Archived Selves: the queer fabulation of The Watermelon Woman


Jaya Keaney

I am sized up on the street again. A man stands at the bus stop,

close enough to feel the tension prickle

in my pores. Every arm hair standing to attention.

‘You’re beautiful, baby. Where you from?’

Rancid, leering. He spits

‘those eyes…’

 

The first time I saw queer women of colour fucking

was in Saving Face, watchingin my family lounge room.

I was eleven, maybe.

When Wil and Vivian kissed,

a still hush took hold of my body. Furtively, curious,

I tried to see whether my parents

were already in

on the secret.

 

‘No! There’s no way you’re half Indian. I never would have guessed.

So white passing, you just look Australian! Beautiful!’

 

If only I could live forever in that scene in Bend it like Beckham,

before the hackneyed straight closure snuffs out all erotic charge.

Jess dashing furiously from her sister’s wedding to her football game,

the culmination of the film’s promise that she might have it all.

Magenta sari unwound furiously in the car, she explodes onto the field

Toward Jules, Jules, wry androgynous best friend.

The two clasp hands, grinning. The suspended queer promise,

the fury, the flood.

 

Wait, I’ve got it! You look like that Bollywood star! Aishwarya Rai – of course!

Same skin, exact same eyes.

Now Indian makes sense’

 

I always liked the bad girls best, those ancestors who stepped sideways, spilled out.

The aunty in Bangalore who in the 1930s rode on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle,

hitching up her sari and smoking and drinking at the club.

The great-grandmother who worked on the dairy farm, her strong body with the land.

I ask again and again for their stories.

 

‘So, how did your family go? With… the queerness’, another white queer asks me in a hush.

I wonder if this is just warm bonding, or if they imagine something else.

Arranged marriages, diasporic repression, an enticing clash of cultures.

Elsewhere, I daydream about the queer ancestors

my body knows I had.

 

When Archie Panjabi dances with the broom in her electric, irreverent way as Meenah in East is East,

I tear up. Every time.

I watch it on hard days, eyes streaming while I smile in her magnetic grip.

I’ve watched it so many times, YouTube conjures it immediately.

 I bookmark it under ‘salves for racism’.

 

‘Where you from? But, in particular? But, before? No, your family.

Where are you f-r-o-m..?’

‘Your worst white het nightmares’, I want to say

but I’m too drained for the backlash.

 

I type ‘Australian mixed race’ into Google probably fifty times that year.

I am writing a thesis about mixed race films, and the silence runs deeper than I thought.

I find one little known film from 2004,Peaches.

It is disjointed. Bland. Australian in all the wrong ways.

Against my better judgment, protagonist Steph calls out to me.

I fall in love.

 

 

 

***

 

How do we come to index ourselves as subjects? Our identities congeal in the folds of deep vectors of difference. How do dynamic, joyful standpoints emerge from the wreckage of stereotype, racism, irrevocable colonial archives? The brilliance of Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman lies in how it dramatises these questions, bending them playfully through black lesbian bodies.

I open my dialogue with The Watermelon Woman with shards of my own racialisation, encounters both alienating and joyful. I do this not to flatten the vast gulfs and inequities between Dunye and I; she a filmmaker in black U.S. lesbian communities of the 1990s, me a queer, half-Indian Australian viewer, avidly watching her film for the first time in 2018. Rather, I seek to foreground the interplay and the work of translation that is inevitably at the heart of all intercultural exchange. My sketch of my own racialisation as a space of both sexualised othering and charged affinities maps the space of tension in which Dunye’s film also resides and intervenes. In this, viewing The Watermelon Woman draws our differently patterned experiences of queerness, colonisation and desire together through the affective, erotic embrace of cinema. Dunye reaches out through the queer film archive to forge queer presents for me, a lush intercultural encounter between queers of colour that, for just a moment, sidelines heterosexual whiteness, that ever-greedy intermediary.

The Watermelon Woman follows Cheryl, an aspiring filmmaker, played by Cheryl Dunye herself. [1] Cheryl dreams of making films about black women’s untold histories, but is uncertain, drifting without a topic. While working unsatisfying jobs in a video store and a videotaping business with her best friend Tamara, Cheryl becomes captivated by Fae Richards, a black actress from the 1930s who starred in a range of mammy films, her name listed in the credits only as ‘the Watermelon Woman’.

