Debates in the 1970s and 1980s surrounding the issue of pornography highlighted conflicts of interest between lesbian feminists and gay men. What was sometimes overlooked in the radical feminist (psychoanalytically driven) relationship between pornography and the ‘male gaze’ was the privileging of a particular racial group in these debates, namely white men. This model of the dominant gaze of the white gay man has been drawn on by a number of writers and theorists in their analysis of the representation of black sexual identity. Hooks, in her analysis of IsaacJulien’s film LookingforLangston, contends that the ‘gaze of the white [gay] male as it appears in the film is colonizing, it does not liberate’ (1993:69). She goes on to question whose or what ‘desire is expressed when the only frontal nudity seen in the film appears as secondhand image—the pictures of naked black men taken by wealthy white photographer Robert Mapplethorpe?’ (ibid.). Hooks’ position retains a strong commitment to a modernist representational model which privileges reality over fantasy and assumes a univocal reading of the text. As she argues, ‘Though acknowledged, Mapplethorpe’s vision is simply not compelling when it is displayed within a framework where the prevailing image is that of the black male body defining itself as subject, not as object’ (ibid.).
The anti-pornography movement, typical of feminist initiatives of the 1970s, while problematic in its links with the ‘New Right’s’ demands for censorship, was important in its politicisation of the issue of sexual representation. While the movement remained an essentially white middle-class movement, the issues of race and racism emerged in critiques from women of colour and Third World women. Mercer (1994:131) notes that these same critiques did not emerge in the gay movement, and he comments that ‘white gay men retain a deafening silence on race’. Mercer maintains, ‘this is not surprising, given the relatively depoliticized culture of the mainstream gay “scene”’ (ibid).
Mercer considers many of the issues that have characterised debates within feminism, particularly in the work of writers such as bell hooks. He notes that the issue of ‘freedom of choice’ within sexual libertarianism reflects racial privilege and is embodied in the white-dominated ‘consumer- oriented character of the metropolitan gay subculture’ (Mercer 1994:133). He contends that this subculture in many ways is no different to mainstream culture in terms of the way it ‘positions’ and represents black men. Mercer claims that ‘As black men we are implicated in the same landscape of stereotypes which is dominated and organized around the needs, demands and desires of white males’ (ibid.). He shows that the same ‘narrow repertoire of “types”, is available to the black man including the supersexual stud and the sexual “savage” on the one hand, or the delicate, fragile and exotic “oriental” on the other’ (ibid.).
The confinement of gay black men to these stereotypes is reflected in different representational forms, particularly gay pornography. Mercer raises the dilemma faced by gay black men in this context: ‘what interests us are the contradictory experiences that the porno-photo-text implicates us in, as pornography is one of the few spaces in which erotic images of other black men are made available’ (ibid). He maintains that the repetition of the stereotypes of black men in gay pornographic forms ‘betrays the circulation of “colonial fantasy” (Bhabha, 1984)’ (ibid,.).