Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where 'Black' Meets 'Queer'

Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where 'Black' Meets 'Queer'

by Kathryn Bond Stockton

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The relationship between black queer subjects and debasement as portrayed within popular culture texts and films.See more details below


The relationship between black queer subjects and debasement as portrayed within popular culture texts and films.

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Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame is an exciting, pointed, splendidly written, culturally important book.”—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, author of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Series Q
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5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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Where "Black" Meets "Queer"


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3796-6

Chapter One



Cloth and Skin

Clothing is the problem from which I launch my book and my book's specific aims: to scout debasement's surprising values, to understand debasement as crucial to the crossings between "black" and "queer," and to focus squarely on fictions' theoretical/speculative force. In a book that moves from debasements attached to the actions of clothing, to anal penetration, to interracial rape, to decomposition, to hauntings by the dead, a look at clothing comprises this book's first layer for a reason. Clothing raises the question of a surface to which shame attaches.

One such familiar surface is skin. Civil rights activists, black student radicals, and black studies scholars, among many other readers of race, have made us familiar with the prejudicial hate attaching to a surface-nonwhite skin-that people of color don't choose for themselves. But I want to ask about an unexamined switchpoint between "black" and "queer": the switchpoint between these nonelective skins and what are for some queer women and men the highly preferred, habitually chosen, stronglyvalued, almost sewn-to-the-bone cloth skins that we call clothes. At this switchpoint, a reading of queer cloth wounds might function as a study within a larger field of wounded surface and denigrated skins. Not because cloth and skin are identical, but because they lend associations to each other, in certain key contexts, as they track along their own specific logics.

Cloth and skin touch on each other's meanings since each is a surface -with intense, complex, and variable codings attached to it-that may be the object of prejudice, violence, attraction, and invective. Each may be physically marked with a wound (torn cloth, torn skin) and each can elicit psychic wounds (self-loathing, for example) because of the shame it seems to carry. Each can also, in certain contexts, elicit pride-or sexual attraction and aesthetic delight. That is, there is beauty. But here there is a specific dynamic that adheres more closely to cloth than to skin: shame, in certain historical cases involving clothes, attaches to a surface (for example, women's clothes) generally and openly admitted to be beautiful. Though it is possible nonwhite skin is secretly seen as beautiful by racists, it would be unusual for racists to confess that they shame blacks because black skin is beautiful.

Where skin and cloth more obviously and dramatically diverge from each other as forms of surface is in their perceived degrees of permanence. Given that a person can more easily remove her clothes than her skin and can change kinds of clothes (from feminine to masculine, from glamorous to plainstyle), certain cultural imperatives that ask for a person's compliance-you must wear this, you can't wear that-are hard to duplicate with skin. As a result, if a man can be told he must dress like a man, not a woman-it is after all physically possible for him to dress as either gender-his defiance of this order can be a self-debasement. Such defiance can even lead to martyrdom: "a sacrifice" or "extreme suffering," "endured in order to further a belief, cause, or principle."

How it has happened that a culture's investment in gendered clothes (along with clothing's relation to beauty) makes for cloth wounds (which touch on skin) is the topic of this chapter. Martyrs to clothes can illuminate the logics surrounding elective but intensely worn (or spurned) cloth skins. Such acts of martyrdom are bold self-debasements, revealing the social holdings of shame.

Martyrs to Their Clothes

It is surprising that shame can adhere to forms of beauty, especially to the contours of beautiful cloth. Women wrapped in beautiful clothes may betray the vanity said to be their shame. Men who rush to their own cloth beauty may also suffer a woman's vain shame. These are dynamics this chapter will engage. From the outset, one should consider their narrowness-for all their broad and sweeping generality. That is to say, these cultural dynamics involve predilections for plainstyle clothing among Euro-American men, of largely white and nonethnic cultures, primarily beginning in the nineteenth century. They also presume a bourgeois, middlebrow preference for plainstyle-one still in force in American contexts at least at the end of the 1990s, according to Malcolm Gladwell's essay for The New Yorker, "Listening to Khakis: What America's Most Popular Pants Tell Us about the Way Guys Think" (1997).

