The Real L World but Not the Real L A

post still in progress – images added tonight

Let me start by saying I watched the entire run of the L World on Showtime, wrote essays about both its import and its failings, and teach it in my popular media course. Despite the many things I enjoyed about the show, from both an academic and viewer standpoint, the promises Chaiken made to be a multicultural show written from the perspective of biracial lesbians and lesbians of color, as well as white lesbians seldom panned out in the ways she promised. So I admit it, I was cynical about the racial politics of the “reality” show version of the L Word from the minute I heard it was in the proposal stage.

Like many of you, I watched 6 seasons of the L Word where overall the characters and storylines were compelling but black women, butch women and trans men (the latter of which were often collapsed into a single category) were largely absent and/or almost always depicted in profoundly offensive ways: Kit starts out as a drunk and bad mother whose parents and children hate her. Though she improves over the series she is also the outspoken gender and transphobe whose only white counterpart is the always inappropriate Jenny. As the only consistent black female presence on the show, she also acts as a subtle reinforcement of the idea that black people are more homophobic than white people (the visibly white, tho multiculti cast is all lesbian, the visibly black woman is straight with offensive gender politics) even as she subverts this idea by being openly supportive of not only her sister but the entire community. Yolanda, the only black woman in Bette’s lamaze class, is perpetually angry and constantly attacking Bette for passing. The audience is invited to judge her anger and be repulsed by her politics and beliefs even in the one scene where she is not yelling or on the verge of yelling. More than that, this first season encounter establishes the narrative of whiteness that often undermined attempts at diversity on the show, ie that if you can pass for white, live a life in which you are largely or completely treated as white, then you should and so should the show. As Better put it in response to Yolanda’s accusation that she had failed to embrace her entire cultural heritage and become white, “why shouldn’t I?” And her list of all the privileges and advantages that passing affords her are stated without irony nor complexity as if to further affirm the politics of privilege. The only offset to this mantra is that Bette makes an effort to have a biracial baby with her white partner and that her search is intentionally juxtaposed with her decries about the rightness and goodness of whiteness or lightness.

Latinas faired slightly better in the L Word partially because Papi, who was the quintessential “hot tamale” stereotype, was brought in for a plot twist and then quickly edited back out. Yet like Chaiken’s promises of multiculturalism in the promos for the first season of the show, quite a bit of media buzz surrounded Papi’s entrance into the L Word as a Latina lesbian character. Promotion promised us a character that had largely been missing from the show, what they delivered was a character who helped white lesbian Alice get her groove back and then was largely missing from the show.

At the same time the L Word did give us more interesting secondary characters of color. Candace Jewell, Bette”s fling, though tight-lipped was decidedly not a Saphire character, instead she offered us one of the only positive depictions of working class, [soft] butch identity on the show. She was intelligent, passionate, and hard working. Though some of have criticized the character for the jail house love scene which for them tapped into certain stereotypes of blackness. Tasha also went a long way in fixing some of the earlier missteps of the show with regards to gender politics and class identity. While her character was also more fleshed out than others, it still tapped into certain, more subtle stereotypes, about black women as angry, aloof, and conservative (vis-a-vis white liberal feminists). Carmen, as femme, also complicated an alarming equation of butchness and working classness or hickness that seemed to permeate the show, especially when Moira arrived before transition but also with Kelly. She was perhaps the most well-rounded and integrated character of color in the series. She was tied to a main character so that she was hard to marginalize and the scenes involving her family dealt with both Latinos who are opposed to homosexuality and those who embrace it in ways that avoided stereotypes about people of color and homophobia. At the same time neither of the Latina characters were played by Latina actresses bring the sum total of prominent Latinas employed by the L Word to ZERO. The absence of Asian women, which can only be countered by the casting of South Asian women to play Latinas, was also glaring in a show set in LA.

Given the racial and gender politics of the fictional version, I doubted the unreality of the proposed reality show would veer much further from Chaiken’s seeming preference for feminine, white or light characters; the previews for the Real L Word seemed to confirm my suspicions. There are no black women on the Real L Word and the emphasis on upper class identity in the show seems to imply that black women are poor and therefore not running in the same circles as these “top 10% ” lesbians (to borrow one cast member’s self-description). While I doubt the class-race connections were intentional, the failure to provide wide shots during Rose’s class discussion which would have shown an array of visibly brown and black women leaves the viewer with a particular message even as Rose’s own presence complicates it. More than that, the tight shots in these first scenes may have been an issue of consent and production but also serve to further erase darker women of color from even the background of the show.

Both Latinas in the Real L Word are white by Latina standards and at least one can likely pass by U.S. ones. In fact, I did not know she was Latina until she makes a Spanish language phone call to her mother in an anglicized accent. Interestingly, Rose, the more outspoken of the two could not pass.

At the same time, Chaiken has made an effort to include both butch women and her oh-so-light woc lesbians as equals in the show. Two of the main characters are women who self-identify as not feeling comfortable in a dress. One makes sure to tell us she is “a top” (though her make up artist girlfriend promptly says otherwise) and the other one says “There are heels and boots” and she is definitely “boots”.  A lot of time is spent on Miss Boots storyline in the first episode, so perhaps the producers are discovering something we already knew, ie women of all gender presentations are interesting not just us girlie girls.

The show also spends a considerable amount of time with both Latinas. Unlike the Papi character, Rose’s loud-mouthed womanizing is offset by her time with her family, discussions of growing older and getting out of bad relationships, and her negotiations with her live-in partner who I think is also Latina. Thus, she is transformed from a stereotypical version of Latina womanhood into a well-rounded character who likes to party. Since this is reality tv and bad girls sell, Chaiken’s decision to depict Rose’s complexity is particularly important and a key sign of the growth in racial representations begun in the later seasons of the L Word. Rose’s time with her family is also a critical counterpoint to Tracy’s conversation with and about her mother. While Rose has a supportive family who actively discusses her love life, Tracy’s mother has simply refused to address it and Tracy has had to make the difficult and familiar choice of cutting her emotional-sexual life out of her relationship with her parents. Again the two women’s experiences give us a much wider view of Latina women than we might otherwise get from someone invested in uncomplicated racial stereotypes and sensationalist tv.

Ultimately, I found the first episode of the Real L Word compelling. Not only does it expand the discourse of gender and race beyond that of the fictional show but it offers us a wide range of interesting characters with recognizable issues and lives. It humanizes the experience of lesbians across the lifecycle and thus offers another opportunity for people to see the gay community as normal or to see a snippet of themselves reflected on tv. However, that snippet continues to erase black and Asian women and to privilege a preference for lipstick whiteness and/or lightness that makes me wish Chaiken would deal with her own biracial issues and come into her racial own (instead of emulating Bette’s “why shouldn’t I [pass for white]”). As one biracial girl to another, I can tell her that life is much better on the other side of racial confusion and fear of blackness (all though I cannot say I ever shared those two issues with her). So I will keep watching the Real L Word while rooting for Chaiken to live up to some of the promises she has made over the years and let go of some of the baggage she has defended. And truthfully, the show is interesting, often compelling, and literally hard to turn away from even in the midst of the worst dyke drama.

What did you all think?

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BHM: Including Black Trans Women in the Queer Alphabet

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to structure this year’s BHM posts as I’ve said before, and I keep coming back to this idea of texts and textuality. It seems like the digital age rather than helping us archive core texts by black women and other marginalized voices, it is actually helping to hasten their demise. Think about the number of people who quote Lorde or hooks or PHC without ever once citing them? They do it on blogs, the do it in articles, and worse some academics have even got away with doing it in their books. And in the rush to process and transmit information in the blink of an eye, these omissions become more concrete than the truth of black women’s intellectual contributions. Thus I have seen gay male Latino colleagues credited with saying things my generation knows were said by famous black lesbian feminist activist-theorists all across the internet and subsequently in junior faculty’s syllabi. And as I was having about this with another colleague who teaches Intro to Black Feminisms, I began to think back to the blog posts I did 2 years ago on women of color feminisms where I included a key text in each post. So I am still not quite sure how I want this to look, but at least once a week for the rest of Black Herstory Month, I am going to try and post all or part of critical texts written by and about black women.

