Desire and Dissolution by Laura U. Marks
Filmmakers are beginning to take up the challenge of presenting complex sexual pleasures while critiquing sexist and colonialist relations. This is in contrast to Orientalist art and literature, much of whose thrill has depended upon exploitive Western representations of “Oriental” sexuality. These representations stereotype, selectively appropriate, fetishize, and otherwise use the sexuality of the other to reflect upon Western fears and desires. Simultaneously they universalize Western cultural ideals by denying their historical contingency and connection to other cultures. Thus “American” sexual cultural works both to create a naturalness around particular sexual convention and to contain interloping sexual cultures.
Some postcolonial texts, however, suggest that the sexual expressions of women and men exiled/emigrated to North America, and the rrepresentation of these expressions, do not only reinforce but may actually denaturalize national conventions of sexuality and sexual relations. This denaturalization is an instance of the noton of the “performative,” as it is used by Homi K. Bhabha. Bhabha sees the performative as one of the ways a nation narrates itself into existence as a closed and coherent entity. It is also at the performative level that individual acts can derail a nation’s discourse about itself, even in the process of enacting that discourse. Rather than simply being assimilated into a “dialectical” definiton of nation, the resistant cultural subject disrupts the very boundaries that allow the nation to define itself.1 This disruption is often accomplished through the condition Bhabha calls “hybridity,” which, although he does not describe it as such, appears to take place in the moment of the performative. While fetishism plays an indispensable role in colonial power relations (the disempowered colonial subject may be valorized for his or her “beauty” or “exoticism”), the notion of hybridity poses a threat to these power relations.
The hybrid object in colonial culture looks like an authoritative symbol, but its contents subvert the meaning of that symbol. “The display of the hybridity… terrorizes with the ruse of recognition, its mimicry, its mockery.”2 Thus, to return to the example of sexual culture, postcolonial characters may work to make “American” sexual conventions their own, filling existing forms with new content, or resist them by persevering in their original culture, postcolonial characters may work to make “American” sexual conventions their own, filling existing forms with new content, or resist them by persevering in their original culture’s mode of sexual expression. Either way they disturb “American” notions of sexuality and sexual relations. Whether this disruption change dominant representations of sexuality or is absorbed by the culture as an unthreatening novelty depends upon whether the characters become subjects or remain objects that throw back the dominant subject’s narcissistic gaze.
All this is a preface to a discussion of Sally’s Beauty Spot (1990) by Helen Lee, a short film that carries its theory compactly within it. Lee’s film wittily traces a character’s move from stereotypical object to sexual subject. The fast—paced collage explicitly challenges fetishistic and colonialist forms of representation, acknowledging Bhabha among the closing credits.
The protagonist of Sally’s Beauty Spot exemplifies Bhabha’s notion of the post—colonial object who, by resisting comprehension or containment, threatens to becomes a subject. By contrast, the character she struggles against throughout the film—Suzie Wong—is a woman whose sexuality is fetishized and who is continually constructed to reassure the West of what it is not.
Sally’s Beauty Spot is about a Chinese Canadian woman’s attempt to come to terms with herself as an object and subject of sexual desire. The twelve minute film’s elliptical plot intertwines with fragments taken from The World of Suzie Wong (1960 by Richard Quine). This movie, about the relationship between an American painter living in Hong Kong and a Chinese prostitute who models for him, typifies the stereotypes that the contemporary protagonist must confront. Throughout the film dialogue between painter and model is heard over images of the protagonist/narrator, Sally, trying to get rid of a black mole on her breast. We see her in the shower anxiously scrubbing at the spot, or applying makeup to it. She converses offscreen with a friend about the marks and about her white boyfriend. Her friend reassures her about her (typically “Oriental”) beauty—“Your skin’s very smooth. AND your hair, so silky and black.”
The term for a woman’s mole used in the title, “beauty spot,” already raises questions. Why are these spots of black or brown on pale skin, these localized melanomas, alternately so prized and so abhorred? As presences of the other, a sort of contained grotesque, they are often prized in whit e women—stars have built careers on them. Lee seems to suggests, however, that they are less desirable in someone who is not—white, sullied to begin with.
A complex series of intercuts sets up parallels and contrasts between the fetishistic love affair in Suzie Wong and the contemporary version. Sally gets a haircut, and she reports to her friend, “HE said he liked it—still shiny and black. And that I looked different.” “Different from what?”, asks Sally’s friend. The answer is suggested in a scene from the Movie. Suzie Wong waits expectantly for her American boyfriend, wearing a smart Western drss and hat. He arrives and goes into a rage. “Take that terrible dress off! You look like a cheap European streetwalker.”
