Women on top, boys on the side, but some of us are brave: blackness, lesbianism, and the visible.
Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet
[W]ho do we mean, after all, by "our own"? Jackie Goldsby, "What It Means To Be Colored Me"
INTRODUCTION: CRITICAL HORIZONS
Many of the criticisms lodged by women of color against the exclusions and "blank spots" (Anzaldua xx) of white feminist studies in the 1980s (and beyond) are condensed in the title of the 1982 black feminist anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. If the title of that volume declared that such formulas or catch-phrases of inclusion as "women and blacks" effectively place some subjects out of bounds, its subtitle - Black Women's Studies - called attention to the unmarked whiteness of Women's Studies. To judge from recent criticisms lodged against the intellectual currents and critical practices collected under the name "queer theory," the roster of the brave has increased.
Queer theory has emerged out of (and sometimes broken off from) both lesbian and gay studies and feminist theory. Although queer theory in its anti-identitarian strain aims to open up, rather than close down, the subjects of sexuality, it too has been assailed from a broad range of intellectual and political positions for its exclusions, evasions, and gaps. Nor do these criticisms fall into any one place. From a Marxian perspective, for example, Donald Morton accuses queer theory and a particular cadre of influential queer theorists of marching in "veritable lockstep with the mainstream academy at large" ("Politics" 130). In thrall to "dominant" academic and intellectual modes of theorizing, which Morton glosses as "ludic (post)modernism," queer theory is, he argues, of a piece with trends in late-capitalism ("Politics"; "Birth"). Drawing on terms that usher in the specter of feminine excess trumping masculine order, Morton calls queer theory "the most recent subversion of the rational" ("Politics" 121). It has abandoned radical social change and the theoretical tools that would enable it for so much pomo smoke and mirrors. Interestingly, Morton's list of usual suspects. is dominated by women. In a new incarnation of cherchez la femme (and cherchez la feministe), Morton singles out Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Teresa de Lauretis, Diana Fuss, and Judith Butler for especial rebuke ("Politics" 139).(2)
If Morton implies that queer theory has been emasculated by an implicitly feminine ludic (post)modernism, for some white lesbian feminists the problem is that queer theory is too much of the masculine. One of the strongest such criticisms has been offered by Sheila Jeffreys, who blasts queer theory for reinstituting a men's club under the banner of a falsely generic "queer." In her apocalyptic assessment of the "queer disappearance of lesbians," Jeffreys accuses some prominent women of collaborating in the lesbian's erasure, outing Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, and Eve Sedgwick as key co-conspirators.(3)
Perhaps Jeffreys is reacting in part to the ways in which 1970s lesbian feminism has become the "fall gal" for a new generation of lesbian, gay, and queer theorists. This possibility points to another kind of "gender trouble." As Biddy Martin has noted, queer theory's moves to differentiate itself from its intellectual and institutional predecessors have too often been achieved at the expense of feminist studies, especially a caricatured version of lesbian feminism, against which queer theory has constructed itself as the vanguard (104). Martin also worries that attempts to complicate "hegemonic assumptions about the continuities between anatomical sex, social gender, gender identity, sexual identity, sexual object choice, and sexual practice" have opened up the field of sexuality by closing down discussions of gender and race, both of which, when and where they do enter the conceptual horizon of queer theory, often end up cast in terms of fixity and constraint (105).
