I’m not that well-versed in queer theory, but Imma incorporate some below anyway.
A combination coming of age/ coming out narrative, Dee Ree’s Pariah is noteworthy for a many reasons, the most important of which are its remarkably extensive lack of the heteronormativity and its determination to remain hopeful in spite of its queer subject matter. In what follows, I provide a reading of Pariah that focuses on its erasure of and opposition to the heteronormative, on the ways it places the nonnormative at its center, and on its determination to reject ultimate failure.
Defying the Norm
Pariah is defined by defiance and optimism. In Dee Rees’s directorial debut, which stories do not get told is just as important as which do; when viewers flock to movie theaters, it matters who they see on screen. Pariah takes full advantage of (and even subverts) the identification that film viewing encourages by telling a story in which every single character is marginalized in some way. Thus, the film challenges even its most normative viewers to spend two hours imagining what it is like to be a perpetual societal outsider.
By putting as many black and lesbian faces on screen at one time as she does, and by depicting them as multidimensional, nonstereotyped characters, Rees rejects Hollywood cinema’s past (and present) tradition of failing to represent black, female, and queer subjects faithfully. As numerous reviewers of the film note, “The fact that this film’s protagonist is a black lesbian teenager is nothing short of a cinematic landmark” (Lerone).
However, the film’s representational achievements do not end there. Not only is the film’s protagonist, Alike, black, she is also a lesbian. Not only is she a lesbian, she is also a butch lesbian who deliberately styles herself in a manner that is inconsistent with the accepted societal norms for her biological gender. In fact, most of the lesbians in the film (and there are quite a few) are butch. Additionally, just about everyone in the film is black and every actor with a speaking role is a person of color. Furthermore, other than Alike’s father, there are no male characters in the film with more than a few lines.
Pariah does not just have a nonnormative protagonist, it completely lacks the sort of characters—white, straight, gender normative, mostly male—most typically portrayed in widely distributed films. That Pariah tells a story of the nonnormative and queer that refuses to represent and deliberately erases the normative is both unusual and extraordinarily significant; from this fact stems much of what I refer to as the film’s “defiance.” Moreover, this defiance is increased by the fact that the film ends on a hopeful and positive note. The film has several lesbian characters at its forefront, and it portrays several of them as people who are regularly treated with hostility and are estranged from their families; and yet, Pariah—a film determined to subvert the hegemony of the heteronormative—shuns pessimism all the same.
Where Ebert Got it Wrong (*gasp*)/ Intesectionality
Pariah’s nonnormativity and its queerness may not be especially loud (Alike is relatively shy and her boldness is a quiet one), but they are thorough; to fail to realize this is to fail to understand the film.
Though Ebert’s review of the film is markedly positive, it also includes the following: “‘Pariah’ is probably too loaded a word to be the title of this film. Alike lives in a world where homosexuality is far from unknown, and her problems will grow smaller as she moves away from home.” When I read this, I was so upset that for a second, I forgot how much I like Roger Ebert. At best, this statement indicates a misunderstanding of Pariah’s aims as a film while grossly underestimating the intensity of its protagonist’s nonnormativity and the degree to which black people, women, and lesbians are all marginalized by our society. Contrary to the late Roger Ebert’s claim, the film’s title is hardly hyperbolic. Pariah is a film about outsiders—people who will always find themselves rejected under current conceptions of heteronormativity no matter how old they get.
Moreover, Rees makes sure that her viewers are aware of the fact that Pariah’s title is no accident; posters for the film as well as the packaging for the DVD
(damn straight reading some paratext) put not only the title, but also its definition front and center: “[puh-ray-uh] noun. 1. A person without status. 2. A rejected member of society. 3. An outcast.” By including this multipart definition, Rees makes it clear that she is aware of the term’s meaning and declares that Alike (whose face appears alongside the definition) is an embodiment of it. According to Rees herself, “It was very important that the character [Alike] had an outsider perspective, and outside experience,” and newcomer Adepero Oduye was chosen for the role precisely because she “was able to tap into [the] feeling of isolation” that Rees wanted to emphasize (Gardner).
