When watching a film, it can often feel like you are the passive recipient of the filmmakers’ work. You sit in your seat, listening and watching what is being presented to you, but there is more to the viewing process than this. There are additional dynamics at play that make you less of a passive recipient of meaning and more of an active participant interpreting the films themselves. Spectatorship is a complex process where labeling one as active or passive is determined much more by just the content of the film and the methods of viewership. Numerous social factors are involved and the viewers’ backgrounds come into play as well. The question of the meaning that the filmmakers put into the story also exists, as there is not a binary: yes, you understood the meaning, and no, you did not. Meaning is complicated and the process by which it is uncovered and understood can be more multifaceted. The best way this can be uncovered and potentially understood is by examining a few different films and the different ways in which viewers create meaning, or are told to create meaning by the social systems they are a part of.
What Does It Mean To Be a Passive Spectator?
Traditional theories of spectatorship posit that film only has meaning when it is received and decoded by audiences in the way that the filmmakers specifically encoded it. But in exploring the concept further, you can find that passive spectatorship is where the audience comes away from a film with the author’s intended meaning. Meanwhile, active spectatorship could be understood as audiences negotiate with the filmmaker, creating meaning and interpreting the film in a particular way that is influenced by their experiences. In the traditional conception of passive and active spectatorship, a passive spectator watching Avengers: Endgame (2019) will come away from the film understanding the importance of teamwork and that the end does not justify the means in the form of the villain Thanos. Alternatively, the active spectator can also examine this message critically, realizing that the same condemnation of “the end justifies the means” can also be applied to the heroes doing the same thing. They give him the time stone and sacrifice half of all life so that they can beat him later, bringing everyone back to life in an even more fractured universe. Most spectators do not fall into either the passive or active role, but instead, they fluctuate between the two. A viewer can passively receive the meaning of the film while also actively looking for and constructing meaning that matches their lived experiences and beliefs. There is no singular meaning that a film can illustrate that resonates with all viewers identically. Subsequently, regarding a film’s spectator as only being active or passive is reductive.
Simultaneous to the viewer passively receiving meaning from the filmmaker and actively seeking personal meaning, there is an additional layer of the passive and active binary at play. Viewers initially make an active choice to see a film, so their actual viewing behaviors in regards to the film will always be secondary to their first active choice to see it in the first place. Someone can go see the new action blockbuster and sit there digesting everything that the filmmaker put in front of them, directly accepting the author’s intended meaning, but they actively press play on the movie at home or go to the theater, making them an active spectator in the process. Although this might be true, it can be argued this active choice is not made by the spectator at all, but by the larger social systems that fictitiously create our reality.
One of the best vehicles for breaking down this paradoxical passive/active spectator is looking at our relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series is large enough that it garnered viewers from a variety of perspectives with widely varying interpretations regarding meaning and themes; different viewers attach themselves to characters and ideas. A strong aspect as to why certain viewers feel the need to be so outspoken in regards to their fandom or hate for these characters and ideas is the prominence of fan culture in general. Social media helped bring fandoms more to the mainstream and with this new stage, everyone feels as if they have a voice and a reason to share their opinions, or have an opinion on everything in the first place. When the MCU launched with Iron Man’s release in 2008, social media was still in its infancy, and fans who were online were not pumping out the same volume and type of content that exists today. Today, many internet figures created their entire public brand off of speaking out against dominant media and social trends.
Active & Passive Spectators
Right-wing internet personality The Quartering is one of these figures, brought to prominence in the Gamergate era of pop culture internet hate. Today, he publishes a scathing critique anytime that popular series create a new character or series that involves some form of diversity and inclusion. He and the many others like him populating spaces like YouTube and Twitter are not passive spectators accepting what is shown to them at face value. Rather, their ‘active spectatorship’—where they create their own interpretations of media—consists of actions they have been conditioned into which contributes to a culture where their opinions were given recognition in the first place. People have centered their whole identity around hate and reacting to the point that it has become self-perpetuating. These figures are very active in these online spaces, picking apart meaning and ideas from the media they consume, but by going along with the motions, they have become a passive cog in the machine they created. New media is not critically examined by these figures in the pursuit of meaning, but rather it is passively itemized as supporting or opposing the narrative that they created.
A similar cycle can be seen in the way viewers responded to Squid Game (2021). The Korean show, which came out earlier this year, follows a group of characters participating in a deadly game where they compete for money that can absolve them of their debts. The series critiques capitalism and the classic disparity and economic struggles that the creator experienced in his own life in South Korea. It wears this critique on its sleeve, but some viewers still had trouble recognizing it or refused to recognize this because it does not fit in the established worldview that they abide by where the myth of meritocracy and capitalism rule. Right-wing reactionary Tim Pool claimed that the show is actually sending an anti-communist message, arguing that the characters in the show participating in the game are workers controlled by all-powerful billionaire elites. He specifically points toward a moment in the show where the leader of the games punishes cheaters, emphasizing that equality between all players is important. This leader is a villain deceiving these players though, and all other aspects of the game oppose this meritocratic idea. Many of the games dole out unequal challenges to the players at random, rendering the idea of ‘equality’ as fictional. Figures like Pool are not going to promote or talk about a new piece of media and support it if it is critiquing a system that they advocate for. Rather, they are reactionary figures who find a way to justify their worldview while simultaneously condemning others. An active, politically-minded perspective can put a viewer on autopilot where different aspects of media are accepted and rejected depending on the ideology they meet. This ostensibly ‘active’ position is truly ‘passive’ in that the viewer is less so assessing the work independently of their worldview, but rather letting their worldview dictate the way they interpret media.
Does it Affect Your Experience?
Bringing all of these examples back to the passive and active spectatorship question, being a passive spectator amounts to a lot more than just being a recipient of a piece of media’s authorial meaning. Being passive also means taking a piece of media and supporting or criticizing it before you even watch it; your mind is made up already because your rigid ideology rejects any other alternate ideas or themes. This kind of fandom or antagonism for a text takes the agency away from the spectator and puts it solely in the hands of the text. An active spectator can examine a piece of media, create their own interpretation of the piece’s meaning and value—aligning with the author, running against it, or somewhere in the middle—without letting their preconceived notions dictate their response. An active spectator can recognize all the different strings attached to not only the media they are experiencing, but the conditions with which they are experiencing it as well.
These active spectators help to create a strong media environment where the viewer is empowered and able to create meaning with filmmakers and storytellers. The media environment we exist in today—where the viewer goes to bat for whichever team they are on—does not facilitate this. It instead perpetuates filmmakers to be lazy and fill their works with signifiers that will gain support regardless of the intention. Thankfully, some filmmakers still create challenging works today, and there are more active spectators than ever before pushing this as well with their provoking analyses and apt criticisms. More thoughtful media is being put out than ever before, the spectator just needs to wake up and find it.