Gloria Jean Watkins
The Oppositional Gaze (2003) by bell hooks
In this article written by American feminist scholar, bell hooks, we are given a deep and insightful look into the concept of black female spectatorship in media. hooks writes on the topic of looking relations – how looking, or “gazing” at something has the potential to be political. This article gives us understanding of racist and sexist tropes within mainstream media, and also how we as spectators may resist their oppression through looking with an Oppositional Gaze.
Gloria Jean Watkins (better known as bell hooks) is an American feminist and social activist, whose extensive career in writing and activism has covered topics such as race, gender, class, sexuality and media. As a black woman born in 1952 in America, hooks draws on her own experiences of adversity and systems of oppression to paint a picture of how our society produces and perpetuates oppression and class domination. hooks’ work is still incredibly relevant, and her voice is an inspiration to us all.
“That all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.’ ”
“Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that “looks” to document, one that is oppositional. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating “awareness” politicizes “looking” relations – one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.”
The Oppositional Gaze – Bell Hooks (2003)
Transcribed by Nick Ford for the African Climate Alliance
When thinking about black female spectators, I remember being punished as a child for staring, for those hard intense direct looks children would give grown-ups, looks that were seen as confrontational, as gestures of resistance, challenges to authority. The “gaze” has always been political in my life. Imagine the terror felt by the child who has come to understand through repeated punishments that one’s gaze can be dangerous. The child who has learned so well to look the other way when necessary. Yet, when punished, the child is told by parents, “Look at me when I talk to you.” Only, the child is afraid to look. Afraid to look, but fascinated by the gaze. There is power in looking.
Amazed the first time I read in history classes that white slave-owners (men, women, and children) punished enslaved black people for looking, I wondered how this traumatic relationship to the gaze had informed black parenting and black spectatorship. The politics of slavery, racialised by power relations, were such that slaves were denied their right to gaze. Connecting this strategy of domination to that used by grown folks in southern black rural communities where I grew up, I was pained to think that there was no absolute difference between whites who had oppressed black people and ourselves. Years later, reading Michel Foucault, I thought again about these connections, about the ways power and domination reproduce itself in different locations employing similar apparatuses, strategies, and mechanisms of control. Since I knew as a child that the dominating power adults exercised over me and over my gaze was never so absolute that I did not dare to look, to sneak a peep, to stare dangerously, I knew that the slaves had looked. That all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: “Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.” Even in the worse circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency. In much of his work, Michel Foucault insists on describing dominations in terms of “relations of power” as part of an effort to challenge the assumption that “power is a system of domination which controls everything and which leaves no room for freedom.” Emphatically stating that in all relations of power “there is necessarily the possibility of resistance,” he invites the critical thinker to search those margins, gaps, and locations on and through the body where agency can be found.
Stuart Hall calls for recognition of our agency as black spectators in his essay “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Speaking against the construction of white representations of blackness as totalizing, Hall says of white presence: “The error is not to conceptualize this ‘presence’ in terms of power, but to locate that power as wholly external to us, as an extrinsic force, whose influence can be thrown off like the serpent sheds its skin.” What Frantz Fanon reminds us, in Black Skin, White Masks, is how power is inside as well as outside:
The movements, the attitudes, the glances of the Other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye. I was indignant; I demanded an explanation. Nothing happened. I burst apart. Now the fragments have been put together again by another self. This “look”, from – so to speak – the place of the Other, fixes us, not only in its violence, hostility and aggression, but in the ambivalence of its desire.
Spaces of agency exist for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back, and at one another, naming what we see. The “gaze” has been and is a site of resistance for the colonised black people globally. Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that “looks” to document, one that is oppositional. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating “awareness” politicizes “looking” relations – one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.
