Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentification

Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentification

Camera Obscura
Volume 23, Number 1 67 (2008)
pages 113-143
DOI: 10.1215/02705346-2007-026

Hiram Perez, Assistant professor of English
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York

Building on feminist and queer scholarship on the relationship of film spectatorship to subjectivity, this essay conjectures subaltern spectatorships of the two US film adaptations of Fannie Hurst‘s 1933 novel Imitation of Life as a means of tracing the impossibly entangled discourses of race and sexuality, as well as of formulating “queer of color” as a kind of critical modality. Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin functions, according to Sigmund Freud, as a cultural artifact prized in the form of an idealized beating fantasy by the Victorian (white) child, Imitation of Life stages for black and queer of color spectators originary traumas, in particular the formative (and compounded) experiences of racial and sexual shame. This essay seeks to reconcile the dissonant emotions evoked by Imitation of Life by reading the overidentifications of subaltern spectators with the figure of the tragic mulatto as instances of queer pleasure, both self-shattering and subject forming. In so doing, the essay pays tribute to that tragic mulatto as a spectacular mulata and diva. The spectacular mulata diva summons queer subjectivities; furthermore, she betrays larger national and colonial secrets, locating the racially hybrid genealogies of the classic diva and the universalized subject of psychoanalysis, heretofore presumably white (European).

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