Conference “Queering Blackness: Non-Binary Black Representations in Post-Obama Popular Cultures”
Université Paris 8 – Vincennes-Saint-Denis, November 17, 2022
Université Paris 8
On November 17, 2022, the University of Paris 8 hosted the conference “Queering Blackness: Non-Binary Black Representations in Post-Obama Popular Cultures”. The one-day symposium was the result of the collective efforts of Yannick Blec and Claire Bourhis-Mariotti of the TransCrit research unit (Université Paris 8 Vincennes – Saint-Denis) and Anne Crémieux of EMMA (Études Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone, Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3), and attracted an enthusiastic audience both online and in person. This interdisciplinary conference invited scholars from various fields to explore the intersection of race, sexuality, and gender in contemporary American popular culture. While Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was hailed by some as the beginning of a post-racial era, the social realities of the United States have instead revealed the continued existence of inequalities and the stubborn persistence of the racial binary. Concomitantly, claims of a post-gender or post-gay era have been contradicted by patterns of oppression and discrimination, which continue to shape the experiences of LGBTQ+ groups. In this context, “queering Blackness” may be understood as an artistic and political act of reevaluating racialized sexualities, as well as an academic gesture calling for a nuanced examination of the ways in which racial, gender, and sexual identities are shaped, negotiated, and reconstructed in popular culture. The papers presented at the conference compellingly explored the intersection of African American and LGBTQ+ identities in a wide range of media, including dating games and stand-up comedy (panel 1), hip hop music and poetry (panel 2), as well as television (panel 3). The conference culminated in a thought-provoking keynote address by Alfred L. Martin, Jr.
The first panel, chaired by Xavier Lemoine (Université Gustave Eiffel), focused on configurations of Black queer identities in video games and stand-up comedy. Associate Professor Laura Goudet (Université de Rouen-Normandie) presented a discourse analysis of queer characters in video games, focusing on racial and gender expression. While the gaming community is generally dominated by white heteronormativity, exceptions such as non-binary esports champion SonicFox and the Black queer character Sundance featured in Battlefield 2042 suggest the presence of alternative representations. In dating games like Dream Daddy, Boyfriend Dungeon, and Hustle Cat, players can create characters with diverse skin tones and body types and can choose their socializations (pronouns), but these button-pushing choices have little impact on in-game performances, limiting the expression of queer identities. Furthermore, non-binary characters in video games are frequently depicted as ambiguous, “gray” characters, whose mysteriousness could indicate a lack of commitment to queer representation. Goudet concluded her talk by noting that the marginalization and “gray” representation of quare 1 characters in video games, particularly in dating games, confirms the continued reliance on rainbow-washing practices in the industry.
The themes of identity and performance were also at the center of the presentation given by Lara Cox (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) who focused on the persona and rhetorical style of stand-up comedian Wanda Sykes. Cox examined Sykes’s comedy specials over the course of her career, including her political critique of the Bush administration in Sick and Tired (HBO, 2006), her cautious optimism during the Obama era in I’ma Be Me (HBO, 2009) and her take on Donald Trump in Not Normal (Netflix, 2019). In these performances, Sykes incorporates references to the gender and racial dimensions of her identity, as reflected in her parody of stereotypes associated with Black women. Overall, she demonstrates a strong ability to adapt her rhetorical posture in response to shifts in the political climate. For instance, as the American society transitioned from Obama’s presidency to Trump’s, the race critique has asserted itself above the gender non-binary in Sykes’s rhetoric. The talk also placed Sykes’s expression of Blackness and sexual identity against the backdrop of her audience consisting mainly of white liberals.
By considering two different media and modes of expression—video games and stand–up comedy—, the panel raised important questions about the potential for subversion and resistance through quare performance, while considering the constraints and limitations placed on expression by cultural industries.