When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that the mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy. To stare at the television, or mainstream movies, to engage in its images, was to engage in its negation of black representation. It was the oppositional black gaze that responded to these looking relations by developing independent black cinema. Black views of mainstream cinema and television could chart the progress of political movements for racial equality via the construction of images, and did so. Within my family’s southern black working-class home, located in a racially segregated neighbourhood, watching television was one of the ways to develop a critical spectatorship. Unless you went to work in the white world, across the tracks, you learned to look at white people by staring at them on the screen. Black looks, as they were constituted in the context of social movements for racial uplift, were interrogating gazes. We laughed at television shows like Our Gang and Amos ‘n’ Andy, at these white representations of blackness, but we also looked at them critically. Before racial integration, black viewers of movies and television experienced visual pleasure in a context where looking was also about contestation and confrontation.
Writing about black looking relations in “Black British Cinema: Spectatorship and Identity Formation in Territories,” Manthia Diawara identifies the power of the spectator: “Every narration places the spectator in a position of agency; and race, class and sexual relations influence the way in which this subjecthood is filled by the spectator.” Of particular concern for him are moments of “rupture” when the spectator resists “complete identification with the film’s discourse.” These ruptures define the relation between black spectators and dominant cinema prior to racial integration. Then, one’s enjoyment of a film wherein representations of blackness were stereotypically degrading and dehumanizing co-existed with a critical practice that restored presence where it was negated. Critical discussion of the film, while it was in progress or at its conclusion, maintained the distance between spectator and the image. Black films were also subject to critical interrogation. Since they came into being, in part, as a response to the failure of white-dominated cinema to represent blackness in a manner that did not reinforce white supremacy, they were too critiqued to see if images were seen as complicit with dominant cinematic practices.
Critical, interrogating black looks were mainly concerned with issues of race and racism, the way racial domination of blacks and whites overdetermined representation. They were rarely concerned with gender. As spectators, black men could repudiate the reproduction of racism in cinema and television, the negation of black presence, even as they could feel as though they were rebelling against white supremacy by daring to look, by engaging in phallocentric politics of spectatorship. Given the real-life public circumstances wherein black men were murdered/lynched for looking at white womanhood, where the black male gaze was always subject to control and/or punishment by the powerful white Other, the private realm of television screens or dark theatres could unleash the repressed gaze. There they could “look” at white womanhood without a structure of domination overseeing the gaze, interpreting, and punishing. That white supremacist structure that had murdered Emmet Till after interpreting his look as violation, as “rape” of white womanhood, could not control black male responses to screen images. In their role as spectators, black men could enter an imaginative space of phallocentric power that mediated racial negotiation. This gendered relation to looking made the experience of the black male spectator radically different from that of the black female spectator. Major early black male independent filmmakers represented black women in their films as objects of male gaze. Whether looking through the camera or as spectators watching the films, whether mainstream cinema or “race” movies such as those made by Oscar Micheaux, the black male gaze had a different scope from that of the black female.
Black women have written little about black female spectatorship, about or moviegoing practices. A growing body of film theory and criticism by black women has only begun to emerge. The prolonged silence of black women as spectators and critics was a response to absence, the cinematic negotiation. In “The Technology of Gender,” Teresa de Lauretis, drawing on the work of Monique Wittig, calls attention to “the power of discourses to ‘do violence’ to people, a violence which is material and physical, although produced by abstract and scientific discourses as well as the discourses of the mass media”. With the possible exception of early race movies, black female spectators have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs our presence as absence, that denies the “body” of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where a woman to be looked at and desired is “white”. (Recent movies do not conform to this paradigm, but I am turning to the past with the intent to chart the development of black female spectatorship.)
Talking with black women of all ages and classes, in different areas of the United States, about their filmic looking relations, I hear again and again ambivalent responses to cinema. Only a few black women I talked with remembered the pleasure of race movies, and even those who did felt that pleasure interrupted and usurped by Hollywood. Most of the black women I talked with were adamant that they never went to movies expecting to see compelling representations of black femaleness. In Anne Friedberg’s essay “A Denial of Difference: Theories of Cinematic Identification” she stresses that “identification can only be made through recognition, and all recognition is itself an implicit confirmation of the ideology of the status quo.” Even when representations of black women were present in film, our bodies and beings were there to serve – to enhance and maintain white womanhood as objects of the phallocentric gaze.
