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bell hooks & the Challenge to Become an Enlightened Witness

In bell hooks' short film “Cultural Criticism and Transformation�, she makes use of several different methods engage a number of critical feminist viewpoints, aiding her in the unpacking of several major cultural phenomenon. hooks encourages us to look and think critically about film, rap music, and other representations of gender, race, sexuality and class in mass media. hooks makes the argument that popular culture is at the crux of the transmission of cultural knowledge; according to her, this is where the learning and socialization of most people takes place. Referring to the nature of pop culture as 'intertextual', hooks illuminates the correlations between how we are expected to perform our sexuality and the violence that effectively keeps some groups subjugated in our societies.

The ultimate point of her argument is that popular film, music, and other institutions in our culture are the most basic units of teaching and learning and that the sustained representations – including misrepresentations and under-representations – create, transmit and maintain the aims of a white heterosexual capitalist patriarchy. Even in social movements that have had considerable success, such as feminism, the values transmitted by the dominant culture's popular media and entertainment seek to undermine those aims and damage these powerful movements that promote education, awareness and change. She argues that there is a great measure of allegiance to sexism and patriarchy and that because of the cultural construction of gender in societies such as ours, women allow other matters such as that of race to 'trump' women's issues. Cultural outlets such as film and rap music are, in the words of hooks, coding bodies to create an expectation of how desire and worth are determined and played out – all by maintaining a colonialist viewpoint well into the 21st century.

The main way hooks seeks to combat and critically assess these troubling representations of gender, race, sexuality, class, ethnicity, economic status et al is by being what she calls an 'enlightened witness'. To be an enlightened witness, hooks says, you become critically engaged with the material you are viewing. Another phrase she uses that particularly struck me is 'decolonization of the mind'. To decolonize the mind, you remove these clusters of thought that establish certain concepts to be infallible within our society – ones that promote the subjugation of women, minorities and many other groups. hooks connects the concept of decolonization and of being an enlightened witness to literacy, ostensibly arguing that empowerment comes from the ability to educate oneself to other viewpoints.

The point hooks made that was most striking to me was that we should not settle for poorly constructed narratives that masquerade as progressive or positive. Oftentimes, representations such as those in the film Kids, which hooks heavily references, are misinterpreted as progressive when really they are violent, damaging, or disrespectful in nature. This film by hooks is a challenge to refrain from passive viewing. By taking the initiative to actively engage with and challenge what is being forced upon us by popular culture, we, as the viewers, will be able to address the problems such representations present.

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