As is true of all of us, we are born nude into this world. From the moment of birth, however, that changes. We immediately become naked in the delivery room. For the rest of our lives thereafter, there is a difference between being nude and naked. According to Berger, Adam and Eve “became aware of being naked because, as a result of eating the apple, each saw the other differently. Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder.”(Berger 48) Is it true then, that how women see themselves is based on the beholder? Is the reaction to that gaze and our self-perception then born and innate or learned over time? I would like to say my female identity is a combination of the two, both learned and innate. I was born nude, became naked and now, have spent my life learning to see myself through my eyes and not those of the beholder.
Much like Bell Hooks discusses in her Oppositional Gaze chapter, growing up I was taught to not stare and to look away. My Grandmother’s upbringing was largely shaped by a slavery mentality and as such to stare or gaze, as Bell describes, was just not done. Then how was I to learn about myself if not through other people and the world around me? I remember growing up and going to the movies with my Grandmother. She loved old black and white horror movies. I was raised watching movies like Bella Lagosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and of course who can forget Chiller Theatre on TV after school. All of these had one thing in common.
A seductive, demure, sexually appealing woman who’s only contribution to the plot or story line was how she was there to be gazed upon and then to be killed by movie’s end. Her demise would come either in bed sleeping seductively, or taken unawares and ravished while being killed. The women I was watched on the screen were too caught up being seduced to do anything about being murdered. Bell states “the existence of black women within white supremacist culture problematizes, and makes complex, the overall issue of female identity, representation and spectatorship.” (Bell 124) If this was all I had to learn from, did I risk being just as ignorant and unnecessary as those women on the very screen I watched?
It was most of what I saw in movies, advertising and the world around me growing up. When I saw Eartha Kit and Lena Horne on the screen, they weren’t portrayed as women of color like me. Then as I got older, I began to see the likes of Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. They were more like me and I could not only identify, I began to believe I was worth more. At the same time, my mother taught me the differences of race and sex in the world. She instilled in me the importance of looking beyond that which is shown or not shown. She taught me to see what is and use that to create my own unique female identity. I was able to create my own image so that when gazed upon, I reflected that which I was happy with, and not just what the world around me would have me believe myself to be. As bell puts it, “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.” (Bell 122)
With the awakening of my female identity through movies and TV, also came an awakening of my sexuality. As Mulvey so purposefully states, “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.” (Mulvey 835) As women, it is my belief we are sexual creatures but does that mean we must be passive as my movie and TV experiences would have me believe? Mulvey believed the women to be portrayed as passive “for the active gaze of man.” This is the male gaze that I found so pervasive in the movies growing up. That the representation of women “goes far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.” (Mulvey 843) If this is true, would I need to become like the women portrayed in movies to be a sexually desirable woman? Is this how men needed to view me? I looked for a way to be sexual in nature without giving up my female identity, without having to be passive, and without needing to exist solely for the male gaze.
Berger would say, “A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her.... Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.” (Berger 46) This is something I have come to know first hand. Being the daughter of a strong, empowered, Spanish rebel of a mother and raised by an even stronger grandmother; I was taught early on to not only accept who I was in all respects, but to relish in it, and even to know how to use it to my favor. My aura and presence was shaped by what I took from movies and TV and filled in by what I wanted myself to be. What others now see is the blend I have come to consider my own secret recipe. Radically different from that of my Grandmother, more solid than that of my mother; my female identity is unique to me. In today’s society, even more than in past generations of women in my family, that presence is terribly important to guard and acknowledge. With the emergence of the internet where there are more producers of content than ever before and where your ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ is open to the entire world, it is important to be confident in who you are. Movies, TV, Advertising and media overall would have you believing as women we are here only for the male gaze and to be objectified. I of course, believe otherwise. I interrogate the media around me and look for those things Bell lists. There are days where I like myself more than others, and days where I think about changing something; but in the end, I am what I have pulled together from both Nature and Nurture and am secure in the female identity I have created.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972: 36-64
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.
Bell Hooks. “In Black Looks: Race and Representation.” Boston: South End Press, 1992: 115-31