Commenting on Hollywood’s characterization of black women in Girls on FIlm, Julie Burchill describes this absent presence:
Lena Horne, the first black performer signed to a long term contract with a major (MGM), looked gutless but was actually quite spirited. She seethed when Tallulah Bankhead complimented her on the paleness of her skin and the non-Negroidness of her features.
When black women actresses like Lena Horne appeared in mainstream cinema most white viewers were not aware that they were looking at black females unless the film was specifically coded as being about blacks. Burchill is one of the few white women film critics who has dared to examine the intersection of race and gender in relation to the construction of the category “woman” in film as an object of the phallocentric gaze. With characteristic wit, she asserts: “What does it say about racial purity that the best blondes have all been brunettes (Harlow, Monroe Bardot)? I think it says that we are not as white as we want to be,” for clearly the obsession to have white women film stars be ultra-white was a cinematic practice that sought to maintain a distance, a separation between that image and the black female Other; it was a way to perpetuate white supremacy. Politics of race and gender were inscribed into the mainstream cinematic narrative from Birth of A Nation on. As a seminal work, this film identified what the place and function of white womanhood would be in cinema. There was clearly no place for black women.
Remembering my past in relation to screen images of black womanhood, I wrote a short essay, “Do you remember Sapphire?” which explored both the negation of black female representation in cinema and television, and our rejection of these images. Identifying the character of “Sapphire” from Amos ‘n’ Andy as that screen representation of black femaleness I first saw in childhood, I wrote:
She was even then backdrop, foil. She was bitch – nag. She was there to soften images of black men, to make them seem vulnerable, easygoing, funny, and unthreatening to a white audience. She was there as a man in drag, as castrating bitch, as someone to be lied to, someone to be tricked, someone the white and black audience could hate. Scapegoated on all sides. She was not us. We laughed with the black men, with the white people. We laughed at this black woman who was not us. And we did not even long to be there on the screen. How could we long to be there when our image, visually constructed, was so ugly? We did not long to be there. We did not long for her. We did not want our construction to be this hated black female thing – foil, backdrop. Her black female image was not the body of desire. There was nothing to see. She was not us.
Grown black women had a different response to Sapphire; they identified with her frustration and her woes. They resented the way she was mocked. They resented the way these screen images could assault black womanhood, could name us bitches, nags. And in this opposition they claimed Sapphire as their own, as the symbol of the angry part of themselves white folks and black men could not even begin to understand.
Conventional representations of black women have done violence to this image. Responding to this assault, many black women spectators shut out the image, looked the other way, accorded cinema no importance in their lives. Then there were those spectators whose gaze was that of desire and complicity. Assuming a posture of subordination, they submitted to cinema’s capacity to seduce and betray. They were cinematically “gaslighted”. Every black woman I spoke with who was/is an ardent moviegoer, a lover of the Hollywood film, testified that to experience fully the pleasure of that cinema they had to close down critique, analysis; they had to forget racism. And mostly they did not think about sexism. What was the nature then of this adoring black female gaze – this look that could bring pleasure in the midst of negation? In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison constructs a portrait of the black female spectator; her gaze is the masochistic look of victimization. Describing her looking relations, Miss Pauline Breedlove, a poor working woman, maid in the house of a prosperous white family, asserts:
The only time I be happy seem like when I was in the picture show. Every time I got, I went, I’d go early, before the show started. They’s cut off the lights, and everything be black. Then the screen would light up, and I’s move right on in them picture. White men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses with the bathtubs right in the same room with the toilet. Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure.
