This article is first published in UrbanApa’s Blackness and the Postmodern.
I am an emerging choreographer and performance theorist, born/raised in Vietnam, currently studying and working in the U.S. My current scholarly research interest lies at the intersection of choreography and pornography, where I look into pornography’s mobilization of bodies and affects in a prescriptive pathway, consequently extracting sexual pleasure as capital. I turn to contemporary dance/performance artists and porn stars, using their works as a tool in my search for orgasmic freedom – a mode of freedom that is unfortunately often experimented with as bodily intensities that are immaterial, internal, and inherently colorless. Pleasure has been conceptualized without regards to, and at the expense of minoritarian subjects’ racialization-sexualization.
This project of internalizing pleasure within the body, yet without the specificities of whose bodies are at stake, should not come as a surprise, since the public representation of pleasure in pornography, dance or any other cultural industries is fundamentally a realm of whiteness. In the West, non-white folks are never in control of their mass representation – their bodies are constantly deployed by whiteness to confess their racial difference, most prominently in mainstream pornography, where there are categories for any imaginable races, except for white. Therefore, if white artists have endlessly explored pleasure as a subject matter throughout history because they are entitled to, non-white artists do not have the (same) authority and agency to bare their bodies-in-pleasure in public. How can we artists of color get pass the pain of racialization and colonization? How can we even allow ourselves to feel anything other than pain, let alone pleasure, let alone in public?
The public in contemporary dance, more often than not, is white, which brings to my mind the most prominent question: how can we artists of color bare our racialized pleasure for the white gaze? Yes, in the downtown New York dance scene there has been somewhat more diversity among the younger generation, more awareness of race, more grappling with whiteness; but essentially the theatre goers who donate and pay the most are white, the curators and presenters who hold the most power are white, the donors and institutions with the most resources are white, the whole social structure, architectural structure, and structure of viewing/making performance are also deeply rooted in whiteness. Thus, even when efforts are made to drag non-white performances into visibility, there is still this pressure for artists of color to bare their racial difference in order to assimilate into the existing white structures – white folks are only interested in black artists if their works look black, and are about blackness. Adding another layer of racialized pleasure on top of this question of assimilation, the extra danger of not only baring racial pain, but also of selling this pain for white pleasure, can become too overwhelming that it can paralyze scholars and artists of color like me who want to experiment with the orgasmic body.
Nonetheless, Narcissister dives straight into this risky space, engaging in a process of striptease and “reverse striptease” that literalizes racist-sexist stereotypical images across her own explicit body, making visible the tight grip of fetishization on the racial-sexual subject. In the following text, I will examine her latest evening-length show The Body Is A House (2017), looking specifically into section seven Everywoman, and section three Basket, respectively. I argue that even though Narcissister bares herself in front of a predominantly white audience, pleasure does not emerge either from the female sexualization or the racial exploitation. Rather, there is pleasure in a collective laughter that at once enlarges and deflates racist-sexist these controlling images.
Pleasure in Racialization-Sexualization: The Body Is A House (2017) by Narcissister
Narcissister is a Brooklyn-based performance maker, known for her signature use of mannequin-like masks in every public performance and video work to construct a persona that is at once anonymous, aloof and attention-grabbing. Never appearing as her personal self yet always performing by herself, Narcissister is situated in the liminal space between the singular narcissism and the collective sisterhood, mobilizing her own explicit body while masking and emptying it of any personal essence, to address larger-than-self issues of racial-sexual identity, and its mass representation. In particular, her tropes rely on a virtuosic manipulation of masks, costumes and various bodily orifices (mouth, anus, vagina) to spectacularly constructs and deconstructs stereotypical imagery on her own naked physicality – her body becomes a prosthetic doll with such extreme mutability that she can transform into almost any images imaginable.
I first encountered Narcissister’s work recently during Performa Biennale 2017 in New York City, when she presented her latest evening-length show The Body Is a House (2017) in a small gallery space in the Lower East Side. Structured like a burlesque performance with a similar sexually inviting and suggestive quality, The Body Is a House contains seven distinct dance/performance/video numbers where the artist quite directly performs for the (predominantly white) spectators. She teases the audience’s imagination with her mannequin-like naked body, stripping in and out of different racialized-sexualized icons around womanhood. In turn, she confronts, with her own visceral yet prosthetic body, the prevalence of racist stereotypes in sexual fetishes, expounding the process behind the production of pleasure that has always been contingent upon the manufacture of racial difference. Narcissister makes explicit that “race is necessarily a pornographic fantasy”: the bodies-in-pleasure of the racialized others have been persistently deployed in pornography and popular culture to bare their racial difference—a difference essentially invented by, and exploited for white pleasure. Race is a fantasy, a fantastical wet dream perhaps, that nonetheless haunts the racialized subjects in reality, taking hold their flesh, constraining their presence and limiting their identification within the exhaustion of white imagination.
