Oppositional gaze

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Oppositional gaze is a political rebellion and resistance against the repression of black people's right to a gaze; and it is through these looking relations that independent black cinema develops.[1] The phrase oppositional gaze was coined by feminist, scholar and social activist bell hooks in 1992. It is a work of feminist film theory, which criticizes the male gaze through Michel Foucault's 'relations of power'.[1] hooks asserts "there is power in looking".[1]

The oppositional gaze encompasses modes of looking and looking back[1] which employ reflexive gazes such as:

  • The shared gaze[1]
  • The repressed gaze[1]
  • White supremacist capitalist imperialist dominating gaze[1]
  • Phallocentric gaze[1]
  • Black male gaze[1]
  • Interrogation gazes[1]
  • Gaze of Recognition[1]


The concept was first developed as a critique of the male gaze by bell hooks in her essay "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators".[1] hooks posits the power of the gaze from a black body as repressed, denied, and ultimately interrogating.[1] Through critical discussion around black women and cinema, the oppositional gaze enters as the counterpart to reinforcing white supremacy.[1] Subsequently, black films developed in response to the stagnant stereotypes of white-dominated cinema. It is critical to note that even in this realm, the concerns around gender relations reinforce an imaginative moment of phallocentric power by black men, a power not disseminated toward black women.[1]

In Lacanian theory, modes of power and looking relations are contextualized within the mirror stage. This stage subsequently produces the narcissistic libido and the alienating function of the 'I' "...which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development. Thus, to break out of the circle of the Innenwelt into the Umwelt generates the inexhaustible quadrature of the ego's verifications".[2] As a child, hook's first encounter with Sapphire from Amos 'n' Andy "...explored both the negation of black female representation in cinema and television and our rejection of these images. [Sapphire's] black female image was not the body of desire. There was nothing to see. She was not us".[1] Lacan examines this dual relationship, noting that the mirror stage is "...far from a phenomenon that occurs in the development of the child".[3] Thus, placing the black female spectator in a paradigm of méconnaissances, where their image was explained and reiterated without them looking. As hooks concludes on the black characterization of Sapphire, "How could we long to be there when our image, visually constructed, was so ugly".[1]

Black female spectatorship[edit]

In "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators",[1] hooks gives the rubric that black woman are not only underrepresented in film, but they are also not allowed to 'look' either.[4] Looking implores a sense of power that is removed from the black female body, to play the role of object in direct relation to white female existence.

In 2015, Viola Davis was quoted by Entertainment Weekly saying, "Toni Morrison said that as soon as a character of color is introduced in a story imagination stops…I mean, I’m a black woman from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark-skinned. I’m quirky. I’m shy. I’m strong. I’m guarded. I’m weak at times. I’m sensual. I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways, and I will never see myself on screen”.[5] It is beneath this very umbrella that hooks' concept of the oppositional gaze is present, as Davis, a decorated actress and producer, states the realities of what it means to be a black woman in film. This statement came after Davis was awarded as the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Male gaze[edit]

"‘The Oppositional Gaze’[1] by bell hooks is the rejection of Laura Mulvey’s paper, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975)".[6][7] Mulvey's text analyses Lacan's mirror stage within film, concluding that subjectivity is "the birth of the long love affair/ despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience".[6] She furthers this point by criticizing the "male movie star's glamorous characteristics" as not subject to an objectifying gaze, but rather a more powerful stance as the 'ideal ego' developed in the beginning stages of recognition in front of the mirror.[6] Mulvey defines the "split between active/ male and passive/ female" as the pleasure in looking through which the determining male gaze stylizes the female figure.[6] hooks rebuts this claim stating, "Black female spectators 'actively' chose not to identify with the film's imaginary subject because such identification was disenabling".[1]

The concept of seeing one's self in opposition to the 'ideal ego' must begin with recognition of one's body as comparably different. Black female representation in film exists primarily in opposition to the white woman's body. Thus, black women often remain in search of a mirror stage because they metaphorically have yet to see true representations of themselves. hooks gives an example of this rare recognition through two characters in the film "Passion of Remembrance". She writes, "Dressing to go to a party, Louise and Maggie claim the 'gaze'. Looking at one another, staring in mirrors, they appear completely focused on their encounter with black femaleness".[1]

