Issue 41 2005
"To Be Real"
Drag, Minstrelsy and Identity
in the New Millennium
By ESTHER GODFREY
| Note: Click on each
image to see an enlargement of it.
 In the preface to her analysis Racechanges, feminist
scholar Susan Gubar explains her own induction to contemporary race
theory via gender theory and questions the resistance to scholarly
work on racechange: "Was the subject of transracial crossing more
taboo than that of transvestism or transsexuality? Not only has
the blatant racism of minstrelsy (quite reasonably) made white impersonations
of blacks seem shameful, it has also (less sensibly) spilled over
to discourage scholarship about its ongoing impact on American culture"
(xvii). Although Racechanges neglects to resolve
her query fully, Gubar's initial connection between race and gender
theory proves groundbreaking. Despite a certain academic resistance
to legitimize blackface as a topic of scholarly inquiry, the theatricality
of minstrelsy suggests similarities with gendered performances like
drag, which Judith Butler has established as a rich subject for
critical exploration. If drag can be read as a destabilizing force
that liberates gender from essentialized binary logic, modern-day
minstrelsy could seemingly work in much the same manner. Yet, despite
the ongoing dialogue among gender and race theorists, contemporary
criticism has yet to unravel the complex web that binds gender and
race or to discuss adequately the relationships of gender and race
to power through mediums like class, fame, and fashion. Beginning
with films like Paris Is Burning (1990), Bamboozled
(2000) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
and then moving to the Halloween incidents over the past several
years at Southern universities in which numerous individuals donned
blackface, this essay explores the ways in which minstrelsy works
as a parody like contemporary drag to both subvert and affirm essentialized
notions of race. Ultimately, neither drag nor minstrelsy proves
to be entirely subversive or repressive, but a query into this intersection
of race and gender performance reveals covert systems of desire
and control, pleasure and power that begin to explain the limited
successes and failures of both types of parody.
 Social demonstrations of blackface appear to coincide with
periods of increased racial ambiguity. Since the call in the mid-1980s
from leading African American theorists to deconstruct race and
move beyond essentialized notions of identity, much has changed
in the larger cultural understanding of racial identity. The United
States Census Bureau included the category "multiracial" for the
first time on its 2000 census. Encouraged by Toni Morrison's 1992
Playing in the Dark, whiteness theory swept academic circles
through courses, conferences, and several readers concerning critical
white studies. Time magazine dedicated a special
issue in 1993 to the spreading American multiculturalism, using
computer-generated images to blend the facial characteristics of
individuals of various ethnicities into "the new face of America."
PGA champion Tiger Woods publicly embraced his African and Thai
heritages, refusing to label himself as black (Norment 112). Moreover,
countercultural publications like Noel Ignatiev's Race Traitor
journal and website, which proclaims, "Treason to whiteness
is loyalty to humanity," found voices in American and international
venues. By the turn of the millennium, "race" was a term in flux,
but the fluidity of the term did little to take away its power.
In fact, the persistence of and renewed interest in (both now and
more than a century ago) parodic images of blackness demonstrate
a social backlash against the instability of racial categories.
Minstrelsy climbed to its highest popularity during the 1830s and
40s when racial lines between blacks and Irish were most blurred
(Lott 64-70). To a new millennium American society increasingly
ambivalent about the existence of racial categories, the theatricality
of minstrelsy and other metaphorical blackface performances serves
dual purposes—dismantling stereotypical notions of racial identity
while recreating and reaffirming them in the process.
 The move to deconstruct race parallels work in gender theory
seeking to subvert traditional male-female binaries. Responding
in part to Lacanian assertions in "The Instance of the Letter in
the Unconscious" that the phallus or lack thereof was the primary
mark of identification (Lacan's bathroom door example), Butler redirects
critical focus to question the polemics of Lacan's initial division:
"There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that
identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions'
that are said to be its results" (Gender Trouble 33).
For Butler, the theatricality of drag (both male-to-female and female-to-male)
works to dislodge essentialized notions of gender identity and sexual
difference. Thus, her example of a drag queen singing Aretha Franklin's
"You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman" highlights the instability
of gender identification on multiple levels; not only is the irony
of Aretha's (a "natural" woman) self-reflexive subversion of gender
identity noteworthy, but so are the implications of mimetic appropriation
of femininity. Working specifically through excess and repetition,
drag deconstructs and reconstructs gender identities, challenging
and reifying the materiality of the phallus as a distinguishing
marker just as minstrelsy subverts and affirms the logic of essential
race differences and other attempts to link physicality to identity.
If "gender trouble" can go from parody to politics, as Butler suggests
in her conclusion, can "race trouble" do the same?
 On the surface, Lacan's claim that gender marks the primary
division of humans into categories seems to hold out against race.
After all, sexual difference as defined by the presence or absence
of a penis is unmitigated by the union of male and female parents,
unlike the frequent visual markers of "blending" that appear in
the offspring of parents of different races. Why then, as Gubar
notes above, does transraciality prove more resistant to inquiries
and receive more scorn from society than does transexuality? Why
does minstrelsy offend in ways that drag does not? To argue that
race is a more fundamental marker of identity than gender or vice
versa oversimplifies the complicated antics of the gender-race phenomena.
Instead, an analysis of the ways both gender and race are performed,
subverted and affirmed will begin to move the discussion forward
and reveal the political possibilities that parody holds.