Everywoman: Pulling Womanhood Out of Her Ass
The regulatory power of stereotypical imagery is made most prominent in the finale Everywoman, in which Narcissister tackles the fantasy of seeing black woman as a hypersexual creature, by quite literally pulling this fetishized image out of her ass. Everywoman structures itself around the high-energy and feel-good disco anthem “I’m Every Woman” (1978) by Chaka Khan, whose lyrics unapologetically celebrate the sexual prowess of womanhood. Dancing through the entirety of the song, Narcissister enters the stage naked – that is if I do not count the mask, the merkin, the pair of red gloves and the giant Afro wig that she has on her head – performing what she calls a “reverse striptease”. If a striptease relies on the suspension in shedding layers of clothing and the titillation in uncovering the flesh hiding underneath, this “reverse striptease” plays with a similar kind of excitement in teasing and revealing, but not of the “natural” unclothed body – instead, what keeps me on my toes is the donning of apparels and accessories that are tucked away in the artist’s various bodily orifices. A red mesh bandeau top, a gold belt, a pair of yellow hoop earrings inside her mouth; a pair of sparkly bracelets, a pair of heels and a small purse inside her Afro wig; a pair of red stockings, a black-and-white stripe mini-skirt, and a colorful summer scarf inside her vagina/anus – slowly over the next four minutes she pulls them out one by one to wear on her body, constructing in real time the physical image of an “every-woman”.
“I’m every woman, it’s all in me
Anything you want done, baby,
I’ll do it naturally”
Lyrics from I’m Every Woman (1978) – Chaka Khan
“Every-woman” becomes the destination point in this “reverse striptease”, an expression of a fetishized black femininity that Narcissister meticulously designs: a woman in high heels with tight and revealing clothes (her breasts can be seen through the bandeau), dressed in bright colors and adorned by over-the-top shiny jewelries. This over-rehearsed over-sexualized stereotype of black womanhood, is further enhanced and parodied by the artist’s hyper-feminine choreography, whose vocabulary borrows significantly from the flirtatious and suggestive convention of female striptease. Her hips highly articulate, her fingers animated and expressive, her gestures playfully drawing along the contours of the body and the objects, Narcissister performs successive poses that are culturally stylized as sexy, enacting the script for femininity, for sexualization and commodification of the female body that these costumes carry with them.
As the catchy anthemic hook “I’m every woman, it’s all in me” infectiously echoes in my head, the irony is not lost when the objects that make Narcissister an “every-woman” are quite physically in her. Bringing a whole new frame of understanding to the song by literalizing its lyrics, Narcissister pulls womanhood out of her ass, and in such a shockingly explicit act, she reveals the artificiality of the fetishized black femininity, and at the same time how this artificiality been normalized in society through the fixing of stereotypical imagery. As the slang would imply, pulling something out of one’s ass suggests a process of fabrication with no real basis of evidence – yet, despite this arbitrary fabrication, a representational synthesis of an “every-woman” has very real cultural effects, generating a concrete regulatory and fetishized image, which has nothing to refer to but itself. Through the slow unfolding of this “reverse striptease”, Narcissister makes explicit the grip of this controlling image on the black female subject: like a mannequin, Narcissister’s naked body only gains cultural meanings and identities, insofar as it is adorned and costumed in a way that makes itself socially and visually legible. In other words, her corporeal status as a blank canvas waiting to be made into an “every-woman” reveals that the terms of racial-sexual construction as not so much contingent upon skin color or biological determinants, as it is an imposition of style and “visuality”, an invented racial fiction.
For Narcissister as a racialized female subject, there is no way out of this controlling visuality. Yet, by making explicit racial mythology across her visceral yet prosthetic body, Narcissister deflates the authoritarian stereotypical imagery, rendering it absurd in front of a predominantly white audience. Pleasure emerges, not from the sexualization of the womanhood nor from the exploitation of blackness, but from the parodying literalization, from the absurd enlargement of the fetishized sexual-racial difference that is often subsumed, and made invisible for the sake of pleasure. Thus, even though she bares herself performing for white spectators, Narcissister does not feed into the manufacture of race as a pornographic fantasy that is constructed by and for white pleasure. On the contrary, Narcissister bursts this fantasy open, reversing the pleasure agency away from the (white) spectators towards the performer in this “reverse striptease”. It is no longer Narcissister, the racialized female subject, who has to exclusively bear the regulatory burden of racist-sexist images, but it is the (white) spectators, who are passed on this weight of racialization-sexualization, who are revealed as being complicit in the production and reproduction of racist-sexist stereotypes.