Today marks the inaugural attempt.

On April 7, 2006, Monica Roberts became the third black trans woman to win the International Foundation for Gender Education Trinity Award winner. Roberts is best known for her insightful/incite-ful blog on black trans women’s rights and experiences, Transgriot. Transgriot is one of the oldest and most well known blogs of its kind and has been instrumental in bringing the black female subject from a transgender perspective into the praxis and thinking of feminists, women of color, and the queer community. Her insight has been invaluable to the struggle to include the lives of ALL women in feminism and queer organizing and her unapologetic willingness to stand up for the rights of black women even within transgender communities has set the standard for how all of us need to be held accountable in the identity politics game and self-reflexive about our own roles in it.

In 2006, Roberts used her acceptance speech to question trans erasure in mainstream media, the male-centric focus in the media and queer organizing both with regards to gender and sexuality, and the need for practices and language that was both inclusive and inviting to African American transgender women. She also pointed out how past failures at both the center and the margin erase the very existence of black trans women and make it impossible for them to participate. Her fiery speech does not conclude with condemnation but instead offers a series of suggestions for how to change.

Below, please find the full text of her speech and consider the import of her words:

Giving honor to God, the leadership of IFGE, friends and family. I am humbled to be standing before you today as a representative of Transsistahs-Transbrothas, the Lone Star State, the Bluegrass State, and my hometown of Houston to officially become the third African-American transperson to be awarded a Trinity.

This day is one that I thought that I’d never see because of my outspokenness about a myriad of issues in the transgender community. But like my mentors, Phyllis Frye and Sarah DePalma and one of my leadership role models the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, I have not hesitated to call people and organizations out when I felt that they could and should do better to uphold the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. The Transgender Rights Movement is the next evolution in the ongoing struggle for human rights and we need to take that seriously.

It’s been an interesting road that I’ve traveled to get to this point in my life and ironically I have IFGE to thank for giving me the impetus for jump starting my activist career.

At the beginning of my transition in 1994 I started a subscription to Tapestry. (hold up the magazines) Inside these two issues were the Out, Proud and Trans series that pissed me off to the point that I made it my mission to attend my first GenderPAC Lobby days in 1998, a subsequent one in 1999 and become a leader in the transgender community.

What was it about these two issues that made me angry? Well, the problem for transgender people of color has always been visibility. Ever since Christine Jorgensen stepped off that flight from Denmark onto the tarmac at JFK airport in 1953 the lion’s share of the coverage of GLBT people has been of people that looked like you and her.

Out of the 50 people that these two issues honored for being “Out and Proud”, the two they found to represent me were RuPaul and Dennis Rodman. Neither are transgender people like the other two African-American Trinity winners who preceded me at this podium, Dawn Wilson and Dr. Marisa Richmond. RuPaul and Dennis Rodman both stated publicly that they didn’t want to be. So why hold them up as representatives of my community? The other problem is that it unintentionally reinforced a stereotype that the only thing that my people can do, can become or be recognized for is being an entertainer or an athlete.

Why is this important For a transkid of Euro-American descent they get to see role models that are lawyers, doctors, airline pilots, police officers, et cetera that cancel out the negative Jerry Springer images. A transkid that shares my ethnic heritage doesn?t have that balance and that concerns us. A reasonably intelligent college bound African-American transkid is left to wonder after seeing that contrast, ?Where are the people who look like me?? ?If I transition is this what my life is going to be like?? ?Do professional African-American transpeople exist??

In my era my first exposure to transgender people that looked like me besides the 1977 Jefferson’s episode was either through attending drag shows or seeing transgender sex workers plying their trade. The ones that did pass were hiding in deep stealth mode. I didn?t meet another out professional African-American transperson like myself until 1999.

Lack of media coverage hurts. I can only name two African-American transpeople that I read articles about when I was growing up and both were surprisingly published in one of the journalistic Bibles of Black America, Jet Magazine.

Justina Williams had one written about her transition and her struggles with General Motors in 1979. It’s also interesting to note that in this article the author used the proper pronouns to describe Justina 20 years before the AP changed their stylebooks.  Almost a decade later, in 1987 an article appeared about Sharon Davis which chronicled her transition and the book she was writing about it entitled “A Finer Specimen of Womanhood”.

When you’re a minority, positive role models, a connection to your history, and faith are vitally important building blocks to the maintenance of one’s pride and self-esteem. That fuels personal achievement that uplifts the entire group. IFGE has played a major role in documenting that history and honoring the people doing their part to build a transgender community and for that I applaud and support their efforts to do so. From this day forward I will be doing my part by not only writing occasional articles for Tapestry but encourage other people of color to do so.

One of the problems that we’ve had in the African-American trans community is that for various reasons we haven’t had a similar ongoing effort to organize it on a national scale until now. The late Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Toure once stated, “In order to become a part of the greater society, you must first close ranks.”

Basically that is what the African-American transgender community is doing. We’re not doing it to shut you out of the process but turning inward to build the same kind of infrastructure and support systems that you have enjoyed for two decades. We seek to not only build a community that our kids can be proud of but at the same time build and lift ourselves up in order to become a stronger partner for the entire transcommunity. We spent a few days during TSTBC 2005 hammering out a document that we call the African-American Transgender Action Plan or AA-TAP for short. It is a ten-point program rooted in the lessons that our ancestors brought here with them from Africa that will serve as the guiding organizing principles for building our community

TSTBC is a major building block in that effort. Just as the IFGE conference over the last 20 years has served to educate, inform and train our past, present and future leaders and allies the Transsistahs and Transbrothas Conference will do the same. It will also provide a way for you to reach our people that may not be comfortable coming to an IFGE conference or to SCC but will show up in Louisville to hang out with their peeps.

By the way, the second annual TSTBC is happening October 18-22 once again in Louisville.

So why aren’t African-American transpeople comfortable attending events like this? It always mystified me when I attended SCC for example why there were almost no peeps like me that were attending this event except the hotel staff and the conference was hosted in the Black gay mecca of Atlanta, GA.

Well, let me tell you a few reasons why. One of them is the cultural difference. African-Americans have always been a spiritual people with a church centered culture. I am a Christian as are many people who are African-American and transgender. I have seen every faith tradition represented and respected at GLBT events except Christianity. Granted, some people who profess to be Christians have invited this negative response but there’s a major difference between little “c” Christians and big “C” ones. Big “C” Christians believe in love, tolerance, understanding others and their differences and embracing them. Little “c” Christians are the intolerant ones who are using the faith as a white sheet to camouflage their bigotry and hatred. Christianity isn’t the private property of right-wing zealots. It?s past time for those of us in the GLBT community who are Christian to proclaim it, stand up to those thugs and take our faith back from the Pharisees who are using it as a baton to beat us down with.

Unfortunately because of the hurt and pain that’s been inflicted on GLBT people by these Bible-thumping posers, some GLBT people have begun denigrating ALL Christians in response to what has been done unto them. Bashing Christians doesn’t play well in my community. In fact one of the things that we were adamant about during the planning for TSTBC 2005 was starting a tradition of having a church service to close it. We also wanted to create an environment where not only Christianity is respected but we strive to respect TSTBC attendees whose faith traditions differ from our own.

Another thing that doesn’t play well in my community is America’s original sin, racism. As I have written, taught and said to anyone who would listen, the transgender community is a microcosm of society at large. The same problems that exist in the parent society also exist in our subset of it.

