Evaluate the Lacanian Mirror Stage for Theorizing Film Spectatorship

Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who introduced the mirror stage theory in the mid-20th century. In his theory, he associated the psychology theory of self-recognition with the abilities that infants have in their early years and especially when their vision fully develops. The babys seeing ability expands faster that the rest of the senses, like body response and thinking capacity. Hence, a child faces a difficult situation when they come across a mirror (Lacan, 76). The discovery of the baby effect by Lacan was an essential part of the psychoanalysis as it opened a chance of evaluating how such first-time recognition of self was critical to the future of the infant development. It also raised questions about the reality behind the children identifying themselves while they are too young to have cognitive values, resulting in the aspect of fantasy. The theory was later utilized by film theorists Jean Baudry and Louis Althusser, who associated it with the spectatorship in the movie industry. They argued that the theory of mirror is directly represented in the relationship between the film spectators and the film itself (Althusser 10). This paper will establish a psychoanalysis connection that exist between the mirror stage theory and cinema spectatorship as applied by two cinema theorists named Jean Baudry and Louis Althusser. Specifically, it will focus on the element of fantasy and egoism that babies and spectators experience in the mirror and film respectively.

The Relation between Mirror Stage and Film Spectatorship

Mirror Stage

The mirror stage is the period in an infants life from six to eighteen months. During this time, according to Lacan, the infants have a good visual ability such that they can recognize themselves in the mirror (Lacan 75). To demonstrate that child can acknowledge their image at this stage through their small imagery cognitive power, he states that gorillas are also able to recognize their pictures in the mirror but ignore them immediately unlike the babies.

Thus, he establishes that there is always a connection between the first self-image of an infant in a mirror and the infants mind. But babies at this age have less motor coordination and they are always confused when they look at the image in the mirror as it appear less unrealistic compared to that image of a care giver (Lacan 76). However, this contradiction is believed to bring fragmentation in the babys mind and visions and, thus, they accept the image in the mirror as their imagenary reflection and start developing their reality based on that model.

The real world appearance of images according to a babys mind is determined by the image of nurturers like the mother. According to this theory, a child identifies themselves with mirror initially, but after a little while they look to the caretaker next to them and realize that the reality in the mirror is not real (Lacan 80). It is suggested that the baby looks away with a gesture to tell the caregiver to come and remove the unreal image from the mirror. However, it worth noting that the reality of the babys image remains real to them as long as they are concentrating on the image.

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Lacan observed that this stage was not just a vision development stage in an infant, but also a phase in which the babies started developing their emotional experience. The acceptance of once image means that the child starts developing a self-realization which determines their future ego (Lacan 78). They start seeking not only the image but also their desires, their organization as well as experience in the mirror images which contribute a lot to informing them about their self’. The mirrors stage plays an important role in infants’ mental development as well realizing the relationship between body and image.

Relation of Mirror Stage to Spectators by Jean Baudry and Louis Althusser

Both Jean Baudry and Louis Althusser wrote on how the idea of mirror stage could be theorized further to represent the film spectatorships. They first observed that movie spectators had a lot of commonality with the infants who were looking in the mirror for the first time. The main commonality found was that both the spectators and the babies had no real direct attachment to the film and image respectively (Althusser 11). The infants did not have a direct link to their images as their reflections appeared fragmented to them. On the other hand, the film spectators had no connection to the cinema as they did not take any part in acting, but remained passive all the time.

The argument developed by these film theorists was that movie screen was similar to a mirror as far as spectators were concerned. The spectators, just like infants, can identify themselves in the film screen, but yet the cinema is not their real reflection. This behavior is believed to be this way because the spectators can identify themselves in a movie. Then, they became very connected due to its role in giving viewers their primary identification (Baudry 41). The viewers are thus an active and critical part of the film as it communicates to them on who there are. They perceive that message by finding their identity within the movie.

The technology plays a major role in the above spectatorship concept as this technology brings a more improved experience to the film world. One thing about the filmmaking industry is that they use modern cameras that capture all the events -important or less important- taking place in a film. The modern cameras are colored and very clear, so they allow the views to see all the events happening as clearly as if they were a part of such incidents. The cameras are omnipresent. They do not miss a thing, unlike other communication media like novels and non-visual acting (Baudry 42). It is this visual ability which is evident and profound that enables the separators to identify themselves as part of the film. The spectators particularly are more connected to the movie because of their ability not to be seen by the cameras. They are hidden but are all seeing, hence, they behave like the God as far as the film images are concerned.

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The mirror stage theory states that a baby loses their connection when they face away from the mirror as they gain a new reality of a real image from a caregiver. Similarly, the identification of the spectators to the film can be lost if the perception of seeing it all can be altered (Althusser 15). The viewers do not see a camera during a video. Thus, they perceive the whole film as a reality. However, if the cameras are introduced to the spectators, the lose their identification with the film. Now it appears like a production, rather than a real world situation. It is for this reasons that filmmakers in Hollywood always hide their cameras to ensure that spectators always identify themselves with the film.