Queer theory's conceptual moves to distinguish between sexuality and gender, such that sexuality is not reduced to an epiphenomenon of gender, have been vital to its development and revitalizing as well for feminist studies, very broadly conceived.(4) However, the move to separate sexuality and gender, even if this is understood as a provisional step to render sexuality and gender distinct for the purposes of sharper historical analysis and critical clarity, may end up disarticulating queer theory from feminist theory. And once queer theory becomes conceived as the academic area "reserved" for the study of sexuality, and once feminist theory gets marked out as the place set aside for the study of gender, it becomes difficult to imagine and enact theories that can investigate the diverse ways how gender and sexuality articulate each other. Moreover, and this concern is more squarely to the point of this section of "Queer Utilities," it is difficult to imagine how either the newly distinguished territories of queer theory or feminist theory could address the problematic of "race," except as an after-thought or secondary feature. The segmentation of academic enterprises into distinct territories, each with distinct (read: "proper") objects and identities,(5) does not advance but may actually impede the development of theories and strategies which can conceptualize and address the ways in which gender, race, and sexuality are inter-structured and interstructuring.(6)
White feminist scholars and white feminist studies have responded in different ways and with varying degrees of success to this challenge to integrate race and racialization into studies of gender. To be sure, this is an unfinished project. But there are important and identifiable traditions in feminist scholarship in which gender is not and has never been the privileged object of analysis apart from, say, race or class or sexuality, traditions in which anti-sexism has been joined from the start to projects of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and economic justice. To assert otherwise would be to misrepresent or overlook the leading roles such feminists of color - many of them also "queer" - have played in the development of feminist theory in the academy and out: Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Chela Sandoval, bell hooks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. The list goes on. The presence of lesbians among the women I have just named also importantly counters those who would describe, and then on these grounds dismiss, lesbian feminism as "white." As Linda Garber suggests in her important reconsideration of the poetry and identity politics of Judy Grahn and Pat Parker, mischaracterizing the history of lesbian feminism as a movement for and of white women does a gross disservice to the lesbians of color so instrumental to the development, history, theories, and practices of lesbian feminism. This mischaracterization of lesbian feminism has contributed, Garber argues, to the condescension sometimes directed at it by younger feminist and queer theorists writing today.(7)
Let me be clear: I am certainly not asserting that Women's Studies in its institutional forms and feminist theory everywhere and adequately enunciate and work through a conception of gender, race, and sexuality as mutually constituting. (Gender, race, and sexuality do not exhaust the sites in which identity is cast and molded, of course.) Moreover, to claim that gender, race, and sexuality construct and inflect each other does not settle the question how they have been interarticulated historically nor does it decide in advance the historical forms these interarticulations will continue to take. If I am here falling into caricatures of my own and portraying the relations between queer theory and feminist theory as more antagonistic and either/or than they actually are, I do so to make a point. Disarticulating queer theory from feminist theory risks, among other things, casting out by forgetting the lessons feminist theory and its various practitioners have learned in their struggles to make race, class, sexuality, and other "Others within" not just additions to, but constitutive features of gender studies.
Failing to remember is one way to repeat with a difference. But there are others. It is, as Evelynn Hammortals observes, one thing to acknowledge that race is not simply a derivative of or addition to sexual difference and quite another to follow up that insight with careful study of "the powerful effect that race has on the construction and representation of gender and sexuality" (127). This is an undertaking, she says, too few white scholars of sexuality have yet pursued.
Hammonds's essay, written for the second special issue of differences on queer theory, represents an attempt to take queer theory at its word. Five years into the institutionalization of something called queer theory - a very tenuous institutionalization, granted, and one to some degree launched by differences' first special issue on queer theory - Hammonds asks how well queer theory has responded to editor Teresa de Lauretis's 1991 charge to,
problematize some of the discursive constructions and constructed silences in the emergent field of "gay and lesbian studies," and...explore questions that have as yet been barely broached, such as the respective and/or common grounding of current discourses and practices of homo-sexualities in relation to gender and to race, with their attendant differences of class or ethnic culture, generational, geographical, and socio-political location. (de Lauretis, "Queer" iii-iv)
Later in her introduction, de Lauretis re-marks the kind of critical move she is calling for under the now ascendant term "queer theory." In implied contrast to "gay and lesbian studies," the designation "queer theory" is meant to break through the logjam of "discursive protocols" in which "gay" and "lesbian," and the qualifiers of race and national or local scene that specify just which lesbians and gays are being talked about, fight for pride of place in the titles of organizations, publications, and - I would add - academic affiliations (v). Taking the measure of queer theory five years on, Hammonds finds a continuation of, in her words, "the consistently exclusionary practices of lesbian and gay studies in general" (127). A shift from "lesbian and gay" to "queer" (or from "studies" to "theory"?) accomplishes little, Hammonds implies, if white scholars defer the project of theorizing "differences between and within gays and lesbians in relation to race" or leave it to someone else to do (130).(8) As if "race" - studying it and having it? - properly belongs to someone else.
Hammonds commends The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, for example, for including essays by many prominent writers of color as well as numerous essays about the sexualities of people of color and how their sexualities are constructed in relation to other fields of power - such as class, gender, and race. But she criticizes the apparent failure of other (and white?) contributors to the volume to integrate questions of race and racialization into the study of sexuality. It is, of course, important to remember that The Reader collects and reprints essays written at different times and in different contexts over the past twenty years. Thus, some of the articles Hammonds implicitly rebukes for failing to engage "the work of the writers of color that do appear in the volume" were written before the work of these writers was either in general circulation or had even been written (128). This is in some ways a minor point, since there were other writers of color whose work and challenges were already in circulation when the other essays in The Reader were written.
