Please join us for a public event featuring Dr. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, who will deliver her talk titled ““The Color Pynk: Janelle Monáe, Janet Mock, and Black Femme Futures” at 1:30PM on Monday, April 15th, in Tutt Science Lecture Hall.
In this talk, Dr. Tinsley analyzes recent black femme cultural production as a black feminist poetics of survival for the Trump era. A queer gender that self-consciously embodies and subverts cultural standards of femininity, black femme remains undertheorized in contemporary feminist, queer, and critical race discourses where black queer feminine thinkers have been dismissed, Janet Mock notes, as “less serious, colluding with patriarchy, merely using our bodies rather than our brains … pressured to transcend presentation in order to prove our woke-ability.” But in the crisis in U.S. feminism following Donald Trump’s 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton, black femme intellectuals have insisted with increasing urgency that the particularity of our racialized (black), gendered (feminine), and sexual (queer) imaginations offers important vantage points from which to challenge heteropatriarchy. This talk engages black femme-inist imaginations in Janelle Monáe’s music video “PYNK” and Janet Mock’s writing for the television drama Pose (2018) as creative re-scriptings of feminist imaginations of solidarity.
Omise’eke Tinsley is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Associate Director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, where she specializes in Black Feminism and Black Queer Studies. She is currently the F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University. Dr. Tinsley’s work centers art as a mode of theorizing resistance to anti-blackness, misogynoir, and heteropatriarchy. Her first book Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (2010) emphasizes that this mode of creative queer and feminist theorizing has a long, transnational history. Ezili’s Mirrors: Black Queer Genders and the Work of the Imagination (2018), winner of the Caribbean Studies Association’s 2018 Barbara Christian Literary Award, explores spirituality and sexuality in 21st century black cultural production from the Caribbean and African North America. Her latest book, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism (2018) meditates on the creative possibilities for black queer femininity in the contemporary U.S. South.
Our guide, Hannes, was one of the exhibit curators and began the tour with some background information on the museum. The Schwules Museum* was founded 30 years ago by three white German gay men who were working at the Berlin Museum and wanted to establish a permanent museum devoted to gay history. “Schwule” means gay in German, and Hannes noted that, similarly to “gay” in English, this word had been (and continues to be) used in a derogatory many, but that many in the LGBTQIA community, including the museum, were reclaiming it.
Hannes also told us why there is an asterisk following the museum name. In 2008, the Board of Directors decided that they wanted to open up the museum for the rest of the LGBTQIA community, considering that it had focused primarily on the history of white, cisgender, gay men up to that point. Borrowed from something the trans community was doing in the U.S., the asterisk denotes that even though the name of the museum is specific to gay men, the museum itself is inclusive of many queer identities.
This strategy can be problematized through an examination of liberal politics. Many organizations that are marginalized sometimes feel they must expand the scope of their organization either to give the appearance of progress or out of a genuine desire to include other marginalized people. These both stem from liberal understandings of “inclusivity” and “diversity.” Black feminists have been critical of this notion for years, especially concerning white feminism. First, because other marginalized groups often have their own thing going on (Hannes mentioned that German lesbians have a more extensive archive that predates the Schwules Museum* by ten years), and second, because assimilation is not a tactic that helps the most marginalized, but rather a tactic that helps those complicit in existing power structures to maintain power. Additionally, “trans*” has been changed in the U.S., because it implies that anyone who is not binary/passing/post-op is conditionally trans.
In many ways, however, this is working quite well. For example, all the signs in the Superqueeroes exhibit use the “gender gap,” which resists how certain German words are gendered by replacing part of the word with an underscore. In addition, the exhibit featured several trans artists and the rest seemed to be almost equally about lesbians and gay men. Another exhibit that we stopped in briefly at the end was art entirely done by trans artists. While not perfect, this is in many ways a step above similar attempts in the U.S.
Although most of the comics in the exhibition are actually American, there were some interesting historical parallels that seemed relevant to Germany and other parts of Europe. Hannes told us about the comic burnings between 1945 and 1955 in the U.S., during which people would publicly burn piles of comic books. Much of this stemmed from author Frederic Wertham, who wrote Seduction of the Innocent in order to argue that comic books were turning the children into criminals. While Hannes didn’t mention this explicitly, his discussion made me think about the Nazi book burnings happening around the same time. As Erik Jensen writes in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” “While the American gay community often employed the Jewish Holocaust as a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, the German gay community generally avoided this comparison” (342). The collective memory of American gays concerning the treatment of homosexuals during the Holocaust is very different from the German understanding. Perhaps that is why this parallel seemed so obvious to me.
