Musings For Chameleons

By  |  August 7, 2014
"Impermanence: Conflagration #10, 2006," by Kendall Messick "Impermanence: Conflagration #10, 2006," by Kendall Messick

It’s an American tradition made manifest in class ascendancy (moving to New York to escape a hick town, getting an education and altering an accent): when we feel incomplete—when we feel uncomfortable in our own skin—we seek newer, richer identities. We examine the people who have what we want; we costume ourselves. Drag culture embodies this mode of identity experimentation, and drag is so much more than pancake makeup and false eyelashes, corsets and sequins and men lip-synching to Donna Summer. It is the cultivation of an alternate, imaginary persona.

In White Girls, the judiciously experimental essay collection by Hilton Als, the theater critic for The New Yorker, the ultimate aspiration of drag for gay minorities is to become the paragon of sexual perfection: the white girl—the most universally desired identity in our culture. As Als ponders, “Wasn’t she—whoever she was—everything the world saw and wanted?” A gay man of West Indian descent, Als has cultivated a longtime identification, or twinship, with the white girl; he describes innumerable objects of his white-girl reverence, from an art-world doyenne he dubs Mrs. Vreeland (after the famous fashion editor), to the fanciful mass culture examples of Elizabeth Taylor, to the protagonists in Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Throughout thirteen penetrating essays, both personal and critical, he catalogs various moments of white-girl envy and sympathy. As an outsider-observer, Als keenly looks to twentieth-century Southern writers in order to find the language to describe the nuances of his conflicted identity, defining the essence of white girl-ness through numerous references to Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Flannery O’Connor. (It becomes increasingly clear that the Southern version of the white girl represents some larger, more resonant version of Als’s ideal.) For Als, the white girl is a cultural emblem, an achievement of American feminism to be revered as much as its flawed tendencies and behaviors have been cultivated in oppression. He uses this paradox to define how another oppressed American population, the one he inhabits as a black man, could be its theoretical equivalent.

 

Als’s infatuation with white girls began when he first beheld the woman who has become the cultural signifier for the wickedly beautiful and plucky Southern female archetype: Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. In “GWTW,” his scathing essay about black representation in the media, Als opens with a study of historical photographs of lynching victims. He connects the images to his biography, recounting moments from his life:

You can feel it every time you cross the street to avoid worrying a white woman to death or false accusations of rape, or every time your car breaks down anywhere in America, and you see signs about Jesus, and white people everywhere and your heart begins to race, and your skin becomes clammy, and the perspiration sticks to your flesh, just like Brock Peters in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, where he’s on a trial for maybe “interfering” with a white woman; it’s her word against his but her word was weight, like the dead weight of a dead lynched body.

At the climax of the essay, Als admits of the lynching victims, “I’m ashamed that I couldn’t get into the history of these people.” Instead, he saw them through the exposure of the moving picture. “When I thought of that white light, I thought of my introduction to the South, where many of these niggers were killed: it was sitting in a darkened movie theater with my mother and little brother, watching the revival of Gone With the Wind.” He confesses: “We ignored the pitiful colored people in the film because we wanted to enjoy ourselves, and in Margaret Mitchell’s revisionist tale of the South, Vivien Leigh was so pretty.” Here, he jumpcuts from brutality—from the reality of race relations in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction—to the whimsical. She was so pretty. Als’s sense of irony is robust, but so is his candor, as if he were the gay male counterpart to Pecola Breedlove, Toni Morrison’s tragic ingénue.

Young Als, sitting in the safe, darkened room of a movie theater in Brooklyn, believes that he can emulate the seductive ferocity of Scarlett O’Hara. “Whites and blacks. I could make them love me, just as Vivien Leigh made so many men fall in love with her before the fall of Atlanta.” Like the suitors at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, he falls for her immediately (and eternally), just like so many white girls do—even if we despise her for her constant attempts to use desirability for personal gain. Als goes so far as to pledge himself to the cult of Scarlett:

I loved her so much I didn’t want her to suffer. As I grew up, I retained that feeling toward women who looked like my first movie star love: I didn’t want them to suffer, even though they, like Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, could lynch a nigger to pay for all their hardship: God didn’t make people of her class and wealth and race to suffer.

With this effusive praise, Als draws a line connecting the mythic and lovely Southern white woman to the plight of the black man. He commands, “See [the] black bodies and weariness smeared all over Vivien Leigh’s beautiful face.” Even the face of this white girl carries upon it the mark of tragedy, of crimes committed in the name of her honor.

