Rising Energies

Last fall, I saw my former thesis adviser, Mary Kearney, give an excellent presentation on sparkle, girlhood, and post-feminist luminosities. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Angela McRobbie identifies luminosities as spotlight effects of power that bring young women forward as individualized subjects. While luminosity promises to make young women legible cultural subjects, this visibility often becomes a form of surveillance. Kearney takes up sparkle as a form of luminosity that is simultaneously glamorous and vexingly ephemeral for girls and young women. Toward the end of her talk, she argued that scholars should consider what queer theory—and queer political actors like drag queens and glitter bombers—can teach us about sparkle. At the bar afterwards, I asked her what glitter can teach us about throwing shade.

As a Drag Race fan, I’m familiar with throwing shade as a vital historical practice within drag culture. To throw shade is to insult someone. For especially quick, observant queens, it’s an art form. There’s an intellectual component to throwing shade, as indicated by associative terms like “reading.” It is effectively summarized in a segment of Jennie Livingston’s essential 1989 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigates the New York drag ball scene.

Dorian Corey’s comment at the end of this scene suggests that reading is more overtly performative and communal, whereas shade is a subtle, more ephemeral form of subterfuge. Shade complements luminosity. For female celebrities, luminosity is a double-edged sword. What’s the difference between a red carpet appearance and a mug shot? But drag queens frequently harness the light sources found in cosmetics, sequins, and rhinestones to honor feminine strength and often to challenge conventional femininity. They help cast sparkle in a different light. They sparkle to deflect shade. But when a queen shines, she may also become vulnerable to another queen’s shadow, particularly if her light source is basic or counterfeit. Glitter reflects light and the dirt underneath it.

This is where reading comes in as a “fundamental” practice in drag culture. To be insulted is to be recognized. As a perennial mini-challenge on Drag Race, “the library” is a space that honors queens’ ability to be critical of her sisters in a quick, perceptively humorous fashion. Particularly effective queens, like season two contestant Jujubee, can “read for filth” by isolating a queen’s flaws or weaknesses and critiquing them in devastating fashion.

The current cast of Drag Race includes frontrunner Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic with a classic Hollywood aesthetic. In an early workroom appearance, she refers to her punchlines and put-downs as her “Rolodex of hate.” What I especially like about this phrase is how it turns anger into an index. This phrase suggests that emotions have histories with their own root causes and stories. It also turns this particular negative emotion into a technology, a tool that can be used to navigate a variety of social interactions.

A “Rolodex of hate” sounds like a “structure of feeling,” a concept popularized by cultural theorist Raymond Williams to express how certain cultural experiences are understood through representation and felt in everyday life. But a Rolodex is a reference system that allows its user to refer back to pre-existing connections and associations. In this context, “Rolodex of hate” reminds me of what Heather Love refers to as “feeling backward,” or a distinctly queer experience or representation that speaks to subjects’ negotiations of negative or ambivalent feelings like nostalgia, resentment, self-loathing, shame, and despair.  It also raises a question: what is knowledge’s relationship to anger?

This is the question that I have for the video to Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” I work for a university, so I was immediately struck by the clip’s location. First off, an empty school will always look like the setting to a horror movie. This is why you will never find me at a library after 7 p.m. But schools are already scary because they’re sites of learning. As a result, they enforce ideologies of knowledge. School is a source of power. That’s where I learned how to diagram sentences and solve equations. It’s also where I learned dominant historical narratives, literary canons, bad words, and political values that I would later challenge and undo … by staying in school. At school, teachers and students also learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers and each other. Such congregation can be difficult for subjects who are persecuted and endangered because of their differences and their inability (or unwillingness) to adhere to norms that are toxic in their restrictiveness. It can also be disorienting, particularly since students and teachers’ actions are subject to scrutiny but its source or intent is not always clear.

Apart from the video’s setting, I’m struck by Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxxx’s lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere about the politics of negative reinforcement, using Azealia Banks’ “212” as an example. The rappers’ extensive use of the word “bitch” cannot be ignored, though we should recognize that the word has different meanings when it is activated by a woman or a queer man. But I’m also interested in its interplay with “college,” “knowledge,” “dissertation,” “classroom,” “outline,” “cohesive,” “lunchtime,” “first period,” and “thesis.” Schools circulate ideologies through discipline. We tend to associate “discipline” with official codes of conduct that sanction certain behavior and academic practices. Discipline also circulates through less formal means. Subjects are also disciplined by schoolyard fights, incriminating gossip, and withering glances. But sometimes, anger is coded through refinement. In a graduate seminar, you might say “I find the author’s argument problematic” or “I hear what you’re saying, but I quibble with you about …” Such niceties allow you to make your point, even if you’d rather yell and throw things instead. That tension is what I find most compelling about “Ima Read”; Katz and Foxxx appropriate scholarly decorum to use it as a weapon instead of as a euphemism.

I try to lead a simple, fulfilling life; anger is a part of that. Yoko Ono begins “Revelations” with the line “Bless you for your anger, it’s a sign of rising energy.” As a feminist, I am often furious about actions and events—however subtle, however seismic—where people and various -isms ingratiate themselves into cultural representations and everyday life in order to oppress and maintain the dominant order. Sometimes I just cry. This is why I’ve never understood how weeping is denigrated as feminine. I reject such binaries and how they devalue women and femininity by denying their connections to “masculine” emotions like anger. And crying is never a dainty, submissive act for me; it destroys my face. But depending on the circumstances, I also respond with confrontation, with inquiry, with silence. As Ono’s lyrics suggest, such energy has multiple potential outcomes. Anger is productive. It transforms. But what can we do with these energies? How can we use it to teach and what can anger teach us?

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