Saturday, November 24, 2007
What can I say...
I'm curious to have a discussion about this, so I figured I'd post this and get some of your reactions.
Andre J is on the cover of French Vogue with model Carolyn Murphy. Of course, there is a flurry of discussion about this. As you read this, I am doing a little more internet research on Andre J. I have seen his picture for months, but I don't really have a clear idea of what he's about yet.
Perhaps some of you know more about him and can leave some comments.
Of course, there is the obvious, the 'problem' of black-man-in-drag has been on my mind since I was in graduate school. I'm sleepy now, but the earliest example that comes to my mind is Flip Wilson as Geraldine all the way to Jamie Foxx and Martin Lawrence, and the embarrassment of Eddie Murphy. I've always been deeply offended by these 'characterizations.' Not because I can't take a joke, but because I find something deeply problematic about black male performers mocking black women to get laughs. I find it grotesque and vicious. It is the literal emasculation of black male comedians by way of a misogynist assault on black women. Dave Chappelle offered a blistering critique of Hollywood's fascination with this type of spectacle when he appeared on the Actor's Studio. He refuses, he says to 'put on the dress.' Chappelle describes this critical moment when black male comedians are goaded to clown in drag and how he absolutely refused to participate. I love Dave Chappelle. Anyhow, to me it's like a reformulation of blackface.
But on the other hand, there is a very subversive tradition of black gay men in drag that is NOT about misogyny, but about subversion. RuPaul's MAC campaign, the Paris is Burning documentary exploring ball culture in the late 80s...that is undeniably about fascination and exaltation and exploration of black female representation. With absolutely no misogyny against black women. These acts are about aspiration and celebration. Black female representation--and to a lesser extent black women themselves--represents a challenge to the restrictions imposed by society based on class, race, sex, and gender. It is an upset where black female representation instead of occupying a role of degradation, is set up as subversive and superior. The ultimate reversal.
Andre J is not aspiring to 'realness' like the kids in Paris is Burning. He is obviously a man in a wig and a dress. He wears a beard. And while he summons some of the 'fabulousness' of RuPaul, he is not 'performing' or in character. RuPaul often appears and acts in roles out of drag--so "RuPaul" has become a character that he assumes.
No, it's not Andre J that bugs me. It is trying to figure out what cultural work Vogue is trying to put his image to that bugs me. Is it similar to that of the comedian in drag or is it something else? And is Andre J controlling his representation or being taken up into something different than his own intent? And what does it mean that Andre J is positioned next to a white woman on a magazine franchise that is legendarily stingy about using black WOMEN models? And what does it mean that a black man is editor in chief of American Vogue at the same moment? Hmm.