I have been called the n-word in Euro-American dominated online groups. I have been called an uppity nigger behind my back. I incredulously saw someone post last year on another list that the only reason that TSTBC was being held was because it would make it easier for us to solicit tricks. We have had activists walk into Congressional Black Caucus offices during lobby days and tell legislators that share my ethnic background that African-American transpeople don’t exist.

Yes Virginia, racism does exist in the trans community and we need to put a stop to it post haste before it creates a permanent split between the African-American transgender community and you. That is dangerously close to happening right now.

It also pisses us off when you don’t listen to us or dismiss what we have to say. I have been a minority since I was born at 10:45 PM on May 4, 1962. People of color are equipped with coping skills and mechanisms that we learned growing up that allow us to deal with the daily slights, slings and arrows that come with minority status. We have an uncanny ability to read people or organizations that say one thing and do the opposite since we?ve been historically lied to over the years. So if we tell you not to trust them, listen to us. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief in the future.

And please don’t ever in life use the words “you’re just playing the race card”. It infuriates me and other people of color when that term is used to marginalize our very real experiences with bigotry and the racism we deal with in this country by disrespectfully comparing it to a card game.

Since I’ve laid out some things that depress African-American participation in the overall transgender community, It’s only fair that I offer a few suggestions that will hopefully increase it.

The dots have to be connected in terms of the historical roles that African-American transpeople have played in shaping the transgender community. An African-American transwoman was present at the Stonewall Riots. We helped found GenderPac, NTAC, BGB and the Tennessee Vals in addition to other regional organizations that have uplifted transgender people. Unfortunately we’ve gotten very little recognition for it or have been edited out of the historical records. That needs to stop. If the historical record reflects the fact that we helped found it, then people of color will be more inclined to take ownership of the various groups and participate in them.

We have to have some media face time too. The African-American transgender community has some long term plans to help correct that imbalance. While we’re working on that, the bottom line is that media peeps will call the white transgender community first because you already have the infrastructure in place. When you get that call, make sure that you also let them know that there are people of color that need to be included in this conversation. Basically that’s how Dawn and I got the notification for the Courier-Journal article that we’re featured in. Reporter Angie Fenton called Fairness looking for help in finding transgender people who?d be willing to talk on the record and they referred her to us. When transkids of color see peeps in the media that look like them who are living their lives and telling their stories, it’s a win-win for all of us.

Second. Make events affordable and accessible. African-Americans only get 70 cents to every dollar a white person earns. When you have a conference in a hotel in which a room costs $200 dollars a day and you then have to pay conference registration fees on top of that, it creates participation barriers. The fiscal participation barrier leads to a perception that people of color aren’t wanted and that’s how you end up with an event that ends up 99% white transpeople.

I realize that middle and upper class transgender people support IFGE, other transgender conventions and our organizations. However, this fiscal access problem that shuts out TPOCs also is keeping other T people of color out including the Asian and Latino/a communities. Watching the economics of conventions and keeping hotel prices affordable will grow the community amongst all transgender people, make the convention programming resources accessible to more T people of all income levels and make this community more inclusive in general. It?s a simple formula. Make the events more affordable and eventually all colors of the transgender rainbow will appear.

The accessibility issue is also important. Too many times support group meetings are held in suburban locations with little or no access to public transportation. If your city has a GLBT Community center that is located close to public transportation consider using that as a meeting site. If you’re planning a convention ensure that your host hotel is close to public transportation and that schedules and route maps are widely available to the convention attendees.

Third. If you want us at your events, you’re gonna have to advertise in our media too. There are African-American newspapers in many cities that would love to not only get the advertising dollars but want stories about transgender issues. For example, CLIK magazine is an Atlanta-based GLBT publication that caters to the national African-American community.

I’ll close with the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King from a November 1956 speech he gave in Montgomery, AL entitled “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.?”

“Another thing we must do in speeding up the coming of the new age is to develop intelligent, courageous, and dedicated leadership. This is one of the pressing needs of the hour. In this period of transition and growing social change there is a dire need for leaders who are calm and yet positive. Leaders who avoid the extremes of ‘hot-headedness’ and ‘Uncle Tomism’. The urgency of the hour calls for leaders of wise judgment and sound integrity-leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice;
Leaders not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.”

Dr. King continues by paraphrasing an author with the last name of Holland by saying:

God give us leaders!
A time like this demands strong minds, great hearts
True faith and ready hands
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy
Leaders who possess opinions and a will
Leaders who have honor, leaders who will not lie
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall leaders, sun crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty and private thinking.

I hope and pray that over the last 8 years that I’ve evolved into that type of leader and will continue to do so in the coming years.

Today’s BHM: Ode to the White Men Who Think They Are Black

Ok, seriously, this is not a real Black History Month post and a real one will be forthcoming; yet, I could not let John Mayers comments about his relationship to both blackness and white supremacy for yet another popular magazine published in February slide and I thought we might want think about the context and not just the content.

The following quotes were first reported by Black Snob and come to me by way of Feminist Texican, and are excerpts from the February Playboy interview of John Mayer. In talking about how he sees himself and his struggle as a musician, Mayer actually mused that he was really just like an average “black dude”:

What is being black? It’s making the most of your life, not taking a single moment for granted. Taking something that’s seen as a struggle and making it work for you, or you’ll die inside. Not to say that my struggle is like the collective struggle of black America. But maybe my struggle is similar to one black dude’s.

Not only does this quote minimize the experience of racism in N. America by making it akin to a personal struggle against adversity that anyone can and has endured, by Mayer seems to realize how off base he is about racism even as he drives the metaphor home. His equation of himself with the black struggle then is predicated on a growing desire of white people to take racism out of its historical, legal, systemic, violent, ongoing context and place it in a vacuum in which it is both a thing of the past and character building. With regard to the latter, this myth-making is specific to a liberal fantasy of blackness where in white liberals envy the imagined version of blackness that is a mix of minor and excusable oppressions that ultimately creates the equally mythic “Black Culture”of their fantasies. Real black people and the atrocities they have endured in the past and continue to endure in the present are erased to leave us with a watered down mix of Marley, Huggy Bear, Thompson, and occassionally, when they are called on their crap, Obama. Racism, in their view, is reduced to a series of inconveniences that anyone endures, as Mayer says “taking something that is seen as a struggle and making it work for you.” In other words, there is no real struggle, there is a perception of struggle. And better yet, when black people don’t get seated at a restaurant they can go all Laurence Fishbourne on someone, but when white guys don’t get a promotion they just have to suck it up. See how this fantasy plays into the idea of reverse discrimination and white victimhood?

In essence, this version of blackness is reduced to the white male desire to be Lenny Kravitz for the day and miraculously confront “inconveniences” with “the race card.” Embedded in this fantasy of course is definitions of masculinity dating all the way back to eugenicism. While white males were seen as the ideal civilized men in the grand narrative of eugenicism, black men were the animalistic antithesis of white masculinity often used to justify and mask the barbarism of white male colonials. The figure of the black man, and/or black masculinity, rather than actual black men, was created as a place where white males could project and ultimately otherize their own violence and violent desires, including sexual ones we will address later. Where actual ownership and dominance of black male bodies have fallen away, ritualistic fantasies have remained in the form of sports, video games, and film.

Race fantasies cross politic boundaries. Disgraced former Governor Blagojevich also werighed in this year about being black in Esquire Magazine:

“I am blacker than Obama … I shined shoes, I grew up in a five-room apartment, and my father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived.”

