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Express Yourself. Voguing as a Form of Sociocultural Protest

Bachelor Thesis 2017 39 Pages

English - Miscellaneous

Excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. INTRODUCTION

2. THE ROOTS OF VOGUING – FAGGOTS' BALLS

3. INTERSECTIONALITY AND THE VAST INEQUALITIES OF A WHITE MAN’S NATION
3.1. RACE AND CLASS
3.2. THE MASCULINE POWER STRUGGLE AND THE THREAT OF SUBVERSION
3.3. HETERONORMATIVITY’S RULE
3.4. A TIME OF CRISIS – HIV/AIDS AND THE CYCLICAL RE- INFORCEMENT OF EJECTION
3.5. CHURCH, MORALITY AND FAMILY REJECTION

4. A CHANGING BALLROOM CULTURE – THE LINK BE- TWEEN PERFORMATIVE REALNESS AND VOGUING
4.1. THE ALTERNATIVE PROJECT – THE ORGANISATION OF HOUSES AS POSTMODERN FAMILIES
4.2. POSTMODERN FAMILIES – GENESIS AND FUNCTION OF HOUSES IN BALLROOM COMPETITIONS

5. VOGUING – A BODY OF CONTEST
5.1. DEEP IN VOGUE – WILLI NINJA, MALCOLM MCLAREN AND FIRST STEPS INTO THE MAINSTREAM

6. CONTEXTUALISING MADONNA AND CRITIQUE ON HER WORK
6.1. NOT QUITE LIKE A VIRGIN – MADONNA’S AMBIGUOUS PLAY ON GENDER IDENTITY
6.2. PRE-VOGUE – MADONNA’S COMMENT ON RACE AND RELIGION
6.3. MADONNA IN VOGUE
6.4. THE VOGUE MUSIC VIDEO – ECHOES OF THE BALL- ROOM SCENE
6.5. THE COUNTER-LOOK – A STRATEGY OF EMPOWER- MENT
6.6. THE INTERPLAY OF IMAGE AND SONG LYRICS – THE PROCLAMATION TO VOGUE
6.7. STRIKE A POSE – MADONNA’S DANCERS LOOK BACK

7. CONCLUSION

8. Works Cited

1. INTRODUCTION

In 1990, a dance called Vogue was propelled into the mainstream via a song and music video of the same name by pop singer Madonna, who is associated with intro- ducing the song and with it the dance movement to a worldwide audience. However, it is inevitable that one must investigate the history and evolution of the dance style and its roots in ballroom culture of the African-American and Latin-American gay community in the United States in order to fully comprehend the cultural phenome- non that is Voguing. Created to express cultural and sexual identity of minorities within the gay community, Voguing also served as a tool to reveal and protest heter- onormative patriarchy and homophobia, white privilege and thereby the closely linked ideologies of racism and classism. Notably, racism and classism also posed to be considerable factors in the exclusion of African-American and Latin-American homosexual individuals within the mainstream white gay community. Societal anxie- ty of the then emerging HIV/AIDS crisis and the conservative government under Ronald Reagan, posed to be what Mazzone and Peressini call a threat of “potential and complete exclusion” of African-American and Latin-American citizens from the gay community, American society at large and often even their own families. The broad societal exclusion led to the blossoming of a subculture with its own rules and structures. The analyses of the Voguing roots aims at disclosing the intersections of oppressional factors for gay Vogue dancers of colour and further strives to unveil Voguing as a form of subcultural protest against norms established by white patriar- chy. Jennie Livingston’s documentary on the 1980s gay ballroom scene in New York serves as a tool to emphasise the unique position of gay outcasts of colour and allows an inspection of the structure and meaning of the ballroom scene with its houses and their organisation as post-modern families. As it is a pivotal aspect of the scene and its power to question traditional family and moral values rooted in religion, leading to heterosexist suppression and condemnation of homosexuals and all gender non- conformists, the documentary and the organisation of the ballroom scene will be ana- lysed. In this context, the first mainstream release of the artist Malcolm McLaren in the late 1980s presenting, and the role of Madonna in the promotion of Voguing in mainstream popular culture in the early 1990s will be discussed. It is argued that Madonna’s work and collaboration with dancers from the Voguing underground sce- ne had the vigour to be an instrument to bring gay issues into the centre of discussion in American society and posed to be a consequent progression of her already thought provoking work on issues such as gender, race and religion. Madonna’s work, the Vogue music video and the lyrics to the accompanying song will be analysed with the help of Fiske’s theories on popular culture and Mulvey’s work on the male gaze, to unveil a political statement against racism, classism, homophobia and (hetero)- sexism to be traceable in Madonna’s work. In addition, an outlook of the diversifica- tion of Voguing post Madonna will be given to locate the condition and critique po- tential of the dance today.