To experience pleasure, Miss Pauline sitting in the dark must imagine herself transformed, turned into the white woman portrayed on the screen. After watching movies, feeling the pleasure, she says, “But it made coming home hard”.
We come home to ourselves. Not all black women spectators submitted to that spectacle of regression through identification. Most of the women I talked with felt that they consciously resisted identification with films – that this tension made moviegoing less pleasurable; at times it caused pain. As one black woman put it, “I could always get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep”. For black female spectators who have “looked too deep” the encounter with the screen hurt. THat some of us chose to stop looking was a gesture of resistance, turning away was one way to protest, to reject negation. My pleasure in the screen ended abruptly when I and my sisters first watched Imitation of Life. Writing about this experience in the “Sapphire” piece, I addressed the movie directly, confessing:
I had until now forgotten you, that screen image seen in adolescence, those images that made me stop looking. It was there in Imitation of Life, that comfortable mammy image. There was something familiar about this hard-working black woman who loved her daughter so much, loved her in a way that hurt. Indeed, as young southern black girls watching this film, Peola’s mother reminded us of the hardworking, church-going, Big Mamas we knew and loved. Consequently, it was not this image that captured our gaze; we were fascinated by Peola.
Addressing her, I wrote:
You were different. There was something scary in this image of young sexual sensual black beauty betrayed – the daughter who did not want to be confined by blackness, that “tragic mulatto” who did not want to be negated. “Just let me escape this image forever,” she could have said. I will always remember that image. I remembered how we cried for her, for our unrealizing desiring selves. She was tragic because there was no place in the cinema for her, no loving pictures. She too was an absent image. It was better then, that we were absent, for when we were there it was humiliating, strange, sad. We cried all night for you, for the cinema that had no place for you. And like you, we stopped thinking it would one day be different.
When I returned to films as a young woman, after a long period of silence, I had developed an oppositional gaze. Not only would I not be hurt by the absence of black female presence, or the insertion of violating representation, I interrogated the work, cultivated a way to look past race and gender for aspects of content, form, language. Foreign films and H.S. independent cinema were the primary locations of my filmic looking relations, even though I also watched Hollywood films.
From “jump,” black female spectators have gone to films with awareness of the way in which race and racism determined the visual construction of gender. Whether it was Birth of a Nation or Shirly temple shows, we knew that white womanhood was the racialized sexual difference occupying the place of stardom in mainstream narrative film. We assumed white women knew it too. Reading Laura Mulvey’s provocative essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, from a standpoint that acknowledges race, one sees clearly why black women spectators not duped by mainstream cinema would develop an oppositional gaze. Placing ourselves outside that pleasure in looking, Mulvey argues, was determined by a “split between active/male and passive/female”. Black female spectators actively chose not to identify with the film’s imaginary subject because such identification was disabling.
Looking at films with an oppositional gaze, black women were able to critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womanhood as object of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim of the perpetrator. Black female spectators, who refused to identify with white womanhood, who would not take on the phallocentric gaze of desire and possession, created a critical space where the binary opposition Mulvey posits of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look” was continually deconstructed. As critical spectators, black woman looked from a location that disrupted, one akin to that described by Annette Kuhn in The Power of the Image:
the acts of analysis, of deconstruction and of reading “against the grain” offer an additional pleasure – the pleasure of resistance, of saying “no”: not to “unsophisticated” enjoyment, by ourselves and other, of culturally dominant images, but to the structures of power which ask us to consume them uncritically and in highly circumscribed ways.
Mainstream feminist film criticism in no way acknoledges black female spectatorship. It does not even consider the possibility that women can construct an oppositional gaze via an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism. Feminist film theory rooted in an ahistorical psychoanalytic framework that privileges sexual difference actively suppresses recognition of race, reenacting and mirroring the erasure of black womanhood that occurs in films, silencing any discussion of racial difference – of racialised sexual difference. Despite feminist critical interventions aimed at deconstructing the category “woman” which highlight the significance of race, many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as being about “women” when in actuality it speaks only about white women. It seems ironic that the cover of the recent anthology Feminism and Film Theory edited by Constance Penley has a graphic that is a reproduction of the photo of white actresses Rosalind Russell and Dorothy Arzner on the 1936 set of the film Craig’s Wife yet there is no acknowledgement in any essay in this collection that the woman “subject” under discussion is always white. Even though there are photos of black women from films reproduced in the text, there is no acknowledgement of racial difference.