 

White Girls opens with a touching autobiographical account of Als’s close friendship with another white girl–loving black man whom Als refers to as SL (short for “Sir or Lady”). Called “Tristes Tropiques,” the essay codifies the author’s fixation with the white girl in her many forms. SL is straight, and while Als never categorizes their relationship in terms of sexual affinity, he desperately desires a twinship with SL, a person whose white girl worldview is so similar to his own. In essence, they were, for their time in the New York art world of the 1980s, cultural anomalies: black male feminists who shared a deep and chaste love for white girls, informed in large part by the heroic representations of white women—actresses, literary heroines, activists—in the media they grew up consuming. Als describes their friendship in the guise of different fictional characters, saying, “Metaphors sustain us.” He chooses parallels like the friendship of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, and even Carson McCullers’s heartbroken kid sister, Frankie Addams, disconnected and devastated by her brother’s marriage in The Member of the Wedding, a mournful witness to something she can only participate in “at a distance.” Or, Als writes,

Flannery O’Connor might have described someone like SL when she wrote: “[The Negro] is a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy.”

Why do we sad, literary shape-shifters do this? Why do we look longingly to texts to help us justify our ploddingly needy and unnatural affections? In his fumbling attempts to illuminate this humiliating connection to SL, Als parses his relationship with another man, K, who “was thin and white and he loved and identified with white girls.”

But couldn’t he see I loved him more than any of those horned-up lunkheads, and that he could sometimes be like them in that he wanted to get at some essential part of me that was my own and couldn’t be touched, in the Flannery O’Connor sense? Were all white girls like that?

It’s startling that Als believes Flannery O’Connor holds the key to understanding the black male consciousness—and it’s shocking that a black man would, even in a metaphorical sense, characterize himself as a white girl. Als often returns to the fraught and uncomfortable relationship between a white woman and her body; it’s perhaps this paralyzing self-awareness that leads him to conceal a vulnerable part of himself—this “essential part”—just as he feels white girls do. In a simple rhetorical question, Als teases out the very real and very sticky relationship between two culturally oppressed and endlessly sexualized entities who might actually share more of a tragic twinship than we’d like to acknowledge. They are two subgroups of people who outwardly portray themselves one way and, in another, disguise themselves for protection.

Als turns often to Flannery O’Connor, as in his essay “This Lonesome Place,” in which he describes her as the best Southern writer to unflinchingly depict racial tension in her region:

Her black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world . . . She didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply—and complexly—drew from life.

Indeed, no other white Southern writer, especially a female one, has been so widely praised for her canniness in painting these thwarted tensions. O’Connor was a private, invalid woman who spoke with equal disgust of the maudlin portrayals of Southerners found in Tennessee Williams plays and of her own sexual desires. And Als seems to admire O’Connor’s self-restraint as much as others venerate St. Francis of Assisi: “O’Connor’s most profound gift was her ability to describe impartially the bourgeoisie she was born into, to depict with humor and without judgment her rapidly crumbling social order.” He also attributes her outsider status—she was “a single girl in a society of matrons”—as the fuel for her humor. “What was lacking in O’Connor’s life,” Als asserts—the only thing we can pity her for—“was the spontaneous experience of intimate love, with its attendant joys and tedium and security.” In other words, O’Connor was no Scarlett. By contrasting O’Connor’s poise and intelligence with Scarlett’s sloppy lustiness, he implies that Scarlett represents what most white women are like, while O’Connor is a strange and singular exception. Like himself.

 

If you really want to be somebody, if you want everyone to fall in love with you, then you must—to borrow a drag term—werq. And Truman Capote knew how to werq, according to Als. He did just that for the author photo on his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1947). In the Harold Halma photograph, the seraph-lipped Capote reclines on a chaise lounge sporting a sort of midcentury version of duckface. Like any good Southern girl, Capote is lavishly self-stylized: his brows are lifted in inquisitive suggestion, and his hand is draped cavalierly over his crotch. As Als writes, this image was presented in opposition to the severe, legitimate lady-writers of the time, whose de rigueur author photos revealed high, Edwardian turtlenecks and matronly pearls, the subjects holding their arms crossed or with cigarettes brandished high. As an act of defiance, in an effort to outdo his respectable female contemporaries, Als writes, “Truman Capote became a woman in 1947 just when ‘real’ women would not or could not. And the woman he became in this photograph . . . wanted to be fucked by you and by any idea of femininity that had fucked you up.” The idea of Capote as white girl might be disorienting, but it recalls the piercing understanding of female self-consciousness in the male gaze as defined by the art critic John Berger:

A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. . . . She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

A white woman always has to be concerned with popularity, desirability, her ability to seduce, and more importantly, her ability to seduce competitively—better than her fellow females. (Als on white girls’ bad behavior: “We hate white girls because we are white girls and that’s what white girls do.”) “By becoming the most famous woman author—not writer, an important distinction—of his generation, Truman Capote sought to limit or cock block other women writers in their quest to be popular, admired, celebrated,” Als continues. He gives Capote the distinction of creating a literary persona that preceded his reputation as a writer.