Mulvey's criticisms present exclusionary perspectives which inundate the white female body as a totalizing categorization of all women.[1] Not only is the representation of Black women significantly marginalized within film but they are further misrepresented as stereotyped objects to which the male gaze is rarely, if ever applied. This concept leads hooks to ask, "Are we really to imagine that feminist theorists writing only about images of white women... do not 'see' the whiteness of the image?".[1]

The oppositional gaze serves as "a gesture of resistance" to not only the male gaze but also toward the oppression of minorities through cinema by the all-inclusive gendering of woman. This gaze criticizes the doubling effect of objectification by "turning away [as] one way to protest, to reject negation".[1]

Feminine gaze[edit]

Judith Butler theorizes the feminine gaze as "a pervasive heterosexism in feminist theory".[8] In her essay "The Question of Social Transformation",[8] Butler states, "Through performativity, dominant and nondominant gender norms are equalized. But some of those performative accomplishments claim the place of nature or claim the place of symbolic necessity...".[8] These theories criticize the male gaze and its objectification of 'women' as it predominantly excludes more than just the Black oppositional gaze but further problematizes the subjectivity of gendering male verses female. Furthermore, 'woman' as heterogenous sex object functions for and within the patriarchy, reinforcing "white supremacist capitalist imperialist dominating 'gaze'"[1]

Olympia's Maid[edit]

The surrounding controversy of Édouard Manet's Olympia (1863) highlights the confrontational gaze as defiant and critical within the context of its time. However, there is a second gaze within this painting that is "cooperating with the West's construction of not-white women as not-to-be-seen".[9] Olympia, pegged as a prostitute, makes direct eye contact with viewers while her 'black servant' "looms in the shadows" as background.[9] In her essay titled, "Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity",[9] Lorraine O'Grady states, "...only the white body remains as the object of a voyeuristic, fetishizing male gaze. The not-white body has been made opaque by a blank stare...".[9]

This "blank stare" through a body of alterity reiterates bell hooks definition of the oppositional gaze. The deliberate characterization of the 'black servant' is ideologically rooted in the constructs of black female identity as Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire.[10] As O'Grady declares, "Forget euphemisms. Forget 'tonal contrast'. We know what she is meant for: she is Jezebel and Mammy, prostitute and female eunuch, the two-in-one".[9] Olympia's maid serves not only as the maid but as the opposing body of difference to whiteness; both visually and sexually. Within Freudian theory, people of color are "symbolically and even theoretically excluded from sexual difference".[9]

Olympia, although defiant as gazing prostitute, remains as a unitary sign of the female body in the West. "It has an obverse and a reverse".[9] As hooks says, "…[this] image functions solely to reaffirm and reinscribe patriarchy".[1] These comparative power relations conjure up opposing forces that transfer agency from one side to the 'other'. Michel Foucault insists that there is the possibility of resistance to domination and therefore an oppositional gaze exists. While Olympia confronts the male gaze, her maid confronts the repressed gaze, the oppositional gaze, and the gaze of recognition.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z hooks, bell (1992). "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectator". The Feminism and Visual Cultural Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003: Amelia Jones. pp. 94–105. ISBN 9780415543705.
  2. ^ Easthope, Antony, and Kate McGowan. "Jacques Lacan from 'The Mirror Stage' (1949)". A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Maidenhead: Open UP, 2004. pp. 71–80.
  3. ^ "Jacques Lacan - the seminars of Jacques Lacan". lacan.com. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  4. ^ "The Male Gaze and the Oppositional Gaze". womenandmediafa2012.blogspot.ca. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  5. ^ Sylla, Fanta (2015-09-29). "Anatomy of a Black Actress: Viola Davis". The Toast. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  6. ^ a b c d Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.". Media and Cultural Studies: Keywords. 2001; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006: Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. pp. 342–352.
  7. ^ jennylovespeach (2012-11-17). "The Oppositional Gaze". jennylovespeach. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  8. ^ a b c Butler, Judith. "The Question of Social Transformation.". Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. pp. 204–231.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g O'Grady, Lorraine. "Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity". The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. pp. 174–187.
  10. ^ West, Carolyn M (2008-01-01). "Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and their homegirls: Developing an "oppositional gaze" toward the images of Black women".