If I am focusing on something I have just characterized as a "minor point," I also think that the broad brushstrokes with which Hammonds sometimes moves in her essay raise some substantive questions about critical genealogies. Earlier I suggested that genealogies of feminisms, including lesbian feminisms, that begin by leaving out the women of color who were writing alongside and in some cases before the white feminists usually given credit (or, as is more the case these days, blame) for "founding" feminisms do not simply misremember history, but they actually construct a narrow history with disturbing implications for the future. It seems to me that the problems with Hammonds's genealogy of lesbian and gay studies and queer theory are of another order, but with related difficulties. Mischarting the chronological relations between and among the essays reprinted in The Reader authorizes the attribution of something like "bad faith" to the editors of the volume as well as to individual essayists. It is not, I want to insist, that the critiques she offers of the unexamined whiteness of many of the anthology's critical terms of art-for example, "subjectivity," "sexuality," "lesbian," and "gay" - are wrong (128). But the chronology implied in her analysis may collapse the complicated historical and institutional relations between and among feminisms, lesbian and gay studies, and critical races studies. And this too can get in the way of developing alternate critical paradigms for the urgent intellectual and political work that needs to be done now and in the future.
These concerns notwithstanding, Hammonds's over-arching criticism of lesbian and gay studies and of queer theory does seem to me on target, namely that the models of inclusion practiced do not go far enough. Women and men of color, inside the academy and out, have been pushing white scholars of sexuality to investigate the ways "race" is sexed and "sex" raced. This intellectual and political project reconceives the "and" linking "women and blacks" or "gender, race, and sexuality." This other "and" does not secure a neat analogy between otherwise discrete categories. Rather it marks out a different set of relations and demands a different mapping. This is the sort of critical geography called for by Kobena Mercer, when he observes that,
Today we are adept at the all too familiar concatenation of identity politics, as if by merely rehearsing the mantra of "race, class, gender" (and all the intervening variables) we have somehow acknowledged the diversified and pluralized differences at work in contemporary culture, politics, and society. Yet the complexity of what actually happens "between" the contingent spaces where each variable intersects with the others is something only now coming into view theoretically, and this is partly the result of new antagonistic cultural practices by hitherto marginalized artists. Instead of analogies, which tend to flatten out these intermediate spaces, I think we need to explore theories that enable new forms of dialogue. ("Skin Head" 193)
Mercer cites the work of "hitherto marginalized artists" as a place where the messy contingent spaces "between" identities may be sighted. But I also take him to be arguing that these artists' "antagonistic cultural practices" already represent one such moment of theorizing. In extending to these cultural practices the claim to theory, then, he expands what counts as theory and what counts as cultural intervention.
At this juncture, I want to turn my sights on some recent feature-length films in which lesbianism and the particular difference it may or may not represent appears alongside blackness as magic sign. The two mainstream films "featured" in the following section exemplify by analogy ways not to explore the intersections of identity. But it is hoped that the analysis brought to bear on these films will model one way for queer (and) feminist theorists to "explore theories that enable new forms of dialogue" and ask new kinds of questions about and at the intersections.
II. "IS THIS A BLACK-WHITE THING?"(9)
In light of the on-going debates about the place of race in feminist and queer theories, the startling frequency with which recent cinematic portrayals of lesbianism or, better, "lesbianism" (since some of the films in question signify around the bush) have depicted interracial couples consisting of a white woman and a black woman deserves closer scrutiny. So many such feature-length films have come out, and in such a relatively compressed period of time, that this interracial couple has become virtually the cinematic face of lesbianism: She Must Be Seeing Things (1987), Bar Girls (1995), The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), Boys on the Side (1995), When Night is Falling (1995), and Work (1996).(10)
There are major differences between and among these films, not the least of which being the different market relations effecting and affecting the distribution and reception of the individual films. Only one was made by a major studio (Boys on the Side). Three others - Bar Girls, When Night is Falling, and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love - were picked up and released nationally by major distributors.(11) With one exception - the Canadian film When Night is Falling - all the films were made in and focused on the United States. Finally, and with one exception again, all the films were directed by white women; Boys on the Side was directed by a white man.