Where blackness is synonymous with “badass” in hipster hate, it is synonymous with poverty and menial labor amongst older, still supposedly liberal, white men. Despite the shift in perspective, the erasure of racism in favor of the “every man” fantasy remains. Thus Blagovich sees himself as the true victim of oppression vis-a-vis black people because while Obama got an ivy education he was off shining shoes. The white man as victim here relies on your understanding of unspoken racial messages, that include the incredulity that Blagojevich feels at losing his job in the government at the same time an “uppity negro” was being made president. Whiteness should make this impossible. And investment in whiteness subsequently makes it possible to be indignant about the “unfairness” of this situation despite the fact that Obama earned his position and Blagojevich was engaged in criminal activity that cost him his; because the narrative of reverse discrimination is predicated on the assumption of white innocence regardless of fact. In both versions then racism “is seen as struggle” but the real struggle is white male survival in an emasculating world where they seemingly have no access to the “race card”.

While many people critiquing Blagojevich’s quote rallied against the ways he reduced black men to the shoe shine guy of old Hollywood, they missed the critical shift in racial narratives in which Blagojevich engaging. Like Mayer, he calls up a particular recognizable image of blackness in the white psyche and then replaces it with a white male figure. In Mayer’s version this white man is “similar to one black dude”having a bad day (the liberal version), while in Blagojevich’s version he is the oppressed Other whose struggle began with a tenuous grasp to whiteness that has now been rested away by the ever looming black aggressor (the moderate bordering on conservative version). Where Mayer imagines himself as Avatar, Blagojevich sees himself as the misunderstood helpmate of black folks who then turn on him.

In this way, he is not dissimilar to former President Clinton during the elections last year. While Clinton did not self-proclaim that he was the first black president, he certainly rode on the coattails of that distinction most of his presidency and well into the campaign of Hillary Clinton. When he diminished the success of then-candidate Obama, he not only balked at criticism of his racism and/or racialized discourse but underneath that balking was a clearly unspoken “everyone knows I’m the first black president.” And like the other two men in this category, he also relied on the growing belief that white men are the real victims in this country. Thus Clinton publicly complained that the Obama campaign had “pulled the race card on me” in response to being called out on his racism and later commented that long-time friend Senator Clyburn had benefited from all that Clinton had “done for him” but then “turned on him” and was no longer a friend.

This sense of victimization at the hands of black men was also tied to an investment in white privilege. According to the new tell all book Game Change, Bill Clinton is said to have called Teddy Kennedy to get an endorsement for Hillary Clinton. In the midst of that conversation, Clinton allegedly said:

A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

Like Blagojevich, Clinton’s version of blackness depends on the fantasy of the “good white guy” who unlike his racist neighbors has always helped black folks as long as they “stay in their place.” Thus while Mayer access the fantasy of hyper-masculinity in the face of his own subdued hipster sense of inadequacy vis-a-vis the fantasy black man, Blagojevich and Clinton are more akin to the French in Algiers who saw themselves as kinder gentler colonials until black people dared to ask for equality and then they enacted unspeakable torture and massacred them.

If this were the end of the story, it would be bad enough. However, these colonial fantasies are not just predicated on white male fantasies about masculinity and emasculation. Instead, they also include the fetishization of black women and imagined black sexual desire. Clinton accessed these fantasies through an unspoken understanding that his cheating was part of his proximity to blackness in the same way that colonial rapists claimed they were “going native” or unduly influenced by “the overwhelming licentiousness of colonized women.” Mayer on the other hand, does a role reversal in which he moves from the most liberal of the three wannabe black men to the most conservative:

I don’t think I open myself to it [interracial relationships with black women]. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.

In other words, while Mayer fantasizes about being a black man, his fantasy relies on theunderlining anxieties of the Birth of a Nation narrative in which his “big black cock” is used to punish white women but never ever to cross the color line. This racialized misogyny depends on not only the myth of the black rapist but also the hyper-stud that Mayer accesses through his fantasy passing. The black male body then becomes an essential layer through which he claims his manhood back from both the black people who are supposedly destabilizing his own real struggles with their perceived ones but also the white women he imagines reject him for not being man enough, as opposed to seeing him as the unappealing person he clearly is. And it is this white male fantasy of blackness that ultimately masks sexist violation of black women by white men, both with regards to actual sanctioned sexual assault and daily denigration of black women’s femininity, bodily integrity, and humanity, and similar violent denigration of white women by them, in which fantasies about black women or the fear of those fantasies often predetermine white female expression of sexuality or aid in white men’s ability to coerce or demean said expressions.

Mayer’s quote also depends on similar beliefs about black people’s place in society to those of the other two men, as he never questions the desires of black women for him. In his racialized misogynist lens, black women are always and forever available to him as white male but it is he, who determines whose sexuality matters when and where. Thus if he dates “separately from his dick”, black women will come a runnin’ with little regard to his racist preferences. Moreover, by compartmentalizing along traditional first wave feminist criticism of men, he is able to distance himself from his racism even as he compares his desires to that of a well known leading member of the Klan, at the same time he access language he believes will exempt him from critique from women.

His cognitive dissonance surrounding his sense of inadequacy that has caused him to invest in the fantasy black man and racial passing to over come his fear of women (the thread about black women in the interview came directly after a discussion about how Mayer goes home and fantasizes about women rather than engages real ones) also allows him to openly insult actual black women he says he’d be “willing to sleep with”:

I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”

For me this, not the use of the “n word” earlier in the interview, is the most offensive part of Mayer’s “I’m just a black dude” diatribe. He is so at ease in his cis white male heterosexual privilege that he actually rates the beauty of black women after saying his “dick is David Duke.” Rating black women is offensive enough, rating them on a scale of how much they turn white guys on is a whole new level of racist misogyny I would not have imagined seeing in public media. Thus Hilary, the actress playing her completely erased, is attractive because “every white dude loved [her]” not because the black actress playing Hilary was attractive in any way.

Worse, Mayer quickly moves from rating black women’s beauty to reinserting his racialized colonial fantasies onto the black female body. Thus Kerry Washington as subject is transformed into sexual object in Mayer’s interview. She moves from articulate black female actress to white male fantasy [black] whore in which her sole expression is about whose “dick she has sucked.” And Mayer is quick to racialize his sexist reinterpretation of her by adding “What we [white men or himself] weren’t talking about that.” So that it is not his fantasy of her that is operating in this quote but rather her “overwhelming black licentiousness” that inserts inappropriate sexual banter into an otherwise “civilized” conversation. And this Mayer tells us is what turns him on about her, ie his ability to project readily available wanton sexual degradation on to her for his pleasure while ultimately distancing himself from the desire to be with her.

Like so many other supremacists before him, Mayer’s David Duke penis that points decidedly to the “purity” of white women, apparently finds itself walking into the backhouse like slave masters of old. Except what Mayer, and his fellow compatriots in this post, do not seem to understand is that fantasy time is over. While racism and sexism continue to make black women vulnerable to assault, neither Mayer nor Blagojevich will ever attract a willing black woman with their narratives of white victimhood and misogyny. The ease with which they claim to be disempowered while exerting power over black women speaks to the conflation of sexism and racism bound tightly by white privileged access to the black female body that in the case of Mayer’s fantasies are wholly impossible. And it is my opinion that he likens his penis to a violent white supremacist for this reason and this reason alone; he knows he can’t get any from a black woman so his response is to say on the one hand he doesn’t want any and on the other he is willing to access race based violence to mask his anger at being shut out. He imagines himself as a black man not only to minimize racism and posit himself as the new victim but also to justify his violent desires for black women, writing that violence on to the black male body as assuredly as Birth of a Nation.