Gladwell's essay reminds us of just how fraught clothes are for straight, white, middle-class men, never mind for the queer men and women I will focus on here. In fact, in his article Gladwell explores "the roundabout way [required] to sell a man a pair of pants," since "the man in the middle [of the economic spectrum] ... probably isn't comfortable buying clothes at all." Taking a look at the Dockers campaign, beginning in the fall of 1987, along with other spinoffs (Haggar ads, for instance), Gladwell examines "the notion of khakis as nonfashion-guy fashion," which "lure[s] men ... with the promise of a uniform," "so as not to scare them." The point of these ads was "to talk about [fashion] in such a coded, cautious way that no man would ever think Dockers was suggesting that he wear khakis in order to look pretty," since if a man "knows he is attractive and is beautifully dressed-then he's not a man anymore. He's a fop. He's effeminate." He's deemed vain. Perhaps unwittingly, phenomena such as metrosexuality and the TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (first appearing in 2003) may be confirming while also changing these stereotypes. The label "metrosexual" indicates a need to signify, and also make more acceptable, a new breed of straight, noneffeminate men who like (their) clothes. The reality show known as Queer Eye offers straight "guys" a more roundabout fantasy. Five gay men (who make over straight men) give them permission to care about fashion and beautiful clothes-while, through it all, the straight men still get to pose as fully clueless (helpless and hopeless) about clothes and beauty, thereby confirming their obvious straightness. All of the know-how, and all of the action, rests in the hands, not to mention the eyes, of five gay men ("the Fabulous Five") who hold themselves responsible for all that transpires.

These are the contortions required for some straight men's relations to even moderately beautiful men's clothes. There are still more startling dynamics in store for their relations to womanly clothes. In an article for the New York Times, a reporter tells of being asked by the paper to wear, as an experiment, a tasteful Jean Paul Gaultier skirt "intended for men" on his daily rounds. "The neuroses quickly set in," says the journalist. "I went through a phase not unlike the stages of grieving." "I called my wife, who helped by laughing uncontrollably." She even asked: "'[Won't] you feel like a total idiot?'" The reporter continues, "I was sure I could walk around East New York in the skirt without being beaten up. But no way could I hope to interview witnesses to a shoot-out and be taken seriously. ... Out in the street I found myself trying to hide between telephone booths and cars. As people stared, it occurred to me that, when you are a guy in a skirt, pretty much any abuse that anyone heaps on you seems fair."

It is striking to hear this phrase, and so to grasp the shame attached to beauty, especially to beauty attached to clothes. It is more striking to learn, from certain novels, that this debasement clinging to beauty can make the wearer of beautiful garments a martyr to clothes. What can it mean to be martyred for clothes-to believe in your clothes as you suffer from clothes, to bear the wounds that come with clothes, even to give up your very self (but what would that mean?) for the cause of your clothes? So-called homosexual fictions-from fictional lesbian autobiographies (without any claim to aesthetic density) to the high modernist camp of the novels of Jean Genet (aesthetic texts of such dense weave, such lyric sheen)-lend a range of intricate answers.

As an initial foray into martyrdoms, I will sample novels from three distinct histories, offering twentieth-century martyrs as diverse as those of the mannish lesbian of Great Britain's '20s, American butches and femmes of the '60s, and even the sailors of postwar France. These remarkably various fictions specify, remarkably, not entirely various logics. Taking up the cause of clothes, as if clothing were a dangerous rite that they would defend, all three novels imagine scenes of sacrifice. However, in ways we might not expect, sacrifice is joined to sexual fantasy. As we will see, the throwing of one's self outward in sacrifice merges with the goal of being caught by other arms-a sexy pietà. This odd motion of throwing and being caught calls our attention to something odder still. Clothing, in these novels, is a throwing and a catching, a centrifugal force. In the act of clothing, one is thrown outward, body and skin, into cloth arms (the arms of one's clothes), caught and held as a public gesture, in the social field. Clothing is this act of public self-betrayal, by which one seems to reveal oneself, to show one's colors. But could clothing also be a kind of social holding, a social self-hoarding, as odd as that may seem, of one's humiliation at the hands of something loved? What are the features of this social self-debasement? According to our novels, from three different histories, that depends dramatically on how one negotiates the wounds that come with cloth.