No matter where she lives or how old she gets, Alike is one cut off from dominant society. Ebert is wrong to assume that Alike’s isolation stems solely from the fact that those at home do not understand her homosexuality. “While heterosexual privilege negatively impacts and constrains the lived experience of ‘queers’ of color, so to do racism, classism, and sexism” (Cohen 31). Alikes is a black queer women from a less than wealthy family, which means that her entire existence is marked by marginalization.
More to Being Queer than Being Gay
While it is primarily Alike’s sexuality that renders her an outsider within her own family, she—as a black woman—would be a pariah in the eyes of society even if she were heterosexual. By titling her film filled with lesbians, women, and African Americans as she does, Rees aligns herself with the likes of Cathy J. Cohen who argues that simply identifying as heterosexual is not actually enough to gain a person full access to the benefits of heteronormativity. To be negatively affected by any of the “numerous systems of oppression” that reinforce or are themselves reinforced by heteronormativity is to be nonnormative in some fashion (Cohen).
Pariah represents queerness and nonnormativity not only through the butch lesbianism of Alike and her friend Laura, but also through Laura’s poverty (one scene in the film shows her and her sister deciding which bills to pay and which to ignore), and through a predominantly female and a predominantly black cast. Anyone hoping to find a white middle or upper-class heterosexual in Pariah will be sorely disappointed; they have no place in this film.
Furthermore, Rees refuses to portray queerness as essentializing, thereby rejecting the sort of “single-oppression framework” that Cohen claims “misrepresent[s] the distribution of power within and outside of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities” (Cohen). With a slew of queer characters and not a single heteronormative one, Pariah challenges the status quo while reminding viewers of the intersectionality of identity and of the fact that sexuality alone is not all that is responsible for one’s degree of marginalization in American society.
Where Blackness and Queerness Meet
While no one in Pariah is a paragon of heteronormativity, there is one significant representation of whiteness in the film, and it comes in the form of a strap-on dildo (Yes, I am analyzing a dildo. That’s how cool I am).
Early in the film, Alike asks Laura to get her a strap-on; she does so but to Alike’s dismay, the dildo is white. Wearing it over her underwear in front of her bedroom mirror, a clearly frustrated Alike complains to Laura that it “looks stupid” and “pinches” her skin. Exasperated, she also asks, “They didn’t have brown?” The film’s next scene shows Alike and Laura at a nightclub. Alike is wearing the strap-on under her clothes, is clearly uncomfortable, and she repeatedly calls attention to this fact by grabbing at it. For the entire evening, Alike fidgets uncomfortably, is cold to the girls around her, and refuses to dance. At no other point in the film is Alike more visibly uncomfortable and distracted. When Alike returns home, she immediately throws the dildo away; she is simply unable to adjust to it. Through Alike’s inability to be comfortable while wearing the dildo combined with her disappointment at its color, Pariah suggests that race and sexuality are not as separate as some may like to think.
To be black and queer is not the same as to be white and queer; genitals, even when they are artificial, are policed according to their color. Actual comfort-level of strap-on dildos aside, that Alike finds a white one so uncomfortable that she throws it away is significant. Alike will never be white and neither will her sexuality. “Many of the roots of heteronormativity are in white supremacist ideologies,” and even “queer politics is coded with class, gender, and race privilege” (Cohen). According to Pariah, the challenges of life as a white butch lesbian and as black butch lesbian may be similar, but are simply not the same. While issues specific to race and racially-fueled conflict are not explicitly present in the film, the fact that nearly all of the characters are black cannot be ignored. Much of what Pariah has to say about queerness and much that strengthens the film’s challenge to heteronormative dominance is contained within what is also an exploration of race.
Femininity, Queerness, and the Performativity of Gender
While asserting the importance of identity aspects like race and gender to determining one’s relation to heteronormative power, Pariah also seeks to undermine traditional notions of gender by calling attention to its performative nature. As Judith Butler writes, “Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.”
Pariah makes it clear that it agrees with such claims. For instance, Alike, who dresses in typically masculine clothing at school and when out with friends, often dresses in more feminine clothing at home and at church to appease her mother. Though her mother Audrey seems more than aware of her daughter’s butch identity (why else would she insists on the feminine clothing?), she also seems to believe that, if Alike would just wear more of the clothes that she picks out for her, she would actually be more conventionally feminine and, thus, less queer. By insisting that her daughter wear girly clothing, Audrey confirms the power of of a “stylized repetition of acts” to “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered to self” and to drastically affect the way her daughter is perceived by others (Butler).