And for those who are confused about how we move from racism to racialized sexism to sexism, Mayer is happy to help you out. Not only does he try to cover his offensive sexist demeaning of Washington by insulting white women with his “white-girl crazy” comment, as if insulting one group of women will mask having already insulted women but he masks another dig at women’s sexuality as praise only moments later. Thus just moments after insulting black women, he goes on to say that women have more power than men:

I feel like women are getting their comeuppance against men now. I hear about man-whores more than I hear about whores. When women are whorish, they’re owning their sexuality. When men are whorish, they’re disgusting beasts. I think they’re paying us back for a double standard that’s lasted for a hundred years.

Once again mixing misogyny with pseudo-third wave feminism, Mayer thinks his relegation of black women to “whores” is somehow compatable with his claims that women’s sexuality is centered and empowered vis-a-vis men’s in our society. It seems like many pseudo-feminist men, Mayer thinks that the few gains women have made erase the continued discipline and punishment of women for expressing their sexuality, from his own distancing in his discussion of Kerry Washington to the actual rape, beating, and murder of women every day in this country for working in the sex industry, daring to go to frat parties, or even daring to serve in the military, to name just a few obvious places. Moreover while his sexism is indiscriminate, he, like many others, mixes it with racial expectations that color (pun intended) they way he mobilizes his misogyny. Understanding this is the first step to building a feminist movement that address violence and misogyny against ALL women by recognizing that we are all targets and we experience that targeting differently. In Mayer’s world that means black women fantasy about getting him off while white women break his heart b/c they are “crazy.” The only constant here is Mayer and his obvious hatred of women in the face of his sense of sexual inadequacy.

Mayer’s ability to separate out his racism from his sexism has also led to him issuing an apology for the use of the “n-word” in his interview but not for his flagrant sexism, racialized or otherwise, throughout this interview nor how his own feelings of male inadequacy played out in his racial fantasies of both black men and women. And I for one believe the ease with which he makes these distinctions and gave these answers speaks to a larger problem amongst white men that is partially exposed by the other examples in this post and yet remains unaddressed by most of us.

The sad fact is that in post-racial, aka still racist, N. America the only thing that seems to have changed is the ease with which white men discuss their racial fantasies in public spaces. They seem to believe that having a “played the race card” all the way into the White House, black people have no more cards left to play and the realities of racial antagonism can thus shine bright in the light of day. If anything positive can be found here, it is that with each passing comment white men on the Left are exposing the ways in which white cis male masculinity is intimately tied to race and racism, sexuality, sexism and racialized sexism. The exposure of these connections should renew a discussion amongst feminists about how white male power and white male heterosexual fantasty play into specific types of oppression of different women and ultimately predetermine certain expressions of both masculinity and sexuality that disempower all of us.

(Note: I say white male heterosexual power here because I am talking specifically about heterosexuality in this post, and I have not qualified that with the precursor “cis” even though all of the men quoted are because I know white trans men who are guilty of these same fantasies about masculinity and desire; but I wanted to point out that white gay men are not exempt from engaging in black face, fantasies of blackness, or the intersections of misogyny and blackness as evidenced by the popularity of MS. Shirley Q Liquor, a white male performer who makes his living portraying the made-up character who is an addicted, uneducated, single mother of 19 children none of whom have the same father. The investment in whiteness embedded in this character is no less excepted than the fantasies listed above and considered no less damning for public figures seen with him, as you can see from the pic below where the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast openly hangs out and laughs with him at a club:

Similar black face can be found amongst white women or through the capitulation of white women; from the fantasies of being Foxy Brown common amongst so-called white feminists to the girls who dance along in the Clemson photo above as either “hood rats” or “white female victims of black male brutality”. In both of the latter cases their gender helps anchor the linking of heteropatriarchy with white supremacy through gendered enactment. While this is related to Mayer’s fantasies, this post is not about them today. And as far as I know, there has not been a recent onslaught of white women openly discussing their “blackness” and their fantasies regarding it. If I’m wrong on that please let me know and leave a cite in the comments section.)

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images

  • “70s pimp outfit” costume
  • Costume sold at Halloween Adventures under the title “Freak black wig”
  • Ted Danson in blackface at Whoopi Goldberg roast, source on photo; Danson thought he’d get away with it b/c he was dating Whoopie at the time and she reportedly signed off on it
  • “Living the Dream Party” held at Clemson University the day before Martin Luther King’s Birthday 2007
  • “Three White Men and a Black Woman (The Rape of The Negress)” by Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1924)
  • candid photo of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast with Charles Knipp in black face comes from Black Super Woman; in the same post she points out that criticism of his performance by a black lesbian led to death threats against her

Quote of the Week: Queering Health Care

A queer approach to the issue would question the norm of a health care delivery system that privileges those people who are willing and/or able to organize their lives into a traditional household

Katherine Franke

One of the major stumbling blocks for me around the marriage debate has been this idea that marriage will solve all of “our” class woes by extending tax breaks, inheritance, and health care to married queer couples. The reality is that while marriage will extend these benefits to those who have them, they do nothing for those who do not. In other words, people who do not have insurance or property to extend to their partners will still go without and people who do not make enough to qualify for certain tax breaks requiring marriage (or who are childless) will still go without those as well. Like other mainstream models of social change, the marriage movement has taken middle class status for granted from the foundation of its organizing outward. And when called on this presumption, the answer has often been to:

  1. point to the endless number of people who will benefit even if everyone does not
  2. point to the few ways everyone benefits
  3. simply change the subject to the larger issue of perceived equality

There are critical merits to all three of these arguments that cannot be ignored. Both in terms of hegemonic processes (ie perception) and actual gains, marriage equality does offer something to everyone in our community/ies from the smallest move toward being more equal under the law to the larger issues of being able to visit one’s loved one in hospital. make critical decisions about partner and child care, or take their body home should they die.

At the same time, the energy put into the marriage movement has left other issues out in the cold both in terms of social justice action and discourse. By focusing on middle class liberalism at the national level, the queer community/ies have lost the ability to examine radical social justice and put that radical social justice on a national agenda. In terms of health care, this has meant a buy in to a family based health care system that at this point only extends to people who have insurance and whose employers and wages allow for full coverage of families. It neither questions the sexism or classism at the root of “family health care” nor does it confront the homophobia and transphobia of the health care provided. Given that part of the queer community is represented by two female incomes of color, the least likely group to be insured or provided adequate care, especially when those women are transgendered, the queer community/ies should have been at the forefront of re-imagining health care reform from provision to insurance. And in so doing,  we could have articulated a national platform that would ultimately have benefited not only our entire community/ies but also helped heterosexual groups like female heads of household, unemployed and uninsured, poc experiencing health care disparities, and trans women and men in het relationships. They “gay agenda” could have become the model for the “national agenda” and given our cause(s) more credibility with the people who continue to deny them as “special interest.” Instead, a middle class focus has left much of our community’s/ies’ health care needs unexamined and reduced are piece of the health care reform debate going on in Congress to HIV/AIDs funding. That marginalization has in turn left many in our community/ies ambivalent about gay marriage all together.

Who Do You Have to Ask to Get Married?

I saw this PSA from Ireland a little over a month ago, by way of @queerty, and actually teared up:

Long time readers know that I believe in two things when it comes to the marriage issue:

  1. equality under the law is a must
  2. marriage does not offer most of the protections and promises the movement has insinuated it will

That means, for the most part I support gay marriage efforts by writing about pending legislation on the blog, signing and circulating petitions and materials, and working on education campaigns, but I am not married myself nor do I imagine I ever will be. I also agree that gay marriage organizing has not taken into account transgender people (see my post on this) but I believe that is an issue of expanding the marriage discourse.

Yet watching this commercial made me think about what the world would be like if everyone literally had to go beg everyone in their town for permission to marry. (Or, as is currently the case in Washington and was the case in California just this summer, beg yearly or almost yearly for permission for their marriage to remain valid.) I could not help but think that maybe my own cynicism about marriage is getting in the way of seeing why it is seems so dire to others in our community/ies. And all the more committed to the reality that as long as we are denied access to basic rights granted the majority, and upon which many discourses of morality and economic and social gain depend, we cannot hope to be seen and treated as equal by the nations in which we reside.