It would be too simplistic to interpret this failure of insight solely as a gesture of racism. Importantly, it also speaks ot the problem of structuring feminist film theory around a totalizing narrative of woman as object whose image functions solely to reaffirm and reinscribe patriarchy. Mary Ann Doane addresses this issue in the essay “Remembering Women: Physical and Historical Constructions in Film Theory”:
This attatchment to the figure of a degeneralizible Woman as the product of the apparatus indicates why, for many, feminist film theory seems to have reached an impasse, a certain blockage in its theorization . . . in focussing upon the task of delineating in great detail the attributes of women as effect of the apparatus, feminist film theory participates in the abstraction of women.
The concept of “Woman” effaces the difference between women in specific socio-historical contexts, between women defined precisely as historical subjects rather than as a psychic subject (or non-subject). Though Doane does not focus on race, her comments speak directly to the problem of its erasure. For it is only as one imagines “woman” in the abstract, when woman becomes fiction or fantasy, can race not be seen as significant. Are we really to imagine that feminist theorists writing only about white women, who subsume this specific historical subject under the totalizing category “woman”, do not “see” the whiteness of the image? It may very well be that they engage in a process of denial that eliminates the necessity of revisioning conventional ways of thinking about psycoanalysis as a paradigm of analysis and the need to rethink a body of feminist film theory that is firmly rooted in a denial of the reality that sex/sexuality may not be the primary and/or exclusive signifier of difference. Doane’s essay appears in a very recent anthology, Psychoanalysis and Cinema edited by E. Ann Kaplan, where, once again, none of the theories presented acknowledges or discusses racial difference, with the exception of one essay, “Not Speaking with Language, Speaking with No Language”, which problematizes notions of orientalism in its examination of Leslie Thornton’s film Adynata. Yet in most of the essays, the theories espoused are rendered problematic if one includes race as a category of analysis.
Constructing feminist film theory along these lines enables the production of a discursive practice that need never theorize any aspect of black female representation or spectatorship. Yet the existence of black women within white supremacist culture problematizes, and makes complex, the overall issue of female identity, representation, and spectatorsihp. If, as Friedberg suggests, “identification is a process which commands the subject to be displaced by an other; it is a procedure which breaches the separation between self and other, and, in this way, replicates the very structure of patriarchy”. If identification “demands sameness, necessitates similarity, disallows difference” – must we then surmise that many feminist film critics who are “over-identified” with the mainstream cinematic appartus produce theories that replicate its totalizing agenda? Why is it that feminist film criticsm, which has most claimed the terrain of woman’s identity, representation, and subjectivity as its field of analysis, remains aggressively silent on the subject on the subject of blackness and specifically representations of black womanhood? Just as mainstream cinema has historically forced aware black female spectators not to look, much feminist film criticism disallows the possibility of a theoretical dialogue that might inclue black women’s voices. It is difficult to talk when you feel no one is listening, when you feel as though a special jargon or narrative has been created that only the chosen can understand. No wonder then that black women have for the most part confined our critical commentary on film to conversations. And it must be reiterated that this gesture is a strategy that protects us from the violence perpetuated and advocated by discourses of mass media. A new focus on issues of race and representation in the field of film theory could critically intervene on the historical repression reproduced in some arenas of contemporary critical practice, making a discursive space for discussion of black female spectatorship possible.
