Gazing at the Gaze: To De-pornographize and Re-eroticize

Minh Vu

Minh Vu is a fourth-year undergraduate at Yale University studying English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. On campus, they edit for a number of publications made by and for students of color, staff at the Asian American Cultural Center, and sing with their all-gender contemporary a cappella group Out of the Blue. Outside of campus, they volunteer at the community book bank New Haven Reads, conduct public humanities research at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, and do some freelance creative non-fiction writing. Next year, they are planning to apply to PhD programs in English with an emphasis on comparative contemporary multiethnic literatures.


Introduction & Methodology

In “The Pornography of Everyday Life” (2011), Jane Caputi details the ubiquity of pornography and its violent representations of women. By “pornography,” Caputi does not refer to its conventional denotation as “X-rated” material, but rather as a more general “everyday” discourse—a “ ‘habit[1] of thinking’ ” (311). In this sense, porn operates as an epistemology, and in her piece Caputi details how the pornographic gaze is deployed as a means to oppress women via heteronormativity, hypersexualization, and infantilization among other methods. This rethinking of porn as an analytical framework is what she deems as “the pornographic paradigm” (312). However, despite porn’s ubiquity, Caputi ends her piece with a sense of optimism by beckoning the emergence of the “erotic principle”—a concept coined by Audre Lorde—as a means “to resist oppression and transform ourselves and our [pornographic] world” (318). This paper is interested in this new vision—this turn from the pornographic to the erotic gaze. By combining studies on the gaze with spatiality theory, I argue how the pornographic gaze can be diverted into the erotic gaze, through which alternative spaces can be excavated as a means to open up a site of self-subjectifying solidarity and futurity.

In this paper, I first reconstruct the pornographic gaze and its implications through discussion of Jane Caputi’s “The Pornography of Everyday Life” (2011) and Jackson Katz’s “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity” (2011). Then, I discuss bell hooks’s replacement of the pornographic gaze with “The Oppositional Gaze” (1992), which in turn produces an alternative, “oppositional space” (77) found in her anti-pornographic “Selling Hot Pussy” (1992). Both hooks’s oppositional gaze and space are imbued by Audre Lorde’s erotic, which I explore in Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1979) and “Eye to Eye: Women, Hatred, and Anger” (1979). After this theoretical deconstruction of the pornographic gaze and the reconstruction of the erotic one, I follow with an exploration of the erotic gaze’s application in Aimee Cox’s “The Move Experiment” (2015) and how the gaze produces emotional, aesthetic, and financial material benefits for the peer mentors. I push this application even further through a reading of Sue-Ellen Case’s “Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic” (1988) to prove how the erotic gaze can also be directed to the self as a means for self-subjectification. Through placing these feminist theorists in conversation, I trace the genealogy of the gaze and its spatiality, revealing how the erotic—the site of a new future—supplants the past model of the pornographic.  

The Pornographic Gaze & The Pornographic Space

Before divulging in the erotic, I begin with a reconstruction of the pornographic gaze and its corresponding space.

Jane Caputi argues the violence of the pornographic gaze emerges through its discursive deployment in terms of gender (heterosexual), violence, rape, infantilization, objectification (for the standardized perfect woman), slavery, and snuff.[2] Throughout “The Pornography of Everyday Life”, Caputi performs close-readings of various ads to demonstrate how porn is an aesthetic tool through which to control representations of women—whether fashioning them as “doll[s]” (315) or infantilizing them as “little girls” (314). For example, she points out the deliberate aesthetic choice to only have a “partial image of [a woman’s] bottom lip”—a part of a part—in a 2007 ad for Chanel lipstick (317). Here, this “pornographic intention” dehumanizes the women via objectification and commercialization because not only is the body part deindividuated and accentuated, but it is also propped—like a mannequin—to popularize a product. The pornographic gaze is a tool of oppression, as it penetrates and carves women as “spaces [to] be invaded and owned” (314) wherein they can be “ke[pt] open for violation” (317). Thus, the pornographic gaze is not just an optic aesthetic, but is corporeally violent as well in physically degrading women; although the gaze does not make direct contact with them, it nevertheless enacts material violence.

