I drew the image above after reading an essay by Jacqui Roach and Petal Felix on the black female gaze. In the essay, Jacqui and Petal* analyse the gaze of three black women – a writer, an actor, and a songwriter. They conclude that the black female gaze is not a unified gaze but made up of different points of view. However, they see one of these points of view as lacking.
The writer, Joan Riley, wrote novels based in realism. Critics perceived her black characters as too negative or too depressing, although ordinary people could relate to them. Judith Jacob, the actor, considered it important to portray black female characters on mainstream (white) TV in a positive light, even if it didn’t reflect reality at the time (1980s). She was able to connect with and portray realism in the Black Theatre Cooperative, where the players had complete control over every aspect of production.
The songwriter, Judy Boucher, made a hit song but did not define herself as a feminist. She chose to focus on love as a topic and her gaze was on the fact that her opinion mattered, just like anyone else. Jacqui and Petal criticised Judy’s point of view by stating that although on one level black women are like anyone else, on another they are not and that difference needs to be asserted.
I feel Jacqui and Petal’s criticism of Judy is unfair. She successfully made a name for herself in the mainstream music industry. Her eye was on success. Her story made me think of Alma Woodsey Thomas, an abstract painter who happened to be a black woman. She painted what made her happy. She was criticised for not creating cultural products that highlighted the reality of segregation and other inequalities in America. Her gaze was on nature and she painted abstractions of what she saw.
Judy and Alma were wise. They focused on love rather than hate. I’m sure that both of them were survivors. Both black women living in patriarchy, I’m certain they experienced a spectrum of daily discrimination. It is tiring, to say the least, to live in a system that discriminates against you. So, it makes sense that they would choose to focus their creative work on love. It’s a coping mechanism, but it is also a form of activism.
We need more love in a world that hates. This is not to say that Joan’s words and Judith’s actions are not valid. We’re all finding our ways and some of us do focus on creating awareness of reality, some on creating positive examples for biased consumers, and some on love. All of it is valid and beautiful. All of it is activism. I love that we have so many more different points of view in the female gaze than just three, each doing their own thing. My Wooden Heart image represents that.
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*I know the norm is to use surnames when talking about authors but I feel it dehumanises so I’m using their first names.
ROACH, J. and FELIX, P., 1994. Black Looks. In: L. Gamman and M. Marshment, eds., the Female Gaze Women as Viewers of Popular Culture, London: The Women’s Press Ltd., pp. 130-142.