On Dr. Mireille Miller-Young’s A Taste for Brown Sugar and Dr. Cathy J. Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens”
By Julia Detchon and Dora Santana
The following video gives us a glimpse of Dr. Miller-Young's take on her work, the relation to other women of color in her theorizing, as well as her emphasis on the need of discussing race in porn studies:
6.9 Questions with Dr Mireille Miller-Young
In the introductory few minutes of the following video with Cohen, she recalls her discussion on the issues around queer politics and its failure to take into account race, this time, through the focus on the “obsession with gay marriage” and the demonization of black people during the passing of Proposition 8.
Beyond Bullying, Marriage, and Military: Race, Radicalism and Queer Politics - Cathy Cohen
A Taste for Brown Sugar acknowledges the specter and spirit of Josephine Baker, a woman who managed to “harness erotic capital” and understood her body, as many of the women in the book do, “as containing dynamic possibilities for reinterpretation and re-creation through performance” (13). Baker embodies Miller-Young’s definition of illicit eroticism, a term that underpins her critical analysis throughout the book of the tactics and appropriations through which black women can “convert [their] sexuality into a usable resource in the face of a number of compelling forces and constraints” (18).
Baker, who performed her famous Danse Sauvage wearing a skirt made only of bananas and was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, worked within conditions of exploitation and reductive stereotypes of the Jazz Age. Her “skillful nude performances, which built upon a long tradition of black burlesque, invited white spectators to take pleasure in black women’s sexuality, to see them as newly desirable, and to explore their own erotic identification with blacks” (46). From within these sorts of racist roles, however, Baker garnered enormous fame and success as well as serious and starring roles in films, musicals, operas and even politics.
And, in the below video, we can see her eye-rolling and cross-eye skills, an example of the facial stunting discussed in Chapter 1:
Miller-Young reads these gestures as parodies of musical theater and silent film that express teasing amusement and acknowledge (or refuse?) the “penetrative gaze.” Having seen Baker perform, how can we think about her as an icon or symbol for model black female performance culture and her relationship to the performers in Brown Sugar?
More broadly, how can we think about Josephine Baker and historical depictions of black female bodies as containing dynamic possibilities for reinterpretation and recreation through performance? How can sex work within overdetermined constructions of black gender and sexuality also, as Baker did, reach toward financial success, glamor, mobility, autonomy, and sexual rebellion?
Along the lines of black women representation through performance and media, we foreground Miller-Young’s discussion on Hip Hop. She argues that Hip Hop has not only shaped perceptions of blackness but also impacted the images of black womanhood within that context through the trope of the “ho.” According to the author “the ‘ho,’ the updated black vernacular hip hop version of the super-sexual Jezebel or whorish ‘naughty woman,’ is a slur that becomes almost synonymous with black working-class or sexual nonconformist womanhood” (144). In this sense, the “ho,” as already a pornographic perception of black womanhood, would not only refer to the sex workers foregrounded by Miller-Young but also to a range of other “demonized” and “stigmatized” sexualities of individuals discussed by Cohen as “underclass” such as black “single mothers, teen mothers, and, primarily, poor women of color dependent on state assistance” (p.40). Given those relations, can we articulate the “illicit erotic” and “ho theory” as an analytic discussed by Miller-Young and the concept of “nonnormative sexual behavior” presented by Cohen as within the same realm of “shared marginal relationship to power”? In which ways are the experiences discussed by these authors strategies of confronting and/or strategies of engaging with “linked yet varied sites of power” through the troubling image of the heterosexual black woman?