The driving force of the pornographic gaze’s violence is its phallocentricity in normalizing the gendered disparity between men (the pornographizers) and women (the pornographized), as Jackson Katz discusses in “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity.” Like Caputi, Katz studies the aesthetics of contemporary advertisements created by sports, rap music, and alcohol industries—underpinning them is the image of violent white male (263) with his militaristic symbolism (265) and muscularity (267).[3] This theme of masculinity—coupled with the “seemingly endless stream[ing]” (261) of advertisements—“sketch[es] the hegemonic constructions of masculinity in mainstream advertising” which men constantly reify through their “ongoing process of creating and maintaining [and] persisting” (262). Within this construction, the pornographic gaze “stresse[s] difference” between gender, conceiving women “as objects, less-than-fully human” while simultaneously “normaliz[ing] (White) male violence” (261). With that, Katz crafts a crucial intervention—a reminder that in addition to being materially violent, the pornographic gaze is inherently misogynist vis-à-vis masculinity.

This misogyny is further amplified through racialization given the pornographic gaze’s colonial origins. In her “Slavery Porn” section, Caputi details how institutionalized pornification of women “historically” roots back to “the establishment of slavery… when elite men enslaved [and] subordinated women” (316). This “history of racist exploitation” ultimately forms “a key pillar on which contemporary pornography rests” (Collins 168) as parallels of racial and bodily violence are drawn across slavery and pornographic consumption. The racialized pornographic gaze is well captured by the phrase “colonial fantasy,” which Kobena Mercer expounds upon in “Looking for Trouble” (1993), where he reflects on his personal viewing experience of Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude photography. He cites the hedonistic “fascination” he felt “by the beautiful bodies [that] were ‘objects’ of the gaze” (351), evident in his initial reaction framed in the first-person: “I was so shocked by what I saw!” (351). Upon self-reflection, Mercer then interrogates his position as a white man for producing “a certain way of looking”—for pornographizing through a “male gaze [with] racialized” dimensions (351). This is what he declares as the colonial gaze, through which spectators not only “fetishi[ze] the most visible aspect of racial difference—skin color—but also lubricat[e] the ideological reproduction… for mastery and power over the racialized Other” (352). This colonial-pornographic gaze operates and reinforces “the fantasmatic space of the supremacist imaginary” (353). The pornographic gaze, then, acquires spatial stakes, more nefarious than conceived; the gaze is more than mere ogling, as that space between the gazer and the gazed is where racial misogyny proliferates.

The Oppositional Gaze & The Oppositional Space

After reconstructing the pornographic gaze, this paper seeks to deconstruct it through a close investigation of the oppositional gaze—the counter gaze.

In response to the pornographic gaze, bell hooks posits “The Oppositional Gaze” (1992) through which to depornify—via decolonization and depatriarchalization—the gaze and create an alternative, liberating space for women of color. Before detailing the titular oppositional gaze, hooks retraces colonial history to highlight the selective accessibility of the gaze, as the politics “of slavery, of racialized power relations, were such that the slaves were denied their right to gaze” meanwhile white people could freely do so (115). For example, in “Selling Hot Pussy” (1992), hooks dispatches her piece with an anecdote that details her abject response to her colleagues’—academics and artists—pornographic gaze towards the black body. When viewing the large chocolate breasts in the ice-cream place during an outing, instead of viewing it as a “racialized image,” they instead trivialized it and “burst[ed] into laughter” (61). hooks then grounds this anecdote with close-readings of feminist music videos and films whose promotion of black female empowerment are still paradoxically “rooted in misogynist notions” (68). Her first study is of Josephine Baker, whose dance performances—hooks argues—although crafted to “ ‘exploit’ white eroticization [pornographization],” ultimately reinforces the pornographic paradigm through the hypersexual “concentration [of] her ass” (63). Thus, hooks beckons for a paradigmatic shift away from the emphasis on and “mutilat[ion] of black female bodies” towards “radical black female subjectivity” which is achieved by the oppositional gaze (“The Oppositional Gaze” 115). Like the pornographic gaze, the oppositional gaze is selective. But unlike the former, the latter is not oppressively colonial nor patriarchal. The oppositional gaze is rather liberating and serves as a means through which black women are able to practice “rebellious desire,” collectivize under a singular “we,” and subjectivize each other through shared gazes (115).

This oppositional gaze in turn shapes an “oppositional space” (“Selling Hot Pussy” 77) that is in direct tension with the space of the supremacist imaginary which Mercer details. Not only that, but this oppositional space occupies a plane of higher-level existence, wherein the black subject can “change reality” (“The Oppositional Gaze” 115). This modification of reality is done through the black subject’s “stare” and her “look”—the “manipulat[ion] [of] one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination” (116). Whereas the white man’s pornographic gaze attempts to “contain” (116), the oppositional gaze is uncontained, opening up and furbishing “spaces of agency for black people” (118) which occupy the interstitial gap hooks carves out in the conclusion of “Selling Hot Pussy,” where she galvanizes that we must “identify points of leverage for our own intervention: cracks and fissures [where] other circumstances might be possible” (77). This spatial and thus ontological shift is what the “cosmic transform[ation]” to the erotic—what Jane Caputi calls for in “The Pornography of Everyday Life”—entails (318).

