Spectatorship beyond the Male Gaze – Desperately Seeking Susan


In my last post I discussed spectatorship and visual pleasures, in this post I will be looking beyond the male gaze and Laura Mulvey’s views by looking at spectatorship from females’ points of view, with Jackie Stacey’s theories in Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship and Desperately Seeking Difference from Visual Culture: The Reader by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. I will be applying Stacey’s theories to Desperately Seeking Susan (S. Siedelman. 1985).

Stacey argues about Mulvey’s theories of spectatorship being outdated by stating, “These accounts of female spectatorship in the 1980s provide important contributions to understanding the pleasures of Hollywood cinema beyond the rigidity of the model of the voyeuristic and fetishisitic gaze of the masculine spectator. They extend and challenge the Mulveyian model of the male gaze in ways that open up the meanings of sexual difference and the pleasures of cinematic spectatorship” (Stacey, 1993: 27)

Desperately Seeking Susan is a film about a middle class housewife Roberta’s (Rosanna Arquette) fascination with a technically homeless woman Susan (Madonna) who she finds out about through a newspaper column where Susan communicates with a mystery man named Jim (Robert Joy). In a weird series of events, Roberta searches for Susan, buys her jacket from a shop where Susan exchanged it for a pair of shoes and ends up getting amnesia and then convinced that she is Susan.

Roberta’s fascination with Susan was perceived as an innocent and pure young woman who was trying to get a glimpse into this wild woman’s life who she felt she knew as she had been following her messages to this mystery man Jim through a newspaper column for a while. When Roberta decided to go to where Susan said she’d meet Jim, She sits next to Jim not knowing who he is, then follows him once he spots Susan. In the chapter ‘Desperately Seeking Difference’ of Visual Culture: The Reader, Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall write:

“At certain points within Desperately Seeking Susan, Roberta explicitly becomes the bearer of the look. The best illustration of this transgression of traditional gender positionalities occurs in the scene in which she first catches sight of Susan. The shot sequence begins with Jim seeing Susan and is immediately followed with Roberta seeing her. It is, however, Roberta’s point of view which is offered for the spectator’s identification. Her look is specified by the use of the pay-slot telescope through which Roberta, and the spectator, see Susan. In accordance with classic narrative cinema, the object of fascination in Desperately Seeking Susan is a woman- typically, a woman coded as a sexual spectacle.” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 58)

Throughout Desperately Seeking Difference, Evans and Hall compare the two characters of Roberta and Susan against each other, describing them as binary opposites. Roberta is a quiet, lonely, conservative, married, “asexual” young lady, whereas Susan is an outgoing, loud, bold, confident, sexualised character, which appears Roberta strives to be. The relationship between Roberta and Susan is almost homo-erotic, and Roberta is even questioned whether she is a lesbian, but this is the only time their relationship is seen as anything more than just fascination between one stranger to another. If Roberta was a man, the fascination would definitely seem inappropriate, because a woman following a woman is friendly but a man following a woman could be seen as harassment.

Although Mulvey’s theories are a bit outdated, it does still apply to the film. For example, Mulvey explores how women are placed in films to be looked at and are usually the cause of problems. In Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan is displayed as a sexual character who is always being shown as a sexual object through the camera, and through her costume. On the other hand, Roberta is a nuisance because she creates a problem by following Susan in the first place; getting her jacket and then amnesia and being convinced she is Susan, creating confusion for Dez. This shows that women are still being used as distractions on film and women still have a long way to go in the film industry where eventually and hopefully, their roles won’t only consist of being the distraction or the problem.



Stacey, J. (1993) Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. Routledge. London.

Gamman, L. (1999). Desperately Seeking Difference. In: Evans, J. and Hall, S Visual Culture: The Reader. Open University: Sage Publications. 57-61.


Desperately Seeking Susan. (1985). Directed by S. Siedelman. [Film] USA: Orion Pictures.


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