I was first introduced to the “Gaze” when I read The Oppositional Gaze essay by black feminist scholar bell hooks (yes her name is spelled lower case because that’s how she spells it on publications) in my Genders of Popular class. The Oppositional Gaze by bell hooks looks into how black female spectatorship is rarely studied as well as how black women are viewed in the media.
The “gaze” dates back to slavery when white slave owners punished slaves for simply gazing at someone, meaning slave owners took the right to gaze away from black people. hooks, uses the “gaze” in slavery to show how detrimental it was to take away the “gaze” and how it led to several problems in particularly with black female spectatorship.
Black female character development is based on looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs the African-American presence as absent, denies the body of the black female, and the desired black woman looks white because of white supremacy. For example in the days of early cinema the black actress would appear white to spectators. While times have changed, and a spectator will know if an actress is white or black, there are still relevant signs of what hooks pointed out in popular culture today.
My Wife and Kids starring Damon Waynes and Tisha Campbell, had two daughters and one son. Tisha Campbell was light skin, the youngest daughter was light skin and the oldest daughter was dark skin. In season two the original oldest daughter was traded for a lighter daughter with curly natural hair. This relates to the desired woman according to the “gaze” looking white or close to it as possible. Feminist cinema studies do not look into aspects of why most of the desired black women in media are close to white or displaying some trait of a white woman.
The “gaze” leads to in class racism, adaptation, and this idea that there is only one way to view female spectatorship. In class racism refers to a race having races issues within the race, and in black culture one of those issues are light skin vs. dark skin. For example, in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dark skin Aunt Vivian is seen as a nagger, a loving mother, professor, and there is an overall toughness to her. Seasons later Aunt Vivian was light skin and now she was not a nagger, or a professor, but a submissive woman instead. From that show a spectator might think that dark skin women nag and are tough while light skin black women relate to white women who are submissive homemakers.
These images on television and cinema may make young black girls pick and belittle one another because of who has darker or lighter skin. There are a million stories within our race of dark skin young girls being the aggressor and picking on light skin girls. If you look at television darker women are the aggressors most of the time. Is this telling little dark skin girls that they have to be mean? Light skin women are seen as docile but they are also seen as sneaky at times.
Black women, we didn’t create these narratives, society gave them to us and we bought into them. When they do these light skin vs dark skin studies no one ever gets to the real issue of why young black girls think lighter skin and curly hair equals beauty. Dark skin little girls feel this way because American and European beauty ads always feature white women and when a woman of color does get camera time she is light skin most of the time. Society tells our young black girls at an early age that the closer you are the white, the better off your life will be.
In order to maintain white supremacy, society has to plaster these images of white/ European women being the standard of beauty to feel superior about beauty that they’re actually uncomfortable with. Don’t allow yourself to be the victim of someone else’s issue.
Black women don’t write about female spectatorship because they’ve been abused by the “gaze”. Black women don’t see how they are silent about female spectatorship because they’re accustomed to what the media presents to them when it comes to black women in films or television. The racism and domination of black people during slavery is a major agent into why black female spectatorship is not studied.
White supremacy is a major contributor to what black female spectators see when they watch television or go to the movies. White supremacy has also exploited and capitalized off numerous stereotypes of black women in cinema and television. When black females spectators watch movies or television they may see a black woman as a servant to a white woman, a ghetto hood rat, successful woman who has a dysfunctional life, or a poor uneducated woman.
The Help was a movie about black housekeepers that were used in the south decades ago. Although the movie included triumphs for the black women in it, it still displayed black women as servants to white women. It’s as if directors in Hollywood enjoy these “triumph” stories of oppressed black women that constantly make black women question if things have really changed for us. This allows black women to stay under this oppressive “gaze” because they are seen as low-income uneducated women. White supremacy finds ways to undermine successful black women by putting out this notion that successful black women have dysfunctional lives unlike movies and shows that allow white women to have success and a functional life. White supremacy decides what a black woman should and should not be, and sadly black directors play into this notion as well.
Big lips, big hips, big booty, small booty, light skin, dark skin, big nose, curly hair, or kinky hair. Live in your body sistas and stop allowing society to shape how you feel about yourself. You have to wake up every morning and make the decision to love yourself.