In addition to interrogating the Occidental’s pornographic gaze, the cosmic oppositional space facilitates identification and solidarity between the minoritized Others as they can “look back, and at one another” with intimate, non-hypersexualized love (“The Oppositional Gaze” 116). This interchanging, intimate gaze is what hooks calls the “adoring black female gaze,” which produces “pleasure [between black subjects] in the midst of negation” (116). This pleasure is culturally, historically, racially, and sexually specific; hooks cites Jacqui Roach and Petal Felix’s The Female Gaze, claiming  “black females have ‘our own reality, our own history, our own gaze—one which sees the world rather differently from anyone else’ ” (128). Here, the repetition and parallelism of the first-person plural signal familial connectivity and collectivity. It is through the oppositional gaze are “black female[s] invite[d]” (126) into the home of the oppositional space—“ ‘a world outside the order not normally seen, ” hooks borrows from Annette Kuhn (“Selling Hot Pussy” 77), and built outside the “structures of domination” (“The Oppositional Gaze” 130).

However, what exactly composes the oppositional space in order to make it counteract that of the pornographic? Without substance, the former space is simply empty, and its creation is forever contingent upon the latter, in that the oppositional is confined to its own definition—merely a reaction to the pornographic, rather than being a source of self-subjectification.  

The Erotic Gaze & The Erotic Space        

What constitutes the substance of the oppositional space is the “lifeforce” of the erotic, which Audre Lorde meditates upon in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (55). Lorde dispatches her piece with a mini proof to clarify the “false belief” of the erotic as equal to the pornographic (53). Rather, they are diametric opposites as the latter “is a direct denial of the power of the” former, prioritizing sexual “sensation” in lieu of “true feeling” (54). The erotic, Lorde redefines, is “an assertion of [the] creative energy empowered [and] knowledge” of women (55). She provides more cursory definitions of the erotic: as an “open and fearless underlining of [her] capacity for joy,” as “a kernel… that flowers and colors [her] life,” and as “not marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife” (56-7). By ascertaining everything the erotic is and is not Lorde celebrates the erotic’s multiplicity, contrary to “fear[s]” and normative pornographic conceptions of it as “often relegated to the bedroom alone” (57), and in turn dispels the erotic of its stigma as corruptible and dirty. Furthermore, it is crucial to highlight that Audre Lorde’s conception of the erotic, although sometimes outside of ‘the bedroom,’ is still “of the sexual”; here, the erotic is merely depornographized (56). By doing so, Lorde exposes the “male models of power”—whom she invokes at the piece’s opening—for their pornographic gaze, through which they construe, commodify, and hypersexualize the erotic as a means to control women (53).

Because the erotic—and by proxy the experience of women of color—have been co-opted, submerged, and “reduced” to “the abused and the absurd” by the pornographic, Lorde calls for the reactivation of the erotic gaze as a means to collectivize and reclaim “our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” within a separate space that is “fashioned [outside] of the male… system” (53)—sentiments that parallel (even syntactically) bell hooks’s first-person plural pronoun charge in “The Oppositional Gaze.” To craft this charge, Lorde first recounts a traumatic childhood experience that suppressed her erotic gaze. While on the subway train to Harlem, she sat next to a white woman whose “mouth twitche[d] as she stare[d] [while] her gaze drop[ped] down,” as if Lorde were “a roach” (147). This racist encounter, in conjunction with compulsory pornographic renderings of women, also conditioned Lorde’s ‘dropped’ gaze as she developed a “longing” (“The Oppositional Gaze” 115) as well as a “fear” (“Eye to Eye” 155) of looking—a paradox she captures well in her double inquiry: “Why don’t we meet each other’s eyes? Do we expect betrayal?” (155). However, by the turn of adulthood—mirroring the piece’s structure as it rears its conclusion where she reflects upon the subway incident—Lorde implores us to look up and gaze at each other ‘eye-to-eye,’ because the “hatred inside” the white woman’s colonial gaze was a manipulative tool used to condition self-hatred—a sense of “I don’t belong”—into Lorde (172). By diverting the gaze, Lorde puts forth the optical prescription that will allow us to “see each other much more clearly and deal with each other more directly” (159). This newly diverted gaze completely defies that of the pornographic; whereas in the later, the gaze is imposed upon an object as a mechanism of racial, masculinist control, here the erotic gaze is symmetrical, allowing each party to be—at once—both the gazer and gazed, a mutual subjectification ensuring both their safety and futurity. 