Importantly, Alike only dresses in a feminine manner when her controlling mother can see her. She performs femininity, but only when she has to to avoid conflict at home. By dressing as her mother wishes some of the time, Alike perpetuates the illusion that she dresses that way—and, thus, is conventionally feminine—all of the time. In reality, Alike dresses in the sort of clothes most often associated with a butch identity as often as she can (she even brings “masculine” clothes to change into on her way to school). The performative nature of gender may not be ideal, but is inescapable. Instead of trying to live outside this system, Alike uses it to her advantage. By feigning femininity when she needs to, Alike helps to insure that she will be able to continue to enjoy those opportunities that she does have to express herself fully.
Pariah’s defiance of the norm culminates in its hopeful, open-ended, and forward-facing ending. Capitalist American society “casts the homosexual [and, in particular, the lesbian] as inauthentic and unreal, [and] as incapable of real love.” According to the heteronormative framework, queerness is synonymous with failure. Moreover, butch lesbians are often cast as the biggest failures of them all (Halberstam). But Pariah challenges such perceptions. After Alike comes out to her parents, Pariah’s end comes swiftly, and despite the fact that her declaration of “I’m a lesbian” destroys whatever relationship Alike had with her mother, the film ends on a positive note.
With Alike’s voice declaring her new empowering mantra—“I’m not running, I’m choosing”—Pariah closes. As it does, its protagonist embraces her identity and is eager to start her life anew as she moves away for college. In fact, that conflict at home results in Alike’s moving away from her family makes it easier for her to get permission from her father to leave for college early. In the film’s final moments, Alike (who is pretty shy, soft spoken, and unsure of herself for most of the film) takes control of her life and boldly does all she can to make the most of her situation. Reading a poem she has written, Alike says defiantly, “I am not broken, I am free”; that she struggles to hold back tears as she does so does not change the fact that Pariah’s ending is a positive one. The film’s conclusion may not be especially joyous, but it is not marked by failure either (though it easily could have been). Pariah’s last image is of Alike looking out the window of a bus as it carries her away from the life she has always known; Pariah ends with its face towards a future filled with possibility.
By ending as openly as it does, Pariah defies the notion that Alike’s life is marked by any sort of ultimate failure. If the film’s hopeful ending feels a bit contrived (as some reviewers claim) that only increases the connection between the film’s defiance and its optimism. There is no place for butch lesbians in American society’s system of “commodification” built “upon a heteronormative set of visual and erotic expectations” (Halberstam). And so, it only seems natural that viewers of the film will expect Alike to fail; for, as a markedly nonheteronormative black butch lesbian estranged from her family, what choice does she have? However, the fact that some find the film’s positive ending contrived actually reveals just how deliberate a subversion of such expectations the ending is. Butch lesbian or not, Alike, believes that she deserves success and so, she claims it. Lesbianism is “irrevocably tied to failure in all kinds of ways” (Halberstam). Pariah’s positive ending is not unaware of this fact; rather, it defiantly—and optimistically—refuses to be held down by it.
Defiant and optimistic in the face of its own paramount queerness and its extensive lack heteronormativity, Pariah is considerably more subversive than its relatively conventional filmic style and its positive ending might seem to indicate. The film is thoroughly and apologetically queer. In representing black people, black women, black lesbians, and butch lesbians to a mass audience, Rees and Pariah have achieved something remarkable.
Rees has said that Pariah “is a universal film. It’s about identity, and everyone can relate to that. You can strip away the sexuality, you can strip away the race—it’s about how to be yourself and not check a box” (Gardner). But just because viewers can “strip away” the sexual and racial elements of the film does not mean that they should; those elements are there for a reason. That Rees can present Pariah as a “universal” coming of age tale does not change the fact that it does not represent the heteronormative and that its plot is organized around the struggles of growing up queer. It may not shout its queerness from the mountaintops or explicitly call for a violent dismantling the heteronormative establishment, but with its particular combination of defiance and optimism, Pariah is nothing short of subversive.
Thanks so much for reading. Feel free to share your own thoughts on Pariah by leaving a comment.
Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble.” 1990. NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”. Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. 21-55. Print.
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
Lerone, Landis. “GBF Looking for Love.” The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. 19.3. May/ Jun. 2012. 49. Print.