The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators

By Lyndsey Maloney, Andrew Miller, Shay Nix and Ben Osborn

Main Argument and Thesis:

“There is power in looking,” as bell hooks proposes in her 1992 essay, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Hooks primarily aims at critical discussion of the black female spectator and her relation to black and white representation on film. Despite a history of oppression both on and off the screen, hooks contends that black people have a right to observe, or gaze, and the repression of that right resulted in a “rebellious desire” to look. It is this rebellious act of looking that hooks defines as ‘the oppositional gaze.’ This gaze is one which cultivates a power to look, enabling black female spectators to document what they see and construct their own dialogue with their own voice. By representing black women in film, not as a reaction to existing white-dominated narratives, but simply as a recognition of critical black female spectatorship, it creates a space for “new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (hooks 319).  

Key Concepts Defined:

Oppositional Gaze – Hook’s idea that black women must have the desire to critique the stereotypical representations of black women in film. She argues that in order for black female spectators to find pleasure in films that lack representations of black females, they must look at the film for the pleasure of deconstruction. Hooks writes, “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” (hooks 316).

Relations of power Michel Foucault’s attempt to explain the dynamics of domination. He states, “power is a system of domination which controls everything and which leaves no room for freedom” however, “there is necessarily the possibility of resistance” in all relations of power (308). Foucault’s relations of power is where hook’s found her inspiration to critique film with an oppositional gaze instead of accepting the dominating view of black femaleness presented by Hollywood.

Moment of Rupture Manthia Diawara’s idea that “when the spectator resists ‘complete identification with the film’s discourse’” a schism between the spectator and the film occurs (309). A moment of rupture is crucial for black female spectators to be able to look at films with a critical eye and create an oppositional gaze. If a moment of rupture does not occur, then the black female spectator simply accepts the image placed on the screen as truth.

Resisting Spectatorship – Manthia Diawara’s term that describes the notion that black female spectators “actively resist  the imposition of dominant ways of knowing and looking” (hooks 317). Hooks contends, however, that black female spectators do more than simply resist. She says, “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” (317).

Significant Take-Aways:

Black male gaze vs. Black female gaze – When it comes to the gaze of black men, hooks argues that it could occur without punishment in theaters and from the comfort of the home. Black men could at least connect with gendered relation through ‘spaces of phallocentric power.’ Black women lacked representation in cinema. Even when presented in cinema, black women were the object of male gaze.

The role of black women in film – “Even when representations of black women were present in film, our bodies and being were there to serve,” hooks argues (310). As a result, hooks points out that black women dismiss cinema as a significant relation to their lives. They don’t expect to see a meaningful representation of the black female. They simply cannot identify with the recipient of the gaze or the person actively performing the gaze.

Omission of race in feminist film theory – There has been plenty of feminist criticism in film before hooks’ essay, but feminist film theory has overlooked the role of the black female. For instance, hooks acknowledges the importance of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” but adds that race should be considered in Mulvey’s argument. Reducing the concept of a ‘pleasure in looking’ to active male and passive female leaves black female spectators choosing not to identify with the “film’s imaginary subject because such identification was disenabling” (313).

Constructing a realm of gaze – Hooks emphasizes the importance of creating a realm of gaze. She argues that those in social or political power benefit when the gaze is detached. As a result, the creation of a place where oppositional gaze could exist was crucial to the development of independent black cinema. “To stare at the television, or mainstream movies, to engage in images, was to engage its negation of black representation” (308). This gave way to black viewers being able to plot political movements for racial equality based off the make-up of images portrayed in cinema. For hooks, the gaze is a way or mode in which transformation can occur. We can truly critique what we view with our gaze. Punishing this gaze is abolishing a place where capability, authority, and identity can be dissected. 

Applications:

For many black women, going to see a typical Hollywood film involved them having to resist the images of white womanhood and the phallocentric gaze. However, the few films that are centered around the black female allows for the black female spectator to accept the film’s narrative and critically analyze the representations of black women.

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Love and Basketball, © 2000, New Line Cinema

In Love & Basketball,   Monica’s mother serves as the female character that, “…reaffirms and reinscribe patriarchy” (hooks 314). As we can see from the movie, Monica’s character does not conform to the patriarch role of women that her mother tries to instill in her. Monica is the unconventional character who resists the gender roles of a patriarch by pursing her love for basketball and not choosing to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a housewife. This resistance that Monica has for what her mother represents is comparable to the resistance black female spectators have towards films that emphasize white-womanhood and the phallocentric gaze.

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Daughters of the Dust, © 1991, Kino International

In Daughters of the Dust, the character Nana represents the black matriarch that emphasizes to her family to never forget where they came from. She has done her best to keep her family from the effects of colonialization and its contagious influences. These influences have left black women spectators who live in such a colonized society unable to, “…see differently precisely because their perceptions of reality are so profoundly colonized , shaped by dominate ways of knowing” (hooks 317). With her family leaving to go to the “main land”, Nana realizes that she is unable to keep her family safe from the white influence.

12

Waiting to Exhale, © 1995, 20th Century Fox

Although the director of this film is male, the story and screenplay is written by a black woman. The narrative of these four friends provides other representations of black women. These newly formed representations of black women in film allows for black female spectators to destroy the stereotypes of the past and to, “…see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 319).

waiting_to_exhale_movie_clip_bernie_burns_john_s_clothes_2

waiting_to_exhale_1_5_movie_clip_bernie_burns_john_s_clothes_1995_hd

Bernie’s rant and destruction of her husband’s valuables signifies how black female film makers must destroy the white-womanhood and phallocentric gaze that has infected Hollywood. They must make films that allow for black female spectators to, “…imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (hooks 319).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is race ignored by theorists, prior to hooks’ essay, when they write critically about films? Does the black female gaze exist?
  2. Hooks states in response to Diawara’s explanation of ‘resisting spectatorship’ that black female spectators are doing more than simply resisting. Do you agree that black women are doing more than resisting spectatorship? How does Daughters of the Dust work to accomplish this goal?
  3. Can you think of other characters in modern film (or otherwise) that exist as a recognition of black female spectatorship?

*Glossary

Agency– the ability that a person has to act in a given situation.

Phallocentrism– “practices which place the phallus as controlling signifier in the ‘always gendered’ language and metaphysics of Western thought” (Picard 353).

Reflection theory– Spectators place themselves in the film and want to see characters that they can identify with on screen. (For more information on reflection theory please visit Paula Murphy’s essay.)

Works Cited

“Comparative Literature.” Manthia Diawara. New York University, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

“Daughters of the Dust Image”. Kino International, juliedash.tv. Accessed 01 November 2016.

Faubion, James. “Michel Foucault.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Hooks, Bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. 307-19. Print.

Love and Basketball Image“, New Cinema Line. 03 February 2015, blu-ray.com. Accessed 01 Nov. 2016.

Murphy, Paula. “Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 2[1]:.” Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 2: Reflections and Refutations by Paula Murphy. N.p., Apr. 2005. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Picard, Anne-Marie. “Entries: LACK – PHALLOCENTRISM – SADISM. (with Daniel Vaillancourt): TRACE.” Research Gate. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism, Oct. 2003. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Schlosser, Markus. “Agency.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

“Waiting to Exhale Image.” 20th Century Fox. 22 December 2015, indiewire.com. Accessed 01 Nov. 2016

“Waiting to Exhale Video.” 20th Century Fox.

Wyett, Jodi. “Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975).” ENGL 359. N.p., 07 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.