The Guitar: Why Mainstream Feminism is Never Revolutionary (A Film Review)

I recently sat down to watch the film festival favorite, “lesbian” “women’s” empowerment film The Guitar this weekend. I’ve been looking forwardguitarmovieposter to seeing it since I saw the seemingly naked Saffron Burrows backed up against her guitar in huge relief at the local video store. Unlike those flocking to the image because of Saffie’s aristocratic beauty, I was instantly drawn to the juxtaposition of girl and guitar a trope of female empowerment that is often born out in night clubs, woman centered music festivals, coffee houses and lesbian bars across the world. And while “a girl with a guitar” often conjures up images of long-haired white women whining about their broken hearts to my college age male students, many a guitar playing female has captured the feminist angst of a generation, spoken to the rebellion, strength, needs and desires, and infinite whimsy of being women. Poets, philosophers, and activists come in all shapes and sizes, but for many young women they are born on the strings of a guitar.

Couple the way this stark image defines the film with a female director, a highly regarded avant garde No Wave male screen writer, selection at Sundance (and two other film festivals), and the heady choices Saffron Burrows has made in her own career and anyone could see why this film would intrigue. Add to that the very subtle media blitz coming from the queer dvd industry, tla and wolfe in particular, and The Guitar comes with a pedigree that should make any feminist, especially a queer one, and certainly any hipster film geek rush right on out to the video store with fist proudly in the air …

Why I call this film “mainstream” then is not its independent credentials or distributor, but rather its content. The plot is a typical mainstream mantra with a predictable ending. The fact that it is loosely based on a true story makes it no less trite.

The film opens with Saffron Burrow’s character Mel finding out that she has two months to live. Mel, a mousy working class woman with an obnoxiously self-centered boyfriend and a dead end job, has throat cancer that is literally stealing her voice from her. Her doctors tell her that she is going to slowly grow silent and then die, an all too obvious metaphor for the trajectory her life has already taken.

guitarsaffiealoneOn that same day, Mel loses her job and gets dumped by her boyfriend.

Alone and dying, Mel takes her severance pay, her credit cards, and her disappointments and transforms them into a fantasy life where she can afford her every heart’s desire and act out on all of her repressed whims. For a generation raised on consumption as revolution (yes, I am talking to you organic coffee drinking, American Apparel wearing, green car driving, gentrified neighborhood living, hipster extraordinaire) her choices are empowering. After all, in just two short months Mel has gone from a dowdy, frowning, peon, who no doubt lived in a hovel, to a top floor condo with posh furniture, one of a kind designer clothes and jewelry, take out every night from the finest restaurants and people who seemingly adore her.

Scratch the surface of this story however, and underneath you will find nothing but suffocatingly stale air. Mel is just as locked away in her fancy condo as she was in her dead end job. She talks to no one, she goes nowhere. In fact, her supposed road to empowerment is even more small and isolated than her pre-cancer life. Her only connections are to material things and the people who deliver them. Everything she buys is essentially stolen, excused away like the bankers on Wall Street because she is dying. And while she revels in many fine pieces, none of it seems to have much real substance to her. In fact, as the boxes arrive, she is almost always busy ordering more.

What kind of empowerment is trading being ignored in the real world for being Rapunzel locked in her tower? Are we to believe that feminism lies in her fancy things and her ever brightening smile like a singing bird in a gilded cage? Certainly some forms of mainstream feminism have said as much with their emphasis on consumption and the power guitarroscoembedded in affording and pursuing one’s own materialist desires free of the income of a man. And while not being beholden to male power purse strings is empowering, shopping does not a revolution make. In fact, when one thinks about where most of the items she ordered were made and by whom, it can in fact unmake it as we have seen in the rifts between feminists far too often.

Perhaps, we are meant to see Mel’s empowerment in her new found sexual expression. As I said earlier, when we meet Mel, she is in a crumbling relationship with an inattentive self-absorbed man who takes her for granted and dumps her to focus more on himself. As the film progresses, Mel’s only contact to the human world, the delivery workers who bring her food and clothes, become her lovers. A married African immigrant named Rosco Wasz, played by award winning actor Isaach de Bankole, lugs all of her heavy boxes up to  her home, often unpacking them while she is oblivious to his presence.

One day Rosco inquires about her life, critiquing her seeming theft and/or materialism, for which he later apologizes. Within moments of that apology, she flaunts her big baby blues at him, plants tentative kisses on his forehead, and all his moral authority melts in between her open thighs. Thus begins an extramarital affair in which film viewers are given no information about the delivery man or their relationship; now besides lugging her heavy boxes Rosco is regularly there for sex. This fantasy black man, moving from menial laborer doing drudge work she will not do herself to readily available sexual stud, flies under the radar of most viewers trained not to see the exploitation of black bodies or working class people in the interest of centering the em/power/ment of realizing ones own class and sexual desires.

Mel’s other delivery person is a working class woman of color named Cookie Clemente, played by Paz de la Huerta. I believe she is meant to be read as at least half Italian in this film, but that is played as ethnic Other just as much as racial Other. Like Rosco, she comes from immigrant roots, at once calling up the multiculturalism of NYC that is largely missing from the rest of this film and the specific domestic pazdelahuertaexploitation of immigrants of color that has become common place amongst the rich in the City. Notably, the  only other people of color in the film are two Asian immigrant women who enter the elevator immediately after Mel finds out she has terminal cancer and an Indian cabby who yells at her near the end of the film. What these characters have in common is their foreign languages, something that will come up later to literally establish the objectification of poc in this film. The failure of the director to translate the dialogue highlights how little the dialogue of any of these poc characters matters to the trajectory of the film or its star.

In stereotypical gendered fashion, the film’s Asian women gossip to Mel’s chagrin, the black man lugs the heavy furniture & throws off his wife of 7 years and the brown woman offers up good home cooking to keep the misses well. Cookie delivers almost all of the food Mel eats. The more often she brings it, the more intrigued she is by the rich [white] lady locked in her posh tower.

Mel picks up on Cookie’s interests and propositions her one day over the newly delivered food. A scene that could have played like a seduction over wine, instead reinforces the sense of difference between Cookie and Mel.  Cookie’s enthralled by all of her things, while Mel, who is equally working class, seems at ease and accustomed to those same things. Cookie’s sense of wonder leads Mel to tell her the meaning of her collection in what is perhaps the most transparently directed moment of the film:

They speak to me, the objects. They whisper in a strange language. The language of objects. They give me hope by whispering rumors of my redemption.

In one simple recitation of Smith’s actual words, Mel both seduces Cookie and lays bare the way she sees the two people of color in her life. They are objects in her collection leading the way to her self-absorbed redemption. Like Rosco’s name or the unnamed Asian women in the elevator, they speak “strange languages” and have no real place beyond the attempt to find herself. It is a sad misreading of Smith, flattened out by overtly racialized directing.

Both of these characters in one way or another represent colonial fantasies about people of color that continue to permeate the meaning of white female empowerment even on the left. They come and go on the whims of the main female character with little character development of their own. More than that, they exist simply to serve her; whether it is carrying her things, feeding her, or offering themselves sexually, it is always and forever about her. In fact, according to this plantation mistress fantasy, both people of color willingly throw off their other commitments and relationships at the promise of her touch. Rosco forgets his wife with one look and Cookie forgets her boyfriend Vitto with a simple smile. pazyroscoBoth of them come to check on Mel long after their work is done, despite the way she has treated them b/c like Mammy they just naturally love her. And even tho they are all working class, having these two people of color serving her credentials Mel’s upper class passing as much as any of the things she buys.