 Released the same year as Butler's Gender Trouble, Jennie
Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning explores the
New York ball scene of gay Hispanic and black males who are transvestites
or transsexuals, and the film serves as an informative touchstone
for this analysis into race and gender performance. Through surgical
procedures, gestures, and clothing, perceived essentialized biological
formulations of a sex / gender system are disrupted. The performers
pass as women (or as straight males) both on the ballroom floor
and in everyday society. The drag queen Octavia St. Laurent, for
example, convincingly performs femininity in a crowded shopping
mall, with the intent of passing into the epitome of feminine culture—fashion
modeling. However, in Paris Is Burning, drag moves beyond
gender subversion in its complex association of race and class.
Provocatively, the first interviewee recalls his father's telling
him that he has three strikes against him—he is black, male and
gay. In a world historically controlled by masculine authority,
such a claim appears startling. Yet, within New York ball culture,
femininity becomes a mark of power that goes hand-in-hand with an
exaggerated, class-bound whiteness, and Venus Xtravaganza, a transgendered
person of color, thus explains, "I'd like to be a spoiled, rich
white girl." The appropriation of whiteness by drag culture in
highly stylized, heavily symbolic performance pieces like "vogueing"
demonstrates that a class-bound race, and not simply gender, is
 In an intricate guise of race and class, the goal of the performers
is "to be real" as captured in the Cheryl Lynn song that is the
anthem for the film. Fundamental to drag is the explicit desire
to touch, feel, and be "Other." Pepper Labeija, another drag queen
and the mother of the house of Labeija, explains, "To be able to
blend—that's what realness is." Yet the performances remain clearly
over-the-top, producing racial and gender characteristics to extremes
of masquerade and creating to excess the subtleties of feminine
gesture (the sway of hips, wrists) and the markers of economic whiteness
(the profusion of champagne, designer labels). The parodic qualities
of excess and repetition used throughout the drag performances thereby
unhinge notions of what it means "to be real." Butler points to
the cyclical relationship between the original and the imitation:
"In this sense, the 'reality' of heterosexual identities is performatively
constituted through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin
and the ground of all imitations. In other words, heterosexuality
is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own
phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing" (author's
emphasis "Imitation" 722). Though Butler limits her analysis to
gender, logically, while drag in Paris Is Burning is engaged
in a parodic subversion and reinstatement of sexual identity, it
is also clearly invested in a similar destruction and production
 A comparison of the drags shows documented in Paris is Burning
to the minstrelsy shows featured in films like Spike Lee's Bamboozled
is a rewarding move, though not without its complications. The
similarities are easy enough to see. Both emphasize a staged theatricality
dependent on over-the-top constructions of identity. Both employ
intricate makeovers in an elaborate masquerade. Both incorporate
elements of parody. As the film unravels to reveal a "new millennium
minstrel show," it is society's (both the society within the film
as well as the film's viewing audience) simultaneous failure and
success to embrace and implement the parodic elements of minstrelsy
that take center stage and demand our critical attention. Perhaps,
only by interpreting Bamboozled in light of Butlerian gender
theory and Paris Is Burning can Lee's message and the societal
reactions be fully understood.
 Through the opening explanation of satire and the very title
Bamboozled, Lee warns us not to take things at face
value. As expressed in the clip included in the film from Lee's
earlier Malcolm X, "You've been hoodwinked. You've been
had. You've been took. You've been led astray, led amok. You've
been bamboozled." Granted, much of the discomfort that the film
raises stems from an uncertainty regarding what is real; as Womack,
a black actor who has becomes a star through the new millennium
minstrel show, jokes as Sleep'n Eat, "I don't know who I is." Womack's
name represents the peculiar destabilization of gender and racial
identities captured by the film, which probes issues of sexuality,
what it means to be "Woman," and of race, what it means to be "Black."
Indeed, questions of identity prove central to the film as the characters
perform, parody, relinquish, realign, reject and reestablish racial
stereotypes. Like the refrain of Lynn's "Got to Be Real" in Paris
Is Burning, various characters in Bamboozled remind one
another to "Keep it Real"—a proclamation that raises more questions
than answers. A cultural anxiety of identity looms large within
the film, where Thomas Dunwitty, a white television executive who
has appropriated African American culture through sports, gestures,
and marriage, claims to be "blacker" than some blacks, including
the black television writer Pierre Delacroix. Paradoxically, minstrelsy
addresses this anxiety through the subversion of racial and gender
 But, anxiety of identity also arises from the minstrel tradition's
very manifestation of racial stereotypes in ways that the performances
of femininity and whiteness in Paris Is Burning do not produce,
and this anxiety refuses separation from the history of racial prejudice
and systematic oppression of blacks in this country. Without a
doubt, the minstrel tradition in America developed to address explicitly
racist motivations, yet, as Eric Lott posits in Love and Theft:
Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, to focus
solely on the white desire to mock and denigrate black culture and
blackness is to ignore the ability of the minstrel show to sanctify
a white fascination and attraction to blackness. Rather than reading
minstrelsy as subversive, society typically interprets minstrelsy
as repressive. For example, Lott cites Frederick Douglass' comment
from 1848 to describe nineteenth-century sentiment regarding blackface
performers, whom he deemed were "the filthy scum of white society,
who have stolen from us a complexion denied to us by nature, in
which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white
fellow citizens" (15). Recent evidence of the cultural taboo against
blackface is not hard to find; Ted Danson's appearance in blackface
while dating Whoopi Goldberg was met with sharp criticism, captured
by the white comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's response, "Jesus Christ,
Ted, what were you thinking of? Do you think black people think
blackface is funny in 1993?" (Ebert). This increasing awareness
of racial injustice is a welcome characteristic to American society,
whose consciousness and guilt concerning long-sustained racist traditions
have grown. Yet Lott asserts a more complex relation between society
and minstrelsy; he claims that "the audiences involved in early
minstrelsy were not universally derisive of African Americans or
their culture, and that there was a range of responses to the minstrel
show which points to an instability or contradiction in the form
itself" (15). The instability and contradiction inherent to minstrelsy
are what drive Bamboozled and give the television program
"Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show" as well as the film
itself, which must also produce the racist images it criticizes,
the incredible power to undermine and reify racial identity.
