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In 3 double-spaced pages, apply the following reading to the following films to discuss what techniques are used to depict "sexual becoming" or "queer poesis"; 

 In terms of "lesbian possibility," Hammer's "Politics of Abstraction" and Sullivan's "Chasing Fae", applied to Nitrate Kisses and Watermelon Woman  (compare/contrast)

Use brief citation format, indicating your source and page numbers in parentheses after a citation of that source.

Your goal is to have as clear a thesis statement as possible about what your critical (secondary) source helps you analyze about your artistic (primary) source. Due Friday 1PM.

Chasing Fae: "The Watermelon Woman" and Black Lesbian Possibility

Laura L. Sullivan

Callaloo, Vol. 23, No. 1, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: Literature and Culture. (Winter, 2000), pp. 448-460.

Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0161-2492%28200024%2923%3A1%3C448%3ACF%22WWA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A

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C H A S I N G F A E The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility

by Laura L. S u l l i v a n

Cheryl Dunye's 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman, is a groundbreaking, and rulebreaking, film. The first feature film made by a black lesbian filmmaker (McAlister), the film employs both deconstructive and realist techniques to examine the way that identity in contemporary U.S. culture is shaped by multiple forces, primarily race, gender, and sexual orientation. Encouraging viewers to consider the unstable, complex, and often contradictory nature of identity, the film is humorous yet politically engaging. In this paper, I consider the ways that the film works simultaneously to represent and to decenter the identity and history of a figure most invisible in the textual production of the dominant culture-the black lesbian.

The Watermelon Woman, an independent film made on a shoestring budget, experimentally combines narrative and documentary forms. The film's storyline centers on the life and work of Cheryl, a black lesbian woman filmmaker living in Philadelphia. Cheryl works in a video store and in an independent video business with her acerbic friend Tamara, also black and lesbian. Cheryl is making a film about an African-American actress named Fae "The Watermel- on Woman" Richards, who appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. The central narrative's plot concerns Cheryl's relationship with a white woman, Diana, and the parallels between Cheryl's experiences and the subject matter of her research: the life and work of Fae Richards, who was not only a black woman involved in film, but a lesbian who once had an affair with one of her white directors, a woman named Martha Page. Metafictionally, Cheryl often directly addresses the camera as she describes her progress in making the film within the film, and the film presents us with scenes of Cheryl creating her film, performing interviews, and undertaking archival research. The primary tension in the film occurs at the intersection of race and sexual orientation and addresses the feasibility-and politics-of black-white lesbian relationships.

The film also reworks filmic conventions, both traditional and postmodern, as it provokes the viewer's curiosity about this unknown "watermelon woman" actress. Many viewers find it "simply fascinating to follow along with Cheryl's detective work" as she searches for clues about this unknown black actress (McAlister). We participate in Cheryl's process of discovery as she learns about this historical figure with whom she increasingly identifies. The viewer does not discover until the film's end that the actress Fae "The Watermelon Woman" Richards never existed, and is, in fact, the creation of the film's writer and director, Dunye. I explore the implications of the way that the film draws upon and questions both fictional and documentary forms in more detail below. First, a consideration of how this film addresses the representation of members of marginalized groups.

Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 448-460

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DelReconstructing Images of Black Women

In Black Women as Cultural Readers, Jacqueline Bobo asserts that "Black women are . . . knowledgeable recorders of their history and experiences and have a stake in faithfully telling their own stories" (36). In her first direct address of the viewer, Cheryl speaks to this imperative as she muses about what subject to use as the focus of her film: "I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told." As this remark indicates, Cheryl Dunye recognizes that the voices of black women have been absent from the dominant cultural production of texts in this century; her film seeks to address this elision.

Recent cultural critics point out that the primary images of black women in film have been largely harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. Bobo explains that throughout the history of Hollywood cinema, we find "a venerable tradition of distorted and limited imagery" of representations of black women, who have been limitedly characterized "as sexually deviant, as the dominating matriarchal figure, as strident, eternally ill-tempered wenches, and as wretched victims" (33). Bobo specifies that within this last category, classical Hollywood portrayed black women as domestic servants, while more recent texts focus on black women as "'welfare' mothers" (33). In The Watermelon Woman, viewers are exposed to this history while they are also asked to critique it.

