In a 1992 essay, bell hooks began with the obvious: We see the anti-Blackness in mass media.
But that awareness is a critical element of a phenomenon she coined “the oppositional gaze.”
hooks described how Black women in film often existed to serve white women or be an object to Black men. Still, many Black woman viewers identify with them and give them agency.
For example, instead of laughing at characters like Sapphire, or the “angry Black woman,” they empathize with her in a way other viewers don’t.
Black women also call out when empathy is absent - as hooks did concerning Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” which Lee himself regretted decades later.
But even though Black women resist media dehumanization by insisting on humanizing characters anyway, they still crave something different.
So, when watching media made by Black women for Black women, the tension between combating stereotypes and empathizing with characters can fade.
“I do not need to ‘resist’ the images,” said hooks of filmmakers like Kathleen Collins, Julie Dash, and Ayoka Chenzira. “[E]ven as I still choose to watch their work with a critical eye.”
Today, hooks’ theory is circulated in film schools and critical dialogues worldwide.
Have representations of Black women changed over the decades? And when you watch Black women on screen, and in real life, what do you see?