The reporting on Nashville’s Channel 4 is a great example of how the practice of reporting “both sides” in order to perform “journalistic objectivity” fails viewers. The story quotes people criticizing the photograph and people, including Weaver, objecting to that criticism. The story, however, does absolutely nothing to help us understand blackface, its history, or why it might be problematic today. It simply says: “Some people are offended; others are not.” We get no information that might help us form an educated opinion. It is a perfect waste of time masquerading as “reporting”:
Citizen Parables and Dmitriy T.M. alerted us to this month’s French Vogue. According to Jezebel, it features exactly zero black models. It does, however, contain several images of Dutch model Lara Stone painted so as to look black:
These photos are being condemned as contemporary blackface. I’d like to open it up to discussion:
1. Is painting a white model so as to look black the same thing (in some important and significant way) as the derogatory minstrelsy with which blackface (with white mouths and red lips) is associated? Is the intent (dehumanization) the same? Is the effect the same? Why or why not? If not, could it be that we are as inured to racism now as they were then?
2. Is the real (or part of the) problem the lack of actual black models? That is, if there were black models in the magazine, would we read these images differently?
3. If we saw models of different races being painted various colors, would the white model painted black cease to be significant? Or, because of history, should this always (for the foreseeable future) be off limits?
4. Is this “edgy” (and, therefore, fashion forward) exactly because it references historical blackface? In that case, should fashion play with such topics? Can people in the fashion industry do so responsibly? And, if so, what would that look like?
NEW! (Mar. ’10): Frida S. sent in the video Paris-Shanghai, written and directed by Karl Lagerfeld. The film is about Coco Chanel’s trip to Shanghai. While there are some Asian actors, there are also quite a few White actors made up to appear stereotypically Asian. Here are all three parts of the film, though only the 2nd and 3rd ones show scenes in Shanghai (where the scenes are, for some reason, shot in black and white, while the Paris scenes are in color):
It reminds me a bit of the first time I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s and saw Mickey Rooney wearing eye tape to appear Asian. Though at least they don’t have huge buck teeth.
I didn’t watch the whole film, but Friday assures me it’s not particularly good even aside from the “yellowface” aspects.
Our intern, Velanie, forwarded us a link to a clip from an Australian variety show called Hey Hey It’s Saturday. In the clip a group called the Jackson Jive perform in blackface. Steel yourself; maybe skip it if you’re not up to being reminded, again, of white racism against blacks.
Sometimes people wonder why black people are not more open or trusting of whites. This is why. Harry Connick Jr., bless his heart, did what he could to try to make it clear that the performance was not acceptable. And, to be fair, the producers (?) gave him an opportunity to object more articulately. Here is a part of what he said at the end of the clip:
I just wanted to say on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously but we have spent so much time trying to not make Black people look like buffoons that when we see something like that we take it really to heart… if I knew it was gonna be a part of the show I definitely wouldn’t have done it. So I thank you for the opportunity. I give it up cause Daryl said on the break you need to speak as an American. Not as a Black American or a White American but as an American I need to say that, so thank you for the opportunity.
I’m sure that many people appreciated that Connick stood up against blackface. But he is the exception. The host of the show didn’t apologize, he just pleaded ignorance and felt bad that Connick was offended. The rest of the people, including the unrepetant performers, the judges, and (it appears) the majority of the audience, had absolutely no problem with the performance. Further, the majority of Australians are defending the minstrelsy. Mary Elizabeth Williams, at Salon, summarizes:
In a poll on PerthNow.com.au, 81 percent of respondents said the sketch was not racist, with other newspapers clocking in with similar percentages. Punch deputy editor Tory Maguire glumly asserted that “The 2.5 million Australians who were watching were looking for nostalgia, so a returning act like the Jackson Jive was always going to appeal to them.” It’s a sentiment echoed by the show’s host, Daryl Somers, who told reporters that Australian audiences “see the lightness of it.”
Dr. Anand Deva, who appeared as Michael in the sketch, told an Australian radio station this week, “This was really not intended … [to be] anything to do with racism at all…
Couriermail decides it’s a great opportunity for a cheeky pun:
What should be obvious to anyone who isn’t a complete moron is that a little something called the entire history of Western civilization — what with the slavery and the colonization and the genocide — disqualifies us from mocking people for their color as grounds for entertainment. It’s just that simple.
It is just that simple. But so many white people still defend it.