The film's central character, Cheryl, is fascinated by the unknown black actresses of early Hollywood cinema, while her friend Tamara chastises her for her interest in "all that nigga- mammy shit from the130s." In her first monologue about her documentary, Cheryl tells viewers that she has been viewing tapes of 1930s and 1940s movies that have black actresses in them, exclaiming that she is "totally shocked" to discover that "in some of these films, the black actresses aren't even listed in the credits." In this way, Dunye the filmmaker comments on a real phenomenon, the historical invisibility of black women in film as well as the devaluation of their labor and identities, before she introduces us to the (fictitious) film that currently has her character Cheryl's attention. Cheryl relates that when she first watched this film, she "saw the most beautiful black mammy, named Elsie." Clearly intrigued by this actress, Cheryl insists that she show us a clip. Yet the "clip" from the video is typically racist and demeaning, containing a Civil War scene in which the mammy comforts a white woman, "Don't cry Missy, Massa Charles is coming back-I know he is!" This constructed excerpt is familiar to us, as heirs to a media culture that routinely assigned black actresses to such roles, not that many decades ago, as emblematized by Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939). While Cheryl is aware of the exploitation of black women in cinema, she is still seduced by these images. As she explains to the viewer, she is going to make a film about this actress, known as "the watermelon woman" because "something in her face, something in the way she looks and moves, is serious, is interesting."

Bobo notes that "Black female creative artists bring a different understanding of black women's lives and culture, seeking to eradicate the harmful and pervasive images haunting their history" (5). Dunye's film directly acknowledges the negative effects of the oppressive stereotypes with which black women have been imaged in the history of film. The title of the Fae Richards' film with which Cheryl is most fascinated is telling in this regard, Plantation Memories. Through mechanisms such as the naming of this (fictional) film, Dunye comments on the historical continuity of the oppression of black women. She reflects how the legacy of slavery affects the lives of black women in the 20th century (and how this legacy also shapes

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the representations of such lives). She also reminds us that early stereotypical depictions of black women continue to impinge on the lived experiences of black women today and continue to delimit the options available for black women producers of contemporary cultural texts.

In the case of black lesbian women, however, what is "haunting their history," to use Bobo's phrase, is not so much a history of damaging and false images, but, is, instead, a certain absence of participation in the representations of the mainstream media. Jewelle Gomez comments on the black lesbian's "invisibility in American society" and explains that black lesbians "are the least visible group not only in the fine arts, but also in the popular media, where the message conveyed about the Lesbian of color is that she does not even exist, let alone use soap, drive cars, drink Coke, go on vacations, or d o much of anything else" (110). Thus, Dunye's film serves first to document the existence of black lesbians, in much the same way as Julie Dash's film Daughfers of the Dust (1992) was unique in featuring a group that is not typically the visual or diegetic focus of most films-black women. As bell hooks comments in a dialogue with Julie Dash, "To de-center the white patriarchal gaze, we indeed have to focus on someone else for a change. And . . . the film takes up that group that is truly on the bottom of this society's race- sex hierarchy. Black women tend not to be seen, or to be seen solely as stereotype" (40). Dash and hooks discuss the discomfort of some viewers of Daughters. . . in having to "spend . . . two hours as a black person, as a black woman" (40). While black women flocked to the film in droves (Bobo 9), black men and non-black viewers needed to connect with the film through mechanisms other than direct identification (Dash and hooks 40). Viewers from these subject positions were thus called upon to be more actively involved in the process of textual reception.

Dunye's film likewise calls upon a n active viewer, but with the added dimension of sexual orientation. For if the black woman has been invisible or stereotyped in popular culture, the black lesbian woman has been even more invisible, and when present, this figure has caused even black women discomfort. (For example, Dash reports that the actress who played one of the black lesbian lovers in her film, Yellow Mary, later denied that her character was gay (Dash and hooks 6 6 ) . ) The Watermelon W o m a n foregrounds black lesbian identity throughout, but it does so in a way that invites the reader to connect the history of the black lesbian actress who rose to fame through a series of denigrating roles as servant and slave, with the present black lesbian filmmaker before us, Cheryl Dunye, who is playing a version of herself.

For example, in scenes filmed in Cheryl's home, the tape of Plantation Memories plays on the television, while Cheryl, a bandana tied around her head, lip syncs the mammy's part in the film's scene, exaggeratedly mimicking the fawning pretense of the black servant played by Fae Richards. Likewise, in another series of scenes in the film, Cheryl sits in front of her video camera, holding several postcards and pictures of the Watermelon Woman in her hands, hiding her face. The camera is tightly focused on the images of the Watermelon Woman that Cheryl leafs through, showing these pictures to the viewer, but Cheryl is visible in the background, an eye peering around these representations of the actress, a gesture of connection. Yet in the end what we have is a constructed history connected to a constructed but "real" figure, Cheryl the character standing in for Cheryl Dunye the filmmaker.