I do not want to elide the differences between these films, but I do want to offer a schematic of one of the ways blackness is working in all of them; this general claim must be adjusted to fit the scene, and "seen," of each film. In each of these films, albeit with different inflections and different effects, blackness bears the burden of making difference within the same visible. What Mercer writes of the "tension of sameness" introduced into the visual field by Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic depictions of black male nudes may also be operating in the films mentioned above. The sameness in "same-sex" love "transfers the frisson of 'difference' from gendered to racialized polarity" (Mercer, "Looking" 351). Arguably, this deployment of blackness as visible "difference" functions to interrupt or keep off homophobic conceptions of lesbianism as narcissism by any other name. That is, by articulating lesbian difference through racial difference, the films can avoid, or potentially avoid, homophobic equations of same-sex love with narcissistic love of the same. However, this transfer from sexual difference to racial difference does not disrupt binaries, but displaces them.
The project of putting off the accusation of "too much" self-love can operate hand in hand with a homophobic panic that wants to know, perhaps at first glance, the difference between homo- and heterosexuality. In Boys on the Side, blackness is joined to both these projects. This female buddy film traces the adventures of three women, two white (Robin and Holly) and one black (Jane), as they drive across country, from New York to California. Significantly, their trip stops short of its target in Tucson, Arizona. But the depiction of Tucson and the Chicano culture and traditions that are part of that city's fabric as a kind of utopian frontera - where everyone really can get along - turns this detour into the destination they did not know they were aiming at all along.
This points to the numerous ways in which the film flattens differences even as it is representing them. The film is more than happy to position itself on a "lesbian continuum" (to borrow Adrienne Rich's famous formula) and celebrate and affirm intimacy between and among women, but it unevenly manages just how far this intimacy may reach. A capsule review in New York's Village Voice wryly described Boys on the Side as yet another in a series of recent films in which two women meet, fall in love, and do not have sex. The film also seems uneasy about the ripple effects bonds between women may have on heterosexuality once the centrality of women to each other's emotional life displaces men to the position of "boys on the side."
Newspaper advertisements and trailers for the film promoted the distinctively female character of these bonds, referring to the special ties between women and to the envy men felt for the closeness women enjoyed with each other.(12) In the world of the film, this envy becomes a death blow when Holly kills her abusive boyfriend Nick in self-defense, and the other two women, who witness the event, conspire to conceal Holly's role in it. In a climactic courtroom scene, when Holly is on trial for murder, the bonds between women seem as much on trial as Holly herself. The film's narrative and its two love stories have been set in motion by two deaths, a man's and a woman's. Nick's death is among the first events depicted in Boys on the Side, and the shadow of Robin's imminent death from AIDS is cast over the length of it. It is not clear, then, whether envy's killing sting is directed outward at the ones who incite envy (women-identified-women and/or women-loving-women) or inward at the ones who feel envy (heterosexual men). The self-justifications offered by Holly's new boyfriend (a clean-cut white policeman with the unbelievable name of Abe Lincoln) for turning in the woman he loves give away the film's ideological bottom-line, "There's no kind of family without the law." Of heterosexuality? Racial "purity"? Both?
Appearing for the defense at Holly's trial, Robin must offer an accounting that can exonerate the bonds between women of a lesbian connection as well as clear whiteness from the charge of crossing over racial borders. Her speech is worth repeating in full; it is the one moment in the film when men too are explicitly invited to enjoy the same-sex ties that bind, "I don't know what it is, but there's something that goes on between women. You men know that because it's the same for you. I'm not saying that one sex is better than the other. I'm just saying like speaks to like. Love, or whatever, doesn't always keep, but you find what does if you're lucky." The film here labors to conceal the very differences - of race, sexuality, and gender - that it has made its running punch line. Throughout the film, characters have been stating in tones of wonderment, "Jane's gay?" and "She's a black lesbian?" These statements of fact, pitched upwards into the form of a question, deny any knowledge of the very thing they pronounce. Lesbianism and blackness are the questions the film cannot stop itself from asking or help itself to answer.