By Queers, For Queers
Throughout the exhibition, there were two main categories of comics that were shown: comics that were written by queers for queers, in which a significant part of the story line has to do with queer identity, and mainstream comics that incorporate queer characters as a side note to a larger plot line. These categories are both significant, especially given the influence of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Between 1955 and 2011, the CCA (a private board that governed all the mainstream publishing houses) dictated what types of content could be in comics. The list of banned subjects included any type of explicit sexuality, drugs, violence, the words “horror” and “terror,” undead characters, and critiques of military/police/judges. Further, homosexual content was not allowed by the CCA until 1989. In response, the 1960s brought about an explosion of underground comics that used “comix” instead of “comics” to denote the change.
Within this underground movement, there was yet another split as queers and women grew tired of the sexism, racism, and heterosexuality that dominated the underground scene. Comix publishers, such as “Wimmens Comix” and “Tits & Clits” were founded to counter this phenomenon. An important note is that in 1972, a woman named Trina Robbins created the first gay comic “Sandy Comes Out.” As our friends at the ADEFRA meeting pointed out, lesbians are always at the beginning of a movement, despite dominant groups trying to push them from the front lines.
In the newer era of web comics, one person making a name for herself is Scout Tran-Caffee (Dax). She is a non-binary, trans woman of color who has created comics that transcend the page and are only possible in the virtual parallel universe. This unapologetic love for the trans experience is amazing, especially when compared to the stale decades old statements that Marvel is trying to make about sexuality.
There is an absolutely striking difference between the levels of political thought and storytelling in the mainstream comics and comix. The former use a quite different parallel universe in which gay sexual encounters exist between superheroes as a way to simultaneously draw in queer readers while retaining their (presumably) heterosexual audience (a tactic used in almost every form of media, commonly referred to as “queer-baiting”). Sadly, the most progressive comic we looked at featured Wonder Woman officiating a lesbian wedding and then explaining her actions by saying, “Where I come from it’s not gay marriage, it’s just marriage.” This sort of assimilationist, liberal language illustrates the significance of many queer artists saying that they are queer and actively queering the way comics are written and produced.
These comics also incorporate the problematic notion of “coming out.” Hannes repeatedly referred to the “coming out page” of a comic. As noted by many scholars, the conceptualization of “outness” is a Western construct that is often used as a litmus test for progressivism. Within the Western context, coming out is often problematized for perpetuating compulsory heterosexuality. As Jürgen Lemke writes about the coming out process in East Berlin before the Wall fell, “The coming-out generally catapults her or him…into the cold, hard world. Very often a banishment from the family unit will be the harsh result” (33). The “coming out pages” for these superheroes are only necessary because until that page is created, they are heterosexual by default. This marks another stark difference regarding comics being written by queers, for queers, because operating with a knowledge base of other sexualities changes the way you write about and conceptualize those sexualities in media you are producing.
Hannes informed us that this was the first exhibition about queer comics in all of Europe. It is quite obviously a highly interesting field and many books could be (and probably have been) written about it. The key lessons I took away from the experience are that independent artists have more political freedom, which almost always means they produce more interesting art. The other thing I took away is that critical consumption of media is important and should be a constant process, but that sometimes it is just pretty cool to see Wonder Woman as a lesbian.
Grace Montesano is a rising senior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at Colorado College. They love discussing politics, and are known for making obscure references to various media that no one else has heard of. Grace is skeptical of the 9/11 story we have all been told, and believes the jury is definitely still out about the existence of mermaids.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons (Course Associate), Dr. Maisha Eggers, and Heidi
After our morning with Stefanie-Lahya Aukongo, we stopped for a quick lunch then made our way to Humboldt University to hear from Dr. Maisha Eggers. We were all familiar with this name, as we read her articles “Knowledges of (Un-) Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany” and “Audre Lorde’s Germany.” Many of us agreed that “Knowledges of (Un-) Belonging” was one of our favorite pieces to read, so we were very anxious and excited to hear her speak. I found Maisha Eggers to be a very inspiring, powerful woman. Her strong, confident demeanor kept us all very engaged. She began teaching in 2008, having been a Black feminist activist since 1993. As a professor, her intellectualism is rooted in Black scholarship, and she specializes in gender studies with a special interest in childhood development, focusing on how youth is constructed through societal norms.