(It should be noted that Mel also has a white male phone service worker who is equally stereotypical. He is overly chatty and speaks in a contrived vernacular seemingly mimicking the way Amos Poe imagines working class people speak. Not only is he another example of classism issues in the film but his sexuality is never exploited, illustrating the racialization of sexual awakening in this film.)

For many, the film seemingly redeems itself both in the subtle subversions the actors of color engage in and when both Rosco and Cookie ultimate leave Mel for their real lives. The former involves Mel acting in seemingly elitest or potentially racist ways and being called on it. When she meets Rosco for the first time, she makes fun of his name and he in turn makes fun of hers to expose the slight. But this soon turns to bonding when Mel explains her name has meaning, assuming that her name is special and his is not, and he tells her that his has meaning as well. For Cookie the slight is misunderstanding: when she delivers the first pizza to Mel’s condo she has no clothes and won’t let Cookie in and Cookie takes offense. She slams the door in Cookie’s face and then does not tip her, which Cookie calls her on. Again this moment of privilege is quickly excused away when Mel explains she has no cash, as if a tip cannot be put on credit with all of the other purchases she cannot afford. Later when she almost bludgeons Cookie with boxes she is discarding out the window, b/c apparently she is too delicate to walk to the garbage shoot or recycle bin, Cookie calls her a b—h, but then promptly helps her carry a heavy package into her house and get it situated. For me these moments serve to mask underlining issues of inequality just as clearly as the “finding oneself through sexual abandon with lesbians and poc” storyline precisely because the ability of the characters she offends to talk back allows the audience to consider the matter dealt with, without ever questioning how these scenes work to establish expected racial narratives that renders each character known without ever really giving the poc subjecthood in the film. Like the Indian cabbie who is just there to yell in a foreign language, these moments of disdain and judgment from Cookie and Rosco follow a particular racial script.

The departure of Cookie and Rosco are equally unsatisfying. Rosco’s wife of 7 years is pregnant and he stops by long enough to tell Mel he is going to be a daddy. While he can throw over his black wife of 7 years for Mel, Rosco’s patriarchal commitment to fatherhood is more important; with a whiff of stereotypical black masculinity and denigrated black femalehood, he is gone. Cookie  arrives at Mel’s condo with a huge bruise on her cheek explaining that her boyfriend called her a “d–e” and stabbed her in the cheek with a fork. In an utterly unsatisfying scene, Cookie breaks up with Mel as much to protect them as she does because of guitar3somethe sexual slur that clearly rocks her self-definition. This woman, whose only real power in the film comes from her initiative in connecting to Mel is lost in a word that inspires more fear than a fork to the cheek.

The hate crime reinforces the image of poc and/or ethnic misogyny and homophobia while at the same time introducing a critique of class and classism. While Mel wants to call down to the restaurant, Cookie reminds her that if she gets fired she will lose her everything. While I don’t think it is the director or writer’s intention, this scene opens a comparison between the vicarious position of actual working class lesbian/bisexual of color Cookie and fantasy land Mel. When Mel was faced with losing everything, she walked away from her job, her boyfriend, and her working class trappings, and found empowerment through a credit card and poc servants. The film tells us, Cookie has no similar access to mobility, however fantastical that mobility may be.

With Cookie’s exit, so goes the “lesbian” storyline. A forgiving reading of this film would cast both women as bisexual and questioning.  For Cookie this questioning, much like the rest of her identity, is missing from the film to highlight Mel’s sexual desires. For Mel being a bisexual with internalized homophobia that prevented her from acting on her same sex desires until she is diagnosed with cancer could fit a more well-executed film. However, partially because of the intersecting of race and sexuality in this film, and partially because of the overall execution, homosexuality in this film is always tangential to an overarching heterosexual narrative. The failure to flesh out the people with whom Mel is having sex in any real way makes these relationships smack of slumming or “out there” experimentation rather than anything real or meaningful that challenges a heterosexist reading of her sexual identity. Mel moves from her white boyfriend, to her black handyman, to her brown lesbian lover with little sign of attachment, discussion, or desire beyond the ever pressing collection of foreign objects. In a scene that defies reality, Rosco even walks in on the women and ultimately joins in. Thus any semblance of homosexuality is subsumed by male heterosexual fantasies of lesbians just waiting around for a man to really get it done. (There is some redemption in this three-way, in that it centers Mel as the object of desire rather than Rosco, ie both partners work for her pleasure rather than the porn fantasy where the “lesbians” take turns with their male third. At the same time, through the lens of whiteness, the centering of Mel’s sexual pleasure while she simply drifts of in sexual ecstasy without an ounce of reciprocity to her poc lovers is hardly revolutionary.) And while she shows some real affection for Cookie, the final scenes of the film imply a return to heterosexuality, that thoroughly marks Cookie as the anomaly.

At film’s end, Mel has stopped trying to find happiness in people and things and embraced her own happiness and creativity. And while this is a powerful anti-consumption message that runs counter to much of the action of the film, it is still mired by questionable racial and sexual guitarsaffienarratives. After all, if the message of the film is that money and things are not the answer, we cannot forget that both people of color and her same sex activity in this film are counted among those “things.” This is hardly the revolutionary and open life that Patti Smith lived, one in which both sexuality and racial consciousness, as well as outspoken feminism, were definitive aspects of her personality. As much as it pains me to say this, much of the failing of this film is in the directing. Rather than trust her subject and her actors, all of whom have garnered critical praise, Amy Redford shoots people, at least people of color, like the objects that Mel is constantly ordering over the phone. Despite taking the time to shoot scenes where the characters are obviously talking to one another Redford consistently presents these scenes sans dialogue or stripped of any meaningful development. Where we could have seen three-dimensional characters getting to know each other and revealing critical ways that they impacted each others lives, these scenes play like credentialing music videos. Worse, ever single person of color in this film is an immigrant and most don’t speak English further otherizing poc in N. America as foreign specifically to capitalize on gross misreading of Smith’s poetic description of the meaning of passing moments in her life, a gross misreading that is wholly the director’s responsibility. Her handling of sexuality is equally non-commital failing to walk the thin line between sexuality normalized through lack of examination, ie centered and naturalized, and sexuality exploited. Mel comes across as a Freshman WS major experimenting before marriage rather than an adult woman opening herself to the possibilities. Ultimately Redford’s directorial decisions render her actors two-dimensional and the film’s cinematic gaze both sexually and racially questionable. It does a disservice not only to the actors of color but to the real life of the woman upon whom Mel is based. And as storytelling, it reduced a film that should have showed us an anti-racist, feminist, queer consciousness forming under the most adverse conditions to one of self-absorption and thinly veiled oppression. Even the film’s metaphors are overwrought from the throat cancer induced silence to the fact that Saffie is naked for the first 20 minutes in her new apartment symbolizing rejection of her old life and the rebirth of her new one.

Unlike Smith, Mel doesn’t build a multicultural, polymory, life at the end of this film, where she loves openly and embraces all of the pieces of her we have seen. Mel just becomes a supposedly more enlightened, seemingly straight, [white] woman who can now play the guitar.

So where is the girl with the guitar that so poignantly graces the movie poster and the film jacket? It seems, when Mel was a young girl, she stole a red electric guitar that her parents forced her to return, and she had wanted to learn to play ever since. Among the many purchases she makes guitarchildsaffieon her two month spree is a similar guitar which she learns to play in the background of the action of the film. Thus many of the night time scenes of the film, when the poc have gone back to their real lives only to come a runnin’ in the morning, are punctuated by Mel rocking out on her guitar. As expected, her skill increases exponentially over time, so that by film’s end she can play with the best indie bands.