Just because a child lacks cognitive power to recognize themselves in a mirror, it is believed that infants either fantasize with the mirror in their early months or identify themselves with the image and start creating a self-ego. Either way, both these perceptions have been detailed by theorists. It is suggested that spectators either fantasize or establishe their identity with the film (Baudry 44). The above arguments are both psychoanalytic views associated with the films and will be illustrated below on how each of them can occur in a cinema setting.

Fantasy in Mirror Stage and in Film Spectatorship

Fantasy is a frictional generic where supernatural powers and abilities are used and the viewers can connect with such images. Psychoanalysts including Freud and Lacan have linked fantasy to the imaginary world because when an individual fanaticizes, they use supernatural images. However, fantasies are just illusions that people get in their imaginations and have nothing to do with reality (Althusser 12). One thing about fantasies that makes them different from other generics like science fiction is that they have the consistency and self-coherence when used. The magic and the impossible world that is employed in fantasy is so consistent that the view of fantasy gets a direct connection to the picture as if it is real.

Mirror Stage Fantasy

After Lacan had introduced his psychoanalysis work about the mirror stage, further analysis into this behavior indicated that babies do not actually recognize their image in the mirror until they are above fifteen months of age. The kids are attracted to the mirrors and concentrate on them not because they see their reflections, but because they just fanaticize about the image they see in the mirror (Evans 60). Lack of reliable cognitive power at their tender age is one of the indications that prove that they do not see any reality in the mirror.

Seeing an extraordinary image that appears different from babies actual reality is the main reason that make infants fantasize about the image they see in the mirror. They just picture such images being their reflection although they do not actually believe it is their inflection (Evans 61). The fantasy of such image is consistent as the mirror image remains intact, thus, the babies continue to imagine that the image is their own as long it mimics their behavior every time they stand in front of a mirror.

Film Spectators Fantasy

Film spectatorship has also been linked to fantasy by the Jean Baudry and Louis Althusser. These two theorists claim that in a film the spectators can connect with the movie because they fantasize about the screen and apply it to real-world situations (Baudry 42). The consistency and coherent creation of the films influence the mind of the viewers so they are left fantasizing about how real the film images and screen are.

The above argument is illustrated by the behavior of spectators once they watch a film. During the time of watching, most of them remain quiet and directly concentrated on the events in the film. However, it is observed that after the film, each person narrates a personal experience on how the film appeared to them (Baudry 43). They even give different versions of how they would preferred the movie to be concluded. This serves as evidence that each viewer fantasizes differently while watching the film, and it is these fantasies that connect them to the cinema.

The fantasy that these theorists observed is well illustrated in Bollywood productions and especially in the development of a classic film Mahal. Hsu in her analysis of the Bollywood production noted that almost all movies produced had a number of unexpected twists which drew more spectators to the movies (Hsu 1). She stated that that area of ambiguity in all films was very critical, as it ensured that most spectators created a connection to the actors through their fantasy. This space of reality also enabled the views to create different responses toward different movies, screen, and actors. Hence, it ensures that different types of fantasy are created.

In her analysis of the fantasy created in the cinema, she observed that there was always a paradoxical effect on the part of the views in knowing what to believe and not at the same time. The fantasy is created when spectators are confused on what to feel between the reality that they are aware of and the reality created in the movie (Hsu 3). The confusion at this stage makes viewers pay attention to the film. Hence, they create their fantasy. A good example that Hsu uses is that of a ghost woman in the movie Mahal.

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The ghost women in this film came back from the past to claim the love that she had with a man. A ghost in the real world is regarded as fictional, but when people perceive it, they think of an evil thing that should be avoided in the society (Hsu 5). The expectation is that a ghost should be an evil character and other characters should triumpf at the end. However, the opposite occurs in this film which proves that spectators only fantasize when they look at a film.

The ghost in this movie appears by a real woman from the past that had come back to seek love from a man. The ghost woman is humble and entirely innocent so the man can identify her innocence even without seeing her (Hsu 9). The man is thus convinced and ends up loving the ghost woman despite that not being the norm in the Indian society. At the end of the film, neither the actors nor the ghost are represented as evil, and a spectator has no options but to accept cinema reality concerning this ghost.

The film is a classic representation of the mirror image as it represent how viewers of the movie can connect to it, and yet nothing within it is real to them. They can identify themselves with the film because they fantasize about the reality of the movie rather than the actual reality. If the ghost was represented as evil, then the audience could fantasize about the sadnes and awfulness in the society (Hsu 10). However, because the ghost was represented as good and loving, spectators, just like babies in the mirror, can accept it in their reality.

The change in the dynamic paradigm of human reality is the main reason that makes this movie so appealing to its viewers. Hsu observed that most films in Bollywood are made with various paradigmatic elements, and the more the elements are used , the more the film becomes appealing to people (Hsu 8). These differences have been analyzed in psychoanalysis to mean the fantasy that viewers have on a screen.

Fantasy is also revealed in the movie Daddy that Isabelle Jordan examines in her article on cinema and sovereign powers. In her review, she determined how the spectators connected with the character of Niki, who was a controversial but positive character. Niki has a bad feeling about the patriarchy in the society and thus her sexuality is created based on her feelings toward men (Jordan 614). It is more feminist-themed with most and the issues raised in the film touch on the psychology of the spectatorship.