The focus of her discussion with us was to help us conceptualize Black Studies and understand what it means to be a scholar within the field. The movement in Germany began to really take flight when Audre Lorde coined the term “Afro-German” in 1984. This “naming process” was, according to Eggers, “set out to embrace and acknowledge the position of subjects of African ancestry/heritage and German lineage/situatedness/identity” (3). In other words, a language was being created that would allow for the movement to have a legitimate space. The Black movement in Germany also works to recognize the presence of Black societal subjects before World War II (as well as after). As Lorde writes in a diary entry, “I asked one of my Black students, how she’d thought about herself growing up. ‘The nicest thing they ever called us was ‘war-baby,’ she said. But the existence of most black Germans has nothing to do with the Second World War, and in fact predates it by many decades” (2). Eggers also noted another significant woman who emerged early on in the movement, a poet named May Ayim. Her texts were revolutionary, significant especially in her acknowledgement of core themes in Black Studies, such as invisibility and power. She also played a role in expanding language in order to create a space more conducive to the movement. According to Eggers, Ayim “made a meaningful contribution to transforming the German language itself, pushing it to accommodate and adapt itself to subverted meanings, hybrid definitions, and articulations” (5). The seemingly simple act of naming a movement and naming its participants proved itself necessary and monumental in crystallizing its presence.
Dr. Maisha Eggers and the FemGeniuses in Berlin
Regarding the Afro-German movement, Black Studies became its scholarly counterpart. However, Eggers stressed to us a major controversy within the academy: a recently Black Studies program comprised exclusively of white people. Another major issue for Black Studies is the lack of official recognition it gets within the university. Eggers described to us how Black Studies itself could receive no funding from Germany, but once they integrated projects with German cultural studies, they were immediately able to receive the funding they needed. Despite all this, Black Studies has been able to establish itself as a respected voice. A prominent example of this can be observed through Black European Studies (BEST). This network of scholars works to write Black history into Europe’s narrative in order to solidify the recognition of Black Europe. BEST provides a space for Black Europeans to conceptualize their experiences and address issues including gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity.
Eggers’ profound thinking left us with much to think about, as she answered an interesting question on the relationship between activism and scholarship by explaining to us that she views activism as the force and the personal connection that is necessary for any movement. It creates a collective notion that scholarship does not necessarily have. But she does not deny the importance of scholarship as the theory and intellectual discourse necessary for establishing a strong base. She was also asked about her experience growing up in Kenya and then moving to Germany. Born ten years after Kenya’s independence, she received all of her schooling in Kenya before coming to Germany. She believes that had she received her schooling in Germany, she would have been “seeded out” very early on and would not be where she is now. A strong part of her identity lies in Kenya, and she is grateful for her time there. In this sense, listening to her speak after Aukongo’s talk was especially interesting. Aukongo did not grow up in her home in Namibia and she struggled to create an inner sense of home and identity throughout her early life. Notably, though, they both became powerful activists.
Eggers left an impending impression on me, and I think I also speak for the whole group when I say that. For me, she really helped me understand what Black German Studies entails and opened up a new world of thought. Her work is highly admirable, and I feel lucky to have had the chance to hear her speak.
Meredith Bower is a sophomore at Colorado College from Dallas, Texas. Though her major is undeclared, she loves to take courses in Feminist & Gender Studies and English. She is also planning to take prerequisite courses for Nursing School. She is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, and participates in a weekly ballroom dance adjunct. Her ideal meal would be pepperoni pizza with a Diet Coke followed by a big scoop of gelato. She loves sleeping in late and cuddling with her cat, Lola. Alongside Lola, she also has another cat named Izzy and a dog-named Molly. Fun fact, she is also a certified vinyasa yoga teacher. Meredith is extremely excited to be in Berlin and cannot wait to start exploring!
On Friday, June 13, I presented “Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media” at Frauenkreise in Berlin at the invitation of Project Manager Gabi Zekina. Below, you will find a written version of the introduction to my analysis. Click here to view the complete PowerPoint presentation, and click here to listen to the audio (approximately 90 minutes) recorded by Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück. I would also like to thank Vicky Germain for also recording the event and for suggesting that I post it to the web for you all to listen to and engage.
Before I begin the analytical discussion, I want to spend about 10 minutes introducing myself and my work to you. As you know, my name is Heidi R. Lewis, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the Feminist & Gender Studies Program at Colorado College, where I also serve as a core faculty member in the Race & Ethnic Studies Program. My teaching and research interests include Black Feminist Theory, Transnational Feminisms, and Critical Studies of media and popular culture, feminism, race, whiteness, and hip hop. I’m also an Associate Editor for The Feminist Wire, a peer-reviewed online publication that provides sociopolitical and cultural critiques of anti-feminist, racist, and imperialist politics pervasive in all forms and spaces of private and public lives.