2. THE ROOTS OF VOGUING – FAGGOTS' BALLS

After the American Civil War and the abolishment of slavery in the United States in 1863, the following years and decades were formed by the emerging Industrial Revolution on American soil, modelled after the successful movement that made Great Britain a global superpower due to the technological progress occurring in the 17th and 18th century. Aliyah James states “blacks migrated up north into urban areas such as Harlem because they were transitioning from the slavery era to working up North at factories” (Queer Culture Collection, James). Harlem developed to be the centre of African-American migration and thus became the heart of their sociocultur- al expression. The rise of faggots' balls during the 1920s can be directly linked to this development. Openly expressing their sexual identities, homosexual dancers were acknowledged parts of their communities and celebrated for their art at venues such as The Rockland Palace. The balls also included costumes and men dressing as women. There was a flourishing gay scene in New York City and “Harlem clearly did not internalize the dominant culture”, meaning white culture, which mostly de- plored queer identities at the time (Queer Culture Collection, James). However, the ballroom scene soon started scattering due to a backlash connected to the ramifica- tions of Prohibition and as a consequence thereof, the gay ballroom scene was prem- aturely halted.

Beginning in the 1930s and increasingly after the war, sociological viewpoints continued to shape the belief that heterosexuality was the only natural and healthy result of psycho- sexual development. Homosexuality became defined as a perversion in which individuals suffer from primitive object relations, impaired ego function, and defective superego (Sullivan 7-8).

As homosexuality continued to be classified as a mental disorder until the 1970s, the ballroom scene experienced its resurrection exclusively in the context of gay sub- culture in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and gay liberation in the 1960s. The function of the dance can best be thought of as two sides of a coin. While one side clearly is an homage to beauty, celebrity, fashion, glamour and riches, hence the name of the dance referencing the internationally acclaimed fashion magazine Vogue, the other side is, as Stephen Ursprung emphasizes “born out of a need to re- spond to racism and heteronormativity, it was a response to heterofascism, gender- normativity, conformativity and the socioeconomic oppression enforced by classism” (Voguing: Madonna and Cyclical Reappropriation, Ursprung).

3. INTERSECTIONALITY AND THE VAST INEQUALITIES OF A WHITE MAN’S NATION

3.1. RACE AND CLASS

Beyond the artistic expression and critique of Voguing, lies a history much older than the dance, which will be uncovered and contextualised with the movement and the original African-American and Latin-American Voguers to unclose its protest potential through the lens of an intersectional approach. Muñoz defines intersection- ality as a resource of “critical hermeneutics that register the copresence of sexuality, race, class, gender, and other identity differentials as particular components that exist simultaneously with one another” (99). Concerning the marginalised gay Voguers, the historical foundation of the United States has to be reconsidered to trace elements that forced gay people of colour into their unique outcast positions in American soci- ety during the 1980s and early 1990s. Such an endeavour can always and only be confined as:

The place from which power is exercised is often a hidden place. When we try to pin it down, the center always seems to be somewhere else. Yet we know that this phantom center, elusive as it is, exerts a real, undeniable power over the whole social framework of our culture, and over the ways that we think about it (Ferguson 9).

The following disclosure and discussion fragmentarily indicates examples of so- cial exclusion factors and their effects. Trina Jones writes on the founding of the na- tion: “From its inception in the seventeenth century, the U.S. economy required la- borers to work in the fields of the South, to build cities to the North, to facilitate western migration and ultimately, to develop the West. Often where one wound up in the labor hierarchy was not a result of historical accident, but rather of design” (59). The Atlantic slave trade is the kind of design that Jones is commenting on. It forced the first African workers to colonial America and into slavery, simultaneously creat- ing a socioeconomic system of oppression whose repercussions are palpable to this day. The justification of the colonial suppression came in the form of the ideology of race. Race can be defined as “the idea that human population is made up of a number of biologically different groups … a person’s bodily appearance and especially their skin colour are often regarded as determining their membership of a racial group” (Pilcher and Whelehan 115). Colonisers considered themselves to be part of a cul- tured white west and therefore privileged to rule over every culture, race and society they constructed to be the oppositional other. For them, it followed from the nature and logic that black slaves were “barbaric, intellectually limited, morally corrupt, oversexed, at times savage, and untrustworthy” (Jones 64). Thus the inheritance of colonialism is institutionalised racism that forged the lives of people of colour and especially African-Americans in the United States through “the Jim Crow era, and into the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, it was not until well after formal legal barriers were abolished that the United States began to witness a burgeoning Black middle class” (Jones 64). Despite the fact that “there are no races in the biological sense” (Mason 1), it is still a significant social concept with the power to determine the lives of people of colour and their access to and opportunities within the educational and occupational systems and thus their socioeconomic status and chances of upward mobility. Jones concludes:

Race or Black culture is often blamed for Black poverty. One argument posits that racial defects supposedly inherent in Black people (or Black culture) prevent Blacks from pull- ing themselves up by their bootstraps and accessing the socioeconomic opportunities that are said to exist, at least until recently, for all Americans in this land of plenty. In other words, because Blacks are lazy, unintelligent parasites, they have not obtained the Ameri- can Dream. Somehow, in this deeply troubling and one-sided story, race and class be- come mutually reinforcing. Blacks are poor because they are Black and Blackness gets constructed as poor. That is, poverty becomes a constitutive element of Blackness (65).

3.2. THE MASCULINE POWER STRUGGLE AND THE THREAT OF SUBVERSION

The philosophies of Imperialism and Colonialism are deeply ingrained into the fabric of the United States and with them the ideas of white supremacy and patriar- chy. Patriarchy denotes the “rule by the male head of a social unit” (Pilcher and Whelehan 93). Feminist theorists started using the term “to refer to the social system of masculine domination over women” (Pilcher and Whelehan 93) and further de- nounced the androcentric focus of Western societies stating that “societies historical- ly and in the present, exhibit androcentric tendencies whereby their culture, knowledge, organisation and institutions reflect and reproduce the dominance and power of men” (Pilcher and Whelehan 1).

Tracing back the roots of binary division concepts within Western knowledge ad- vancement of societies, Pilcher and Whelehan suggest that Descartes’ “Cartesian Dualism”, has strongly influenced the way knowledge is organised today. He “based his philosophy of knowledge on the idea of fundamental difference between mind and body” (24). His model influenced the understanding of reality “as if it were comprised of sets of ‘either/or’ pairings” (24). The underlying power structure of the United States is thus a dichotomous one that entrenches a “polarised distinction” (Pilcher and Whelehan 24) in various areas of knowledge organisation. Deriving thereof, are socially constructed differences of ‘natural’ patriarchs and multiple groups not epitomising the ideal, white masculinity. The result being that non-male, non-heterosexual and non-white individuals are designed to be the social/cultural other that needs to be governed, in order to sustain white male hegemony. Naturally, there is no such thing as an essential masculinity and the category is thus an unstable product of distorted ideal conceptions. Reeser writes on masculinity that the identity category “can be thought of both as created by institutions and as creating them and the process of the construction of masculinity as a constant back-and-forth movement between masculinity and institutions” (20). He separately addresses the consequences of being constructed as the racial other for African-Americans, that can be consid- ered to work against Latin-Americans in American society in similar ways. First, he explains the approach of “excess”:

In the US context, one recurring cultural analogy is the racist construct of the African- American man … He might be taken to be excessively violent or excessively sexual. Ste- reotypical images of the macho Latino man (with a hairy chest and gold chains) might al- so be linked to a quantity of masculinity or be thought of as too much … Consequently, the construct of non-excessive or moderate applies to the white man … seen as ideal by contrast (149).

The second related process to ascribe these men the part of the unequal other, Reeser coins “lacking”:

Coding his racial other as lacking in some way (without intelligence, culture, self-control, financial success, etc.). In this sense, an excess of masculinity can be transformed into a lack, and lack may be a way to evoke excess in a different guise (150).

The concept of masculinity is dependent on these constructions, as it only sustains its claim to be natural and gains meaning in opposition to categories being made into the other. It follows, that masculinity can then be constantly redefined and re-enacted against them to attain the supreme position in the power struggle of unstable social identity constructs. Butler states on the fiction of fixed gender norms and their natu- ralisation:

Consider that there is a sedimentation of gender norms that produces the peculiar phe- nomenon of a natural sex, or a real woman, or any number of prevalent and compelling social fictions, and that this is a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corpo- real styles which, in reified form, appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes which exist in a binary relation to one another (“Performative Acts” 191).

