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Why Don’t You Come Up Sometime and Queer Me?: Reclaiming Mae West as Author and Sexual Philosopher

In Feminism, Foucault, Freud, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Masquerade, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory, Transvestite Souls, Uncategorized on November 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm

  by Chase Dimock

  

We know Mae West as an actress, a sex symbol, a cultural icon, a comedienne, a master of the one liner and the double entendre. What we don’t think of Mae West as is an author. It has been largely forgotten that Mae West got her start on stage, in a series of salacious plays she wrote for herself in the late 20s. West was by then a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit appearing mostly chorus line gigs and bit parts. But when she grew tired of waiting for the right part and her big break to come around, she decided to write her own roles. With early plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil”, West invented the vamp persona that defined her career over the next five decades. If we think of Mae West as playwright and an author that wrote the character that she ultimately became, then we can view her iconography as its own meticulously plotted text and her careful crafting of figure and image as a finely formulated semiotics of the body. If we think of Mae West as an author, then her pithy one-liners and double entendres transcend the ephemera of comic relief and reveal her as one of the most astute observers of sexual and gender politics of the modernist era. If we think of Mae West as an author, a quote like “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing”, becomes an insight into gender performativity. Her quote “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution”, becomes a critique of the state’s power to enforce heteronormativity through marriage. And finally her quote “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning” becomes a post-modernist play on the endless veils of irony and metaphor that obscure and inflate every day speech. It is this Mae West as author and sexual philosopher who put her text into her curves, that I want to recover and illuminate.

While West marketed herself as an object of heterosexual desire, she not only understood her appeal to a gay audience, but she also engaged with the newly emerging gay community in her plays. Thus, I want to also think about Mae West as queer theorist—as an interpreter of queer sexuality who saw the newly visible figure of the homosexual in society as a product of power relations—a figure determined by the interplay of institutional powers, medicine and the law, and his own creative power to define himself. For this, I turn to her 1927 play, “The Drag”, a text centered on the question of the male homosexual’s position in society. Unlike her previous play, “Sex”, which launched her into notoriety and stardom on Broadway, “The Drag” was not a vehicle for self-promotion as an actress. Mae West did not write a role for herself. Instead, “The Drag” sought to cash in on what contemporary scholars have called “The Pansy Craze”, a period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and the Jazz age youth went slumming at gay bars and drag balls. The “pansy”, often known as the “fairy”, was a figure that created gender confusion; a male that interwove signifiers of masculinity and femininity on his body. He paraded feminine mannerisms, walked in high heels with a swish, and even used feminine pronouns, but he was not a trans-woman. The fairy became the dominant image of what was termed the “invert”, before “gay” hit wide usage two decades later; a biological male with the soul of a woman on the inside.

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From the Same Source as Her Power: A Threnody for Adrienne Rich

In Foucault, LGBT, Literature, Poetry, Queer Theory on April 23, 2012 at 10:57 am

by Chase Dimock

(This article originally appeared on As It Ought To Be)

How do we account for and preserve a writer’s power after she dies? At the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, any researcher who wants to access the lab books and notes of the legendary scientist Marie Curie must first sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of leafing through her papers. Over a hundred years after Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, her lab book is still radioactive enough to set off a Geiger counter. Perhaps this is why when I heard of Adrienne Rich’s passing last month, I immediately thought of her 1974 poem “Power” about Marie Curie. Just as Curie’s words literally radiate from her pages with the physical properties of the power that she discovered, so too does Rich’s six decades of poetry continue to empower the reader with her social critique and introspection.

The Poetical is the Political

In the past few weeks, several obituaries and memorials have been written to commemorate the life of Adrienne Rich after she passed away from rheumatoid arthritis at age 82. In every remembrance, Rich’s status as a “feminist poet” comes to the forefront and in the process of assembling a biography, the age-old rift between politics and poetics, art for art’s sake versus art for raising social consciousness, is still being waged over Rich’s death. Most of Rich’s critics and detractors over the course of her career dismissed her work as overly polemical, accusing her of sacrificing poetics for politics, as if these are somehow mutually exclusive entities. As Rich herself once said, “One man said my politics trivialized my poetry…. I don’t think politics is trivial — it’s not trivial for me. And what is this thing called literature? It’s writing. It’s writing by all kinds of people. Including me.” For Rich and other feminists who came of age under the belief that “the personal is the political”, it was impossible for the deep introspection of poetry to not find the political oppression of gender and sexual non-conformists as inextricably determinative of one’s psyche and soul.  Rather, Rich would contend that to believe poetry could be written outside of the political is to naturalize one’s worldview and political privilege. Being “apolitical” is the privilege of those who have power.

The poetical is the political, but according to Rich, the poetical needed protection from the political. In 1997, Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts as a protest against the House of Representatives’ vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She argued that ”the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” adding that art ”means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.” While Rich believed in poetry’s ability to illuminate the political, she was unwilling to allow politics to use her poetry as a token gesture to feign interest in women’s issues while camouflaging the growing disparity of power in the nation and the fact that, as Rich put it, “democracy in this country has been in decline”.

Rich did write political essays as well, including the seminal “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” in 1980, which predicted the anti-normative analysis of queer theory that would be pioneered by Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick a decade later. Her essay identified the power of heterosexuality in our culture to define and naturalize standards for acceptable social and sexual practices and to marginalize and pathologize those who did not comply. She contended that this power not only harmed lesbians, but all women because it reinforced a sex-segregated delegation of social obligations that denigrated the power of women to pursue their own desires. Rich declared that all women should think of themselves as part of a “lesbian continuum”, which valorizes all same-sex bonds from the platonic to the erotic in order to create new practices and knowledges outside the constraints of patriarchy. It is in this respect that I understand Adrienne Rich’s power to be more than being a poet: she was a theorist on the very nature of power itself, scribing in verse and lyric what Michel Foucault wrote in volumes of philosophy.

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