REPRESENTATIONS OF ‘RACE’ AND BLACK WOMEN IN. POPULAR CULTURE
Popular cultural forms such as film have frequently served as vehicles to represent issues around race and ethnicity and to confirm representations of racial stereotypes. Modleski (1993:78) maintains that popular film is also used to explore ‘the highly charged taboo relationship between black men and white women’. In this context Modleski uses the film Gorillas in the Mist as an example. In a summary which draws constant parallels with the film King Kong, Modleski outlines what she describes as the film’s bizarre psychosocial dynamics. She claims that psychoanalytic theory cannot be dismissed as an analytic framework for dealing with issues of race, even though those who have used psychoanalysis may be racially biased.
Many feminist writers may find problematic Modleski’s rather crude application of some of the conceptual repertoire of psychoanalytic film theory to the analysis of race within popular film. Certainly Modleski’s earlier work, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (1984), where she considered forms of entertainment produced specifically for women, such as Harlequin romance or soap operas, has been the subject of considerable criticism from within feminist film and media theory.
Modleski (1993:78) does raise the issue of the ‘representation of black women in popular film looking especially at the ways in which the black woman functions as the site of the displacement of white culture’s (including white women’s) fears and anxieties’. In addition, in developing a point raised by Claire Johnston regarding the absence of women as women in ‘patriarchal cinema’, Modleski notes that this has been much more literally the case for black women than for white, and that black women in film are in the most marginalised position. As she observes, ‘when present at all [the black woman] has served as a signifier of (white) female sexuality or of the maternal (“Mammy”)’ (Modleski 1993:85). Michele Wallace, while not dealing directly with the implications of psychoanalytic film theory, considers attempts by popular cultural forms to mainstream, depoliticise and ‘colonise’ black feminist literary texts (see Chapter 7).
What these diverse analyses share is an attempt to rescue female pleasures in popular cultural forms. Bryars (1991:20) recommends ‘an approach that enables us to hear strong feminine, resisting voices even within mainstream cultural artifacts’. It is clear that psychoanalytic theory has annihilated the potential for female pleasure and even ‘the resistance which women have constructed out of inbuilt contradictions in patriarchal popular culture’ (van Zoonen 1994:97). As more feminist film theorists and cultural theorists have recognised these limitations, what van Zoonen has called ‘Mulvey’s dark and suffocating analysis of patriarchal cinema’ has been increasingly challenged by more subversive and more empowering forms of female spectatorship.