Commentingon the uniqueness of Daughters of the D u s t , hooks notes that there are "very few other films where the camera really zooms in onblack women's faces" (52). Dunye also employs this technique, and there are many scenes in which the faces and bodies of black women, in this case black lesbians, are prominent. These typically invisible bodies are rendered visible in a number of ways. First, there are many closeups of Cheryl in the segments where she directly

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addresses her video camera. Second, there are explicit love scenes that break new ground. For while viewers of alternative cinema have previously seen the naked bodies of white lesbians, such as Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver in Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts (1985), and even including The Watermelon Woman's Guin Turner who starred in the white lesbian film Go Fish (1994), love scenes that feature black lesbian women are rare. Patricia Rozema's When Night Is Falling (1995) is a notable exception in this regard, as it depicts a romance between a black lesbian woman and a previously straight white French woman. However, while that film's focus is on the white woman's "conversion" to lesbianism, The Watermelon Woman centrally engages the interracial dimension of its lesbian romances. The subjects of Cheryl's interviews about Fae Richards debate the nature of her relationship with Martha Page, and Fae's last lover, June Walker, refers to Page as "that white woman." More relevant to this discussion is the way that Dunye's film visually highlights the racial aspect of the lesbian relationship between Cheryl and Diana, in scenes technically reminiscent of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991). Viewers are treated to tight close-ups of Cheryl and Diana's black and white bodies pressed together in explicit sex scenes. Their hands roam across each other's naked bodies as the women kiss. At one point, the camera zooms in on the interlocked black and white hands of the two characters in bed. In this way, the film not only requires that black lesbians be acknowledged; it also documents the existence of interracial lesbian romances.'

Avoiding Essentialism

Queer female producers of cultural texts must wrestle with the nature of lesbian subjectiv- ity. In the wake of the complete destabilizing of subject formation that has resulted from the theoretical insights provided by a postmodern perspective, such artists face the challenge of "reconstruct[ing] lesbian subject positions without reinstating essentialisms" (Dolan 42). Dunye has risen to this challenge, as the characters in The Watermelon Woman d o not present a monolithic view of any featured group. As Dolan argues, "Lesbians disappear under the liberal humanist insistence that they are just like everyone else. Difference is effectively elided by readability" (44). In this film, there is no unified lesbian subject position, either black or white. Cheryl, Tamara, their white video store coworker Annie, Tamara's black girlfriend Stacy, and Diana are all very different types of lesbians. They have different styles of fashion, different race and gender politics, and distinctive personalities. For example, Cheryl and Tamara have short, close-shaven haircuts, while Diana has long hair and wears lipstick. Stacy is a student finishing her MBA degree at Wharton; Tamara is obsessed with sex; Cheryl is passionate about filmmaking; and Diana wants to "figure out her life."

However, the film moves beyond merely presenting the wide variety of lesbian subject positions. The film addresses what is required "to reconstruct a tenable lesbian subject position . . . somewhere between deconstruction and essentialism" (Dolan 53). Dolan specifies what this new representation of lesbian subjectivity will entail:

Reconstructing a variable lesbian subject position that will not rise like a phoenix in a blaze of essentialism from the ashes of deconstruction requires emptying lesbian references of imposed truths, whether those of the dominant culture or those of lesbian radical feminist communities

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which hold their own versions of truth. The remaining, complex, differ- ent referent, without truth, remains dependent on the materiality of actual lesbians who move in and out of dominant discourse in very different ways because of their positions within race, class, and variant expressions of their sexuality-dragging at the margins of structure and ideology. (53)

The Watermelon Woman answers Dolan's call, by refusing to accept the heritage of racist and heterosexist Hollywood cinema, by interweaving questions of sexuality and race, and by presenting lesbians who have conflicted relationships to dominant ideology. Additionally, the binary oppositions of "good" and "bad" identities are similarly deconstructed, as the film avoids simply reversing the dominant characterizations that attribute positive connotations to straight a n d / o r white people and negative ones to gay and/or black people.