 The subversive tactics originate from Delacroix's initial
conception of the show. He simply wants to make something so offensive
that he will be released from his contract with the television station.
Yet Delacroix, like his boss Dunwitty, has undergone the anxiety
of identity that characterizes the new millennium. Though he is
black, Delacroix can't name the African American baseball player
who is #24 on Dunwitty's wall (Willie Mays). He has changed his
name from Peerless Dothan to Pierre Delacroix—not in an effort to
reclaim his black heritage like the film's revolutionary gangsters
like Big Blak African and the other Mau Maus, but in an effort to
further embrace a white European authenticity. Delacroix performs
what he sees as whiteness through his voice, through his gestures,
and through his decisions. He has little knowledge of "who he is"
and therefore cannot negotiate the maze of identity that is blackface.
Thus, when what he expects to be racially offensive is embraced
by Dunwitty, he is caught off-guard. Delacroix's inability to read
himself parallels his inability to predict how Dunwitty, the American
public, and even he will respond to his resurrection of the blackface
show. Delacroix does not understand how truly subversive his minstrel
show will be.
 Dunwitty's response to the show is overwhelmingly positive
and reveals his desire to break social taboos surrounding race for
both racist and subversive motives. Clearly, Dunwitty has extremely
contradictory ideas about the essence of race. During his second
scene in the film, he questions Delacriox about "CP" or "colored
people's" time—suggesting that he believes in the racist notion
that African Americans can not follow time, except in music or dance.
He pushes Delacroix's initial concept further into racist stereotypes,
suggesting that the setting for the show be changed from the inner
city to a plantation. Yet his desire to emulate and dismantle popular
notions of blackness flows in numerous directions in a matrix of
ambivalent objectives. For example, when Dunwitty refuses to acquiesce
to Delacriox's request not to use the word nigger in his presence,
Dunwitty appears to be attempting to undermine a linguistic code
by depriving it of a negative connotation. In fact, for many of
the whites that become implicated in the performance of blackface
throughout the show, it is the liberating potentiality of unearthing
the worst of racial stereotypes that proves enticing. The minstrel
show offers whites a chance to alleviate white anxiety and guilt
concerning America's racist history under a new black sanctioning,
as evidenced during a scene which shows the filming of the pilot
episode; as the minstrel show opens, a white couple looks uncomfortably
around until they see African Americans laughing at the blackface,
and then they feel free to enjoy themselves. With the social taboos
overturned, white culture is ethically and literally free to indulge
its desire for black culture. In Bamboozled, children
wear blackface masks for Halloween, members of the audience blacken
their faces, and society at large is suddenly liberated regarding
blackness in ways that echo the nineteenth-century emergence of
blackface, which enabled performers to give vent to large-scale
repressed concerns and desires.
 Indeed, the sexualized nature of the minstrel performance
that emerges from a historicized and complex white anxiety concerning
black physical prowess and miscegenation cannot be overlooked.
Nodding to history, Lee thus shows how the public fascination with
Other through the black, male body continues today. The minstrel
show highlights Manray, a tap-dancer who made his living on the
street before rising to fame through the minstrel show, and Womack,
Manray's partner whose sonorous voice projects the deep tones associated
with traditional slave songs. The leap from physicality to sexuality
is not difficult; Lott articulates the minstrel audience's logic:
"If black men could do this with their voices, imagine what they
could do in the flesh!" (58). The performers whet the audience's
unspoken homoerotic desire through hand gestures, sexual innuendoes,
and elaborately choreographed play. The discharge of desire is
powerful, erupting in orgasmic exchanges between performer and audience
like the trademark "Oooo-eee / Ooooo-ahh" call-and-response used
by the show's master of ceremonies. Even the audience members,
who become blackface performers themselves, receive sexual license
through blackness; a Sicilian audience member claims to be "blacker
than a nigger" by authenticating his claim through his penis size.
Just as in Paris Is Burning, gender and race again
are inextricably intertwined in Bamboozled, with the minstrel
show's emphasis on performing black masculinity directly corresponding
to drag's effort to recreate white femininity.