When I asked a black woman in her twenties, an obsessive moviegoer, why she thought we had not written about black female spectatorship, she commented: “We are afraid to talk about ourselves as spectators because we have been so abused by ‘the gaze’.” An aspect of that abuse was the imposition of the assumption that black female looking relations were not important enough to theorize. Film theory as a critical “turf” in the United States has been and continues to be influenced by and reflective of white racial domination. Since feminist film criticism was initially rooted in a women’s liberation movement informed by racist practices, it did not open up the discursive terrain and make it more inclusive. Recently, even those white film theorists who include an analysis of race show no interest in black female spectatorship. In her introduction to the collection of essays Visual and Other Pleasures, Laura Mulvey describes her initial romantic absorption in Hollywood cinema, stating:
Although this great, previously unquestioned and unanalyzed love was put in crisis by the impact of feminism on my thought in the early 1970s, it also had an enormous influence on the development of my critical work and ideas and the debate within film culture with which I became preoccupied over the next fifteen years or so. Watched through the eyes that were affected by the changing climate of consciousness, the movies lost their magic.
Watching movies from a feminist perspective, Mulvey arrived at that location of disaffection that is the starting point for many black women approaching cinema within the lived harsh reality of racism. Yet her account of being a part of a film culture whose roots rest on a founding relationship of adoration and love indicates how difficult it would have been to enter from “jump”” as a critical spectator whose gaze had been formed in opposition.
Given the context of class exploitation, and racist and sexist domination, it has only been through resistance, struggle, reading, and looking “against the grain,” that black women have been able to value our process of lucking enough to publicly name it. Centrally, those black female spectators who attest to the oppositionality of their gaze deconstruct theories of female spectatorship that have relied heavily on the assumption that, as Doane suggests in her essay, “Woman’s Stake: Filming the Female Body,” “woman can only mimic a man’s relation to language, that assumes a position defined by the penis-phallus as the supreme arbiter of lack.” Identifying with neither the phallocentric gaze nor the construction of white womanhood as lack, critical black female spectators construct a theory of looking relations where cinematic visual delight is the pleasure of interrogation. Every black woman spectator I talked to, with rare exception, spoke of being “on guard” at the movies. Talking about the way being a critical spectator of Hollywood films influenced her, black woman filmmaker Julie Dash exclaims, “I make films because I was such a spectator!” Looking at Hollywood cinema from a distance, from that critical politicized standpoint that did not want to be seduced by narratives of reproducing her negation, Dash watched mainstream movies over and over again for the pleasure of deconstructing them. And of course, there is that added delight if one happens, in the process of interrogation, to come across a narrative that invites the black female spectator to engage with the text with no threat of violation.
Significantly, I began to write film criticism in response to the first Spike Lee movie, She’s Gotta Have It, contesting Lee’s replication of mainstream patriarchal cinematic practices that explicitly represents woman (in this instance black woman) as the object of a phallocentric gaze. Lee’s investment in patriarchal filmatic practices that mirror dominant patterns makes him the perfect black candidate for entrance to the Hollywood canon. His work mimics the cinematic construction of white womanhood as object, replacing her body as text on which to write male desire with the black female body. It is transference without transformation. Entering the discourse of film criticism from the politicized location of resistance, of not wanting, as a working-class black woman I interviewed stated, “to see black women in the position white women have occupied in film forever,” I began to think critically about black female spectatorship.
For years I went to independent and/or foreign films where I was the only black female present in the theatre. I often imagined that in every theatre in the United States there was another black woman watching the same film wondering why she was the only visible black female spectator. I remember trying to share with one of my five sisters the cinema I liked so much. She was “enraged” that I brought her to a theatre where she would have to read subtitles. To her, it was a violation of Hollywood notions of spectatorship, of coming to the movies to be entertained. When I interviewed her to ask what had changed her mind over the years, led her to embrace this cinema, she connected it to coming to critical consciousness, saying, “I learned that there was more to looking than I had been exposed to in ordinary (Hollywood) movies.” I shared that though most of the films I loved were all white, I could engage them because they did not have in their deep structure a subtext reproducing the narrative of white supremacy Her response was to say that these fils demystified “white,” since the lives they depicted seemed less rooted in fantasies of escape. They were, she suggested, more like “what we knew life to be, the deeper side of life as well.” Always more seduced and enchanted with Hollywood cinema than me, she stressed that unaware black female spectators must “break out,” no longer be imprisoned by images that enact a drama of our negation. Though she still sees Hollywood films, because “they are a major influence on our culture” – she no longer feels duper or victimized.