This scene thus reveals that different strategies are necessary to manage and put off the white woman's lesbian possibility. For her, the evasion is brokered on an appeal to a race-neutral conception of sisterly solidarity. As in: "like speaks to like." But this ostensibly race-neutral conception is generated by a racial "fix." For how can we (the film's presumptively straight "we") guard against the possibility that this woman-woman identification might cross into or be finally indistinguishable from woman-woman desire? After all, the Radicalesbians' woman-identified-woman was a spokeswoman for just such a convergence cum crossing. What if, in the midst of all this sisterly solidarity and loving but non-sexual touching, a hand, a mouth, a feeling goes astray? Where and how can you tell the difference between female homosociality and female homosexuality? This, I want to suggest, is the work Jane's blackness does. Of the three female friends, Jane is the only lesbian character named as such; she is also the only woman of color. Her blackness visibly marks out the difference between the lesbian and the straight woman she loves and who may even love her in return, just "not in that way." Bearing the representational burden for the threatening difference lodged at the heart of the same (or was it: the threatening sameness lodged at the heart of difference?), her blackness, like her lesbianism, marks the place beyond the pale.
In contrast to Boys on the Side, in which blackness marks out differences within the category "woman" by drawing the boundaries between a woman-identification that stops short of desire and a woman-identification that crosses into it, in the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes blackness demarcates differences within whiteness. The film deploys a strategy of "compensatory stereotyping."(13) The whiteness and, so, propriety of a loving relationship between two women is secured by playing it off against stereotypes of put-upon black folk. Lesbianism is raced white and disappears behind the screen of normative and even heroic whiteness.
In Fried Green Tomatoes, as in Boys on the Side, two women meet, fall in love, do not have sex, and one of them dies. Moreover, in Fried Green Tomatoes, as in Boys on the Side after it, one of these two women is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who seems to be making a career out of treading the line between woman-woman identification and woman-woman desire. The film represents around the issue of lesbianism, depicting a strong and intense friendship between two white women (the tomboy Idgie Threadgoode and the fern Ruth Jamison), but never committing itself one way or another.(14) Asked whether the film was "really" about two lesbians, director Jon Avnet responded, "You can take it how you want to. I had no interest in going into the bedroom" (qtd. in Parish 149). The Los Angeles-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) was not so coy; it claimed the film and gave it a Media Award for its positive depictions of lesbians in a film.
I am not particularly interested in settling the question were Idgie and Ruth lovers or "just" good friends. However, that there can be disagreement on this question indicates some of the weaknesses of "positive images" or a "politics of visibility" as liberatory strategy. Images do not speak once for all. We cannot control for all the different and sometimes even contradictory messages one and the same image or text may open itself to and produce. If GLAAD's recognition of the film commended the identificatory pleasures the film gave some lesbian viewers, the film's representations of its black characters may have foreclosed the pleasures and identifications of some others of its spectators - including some of the lesbian spectators in whose name GLAAD gave Fried Green Tomatoes a Media Award.
In Fried Green Tomatoes' story within a story, the heroism and goodness of Idgie and Ruth are established by showing their hatred for all forms of prejudice, especially white racism. That Idgie and Ruth are unflagging opponents of racism is indicated in their opposition to the Klan and in their generous concern for the black men and women who live around them and whom they employ. In their turn, these black men and women repay Idgie's and Ruth's kindness with their unflagging loyalty, but we never get a sense of them as independent moral agents.
The film links its criticism of the Ku Klux Klan to its indictment of Ruth's husband, Frank Bennett, whose faults include beating Ruth and being a member of the Klan. Frank's Klan membership is one of the ways the film proves what a bad guy he is - as if wife-beating would not be sufficient evidence. But, and this is my principal concern with the work "race" does in the film, the white racism represented and criticized in Fried Green Tomatoes seems, in the end, to be all about whiteness. It becomes a way of making distinctions within the category of whiteness between "good" white people and "bad" white people; the white racism directed at African Americans, which the film vividly portrays (up to and including a scene where a black male character is whipped by the Klan), is really all about white people. For which lesbians, then, did the Film offer "positive" images? To repeat the epigraph from Jackie Goldsby that launched this essay, "[W]ho do we mean, after all, by 'our own'" (10)?
Both Fried Green Tomatoes and Boys on the Side fail, in part, because for each film, difference is a problem to be overcome. Each works different and sometimes even contradictory strategies to fix the "problem" and make unruly difference go away. Ultimately, both films are wedded to a universalizing project. Although they invoke a pluralism of differences - depicting differences of erotic choice, gender, race, and class - they persist in wishing these differences away and into some putatively shared transcendent vision in which unlike turns out to be like, and then they can speak to each other.(15) This analogical thinking overlooks the ways in which differences construct, reinforce, contradict, and cross-cut each other - and that these fraught crossings do not make them the "same." The failures of the two films discussed above can be instructive as we (an expansive open "we") move to create theories and strategies capable of mapping the intersections of identity.