 However, unlike drag culture, blackface operates with no interest
in appearing "real." The exaggerated makeup and costumes of drag
seem blasé in comparison with the parodic tropes of the minstrel
show that denaturalize race from the physical body. In Bamboozled
burnt cork blackens the natural skin of the black performers and
red lipstick functions to accentuate both the color and size of
natural lips. The costumes of Mantan (the blackface character played
by Manray) and Sleep'n Eat (Womack) belie any realistic apparel,
and play instead on the buffoon, the dandy, and the hobo. Consequently,
while humor remains an important aspect of drag culture, it is essential
to the minstrel show's subversive intent. By exaggerating to excess
the color, features, gestures, and dialect of race, the minstrel
show's disinterestedness in theatrical realness provokes laughter
in creating the unreal and challenging the "realness" of the original
through racial mimesis. The notion of any essential original that
blackface mimics proves false, and society's folly becomes funny.
 In truth, the parade of the unreal spreads outside of Bamboozled's
minstrel show and into the film's characters themselves, all who
are decidedly complex modern stereotypes of racial and gender identities.
Playing on the excess repetition of stock traits associated with
race, the stereotypes further reveal the anxiety of a society whose
identity allegiances have been threatened. Again, Butler's theories
concerning drag prove insightful to the performance of race: "If
there is, as it were, always a compulsion to repeat repetition never
fully accomplishes identity. That there is a need for a repetition
at all is a sign that identity is not self-identical. It requires
to be instituted again and again, which is to say that it runs the
risk of becoming de-instituted at every interval" ("Imitation" 725).
Myrna Goldfarb, for example, the quintessentially shrewd and offensive
Jewish media consultant in Bamboozled, operates under the
rubrics of racial parody in the same way as the various African
Americans who audition for the minstrel show perform nuanced guises
of blackness through the stereotypes of the black hippie, the black
misogynist, and the black gangster-rappers. They are each stock
characters, or caricatures, and the audience, who is well trained
in the use of such tropes, is amused. These theatrical characterizations
of racial excess evoke laughter from the audience just as the minstrel's
parodic performances of blackness; however, there is a point where
the laughter stops. To return to Gubar's question, why can transsexual
drag succeed without offense in ways that transracial performance
cannot? Clearly, the subversive potentiality to undermine through
excess exists in minstrelsy as well as in drag, and minstrelsy exhibits
the same affection and longing for Other that drag demonstrates.
Furthermore, since both drag and minstrelsy recreate race and gender
in their very acts of subversion, both participate in a reification
of the identities they challenge. Both drag and minstrelsy seem
dangerously close to reifying agents of hegemonic power when they
take their performances too far to be "real," and, conversely, when
they touch on aspects of reality that deny their subversive potential.
 Returning to Paris Is Burning, the problematic reproduction
of gender within drag culture emerges throughout the film. The
body, however psychically or surgically altered, maintains a privileged
hold on identity formation. The presence or absence of traditional
gender markers like breasts and penises, the softness or coarseness
of skin, and the diminutive aspects of feet, hands, and bones remain
prevailing tropes of femininity that are reproduced in ball culture.
The drag queen Octavia St. Laurent's goal in life is to be a supermodel,
thereby objectifying the female body and enforcing limited codes
of beauty that many feminists have fought against for decades.
Moreover, drag queens parade up and down the ballroom in a striptease
that hints at a reenactment of male misogynistic fantasy. And furthermore,
despite the liberating aspects of ball culture, the tragedy and
violence of women's oppression are brought to life. Venus Xtravaganza
equates the sex work that she performs for her suitors, who reward
her with small gifts and cash, to what a suburban housewife must
do for a new washer and dryer—surely raising feminist eyebrows—and
then falls victim to societal hatred of women and gender deviants;
later in the film, Venus is found strangled and stuffed under a
bed in a cheap hotel. Though drag's parody of gender challenges
the stability of identity constructions, it also must recreate the
constructions as part of the process.
 The same double-bind must be said of blackface. To confront
the illogic of racialized identities, blackface and the other parodic
stereotypes in Bamboozled reproduce the racist images that
they seek to overthrow. Delacroix's mother chastises him for selling
out and making a "coon show," and other characters in the film are
acutely aware of the negative effects the blackface parody will
have on the daily lives of African Americans. To understand more
fully the limitations of blackface—and its radical potentiality—one
must turn to the power structure of the performers and the performed
and the difference between expression and performance in the complex
dynamics of gender and race.
 In the drag culture of Paris Is Burning, whiteness
is performed within an economically disenfranchised black and Latino
culture. Moreover, femininity is emulated as a source of power
and authority; the "mother" position in each house that constitutes
the new gay family represents the individual with the most agency
within that culture by having the most trophies, the most followers,
and the most fame. In contrast, the minstrelsy of Bamboozled
displays a white interest in the performance of blackness, and,
inextricably, masculinity. It would be inadequate to comment simply
on the successes and failures of the subversive elements of either
drag or minstrelsy from a false dichotomy of power relations where,
in one the powerless perform the empowered and, in the other, the
empowered performed the powerless—though this certainly is true.
Instead, a Foucauldian analysis of the distribution of power within
these performances is necessary to view the possibilities of performance
for political and identity revolutions.
 In The History of Sexuality Foucault claims, "Power
is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it
comes from everywhere" (93). Linking this premise to a historical
framework of desire, Foucault revisions the political economy of
the power-pleasure structure. He explains, "Power comes from below;
that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between
rulers and ruled at the root of power relations" (94). Therefore,
the audience and the performer's desire to have and to be Other
complicate the unequal distribution of power among race (intrinsically
connected in the performances with class) and gender. Traditional
binaries of power are upturned, as male / female, black / white,
and gay / straight are reversed in multileveled longings. While
the binaries exist, the anxiety of identity permeates everyone.