Applying the Erotic Gaze: Part 1

The efficacy of this—any—theory, of course, will be located in its application. This paper puts the erotic gaze and space to the test through application in the real-world.

Aimee Cox’s “The Move Experiment” (2015) is an illuminating case experiment to explore the erotic gaze as praxis. For context, the titular Move Experiment was a funded initiative of the mission ministry Fresh Start, where resident peer educators hosted community-based programming including dance classes and relaxation strategy workshops for the local Detroit community (193). The peer mentors—Izetta, Rachel, Crystal, Ashley, and Sonya—are a collection of women who are victims of cyclical drug addiction, urban poverty, fat shaming, racism, and mental health disorders (197).[4] Because of their marginalized positionalities, the peer mentors have been subject to scrutiny via the pornographic gaze; they are “bodies that are dismissed and undervalued, although televised for our viewing pleasure” (209). And it is through the erotic gaze—this sharing of purpose as residents of the Fresh Start community and founding leaders of the Move Experiment—that their bodies become legitimized and they themselves subjectivized. When left to brainstorm the “mission of the project,” the five women decided to “write personal statements without [Cox’s] prompting” to “proclai[m] their right” (199) as well as share them to one another, ‘underlining’[5] themselves with a shared joy and purpose and actualizing Audre Lorde’s call for erotic solidarity.

Furthermore, the final performance the five peer mentors put on for their friends, family, and community epitomizes the fruitfulness of the erotic gaze and space. In the outset of “The Move Experiment,” the peer mentors proclaim they want the titular program to be “a space in which they could directly confront issues of identification” (198), a philosophy that is contradictory given the fact that when Cox entered the center, she found the “young women scattered around the room… working in their own spaces” (190). However, after weeks of meditation workshops, circle conversations, and dance rehearsals (201), the peer mentors were able to share erotic gazes, bond, and identify with each other: “Izetta turned to Crystal… Rachel, Sonya, and Ashley looked at each other, at me, and then back to Izetta” (202). Here, the entire line of erotic sight is unobstructed, as the women casually and swiftly exchange identificatory gazes at each other during one of the event debrief talks. Emotional connection and codependency warm the room and mark the peer mentors’ rapport, and Izetta makes this explicitly clear in her terse summary of the conversation: “We need each other” (204). This erotic energy thus produces a final showcase that is, albeit technically imperfect, nevertheless captivatingly successful as “[o]n the stage, [the peer mentors] ultimately decided to work together” and “recited in unison: ‘And together, but still individuals, we move and twirl, speak and breath out strength’ ” (212). Here, the erotic facilitates the aesthetics of the dance—the “strong and creative… poetry” (210) as the peer mentors call it—the “creative energy” as Audre Lorde calls it (“The Uses of the Erotic” 55). Whereas “The Move Experiment”—the text—and the Move Experiment—the dance troupe—begin scattered and separate, they end in unison.

Although the erotic is maximized between the peer mentors, the pornographic instinct of spectators still pervades as Aimee Cox observes. Before the performance, while off-stage, Ashley’s mother slapped her daughter’s butt as a sign of good luck. Despite being motivated by playful and motherly intentions she “entered the performance space and altered the dynamic,” causing Ashley’s face to “immediately” morph into utter “defeat” (213). Furthermore, Cox recognizes her own problematic investment in the peer mentors’ performance as both an instructor and anthropologist: “I could not help evaluating their performances on another level” (213). Rather than maintaining an emotional, erotic gaze like the peer mentors practice, Cox applies an intellectual, critical gaze: “from my perspective… Ashley was definitely in charge” (213). Cox then pushes her self-criticism even further, detailing how her gaze was driven by her own “egotistical desire to see the audience wowed by the peer educator’s technical skills” (217). In this de-eroticized schema, the peer mentors become mere subjects of her anthropological study and means for social capital, as Cox sees them for “what [they] do”—their efficacy—rather than “what [they] feel in the doing”—them as people (“The Uses of the Erotic” 54).

Applying the Erotic Gaze: Part 2

So far in my study of the gaze, I have focused on how the gaze affects the collective as well as the oppositional space as a whole; thus, this portion of the paper now highlights how the erotic gaze can and should be directed towards the self before casting it outwards. Such erotic introspection teaches us “to mother ourselves” as a means to “establish authority over our own definition” (“Eye to Eye” 173). Lorde argues that the intra-gazing step is necessary before inter-gazing because as “we begin to see ourselves” we garner “attentive concern and expectation for growth,” ingredients fundamental to “begin to see each other” (173). Lorde then applies her logic of erotics in a humorous and useful simile: “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a [K]leenex. When we look the other way from our experience… we use rather than share the feelings of those others’” (“The Uses of the Erotic 58). The difference between ‘share’ and ‘use’ is that the latter entails one-directionality and connotes commodification, whereas the former entails two-directionality—i.e. consensual participation and willingness from both parties.

