Reading Guide to: bell hooks 'The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators', in Thornham, S (1999) Feminist Film Theory: a reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

nb For those unfamiliar with her work, I should point out that hooks always spells her name without capital letters.

As any black child knows, looks can also be confrontational, a sign of resistance, a challenge to authority. Slavery in the USA also featured a tight control of black people looking, but black parents also reproduce this strategy to control their children. However, there was always resistance, and the attempt to control the 'right to gaze' (308), had only produced an overwhelming rebellious desire to look. Looking was a sign of defiance, one of those sites of power which Foucault mentions. Both Hall and Fanon have also emphasised black resistance to forms of white power --'The "gaze" has been and is a site of resistance for colonised black people globally... one learns to look a certain way in order to resist' (308).

Black people always realised that mass-media helped maintain white supremacy by presenting white people as dominance, and black people as a mere negation -- initially, anyway:  later different images appeared, signalling progress towards racial equality. Watching television was 'one way to develop critical spectatorship... you learned to look at white people by staring at them on the screen' [in your own home] (309). Black people in Britain too were able to resist identification with the film, even where representations of black people were particularly degrading or dehumanising. Black films emerged early, but they were always critically read [by black people] as well.

Such critical reception was dominated by matters of racial relations, not gender. In cinemas, black men could even look at white women without being regulated or punished. Their phallocentric power leads to a quite different experience from black females. Work on how black women view films is still underdeveloped, partly because there were so few positive images -- black women were simply absent, and those women to be looked at were white.

An ambivalent response was common. Most black women were acutely aware of race, which forbade recognition and promoted a distance. When black women did appear they were servants for white women, or they were forced to pass as white. At the same time, Hollywood wanted 'white women film stars [to] be ultra white' (311).

Characteristic of negative images was the character of 'Sapphire' from Amos'n'Andy. She was a backdrop, bitch, nag, 'Scapegoated on all sides' (311). Young black women rejected her, but older ones identified with her, as a symbol of their anger, celebrating her against both white people and black men.

Many black women simply avoided cinema as offering only negative images. Those who enjoyed cinema had to forget critique, racism and even sexism, in the name of an 'adoring black female gaze... that could bring pleasure in the midst of negation' (312). This was only possible by identifying with white women --'regression through identification' (312). Many refused to submit and resisted, causing real pain and a turning away. Some, like hooks herself, returned to cinema with a critical oppositional gaze [Which seems rather formalist and theoretical, focusing on 'content, form, language' and taking in mostly foreign films and independent cinema. This is a common way for men to manage a difficult emotional encounters with film as well. Both require considerable cultural capital -- see file on Bourdieu].

Black women assumed that white women were also aware of the role of white womanhood. Mulvey's essay [see file] shows how white women had a particular problem in developing an oppositional gaze arising from their love of cinema -- black women had already chosen not to identify with Hollywood films. This black oppositional gaze offers a critical space to replace the binary oppositions of Mulvey, and a new pleasure too --'the pleasure of resistance, of saying "no": not to "unsophisticated" enjoyment... but to the structures of power which asks us to consume them uncritically' (hooks quoting Kuhn, her page 313).

This kind of resistance has been ignored by mainstream feminist film criticism, which is ahistorical and formalist. It has been silent about racial difference. Such theory speaks only about white women. This is not just a form of racism, but an effect of the abstract, ahistorical, totalising theoretical framework (Lacanian psychoanalysis). It is important to see women as historical subjects rather than one single psychic subject. There may also be a political wish to accord sex and sexuality some primary status.

Restoring the issue of race raises some theoretical problems and a new complexity. By talking of female identification exclusively in terms of maleness, the danger is that important differences between women will be overlooked. Much feminist criticism attempts to deny and negate black women too. They are also excluded by the jargon. Conversations between black women have been an untapped source as a result. Perhaps black female spectatorship was not considered important enough to theorise? Certainly, early film theory was 'initially rooted in a women's liberation movement informed by racist practices' (315). Even discussions of black spectatorship of black films focuses on men but not women .

Black women have been forced to resist and be critical in order to achieve some identity, and this resistance has not only been directed at the male gaze, and the idea of women as 'lack'. They have gained pleasure in such interrogation and deconstruction. Black women who have survived being dehumanised in everyday life 'were most inclined to develop an oppositional gaze' (317).

There are still problems in analysing black female spectatorship. There is a danger of some essentialism which gives ground to the view that black women are inherently different (hooks argues that their otherness arises from colonisation and dominance). Black women do even more than just resist, but 'create alternative texts that are not solely reactions' (317). There are multiple ways of looking, including criticism without resistance. There may even be films that use classic Hollywood strategies to problematise stereotypes [the film Illusions is identified here]. [See the controversies aroused by attempts to use conventional forms to depict radical socialist messages -- file here].

Illusions, apparently, tries 'Problematising 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... [more formally], it "undoes the structure of the classical narrative through an insistence upon its repressions"' (318). However, not all conventions are challenged -- it is not at all clear that the passing heroine will trick her way into making genuinely subversive Hollywood films [and there seems to be quite a lot of opportunity for voyeuristic pleasure]. Nevertheless, the solidarity between the two black women is apparent. Later films by the same person [Julie Dash] which have placed black females in control of the narrative have led to critical reactions from critics, especially white males, who feel excluded --'They are adrift without a white presence in the film' (319).

Passion of Remembrance ('Sankofa's collective work') also centres on two black women friends (apparently) who also set out to challenge the old norms and express the complexity of black identity. They gaze at each other and for each other, and this mutually empowers them.'... these scenes invite the audience to look differently... they offer points of radical departure... they do not simply offer diverse representations, they imagine new transgressive possibilities for formulation of identity' (319). In this way, film can 'enable us to discover who we are' (Stuart Hall's words, quoted by hooks on her page 319). Black women draw upon their 'history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future' (319). [The British working class were long expected to do the same thing for socialism, but this possibility has been largely rejected].

[This is passionately argued and passionately optimistic. I haven't actually seen these films so I can't comment about them, but, as an old hand and pessimist, I think it quite likely that even these films can be fairly easily recuperated for ideology. I personally think, for its worth, that only seriously unconventional and avant garde films have any chance, and they pay an awful price of appeal only to those with huge amounts of cultural capital.]

 back to reading guides