Formally, The Watermelon Woman interposes two stories. The first is the story of Cheryl making the documentary, alongside hanging out with Tamara and Tamara’s girlfriend Stacey, ordering tapes of mammy films into the video store surreptitiously under customers’ names, and starting to date Diana, a white woman. The second story is snippets of the documentary and archival material itself, which has a choppier feel and a grainy overlay. Threading them are interspersed scenes of Cheryl speaking directly to the camera, reaching out to grasp and shepherd the audience by explaining her creative process. The result is a sense of collage, multiple circles of reflexivity that depict Cheryl’s changing identity while she excavates Fae’s story.

We might understand Cheryl’s documentary as a quest to paint Fae’s portrait as a black queer ancestor, an antecedent to the black lesbian communities in which Cheryl lives. Her black queer kinship networks form the social fabric of the film. It was groundbreaking on its release for its depiction of black queer communities, and the first feature film to be directed by an out black lesbian. In post-gay marriage Australia, when our dominant images of queer political freedom are premised on whiteness and settler state recognition, the film is also a reminder of the difference that race makes. Colonial histories of sex and representation are also queer histories, and call us to reckon with them simultaneously and imaginatively in our present-day communities.

The ultimate queering of the film is its final reveal: that Fae Richards is in fact a fabrication. ‘Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction’, the final scene reads. In this sense, The Watermelon Woman is a work of striking queer fabulation, a fable for black lesbian lives in the 1990s. Faced with the absent archive, a heavy history of racist representation and a longing for more, Cheryl invents her own history in the captivating tale of Fae Richards. In this, one of Dunye’s answers to the vexed question of identity is to revel in partiality and the creativity it can bring. Constructing queer repetitions, Dunye makes the origin story she needs from whatever she can find. As Stuart Hall wrote in 1996, ‘identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not ‘who we are’ or ‘where we came from’, so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves’. [2] Dunye’s film gives flight to Hall’s notion, with a brazen queer thrust. In turn, it joins the terrain of identity making resources – for me and so many other viewers in its life of more than two decades.

 

STEREOTYPE

Stereotype. A reductive caricature. A phrase or concept repeated without change. A harmful, over-generalised belief about a group of people. A calcified afterlife of colonialism.

The notion of the stereotype is a central concern in The Watermelon Woman. Cheryl becomes fixated with one enduring colonial stereotype: the mammy, that cultural institution of American racism. The mammy is a caricatured figure of a black slave, maid and nanny to white children. As Dorothy Roberts writes, the mammy was imagined as ‘both the perfect mother and the perfect slave’. [3]

How do we construct identities out of the toxic litter of such histories of representation?

Cheryl brings this question to the fore in staging a curious encounter with mammy films. Often the stance of rejection, of refusal of the stereotype and its violence, is alluring for people of colour seeking spaces of safety and refuge in a racist world. But stereotypes can also be strikingly malleable, they can change form and corner us through multiplying for each new emotion, leaving us with an ever-shrinking space to stand; the caretaking mammy, the Bollywood star, the criminalized black youth, the oversexed brown female body, the angry dyke. In addition, Dunye raises another question: what of the charges we might feel? The affinities, the half-truths, the guilty fragments of pleasure?

How can women of colour be desiring subjects in the wake of heavy racist histories, where sexualities have also been colonised? While the mammy stereotype figures ideal black womanhood as asexual, Cheryl’s pull toward Elsie gives back to Fae her sexuality, her desire, on decolonial terms. In her encounter with Plantation Dreams and her portrayal of Fae as a lesbian, Cheryl draws the representation of the mammy away from colonial heterosexuality and into the terrain of black lesbian erotics. Through portraying the way Fae was forced to play the mammy – one of the only roles reliably available for black women in the 1930s – while also showing her rich lesbian personal life, Dunye reveals the layers of artifice and mimicry involved in forging the stereotype and also the desires and intensities that snake unstoppably outside it.

In one scene, early on in her fascination, Cheryl sits next to her television screen, which plays Plantation Dreams. She is dressed as Elsie, in a headrag, with a lilting accent, and smiling warmly and batting her eyelashes into the camera. Her mimicry recalls an older definition. Stereotype. A printing method from the 1800s, where a metal ‘stereotype plate’ is made from a mold and used to make copies of the original form. This definition reveals more clearly the labour of repetition that is at the heart of the stereotype. And yet, each repetition is not the same. There is an inevitable tweak with each new print, even if indiscernible. While stereotypes are part of the resources through which our identities are formed, their meanings can be resituated and altered as they are used as our routes. Cheryl takes the trappings of the mammy onto her body – the body of an androgynous and outspoken black lesbian. With each repetition is an invention. With each recontextualising comes a new affect. In Cheryl’s rendition, infused with her fascination with Fae, the objects of the mammy take on the role of drag – not of access to some idealised, racist black womanhood, but of costume, queer communion, pleasure and play.