This is why black people don’t trust white people. Because they never know what kind of white person they’re dealing with and it’s not worth the risk because, a good portion of the time, they’re dealing with the host who is “sorry that you were offended” (as if the offense is your own personal defect) or the lady in the audience who is just really excited to be on TV.
We’re pleased to feature a post by Macon D. About himself, Macon writes, “I’m a white guy, trying to find out what that means. Especially the ‘white’ part. I live in that heart of the heart of American whiteness, the ever-amorphous ‘Midwest.’” Macon’s blog, Stuff White People Do, is an excellent source of insights about race and racism. We thought this post grappled nicely with the complicated phenomenon of (literal and figurative) black face, while addressing a difficult and contemporary form of humor:
(click here for larger version)
Are these ads racist? Or are they making fun of racist white people? And if they’re “only” doing the latter, does that really make the contemporary blackface here any more acceptable?
Does context matter here, with Chicago-Lake Liquors located in a largely black area? Given that, perhaps the ads allow black people to feel superior in a way to these white people, by laughing at their silly efforts to get hip by acting “black.” Maybe, but that seems like a stretch.
Speaking of context — while blackface is largely condemned in the U.S., because it perpetuates and solidifies racist stereotypes, it serves other purposes in some other countries. Take a look at these other examples; as a United States citizen trying to become more aware on a daily level of racism and my own whiteness, I have increasing trouble ever seeing blackface, literal or otherwise, as acceptable. And yet, I’m a strong believer in the meaning-generating significance of social, historical, and cultural context. Many things have different meanings in different contexts.
Last summer, I posted a video in which British TV star Tracey Ullman donned blackface, in order to satirize (effectively, I thought) self-aggrandizing white people who adopt African children. Now, though, I’m not so sure this skit is worth applauding, despite the good point that I think it makes.
Is that acceptable blackface?
Then there’s this recent blackface performance by a Turkish newscaster. Apparently, according to ScoopThis.Org, this is a complicated joke of sorts, mostly meant to pay homage and gentle respect to Obama, and also to criticize Turkey itself for recent dealings with the U.S. BuzzFeed adds this: “Apparently, it’s actually a metaphor for the way the Bush administration ‘darkened’ the face of the Turkish public, and how the anchor hopes Obama will turn things around.”
Within a Turkish context, is this acceptable blackface?
Whether your answer is “yes” or “no,” it does seem worthwhile to interpret this performance in light of the strong probability that Turkish society in general has little sense or understanding of the particular, deeply racist history of blackface in the United States.
I’m also reminded of the Japanese teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means “black-face.”
According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic’s donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.*
So, I do find the Chicago-Lake Liquors ads racist. Even though the satiric butt of their central joke is clueless white people instead of black people, their version of blackness is insultingly cartoonish. They also basically revive what amounts to an American white supremacist tradition that deserves to die, blackface minstrelsy.
Still, I wonder — if we consider geographic, sociohistorical context, are some versions of blackface okay? Perhaps even, given its urban location, the contemporary American version in Chicago-Lake Liquors’ ad campaign?
* As Restructure! notes in a comment, Ganguro is one of three such modes of teenage blackface identified in the video; Yamanba, which means “mountain hag,” is the name of the one that’s tied to a comic’s racist parody of an aboriginal Australian. Jonathan Ross, the narrator of the video, notes that when Ganguro appeared after Yamanba, “many thought it was simply an homage” to the comic’s “beloved creation,” but apparently it’s not.
In this cartoon, titled “Plane Dumb” (1932), Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry put on black face in order to disguise themselves in Africa. Putting on black face affects their intelligence as they go from being smart to dumb. Idoicy ensues. The “natives” come out at the very end:
Thanks to Steve W. for the link!
And this one’s just for fun.
Social science bloggers have been buzzin’ over whether drag performance is offensive and to whom. I have been researching and doing drag through a queer feminist anthropology lens for two years. I’ve taken an autoethnographic approach in an attempt to fill the scholarly gap where a male-bodied researcher, specifically a queer one, has lacked the enthusiasm to habitually perform as a drag queen. The motivations for this post easily align with my research as I hope to further develop the trending conversations of drag and its meanings.
Is drag offensive? It’s necessary to specify that this conversation is primarily about drag queening men. This is what most people would think of in terms of “drag queen,” a cisman who dresses as a woman on a stage, which I argue is a limiting definition. Five or ten years ago I would not have to specify “drag queening men,” but today there are genderqueer performers, ciswomen, transwomen – all bodies participate in drag as an expression, and not necessarily while cross dressing. Drag queens embody a range of femininities and masculinities (and sometimes species).