Talking with black female spectators, looking at written discussions either in fiction or academic essays about black women, I noted the connection made between the realm of representation in mass media and the capacity of black women to construct ourselves as subjects in daily life. The extent to which black women feel devalued, objectified, dehumanized in this society determines the scope and texture of their looking relations. Those black women whose identities were constructed in resistance, by practices that oppose the dominant order, were most inclined to develop an oppositional gaze. Now that there is a growing interest in films produced by black women and those films have become more accessible to viewers, it is possible to talk about black female spectatorship in relation to that work. So far, most discussions of black spectatorship that I have come across focus on men. In “Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance” Manthia Diawara suggests that “the components of the ‘difference’” among elements of sex, gender and sexuality give rise to different readings of the same material, adding that these conditions produce a “resisting” spectator. He focuses on his critical discussion on black masculinity.
The recent publication of the anthology The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture, edited by Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Mashment, excited me, especially as it included an essay, “Black Looks” by Jacqui Roach and Petal Felix, that attempts to address black female spectatorship. The essay posed provocative questions that were not answered: Is there a black female gaze? How do black women relate to the gender politics of representation? Concluding, the authors assert that black females have “our own reality, our own history, our own gaze – one which sees the world rather differently from ‘anyone else.’” Yet, they do not name/describe this experience of seeing “rather differently.” The absence of definition and explanation suggests they are assuming an essentialist stance wherein it is presumed that black women, as victims of race and gender oppression, have an inherently different field of vision. Many black women do not “see differently” precisely because their perceptions of reality are so profoundly colonized, shaped by dominant ways of knowing. As Trinh T. Minh-ha points out in “Outside In, Inside Out”: “Subjectivity does not merely consist of talking about oneself . . . be this talking indulgent or critical.”
Critical black female spectatorship emerges as a site of resistance only when individual black women actively resist the imposition of dominant ways of knowing and looking. While every black woman I talked to was aware of racism, that awareness did not automatically correspond with politicization, the development of an oppositional gaze. When it did, individual black women consciously named the process. Manthia Diawara’s “resisting spectatorship” is a term that does not adequately describe the terrain of black female spectatorship. We do more than resist. We create alternative texts that are not solely reactions. As critical spectators, black women participate in a broad range of looking relations, contest, resist, revision, interrogate and invent on multiple levels. Certainly when I watch the work of black women filmmakers Camille Billops, Kathleen Collins, Julie Dash, Ayoka Chenzira, Zienabu Davis, I do not need to “resist” the images even as I still choose to watch their work with a critical eye.
Black female critical thinkers concerned with creating space for the construction of radical black female subjectivity, and the way cultural production informs this possibility, fully acknowledge the importance of mass media, film in particular, as a powerful site for critical intervention. Certainly, Julie Dash’s film Illusions identifies the terrain of Hollywood cinema as a space of knowledge production that has enormous power. Yet, she also creates a filmic narrative wherein the black female protagonist subversively claims that space. Inverting the “real-life” power structures, she offers the black female spectator representations that challenge the stereotypical notions that place us outside the realm of filmic discursive practices. Within the film, she uses the strategy of Hollywood suspense films to undermine those cinematic practices that deny black women a place in this structure. Problematizing the question of “racial” identity by depicting passing, suddenly it is the white male’s capacity to gaze, define and know that is called into question.