Although black lesbians, real and imagined, present and historical, are the focus in this text, the film presents a more complex view of lesbian subjectivity. The contrast between Cheryl and Tamara, for example, not only reflects the variety of subject positions of black lesbians; it also reveals the way that oppressions and their internalizations are layered and intertwined. Tamara advocates black lesbian solidarity, yet she reveals her own sexism throughout the film. Tamara frequently encourages the single Cheryl to "cruise" for "cute girls" and declares that she hopes to "get some" from her girlfriend Stacy on an upcoming date. When Tamara criticizes Cheryl at the video store, telling her "All you d o since you don't have a girlfriend is watch those boring old films," Cheryl retorts, "I'd rather watch films than black porn like you." In this way, the internalized sexism of some lesbian women is presented through the character of Tamara, who views women as sexual objects. As always, this portrayal is presented with humor. For instance, one of the films Tamara orders from the video store is called Bad Black Ballbusters; Tamara justifies her film choice to Cheryl: "I was curious to see what they look like without hair."

Cheryl is caught in the crossfire of the various vectors that pressure her identity. She is not a typical lesbian in Tamara's eyes because she is not obsessed with finding a girlfriend and because she does not visually objectify women. Tamara sees an inevitable connection between a lesbian identity and chasing women: "We're lesbians-remember, Cheryl? We're into female- to-female attraction. Anyway, you're the one who's supposed to be clocking all the girls-how long has it been since you've been with one, anyway?" Cheryl's lack of preoccupation with women is evidence to Tamara that Cheryl is not behaving authentically as a lesbian. Cheryl has other struggles as a lesbian. She feels "set up" by Diana, who invites her to dinner and then seduces her. After she sleeps with Diana, Cheryl tells us in a voiceover, "I'm still in shock over the whole having-sex-with-Diana thing. I've never done anything else like that before, let nze assure you. The hip, swinging lesbian style isn't my forte. . . .I'm just an old-fashioned girl trying to keep up with the times." For many viewers, the idea that all lesbians are alike will be shattered by these depictions.

The film also reveals the instability of racial subjectivity. Bob, the owner of the video store, is a black man who oozes sexism-and heterosexism-in his mistreatment of the women who work for him, black and white. Lee Edwards, the black gay race film expert, knows nothing about the watermelon woman or Martha Page. He excuses his ignorance of these two women, telling Cheryl and Tamara, "Women are not my specialty." And black feminist essentialism is

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likewise critiqued in this film. Tamara, Cheryl, and Annie film a poetry reading by "Sistah Sound" at the local women's community center. With African drumming for background rhythm, a black woman performs a poem that repeats "I am black woman, black woman, yes," in a scene that both celebrates and pokes fun at such gatherings.

Racial politics also influence the relationship between Tamara and Cheryl, which becomes increasingly conflicted as the film's narrative progresses. Tamara's opinion of Diana is pred- icated on her wariness of white women. Tamara sees Diana as trying to usurp the black lesbian's place in the world, calling her Cheryl's "wannabe black girlfriend." Tamara questions Cheryl's alliance to black women once she begins dating Diana, telling Cheryl, "I see that once again you're going out with a white girl acting like she wants to be black, and you're being a black girl acting like she wants to be white. What's up with you, Cheryl? Don't you like the color of your skin?" While Cheryl defends herself to Tamara-defensively asking, "Who's to say that dating somebody white doesn't make me black?"-she is clearly uncomfortable when Diana reveals that she was born in Jamaica, and even more disturbed by Diana's revelations that she has had black boyfriends in the past and that her "father's sister's first husband was an ex- Panther" whose name was "Tyrone W a s h i n g t ~ n . " ~ Moreover, both the white lesbian archivist as well as the white sister of Martha Page, with whom Diana has arranged an interview, treat Cheryl condescendingly. When Diana does not stand u p to Mrs. Page-Fletcher when she refers to "all those coloreds" that Martha Page employed and when she denies her sister's lesbianism, Cheryl has had enough. Thus, while Cheryl rejects Tamara's essentialist view of black lesbian identity, she struggles with race dynamics in her relationship nonetheless.

Likewise, Cherylargues against June Walker's call for Cheryl to eliminate Martha Page from her film. In a letter to Cheryl, the woman who was Fae Richards' lover for the last twenty years of her life says,

I was so mad that you mentioned the name of Martha Page. Why d o you even want to include a white woman in a movie on Fae's life? Don't you know she had nothing to d o with how people should remember Fae? I think it troubled her soul for the world to see her in those mammy pictures. . . . If you really are in "the family," you better understand that our family will only have each other."

