Two Way Mirrors

Cher Tan



The concept of the dominant gaze was born when philosophers began to encapsulate its traits in theory. In 1963, the philosopher Michel Foucault broke new ground in his now-classic book The Birth of the Clinic, a treatise critiquing the medical profession and doctor-patient relationship. The industry was, he declared, ‘the esotericism of knowledge,’ his penchant for obtuseness permeating the text; what he termed the ‘medical gaze’ saw patients solely as their bodies, preventing them from being fully afforded their personhood.  A power dynamic was formed: someone was looking, another person was being looked at, their positions clearly marked. Citing examples of male doctors speaking about insane female patients in the nineteenth century, he questioned the role of power in representation. If some people had more power to speak than others, then were the subjects really speaking at all?


Since then, this way of being looked at has developed further to contain many more meanings. Men have leered at women and decided that they are sexual objects for consumption; cis people have eyed trans people and deemed them commodities purely for entertainment or violent scrutiny; abled people have regarded disabled people with a mixture of revulsion, dismissal and pity; white people have looked at people of colour and saw them as mere stereotypes: to serve, fetishise or erase from existence. The list goes on. In this merry-go-round of power and looking, the image remains key. Our gazes act as cameras, reimagined — a way of ‘possessing reality’[2], one that’s unchanged and unmarked by time.


But more explicit inversions of the dominant gaze have allowed the once-looked-at to take centre stage. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualisation remains at the very top of the pyramid. When we can pursue goals and utilise our abilities then that all-important zenith of human fulfilment is reached. Likewise, being able to see and curate our own images is to derive a sense of self-satisfaction that appears to be unrivalled. Representation matters! When people on the margins of society become empowered by images that are self-created, it’s undeniable that a process of restoration begins. I look at screens and see faces that look like me, and subsequently the likes on my selfies increase.


No tragedy there: this new-found sense of power could be the signifier of a more comfortable life. I look to history to see if this has been discussed before. Naturally, it has — two decades ago in 1968 (and twenty-five years after The Birth of the Clinic), the cultural theorist Stuart Hall had expanded on the work of Foucault to tear apart what this validation could mean. In his searing essay Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation (1989), on the Caribbean cinema that was emerging at the time, he invoked Foucault’s ‘fatal couplet’, referring to the intertwined tug-of-war between power and knowledge. Writing about the positioning of non-white bodies within colonialism, he stated, sombrely: ‘Every regime of representation is a regime of power formed.’





Popular culture is positively diverse these days, crawling with representations of assorted kinds. Never has the cry for marginalised voices been louder, as progressive media continue to bombard audiences with images and symbols fit for the retelling of western history. These representations can be simultaneously flattening and thrilling, as in Sense8, which follows an ethnically diverse group of people finding themselves suddenly mentally connected as they try and elude a mysterious organisation set out to destroy them. They can be mediocre in their richness, as in Crazy Rich Asians, in which a majority cast of wealthy East Asians set out to show that there are non-white ways of being, be it through daily rituals or amongst family. On the internet, #representationmatters is a catch-all cry for the distilling of identities which has not had the chance to see themselves rule. Whether a portrayal controlled by its rightful owners or not, from black superhero films like Black Pantherto Fall 2018 runways to queer stand-up comedy, they seek to carve out realities that aim to demonstrate a less myopic world.


Within a (western) canon that doesn’t prioritise what it deems as minor lives and experiences, these representations are, without a doubt, meaningful and filled with possibility. In various private conversations with those perceived to be on the margins like me, the general consensus is that more representation is a public good. If a young, marginalised person can see their lived experiences told in a story or shown on a screen, then maybe they’ll grow to become even fuller beings.


But does more visibility equal to more power? And if the answer is yes, what would that power amount to? As it stands, the attention economy prides some stories to be more interesting than others, creating a sub-canon that drowns out the voices and images of those less beautiful and less linear. The public obsession with messiahs keeps creating spokespeople for the revolution, each one more dazzling than the last, each fandom built with bricks pilfered from the master’s house, their likenesses as eerily uncanny as androids. I stan. Weeks after bingeing on Insecureand a whole year and a half spent on only consuming the work of artists of colour, my frustrations are allayed by the poet Rabih Alameddine in a stirring piece[4]on the contemporary embrace of literature written by those marked as “other”: ‘What I’m saying is that there is more other, scarier other, translated other, untranslatable other, the utterly strange other, the other who can’t stand you. Those of us allowed to speak are the tip of the iceberg. We are the cute other.’


During times of uncertainty, I turn to our expanding canon to try and find myself — be that in my place of birth, Singapore, where I possess immense power based on my ethnicity alone, or my place of residence, Australia, where that power is less acute but grows with every day — but come up zilch. Where to discover a relatable portrait of myself: a 30-something queer, working-class, non-university educated artist who has learnt to eschew respectability after being schooled by bad mental health and the ever-contradictory Church of Punk? Even this attempt to try and name myself seems clumsy. In this climate of aggressive individualism, unique-ness is sold to us as a commodity, but I don’t claim to stand out. Stories like mine will only keep unfolding, and each of us is alone until we can clearly see ourselves in the mirror. Representation matters! But I don’t want to enjoy belonging at the expense of someone else.





