“If we are ever to understand human behavior we must know as much about the eye that sees as about the object seen…[T]he eye that sees is not a mere physical organ but a means of perception conditioned by the tradition in which it possessor has been reared.”
– Ruth Benedict, 1943
SHIT, I’M LATE – is all that comes to mind as I run up the subway stairs in haste trying to catch my train. Excuse me. Pardon me. Sorry about that sir. Wheew! I made it! Yes! I’m breathing heavy, hot as hell, sweaty, slightly irritated but I should get to class on time. Thank GOD, there’s a seat, my bag is too heavy to carry today. Augh-FINALLY- I can catch my breath. Oh My God, I’m soaking wet! I wipe the sweat from my chest first, not my whole chest of course, just the part in the middle that’s exposed through my V-neck shirt. The only part that seems to be getting some air. That’s when I feel it – that look or better yet stare from the eyes of the unfamiliar, a stranger. “Good Morning”, I say to the man who appears to find comfort in looking at me, I don’t want to be rude – its waaaaay too early for drama. He replies with a nod and smile and says “Good Morning Beautiful”.
I wipe my face, then my head. The sweat just won’t stop. Finally I’m cool. Now I can put my makeup on. Since I was running late, I didn’t have time to do it at the house. First the eye shadow. Then mascara and last my lips. As I arch my brow to apply the first stroke, my eyes meet those of the stranger, the smiling head nodding man. Why is he still looking at me? Who knows? It’s New York City and I’m on mass transit. “You know you really don’t need that stuff. It ain’t good for your skin. You know you real pretty, even with a bald head.” I brush it off and continue to put on my face. Now comes the 2nd eye – still looking. Then the mascara – still looking and finally comes the lip liner and lip gloss (which I must admit I was a bit apprehensive to put on by this time) and out of the nowhere all I hear is, “DAMN YOU GOT SOME PRETTY ASS LIPS!” I look up and of course he’s still watching, I cut him a look of disdain that would have killed his mother, rolled my eyes and continued with my face. “Well FUCK YOU then, I was just trying to give you a FUCKIN complement. OH BITCH!
In her article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey addresses the look and/or stare, that women of all races and classes arguably experience daily, when she describes the male gaze. Interestingly enough, she inform us that the male gaze is so much more than a simple stare. It is an action imposed on women by men and the media to inflict feelings of powerlessness, disinterest, and devalue. The male gaze is constant surveillance and policing of the female body that is often framed as rewarding and fulfilling, even empowering, yet the woman with the dead eyes and finger hanging from her pouty mouth appears to be longing for so much more than approval from her male (and female) audience but rather the need to understand why she’s being placed on display in the first place. The male gaze is rooted in patriarchy and constructed through a heteronormative lens, objecting women and rendering them passive and inactive as well as eroticized and fetishized. While Mulvey focused primarily on film, this gaze is not confined to the big screen. Instead it lurks everywhere. From billboards and magazine advertisement, to commercials to pornography, the unified message is that not only are women watched but we really want to be watched and no, it doesn’t have to offer pleasure or excitement – to is it simply, look good and be quite. “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” (Mulvey, p. 834)
While all women are subjected to the male gaze in our everyday experiences, women of color often find their journey even more complicated as race and class become contributing factors when assessing what’s seen through the gaze. “Every narration places the spectator in position of agency; and race, class and sexual relations influence the way in which this subjecthood is filled by the spectator.” (hooks, p. 117) As a Black woman, what I like to refer to as the “What The Fuck” or “are you really talking to me, because that’s not who I am – you don’t see me – and that’s a problem within itself” gaze is an everyday reality and vicious cycle with no end in sight. What do you do when you’re either a slave, mammie, emasculating bitch who can’t get, let alone keep a man, with three babies by different men, no education and on welfare? I guess close your eyes and hope you don’t bump into anything because that’s about as much variation as you get for Black female presentation within media. In her essay, “The Oppositional Gaze”, bell hooks vividly and candidly addresses the experiences and attitudes of Black women and their relationship with the media, particularly film, while calling to question mainstream feminist film critics’ ambivalence toward Black women and Black female spectatorship.
“Looking at films with an oppositional gaze, black women were able to critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womenhood as object of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or 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.”(hooks, p. 122)
hooks challenges us to think about who Black women are and how we’re represented. She also forces us to identify our allies in a struggle, which becomes increasingly difficult when you’re usually invisible.
The oppositional gaze is a necessary tool of analysis when addressing Black female representation within media. Considering the controlling images and stereotypes that have been practically ingrained on the psyche and social structures (i.e. politics, religion, education) of our society; regardless of how conscious, progressive or unbiased we may think we are, they continue to be a critical contributing force to the construction of Blackness when depicted in media. While I often feel torn and divided, sometimes even forced to choose between my race and gender, the reality is that all the intersections (i.e. race, class, gender, sexual orientation) of society are simultaneously impacting my life and compartmentalizing my existence is not an option, nor would I want it to be. I am clear that the mass media can be jaded, fearful of the unknown and often responsible for devaluing and trivializing the human experience. However, I am also aware that media serves as platform to ignite real positive social change. Therefore, I must first ensure that I am pleased with myself, as self- awareness, self-esteem and self-worth are my best defense mechanisms. Then when I’m bombarded with images that don’t speak to who I am; images that produce and perpetuate monolithic ideologies of Blackness; images that devalue my womanness, I am able to employ my oppositional gaze and work to create and sustain diversity within media depiction of Blackness and Black womanhood. In 1851, Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I a Woman?” and in 2013, I often worry that Black women are STILL asking the same question.
"Ain't I A Woman" - Delivered 1851
Women's Convention - Akron, OH
Berger. John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Group, 1973. Print.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.