III. CONCLUSIONS WITHOUT FORECLOSURES
One of the most undertheorized aspects of these films - and of this essay - is the ways in which differences energize and enlist desire. This possibility produces embarrassment, denial, evasion, uncomfortable silence. In a much-quoted observation concerning the different treatments of "race" by gay male and lesbian communities, Goldsby writes, "Dykes politicize it, gay men eroticize it, either perception neutralizing any middle ground on which I can stand and say my piece" (11). Despite Goldsby's disclaimer, her attempts to theorize about and at the intersections of identity constitute one such "middle ground," however tenuous and revisable it may be. Goldsby's essay" - What It Means to Be Colored Me" - and Goldsby "herself" are both works in progress. She explores the between-spaces, where desires, identifications, histories, imagined futures, self, and other meet, cross-cut, and complicate each other in sometimes unpredictable ways. One of her critical insights comes in the form of a question. Discussing her relationship with a white woman, she wonders "where, in the context of lesbian political discourse on race, can we acknowledge that our knowingly crossing boundaries of race and class is part of our desire for each other" (11, italics in original). And what would it mean to allow that the eroticization of difference can sometimes be the ground of politics and not its Maginot line?
Rachel Reichman's Work, which is centered around an affair between an unhappily married white woman (Jenny) and a younger black woman (June), is one recent film that does thematize the ways in which difference mobilizes desire.(16) With varying degrees of self-consciousness, each woman connects her desire for the other to the transgression of loving across the color line. They do not love "despite" racial difference or as a way to overcome it, but in some sense because of it. June tells a parable in which one woman (a thinly disguised June) desires a second woman (readable as Jenny) because the second woman has been branded a trouble-maker. But this branding precedes any act that would qualify the second woman for the category "trouble-maker." So, the trouble-maker becomes one by virtue of being identified by and coming to identify with the name. The film suggests that transgressive desire occasions - is - this identificatory branding. The reciprocity of one woman's desire for the other both constitutes and confirms that the interpellation has reached its appropriate mark. These two women together make trouble by confounding the lines between desire and identification, other and same.
The film also complicates its treatment of cross-racial desire by attending to the two women's class positions. Jenny and June are both working class, but their ostensibly "shared" class position means differently because it is inflected by differences of race. The black woman is on her way up and out of the working class; but the white woman seems stuck, when she is not plain losing ground. These reversals of the "expected" alignment, in which white correlates to more economically privileged, and black to less, is not a facile inversion dependent on stereotypes even as they are turned on their head. This "flip" would not complicate conceptions of race and class because it would allow and encourage audiences to read upside-down. In Work, however, the rising and falling class fortunes of the black woman and the white woman, respectively, are part of the history of their racial identifications. The ambitions driving June to college and onwards to a professional career are as much June's grandmother's as her own. June's aspirations for self-improvement cannot be understood apart from a connection to intimate others, to a particular family history, and to the uplift of "the race."
By contrast, Jenny has no moorings. Her relationship with her husband is noteworthy for its pitch of disconnection. The film follows her from one job interview to another, each for a pink collar job, each unsuccessful. Arguably, her whiteness camouflages her desperation. What does a white working class woman want? No one asks Jenny, not even Jenny. Her desire for June is marked by a wishful identification with the black woman's class mobility. But without goals or ambitions of her own, these identifications initially cast Jenny even further adrift by opening up another distance between the two women. As the film closes, June is away at college, and Jenny gets a job doing landscaping, an occupation that occasions another crossing over, into traditionally male territory. But her new employ and the way she newly carries her body, as if it is her own, and for the first time, traces the route of Jenny's desire for June as this desire transgresses and is transgressed by identification. Through the intersections of same and different, desire and identification, Jenny comes to identify with another possible future.(17)
Work manages to represent differences of class and race and to draw them through the switchpoints of desire and identification without letting any one difference do all the work or any differences stand still. The spare title, Work, which is a declaration and a dare, well describes the sometimes tiring, sometimes energizing, but always necessary labor of negotiating the intersections of identity. Work to be done. And different kinds of queer theories to be offered.
