Thursday, February 18, 2021

Is the Gaze White?

Rush Limbaugh has assumed room temperature.  For years I've looked forward to using that term on his decease; it was one he used to be dismissive of the deaths of people he disapproved of.  (I learned while looking it up that it was also used by R. Emmett Tyrrell, another cigar-sucking, arch-rightist provocateur.)  I considered writing more on the topic, and maybe I will later.

But for now I want to discuss another media personality, generally regarded as a sort of anti-Limbaugh.  Dick Cavett became well-known as a more cultured, intellectual kind of talk-show host years before Limbaugh won notoriety. I watched his show in those days, and while I appreciated the range of people it featured, I was usually left unsatisfied.  I think some of this was due to the limits of spoken versus written discourse, but I also think it was due to Cavett's limitations.

This video, from 1972, confirmed my suspicions.

Jones is tremendously tactful with Cavett, resulting in a sort of jujitsu where Cavett keeps throwing himself in the dirt.  He knows that the conversation isn't going as he expected it to, but he keeps wading into the fray and falling on his face over and over.  Cavett saw himself as a liberal, superior to gross rednecks like Lester Maddox, but like many white liberals he assumed a chumminess with black people that he hadn't earned.  He fully expected Jones to agree with him that Ellen Holly's objections to Anthony Quinn's proposal to play a Haitian were merely "silly."  It's a safe bet that Cavett caricatured her letter, as liberals love to do to this day, but I should see if I can find it.  It doesn't appear that Quinn ever made that film in any case.

Anyway, Jones declines Cavett's invitation to play a round of "Ain't It Awful?", and throws several curveballs that leave Cavett confused.  He keeps insisting on nuance, for heaven's sake!  He might have pointed out -- he seems to hint at it, at least -- that a Hollywood historical epic costs a lot of money, and in 1972 there were few if any black stars that bankable.  Sidney Poitier, perhaps?  It's also hard for me to believe that a Hollywood script about a Haitian emperor in 1972 would have been any good at all; I wonder if Holly's script was ever produced.

Jones also mentions his own desire to play Beethoven, which gets a nervous laugh from the audience and silence from Cavett.  The points Jones mentions wouldn't be such obstacles: his hair (a wig could fix that), and as for his skin color, we now have a hit Broadway play, Hamilton, which plays with such casting issues very freely.  After that Cavett returns to insulting Ellen Holly, which Jones brushes aside more firmly.  I wonder if Cavett could watch this clip now without cringing.

He hadn't learned any better by 1985, when this interview with Richard Pryor aired.

It's the same damn thing all over again.  Pryor just sits there, staring steadily at Cavett, until the latter realizes how nonsensical he sounds; then tries again and again, he just won't let it go.  It's not just the question he's asking -- can white writers write for black performers? -- but the larger assumption that white people can expect to define black people in the arts and elsewhere.  Borrowing Laura Mulvey's speculations about the male gaze in film, the audience for Hollywood films -- which, remember, not only played to non-white customers in the multiracial US but were marketed around the world -- was assumed to be white.  In these clips, Dick Cavett finds black people gazing back at him, and he finds it very disorienting.

We've come a long way since then, though we haven't arrived.  I'm not sure what the ideal should be, but for me it includes a variety of Mulveyan gazes, with women looking back at men, people of color looking back at whites, and the rest of the world looking back at the United States - but also looking at themselves, unconcerned about how they might look to men, whites, America.  There's nothing wrong per se with the male gaze, the white gaze, the USAn gaze, only with the assumption that any of these is objective and should be the norm.