 Furthermore, as Foucault later describes in Discipline
and Punish, the body internalizes the external law (here, the
law of essentialized race and gender) and manifests the law from
within. Through the deep indoctrination of the binary systems of
race and gender, the liberating potentiality of parody, especially
racial parody, threatens to collapse into the perpetuation of stereotypes.
Butler, again speaking specifically of gender, explains, "Parody
by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand
what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive,
truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated
as instruments of cultural hegemony" (177). Contemporary reviews
of Bamboozled often note that theater audiences usually stopped
laughing about halfway through the film. At some point, minstrelsy's
power to recreate the very binary logic it has the power to deconstruct
overwhelms and reverses the "race trouble" it has attempted to make.
In the moments when blackface and drag fail to negotiate successfully
the excess and repetition on which the subversion turns, the parody
crumbles. As Womack tells Manray, "New millennium, huh? It's the
same bullshit, just done over. The same bullshit." Minstrelsy's
incredible power to undermine strikes in backlash with equal ferocity.
Moreover, while the parody of identity succeeds, at least temporarily,
through Spike Lee, the performance of blackness backfires when it
finds itself in unwitting and unaware hands. Because the particular
knowledge systems of individual performers and audiences vary, it
would be impossible to distinguish the precise moments when parodies
of racial and gender identities fail to be subversive and instead
perpetuate essentialized notions of being. Instead, an example
of such failure in popular culture proves helpful in the larger
 Though Paris Is Burning and Bamboozled
met with limited success, minstrelsy and drag, like power, are everywhere
and have become imbedded in such popular, less critical, mainstream
culture mediums as George Lucas's Star Wars. Released in
2000, the same year as Bamboozled, Star Wars Episode I:
The Phantom Menace speaks volumes about society's love affair
with blackface. In the film, the character Jar Jar Binks puts on
what is indeed a "new millennium minstrel show," pushing the burnt
cork and lipstick of traditional blackface into a computer-generated
construction that masks the entire black male body. In Jar Jar,
we see the tremendous potentiality of a sci-fi "cyborg" un-reality,
as Donna Haraway calls forth in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women.
She explains, "A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine
and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature
of fiction" (174). Cyborgs have unlimited potentiality to disrupt
the pigeonholes of race and gender identity through their scientifically
morphed and politically realigned multiplicities of "affinity."
Haraway envisions the future of identity revolution arising from
these technical mergings and mechanic parodies, which seemingly
would find fertile ground in galactic arenas such as Star Wars.
However, as numerous fans and critics object, racial stereotypes
like Jar Jar fail to transcend human identity allegiances to race
and gender. In fact, the computer-generated blackface performance
of Jar Jar proves to be less successful at identity subversion than
the outright minstrelsy of Bamboozled.
 The Phantom Menace works on a multitude of racial parodies,
all the while apparently unaware of doing so. Obi-Wan Kenobi's
ominous opening warning finds multiple meanings in the film: "I
have a bad feeling about this. It's not about the mission, master.
It's something elsewhere. Elusive." Indeed, a tumultuous racial
anxiety dances on the periphery of the film, while the racial stereotypes
within the film run amok and reveal the extent of Lucas's internalization
of binary conceptions of race and gender. Though The Phantom
Menace is a film appropriate for children, the innocuousness
of the genre makes it an especially dangerous avenue for the play
of stereotypes, much like the litany of old racist cartoons Lee
resurrects at the end of Bamboozled. As Anna Everett rightly
states in "The Other Pleasures: The Narrative Function of Race in
the Cinema," "By covertly voicing the ideology of race in popular
entertainment vehicles, filmmakers assure perpetuation of racist
attitudes throughout our society. And because of counter movements
such as multiculturalism and pluralism...narrating race in this
way becomes the means of choice for recruiting and sustaining adherents"
(280). Jar Jar is an undeniable parody of blackness, but one that
fails to subvert restrictive notions of identity, and instead reaffirms
the stereotypical treatment in entertainment of African Americans
as buffoons. Jar Jar, and the other racial stereotypes in The
Phantom Menace, merely perform "the same bullshit, just done
over" and thus the excess and repetition of the parody proves to
be more limiting than liberating. Nevertheless, Jar Jar's inheritance
of the minstrel tradition allows the film to engage in multi-layered
performances of race—ones that however conventional, are still noteworthy
from an academic perspective. The film's apparent, almost neurotic,
desire to reinforce racial identities suggests the extent to which
popular society is reacting in backlash to contemporary movements
to subvert race. In many respects, The Phantom Menace
emerges as the product of the racial and gender anxiety of modernity,
and, as in the minstrel show, works to redraw the boundaries surrounding
 Physically, the production of Jar Jar Binks is an intricate
racial statement. The loping walk, dreadlock-like ears, dangling
arms, big lips, and bulging eyes that characterize his "Gungan"
race all have direct corollaries in racist portrayals of blackness
