MasterBlog: The Black Female Subject

I find that Foucault’s characterization of the Panopticon – the surveillance-based system of imprisonment and self-discipline originally postulated by Jeremy Bentham – can be applied in a million fascinating ways to film analysis. Panopticism, essentially, ensures that a subject is constantly contained in a state of paranoia and behavioral self-regulation as she can never be sure if she is being watched and/or measured up for some kind of punishment by the authority (sometimes the state apparatus).

The black female subject often operates under a kind of cultural panopticism. Her body, as a site of intersection between racial and gender identity, is under scrutiny; however, as a subject, she is hard-pressed to find a context in which she may hold the power of the gaze (or indeed even find a media representation of herself which removes the specters of patriarchy and white supremacy, and allows her a complex, private internal world).

The imlipications of panopticism, along with bell hooks’ deep analysis of the white male “daddy” and the things the marginalized subject must do for him, helped me to crystallize a connection between Moolade (2004) and “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” web series. Though they’re each best served with different structures of analysis (which I’ll get into below), I did think both these works make statements about the conflation of public and private space for women, especially black women.

For me, the richest moments in Moolade occur directly on either side of the eponymous magical rope, constructed and claimed by Collé as a line that the state itself can’t cross. It is inside her homestead that Collé is able to create a makeshift sanctuary for the women of her microcosmic society, a liminal space in which the anti-state rhetoric of felling the practice of female genital mutilation can be freely spoken and protected. We watch many different people (and creatures) repeatedly cross this line – a male toddler, a chicken, Amasatou’s fiance – and yet, this marked site of subversion and rebellion continues to physically protect the little girls inside it from FGM. Collé manipulates the relationship between ideology and reality to change a set of cultural behaviors – she is the embodiment of Althusser’s depiction of this connection, as she intimately understands her own subjugation and the loopholes in its framework. Her act of creating private space is an act of resistance (in some ways successful, in some ways a failure, especially in the case of Diatou’s death). Though Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” takes on the navigation of private and public in a vastly different context, she too struggles to live authentically and free from pain and subjugation, to locate a space beyond societal constraint.

As a cinema subject, it is a black woman’s fight to live as a holistic being, a “natural” subject ungoverned by an all-seeing eye of expectation that informs her position as a “cultural reader” who provides alternative and resistant readings of dominant texts. Jacqueline Bobo briefly describes the process of “interpellation” – John Fiske’s word for a “hailing” of the subject from the text – as a process which provides a black female subject with a much-needed point of access into a media text. To recognize one’s lived experience within a text, as opposed to an iteration of the experience required and expected by a white supremacist patriarchal apparatus, provides true agency. As bell hooks says, “representations colonize the mind and imagination.” To take this a step further – it is not enough to simply represent the physical avatar of the marginalized subject, she must experience interpellation and actually find truth and resistance within the representation in order to begin to dismantle the dominant discourse. In layman’s terms: a “sassy black friend” doesn’t change the accepted matrix of representation, but an “awkward black girl” does.

A few questions…
1. It seemed like Ibrahima brought with him a specter of Eurocentrism as a “daddy figure.” How can we further complicate Colle’s resistance to the practice of FGM in the face of this Western patriarchal “savior idealism” embodied by both Ibrahim and, to an extent, Mercenaire?
2. Denzel Washington’s career is a source of fascination to me and I hope we get to it in class. In addition to the roles hooks described, in The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia, he also played a sexually neutered character who exists to serve the romantic ends of his white heterosexual friends in the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. Do you think his habit in the ’90s of playing characters working to serve/impress “white daddy” was a product of the times? How does Denzel’s position as black male sex symbol (actively marketed to white women) engage respectability politics?

Media discussed:
Moolade (2004)
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (2011 – )

Readings/References:
“Aftermath of Feminism” – Angela McRobbie
“Black Women as Cultural Readers” – Jacqueline Bobo
Discipline and Punish – Michel Foucault
“Doing it for Daddy” – bell hooks
“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” – Louis Althusser
Understanding Popular Culture – John Fiske

Leah Steuer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015
UCLA TFT

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