Emory Report
July 6, 2009
Volume 61, Number 34

Look for an author lecture and book signing this fall at the Carlos Museum.


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July 6, 2009
Exploring why we long to look and look too long

By Mary Loftus

A 19th-century etiquette guide had this to say to readers about staring: “It is a mark of ill-breeding, and rightly gives offense.” The history of staring is, in fact, filled with such 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 whose recently released book “Staring: How We Look” explores the myriad causes of gaping, gawking and prolonged gazing.

She analyzes the interaction of the starer and the “staree” – a term Garland-Thomson coined.

Beginning with why we stare (it’s a response to novelty, which captures our attention and arouses our interest, as well as prompting a dopamine rush) and the fact that staring is universal, crossing cultures, countries and centuries, Garland-Thomson moves into the experience of staring, the various types of staring and the ethics of staring.

“Because we both crave and dread unpredictable sights, staring encounters are fraught with anxious contradiction,” she writes.

Each of us 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.

For people who are visually different — such as Garland-Thomson herself, who was born with a congenitally amputated arm — the fact that they frequently will experience being a staree is a given: especially if their disability affects a body site that “inherently draws more attention” because it carries significant cultural meaning, such as faces, hands, breasts or being of greater or lesser size than average.

“Staring is a natural impulse but often a social blunder,” she says.

The staree, however, is not powerless in the staring interaction, posits Garland-Thomson. Many of the “starable” people she interviewed and included in the book 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.

The staring may even culminate in a conversation in which the staree tells the starer how they came to be different, turning the stare into an opportunity for education or for turning sympathy to empathy, especially activism.

Children whose arms had been amputated by machete in the Sierra Leone civil war, for instance, became potent living symbols of the war’s brutality, inspiring the various factions to work together and raising charitable funds around the world. Models who have undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer have posed topless on magazine covers, daring viewers not to look away from their scar.

And the last step, she says, depends on the starers’ receptiveness. “If their visual politics of deliberately structured self-disclosure succeeds, it can create a sense of obligation that primes people to act in new ways: to vote differently, to spend money differently, to build the world differently, to treat people differently and to look at people differently.”