in minstrel shows. Seemingly inoffensive, Jar Jar displaces the
overt threat of racial comedy by covertly transferring stereotypical
racial traits to an alien physicality. Like P.T. Barnum's Great
American Museum and Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels (Lott 72), The
Phantom Menace continues to market white-produced images
of the black male body—but extends the parody by methodically stripping
the physical exterior to a composite of racial signifiers. The
DVD release of The Phantom Menace explains the procedure
that created the character of Jar Jar. Ahmed Best, an African American
in a Jar Jar suit performed the role in live action before graphic
artists, who then used computer-generation to replace his physical
body with the film's computer-generated image. In one section of
the early filming of Jar Jar, the documentary even shows Lucas demonstrating
for Best the way he wants Best to exaggerate the looseness of Jar
Jar's arms. He instructs Best how to be black: "When you walk,
again because you're presenting, again, you know, the sort of loose
arms that kind of don't have much in them." As Lucas models the
walk for Best, he performs and produces comic blackness as he wants
it to be in the film. Unquestionably, the black male body is also
presented in positions of power and authority in The Phantom
Menace through the characters of the commander of the Jedi council
Mace Windu, played by Samuel Jackson and Captain Panaka, played
by Hugh Quarshie, and these naturalized black men lend authenticity
to the film's seeming multiculturalism. In fact, Jar Jar's clownish
portrayal of blackness would not work in naturalized black skin;
in the twenty-first century, The Phantom Menace proves
the new millennium minstrel show must be disguised to enter the
 Jar Jar's superficial non-blackness enables him to perform
blackness in more demeaning and destructive ways. He fulfills the
epitome of minstrel's sadistic and violent degradation of blackness
as described by Lott: "Minstrel 'darkies' were conned and swindled,
run down by trolleys, shocked by batteries, and jailed for violating
laws they didn't understand" (64). Systematically, Jar Jar performs
all of the above anecdotes and more. A short synopsis of the slapstick
humor Jar Jar endures in the film includes being shocked with a
cattle prodder, stepping in excrement, fainting in battle, being
run over by machines, catching his foot in a stirrup, catching his
hand in an engine, having his tongue pulled, being bullied by a
pod racer, smelling animal farts up close, and being shocked in
the face with electricity (which numbs and exaggerates the looseness
of his large lips). Additionally, the dialogue and accent further
the racial stereotype; Gungan dialect appears to be little more
than the racialized black dialect made popular toward the end of
the nineteenth century by poets like Joel Chandler Harris and Paul
Laurence Dunbar. For example, after Qui-Gon saves Jar Jar from
being run over at their first encounter, the following exchange
'Mooie, mooie. I wuv you.'
'You almost got us killed. Are you brainless?'
'The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Get out
'No, no. Messa stay. Messa called Jar Jar Binks. Messa your
When Obi-Wan, the other Jedi, asks Qui-Gon who Jar Jar is, Qui-Gon
replies, "A local," and Jar Jar's accent reflects a blend of white
imaginative slave dialect and popularized modern Carribean slang.
The suffix "sa" is added to most pronouns such as "yousa" "messa"
"wesa," which echo the prolific inflection of "sir" into parodies
of slave dialect. Furthermore, the "th" of standard English is
replaced by "d" in Gungan dialect; "disen" is used for "this is"
and "dis" and "dat" mean "this" and "that." Numerous other special
adjectives enhance the blackening of Jar Jar's voice: "maxibig"
means "very big," "cawazy" means "crazy," "okieday" means "okay"
and "moola" means "money" ("Gungan Dialect"). By pulling out such
tropes associated with blackness, the film endows Jar Jar's character
with the legion of racial stereotypes familiar to the audience.
 Blackness is not the only racialized Other that the film stereotypes.
Asians and Jews also find caricatures within the film for explicitly
racist purposes. The Viceroys who help to initiate the beginning
of the "wars" with their power-hungry dominance of the trade federation
are explicably Japanese, with thick accents that belie their apparent
"cyborg" transcendence of racial identity. Moreover, the stereotypical
Jewish character appears through Watto, the used parts salesman
whose hooked nose and money-grubbing hand gestures complete the
stylized Jewish accent that distinguishes his otherwise bug-like
alien body. What differentiates these stereotypes from the ones
in Bamboozled is the film's inability to parody whiteness,
which remains untouched by racial stereotypes, as well as the film's
need to mask its portrayal of racial Others through computer-generated
images all the while tangentially dealing with the issue of slavery
through the white boy Anakin Skywalker and his white mother. A
complex racial anxiety is at work here, and it further manifests
in viewers' extreme reactions to the character of Jar Jar.
 Star Wars enthusiasts' responses to Jar Jar
have been highly contradictory. Numerous Internet sites have been
created to bolster the feelings of both sides, ranging from The
International Society for the Preservation of Jar Jar Binks, a kid-friendly
site that ignores the film's racial insinuations, to several hate
sites that range from the now defunct JarJarMustDie.com to the still
active website Kill Jar Jar Binks Now—which boasts over 75,000 visitors
since 1999. Many of the Jar Jar denouncers point to the racial
discomfiture his character arouses. Tom Scott posted this sentiment
on a Jar Jar discussion board: "I, being a person of color, felt
it odd/interesting that Jar Jar Binks resembled the (erstwhile?)