In the first part of the movies, Niki is a young girl who finds a lot of difficulties in the real world where patriarchy is the order of the society. The men are domineering, and thus, the first screen depicts a rape where a woman is forced into a sexual act by a person referred to as the father. According to Jordan, during this part of the movies, the spectators can connect with the film as most themes at this stage do not divert from the norms in the society (615). Men being the domineering force and harassing women had been witnessed before by the audience and thus it was normal to them.

The second part of the movies is where controversy occurs. Niki believes that she is a big girl and attempt to get revenge. Her dead daddy was glued to a wheelchair. Niki at this screen tries to show her father that she is in love with another woman, and she even seduces her in the film (Jordan 617). According to Jordan, the film brought a greater turn of events into the spectators minds than they were expecting. It created a gap between the actual reality and the movie reality, and thus, a sense of fantasy developed in the viewers minds.

In the last part, Niki accepts that she is in love with daddy and that she will always be with him in life, which is also contradictory as Daddy is already dead. Jordan suggested that this contradiction raises questions on the spectator’s reality of life. In a real world situation, death marks the end of life, but in the movie Niki believes that she will be with her dead daddy for life (Jordan 619). According to Jordans analysis, the above statement is true as far as spectators are concerned. It is based on fantasy. Just like how a baby looks into the mirror and fantasizes on the image in front of them to be theirs, the viewers of this movies accepted the unconventional changes in social factors of these film.

Development of Ego by Use of Imagery

Freud introduced the ego concept in his classical analysis of the human psychology. He argued that humans have an ego that explains who there are in the real life. It is a term used to express the realization of personal existence, the part of an individual identity that a person will always consider being self’. Ego is created in people and is based on the knowledge that they possess a perception toward themselves (Baudry 43). An individual image forms a reflection which is the first tool that people use to create their ego, through such kind of ego can be misinterpreted because of reality gaps.

Ego in Mirror Stage

The coherency that exists in the mirror stage makes the infant create a direct connection between the image that they see and their self. Despite the gact that a child may picture the image in the mirror as just a fantasy to them, the consistency that such image has over time makes a direct impact on the infants (Evans 7). As long as the child is facing the mirror, there is always a direct connection to that image with that of the baby and with time, the image means more than just a fantasy to them.

Due to the consistency in the fantasy that the baby pictures in the mirror, aninfant creates a self-understanding based on such image. The self-understanding also refers to the ego that a child creates based on the imagery that they see (Evans 15). This ego occurs in a reality gap as it does not reflect what the baby is like but is based on consistency and coherent occurrence of the image once a baby looks in the mirror.

Ego on Film Spectatorship

The films also create a sense of self-realization to the spectators as they can identify themselves based on the actors and events in the movie. The ego gained in this stage is said to have a reality gap as it is accompanied by the fantasy that viewers get from a film (Spellerberge 27). The said difference occurs because the reality in the real world is different from the reality in the movie, and thus there is an expectation that any ego gained from the film is not based on actual reality in the world.

James Spellerberge in his writing about the CinemaScope and Ideology observed that ideologies are used in the creation of cinema, and thus films are ideological in nature. The thinking behind a film is integrated into its image, and thus, spectators can connect to such ideologies by having a direct identification with them (Spellerberge 28). Those ideas are constructed with current technology, and thus films are more influential to their spectators when a more advanced technology is used. According to Spellerberge, the scope addressed in the movies is divided into three main pillars that determine the ideology to be passed through a film. These components include the economy, disclose, and the technological CinemaScope.

Based on Spellerberge argument, the spectators are not aware of the reality in the film and try to identify themselves based on the ideology intertwined in the cinema. They are just like an infant in the mirror who gains self-image recognition by standing in front of a mirror without been aware that the image in front of them is theirs (Spellerberge 30). The identification of the hidden ideology by the spectators creates a healthy relationship between the film and the viewers, which helps the viewers create a self-realization image.

The culture and the psychological reality of audiences assist them to react differently to different movies, scenes, and personalities. Spectators autonomously create a personal picture of the film. Such particular image is used by the viewers to create their ego. The ego gained from the movie is believed to have a reality gap as it is based on the fantasy from the film, rather than a real world situation (Spellerberge 34). The above is comparable to a childs fantasy of a self-image, during the mirror stage as the baby also does not recognize the reality in the real world.


In conclusion, the above documentation has evaluated how Jean Baudry and Louis Althusser film theorists succeeded in their application of Lacanian psychoanalysis of mirror stage on cinema spectatorship, by focusing on the element of fantasy and egoism. The success of these two theorists has been examined based on their analysis of the relation of mirrors stage and film spectatorship. One of the aspects that the analysis has focused on is the relationship between the fantasy that occurs in the mirror stage and that which takes place during film spectatorship. The argument has established a psychoanalysis connection between these two aspects and has concluded that they both share the element of fantasy. It has also been argued that just like how mirror stage assists babies to gain their ego through imagery, films help spectators to increase their ego. However, it has been found that ego gained by spectators has reality gaps as it is based on film reality which is a fantasy in the real world.

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