Cloth of Woundedness

There are many ways to be hurt by one's clothes. A psychic wound may emerge from wearing certain clothes, as if one's thoughts show a certain cut of cloth. A woman's genital "wound" (à la Freud) may be announced or dismissed by one's clothes, calling out on "every woman's" garment a vagina; on "every man's" unadorned, masculine garment escape from this sorrow. Some may hand out bodily wounds to those who wear "unnatural" clothes, wounds which themselves may be worn as clothes: a bruise, for example, as a kind of purple cloth. Finally, perhaps most intriguing of all: one may suffer the divine humiliation of devotion to ... fabric: a sailor, in his fantasy, may feel a blackening "coat" of "coal dust on his body, as women feel, on their arms ... the folds of a material that transforms them into queens."

These are cloth wounds. Which makes both Freud and the dictionary wrong, or simply defensive, when it comes to cloth. The dictionary tells us clothes are designed to cover, protect, or adorn the body (in a sense, to function as superior skin), slyly saying nothing of their flagrant penchant for revealing, wounding, or debasing the body that they pretend to cover. Moreover, we are told that "cloth" is related to the Old English clitha, meaning "a poultice": a soft moist mass, of flour or herbs, applied to a sore or inflamed body part. By this rendering, cloth is seen as a solace for sufferings, soothing skin, not as an agent, as cloth also is, for a stigmatized appearance.

Freud, for his part, adheres to a covering. In his essay "Femininity" (1933), Freud imagines pubic hair as a natural model for human clothing, since it covers and conceals a woman's genitals. Here is the "unconscious motive," Freud tells us, for women's contribution (their only contribution) to civilized development: plaiting and weaving, which, of course, only "imitates" nature's invention of the pubes. "The step that remained to be taken," says Freud, in the passage from pubic hair to clothes, "lay in making the threads adhere to one another, [since] on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together." In other words, as it solves the problem of sticking, cloth adds a greater adhesion to a covering.

But what is being covered? Not a person's body in any simple sense. Not, even more particularly, the genitals. Freud is more specific still. What is being covered, in Freud's own phrase, is "genital deficiency"-his essay is on "Femininity," after all. Indeed, what has led Freud to pubic hair and cloth is his last, rushed, rag-bag discussion of "a few more psychic peculiarities of mature femininity": "vanity" and "shame." Peculiar, indeed, is the feminine adherence of one to the other, shame to vanity, vanity to shame, so that they would appear to wear each other's clothes. As it happens, one is a cover for the other. "The vanity of women," Freud famously informs us, is "a late compensation for ... original sexual inferiority." Vanity, in other words, is fancy-pants shame, which "has as its purpose," says Freud, "... concealment of genital deficiency." Yet this is no concealment at all. Vanity is calling out: "look at my cover." By Freud's rendering, in spite of what he claims, clothing is not primarily concealment; it is not primarily a more attractive version of its model, pubic hair. Clothing, rather, is bold revelation; a revelatory, fabricated, secondary skin, a cover turning inside out: it reveals the category (male or female) of the person's genitals it purports to cover. On "every woman's" sweater, a vaginal wound.

If I have offered the fictions of Freud-lacking in all subtlety and cloaking historicity, when it comes to clothes-it has been to dramatize how Freud, in this case, gets something right even when he is wrong. He stresses clothing's concealments, unconvincingly, even as he rightfully points to its displays. Additionally, whether rightly or wrongly, Freud, by implication, fingers display of genital shame as "civilization's" strong investment in gendered clothes (different clothes for women and men). Yet his lack of historical regard (stressing clothing's universal operations) does not keep Freud, in 1933, just five years past Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), from exemplifying his own peculiar timeliness. For I think it would be fair to say that Freud and Radclyffe Hall were voicing something in much stronger terms than were their contemporaries: not just the sociopolitical disadvantage attached to women's clothes but the bodily and psychic wounding that may powerfully adhere to them.