impression of southern African Americans of yore...it is not rare
to find such politically-incorrect representations even in 'modern'
times—but I was made uncomfortable nonetheless." Other postings
are not so kind: "I want to know when Roger Rabbit had sex with
Aunt Jemima? [sic] Where does Lucas get off creating such a racist,
Sambo, Steppin Fetchit character like Jar Jar?" (Brian). Indeed,
the reaction of some fans does much to direct attention not only
to Lucas's intentions in the creation of such depictions of race,
but also to society's response. Many of the postings reflect a
disproportionately violent reaction to Jar Jar's character that
suggests underlying racist, misogynist, and homophobic tendencies
themselves. One unsigned posting suggests, "Shoot that piece of
sht I swear [sic]. I wish I had a gun so I could have shot myself
everytime [sic] he came on....I hope I have done my part in the
destruction of that whore" ("People Say 3"). Jar Jar clearly confuses
gender as well as racial identity; another writer comments: "A great
way for Jar jar [sic] to die is to have him standing in front of
a male and female bathroom he wouldn't know which one to go in!
Then someone would kill him because it sucks!" ("People Say 4").
Top ten lists of ways to torture and kill Jar Jar include decapitating,
flailing, and dragging him behind a car (Rob). These reactions
suggest that deeply rooted anxieties concerning identity are evoked
and affirmed through such stereotypical images.
 While Lynne Hale, a Lucasfilm spokeswoman, responded to anti-Jar
Jar reactions with the statement, "Nothing in Star Wars is
racially motivated. Star Wars is a fantasy movie.
I really do think to dissect this movie as if it had direct reference
to the world today is absurd"—the film's participation in a new
millennium remake of the traditional minstrel show is undeniable
(Frankel). The Phantom Menace confirms the continuation
of an American necessity to objectify, control, and perform blackness
and Other under the sanctioning of popular entertainment. Furthermore,
despite press statements to the contrary, Lucas's avowed unconsciousness
concerning the perpetuation of racial stereotypes has much to say
in direct relation to today's world. Turning from film to the blackface
events at Southern universities (including Auburn University, University
of Tennessee, University of Virginia, Oklahoma State University,
and University of Mississippi) over the past few years, a correlation
emerges between the minstrelsy in modern films and in life and points
to reasons why contemporary minstrelsy fails to subvert race in
the manner that contemporary drag subverts gender.
 Over the past ten years, several incidents of campus fraternities'
and sororities' performance of blackface have received criticism
and punishment from school officials and the media, but photos from
separate Halloween parties at Auburn University in Alabama during
the 2001-02 school year captured public attention and ignited public
resentment against a continuing minstrel tradition. Images from
the Delta Sigma Phi party show one student in a KKK costume holding
a noose around the neck of another student in blackface, while both
stand in front of the Confederate flag. Photos
from the Beta Theta Pi party reveal numerous members in blackface,
wearing the jerseys of the historically black fraternity Omega Psi
Phi, Afro wigs, heavy gold jewelry, and posing with gestured gang
hand-signs. These events paralleled remarkably similar incidents
at the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama at
Birmingham and suggest not only the perpetuation of minstrelsy,
but also a revival of its popularity. While the intentions behind
the blackface performances clearly vary from one fraternity to the
other, they collectively demonstrate some of the possibilities for
blackface to subvert and affirm racial and gender identities.
 Like The Phantom Menace, some of the fraternity parodies
never escape the outright racism and race affirmation of the blackface
performance yet continue to exhibit a white male interest in the
black male body. The photograph from the University of Mississippi
captures a male in black face on his knees, apparently interrupted
from scrubbing the floor, and poised in a gesture of submission
as another male in a police uniform holds a gun to his face. As
disturbing as the image is, it also reveals a host of sexualized
motivations within the two white students who are performing whiteness
and blackness. Gubar claims that homosexual desire and racechange
are often linked: "Racial ambiguity, in other words, attends sexual
ambivalence and vice versa....though their white creators vary in
the extent to which apprehension leads them to annihilate the representative
of deviance" (176). The sado-masochistic tension between the powerful,
authoritative figure of the law and the powerless, subservient figure
of the oppressed erupts within the photograph, as the kneeling blackface
figure half-heartedly wards off the gun-phallus directed towards
his open mouth. Photographs from the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity
have remarkably similar components, replacing the authority of the
police as law with the authority of the KKK. Consequently, as the
images reaffirm white power notions of racial identity, they simultaneously
disrupt heterosexual gender norms through their sexualized portrayals
of the racial Other.
 Photographs from the Beta Theta Pi Halloween party at Auburn
University reveal equally complex performances of blackness. Again,
the masquerade of blackness allows the performers license to control
the black male body for their pleasure in what Eve Sedgwick describes
as a homosocial-homosexual continuum. Notably, the Beta party,
unlike the Delta party, did not employ the performances of potentially
violent white authority in relation to their performances of blackness.
Like Dunwitty, their intent seems to focus on the ability of theatricality
to break down racial identities through humor, excess and exaggeration,
though they neglect to consider the performance's power to reaffirm
those same racial identities. Michael Moore, a freshman member
of the Beta fraternity, explains in an email interview,
Last halloween, there were a few guys who dressed up as the black
fraternity members with blackface on. There was also a guy who
dressed up as Fat Albert and had blackface on, and one guy dressed
up as a black farmer with a fishing pole, like one of those small
statues. Anyways, their intention was in good fun and was not
done as an act of racial malice. I, for intance, dressed up as
the treasurer of our fraternity and I had the same intention as
the guys who dressed up as black guys. Part of the fun of Halloween
is dressing up as someone or something that you're not and exaggerating
their characteristics. That was what we were doing at our party.
