Reviews in Retrospect: Outlaw Culture by bell hooks

I first heard about intersectional feminist writer bell hooks in a Media Studies classroom during sixth form. We were taught that bell hooks challenges the “ideology of domination” that perpetuates misogyny, racism and classism. Our teacher also told us that hooks deliberately refused to punctuate her name with capital letters, to symbolically shed the tools of power that regulate personal identity. Before I ever read bell hooks, the idea of a writer powerful enough to escape the confines of language fascinated me. The first of hooks’ writing I read, her 1994 collection of essays and interviews Outlaw Culture (1994), asserts that popular culture is never “apolitical”, and representation always matters. Unpretentious, piercingly insightful, and funny, Outlaw Culture is as fascinating as hooks herself.

Outlaw Culture brings intersectional feminist beliefs directly into our daily media consumption. Sex positivity, censorship, colourism, whitewashed feminism — this is just a handful of the topics hooks brings to light in electrifying critical style. An interview between hooks and Ice Cube explores the stereotypical image of the black rapper as something frequently cultivated for a white, male, teenage audience. In the essay “Spike Lee Doing Malcolm X”, hooks references the Malcolm X quote “Never accept images that have been created for you by someone else”. This belief undeniably influenced hooks’ thinking about mainstream representation. Every image from an institution built on profit must be challenged, and challenge is what hooks does best.

“Seduction and Betrayal” is a brilliant essay about how films present interracial relationships as inevitably unsuccessful. Discussing “The Crying Game” and “The Bodyguard”, hooks demonstrates the ways both mainstream and indie film present race as a barrier of difference that cannot be crossed. Hence, the white male lead and the non-white female lead’s relationship doesn’t last. “Unfortunately,” hooks writes, “both films resolve the tensions of difference… by affirming the status quo. Both suggest that otherness can be the place where… white men work through their troubled identity, their longings for transcendence.” Poor representation regarding race, gender and sexuality indicates who is in power in the industry, and which people (e.g. women of colour) are denied opportunities to represent themselves. For instance, the directors of both films (both white men) either avoided discussing race, or outwardly said that their films weren’t about race — even though race sparked valid discourse on these films.

In “Altars of Sacrifice: Re-membering Basquiat”, hooks writes about the artwork of 20th century painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and confronts white, male critics who misunderstood his work. “It is much too simplistic a reading to see [Basquiat’s work] as solely celebrating black culture.” In doing this, these critics ignore the pain evident in Basquiat’s artwork. Throughout Outlaw Culture, hooks unravels the problem of perception that lies between celebrating black culture, and depicting black suffering. Mainstream media often reduces black identity to stereotypes related to celebration, entertainment, and performance, and reduces the pain of black people to something sensationalist. Critics must destabilise these binary stereotypes of celebration and pain, and instead reimagine individual identity as something infinitely more complex.

“Altars of Sacrifice” ends with bell hooks remembering her favourite of Basquiat’s paintings, “Riding With Death”, which features an African-American figure riding a skeleton in the pose of a horse. This painting, hooks writes, “haunts my imagination… lingers in my memory.” This painting reflects the essay’s central conflict fantastically and proves Basquiat’s talent for expressing multi-layered identity. Riding With Death conveys “dread”, but also “makes revelation, renewal and transformation possible.” One particularly powerful statement, that encapsulates Basquiat’s genius, and shows why political criticism like Outlaw Culture is so important in the first place, reads:

“Basquiat must go down in history as one of the wounded. Yet his art will stand as the testimony that declares with a vengeance: we are more than our pain.”

Sylvie Lewis

Featured Image Source: Sylvie Lewis

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