‘The Oppositional Gaze’ by Bell Hooks is the rejection of Laura Mulvey’s paper. It is not just about the male gaze, but there are many different gazes from many different points of view. This paper is specifically about Black Female spectators.
Bell Hooks herself is black, and she introduces the topic to us by sharing from her own experiences. As a child, she was punished for staring, because certain looks were seen as confrontational or challenges to authority. She gives us further background information about how white slave owners punished enslaved black people for looking. She linked how this traumatic relationship to the gaze had informed black parenting and black spectatorship in the modern day. All of these attempts to stop black people from gazing produced an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. That is what Bell Hooks’ paper is all about. The “gaze” has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally.
When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, it was the first time that they could look at white people without being interrogated. However, watching television at all was also engaging in its negation f black representation. Especially in Hollywood movies, black people were either absent or misrepresented in these movies. The response to this was to develop an independent black cinema.
As spectators, black men could look at white womanhood without being murdered or lynched. In the cinema they could enter an imaginative space of phallocentric power (which Mulvey introduced us to) that mediated racial negation.
Most of the black women never went to movies expecting to see ‘compelling representations of black femaleness’. They were all very aware of the absence of black womanhood in mass media. Even when representations of black women were present in film, their bodies and being were there to serve – to enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze (degrading). This continued the cycle of white supremacy. This made going to the cinemas less pleasurable for black women, and sometimes even painful. As one black woman put, “I could always get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep.”
Even mainstream feminist criticism fails to acknowledge black female spectatorship. Many feminist film critics continue to speak about ‘women’ when in actuality they are talking only about ‘white women’.
Analysis and Reaction
In my opinion, Bell Hooks is right about racism. We can’t deny that racism exists in our world, and as a Black Woman living in the United States, I’m sure she has experienced a lot. She uses good, strong arguments as to how there is an absence of blackness in movies. Even before reading her article I have noticed that black male characters are usually the gangsters or comic relief, they silly/stupid/funny guys to laugh at. They act gangster or goofy and sometimes are portrayed in a degrading way. What I’m trying to say that the white dominance of the film industry (and maybe white dominance of American society in general) has an effect on how black characters are portrayed. Bell Hooks shows us how black women are also misrepresented in movies. If they show up at all, they are usually the maid, fairy-god-mother, or some smaller roll there to serve white women. If there is racism in the movie at all it is because the white woman is seen as more desirable than the black woman.
However, Bell Hooks is only focusing on one oppositional gaze – the gaze of a black woman. However, black women aren’t the only people treated like second-class citizens in this world. In Asia there are many people groups that are looked down upon. Bell Hooks does a good job at rejecting Mulvey’s ideas, but just like Mulvey, she is only really defending one group of people.