It was not racism, it was a costume. There were over a hundred
and fifty people there in costume, and the people who were dressed
up as black guys had the same intentions as the people who dressed
up as Hulk Hogan, Star Trek characters, and Spiderman: to have
fun. Yet, we got caught on the coat tails of the Delta Sig fraternity
who got in trouble for guys dressing up as KKK members at a seperate
house on a seperate night. We lost our chapter and now we all
get dirty looks and are considered racist by those who don't know
When asked in a subsequent telephone interview if he thought their
incident was different from the Delta fraternity's, he responded,
"Definitely. We never would have done that. That is just common
sense—our thinking was we were just having a good time."
 While the intent of the Betas and the other fraternities might
appear to be pure manifestations of racist hatred, they in fact
reveal complex and affectionate desires (however misguided) to be
and to be accepted by Other. Moore's explanation correlates with
Ted Danson's blackface and Lee's white characters in Bamboozled.
Like Danson, Dunwitty, and the show's white audience members, Moore
also believes that their performance was legitimized by an authentic
black sanctioning: "In our defense, there was a black girl at the
party who was not offended at all." Although Moore's innocent naiveté
surrounding the blackface performances suggests, like Lucas, an
unwillingness to acknowledge the racist history of blackface performance,
Moore genuinely seems surprised and hurt by the outrage the photographs
have brought about, as well as by the violent implications of the
Delta Sigma Phi performances. After all, as the photographs demonstrate,
the costumes allowed for an evening of male-to-male bonding that
endorsed "white" arms affectionately embracing "black" bodies in
a socially sanctioned erotica. But even more disturbing to Moore
than the public outcry against the photographs was the later revelation
that the black fraternity mocked in the blackface performance had
their own form of racial mimicry; photographs were linked to their
web page of their pledges in whiteface—also with guns to their heads,
and, especially in light of this whiteface performance—Moore does
not comprehend why the performances of his fraternity did more to
damage race relations than to assuage them.
 The failure of these real-life blackface performances serves
as a reminder for cultural theorists to "Keep it Real." In the
move from parody to politics, why then is minstrelsy so much more
threatening than drag and so much less subversive? Gubar writes
in her conclusion, "Despite the anarchic potential of racechange,
then, the aggregate of epidermal fungibility, or what I am tempted
to call 'epidermatics,' almost always seem historically to have
resulted in the subordination, muting, or obliteration of the Other"
(244). While both drag and minstrelsy demonstrate not only a subversion
of essentialized identities but also an identity-affirming desire
to be Other, the permanence or the temporality of the change
makes the signifying difference between these two powerful parodies.
Gubar relates a nineteenth-century minstrel's joke: "Why am I like
a young widow? Because I do not stay long in black" (79). Blackface
partygoers can remove their masks in the morning, but gay males
can't erase their connection to a lifestyle considered deviant by
society. Therefore, in Paris Is Burning the subversion of
gender identities that emanates from drag is coupled with a day-to-day
commitment to the performance of a Self that is ostracized and ridiculed
by society, unlike its counterpart in minstrelsy. Furthermore,
while Foucault convincingly demonstrates how false binaries of power
fail to explain adequately the intricacies of power's relationship
to desire and longing, there is a materialist reality that cannot
deny the inequalities of power between the performers and the performed.
Drag queens, who envision white femininity as a position of power
in society, want their performance of woman "to be real"; minstrels,
on the other hand, who see black masculinity (two of the three strikes
against the individual in Paris Is Burning) as a position
of oppression, do not. Whereas some drag queens commit their performances
of femininity to the surgically altered physical realities of breasts
and vaginas, blackface minstrels never make such permanent allegiances
to their performances of Other. Blackface minstrelsy is a temporary
visitation into the world of the Other. A deeper commitment to
the welfare and experiences of African Americans has developed in
some transracial performances like John Howard Griffin's investigation
into the 1950's South in Black Like Me, Grace Halsell's feminist
crossing in the 1969 book Soul Sister, and even C. Thomas
Howell's humorous performance in the 1980's film Soul Man,
but these stories all involve a distinct desire to "keep it real,"
unlike the parodic excess of blackface, and, since their transformations
are done with tanning pills instead of burnt cork, the performers
can not wash off their blackness at their whim.
 Does minstrelsy possess the potentiality to subvert essentialized
notions of race? Yes. But most of the time, it does not. Spike
Lee's Bamboozled succeeds—at least to a degree—because of
its continued investment in the interests of people defined by the
construction of blackness. George Lucas's The Phantom Menace
fails because it does not. The subversive potential of blackface,
while not limited to any essentialized blackness of its performer,
demands, however, a commitment to the subversion of essentialized
identities—something we have yet to see fulfilled in this new millennium
of race and gender anxieties.
I thank LaVinia Jennings, Misty Anderson, and Wayne
Robbins for their comments and insight on this essay.
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ESTHER GODFREY is completing her Ph.D. in English Literature
at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her dissertation Gender,
Power, and the January-May Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British
Literature examines age as an important component of gender
construction. Her essay From Governess to Girl-Bride in Jane
Eyre is forthcoming from Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900
in Fall 2005..