Within broad discussions of media texts, issues of gender and power relationships are frequently considered. However, less frequent, but equally as important, is the issue of race. bell hooks’ “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” and Hye Seung Chung’s “The Audience Who Knew Too Much: Oriental Masquerade and Ethnic Recognition among Asian Americans” both directly consider the influence of racial identity on spectatorship. Specifically, these two texts discuss the methods that different marginalized racial groups have used to challenge the stronghold of dominant hegemonic ideologies and power dynamics as presented in Hollywood cinema. For both hooks, through her notion of “Oppositional Gaze,” and Chung, in terms of “Oriental Masquerade,” there are certain means by which individual spectators do have the power and agency to challenge dominant ideologies. This is a significant departure from other psychoanalytic film theories, which posit that spectators are generally powerless to resist dominant ideology. However, despite the potential resistive nature of these oppositional methods, they are still ultimately limited in their overall effectiveness to fully subvert hegemonies.
These two pieces both offer a slight glimmer of hope for marginalized racial groups who are far too often overlooked, misrepresented, or outright erased by traditional Hollywood cinema. hook emphasizes that there is significant power associated with the look, and that the purposeful use (or choice to not use) the look had implications for marginalized groups to challenge Hollywood cinema’s dominant views on race. Specifically, hook discusses that the look was traditionally denied to black female spectators, but that specific cinema was emerging that aimed to restore this power. While these black films did exist somewhat separately from dominant Hollywood ideologies, there was still some resistive power. hooks writes that “even in the worse circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency” (682). Unlike Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze, which in turn rests upon Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage, which largely denies individual agency, hooks acknowledges that by utilizing the power of the look, black women “created a space where the binary opposition Mulvey posits of ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look’ was continually deconstructed” (687). In other words, the oppositional gaze could be used by marginalized communities to challenge the power relations typically reinforced by Hollywood cinema.
Chung makes a similar argument about the resistive spectatorship of marginalized racial groups. Specifically discussing Asian American audiences, Chung invokes the notion of Oriental Masquerade as a means for the marginalized group to resist dominant ideologies and push back against the racial roles being perpetuated by Hollywood Cinema. Chung provides an overview of other film scholarship, and summarizes the means by which Hollywood creates certain perceptions of race. Notably, she cites Feng’s writing that “The label ‘Asian’ is not used in Asia–it is only used in the West” (37). Despite the artificial nature of the Asian label, Asian American actors and audiences must still interact and understand their identities within this context. Using Philip Ahn as a specific case study, Chung argues that masquerade is used by Asian Americans in order to negotiate their identities and positions within Hollywood Cinema. For these actors “Oriental otherness is very much a mask that can be word and removed” (Chung 43). Though Ahn was a Korean-American, he was often cast into roles that comprised many different backgrounds from various Asian countries. In this way, the American perception of “Orientalism” developed as a “composite of multiple Asian ethnicities” (Chung 45). However, this perception was described as a mere mask that actors could put on or remove as needed. When utilizing Oriental Masquerade, the actor can simultaneously provide two different messages to two different audiences. One, the dupe, takes this composite Asian identity at face value, and is unaware of its artificiality. However, the other, the clairvoyant, can see through the mask. For instance, when Ahn spoke Korean, even in a supposedly Chinese role, some audiences didn’t question this at all, but others who understood the cultural codes were able to see how Ahn was subtly subverting dominant Hollywood expectations. Channeling Stuart Hall, the idea of racial masquerade enables a marginalized racial group to spread a message, but have it decoded in different ways by different audiences.
Unlike psychoanalysis which presents spectators as passive receivers of messages and ideologies, hooks and Chung, relying heavily upon Hall’s theory of encoding and decoding, thankfully restore a great deal of individual agency to the spectator. In this way, marginalized racial groups have a more powerful “political weapon” than what is offered by psychoanalysis. By acknowledging individual spectator agency, we can empower these marginalized groups to resist and subvert dominant ideologies. Hall writes that “If no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be no ‘consumption’” (29). In other words, audiences can actively choose to take (or not take) a meaning, and thus whether or not they will “buy in” to dominant hegemonies. There is some potential to use this argument to inadvertently prop up racist representations, by transferring some responsibilities from the encoder to the decoder, and allow these negative representations to remain. However, this concern exists not simply within the context of encoding and decoding, but within all circles of discourse. The mere act of discussing a message, even to identify it as racist or disparaging, simultaneously amplifies the message as well. Despite this, the mere fact that these writings restore individual agency to the marginalized groups means that they are an important political weapon to acknowledge. By extension, these arguments also prompt a reconsideration of Mulvey’s psychoanalytical arguments in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In it, she argues that spectators have no ability to resist messages whatsoever. However, given the theory of encoding/decoding, we should add significant conditional language to her argument. Unlike what Mulvey argues, it is possible for marginalized groups to push back against dominant ideologies if they choose to do so. While it is highly unlikely that they will ever fully topple hegemony, it is important to acknowledge that through tools such as oppositional gaze or masquerade, it is possible to at least somewhat resist and subvert.