Embedded deep within Hollywood narrative cinema, and a variety of media, is a series of complex gender and race determined looking relations. These particular affairs tend to reinforce “pre-existing patterns of fascinations already at work within the individual subject” (Mulvey, 28). The way certain characters, situations, and settings are portrayed and perceived, particularly in terms of Hollywood narrative cinema, reflect the attitudes and ideologies prevalent within society as well as man's deep unconscious. The internal reactions one experiences while viewing films are caused by a connection between the film's narrative as well as the repressed desires of the spectator, as both are cohesively projected in front of their eyes. These desires, or “patterns of fascination”, are manifested and maintained by the “social formations that have molded him [the individual subject]” (Mulvey, 28).
In typical Hollywood narrative cinema, men and women are portrayed, received, and interpreted quite differently by the audience. In Laura Mulvey's essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she explains, through Freudian psychoanalytical theory, how “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (Mulvey, 28). Hollywood narrative cinema has a tendency to conform to the dominant phallocentric ideals held within society, conscious or not. The bearer of the penis is the dominant, where as the castrated, female image, is subordinate. This lack of phallus that woman bears “produces the phallus as a symbolic presence”; it is the woman's burden to overcome the void of the symbolic, and it is her desire to transform this lack into a positive benefit. “Woman's desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it”; woman is confined by the limitations manifested by phallocentrism which depend immensely on her castrated image (Mulvey, 29). Put shortly, because men have a penis and women do not, there is dominance that is attributed to the phallus that is embodied implicitly as well as explicitly. In terms of film, the male character typically holds the role as the powerful, dominant, constant force. The woman on the other hand, is usually portrayed as an object of the male gaze, the one who is looked at. Because cinema has this tremendous effect of placing the spectator in the fictitious world of the film characters, not only is woman subjected by the male characters, she is also subjected by the male spectator.
This curious and controlling gaze that is cast upon woman is driven by scopophilia, or the sexual instincts and pleasure seeking desires found within what Freud calls the “Id”, in relation to the “Ego”, which seeks to please the desires of the “Id” in a realistic and rational manner. As a means to please both the “Ego” and the “Id”, “conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world” (Mulvey, 31). Within this illusion, the spectator is allowed to please the repressed sexual instincts and desires found in the “Id” with out sacrificing the well being of the “Ego”. It allows the spectator to participate in voyeurism without actually being a “peeping Tom”, so to speak. This can be seen explicitly in the infamous pre-shower peep- hole scene in Hitchcock's, Psycho. Not only is Janet Leigh's character, Marion, subjected to the gaze of Norman (Anthony Perkins), she is also subjected to the gaze of the male audience who have the ability to identify with Norman, and place themselves in his role. "Women are depicted in a quite different way from men- not because the feminine is different from the masculine- but because the 'ideal spectator' is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him" (Berger, 64).
Another form of looking relations prevalent in film and other various forms of media stems from race. Since Hollywood narrative cinema is often said to be designed for the white male spectators in particular, those that fall outside of the white male category are often ostracized and unable to fully identify and relate as spectators. This issue is directly addressed in Bell Hooks' “The Oppositional Gaze”; "every narration places the spectator in a position of agency; and race, class and sexual relations influence the way in which this subject hood is filled by the spectator" (Hooks, 117). Similar to the submissive and castrated image of women, other races are often portrayed as the direct contrast to the white male spectator. Those that fall outside of the category of the white male spectator are automatically deemed "the other". The portrayal of the "others" in film, like women, are not the dominant, are not the powerful, the prevailing- they are the dominated, the submissive, the symbol of a complex hegemony present in society. They are not sexual-ized in film, and if they are, it is seen as acts of carnal instincts that can not be controlled because they are the weak/ the submissive (As seen in Birth of a Nation). In their roles of spectators, as Bell Hooks states, "black men could enter an imaginative space of phallocentric power that mediated racial negation" (Hooks, 118). As a spectator, black men could freely and openly gaze at "white womanhood" without it acting as a violation/ "rape". Hooks argues that "this gendered relation to looking made the experience of the black male spectator radically different from that of the black female spectator" (Hooks, 118). Once more and more black male filmmakers arose, the portrayals of black women in film usually fell within two categories; that which is subject and inferior to the black male gaze, or the "mammie" type of character that served to "enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze" (as seen in films such as Imitation of Life (Hooks, 119). Essentially, women of color were often scapegoated on all sides and left with not much hope of rising above those images; "this unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women" (Berger, 63). This unfortunate reality left many black women feeling unable to fully enjoy and absorb themselves in film, altering the way they view themselves and others in film, thus manifesting "the oppositional gaze". The oppositional gaze, or "black looks, as they were constituted in the context of social movements for racial uplift, were interrogating gazes"; gazes that questioned stereotypes in media and actively critiqued them, denying their acceptance and their validity (Hooks, 117). Once black females were able to resist the confining gaze that was so often cast upon them, were they able to cast their own oppositional gaze, granting them the right to hold a significant role in film as spectators that did not undermine their integrity.
Almost immediately after reading Bell Hooks' "The Oppositional Gaze", I thought of Tracey Moffat's 1987 film entitled Nice Coloured Girls. Moffat, being a woman of color and a film maker, successfully manages to create a film that stars aboriginal women of color in Australia during the 80's that questions, critiques, and effectively reverses the white male gaze. In the film, it is the women of color doing the gazing and the white men that are ostracized and subjects of the gaze. The film raises important questions regarding; sex, race, colonialism, voyeurism, and authenticity. She uses the the very same Hollywood narrative methods that once placed people, especially women of color, as the scapegoats, and transforms them into a way that celebrates and illuminates rather than degrades and humiliates. As Hooks would put it, Moffat transformed the looking relations that "denies the body of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is white" (118). Rather than turning the other cheek and ignoring the blatant racism that was being perpetuated for so long in film and media, why not deconstruct it and transform it entirely? As an aspiring film maker, I often find myself questioning any and every aspect of a film whether its the choice of characters; hair, makeup, costumes, choice of editing, cinematography, so on and so on. I sometimes tend to feel like I'm too critical, too oppositional-too inquisitive when it comes to film. However, after reading Hooks', Mulvey's, and Berger's writings, I am inspired to continue opposing and questioning content presented in film more than ever before.
Bell Hooks, in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-31.
Berger, John. "3." Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting, 1973. 45-64.
^Excerpt from Tracey Moffat's Nice Coloured Girls