1 Portions of this essay were first written for a talk given at Montclair State University, in April 1996. I am grateful to the organizers of "Crossing Boundaries: An Interdisciplinary Series with Lesbian Artists" for inviting me to take part in this series. This essay has benefited above all from conversations with Liz Wiesen, whose ideas, questions, and challenges are imprinted across this essay.
2 This is a criticism joined, though from a slightly different angle, by Terry Castle in her "Polemical Introduction" to The Apparitional Lesbian, in which she characterizes Butler's reluctance to specify who or what a lesbian is as doing violence to the ordinary commonsensical meaning of "lesbian" (14).
3 Key instances of this conceptual move are contained in Rubin's 1984 essay "Thinking Sex" and Sedgwick's second axiom in Epistemology of the Closet, in which she states, "The study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomophobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry. But we can't know in advance how they will be different" (27). Rubin's essay is reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, among other places.
4 For a compelling set of arguments "against proper objects," see Judith Butler's essay of the same name.
5 One model of the ways in which lesbian/gay/queer studies, critical race studies, and a feminist gender studies may complicate and enrich each other without staging a turf battle over disciplinary domains is offered by the special issue of Diacritics, ed. Judith Butler and Biddy Martin. In their introduction to the issue, Butler and Martin write that they were initially asked to edit a special issue on gay and lesbian studies, "and [they] took occasion to broaden the scope of that request to work that interrogates the problem of cross-identification within and across race and post-colonial studies, gender theory, and theories of sexuality" (3). The title of this special issue, Critical Crossings, evokes not just a conception of identity as intersectionality, but also enacts theoretical movements and critical analyses which intersect, cross over, and complicate each other. For identity and for theory, this special issue suggests, such "critical crossings" are enabling and necessary conditions. One measure of the success of this issue in complicating issues of academic "ownership" is that, stripped of the author-functions of Butler's and Martin's names (especially where the former's has become synecdochical for "queer theory"), the table of contents is as likely to announce itself as a special issue on post-colonial theory and critical race studies as on lesbian and gay studies.
6 The arguments presented in this paragraph draw on Butler ("Against"), Martin, and Garber.
7 Discussions of the shift from speaking in terms of lesbian and gay studies to queer theory have usually been focused around the advantages and disadvantages of "queer." To my knowledge, there has been no substantive discussion of this other redirection: from "studies" to "theory."
8 Question posed by "Robin" (Mary-Louise Parker) to "Jane" (Whoopi Goldberg) in the 1995 film Boys on the Side.
9 If I were to expand the list to include non-narrative feature films, I would add Without You I'm Nothing (1990), which poses as a documentary of Sandra Bernbard's performance piece of the same name. For essays treating this film and its complicated relations to blackness, see Berlant and Freeman, Walton, and Pellegrini, in which the relations between blackness and Jewishness are foregrounded. The work of Cheryl Dunye, a black lesbian video maker, also falls outside the scope of this essay. Dunye does feature black/white couples in her videos, but in this essay I am concentrating on feature-length narrative films. Dunye has just completed her first feature-length film, Watermelon Woman (1996), but it does not depict an interracial couple. Finally, I have deliberately left Go Fish (1994) off this list, although there is an interracial lesbian relationship in the film between a Latina and African-American woman. But, again, in this part of my discussion I am looking into the representation of lesbian relationships between white and black women. In setting Go Fish aside, I do not thereby mean to settle, before I have even asked into, "the" Latina's relation to whiteness. At minimum, it can be argued that Go Fish never sees the Latina woman as white; she is an "ethnic other." It is, of course, vital to a feminist anti-racist project to interrogate differences within the category of whiteness, something I attempt to do with respect to class in my discussion of Work in the main text.
10 Although She Must Be Seeing Things received national notice through a review in the New York Times (April 13, 1988), the film was never released nationally. For a discussion of She Must Be Seeing Things, see de Lauretis ("Film" 223-64). See also the audience discussion which followed de Lauretis's presentation of her paper ("Film" 264-76).
11 I have lifted part of this essay's title from a trailer for the film; its closing line was, "Women on top and boys on the side." (The trailer appeared at the beginning of a video of The Client, yet another film featuring Mary-Louise Parker.)
12 See Judith Mayne's discussion of this phenomenon in the films of Dorothy Arzner (esp. 125).
13 Although Fried Green Tomatoes received mixed critical reviews, it was a resounding success at the box office, taking in more than 75 million dollars in its first 22 weeks of domestic distribution (figure cited in Parish 149). So, this strategy of connotation, evasion, and representing around worked. This "women's film" brought in women-identified-women as well as women-loving-women.