When Mary Ann Doane describes in “Woman’s Stake: Filming the Female Body” the way in which feminist filmmaking practice can elaborate “a special syntax for a different articulation of the female body,” she names a critical process that “undoes the structure of the classical narrative through an insistence upon its repressions.” An eloquent description, this precisely names Dash’s strategy in Illusions, even though the film is not unproblematic and works within certain conventions that are not successfully challenged. For example, the film does not indicate whether the character Mignon will make Hollywood films that subvert or transform the genre or whether she will simply assimilate and perpetuate the norm. Still, subversively, Illusions problematizes the issue of race and spectatorship. White people in this film are unable to “see” that race informs their looking relations. Though she is passing to gain access to the machinery of cultural production represented by the film, Mignon continually asserts her ties to the black community. The bond between her and the young black woman singer Esther Jeeter is affirmed by caring gestures of affirmation, often expressed by eye-to-eye contact, the direct unmediated gaze of recognition. Ironically, it is this desiring objectifying sexualised white male gaze that threatens to penetrate her “secrets” and disrupt her process. Metaphorically, Dash suggests the power of black women to make films will be threatened and undermined by that white male gaze that seeks to reinscribe the black female body in a narrative of voyeuristic pleasure where the only relevant opposition is male/female, and the only location for the female is as a victim. These tensions are not resolved by the narrative. It is not at all evident that Mignon will triumph over the white supremacist capitalist imperialist dominating “gaze.”
Throughout Illusions, Mignon’s power is affirmed by her contact with the younger black woman who she nurtures and protects. It is this process of mirrored recognition that enables both black women to define their reality, apart from the reality imposed upon them by structures of domination. The shared gaze of the two women reinforces their solidarity. As the younger subject, Esther represents a potential audience for films that Mignon might produce, films wherein black females will be the narrative focus. Julie Dash’s recent feature-length film Daughters of the Dust dares to place black females at the centre of its narrative. This focus caused critics (especially white males) to critique the film negatively or to express many reservations. Clearly, the impact of racism and sexism so over-determine spectatorship – not only what we look at by who we identify with – the viewers who are not black females find it hard to empathize with the central characters in the movie. They are adrift without a white presence in the film.
Another representation of black females nurturing one another via recognition of their common struggle for subjectivity is depicted in Sankofa’s collective work Passion of Remembrance. In the film, two black women friends, Louise and Maggie, are from the onset of the narrative struggling with the issue of subjectivity, of their place n progressive black liberation movements that have been sexist. They challenge old norms and want to replace them with new understandings of the complexity of black identity, and the need for liberation struggles that address that complexity. Dressing to go to a party, Louise and Maggie claim the “gaze.” Looking at one another, staring in mirrors, they appear completely focused on their encounter with black femaleness. How they see themselves is most important, not how they will be stared at by others. Dancing to the tune “Let’s get Loose,” they display their bodies not for a voyeuristic colonizing gaze, but for that look of recognition that affirms their subjectivity – that constitutes them as spectators. Mutually empowered they eagerly leave the privatized domain to confront this public. Disrupting conventional racist and sexist stereotypical representations of black female bodies, these scenes invite the audience to look differently. They act to critically intervene and transform conventional filmic practices, changing notions of spectatorship. Illusions, Daughter of the Dust, and Passion of Remembrance employ a deconstructive filmic practice to undermine existing grand cinematic narratives even as they retheorize subjectivity in the realm of the visual. Without providing “realistic” positive representations of radical departure. Opening up a space for the assertion of a critical black female spectatorship, they do not simply offer diverse representations, they imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity.
In this sense, they make explicit a critical practice that provides us with different ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship. Cinematically, they provide new points of recognition, embodying Stuart Hall’s vision of a critical practice that acknowledges that identity is constituted “not outside but within representation”, and invites us to see film “not as a second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover who we are.” It is this critical practice that enables production of feminist film theory that theorizes black female spectatorship. Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future.