Even the psychoanalyst J.C. Flugel did not put the matter of clothes so starkly in his famous treatise, The Psychology of Clothes (1930), launched from a series of talks he gave for the BBC in 1928-the year in which The Well was banned. Flugel had no theory of wounding. True, he argued to abolish fashion in favor of some kind of uniform dress (which would level differences), and he himself theorized clothes (in a move Freud intensified) as satisfying two "contradictory tendencies" (those of "decoration" and "modesty"). This duality makes clothes mimic, according to Flugel, the neurotic symptoms of people who suffer "attacks of ... blushing" as they negotiate between the states of "shame" and "exhibitionism," so that "clothes resemble a perpetual blush upon the surface of humanity." Yet, in spite of this theory of blushing-which, we might notice, makes clothing into a coloring skin-Flugel had no theory of wounding.

Nor exactly did the New Woman writers have any theory of clothes wounding women, though they were grappling with what women's clothes mean and limit. (Constraints on women's freedom of movement, the fit of women's clothes to their jobs, and sartorial limitations to cultural authority were central issues here.) Rather, it was when debates about the New Woman got replayed, in the so-called second wave of feminism, especially and most clearly among historians of the 1980s, that feminist talk about some of the New Woman's cloth wounds emerged. Feminist historians, at that moment, sought to grasp the various motives and stakes attached to the New Woman's frequent refusal of standard women's clothes. Some historians largely explored the kind of New Woman who they imagined "adopted male dress as a self-conscious political statement," believing that "clothes are cultural artifacts, lightly donned or doffed." They explained with less ease (what they referred to as) the "mannish lesbian" of the 1920s, a New Woman whose costume change was not so easy, and whose "symbols [thus] acquired a second, darker message.... public condemnation, social ostracism, and legal censorship" (279). It was left to those more sympathetic to this figure to explain the mannish lesbian's bold refusal of women's clothes as a sign that she symbolized "the stigma of lesbianism (just as the effeminate man is the stigma-bearer for gay men)."

What interests me is this mention of "stigma." Notice the assumption that a woman refusing women's clothes would find herself still bound to a wound-more pointedly, a stigma. (Stigma: "a distinguishing mark burned or cut into the flesh, as of a slave or criminal"; "marks resembling the crucifixion wounds of Jesus"; "a mark, sign, etc. indicating that something is not considered normal or standard.") This sort of stigma would seem to be the sign of "lesbianism" pure and simple: refusing women's clothes may publicly reveal one's sexual preference for other women's bodies. But can we put the emphasis the other way around? One's public preference for other women sexually can make the public see-and see, perhaps, in a whole new way-something about some women's refusal of women's clothes. What might the reading public never have had put before them, in any large way, before the public banning of Hall's The Well of Loneliness (a banning that so dramatically publicized Hall and her protagonist as "the mannish lesbian")? Something perhaps deeply known by many women. A different kind of shame from the presumed "stigma" of "lesbianism" (though there was surely that). What Well's readers might have confronted is the shame some women have historically felt (not the discomfort, not the displeasure, but, really, the shame) in having to wear women's clothes, a kind of psychic debasement that runs so deep it seems in excess of a simple preference for wearing men's clothes. Moreover, this shame could eerily match, and therefore newly emphasize, the psychic debasement that men in Hall's time were asked to feel in relation to women's clothes on themselves. ("Imagine a man in a dress like that," says Captain Ramsey in The Well of Loneliness, "too awful to think of-.") Without this psychic stigma, Stephen, the novel's mannish lesbian, could not feel such shame in women's dresses. Discomfort, yes. Even a sense of diminished pleasure. But not the humiliation she feels.


Excerpted from BEAUTIFUL BOTTOM, BEAUTIFUL SHAME by KATHRYN BOND STOCKTON Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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