14 For a brilliant treatment of these universalizing strategies in relation to Pauline theology and the difference "Jew/Christian," see Boyarin and Boyarin.
15 In reserving my praise for an independent film, Work, I do not thereby imply a neat division and too-neat moral difference between independent films ("good") and mainstream, studio-produced films ("bad"). First, the distinction between independent and studio films is being broken down as major studios purchase independent production companies. Additionally, and this is more to my point, failures charged to Boys on the Side and Fried Green Tomatoes above may also apply to some of the independent films named in the opening catalogue of section two. If I have focused much of my discussion on two studio films, this is because these films reached a wider audience than any of the indies and, consequently, have been more influential in shaping public (read: straight) conceptions of what "the" lesbian "is."
16 June has not "rescued" Jenny. Such a reading would turn a nuanced and complicated film into yet another story of a white woman "saved" by the gift of a strong black woman. If this film charts a colonial adventure, it is really about the ways desire and identification de- and re-territorialize each other.
Abelove, Henry, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Anzaldua, Gloria, ed. Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990.
Bad Object-Choices, ed. How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.
Bar Girls. Dir. Marita Giovanni. Orion, 1995.
Berlant, Lauren and Elizabeth Freeman. "Queer Nationality." Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. 193-229.
Boyarin, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin. "Diaspora: Generation and Ground of Jewish Identity." Identities. Ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 305-37.
Boys on the Side. Dir. Herbert Ross. Warner Brothers, 1995.
Butler, Judith. "Against Proper Objects." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6.2-3 (1994): 1-26.
Butler, Judith and Biddy Martin, eds. Critical Crossings. Diacritics 24.2-3 (1994).
Castle, Terry. The Apparitional Lesbian. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
de Lauretis, Teresa. "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities: An Introduction." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991): iii-xviii.
-----. "Film and the Visible." Bad Object-Choices 223-76.
Fried Green Tomatoes. Dir. Jon Avnet. Universal, 1991.
Garber, Linda S. Lesbian Identity Poetics: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, and the Rise of Queer Theory. Diss. Stanford U, 1995.
Go Fish. Dir. Rose Troche. Samuel Goldwyn, 1994.
Goldsby, Jackie. 1990. "What It Means To Be Colored Me." Out/Look (1990): 8-17.
Hammonds, Evelynn. "Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6.2-3 (1994): 126-45.
Hall, Gloria, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. New York: Feminist, 1982.
Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, The. Dir. Maria Maggenti. Fine Line Features, 1995.
Jeffreys, Sheila. "The Queer Disappearance of Lesbians: Sexuality in the Academy." Women's Studies International Forum 17.5 (1994): 459-72.
Martin, Biddy. "Sexualities Without Genders and Other Queer utopias." Diacritics 24.2-3 (1994): 104-21.
Mayne, Judith. "Lesbian Looks: Dorothy Arzner and Female Authorship." Bad Object-Choices 103-43.
Mercer, Kobena. "Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary." Bad Object-Choices 169-210.
-----. Abelove. 350-59.
Morton, Donald. "The Politics of Queer Theory in the (Post)Modern Moment." Genders 17 (1993): 121-50.
-----. "Birth of the Cyberqueer." PMLA 110.3 (1995): 369-81.
Parish, James Robert. Gays and Lesbians in Mainstream Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.
Pellegrini, Ann. Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race. New York: Routledge, 1997.
She Must Be Seeing Things. Dir. Sheila McLaughlin. Sheila McLaughlin, 1987.
Radicalesbians. "The Woman-Identified Woman." Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. 1970. Ed. Karla Jay and Allen Young. New York: Pyramid, 1972. 172-77.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Abelove 227-54.
Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." Abelove 3-44.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
Walton, Jean. "Sandra Bernhard: Lesbian Postmodern or Modern Postlesbian?" The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 244-61.
When Night is Falling. Dir. Patricia Rozema. October Films, 1995.
Without You I'm Nothing. Dir. John Boskovich. M.C.E.G, 1990.
Work. Dir. Rachel Reichman. Not yet released, 1996.
Ann Pellegrini is visiting assistant professor of Women's Studies at Barnard College and author of Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race (Routledge, 1997).
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|Title Annotation:||Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1997|
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