The second panel, titled “Breaking Ground in Hip Hop Culture”, was moderated by Yannick Blec and revolved around the self-representation of Black queer artists in hip hop music, a genre historically hostile to non-binary perspectives. First, Emilie Souyri (Université Côte d’Azur) examined the lyrics and music aesthetics of Young M.A., a household name on the scene of hardcore rap. She questioned the apparent incompatibility between Young M.A.’s non-binary identity and her appropriation of heteronormative hip hop conventions. She noted that Young M.A.’s lyrics may seem to reinforce misogyny and objectivization of women at first glance. However, her adoption of the codes of toxic masculinity works as an “entry fee” to the hardcore rap scene and a camouflage for her personal politics. In her music, she repeatedly underlines her admiration for independent women and promotes sexual empowerment, thus disrupting the classic sexist and homophobic codes that permeate hardcore rap. Hence, Young M.A. carves a space for the expression of Black queer identities in hip hop culture and subverts heteronormative structures from within the rap community. As a specialist in critical pedagogy, Souyri emphasized the importance of including rap artists like Young M.A. in curricula as a way to promote diversity and recommended teachers and instructors to acknowledge their own privileges and to avoid imposing their interpretations on students.
The next talk was given by Mathieu Perrot (Lafayette College, Pennsylvania) and Glenn Smith (New York University) and explored the themes of self-loathing and self-love in the performances of two Black non-binary artists, rapper Lil Nas X and poet and performer Danez Smith. Both artists are outspoken about the effects of racism and homophobia on their self-identification as Black queers and challenge the labels imposed on them by the White gaze through their art and public discourse. For instance, the church and biblical references in Danez Smith’s poems and Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” song and video point to their struggles with self-acceptance in a world dominated by White heteronormative ideals. In their journey from self-hatred to self-love, the two artists have used various strategies, such as political activism, reversing the meaning of insulting terms, and using humor as a form of resistance. By rebuking the codes of dominant ideology, Lil Nas X and Danez Smith work to empower the Black LGBTQ+ community.
The panel discussion that followed the presentation drew connections between the two talks, including the role of the audience in determining the effectiveness of resistance strategies. In this respect, it was noted that, while Lil Nas X’s mainstream success allows him to convey positive messages about gender fluidity to a wide audience, Young M.A. excels at challenging the prevailing sexist tropes within the hardcore rap community.
The third panel of the conference was dedicated to the study of non-binary Black representations on TV and was chaired by Anne Crémieux. First, art historian Frédéric Herbin (École nationale supérieure d’art de Bourges) considered the evolution of voguing in the post-Obama era through the career of voguing icon Leiomy Maldonado. Voguing, a dance style that originated in Latinx and African American ballroom communities, has gradually gained prominence in mainstream media. The first wave of visibility is recorded in the early 1990s with Madonna’s Vogue music video and the release of two documentaries, Paris Is Burning, which chronicles the ball culture of New York City, and Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied. As the first transgender dancer to appear on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, Leiomy Maldonado led a second revival of voguing at the turn of the 2010s. Through her work, including her celebration of voguing’s ballroom origins in Nike’s “Be True” campaign in 2017, her role as an actress and choreographer on the TV series Pose (FX, 2018–2021), and her more recent tribute to Black activism in the Black Opal beauty campaign, Maldonado has brought the subversive elements of voguing to a mainstream audience and given a platform to the Black transgender community.
Sébastien Mignot (Université de Caen) and Mikaël Toulza (Université de Lille) selected the Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018–2020) as a case study to examine the intersection of Blackness, sexuality, and magic. They noted that while the show’s queerness can be partly attributed to its focus on wizardry and its unconventional elements, it also challenges the gender binary through the inclusion of several queer characters, such as Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose, who is mixed-race, gender fluid, and pansexual. The introduction of a second Black queer character, the Voodoo priestess Marie LeFleur, in the third season further complicates the representation of race in the show by introducing the theme of the creolization of magic, or the combination of white and black magic. The two speakers concluded that, while Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is successful in increasing the diversity of a historically White franchise, the trajectory of the show rather demonstrates the commodification of Black queerness. The discussion following the talk delved further into this issue, emphasizing how the marketing of the series for global liberal audiences might have influenced this representation.
Elizabeth Mullen, associate professor at Université de Bretagne Occidentale, engaged with the TV series True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014) by examining one of its characters, the Black queer cook Lafayette Reynolds. The character first appeared in Southern Vampire Mysteries, a series of novels written by Charlaine Harris in 2001-2002, which served as the basis for the show. In the novels, Lafayette is a minor character depicted through the stereotype of the “sissy” (a trope associating queerness with effeminate, delicate traits). While the textual Lafayette is a vulnerable, othered, and solitary Black gay man, the True Blood character is taken in a different direction in the performance of Nelsan Ellis. The on-screen Lafayette occupies a central role in the narrative and becomes a strong figure, who stands up to racism and homophobia, is connected to and protective of the community. The revised portrayal of Lafayette in the TV adaptation reflects the evolution of stereotypes associated with Black and LGBTQ+ representations. By presenting Lafayette as a charismatic and empowered character, the show invites the audience to reconsider conventional understandings of Blackness, queerness, and Southern identity. Overall, the third panel emphasized the changes in the portrayal of non-binary identities in the post-Obama era and critically examined the limits of television in representing the Black LGBTQ+ communities. As such, it set the stage for the keynote talk that followed.
