Saturday, February 26, 2011

Who is little Nahla going to identify with??

Considering the fact that I have always felt as though I were being watched, the “male gaze” did not quite come off to me as a shock. I was surprised, however to learn that studies have actually been done to show the creation and development of this “gaze.” In Laura Mulvey’s Introduction, she states that the male gaze has developed because of “pre-existing patterns of fascination” where the focus is the human form. She goes on to state that this “gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure.” This particular definition resonates with me because I had never realized just how in control the viewer was concerning different types of media. For example, ads for the WWE show women with large muscles, masculine facial expressions and “barely there” clothing. In that particular form of entertainment, the women are there as spectacles, to be gawked at, to be laughed at, and in turn “fantasized” about by the male audience, while at the same time, dismissed as bimbos by their female viewers. In an everyday setting, these women are threatening because of their “masculine” looks—the large muscles and aggression would be considered a turn-off to Mulvey’s viewer. Mulvey’s viewer would see these women as a threat to their manhood, or representative of a “threat of castration” as later referenced in the chapter. In the WWE, however, because these women are surrounded by males who are even larger, more muscular, and even more masculine, they are acceptable as being the “viewed.” They are still in the position of “eye candy,” regardless of how well they wrestle or how muscular they may look. Berger states “Men survey women before treating them.” This rings true in every sense of the phrase. Before a man determines how a woman is to be treated or spoken to, he “scans” her so to speak. This comes to mind when one reflects on the statement “Well, look how she was dressed—she deserved it.” A friend of mine used to say constantly, "If a girl's a whore, I'm gonna treat her like a whore, if she acts like a wife, I'm going to treat her like a wife." Why does a man’s opinion of the way a woman looks, determine how she is treated?

In Mulvey’s article, the line that struck a chord within me was used as a reference for Mulvey herself. She quotes Budd Boetticher—“ What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents.” To me, this is a strangely insightful, and at the same time contradictory statement. While the “viewed” exists to be looked at, and “signify male desire”, she also represents a threat to the male being because she controls the gaze and, in turn, the man. While the woman remains a subject, the male cannot help himself to look—he loses control while trying to maintain it. This contradiction of sorts can be viewed in the movie, The Black Swan. The beauty of the women, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, is put on display from beginning to end. Their sleek, smooth movements are followed by the cameras at every angle. The men are merely background actors to the women who take center stage. The contradictory fulfillment occurs in every scene, the women are there to be gazed, but the viewer cannot take his/her eyes off of the screen. Mulvey states that this “look” of the female form displayed for enjoyment fulfills the male gaze criteria, while at the same time the threat of castration as stated later in the article is ever present. This creates a problematic relationship where the male may try to overpower the female. The threat of vulnerability is too close, and in turn, by subjecting the female into posing submissively, leaving her body bare, and putting her in a position where she somehow “needs” the male, he can control every aspect of the situation and remain the more powerful party.

Add ImageIn transition, the Bell Hooks chapter hit me even more closely. As a “mulatto”, I have also wondered why my image was never displayed. I questioned why the only women on screen, who resembled me in any way, were always Hispanic, and always ghetto. I always tried to identify with singers instead, because I am a singer, and instead, became even more confused. Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey, while both mulatto, look nothing as I do. It was even amusing to look through all of the photos in Berger’s Ways of Seeing . There existed not one photograph with which I could identify. I created my own oppositional gaze, as stated by Hooks, without even realizing it previously. The author states that the oppositional gaze developed because of “an overwhelming longing to look” or a rebellious desire to gaze. This gaze stemmed from a long history of resentment and stripping of power. The gaze, just as Hooks mentioned, is similar to that of a child looking menacingly at a parent. It is rebellious, focused and determined to prove—something. It is a dynamic of power where one party overwhelming “wins” so to speak. She states that one can stare “dangerously.” This danger is also reflected in Mulvey’s article when she discusses the “threat of castration” referencing a female’s lack of a penis, which has throughout history been worshipped as a symbol of power. The oppositional gaze can be seen as resistant, strong, resilient and most of all, powerful. The oppositional gaze takes its power back from the perpetrator, and returns the power to the victim, even if only temporarily.

In Hooks’ chapter, it is certainly not a surprise to discover how the black female oppositional gaze developed. After years and years of being denied, black females learned to watch films with an eye that both separated them and united them with the films. They were separated because they could not, and were not ever able to identify with moments or characters in film. They were united because they experienced films with the same gaze, wondering, and questioning the reasons why they could not identify. The black female viewer knowingly walked into movies with the understanding that she could not identify with any character in the film. The characters created in her image, were nothing as she was in real life. And in turn, she watched characters living fantasy lives, etc. that she could never, even in a movie, pretend to fantasize living in. I also found it interesting that Hooks stated that white womanhood was what was racialized in film, and that she assumed that white women knew it, too. If white women were being objectified, and bearing the burden of the gaze in film, why would they then transfer that burden to include race? Would that not make it more difficult? Why consider something that, in reality, is not your problem? It would be interesting to see what types of “gazes” developed when one took another issue unique to black female culture, and put it at the forefront—the light-skinned vs. the dark-skinned black female character. I would suspect that the un-identification could be broken down even further, with the gaze shifting quite differently towards either side.

Hooks’ chapter also affected the way that I viewed myself viewing films. She states that black females have watched films completely aware of the racial constructs and racism that exists in those films. While not realizing, I noticed that I, too, watch films with a “racial” lense of sorts. I try to identify with the characters whose personality seems most like the personality which I would like to possess, while trying to block out the race of the characters. I cannot ever identify with the black female, because her roles do not ever match the personality that I would find desirable, and I cannot ever identify with the white female character, for the same reason. They are either too submissive, or too aggressive. Or, perhaps she is too masculine, or too feminine. There is not often exists a medium level. The Madea and Tomb Raider characters represented strength and power for women, even though one was actually a man, and the other, a video game sex symbol. What does that say for me? I am neither one. With who shall I relate? With whom shall I say, “hey, I can see myself doing that!” Either heroine is not, and will never be, me. I could not even pretend if I wanted.


Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972: 36-64

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

Bell Hooks. “In Black Looks: Race and Representation.” Boston: South End Press, 1992: 115-31

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