So, are drag queening men offensive? I keep in mind the ultimate queer mantra – both/and.
Looking to literature, this is an argument worked out back in the high Butler days. Esther Newton started this dialogue in the ‘70s and it was clearly closed out by Rupp and Taylor (and Shapiro) in the last decade. There are plenty of lit reviews to read on this [tired] subject.
Drag queening implies an individual who performs and embodies femininities for some kind of audience. Historically, and today, the majority of queens are male bodied. Some may continue this femininity off the stage, others do not. Their identities are assumed to be cis men, but this is incredibly complicated by the fluidity of drag bodies and the politics of the “transgender” category.
Regardless, you have male bodies who are distinctly breaking heteronormative ideas of identity and performance. Drag queening is a subversive outlet for male bodies to participate in gender play, oftentimes exploring femininity within themselves that they have been socialized to fear. Doing drag successfully is “working it” — you don’t give a shit about the patriarchy, your parent’s disappointment, getting fired from your job, or who will think you are date-able. It’s breaking out of boxes. Drag is a display of who you are (or just a part of yourself) and telling everyone to deal with it. If you like what you see, feel free to tip a dollar.
Drag claims the labels “offensive” and “radical” because its goal is to disrupt and show the audience that some identities, especially gender, are more fluid and performed than we think. Drag pokes holes into rigid ideas of gender and sexuality that most choose to ignore. Drag queening men are defiant, messy cyborgs, performing fluid and simultaneous contradictions of femininities and masculinities through their bodies. And of course, there is an entire history of drag acting as an important mode of protest, resistance, and survival for the queer community.
At the same time, drag queens are people who live in the same society that we all do. Drag is an institution that still exists — and always will — within the larger social structures. So, drag queens can be racist, transphobic, homophobic, and even more problematic. The best example for this is the drag queening man who takes her microphone privileges too far, such as a joke about a trans audience member’s genitals.
Drag queening men will often claim immunity under the trans umbrella or argue for the sanctity of comedy, but the reality is that drag queening men do have an underlying rhetoric of transphobia. The reminders that they return to presenting as men after the performance (“This is just a job, I don’t want to be a woman!”) are an unneeded distance created by drag queening men who are afraid and feel an attack against their masculinity. The heteropatriarchy suggests that male bodies who express femininity should fit into a more complicit, fictionally ideal “transsexual woman” category where all parts match behaviors. Some drag queening men respond to this pressure with transphobic masculinity, disastrously reinstating the binary they work to dismantle. It’s also in part to the idea that hegemonic forces continually pressure marginalized groups to create an Other, even if they are part of the same “community.”
Similarly, drag queening men still participate in hegemonic masculinity, and so they may make misogynistic jokes or may think domestic abuse makeup is some kind of “high fashion” (which is the WORST). Drag pageantry can be racially segregated and transwomen can be discouraged through the exclusionary bans of hormones and surgeries. Drag queening men can be soaked in privilege — using the T-slur, blackface, or feeling authority over female-bodied audience members. Most drag queening men have the ability to take off their wigs and makeup to “pass” outside queer spaces.
This in no means is an apology toward these actions, but I feel a stress needed to be made that the tradition of drag queening, a male body performing femininities, is not offensive. It stands as a transgressive act of male bodies deviating from and deconstructing the binary of gender. When drag queening men remind an audience they have a penis, it explodes the heteropatriarchy and dislocates gender from the body. For my own purposes in research and performance, drag is a safe place to explore forbidden femininities, freely navigate bodily inscription, and embrace corporeal versatility.
The tradition of drag queening is not an offensive act, but drag performers may abuse privilege and create problematic messages regardless of their intent. The problems of drag as an institution are the pre-existing racist heteropatriarchal structures that impede upon it. These difficulties with drag are the same hegemonic forces which delve deep into our film, art, video games and universities.
In closing, it is impossible to ignore the reality that groups of people think drag is offensive and no feelings should be ignored. I have no answer as to how this claim of offense can be processed besides our scholarly discussions, but I do hope that drag performers take care to be consciously aware of their privileges and prejudices, remembering their duties as queens who take down the heteropatriarchy one lip sync at a time.