3.3. HETERONORMATIVITY’S RULE

Every person violating the heteronormative rules of white patriarchy poses as a potential threat of unveiling the dichotomy of heterosexuality and homosexuality as an unnatural, social creation and thereby uncloses gateways to subvert the estab- lished power hierarchy. Queer people of colour therefore embody a vessel of multi- ple threats. The gay Voguing scene with its performances of alternatively shaped in- terpretations of gender identity can, as a result, be analysed as challenging the social construct of heteronormativity. Chung delivers an appropriate explanation of West- ern society’s heteronormative framework, writing:

Heterosexuals form the dominant group in society which holds the political power to le- gitimise and advance its own social, cultural, economic and educational agendas. The dominant group defines, governs and polices cultural values and social norms such as sexual relationship, marriage, family structure and parenthood from a heterocentric cos- mology. Heterocentric ideology has been and still is the dominant force in most social practices (101).

Undoubtedly, heteronormativity is another factor of discrimination against queer people of colour, but to think of race, class and heteronormativity as separated layers of the same issue is not fruitful. All of these ideologies can indeed be singular forces of exclusion and oppression but mostly operate together in varying constellations with blurred boundaries, depending on the situational context and the people in- volved. Nonetheless, the merging of race, class and heteronormativity has the poten- tial to be a powerful weapon of white patriarchy and is accurately described by Smart as:

akin to white colonial identity. It entails an effortless superiority, a moral rectitude, a de- feat of the emotional and the neurotic by the power of the unconscious struggle and, of course, the certain knowledge of masculine superiority (Smart 173).

Heterosexuality is the central norm of American society. As a result another di- chotomous polarity set, together with homosexuality as the marginal other pole, is created and patriarchal power structures are reinforced for every non-heterosexual person. While heterosexuality is defined through its centrality and broad influence on culture and society, homosexuality’s definition, on the contrary, is narrowed to its sexual component, which “comes to define everything and informs negative dis- courses about gays and lesbians” (Pilcher and Whelehan 69). Sullivan traces the gen- esis of the term homosexual back to the year 1869 and further explains that “homo- sexuality was not thought to be a separate orientation” before the emergence of the term. He writes, “Little was written on the subject of homosexuality until the Victo- rian age when homosexuality became a criminal offense in many European and American Societies” (4). The emerging negatively biased discourse and the coining of the term homosexual in European culture may be a cause why the identity catego- ry gay is pervaded by what Muñoz describes as “white normativity”. He also criticis- es the white gay community for its “unwillingness to form coalitions with other counterpublics including feminist (both lesbian and straight) and other minoritized groups” (112). Even the gay liberation movement arisen in a societal system of insti- tutionalised exclusion of minorities was not free of colonialist structures. Brier stresses the fact that the “historical reality of racial discrimination in gay institutions” must not be underestimated (57). She depicts “the consistent practice of racial exclu- sion at bars. Throughout the 1970s, gay men of color reported that bars often denied them access by requiring multiple forms of identification” (59). Brier further charac- terises the 1970s gay liberation as a movement of “whiteness”:

White, upwardly mobile gay men made their political and social demands central and universal at the same time. This prevented a wide range of people from seeing racial and class diversity among gay people and produced a cultural essentialist sense of ‘gayness’ that actually was about ‘whiteness’ (50).

In this sense, the white gay community contributed to racist and classist trends that pushed gay African-Americans and Latin-Americans further to the margins of socie- ty. The outcast position resulting from the discussed forces of multiple intersecting exclusion factors also sets the tone for the documentary Paris Is Burning by Jennie Livingston, which accompanies the lives of several ballroom dancers of the New York underground scene between 1987 and 1989. One of the dancers comments up- on his own societal status in the opening scene of the film:

I remember my dad used to say, you have three strikes against you in this world. Every Black Man has two. That they’re just Black, and they’re male. But you’re Black, and you’re male, and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time. And he said, if you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined (01:15:42-01:15:25).

3.4. A TIME OF CRISIS – HIV/AIDS AND THE CYCLICAL RE- INFORCEMENT OF EJECTION

During the early 1980s, the appearance of a hitherto unknown disease puzzled physicians. What is known today as HIV/AIDS was starting to spread in the United States at an alarming rate. But as it mostly affected homosexuals and drug users in its early days, the conservative government under President Ronald Reagan discounted the disease. It is indispensable to have a closer look at the AIDS crisis as many members of the ballroom scene had no opportunity to accomplish financial security due to being attributed to oppressed ethnicities, thereby lower class castes and sexual identities considered to be abnormal by white heteronormative patriarchy. As a result of these systemic structures of inequality, many Voguers earned their money as sex workers and therefore were in a constant state of risking an infection with HIV/AIDS. The impact of the disease can still be felt today as a whole generation of famous Voguers is almost completely obliterated. Mass media in the United States introduced HIV/AIDS as “the gay cancer” (Brier 20) or gay plague to their audiences and thereby helped shaping a new demonising discourse of homosexuality, that was substantially invigorated by the extended silence on the epidemic by the U.S. gov- ernment. Brier dismantles a chain of causation for this course of action and writes on Reagan:

