma Stewart elaborates on the ways that “Black urban spectators used the cinema as a public, collective arena in which to demonstrate their social progress.”15 Other recent work has taken up a spatial turn toward what I think of as geographies of spectatorship in which the movement of audiences or of cultural objects plays a central role in an analysis of the social experience of cinema. Transnationally oriented examples of this attention to space include my own analysis of audiences in greater Mexico during the 1920s—audiences for whom race, gender, and national identity became central to their experience of American films and modern Mexican nationalism—and Megan Feeney's analysis of Cuban spectatorship, via discourse about the film distribution business and critical writing about American films, as a site for the construction of prerevolutionary masculinity.16 In the context of the United States, Cara Caddoo's work examines the African American film cultures of Southern towns and cities.17 On another scale, Annie Fee's revalorization of the midinette uses a micro-archival approach to study female spectatorship in a specific Parisian neighborhood in the interwar period.18 

Feminist approaches to the study of audiences, with their focus on the relationship between modernity and gender, have likewise inspired inquiries into film culture—production, distribution, exhibition, and reception—that situates cinema in urban spaces and visual culture broadly construed. For instance Zhang Zhen's An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema 1896–1937 (2005) explores early Chinese cinema “beyond the silver screen and exhibition spaces” in order to illuminate the relationship between cinema, other cultural forms, and the city of Shanghai.19 Traces of feminist scholarship on film audiences can even be found in work as diverse as Manishita Dass's examination of the response of middle-class Indians to the possibilities of cinema for shaping public culture, and Jasmine Trice's research on how audiences in the Philippines negotiate the national and transnational in the early twenty-first century.20 

In the strands of scholarship I have traced here, historical approaches have taken precedence. Ethnography, which to date has primarily animated studies of television audiences, has been mobilized less frequently. Jackie Stacey's foundational text Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (1994), primarily cited in the context of star studies, offers a model for using ethnographic approaches to answer historical questions.21 In her research Stacey solicited responses from British women about their memories of female Hollywood stars of the 1940s and 1950s, which allowed her to theorize women's perspectives on the images of femininity offered by Hollywood. Though not explicitly feminist in the way that Star Gazing is, Brian Larkin's account of the cinema as a social space in Lagos, Nigeria, and Lakshmi Srinivas's exploration of the collective aspects of filmgoing in contemporary India remind us of ethnography's power as an analytical tool and offer models for conducting research on contemporary topics.22 

That the influence of feminist scholarship on audiences and reception can be traced across time periods (though much of the work done thus far focuses on the silent period) and geographical contexts should not be a surprise. The urge to understand female audiences and their relationship to cinema is undergirded by a broad feminist methodology that places difference at the center of any analysis. Scholars working in this field share an orientation toward evidence, demonstrated in Studlar's mining of American fan magazines, Stamp's careful reading of advertisements, Stewart's imaginative use of literature as evidence of spectatorial practices, my own mining of conservative women's publications, and Fee's use of fan letters, that values the ephemeral or the overlooked in attempting to trace the contours of an essentially fleeting experience. Finally, if there is a through line that simultaneously links the various contributions to this body of literature, it is a willingness to make space for complexity. Rather than seeking unified theories, historicizing the experiences of social subjects has involved acknowledging what Nan Enstad calls the “utopian promises” and “painful limitations” of the cinema and seeking to unravel how everyday people used cinema to fashion themselves as social and political subjects within the confines of what Hansen called “historically concrete contours, conflicts, and possibilities.”23 Much work remains to be done in other time periods, places, and political and social contexts to expand our understanding of how identities—for example woman, working class, and Black—shape audiences’ encounters with film texts and with the institution of cinema.


The primary sources collected in Antonia Lant, ed., Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (New York: Verso, 2006), provide a broad panorama of women's critical engagement with cinema.
Lary May, Screening out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Random House, 1975). This has been referred to as the embourgeoisement thesis. See Lee Grieveson, “Audiences: Surveys and Debates,” in The Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel (New York: Routledge, 2005), 43.
Roy Rozenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an American City, 1870–1920 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Elizabeth Ewen, “City Lights: Immigrant Women and the Rise of the Movies,” Signs 5, no. 3 (Spring 1980): 547.
Joan Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1068–69.
Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 6.
The two figures most often referred to in feminist work on audiences and reception are Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (October 1975): 6–18; and Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23, nos. 3/4 (September 1982): 74–88.
Miriam Hansen, “Early Cinema: Whose Public Sphere?,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (London: BFI, 1990), 231.
Miriam Hansen, “The Adventures of Goldilocks: Spectatorship, Consumerism and Public Life,” Camera Obscura 8, no. 1 (January 1990): 52. The connections between “public life” and spectatorship that Hansen elaborates in this essay would become the historicization of the development of spectatorship as a meaningful concept and shifts in the public sphere in Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
Gaylyn Studlar, “The Perils of Pleasure: Fan Magazine Discourse as Women's Commodified Culture in the 1920s,” Wide Angle 13, no. 1 (January 1991): 7.
Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 11.
Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representations in Weimar Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Kathryn H. Fuller, At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).
Mary Carbine, “The Finest Outside the Loop: Motion Picture Exhibition in Chicago's Black Metropolis 1905–1928,” Camera Obscura 8, no. 2 (May 1990): 32.
Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17.
Laura Isabel Serna, Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican Film Culture before the Golden Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Megan Feeney, “Hollywood in Havana: Film and Revolutionary Nationalism in Cuba before 1959” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2009).
Cara Caddoo, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
Annie Fee, “Les Midinettes Révolutionnaires: The Activist Cinema Girl in 1920s Montmartre,” Feminist Media Histories 3, no. 4 (Fall 2017): 162–94.
Zhang Zhen, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema 1896–1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), xxv.
Manishita Dass, Outside the Lettered City: Cinema, Modernity, and the Public Sphere in Colonial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Jasmine Trice, “Transnational Cinema, Transcultural Capital: Cinema Distribution and Exhibition in Metro-Manila, Philippines 2006–2009” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2009).
Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Brian Larkin, “Immaterial Urbanism and the Cinematic Event,” in Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 146–67; Lakshmi Srinivas, House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor: Girls of Adventure Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 2; Hansen, Babel and Babylon, 14.