As shot, the guitar is totally sublimated in this film despite being the core part of the story. Had the director spent more time showing Mel learning to play and what that meant for her, and less time cataloging frivolities, we would have gotten some sense of the little girl who lost her way and found it again in the power of music. The message of the movie, stripped of all its race-class-sexuality madness, is the girl with guitar finding her voice and embracing her life. It was a powerful message that director and writer lost track of to the point of rendering her final on stage triumph cliche and uninspired.

For those who can tune out all of the questionable issues in this film and simply lose themselves in the hegemonic fantasy of individual female empowerment through riches gained and lost, sexual “freedom”,  and finding oneself, you will still have to contend with the slow pacing of this film and the ultimate failure to tell the story of the girl and her guitar. Given who this film is really about, that is as much a travesty as the issues of oppression. For viewers like me, ultimately, The Guitar is just another “feminist film” that fails to be very feminist.

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  • all images are from Dir. Redford, Amy. The Guitar. Lightening Media, 2008. except photo of Paz de la Huerta/unattributed and Paz de la Huerta & Isaach De Bankole @ The Limits of Control Part/unattributed

By Request “Cool Queer People of Color indie films/documentaries”

A post in progress:

The request has come in for “cool people of color indie films/documentaries” from Black Folk. Part of the request is really about films that are Mangos with Chiliteachable since the goal is to find films to use in class. For me, teachable films may not alway be “cool” films. Many of the films below are among my favorites to watch and to teach. You can follow the links beside those that have been reviewed on this blog or listed in my movies to watch over and over post. I’ve committed to posting more reviews of the films on this list after realizing how many people are unaware of the breadth o films by, for, starring or co-starring a queer person of color particularly those that do not recreate stereotype.

However, despite the plethora of movies on this list and others on the blog that I absolutely love, it should be noted that there are many documentaries and films I use in class that have problematic elements or that are not among the movies that I would watch regularly myself. As learning material they are amazing because they provide opportunities to both learn from the good points of the films and to critically examine the slippages. I’ve never been one who subscribes to the all or nothing school of intellectual inquiry, ie I don’t think we can educate ourselves and others if we subscribe to the idea that film or politics have to perfectly reflect a single definition of identity or desire in order to be accurate otherwise it is killing people. After all, our communities are wide and varied & just looking at some of the discussion on films on this blog alone point out to differences in how we define queer cinema, critical interventions in queer media, etc.

I’m also not a big fan of films that victim blame, play oppression olympics, vilify cultures rather than anti-gay or trans ideologies, etc. While us-grants-panel-2008these are also teachable, they require advanced standing and are not entertaining unless you too subscribe to the unexamined ideologies they present. I’ve tried not to include any of those films here, though there are a few that will require supplemental reading for students inclined to see poc as more homophobic or to question the legitimacy of transgender identity. I have marked them accordingly.

Also since I teach globally, many are also “foreign films.” It can get muddy to include global people of color in a list on N. American people of color and vice versa, however I think it is equally important to think about global constructions of the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender transgression to better develop a language for understanding those intersections truly mean. To be honest, sometimes “foreign films” do a better job of representing intersections and cultural perspectives outside of white N. American norms than what is available in the U.S.

So here is my list. Many of these will be reviewed on the blog at some point or have been reviewed already (see links):

documentaries

  • Tal Como Somos/As We Are Dir. Judith McCray
  • I Exist Distrib. Arab Film Distribution
  • Brother Outsider Dir. Sam Pollard
  • China Dolls Dir. Tony Ayres
  • Honored by the Moon Dir. Mona Smith
  • Tongues Untied Dir. Marlon T. Riggs
  • Latino Beginnings a Logo Documentary Dir. ?
  • Khush Dir. Pratibha Paramar
  • Looking for Langston Dir. Isaac Julien
  • Jihad for Love – Parvez Sharma (review forthcoming)
  • Milind Soman Made Me Gay Dir. Harjant Gil (read my review here)
  • Paris is Burning Dir. Jennie Livingston
  • Bricando el Charco Dir. Frances Negron-Muntaner
  • Jumpin the Broom Dir. ?
  • Coming out Coming Home Distr. Asian Family Pride
  • still black Dir. Kortney Ryan Zigler (read my full review here)
  • The Hunting Season Dir. Rita Moriera (requires literature to balance against seeing poc as more homophobic)
  • Juchitan Queer Paradise Dir. Patricio Enriquez
  • Pecah Lobang Dir. Poh Si Teng
  • Be Like Others Dir. Tanaz Eshaqhian
  • For Straights Only Dir. Vismita Gupta-Smith
  • BD Women Dir. Inge Blackman
  • Cities of Lust Dir. Raul Ferrera-Balanquet
  • Kim Dir. Alyn Gajilan
  • Almost Myself Dir. Tom Murray (will need accompanying literature on gender queer identity)
  • Boys from Brazil Dir. John Paul Davidson
  • Cruel and Unusual Dir. Dan Hunt
  • U People Dir. Hanifah Waldah (best if also used with music video for context)
  • And the March Continues Dir. Guadalupe San Miguel
  • Pick Up the Mic Dir. Alex Hinton (nice when used with music by out rappers of color, see my post on lesbians and rap here)
  • Shinjuku Boys Dir. Kim Longinotto
  • 1 in 2000 Dir. Ajae Clearway  (includes interviews w/ intersex ppl of color that can be pulled out)
  • Transgression Dir. ?
  • The Agressives Dir. Daniel Peddle
  • The Body of a Poet Dir. Nancy Kates
  • James Baldwin Dir. Karen Thorsen
  • In the Name of Allah Dir. Parvez Sharma

films

  • Watermelon Woman Dir. Cheryl Dunye (read my partial review here)
  • Saving Face Dir. Alice Wu (see clip under my Top Queer Films post here)
  • Clandestinos Dir. Antonio Hens
  • Love My Life Dir. Koji Kawano (review forthcoming)
  • Fire Dir. Deepa Mehta
  • Adios Roberto Dir. Enrique Dawi
  • Before Night Falls Dir. Julien Schnabel
  • The Journey Dir. Kaya Behkalam
  • The Amazing Truth of Queen Raquela Dir. Olaf de Fleur (read my review here)
  • Noah’s Arc Dir. Patrick Ian-Polk (read my review here)
  • Drifting Flowers Dir. Zero Chou (my review forthcoming)
  • A Brazilian Dream Dir. Limongi Djalma
  • Desi’s Looking for a New Girl Dir. Mary Guzman
  • Floored by Love Dir. Desiree Lim (this movie is very cute & two movies in one; my review forthcoming)
  • Finding Me Dir. Roger S. Omeus Jr.
  • Round Trip Dir. Shahar Rozen (my review forthcoming)
  • The Color Purple Dir. Steven Speilberg
  • Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros Dir. Aureaus Solito
  • Truth Hall Dir. Jade Dixon (really fluffy borderline teachable)
  • Frida Dir. Julie Taymor (minimal lesbian content)

multiculti films w/poc lead

  • When Night is Falling Dir. Patricia Rozema (see clip under my Top Queer Films post here)
  • Nina’s Heavenly Delights Dir. Pratibha Parmar
  • The Bubble Dir. Eithan Fox
  • Making Maya Dir. Rolla Selbak
  • Chutney Popcorn Dir. Nisha Ganatra
  • Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls in Love Dir. Maria Maggenti (see clip under my Top Queer Films post here)
  • Under One Roof Dir. Todd Wilson
  • The Buddha of Suburbia Dir. Roger Michell (I prefer the book)
  • Chicken Tikka Masala Dir. Harmaqe Kalirai (my review forthcoming)

What movies would be on your list?

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  • Mangos w/ Chili. promotional image. unattributed.
  • members of Astrea Foundation. unattributed.