Queering the Color Line Chapters 2&3

| 7 Comments

Chapter 2 of the book discusses the use of blackface and drag both in stage productions and in film. In this chapter, Somerville uses the story A Florida Enchantment to demonstrate how the the use of cross-dressing both on stage and in film, "evoked contemporary excitement and anxiety over changes in gender norms," (Somerville, 46). In the time that passed between the novel and the production of the film, gender ambiguity and cross-dressing became increasingly associated with "abnormal" sexual practices and homosexuality. The chapter discusses the differences in how the two "mannish" women conduct themselves sexually. Lawrence's white masculinity is portrayed as being within the limits of genteel codes of behavior, while Jack's sexuality is portrayed as uncontrollable and agressive.

The white women who attended these movies also become a topic of discussion. Somerville explains how their attendence was a product of a shifting economy. As the economy shifted to a consumer based economy, in which women were responsible for much of the purchasing, walls between the tradition male and female spheres began to break down. Women were now moving from the domestic sphere into the public, formerly male, sphere.

Chapter 3 focusses on race and homosexuality in Pauline E. Hopkins' fiction. In this section, Somerville explains that, "because African American women were associated with sexual accessability under slavery while white women were priveleged as sexually 'pure,' it was crucial for African American women to begin to redefine their own sexuality," (Somerville, 93). This chapter also discusses how love between women in literature is often difficult to decipher and has come to be labeled "romantic friendship". Almost always, these "romantic friendships" end it heterosexual endings for both female participants.

She also discusses a story of male homoerotic desire, cross-dressing and interracial relationships. Hopkins explores ideas of interracial and homosexual desire as a means of establishing African American female sexual freedom. Importantly, though, Somerville explains that "in stories of impersonation, the exposure of the 'true' identity of a character usually signals a return to the established social order of a fictional world," (104).

One of the most important elements of the conclusion is the focus on black/white, male/female, homo/hetero binaries.

Topics to discuss:
-connections between drag and blackface in terms of performance and identity
-how and why are binaries established? Why are binaries problematic?
-Homosocial vs. homosexual desire
-female movement into the public sphere
-the literary convention of heterosexual resolution

7 Comments

Lots of good stuff in your topics list, Ashley. I think the idea of tying black face to drag is a fascinating and scary move...What might be worth noting historically about this, as Somerville does, is the way that it was totally acceptable for men to play women in theater and movies, and that it was such an oddity for Jane to be played by a cisgender female in blackface, rather than a man playing a woman in blackface. Perhaps this ties into Somerville's discussion of desiring-the-other. She quotes Stuart Hall who writes, "the play of identity and difference which constructs racism is powered not only by the positioning of blacks as the inferior species but also, and at the same time, by an inexpressible envy and desire" (quoted on pg. 43). If drag is often theorized in terms of desire, perhaps it's not so far off to make that connection.

In terms of the "literary convention of heterosexual resolution," can we bring in the idea of homonormativity to complicate that narrative form? With the influx of mainstream "gay films" do we see a heterosexual resolution in different clothing? How can we understand literary or media narrative archs as an ethical project?

I also think your question about why binaries are so problematic is really evocative. As queer and/or feminist scholars and/or activists, we are sort of conditioned to think "binary=FALSE and BAD!" However, we are faced continually not only with the strategic need for binaries (as Butler and Spivak would say "strategic essentialism" perhaps), but also the *desire* for binaries. Although femme/butch is a queered version of a binary, it's also allowing itself to exist through the articulation of a reclaimed binary. In terms of race, I often think about this in terms of the problem of gentrification. When I lived in Chicago, I spent a lot of time doing anti-gentrification work, specifically in a self-defined Puerto Rican neighborhood (Humboldt Park). They had created a little Puerto Rico in Chicago and worked night and day to fight against developers and "rich white folks" who were trying to "revitalize" the neighborhood and drive them out. So a binary based on race--however fictitious--became integral to their struggle. Is "other"-ing, when used by "the people," okay? When does self-autonomy and self-definition (of identity and geographical space) become self-segregation v. cultural enclave?

I already posted this on Twitter, but here is a link to a 3 1/2 minute abridged version of A Florida Enchantment (1914).

Margot Canaday's "The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America" is a great book that discusses the production of the homo-hetero binary. It focusses on the role of the government in defining the "homosexual" as a person or an identity. It also explains how heterosexuality, as a concept, is defined through its juxtaposition homosexuality and that the 2 concepts cannot exist independantly of one another. I think its important to note the difference between homosexual acts and homosexual identity and the role that the government played in this shift in popular thought. The book also makes an important point about the role that medical and legal discourse played in the production of this and other binaries.

Raechel - I wanted to respond to your question about the "literary convention of heterosexual resolution" because one of my research interests has been to look closely at the teleology of a text and kind of sort out the importance of endings. For me, the short answer is, context matters. For example, in "Kissing Jessica Stein" we go on this journey of the lesbian world with Jessica (who never dated a woman before) and watch her open up the idea of dating women. And then, the film ends kind of back where it started in that her past love interest (a man) is back in her life. One could make the case that it is an incredibly problematic text ethically and otherwise in that it is reminiscent of this stylistic tradition of heterosexual resolution. Or, one could make the case that the film is ultimately about the potentialities of sexual fluidity.

I'm also interested in your connection between gay films and homonormativity -- but -- I think I need an example or two to sort out where you're going with that.

Thanks Mary for posting (and tweeting about) the clip! Fascinating...

It might be helpful to think about this idea of the heterosexual resolution in relation to Sara Ahmed and her book, The Promise of Happiness. She focuses a lot of attention, especially in her "Unhappy Queers" chapter on the expectations of "true" happiness as linked to heterosexual marriage.

Where in the book does Somerville discuss the "heterosexual resolution"? Who else talks about this as a literary convention and where (just curious, not sure if I have come across this exact phrase before)?

Recent Entries

direct link to Prostitution Project
here is the link to the Prostitution Project report I was gushing over in class. SO worth your time to…
how to make text boxes with arrows!
This blog won't let me easily cut and paste by hand out from class :( But I wanted to tell…
Documentary Poetic Scrap
An excerpt / snapshot from my hybrid text project "Mother Substance" The Animal In Me2.pdf…