bell hooks on the Power of Representation

“It’s scary to me now, because, particularly in issues around erotica and sexual violence, people want to deny the direct link between representations and how we live our lives. I think that it’s possible to embrace the knowledge that there’s a direct link between representations and choices we make in our lives that does not make that link absolute, that does not say, “oh, if I look at a movie in which a woman is fucked to death,” than I will go out and think I should let myself be fucked to death by any man who wants to fuck me. I think that’s an absurd sense of a direct link, but that is not to say, that if I watched enough of those images I might not come away thinking that certain forms of unacceptable male violence in coercion in relationship to my female body are acceptable.

It’s frightening to me now when people want to behave as though certain images don’t mean anything. I thought of this when I saw Larry Clark’s Kids and I went back like in circles of progressive white friends and I said, “Oh, God, you know, the racial politics in terms of representation in this film really suck.”

And they really wanted to say, it didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. And I was like, “Give me a fucking break. Like we know why the person is brutally bashed to death is a dark skinned black man, it’s crucial that he’s a dark skinned black man, because in fact, people’s antipathy to dark skinned black men is actually much greater than their antipathy to black men in some kind of general way. I feel that it’s frightening that as mass media uses more certain kinds of representations for specific impact and effect, we’re also being told that these images are not really that important.

Think about all the Americans who’ve never ever in their lives for one second thought
about Scotland and Ireland, who went to see Braveheart, who suddenly like put notions of British imperialism and the freedom of Ireland on their little social maps because of a
Hollywood movie.

I was truly awed by how much Hollywood film could like totally alter people’s perceptions of national liberation struggles globally in a way that would call attention to those who are in a sense the underclass in those struggles. And that is also the power of white male privilege. White male stardom. I mean it’s important for people to look at who produced and directed that film. Because it’s not just that Hollywood can do that, it’s that specific liberal white men who are moneyed within the context of Hollywood can produce whatever images that they want to produce.”


from the bell hooks – Cultural Criticism and Transformation transcript of the 1997 doscument for Media Education Foundation.

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