Oppositional Gaze

Summarize the "The Oppositional Gaze" by Bell Hooks. 

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her article "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," Bell Hooks argues that black people have a right to look -- that there is a power in looking and relates that to how black women specifically relate to cinema. She says that despite a history of cultural oppression and repression, claiming the right to look is important as a way to reclaim power. Hooks argues in her essay that looking it in and of itself a rebellious act. 

Hooks begins her article by discussing the connection between the childhood fear of eye contact -- which was seen as a challenge to authority -- and the way slaveowners punished their slaves for making eye contact. She says that the child is afraid to look even when told to during a punishment and that "there is power in looking."

When black women specifically gaze at cinema, they create a space to exist, to critique, and to deconstruct the narrative. Doing this creates an oppositional gaze that is the counter to the way black women are dominated in cinema. Hooks explains that:

When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy. To stare at the television, or mainstream movies, to engage its images, was to engage its negation of black representation. It was the oppositional black gaze that responded to those looking relations by developing independent black cinema.

She explains that even when black people enjoyed media, they had to look at the representations of black people critically. She also argues that mainstream feminist film criticism doesn't acknowledge "black female spectatorship." 

Hooks argues that black men have a way to connect with film that women lack because they can relate to male themes in the film that exist across different races. She says that black women lack this same connection and that even when they do appear on screen, they themselves are the object of the male gaze rather than someone in a position of power. She says "even when representations of black women were present in film, our bodies and being were there to serve."

In "The Oppositional Gaze," Hooks argues that developing an oppositional gaze is an act of power that will allow black women to create a space for themselves in both film and film theory. Doing so removes the childhood and historical association of the gaze as a bad thing and instead reclaims it as an act of power. 

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hook's main argument in her article is that women of color, specifically African- American women, have to appropriate a realm in which the oppositional gaze can exist.  Hooks develops this argument in the article's exposition by suggesting that there was a punishment to gazing.  Children would be rebuked if they stared too long, or gazed, at adults.  Then, when they were reprimanded for doing so and would look away, they were chastised further:  "Look at me when I talk to you."  In this experience, the gaze, as a transformational quality, was repudiated.  Children, specifically children of color and girls in particular, were told to not gaze.  For Hooks, the gaze represents a point where transformation can occur.  When we gaze, we study, we critique, and we offer insight to transform what is into what can be.  To gaze is to envision something different than what is.  It is a vehicle of thought and critical analysis.  To punish the gaze is to remove a realm where scrutiny of power, control, and identity can be present.  For Hooks, those in the position of cultural, artistic, social, and political power benefit when the gaze is removed.

From this, Hooks goes on to define how the oppositional gaze can be powerful.  In the article, Hooks' purpose is thus to construct a realm where the oppositional gaze can exist:

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 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.  Foreign films and U.S. independent cinema were the primary locations of my filmic looking relations, even though I also watched Hollywood films.

Through "looking at films with an oppositional gaze," Hooks asserts that those voices who are silenced can develop a realm in which critical judgments and assessments can be made.  This condition does not punish gazing, but rather praises it as an essential element in being able to transform what is into what can and should be.