“White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory” by Jane Gaines and “Sexuality in the Field of Vision” by Jacqueline Rose reprinted in Visual Culture: The Reader edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, (Sage Publications, London, 2006).

Five hundred years after his death Leonardo continues to be a subject of fascination and a certain sort of “fan fiction” as evinced by Dan Brown’z improbably popular The Da Vinci Code and that one of the master’s works, the painting called the Mona Lisa, attracts dissertations and research (some revealing – it is now known with near certainty who the model for the painting actually was). Something of Leonardo’s nature can be found in the writings in his notebook accompanying his sketches.

Pregnant cow

Pregnant cow

Pregnant cow. Polk County, Florida

Leonardo asked again and again in his margins “Is anything ever finished?” It is clear from his devotion to studies culled from observing autopsies and his inventions of warfare that Leonardo was interested in applied science and process. It is impossible to know for sure but one might deduce from Leonardo’s exhibited nature and the strong awareness the artists filtering through the Medici court of their own provincial and individual identities that Leonardo probably would not have had interest in nor patience with the notions of repression and gender anxiety brought forth from Austria and Germany of the early Twentieth Century.

This obvious logic is of little significance to English professor and Palestinian sympathizer Jacqueline Rose. In her essay “Sexuality in the Field of Vision” Rose notes Sigmund Freud’s simultaneous fascination and repulsion reactions to Leonardo’s sketches of laughing women and couples in coitus. Writing in 1986, Rose says these sketches have become a lost part of Leonardo’s oeuvre (in fact the intervening two decades have seen a great resurgence in interest in these drawings).

In any case Rose is only tangentially commenting on Leonardo. Her main points are actually tepid restatements of what in 1986 were familiar tenets of feminist philosophy in regard to gaze, possession, and viewing. Fundamentally, Roses says, “women are meant to look perfect,” a charity that in turn releases the male viewer, so to speak, not to feel anxiety lack and castration phobias. Yet Rose believes that any fixed and secure concept held by the individual of her or particularly his sexual identity is an illusion and a fantasy, waiting to be disrupted lapses or breaks in the maintained projection of the ideal.

This awakening from the dream of human life is in fact a positive development and indeed a goal of contemporary art – that is, “art which today addresses the presence of the sexual in representation – to expose … the fantasy and in the same gesture, to trouble, break up, or rupture the visual field before our eyes.”

Jane Gaines, a feminist theorist at Duke University who must be quite busy these days, adds conceptualization about race to Rose’s ideations about gender and gaze. In fact Gaines slightly manipulates both reality and the real to expound on some highly specious points she wishes to make using as an example, of all things, the 1975 Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany.
Gaines posits that the role of race is secondary as well to the violence of the camera. Gaines argues that the dramatic arc of the film which features Ross’s career as an early archetype of a “supermodel” offers many montages and freeze frames of Ross essentially being violated and victimized by the capture of her image.

In fact the photographer character played by Anthony Perkins in the film is a sort of sadistic collector of model egos, evening giving Ross’s character, nee Tracy Chambers, the name Mahogany which alludes to her race but refers more particularly to the valuable wood; Ross’s race, says Gaines, has been commoditized and dehumanized.

Gaines also points out that it is the Perkins character – a white man not far removed in viewers’ minds from the character he played in Psycho – how owns Ross with his invasive viewing. By comparison the Billy Dee Williams character who is Mahogany’s love interest in the film communicates with her through conversation (exaggerated in one scene by the placement of a bullhorn, which some film iconographists would not doubt interpret in an entirely different way).

Gaines relates her analysis of Mahogany to conversations taking place in 1986 not just about the violence of the male gaze but the corresponding neutering of the lesbian female gaze. Though the purpose of this paper is to provide a simple synopsis of Gaines’ essay, her egregious misrepresentation – perhaps rooted in simple academic ignorance of pop culture – demands commentary. In 1975, in the immediate wake of the very successful Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross was in the midst of what was then about her twentieth year of very carefully managing her career and her image. She certainly was well aware of how her character was being lensed. However, slo-mo photo montages of people in outrageous costumes was a hallmark of spacy Seventies movies – even a period film made at the same time, The Great Gatsby, had a lengthy sequence of Mia Farrow and Robert Redford cavorting with oxford shirts.

Beyond that Ross had already revealed a penchant for appearing in a variety of international costumes and wild makeup, probably not, as Gaines suggests, to obfuscate her race but more likely as a simple personal indulgence (see: The Wiz).
Beyond this, as early as the Seventies and certainly in the following decade Ross was embraced not just by her longtime fanbase of Motown enthusiasts but by new a group of diverse followers including gay men and DJs. Donna Summer paid homage to Ross in 1986 on the cover of Another Place Another Time by appearing in Mahogany’s kabuki costume and makeup.

Maybe some of Gaines’ ideas concerning the violence of the camera and the repudiation of the lesbian gaze are valid – who knows? But Mahogany is a poor example with which to illustrate these points.