Ray Siebenkittel is a student in the anthropology MA program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They take a feminist anthropologist approach to studying drag performance. You can follow their blog, where this post originally appeared, or meet them on twitter.
Content Note: This posts discusses various forms of transmisogyny and TERFs
Photo taken at the Napoli Pride Parade in 2010
On Tuesday, Lisa Wade posted a piece, asking some important questions about drag- Is it misogynistic? Should it be allowed in LGBT safe spaces? How can pride organizers enforce drag-free pride events, if such an idea is useful? The good news is that many of these questions are already being asked in some circles. The bad news, is that outside of these circles –where specifics are unknown and the cis experience takes centre stage– such questions can lead to some harmful conclusions.
First some basics. Wade contends that a recent Glasgow Free Pride event “’banned’ drag queens from the event, citing concerns that men dressing up like women is offensive to trans women.” The event didn’t ban drag queens, but rather decided not to have any drag acts perform on their stage, but even this decision has now been reversed. In any case, the initial decision to go without drag performances was not made because of offence caused, as Wade says, but rather because the Trans/Nonbinary Caucus of the event felt that it would “make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable”. Wade’s misunderstandings seem to come from having used the Daily Beast article on the matter as a source rather than the actual press release from free pride.
The title of Wade’s essay, and the repeated references to “girlface” in the essay itself, not only misunderstood the critiques levelled at drag, but also conflated blackface and drag. This misconception is appropriative of black struggle- it stems from conflation of the two separate histories, one of which was a major tool in the subjugation of black people across America and another which grew as part of queer (then, gay) liberation in a diverse, working class environment, led by women of colour. Comparing the two of them is highly disingenuous.
It is an argument that is about as novel as it is accepting of trans people’s existence. Sheila Jeffries, among many other TERFs, is infamous for using this line of argument to capitalize on the widespread condemnation of blackface in her efforts to attack trans women. Wade is, whether she intends to or not, using this dog whistle in her essay.
Getting a few facts wrong (Which is understandable if you are not part of these conversations. The Daily Beast got it wrong too and this is why allies are usually asked to take a seat in these debates.) and using terminology that is usually reserved for deeply transphobic arguments are somewhat superficial problems that lay on the surface of a much bigger problem: the centering of cis feelings on trans issues. Wade seems to think that the biggest problem, with the Glasgow Free Pride decision is that drag parodies femininity and womanhood.
While this is true in the general sense, drag is understood in the trans community to be oppressive because of the central conceit of the parody: that the performer, while affecting womanhood, is “actually a man.”
It’s about the bulge in the dress, the errant chest hair and the deep voice from the sculpted body. The fact that they’re “always PMSing” is a joke about how they don’t have uteruses. Their stage names, often punning on genitals (“Conchita Wurst”), act to center not their femininity, but the “failure” to produce a cis femininity. This was the drag that the gay media was insisting be reinstated, and that Glasgow Free Pride allowed on their stage again when they reversed their decision.
Drag is not monolithic –both historically and sociologically, different drags have and do exist– which is why Glasgow Free Pride specifically critiques “cis drag” (drag performed by cis people) as making people uncomfortable.
Many of the drag queens of color who led S.T.A.R. and Stonewall were not people who played a woman on stage or in a bar for a few hours a week, but people who lived their lives as women, and their drag is fundamentally different from that of people who perform in televised competition today.
Maybe these drags belong on a pride. Maybe there are decolonised drags which would be welcome. But contemporary western cis drag isn’t about femininity, it’s about the drag queen’s “failures” to produce an impression of cis womanhood, the upshot of which, also produces a caricature of trans womanhood, seen by society as a flawed womanhood.
Given this, it is possible to see drag as an attack on transwomanhood first and foremost, and cis women more as collateral damage in a long controversy within LGBTQIA+ communities. Glasgow Free Pride understood this, and this is why the call came from their trans caucus, not their women’s caucus.
Writing a post which centers the debate on cis women while spending a minimal time on trans women derails a conversation that should be about the transmisogyny of contemporary drag. It is an issue which is actively causing damage by perpetuating stereotypes and, yes, making pride parades unwelcoming for trans women and other maab trans people.
Wade should rest assured that the “conversation” she calls for is, actually, happening. It happens in trans communities all the time. It bubbled over into the mainstream for a few days, and trans people lost a safe space in a radical pride alternative in the process. What she’s actually asking is that the conversation become permanently legible to cis women by focusing on the minor issues that effect them, rather than the transmisogyny of drag.