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  • Writer's pictureESSMAT SOPHIE

Some of the ways that bell hooks’ “oppositional gaze” responds to Laura Mulvey’s “the male gaze.”

Hooks begins her essay by reflecting on childhood experiences in which her parents punished her for staring. There’s a long legacy of Black people in the United States and elsewhere being punished for staring. In this context, looking was an act of opposition and resistance, and agaze was more than just a gaze. Staring was seen as “confrontational, as a gesture of resistance, [and as] challenging to authority.” Hooks’ oppositional gaze thus goes beyond the sexualized, gendered gaze described by Mulvey, which highlights the psychoanalytic aspects of a gaze and phallocentric is one of its main characteristics. Hooks’ discussion disrupts power, as the gaze she describes is not only gendered and sexualized but also racialized.

Hooks criticizes Mulvey’s view and introduces an intersectional approach to the gaze. She asserts that we must consider the history of race and recognize looking as a function of race and racial power dynamics.

Experiences of being told not to look have caused Black people to develop what hooks calls an oppositional gaze rooted in “defiance and critical interrogation.” In addition, the Black woman’s gaze goes beyond a phallocentric gaze and has its own agency. Hooks’ oppositional gaze is not about looking abstractly. It’s about looking at television, cinema, or other screens. In hooks’ segregated childhood neighborhood, when a Black woman watched television, she saw certain depictions of Black people meant to confirm the racial dynamics dominant at the time. Looking at these images, she would interrogate them, determining that they were not accurate reflections of her life, but representations of certain people’s ideas about how Black people lived. When Black people gained the authority and wealth to make films, the depictions continued to be inaccurate or biased. Something was still lacking. These Black filmmakers were men, and their films reflected their interests. As a result, similar oppression and stereotypical images were depicted, but this time, it was at the expense of Black women only.

However, the oppositional gaze interrogates, and from that interrogation, a desire to make different images is born. Hooks argues that the Black female oppositional gaze offers a new way to look beyond resistance to White supremacy and gender inequality. It can read ruptures or breaks in both White and male gazes. It creates looking relations in which visual delight is produced by “the pleasure of interrogation,” and it looks for and creates images that affirms the possibility of Black women’s freedom, seeking recognition of the agency of Black female spectators.

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