Of this week’s assigned reading, I found José Esteban Muñoz’s “Dead White: Notes on the Whiteness of the New Queer Cinema” to be the most thought-provoking. At the heart of Muñoz’s argument is the denouncement of queer cinema’s white-centricity. Because of the ingrained cultural belief (due to colonialism, imperialism, etc.) that only the white body is capable of subjectivity (and therefore suffering), it’s very difficult to find queer films that put queer people of color center stage–rather than just as sex objects or as token friends to the white protagonist.
The case-in-point of Munoz’s article could be seen in the selections of out Queer Cinema class itself. The majority of the films chosen for the curriculum veered towards whiteness because the majority of queer films are about the white experience.
One of Muñoz’s most striking points was his highlighting of the fact that brown bodies are often exoticized, over-sexualized, infantilized, mocked, and discarded in queer films. Two films we examined in class illustrate this perfectly: Fox and His Friends (1975) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). In Fox and His Friends, the eponymous protagonist and his boyfriend travel to Morocco, where they try to procure a local male prostitute for sex in order to revitalize their strained relationship. An identical situation arises in Brokeback Mountain: Jack Twist, rebuffed by his male lover, angrily flees to Mexico in search of comfort from local male prostitutes. Muñoz claims that the white queer body is strongly associated with death, and in these films we see that played out: lifeless, stifling relationship?…Go to Mexico/North Africa. Here we see the brown body used as both a sex object and a life-giving apparatus.
Ultimately, I agree with Muñoz’s assertion of the preoccupation the white queer body/psyche has with death, but I will add that facets of this death drive are also suffering and self-annihilation. We can see it demonstrated in several other films from this class. In The Servant (1963), the white butler saps his white master’s life-force. In Boys Don’t Cry (1999), the white trans protagonist knowingly makes a series of reckless, self-destructive choices. In Cruising (1980), the white protagonist and the white serial killer he’s hunting are both drawn like moths to a dangerous leather/BDSM subculture that seems void of people of color.
There is a reason why Boys Don’t Cry is not a movie about a black trans person even though there are many, many tragic love stories centered around trans people of color that could have been popularized and committed to film in its stead…The white queer body culturally monopolizes suffering and death and subjectivity, therefore it gets most of the attention on-screen.
- Munoz, Jose Esteban. “Dead White: Notes on the Whiteness of the New Queer Cinema.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Volume 4, Number 1 (1998): p. 127 – p. 138.