 

EROTICS

Erotics. Pertaining to passion and sexual pleasure. The propelling force of desire. The invisible charge that sticks us to things, forms kinships. A way of feeling as method.

Dunye lets the erotic loose, spilling from the bedroom, to the scopic encounter, to the archive. For me, she models Audre Lorde’s radical vision of the erotic as a broad force of sustenance, a wellspring of intuitive, feminised knowledge and creative power to bear oppression. [4] As Lorde and Dunye both acknowledge, this has particular significance for black queer women whose erotic articulations have been reduced by the opaque colonial horizon that is a constant referent. The erotic here is not a space for transcending or getting beyond racism, that asinine gesture that so often saturates discussion of multiculturalism. Racism saturates our most intimate encounters; the erotic is a mode of dwelling in that reality and still finding pleasure.

Cheryl’s project about Fae is a deeply sustaining source of energy, more binding than her ties to her well-meaning but clueless white girlfriend Diana. Here again, we find a powerful articulation of Lorde’s vision of the erotic as a site for clarity, community and sustenance in a racist world. As she writes, ‘the erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings’. [5] The erotic relationship between Cheryl and Fae, not Cheryl and Diana, is the central romance of the film. In it, Cheryl finds a deep motivating force for her art making and a compass for nourishing intimate relationships. She returns again and again to ‘the family’, black lesbian kinships bound by shared experiences of oppression and of surviving them.

 

ARCHIVE

Archive. A place where notable documents are stored. A site of institutional remembrance. A process of converting to memory. A sketch of our routes to who we are.

‘Our stories have never been told’, Cheryl says of black women in the United States. How do you start to narrate a history that has not been told? Marginalised bodies are constituted overwhelmingly by partial or eradicating archives, archives bursting with stereotypes – the mammy as idealised black womanhood. We can understand the archive as both specific physical archives, repositories of historical records as well as a popular imaginary, an inherited collective memory. Queer people of colour, left out of national histories and a footnote in dominant forms of public remembrance, learn to constitute ourselves in the folds. In wanting to start a story Cheryl is faced with the absent archive of black women. From Elsie appearing in the credits of Plantation Dreams only as The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl embarks on a wild and circuitous quest to trace crumbs of Fae’s archive, travelling from Philadelphia to New York and into the historical collections of libraries, lesbian archives and wealthy art collectors and families. Repeatedly facing the way black woman are sidelined or made into props for white representations she slowly assembles a rich and enticing portrait of Fae’s life. The irreverent twist of Dunye’s final reveal, Fae as fabulation, is an incisive comment on the process of history-making itself for marginalised bodies.

An erotics of the archive, perhaps. Dunye offers us Cheryl, who bends the archive to create what she needs. Cheryl feels and imagines the histories that will nourish her own present. In letting loose the erotic tug of history, the “truth”, always on the terms of the colonial archive, becomes less important than the embodied feeling of the story and the possibilities it forges.

Cheryl imagines Fae in order to imagine herself as a black lesbian filmmaker. And Dunye’s imagining of Cheryl allows me to imagine filmic archives as a way of enduring in the face of stereotypical representations of Indian and mixed race women’s bodies as exotic heterosexual commodities. Dunye shows me how I might take seriously my erotic charges with Wil and Vivian, Jess, Aishwarya Rai, Archie Punjabi, Steph, and with Cheryl, as an archive for my identity making in the present. These figures open spaces for me to reimagine PoC, Indian and mixed-race sexualities as sites of femme desire and queer kinship. As they endure microaggressions, experience joyful relationships and depict revelry they present ways of living that centre the long histories and deep presents of racism while also irreverently showing pleasure – in spite of and through them.

 

 

[1]As both the protagonist of the film and the director are named Cheryl, I will use ‘Cheryl’ to refer to the protagonist, and Dunye to refer to the director.

[2]Hall, Stuart. 1996. ‘Introduction: Who Needs ‘Identity?’. In Hall, S. & Du Gay, P. Questions of Cultural Identity. London: SAGE. P4

[3]Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. Pantheon Books: New York.

[4]Lorde, Audre. [1978] 2007. ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.Crossing Press: Berkeley. 53-9.

[5]Lorde p88


In response to The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

Jaya Keaney is a PhD candidate in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her thesis charts concepts of race in the experience...


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