In his keynote address, Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (University of Iowa) examined the interplay between politics, media production, and audience response in the context of the television show Pose (FX, 2018-2021). He argued that, to fully understand the significance of representation, it is essential to consider both its macro- and micro-developments. At the macro level, this means examining Pose within the larger socio-historical context of the United States and analyzing the mechanisms of production that contributed to its creation. Released in the aftermath of the so-called “transgender tipping point” in mainstream media, which saw an increase in trans representation and visibility, Pose featured the largest cast of Black transgender women in television history. However, this achievement has not translated into increased opportunities for transgender actors in the industry. Martin explained how the discourse surrounding the casting process for Pose rather functions as a “defensive truth” which serves to deflect potential criticism. As a result, problematic representations of Blackness in the show may go uncriticized because of the show’s advertised investment in positive representation of Black transgender women. When Pose is analyzed from the micro perspective of reception and interaction between its audience and its representation of Black queerness, it becomes clear that the show was primarily intended to appeal to a specific “quality” demographics of White women, with trans viewers constituting “surplus queerness.” This raises questions about the commodification of representation and the ways in which the narrative of progressive trans representation can be used to attract mainstream audiences. By examining the discourse surrounding Pose’s politics of visibility and casting practices in relation to the show’s target audience, Martin demonstrated how representation is ultimately important for specific communities, but it often fails to effect lasting changes in the entertainment industry.
The screening of the film Pariah (2011) at Le Brady cinema was a particularly fitting conclusion for the day. Written and directed by Dee Rees, the film is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale centered on Alike, a Black lesbian teenager coming to terms with her sexuality while seeking acceptance from her traditional family. Offering a groundbreakingly nuanced representation of Black queer womanhood, the screening aligned wonderfully with the discussions held throughout the day. It particularly echoed the presentations focusing on other African American artists, such as Wanda Sykes, Lil Nas X, Danez Smith, Young M.A., and Leiomy Maldonado, who have challenged racial and gender binaries through their discourses and performances. While acknowledging the role of media as outlets of expression, the contributions also introduced a note of caution by emphasizing the limitations that cultural industries have placed on quare representations and how industry-specific and commercial factors have influenced even productions heralded as progressive. In light of these contradictions, Dee Rees’s Pariah delivers a message of hope and an invitation to further artistic and academic explorations of intersecting racial and non-binary identities.
Johnson E. Patrick, “‘Quare’ studies, or (almost) everything I know about queer studies I learned from my grandmother”, Text and Performance Quarterly 21/1, 2001, p. 1‑25.
- The term “quare” was coined by communication and performance studies scholar E. Patrick Johnson to account for the unique experiences and cultural expressions of Black queer people; E. Patrick Johnson, “‘Quare’ studies, or (almost) everything I know about queer studies I learned from my grandmother”, Text and Performance Quarterly 21/1, 2001, p. 1‑25.↵
Flavia CIONTU est doctorante à l’Université Paris 8 depuis septembre 2021. Titulaire d’un Master en études américaines de l’Université de Bucarest, elle prépare une thèse intitulée « Figures de l’altérité : les représentations des ressortissants de l’Europe de l’Est et de la Russie dans les fictions audiovisuelles aux États-Unis (1990-2020) » sous la direction d’Anne Crémieux. En s’appuyant sur un cadre théorique transdisciplinaire, elle explore dans ses travaux le croisement de différents systèmes d’altérisation à l’écran, dans le but d’éclairer les mécanismes de représentation des minorités culturelles.
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Flavia Ciontu, Conference “Queering Blackness: Non-Binary Black Representations in Post-Obama Popular Cultures”, ©2023 Quaderna, mis en ligne le 7 septembre 2023, url permanente : https://quaderna.org/6/conference-queering-blackness-non-binary-black-representations-in-post-obama-popular-cultures/