An excellent look into self-gazing and its benefits is Sue-Ellen Case’s “Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic” (1998), where she discusses the quandary of the closeted butch-femme in that when she “comes out” of the closet, she still enters “a heterosexual context… her continuing entrapment” (56). Not only that, but Case traces the historical arc of feminism and how even in the “closet of feminism,” the lesbian subject is dehumanized “to the role of a skeleton”; this process is what Case calls the “ghosting” of the lesbian subject (57). Thus, in either space—inside or outside of the closet—the butch-femme subject is “still perceived in terms of men” (56). However, although in a predicament, the lesbian subject is not trapped or pinned: within the closet, Case’s lesbian subject is able to employ the erotic gaze to herself as a means to self-subjectify and refurbish the space into a site of liberation. Because of the lesbian subject’s positionality within these gendered spheres, Case argues that the subject is versatile, dynamic, and resistant, as the “closet has given [her] the lie; and the lie has given [her] camp,” which she defines as “the style, the discourse, the mise en scéne of butch-femme roles” (60). Camp is not only a way to push back on the heteronormative regime, but is also a source of subjectivizing creativity—an aesthetic that is non-normative and non-pornographic (60). Ultimately, camp is an aesthetic paintbrush and a political tool to carve out the alternative space in which “butch-femme roles evade the notion of ‘the female body,’ ” and the lesbian subject is able, “through [her] agency, move through a field of symbols [to] playfully inhabi[t] the camp space of irony and wit, free from biological determinism, elite essentialism, and the heterosexist cleavage of sexual difference” (71).


This paper was invested in the gaze and its interface with space. Here, I offered reconstructions of various theorists and thinkers—focusing specifically on Jane Caputi, Jackson Katz, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde—in order to expose the oppressive dangers of the pornographic gaze and promote the oppositional erotic gaze and its production of alternative, liberating spaces. Examining this paper at a formal level, its spatial structure takes on a funnel shape: we begin with the white, phallocentric pornographic gaze, an outsider male lens through which women are ‘used’—objectified, commodified, hypersexualized; we shift to the erotic gaze, a closer, more intimate gaze that is ‘shared’ between women; and we then culminate with the internal self-gaze. This funneling of gazes mirrors the funneling of spatiality, too: whereas our studies begin within the larger oppressive hegemonic phallocracy, we end with the culturally, gender, and racially specific space and self. This then raises a problem that lurks beyond the scope of my paper: even though the oppositional space via the oppositional erotic gaze exists, the original, oppressive, and pornographic gaze and space still exists and is constantly reproducing. Thus, is the lifeforce of the erotic enough to sustain this space of futurity, or will it peter out? If the erotic space is created as a response to and is couched within the pornographic space, is it truly then radically liberating? Such questions warrant more interrogation, but for now I answer yes: borrowing from Fred Moten’s theory of the undercommons, although the erotic works within the pornographic, it nevertheless preserves itself by grating against the system while maintaining a futurity that sits beyond it (The Undercommons). The erotic, unlike the pornographic, is undecipherable, and it is this opacity that prevents its subsumption and therefore allows preservation of a safe, stable, and subjectifying future.

[1] Italicized portions of quotes convey my emphasis.

[2] These terms are Caputi’s headers for each section. The parentheticals are my brief expansions for the sake of clarity. 

[3] These terms are Katz’ headers for each section.

[4] These experiences were conveyed in each woman’s personal statements.

[5] A phrase Audre Lorde discusses in “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”

 Works Cited

Caputi, Jane. “The Pornography of Everyday Life.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. Sage Publications. 2011.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” Discourse. 1988.

Cox, Aimee. “The Move Experiment.” Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of

Citizenship. Duke University Press. 2015.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge Press. 1990.

hooks, bell. “Selling Hot Pussy.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press. 1992.

---. “The Oppositional Gaze.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press. 1992.

Katz, Jackson. “Advertising and the Construction of Violent Masculinity: From BMWs to Bud

Light.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. Sage Publications. 2011.

Lorde, Audre. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. The Crossing Press. 1979.

---. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. The Crossing Press. 1979.

Mercer, Kobena. “Looking for Trouble.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Routledge. 1993.

Meyer, Richard. “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Discipline of Photography.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Routledge. 1993.

Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Duke University Press. 2013.