The Agency of Looking: Debo’s Argument

The idea of “looking” as being a key theme throughout Bellocq’s Ophelia was something I did not pick on, but could easily see after reading Annette Debo’s article. Ophelia is constantly being looked at by everyone in her surroundings; the community, Bellocq, the men who bid on her, the police, the bawd and many others. She is constantly under a microscope and most of the time when people are looking at her, they are staring in a harsh manner. For instance when taken in by the police, Ophelia states, “I posed for another lense, suffered/ indecencies I cannot bear to describe. (29). Insinuating that the lens in which the police are looking at her through is harsh and judegmental, but through the word “another”, Ophelia makes it clear she has already experienced this before.

From the community at large Ophelia is also starred at as people try to figure out who she really is from the ambiguity of her appearance. In the poem August 1911, Ophelia expresses, “We are no surprise to the locals, though / visitors from the North make a great fuss, / and many debates occur between them / as to whether one can tell, just by looking, / our secret” (26). She recognizes the confusion people feel when looking at her for sheis  a, “black women/ with white skin” and “exotic curiosities,” do arise, especially from costumers. (26) Debo argues, “In Ophelia’s profession, looking is perhaps even more significant than the physicality of sex,” (207). In some cases I would have to agree that being stared at is more humiliating and degrading than the actually work she performs.

However, there was one part of Debo’s argument that I did not quite understand and I hope we can talk about it in class. The first is when the author states, “She knows that we are looking, and we are forced to recognize that knowledge, giving her the upper hand in the situation.” (210) When she says “we” is she referring to the reader, because if so that makes a little more since. Ophelia wants the reader to know that she is intelligent and aware of all those who stare. But if Debo is referring to the customers or all the others that look at Ophelia, I don’t understand exactly where this is apparent in the poems.

2 comments
  1. The ‘looking’ aspect of Bellocq’s Ophelia is very interesting. As you said, many people look at Ophelia to try to figure her out. They analyze her appearance and judge her based on her looks and the way she dresses and speaks. This examination, I feel, leads into the plot of the story. The people that so intensely examine her are whom she runs away from. She wishes to create her own identity, but with the constant, unforgiving eyes looking at her, it is hard for her to do so.

  2. Mariah, I agree with you on the significance of looking/staring. At first, I did not realize how people would be observing the photograph and random people walking on the street. This insightful analogy really brings the poem to another level, and it makes the readers, us, to think thoroughly about how people perceive certain things. Some people are unable to identify what race they are from just because their skin color or looks do not belong to anyone from the race. After all, perhaps people are willing to do anything just to survive, and people can change their perspective all the time.

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