Autumn 2009: Of Note

Portrait of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Wide-eyed: The act of staring is less passive and more interactive than it may seem, says Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.

Billy Howard/Special

Gaping, gawking, and gazing

Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson looks into why we stare

Garland-Thomson headshot

Q&A with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

What’s the difference between a glimpse, a glance, a gaze, a leer/ogle, and a stare?

Staring is a very engaged kind of looking because our eyes and brains are working hard to make sense of what we’re staring at. We usually stop staring when the novelty wears off.

What sorts of things are we all prone to stare at?

Staring is a universal physiological impulse among sighted people—an ocular startle in response to novel stimuli. We stare at strangers, for example, because they look different from the kinds of people we are used to seeing. A blue-haired, pierced punk may draw stares walking around a staid American suburb but may not even get a glance on the late-night subway in lower Manhattan.

What compels us to stare? And why is it considered rude?

Staring is a strong physical urge, a kind of hunger of the eye, that we have trouble controlling. Staring is considered rude because people generally don’t like getting undue attention that they don’t request or control. Staring interrupts the normal routine of just anonymously moving through our day by making both starers and starees feel exposed.

Facebook, YouTube, and reality TV shows seem to imply a generation of people saying, “Stare at me.” Are society’s feelings about staring changing? 

Inviting someone to look at you intently and presenting yourself the way you want to be seen is a way to capture our physiological urge to stare and use it for your own purposes. This is perhaps why so many of us are using technologies like Facebook and YouTube as virtual staring encounters that offer an opportunity for deliberate self-expression.

Any advice on how to best handle unwanted stares? 

People who get stared at a lot become experienced at managing others’ stares. Visibly disabled people, especially those with unusual appearances or functioning, tend to be stared at in social settings. Some of these “expert starees” can invite, extend, or discourage a stare with simply a word or a look.

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By Mary J. Loftus

The history of staring is filled with admonitions and cautionary tales, from the myth of Medusa, who turned men to stone with her stare, to the yanking away of bug-eyed children by their mortified mothers.

“We stare at what interests us. We stare to make the unknown known, to make sense of the unexpected,” says Professor of Women’s Studies Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a cultural critic and pioneering researcher in disability studies who wrote the recently released book Staring: How We Look.

Garland-Thomson analyzes the interaction of the starer and the “staree”—a word she coined when she couldn’t find a suitable existing term for the person receiving the stare.

Staring, she finds, is a response to a novelty that captures our attention and arouses our interest. The action, which is universal, also prompts a dopamine rush. “Because we both crave and dread unpredictable sights, staring encounters are fraught with anxious contradiction,” she writes.

Each of us, she says, has had the experience of being both a starer and a staree. Staring can be a show of dominance, a sign of flirtation, or an instinctual reaction to a sight that is shocking, frightening, confusing, or unexpected.

People who are visually different—such as Garland-Thomson herself, who was born with a congenitally amputated arm—frequently experience being a staree, especially if their disability affects a body site that draws attention because it carries significant cultural meaning, such as the face, hands, or breasts. “Staring is a natural impulse,” she says, “but often a social blunder.”

The staree is not powerless in the interaction, posits Garland-Thomson. Many of the “starable” people she interviewed have devised ways to command control of the staring encounter. For example, Kevin Connolly, who was born legless, became a traveling documentary photographer, taking photos of people’s reactions when they saw him—and turning the tables, so to speak.

Starees can use the encounter as an opportunity for education, empathy, even activism. Models who have had mastectomies due to cancer, for example, have posed topless on magazine covers. “There are those who deliberately provoke stares to get attention, recognition, or to just shake things up,” Garland-Thomson says. “People need and want to be looked at, but they want to be seen on their own terms.”

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