When I was five, my father told me that I was Rudy from The Cosby Show. He probably said this as a joke but I took it literally. And since I believed that my father knew absolutely everything, I watched the series in deep connection to this shell of myself. Despite the absence of any memory of being Rudy and the chronological impossibility of me being a child actor on the show (Keshia Knight Pulliam, the actress who plays her, is four years older than me), I was Rudy and Rudy was me. It wasn’t difficult to take on this identity (especially as a child) because I didn’t understand the spurious line between acting and reality. I didn’t quite get television as a constructed space that may or may not represent the lived experiences of actual people. When I saw something scary on television, I was scared because I couldn’t create a division between these worlds—whatever happened on television could potentially happen to me in real life. In my mind I could seamlessly move from my small upstate New York home into a Brooklyn brownstone and family of six. Rudy’s lessons were my lessons, her triumphs and falls were mine too. I remember watching the episode where Rudy gets her period and how I positively inserted myself into the storyline. I saw the possibility of black girlhood (this was one of few places where I saw black children on television at the time) and I saw my period a link in the chain of womanhood. When Rudy got her period, all women got their periods. The shame of this biological happening was erased from my consciousness. I saw that menstruation wasn’t something I had to be silent about or ashamed of.
This interpolation wasn’t just unique to me; my father did this as well. The two of us were watching television one day when he matter-of-factly stated that the news reporter was Haitian. I remember laughing and turning to him to ask, “How do you know?” My father was having his very own Rudy moment. He was inserting his Haitianess into a space that claimed non-race, class or nationality. I still smile when I remember this moment that seems more like a fantastic act of agency than the passive subconscious at work. We were making television productive for us through our gaze. This ocular practicality was a sort of bending of the gaze that served us as two individuals of color watching mainstream television.
As an adult I can create a division between reality and what I see on television, yet I choose to bend the gaze for a more fulfilling television viewing experience. Bending the gaze has meant that I can interrupt the transmission of imagery and ideology from the mainstream into my eyes and ears. I can insert and detract what is useful to me and leave the rest. When I watch the new ABC show How to Get Away With Murder featuring actress Viola Davis as high-powered law professor and practicing attorney Annalise Keating, I read what I feel is necessary into the show and its characters. I not only see a black woman who harnesses her power, I accept an invitation to travel into a material and social reality that eludes me. What’s important for this process is the invitation—when I feel invited to the party, it’s possible to bend the gaze. Those crevices of plausibility and identification with images on television or in film are absolutely necessary. It didn’t take much for me to feel invited into the show How to Get Away With Murder; Annalise’s dark skin and assertive speech were enough material for me to bend. In the show’s fourth episode, there is this epic television moment when Annalise sits behind her bedroom mirror and removes her makeup before bed. I had a very specific vision, I saw a black woman peeling off mainstream beauty standards by removing her jewelry, wig, fake eyelashes, lip stick, and foundation. Behind the double gaze of the public and her own mirror reflection, Annalise emotionally unravels. I, with the same deep brown hues and kinky textured hair, can be vulnerable. I can peel my vulnerability off and on, I can be tender with some, stern and assertive with others. I have choices that can alter my narrative. I am a black woman and I am human. Annalise becomes even more complex when coupled with my identity and daily struggles in the world. Through her character I can access and re-create what remains unseen in the mainstream, the strong and sexual black woman who seamlessly moves across boundaries. Annalise travels across a range of roles and emotions. Her mutability is fierce. I spin my vision of her into a womanly figure that no one can contain or control. I place Annalise and black women at large into a wider historical landscape that does not confine our sexual identities to sexual violence, oppression, and exploitation. I place her in a context of pleasure, vulnerability, and agency. In turn, I give myself permission to be more complex.
Now, this process of bending the gaze does not absolve the mainstream media of creating more nuanced and diverse television programming—there is a profound need for this. But it does speak to the industrious gaze of the gaze-bending viewer. To bend the gaze implies a degree of flexibility around various subjects and themes. The gaze reflects the inner workings of our psychic needs, desires, fears, fantasies and turmoil as humans. I want dark-skinned black women to be seen as audacious, complex, vulnerable, and intelligent. How To Get Away With Murder provides a tiny crevice for this identity to emerge, my gaze does the rest of the work.
It’s not just about me and my gaze though, there’s a bigger picture of reality that can come from bending one’s stream of vision. I recognize that the individual gaze alone does little to rectify the vast injustices of the world. However, it does have the potential to do some corrective and healing work for a viewer like myself who can bend productively. It can empower us to see ourselves differently. It can also fill the space of our ocular needs as individuals. While The New York Times is busy publishing articles that describe Clair Huxtable as “benign” and Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” some of us are using our vision to see and create what is necessary, what is absent. Brittney Cooper used her vision and her voice to call for a symbolic slaying of the Cosbys and an elevation of the Annalises. This is what I like to think of as productive seeing. Cooper’s call led others, like myself and Mychal Denzel Smith, to revisit the Cosbys as a once uplifting image and to consider it in the context of Shondaland and current feminist discourse. Indeed, some of us can now discard of the Cosbys in favor of other images, but that doesn’t mean the Cosbys weren’t useful at one point. I join Brittney Cooper and Mychal Denzel Smith in the symbolic slaying of the Cosbys but not without acknowledging how they served me in the past. It’s not only the slaying of these images that is important. It is also our ability to transform them by any means necessary. Gaze-benders know how to take lemons and make lemonade.