Oppositional gaze and resistance

In his seminal work, Ways of Seeing, John Berger (1972) describes the act of gazing as a particularly male phenomenon. According to Berger, “(m]en look at women” and “|w]omen watch themselves being looked at.”1" Through this process, women become objectified and essentially stripped of any agency, making them passive observers of their own dehumanization. Berger is rightly drawing attention to the codes embedded in visual culture that invite particular readings of women’s bodies and by extension, female subjectivity, which position women as passive, sexualized, and mute. Laura Mulvey (2001) makes a similar point about the gaze in her seminal article from 1973, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” where she argues that the “scopophilic” nature of the cinematic lens renders “[t]he image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man.”11 Both Berger’s and Mulvey’s discussions of the gaze offer important understandings of how gender, or more precisely patriarchy, configures relations of looking. They lay bare the voyeurism, fetishism, and exploitation that characterize the male gaze. Notwithstanding these concerns, other accounts of the gaze such as that offered by bell hooks (1996) provide an alternative perspective that posit looking as an act of rebellion from the position of the dominated other. Herein lies the idea of the oppositional gaze, a look that is full of ferment and that aims to “change reality.”12 This concept not only takes up the potential of “looking back” as an act of defiance, but also critically assesses relations of power and agency entailed in this resistant practice.”:

Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that “looks” to document, one that is oppositional. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating “awareness” politicizes “looking” relations—one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.1

In her essay “The Oppositional Gaze,” from which the above excerpt derives, hooks was specifically writing about what she calls “the oppositional black gaze.”14 The latter term describes Black women’s relationship to cinematic spectatorship, which hooks presents as potentially critical of and resistive to the predominant “whiteness” of Hollywood films, hooks argues that “ [a]s critical spectators, Black women participate in a broad range of looking relations that contest, resist, revise, interrogate, and invent on multiple levels.”1’ While acknowledging this very essential focus of hooks’ work, the writers of this study also see an opportunity to extend this idea of the oppositional gaze to an examination of how visual protest movements that are female driven operate as sites of resistance in other places and other times. The gaze, as appropriated by these actors, seeks to push back against forms of patriarchal domination that invite sexual, psychological, physical, and other forms of gender-based violence.The “pleasure of interrogation”"’ that the oppositional gaze facilitates, is, in these instances, being leveled at certain state and cultural institutions that perpetuate misogyny.

Going back to hooks’ statement that there is power in the act of looking, we would like to add that there is even more power in “looking feacfe.”That power is heightened by the fact that for women, looking back creates a particular danger.This is because “looking back” always holds the potential for punishment, via the surveillance it implies, perhaps because of the spectacle that it creates. Since looking back draws attention to oneself (thereby making the invisible visible), it produces a spotlight that the onlooker has little power to evade. It forces one to look at and to look into the once negated presence of the oppressed or invisible, whose specular presence now demands attention and also exposes them to the danger that Russo (1986) describes in her essay. The particular visual protest movements cited in this essay point to the perils women face when they “make a spectacle of themselves” in the manner described above—dangers that may include being sexually harassed on and offline or even being jailed as a result of their visual protests.

Despite the dangerous responses they may generate, these acts represent women’s resistance to how they are traditionally viewed or “looked at.’’This is the nexus between the oppositional gaze and feminist political activism from the perspective of this essay: women daring to look at themselves in a way that challenges traditional constructions of their gender identities. The implied reflexivity of internalizing the gaze as a gateway to self-knowledge is echoed by Jean-Paul Sartre (1956) when he argued that the gaze is the frontline for the self “to define and redefine itself” since “we become aware of our self as subject only when confronted with the gaze of the Other and become aware of our self as object.”17 Just as the Black women hooks writes about grappled with and ultimately rejected identification with cinematic representations of themselves, so too do these visual protests critically interrogate patriarchal ideas about gender and invent new ways to communicate these lived experiences.This contestation plays itself out via the spectacle of the protests, which range from scenes of bloody wedding dresses to shaved heads, in the streets and social media spaces of China and the United States. In this sense, spectacle emerges as a form of political resistance that disrupts normative ideas about female identity via its denaturalization of gender (Butler 1990) and its redefinition of who can be a subject with the gaze.

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