He did not sign a document dealing with AIDS until the end of 1985, did not mention the term “AIDS” in public until 1986, and spent very little money on researching the epidem- ic even though the first cases of AIDS coincided precisely with Reagan’s first months in office…Reagan failed to act on AIDS because of his commitment to the New Right, which required a moralistic stance against gays and lesbians and drug users … the admin- istration’s response to AIDS was part of its larger conservative attack on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had loosely united to extend civil rights to ra- cial, gender, and sexual minorities (Brier 80).

As there was no framework of how to deal with the disease and little to no re- search and public health intervention until the mid and late 1980s, the gay communi- ty found its own methods to respond to the health crisis by using gay institutions to inform their audience about prevention measures and establish contact with doctors working with HIV/AIDS patients. The intertwined issues that “public health authori- ties did not complete the scientific study on the ability of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS until 1985” and that “condom makers and public health officials marketed condoms exclusively to heterosexuals” (Brier 46) certainly kept the infec- tion rate of homosexuals growing. However, not only the political stance on HIV/AIDS at the time, but also the social structures within the gay community need to be considered linking the health issue to the infection of gay people of colour. Firstly, there was neither a prevention campaign that was aimed at different commu- nities of people of colour and secondly, as they were largely expelled from the white gay community, they had no admission to preventive health measures. Evidently, the aftermath of colonial history is also traceable in relation to HIV/AIDS.

3.5. CHURCH, MORALITY AND FAMILY REJECTION

Another pivotal element for the formation of the social structure within the ball- room scene, documented in Paris Is Burning, is the rejection of the majority of danc- ers by their own families that the community members often experienced at a very young age. Pilcher and Whelehan define the nuclear family as “an ideology that communicates a preferred form of organisation which is internalised by everyone” and further state that:

Family both protects us from the outside world and socialises us into it. It is generally through our parents and siblings that we come to understand the meanings of gender dif- ference and where messages about morality and normality we learn at school are rein- forced (or not) (44).

During the 1970s, family became an object of investigation in feminist studies and was often analysed to be a patriarchal form of oppression for women, which was crit- icised by black feminists as an ineffective approach to the subject matter, because it overlooked that the family unit was a safe space for men and women to withstand racism (cf. Pilcher and Whelehan 46-47). However, this account is flawed, as it is only concerned with heterosexual identities within the family bond. It is also missing the fissuring force of religion within Black and Latin-American communities, that condemns every non-confirmative form of gender identification. Scott writes on the role religion plays within African-American communities:

As a social force, black religion has served to counter the constant barrage of negative at- tacks on African Americans and their communities in the United States. In a culture that has suggested, particularly through the agencies of mass media, that African Americans are the wrong color, unattractive inherently morally defective, and undeserving of the same rights and privileges that all white male citizens acquire at birth, the black church has been the constant, and often sole, voice arguing that in the eyes of God, all men and women are, in fact, equal (59).

The problem occurring in the context of religion is that it is operating on the same moralistic basis the conservative Reagan administration based its politics on. It de- nounces homosexuality and justifies this practice on the fundament of religious texts such as the Bible and moral stand points deriving from religion. Catholicism can also be seen as one of the main factors of exclusion of homosexuals within the Latin- American community. This entails that even movements concerned with the equality and freedom of people of colour, such as the civil rights movement, “contained many homophobic and masculinist elements”(Muñoz 99), that cast homosexual individuals of colour in an outsider position within their own ethnic communities. In this respect, intersectionality becomes a diversely operating system of isolation and identity, “a site of struggle where fixed dispositions clash against socially constructed defini- tions” (Muñoz 6). The emergence of the ballroom scene is very much shaped through the described elements of isolation and therefore all the social issues discussed above already lie at the heart of the Voguing scene and the dance itself.

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Details

Pages
39
Year
2017
ISBN (eBook)
9783668637375
ISBN (Book)
9783668637382
File size
662 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v387850
Institution / College
Saarland University
Grade
1,3
Tags
Voguing Vogue Civil rights colonialism Ethnicity Madonna Protest dance Social injustice Pop Culture Cultural Studies Deep in vogue paris is burning Malcolm McLaren Willi Ninja Xtravaganza HIV Aids patriarchy

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Title: Express Yourself. Voguing as a Form of Sociocultural Protest