Cheryl responds to June's letter in her last monologue, insisting that there is no one black lesbian subject position, and declaring that she might make different choices about the meaning of this black actress's legacy. Cheryl tells June, "I know she meant the world to you, but she also meant the world to me, and those worlds are different." She refuses to erase the history of Fae's romance with the white woman director from her film: "The moments she shared with you- the life she had with Martha, on and off the screen-those are precious moments, and nobody can change that." She then points to the generational differences in operation in this debate, "But what she means to me-a twenty-five-year-old black woman, means something else," explaining how this figure inspires her as a black, lesbian filmmaker.

This film calls into question the idea of "difference" itself. The character Annie, the young, white lesbian who works with Cheryl and Tamara in the video store, has blond streaks in her black hair and wears a dog collar. Cheryl and Annie get along well, but Tamara bristles at the girl's street style and sense of self-confidence. When Cheryl asks her why she so dislikes Annie,

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Tamara retorts, "She gets on my last black lesbian nerve with all that piercing and hair dye business." When Cheryl reminds her that they also share a marginalized status-"Tamara, you know we're different, tooo-Tamara reverts to segregationist and classist arguments to justify her denigration of Annie: "Yeah, but see we're not different amongst a group of ritzy black folk. I mean, we were there to get their business and to be professional. We weren't there to look like a bunch of hip-hop multicultural mess." She says that she is disgusted by Annie's way of dressing and by her dog collar. Later in the video store back room, Tamara tells Annie, "You're so helpful-you probably know a place to get a good clit piercing, don't you?" Annie responds, "Look Tamara, just because you and I are different doesn't mean you have to treat me like shit all the time." The conflict between these two women highlights the fragmentation and multiplicity in lesbian subject positions, as well as the way that different aspects of identity are sometimes at cross purposes with one another. This film undercuts the essentialist assumptions of both oppressive and liberatory positions, undermining a heterosexist view that lumps together all gay people, as well as an anti-racist view that would promote an essentialist view of all white people. In this way, the film moves beyond what hooks calls the "de-center[ing] of the white patriarchal gaze" (Dash and hooks 40) to question the racist heterosexist gaze, including the potentially homophobic gaze of non-white straight viewers, as well as the potentially racist gaze of white lesbian viewers. The film enacts this decentering both visually, as interracial lesbian romances are prominently pictured, and diegetically, through the con- flicts of its characters. Revealing their racist and heterosexist agenda, the American Family Association labeled the film's depictions of lesbian sex "smut" (McAlister). However, the film forces even those viewers who are not on the "right wing" end of the political spectrum to confront their own prejudices.

The film also contains a complex presentation of class identity. The video store owner, Bob, wields power over his three female employees, incessantly berating them for not being familiar enough with what he calls "the Bob system," although they clearly know how to perform their jobs well. While Tamara and Cheryl barely make ends meet, and while Cheryl must work hard at two jobs in order to finance her film project, Diana is well-off financially, as indicated by the credit cards she flashes at the video store, by the spacious apartment she rents while she takes time off from school, and by the fact that she does not work during the time of the film, but volunteers with homeless children of color (a race dynamic that does not go unremarked upon by Tamara). In contrast to Diana's life of leisure, Cheryl and Tamara have had to resort to a "tape scam" at work in order to secure videos for themselves, films for Cheryl's research and porn movies for Tamara's enjoyment. They rent tapes under customers' names, preview them, and return them, as Cheryl explains to Diana. Finally, we learn that Annie is a Bryn Mawr college graduate, yet she needs the job at the video store, pointing to the way that college degrees n o longer guarantee security in the work force. Even the parodied lesbian archives (in the film called C.L.1.T.-the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology) struggle finan- cially, relying on volunteer help and not having a catalogued organization yet in place. The documentary portions similarly present class dimensions of the characters' experiences. Fae Richards, we learn, was a maid before she became an actress. Black cast films eventually became pass6 in part because even black audiences wanted to see Hollywood films instead, as Lee Edwards explains to Cheryl and Tamara. Although Tamara points to the real connection between race, power, and wealth when she refers to "the white folks at the bank" at the film's outset, in this film, there are no clear correlations between race, gender, sexual orientation, and

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class status. The film does not undertake an explicit class critique, but it does convey the oppressive elements of class and the way that class position meshes with and influences other types of identity formation.

(Relwriting History

The Watermelon Woman draws upon "pseudo-realism, borrowing heavily from the docu- mentary format" (Turoff). The viewer's relationship …