Saturday, April 24, 2010
The House of Schecter is a new house. In fact, right now, it’s less a house than an igloo. Still, a gal has to start somewhere. I’m usually inspired by Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary about the Harlem drag ball circuit in the late 1980s, as I teach it each year for a course on conceptualizing race as a transsexualism process. But this year, I’ve been particularly obsessed with the scene in which the beautiful Octavia Saint Laurent shows off her own obsession: with the Czech supermodel Paulina Porizkova. In the scene, Octavia is wrapped in a housecoat and radiant, face makeup-less and hair in soft un-dressed fluff. She’s wearing a thin black wrist watch. She stoops on a chair and glides her hand over images of Paulina, explaining what she loves about her (“The red hot fire of hair...”). Though she expresses her idolizing of the supermodel, hearing Octavia’s gently lilting voice and watching delicately cadenced wrist, I can’t help but idolize this Mother of the House of Saint Laurent.
In my replication of this scene, I am stooped over inelegantly on a chair, my hair in post-run-shower lank, gliding my splintery wrist (note thin black watch) over my idol: Butterfly McQueen. I have a huge pantheon of female idols, but I’m not a big believer in walls so their images recline in magazine pages and clipping boxes. The images I’m gesturing towards in this photo are three paintings I made of Butterfly McQueen back in 2002 or 2003. Butterfly McQueen was the film actress best known for playing the slave Prissy in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind. With that voice pitched into Mount Everest, she uttered the classic line that became a pivot for many critical examinations of race, racism, and cinema, theses that were often critical not only of the film and the Afro-American stereotypes it espoused, but critical and perhaps even hostile to the woman who uttered those words for a salary: “I don’t know nothing about birthin’ babies.”
I saw Gone With the Wind as a teenager, and I became instantly obsessed with Butterfly McQueen. Or perhaps, it began as fascination that volupted into an obsession. Perhaps it was because as a feminine boy and Virgo at that, I actually felt as if I were “Prissy.” My fascination with McQueen indicated an idiosyncratic response to her performance. I didn’t see what everyone else saw, I didn’t hear what everyone else heard. Of course I understood her to be enacting a racist caricature, but I was struck by the deep force of that body wiggling beneath the role, as if she were a human cosmonaut trapped in the slimy spew of a monstrous alien creature. The wiggle felt like a struggle, supreme. The voice didn’t sound funny to me: it was mystical, androidal. She didn’t look like a buffoon to me: her eyes were like black cut-glass beads mistakenly jabbed into a child’s soft toy. Her body didn’t seem bojangly; it seemed slender as a switch, jointed not like a puppet but like a ballet dancer. When I researched her life, I learned that the woman who iconized the dim-witted slave on screen had indeed begun her career as a classical dancer. She got her stage name “Butterfly” from a dance she performed in a production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. She didn’t lead a dancer’s life, but then, neither did she lead the life of a desperate Hollywood hanger-on. She grew up. As an adult, she mundanely managed her own life along its line, which she had drawn. She owned property in both New York and Georgia. She earned a B.A. in political science from the CUNY. She became an atheist. And in that last incarnation, she uttered the contents of her own true brain that furiously ripped through the slime of words stuffed into the mouth of Prissy:
They say the streets are going to be beautiful in heaven. I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. At least, in Georgia and in New York, I live on beautiful streets …When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.
I painted three pictures to try to embody that Butterfly McQueen. In the big green painting is a simple act of glamorization: Butterfly McQueen is a fashion model. My Paulina. The two tiny ones re-imagine one of her “maid” roles, in Duel in the Sun, in which she keeps refraining the words which the screenwriter obviously took to be the buffoonery of a flighty maid: “I have so much to remember.” But voiced through McQueen’s trembling, fairy-whistle timbre, the line sounded to me like a lament, and spoke to the heaviness of memory, the burden of remembering. It spoke to me of wanting to float off, to be snipped away from the balloon-man of your history. So in one image, I painted her as she appears in the film: hoop skirt, tears. In the match of the pair, I painted her as a frilly French maid: servitude is only a role, a fetish costume. She leans back and closes her eyes, relaxing from the demands to keep remembering. As an academic and an apprentice of language, “I have so much to remember” is a complaint, an excuse, a badge of honor, a motivation to work. As a girl embodied in a male body, “I have so much to remember” is a necessary formula for living. I’ve been working it all these years through that utterance. Even though we had radically different physical lives, I think Butterfly McQueen understood that feeling.
Last month, I wrote about wanting to collect children for my house; now I will start. Traditionally, one becomes a child of a house—is given the new family name—when one walks at a ball and snags a trophy in a category. But the kind of ballwalking I need for my house doesn’t call for sashaying or stilettos or even military realness. Not literally, anyway. Part of why I chose “Schecter” as my house name is to honor not only the feminine feminism of Jenny Schecter, but to honor her hyperbolic, performative embodiment of the art of writing. The shade of my pancake foundation is the English language. I vogue to the rhythm of syntax. I tuck my tool into the crevices of my sentences. So my ball has to take place in the digital field. The bodies-in-realness are fleshed out at a level both deeper and shallower than the epithelial: at the molecular level, at the level of emotions that comprise those molecules. I want to dissipate into fabulosity.
DISSIPATION BALL/ PROVIDENCE IS BURNING.
“The Imperial Elks Lodge” of the internet, which is right here, now, where your eyes are bearing down, where your fingertips are transforming and moving your digitalized flesh.
Whenever you want.
I will post the categories as individual comments in the “Comments” section of this blog, and all you have to do is write one thought and crafted sentence (or two) that is the embodiment of your walking in that category.
REALNESS IN THE DAYTIME
UPCOMING PRETTY GIRL
BUTCH QUEEN FIRST TIME IN DRAGS AT A BALL
Post with your name or email address. Posting anonymously is like walking without the body.
The sentence should cover over the body that people and see and understand through the seeing, “you.” The sentence will look like fiction but will really be a truth that’s deeply embedded in your cells.