Regarding my own career, I have begun to situate myself as a theoretical activist, because often, especially within “liberal” and “progressive” communities in the United States, I hear people denigrate theory in an effort to communicate the necessity of action. For instance, sometimes my audiences, including my students, grow frustrated when they ask about what they can “do” to affect change, and I respond that theorizing is one of the most important things that can be done in response to injustice. I respond in this way, because for me, theory is simply a way of thinking about, understanding, and explaining the world. How many of you are familiar with the Marissa Alexander case in the United States? It’s my contention that a theory sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years for self-defense. Of course, the racist legal system, including police, attorneys, the jury, and the judge, sentenced Marissa Alexander. However, this sentencing would not have been possible without racist and sexist theories about Black women’s bodies and lives, theories that suggest that our bodies are not worthy of love, affection, and protection, theories that suggest that our lives don’t matter and that they’re not worth saving. Only racist and sexist thinking would allow someone to see Marissa Alexander as anything other than a victim.
At this point, then, I’d like to clarify the theoretical framework of my work on U.S. media, a framework situated at the nexus of cultural studies, critical media studies, and feminist studies. As Paula Saukko points out, “The trademark of the cultural studies has been an interest in the interplay between lived experience, texts or discourses, and the social context,” which relies heavily on an investment in multiple validities. Saukko points out that this draws attention to the fact that the theories, methods and modes of analysis that underpin our research open up different and always partial and political views on reality. Multiple validities ask us to be more critically aware of what drives our research. Additionally, acknowledging that there is more than one way of making sense of social phenomena asks us to come up with a more multidimensional, nuanced, and tentative way of understanding one’s object of study. Multiple validities, then, suggest that we should approach reality in less simplistically dichotomous ways, such as “true” or “false” and “right” or “wrong,” and instead to develop more complex terms. This does not mean that there are no rules for conducting research. It simply means that rather than one universal rule that applies everywhere, there are different rules, and we need to be aware how they make us relate to reality differently. There are three methodological approaches to uncovering multiple validities: hermeneutic/ dialogic validity, which evaluates research in terms of how truthfully it captures the lived worlds and experiences of the people and communities being studied; poststructuralist/ deconstructive validity, which evaluates research in terms of how well it manages to unravel social tropes and discourses that, over time, have come to pass for “truth;” and realist/ contextual validity, which refers to the capability of research to locate the phenomena it is studying within the wider social, political, and even global, context. My talk this evening will be methodologically reliant upon the latter two frameworks insomuch as I will examine how advertisements communicate tropes and discourses that have come to pass as “truth” for racialized women in the U.S. and also how these tropes and discourses can be best theorized by examining the wider sociopolitical contexts in which the advertisements are situated.
Regarding critical media studies, James Lull argues, “The most potent effect of mass media is how they subtly influence their audiences to perceive social roles and routine personal activities.” This happens because media functions as a hegemony, which Lull defines as a “power or dominance that one social group holds over others.” Along these lines, Antonio Gramsci argues that hegemony and mass media “are tools that ruling elites use to perpetuate their power, wealth, and status by popularizing their own philosophy, culture, and morality.” More specifically, Sut Jhally argues that “advertising thus does not work by creating values and attitudes out of nothing but by drawing upon and rechanneling concerns that target audiences already shares.” Stuart Hall would, of course, connect this to racism and white supremacy. He writes, “Every word and image of such programmes are impregnated with unconscious racism, because they are all predicated on the unstated and unrecognized assumption that blacks are the source of the problem.” Hall defines this as “inferential (or unconscious) racism,” which leads to “apparently naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether factual or fictional, which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions.” Audiences typically only respond viscerally to “overt racism,” which Hall defines as “occasions when open and favorable courage is given to arguments, positions and spokespersons who are in the business of elaborating a racist policy.”
Scholars writing within the tradition of feminist theory have advanced these arguments by taking an intersectional approach that considers race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, and other social markers when examining mediated constructions. In “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks explains that in “mass culture, imperialist nostalgia takes the form of re-enacting and re-ritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, of seduction by the Other.” Further, she explains that white males “claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the [white, Western, heteropatriarchal] masculine norm, for asserting themselves as transgressive, desiring subjects. They call upon the Other to be both witness and participant in this transformation.” Marian Sciachitano explains that these “heteropatriarchal and imperialist politics of domination that desires and demands the construction of ‘fantasy islands,’ ‘new planets,’ and ‘playgrounds’ where Black and ‘Third World’ women are positioned as interchangeable, exotic, sexual commodity-objects.” It is this practice of commodifying the “Other’s” interchangeable, essentialized difference that, as hooks claims “promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.” I also want to point out here that throughout this talk, I won’t describe these constructions as “stereotypes,” which refers to “too-simple and therefore distorted images of a group, generalizations, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that are used to describe or distinguish a group.” Instead, I will use Patricia Hill Collins’ “controlling images” theory, which I think more effectively conveys the implications of stereotypes for subjugated people and communities.
Click here to view the PowerPoint presentation.
Click here to listen to the audio recording of the discussion.