In critiques of big-D Diversity in our neoliberal landscape, capital and the free market is always referenced. When mere images are peddled to a gawping audience straight into the arms of the economy, its intention becomes depoliticised. This is reminiscent of past dialogues around multiculturalism and the ‘melting pot’ — seemingly open, ostensibly welcoming, deceptively enticing and bending to the dominant gaze. It’s homogeneity thinly veiled as a vision of difference, or as scholar-activist Miguel A. De La Torre writes, ‘the scum usually rises to the top while the bottom gets burned.’[6]Here, the gaze is strong: while representations are manufactured, the status quo remains unchanged.


When what people enjoy and consume has become a marker of identity, the representation that people have been thirsty for naturally turns into a symbol for us to align our identities with. Diverse castings in film have directly translated to bigger box office success[7]. Mediocre art made by diverse names have seen unprecedented attention. And as much as fashion runways now encompass more gender non-conforming and racial diversity, size diversity has decreased[8]. The majority of queer characters on TV (still) tend to be white gay men[9]. I find myself consuming representation media as much as any other, my attention rapt as I chart the Taiwanese-American middle-class family in Fresh Off The Boat. I absentmindedly cheer Mitski’s and Kehlani’s successes, even if I don’t have a huge interest in those genres of music. My heart leaps at the feel-good ending of The Hate U Give. It simultaneously sinks as I find out that some makeup companies, in a post-Fenty era, turn to Photoshopping skin swatches[10]instead of hiring actual dark-skinned models.


It’s escapism, of course. Not a lack of awareness to the horrors of the status quo but helplessness in the face of larger powers, and perhaps for some, pure indifference. When Chris escapes and manages to kill his white girlfriend and her family in the 2017 film Get Out, it’s an allegory for an alternate reality that contains a reassuring emotional payoff. My social bubble sees other marginalised people receive awards, land huge bylines, start small businesses and gain cultural capital, while off-screen cycles of structural oppression continue to present itself. We pat ourselves on the back. We own and make ourselves and society owe us fucking nothing.


Political philosopher C. B. Macpherson dubs this kind of behaviour as ‘possessive individualism’. Coined in 1962, he was expanding on the work of other socialist thinkers, arguing for a less individually-focused, more community-centric society. It has since been further developed by critical race theory scholars like Jayna Brown, who associates it with social media personas and celebrity culture. When identity is used as a self-serving tool, it works in tandem with the status quo to elevate itself — in these times of shiny re-presentations, we ask ourselves: who else do we not see? Again, neoliberalism and diversity under a dominant gaze flourish together to determine value. The pot melts to leave behind a deformed globule.





Can representation ever stand in for justice? It’s an ostensibly recent conversation that has been circling around for decades, even if some of its interrogators have passed on from this world. In the eyes of capital, an overarching gaze is always looking on. And as images are created under these structures, it can inadvertently turn into a warped race to the top, with class as the hidden, yet decisive factor for success. When Gayatri Spivak declared that ‘the subaltern cannot speak’ in 1972, she was incorrectly thought to be buying into the mainstream agenda — should we, then, not bother speaking at all, digging further into the mass grave that the system has dug for us? Instead, she was far ahead of her time by making that statement, suggesting that people marked as Other had no vested power speaking within the institutions that the very same dominant powers had erected.


In the context of contemporary times, this echoes darkly. Once #representation stops trending, all that’s left are its embers, faltering dimly within a miasmic structure that continues standing regardless. It’s a power that’s ephemeral, or as Stuart Hall painstakingly points out, something that ‘can be thrown off like the serpent sheds its skin’. I’ve explored this in a previous piece elsewhere[12]— if the playing field isn’t levelled, then visibility will require a tedious breaking down of oneself for the sake of the dominant gaze. How to neatly distill the many facets of self when it’s never complete, a fleeting object that’s always in flux? Even — and I hope — exceptionality contains layers.


Far from utter futility, however, the story of representation acts as a vessel for collective longing and hope, for the yet-enunciated self to fully materialise in private. It strives to alter identities; concluding that there isn’t an endgame, as we gradually move away from being looked at to concentrate on re-centring one another. Seeing iterations of history rush past, even as we always expect it to catch up with us. ♦



[1]   Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle(1967)

[2]   Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

[3]   Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle(1967)

[4]   https://harpers.org/archive/2018/06/comforting-myths/

[5]   Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle(1967)

[6]   Miguel A De La Torres, The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology (2015)

[7]   http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-caa-diversity-study-exclusive-20170622-story.html

[8]   https://www.thefashionspot.com/runway-news/786015-runway-diversity-report-fall-2018/

[9]   https://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2017-2018.pdf

[10]  https://www.instagram.com/p/Blqadl2lwiH/

[11]  Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle(1967)

[12]  https://meanjin.com.au/blog/the-limits-of-compassion/

Cher Tan is a critic and writer in Naarm, via Kaurna Yerta and Singapore. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Swampland Magazine...


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