Clearly the “European” is what infuriates the painter. The fact that his consort is a prostitute is overcome by the exoticism of her Oriental image. But when Suzie Wong blurs the outlines of her exotic stereotype by wearing Western dress, she threatens the American by underlining the fact that their relation is the sordid one familiar to him from “home,” and by imposing her subjectivity on his ideal image of her. In Hhabh’s term, Suzie Wong becomes a hybrid (like her name) reinvesting the images of both prostitute and Oriental with a discomfiting content. Lee creates a parallel in which Sally’s boyfriend in desiring Sally’s long hair, shows his need for a stereotypical Asian woman—feminine, submissive, and traditional—and feels threatened when her haircut emphasizes the difference between his desires and her subjectivity.
As the montage sequence continues, the narrator’s friend asks, “Have you considered having it surgically removed?,” and the painter continues to shout at Suzie Wong, “Why don’t you put a ring in your nose too?” He strips her and pushes her onto the bed. The original movie cuts to the next scene, in which, to the painter’s delight, Suzie is wearing traditional costume. This is intercut with a scene of Sally in bed with her whit e lover. In this sequence the image of self—mutilation occurs first, to Sally, as a matter—of—fact suggestion—minor corrective surgery—then, to the painter, as an abomination—a nose ring. The American painter is furious at the notion that Suzie Wong might “denaturalize” herself in some way, becoming grotesque by revealing to him how her “naturalness” is a Western projection onto Asian women. The reference to a nose ring in particular indicates the painter’s fear of specifying their colonial relationship, since brass rings traditionally signify slavery. By contrast, the friend’s reference to surgery seems to refer to Sally’s fear of the grotesque in herself. Seeing herself through her boyfriend’s eyes, and through the lens of North American culture of which she is a part, Sally sees herself as other. The temptation is to cut off the offending part and to suppress the difference she poses: more perfectly to inhabit the stereotype.
Not content simply to “apply theory,” Sally’s Beauty Spot works synthetically with theory to suggest new ways of looking—and listening. At a couple of points during the narrative, different voices—Sally’s “North American” accented voice, an “upper—class British” male voice, and that of Sally’s friend, whose English is Chinese—accented and a bit hesitant—repeat phrases from articles by Bhabha and Tania Modleski. The use of the three voices sets up an interesting dynamic. The patrician male voice, speaking first, is doubly authoritative in its masculinity and its Anglo—Saxonness. The seeming neutrality of ht traditional male voice—over and its ability to represent authority depend in part upon its being disembodied. Additionally, this British accent of this particular narrator plays on associations of class and learning (and has perhaps even greater authority in Canada, where this film was made, than in the US). Such a voice appears to be the “neutral” medium for relaying dense, academic writing.
The other voices are doubly removed form such easy assumption of authority. Both are female and are either that of a non—native speaker or of a first—generation speaker of English (as we know Sally to be). While seeing Sally’s person on the film endows her voice with specificity, we don’t see her friend, whose “immigrant” voice has perhaps the least authorized relationship to the word she reads. However, the irony in the contrasts among these three voices is that they demonstrate how an authoritative discourse is transformed through individual acts. Multivocality is the wrench in the works that destroys a seemingly unilinear discourse. The “content” the two women’s voices bring to the words—their gender, one’s visible body, another’s audible foreignness—embodies the critical theory they are reading. Their presence as specific subjects, rather than abstracted voices, makes us reflect upon how the theory might affect them: we wonder what investment they have in reading it. The power of their specificity diminishes the male speaker’s authority and the neutrality his voice had assumed. The three voices open up the possibility of different ways of inhabiting the same theory. At one point the three voices overlap as they all read the same sentence (from Bhabh’s essay “The Other Question”):3 “They will always conceive of difference as that between the preconstituted poles of black and white.” The difference among the voices, as they stumble over each other, negative the preconception criticized in the text.
Several times throughout the film we see a sentence haltingly being typed on a typewriter: “bl”; “blac”; “black”; “black I”; “black is”; “black is b.” That’s as far as it gets: it emphasizes how difficult it is for Sally to accept the black part of herself. While the three voices are negating the polarities of black and white, we see close—ups of Sally’s lipsticked lips, then a black man’s lips, slowly smiling. The scene in which the American painter strips Suzie Wong of her Western clothes rushes by, played upside down and backwards, returning Suzie to the hybrid identity she desired. Sally crosses over to the black man, and they kiss. The bottle of makeup she used to cover her beauty spot falls to the floor, and the “skin—coloured” liquid spills.
Sally’s Beauty Spot has an overtly happy ending, which perhaps gives it an edge over the guarded optimism of the theoretical works form which it draws. It confronts fetishism as a mechanism for containing sexuality within the norms of dominant culture. At the beginning of the story Sally is sexually defined from a white North American point of view—her boyfriend’s. Her difference is valued, but in a stereotyped form; the beauty spot seems to represent a vestige of suppressed sexual/cultural identity. Accepting her spot and her difference opens the way to a sexual relationship that is not built on a Western/Oriental, subject/object dyad. Rather, two who have been objects of sexual stereotyping are able to claim subject—hood. Sally and her lover show it is possible to inscribe a form of sexuality that resists “the poles of black and white.”
Originally published in Afterimage, Vol. 19, No. 9, April 1991.