But the female identity didn’t serve Capote forever. He lived in New York in an era of hyper-masculine nonfiction savants (many of whom were also Southern), including one who was especially vocal in his misogyny and disdain for lady writers: Norman Mailer. It could be that Mailer’s famous “Quaintsy Goysy” slam against female novelists was applied with Capote in mind. In Als’s estimation, Capote had to do the nonfiction thing with the big boys in order to be taken seriously. Thus came In Cold Blood, his attempt to “usurp male authority,” when “Capote the woman realized that Truman Capote the man would eventually have to adhere to the publishing world’s perception of the male writer if he were to occupy a place in it and be of continued interest to the press.” It was a strategy that worked, although it’s also well documented that the process of researching and compiling that masterwork was Capote’s psychological undoing as much as it was his crowning literary achievement. Perhaps forsaking his comfortable female identity marked the beginning of his slow decline.

 

Als is not the first writer to attempt to define the disarming tension between white girls and black men. Just look at civil rights activist and writer Anne Braden. An Alabama-reared newspaper reporter who spent her twilight years raising hell in Louisville, Kentucky, Braden was one of the only white people Dr. Martin Luther King acknowledged in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” So unwelcome were her agitations that even her 2006 New York Times obituary reads like a rap sheet. Braden was a prolific proponent for civil rights until the end of her life, penning acerbic letters and pamphlets such as her 1972 dispatch championing the case of Thomas Wansley, a young black man wrongfully convicted in 1961 on trumped-up rape charges. In her missive, Braden appeals directly to white girls:

He is a victim of the myth of white Southern womanhood. We didn’t personally put him in prison—just as we did not create the myth. But by remaining silent as black men died or went to prison because of it, we have helped to fasten its shackles on ourselves.

It’s a highly uncomfortable argument: White women, become conscious of your unspoken role in the Southern racial struggle. Realize that you are part of the problem. Realize that you are helping perpetuate a fear rather than advancing past it; it imprisons you as much as it does others, and they, like Wansley, given two death sentences, will pay for your sins. She spells out the myth frankly and indelicately:

I believe that no white woman reared in the South—or perhaps anywhere in this racist country—can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls—absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white—absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.

Braden, like Als, sees that white girl hands (or faces) are bloodied by this “shared tragedy.” Neither one has any suggestions for how we could possibly pull ourselves out of this systemic, hopeless binary.

 

Hilton Als discusses many white girls in his collection. But one is conspicuously absent: cocaine. This euphemism dates from the 1970s and made an appearance in Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s 2011 song “In Love with a White Girl,” a careful extended metaphor about Gucci’s preoccupation with the drug. That white girl can be fully possessed and indulged. She represents class, power, wealth, and is a landmark of cachet and entitlement. And even when she’s abused, she’s still sexy; look no further than recent films like The Wolf of Wall Street to find that glamorization still in play. Cocaine symbolizes all the trappings of class ascendancy that the white girl symbolizes for sexual ascendancy. It’s uncanny when the outsider-minority culture, even one as commercially viable as hip-hop, calls a spade a spade.

I would argue that the narcotic white girl is the other half of Braden’s symbolic shackles. The bane of black existence—drug culture—and the bane of white girl existence—sexual objectification—are wound up tightly together, members of the same chain gang, like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis manacled at the ankle in The Defiant Ones.

 

As a black man with a predilection for the Southern white woman experience, Als can write about white girls in salacious, exploitative detail like Freud writes about Dora. He knows our every move, and everything wrong with those moves, and he appreciates that we make them anyway. White girls still carry a specter of sexuality that limits our power; just like Scarlett, in many ways, it’s our only power. It’s the advantage that keeps us from completely ruling the world with our uncomfortable privilege; it keeps us unmolested in crowded public places and keeps us quiet when we want to talk about race. Like black men, white girls are seldom permitted to be sexual and intellectual creatures at the same time.

When minority drag queens so dutifully examine the white girl, it’s the sexiness they study—they covet the fantasy of entitlement-to-the-point-of-blind-depravity; they’re not trying to become women of the world who say and do what they please and also are taken seriously. The awareness of this sad, insurmountable fact is what made Als fall in love with Scarlett—it’s what made him pity her, despite her abject racism. Like himself, she will never have the one thing she really wants: a legitimacy that exists beyond her appearance. (In one passage, Als writes of white girls’ “horror about what they shared with their white male oppressors: their skin.”) The Southern white woman, in particular, is often of two minds. To borrow terms used in the seminal drag queen documentary Paris Is Burning, white women must be “equal parts ‘butch realness’ and ‘femme realness,’” if they are to be taken seriously—and adored. So must Als. In describing the divided consciousness, John Berger says of women:

To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men . . . But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. . . . From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

This pervasive sensation of self-observation is what causes Als to cross to the other side of the street to make a white woman feel safe. It’s what he means when he writes, “This is what makes me feel niggerish, I’m afraid: being watched.” It’s what allows Als to write with accuracy and dexterity about white girls, about what he is not—or is, but only spiritually. His essays are not just envious, campy love letters to the outlandish, literary version of the Southern white girl. They’re a poignant acknowledgement of solidarity, and perhaps a plea for it as well.


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Natalie Elliott has written for such publications as VICE, Slate, and The Paris Review Daily. She lives with her husband, Nick, in Austin, Texas, where she teaches high school. 

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