Sunday, April 24, 2016

Core Post #5: Jennifer Lopez: The Containment and Empowerment of the White Gaze

The concept of 'white gaze,' extended by ethnic theorists such as Manthia Diawara and Bell Hooks from Laura Mulvey's 'male gaze,' is central to Beltran's study of Latin American pop star Jennifer Lopez. Beltran's analysis of Jennifer Lopez explores the relationship between her body-oriented publicity and her so-called 'crossover success,' a term Beltran uses to describe her popularity in both Latino-centered and mainstream media.  The white gaze operates here on two levels: Lopez's ethnicity and gender. In other words, we can still read Lopez's stardom with Mulvey's classical concept of the male gaze; her Puerto-Rican ethnicity complicates the matter by adding the layer of race. Lopez's film Out of Sight (2001) (Dir: Steven Soderberg) will be used as a text to analyze this issue.

The white gaze is understood to "control or contain constructions of nonwhite ethnicity in U.S. popular culture" (Beltran 79). It argues that non-white stars build their image around the public's fascination of their bodies and stereotypical notions of their respective ethnicity.  In Out of Sight, Lopez's ethnicity is not represented in stereotypical ways. She plays Karen Cisco, a U.S. Marshal, an occupation that inherently displays power and authority. Her character is calm, confident and intelligent, and most importantly, strong-willed. She is at least an equal, if not stronger, adversary to George Clooney's Jack Foley. Beltran argues that her image in the film marks her crossover success, proving her ability to appeal to mainstream white audiences.

She is, however, heavily sexualized in the film under the 'male gaze' of Foley. For example, Foley has his hand on her hip the first time they meet, while they are both stuck in the trunk together, reminding the viewer of Lopez's infamous big bottom. Since the male gaze translates to power dynamics, it is important to wonder who ultimately holds the power in the relationship. As a U.S. Marshal who seems to be more inclined in having a relationship with a criminal than to arrest him, Karen seems to not hold any power. Meanwhile, Foley gets away with his crimes and prison escape just by attracting Karen. However, it is also important to analyze the agency in Karen, because agency translates to action, and action has the potential of exerting power. It is clear that in the end, Karen is the person in their relationship who holds the power. She shoots and arrests Jack despite initial hesitation, signifying her ability to manage the conflict between her duty and love. By choosing duty, she reminds Foley and the viewer that she is not just a passive object to be viewed and controlled by the male gaze.

The power dynamics between Lopez and Foley in Out of Sight can be a useful way of understanding how the white gaze operates on her in pop culture. On one hand, the public's fetishization over Lopez's butt serves to reduce her to a sexualized object, controlling and containing both her gender and ethnicity. On the other hand, Lopez's uncompromising confidence in her body shape is empowering and transgressing: "I really, really dig my curves" (Beltran 75). Although media's obsession with her butt makes her a sex symbol, Lopez is not only unashamed, but also proud of it. Her pride in her body shape challenges conventional standards of white beauty, which pressures women to acquire a model-skinny physique. It serves as a feminist mindset, reminding women that there are alternative body types to aspire to; most importantly, it conveys the message that it really is the unapologetic self-confidence that makes a woman sexy. It also positions herself outside of the mainstream white beauty standards, signaling her ethnic pride, which can be empowering to minority representation in popular media.

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