Race-humor: Pleasure in Racialization-Sexualization
Pleasure produced in The Body Is a House is not so straightforward or at times even expected, but it is quite visceral, sudden, and uncanny in moments of cleverness, virtuosity and shock. It is not a form of derivative pleasure, but a radical form of ecstasy that Jennifer Nash, a black feminist scholar on pornography, calls “race-humor”, “where racial fictions are played with, exaggerated, rendered absurd, deflated, and even rendered exciting and sexy”. Nash coins the term “race-humor” to describe how black female porn actresses manage to find agency within the extreme condition of racialization-sexualization on-screen, which aligns with Narcissister’s project of composing minoritarian pleasure by literalizing racial-sexual fetishes across her body. Narcissister’s race-humor relies not only on the suspenseful and comical construction of black femininity out of her ass, but it also manifests in her spectacular mutability, which allows her to switch from one image to another in the blink of an eye. In the third section Basket, the artist utilizes layers upon layers of costuming and masking, disassembling and reassembling multiple stereotypical images from black to white, from a maid to a stripper. In such uncanny transformations, race-humor comes in to act, generating laughter that gestures towards a collective pleasure in face of such racist-sexist stereotypes.
Basket opens with Narcissister in a white mask, her body stuffed up, her hands holding a big laundry basket on top of her head. She performs an Eastern European folk dance routine, accompanied by folk music and colorful costume that are also culturally specific to the dance. However, this character is shortly after interrupted by a ringtone, from which the she answers with an old school phone buried in the basket: it is a call to strip into a different avatar, a call so sudden and abrupt that it unsettles any comfort that I have developed with the image currently unfolding, a call that will constantly return throughout the piece to rush Narcissister into the next image. She slowly takes off the layer of white mask to reveal another black one, turning herself into a caricature of African American mammy. No longer standing upright dancing, the artist is now on the ground, using one of her head-wraps as a cloth to wipe the floor while Nina Simone’s sorrowful version of “Wild Is The Wind” is being played in the background, evoking the mythology of black womanhood during and after slavery as docile, nurturing and overweight housekeepers serving in white families.
With each of the image construction, Narcissister composes a wholesome package of not only visuality but also of audio-kinetic experience that meticulously interlaces costumes, music, and movements to make her caricature immediately recognizable as caricature. As two more phone calls interrupt the performance, the artist in turn offers the spectators two more stereotypes: first an off-duty African-American mammy in a leopard-print dress grooving to Nina Simone’s “Blues For Mama”, flattering her giant boobs and butt to the audience; and second, an oversexualized black woman in provocative red and black lingerie, performing a striptease to Lil Kim notoriously vulgar “How Many Licks”. Four very distinct icons in under five minutes, Narcissister’s virtuosic and dizzying mutability overwhelms and disorients my experience, depriving me of any opportunities to sit with these problematic stereotypes and to come to a resolution – nonetheless, I laugh, a lot.
I laugh not only because the characters Narcissister strip in and out of cannot be any more dramatically different, but also because I feel extremely uncomfortable watching these problematic racialized-sexualized images constantly popping up in front of me. As oppose to the slow teasing in Everywoman, Basket bombards the spectators with a range of racial-sexual mythologies around the female figure as a basket holder. There is no unfolding in Narcissister’s extreme mutability here, but these culturally legible images in its sudden appearance immediately hail the audience into a “bind of representation”, which feminist film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu defines as a “hypersexual interpellation” of marginalized racial and sexual subjects. As this bind multiplies and intensifies after each of Narcissister’s transformation, laughter as an effect of race-humor nervously breaks out among the audience, demonstrating a collective acknowledgement of the tight bondage between subjectivity and visuality. As a result, a sense of commonality emerges that makes the bind visible while somewhat loosening its arresting grip on racial and sexual subjects.
As race-humor permeates the space, there emerges a utopic feeling and a sense of agency in face of such racist–sexist stereotypes. However, Narcissister’s virtuosic mutability does not suggest so much a “transgressive magic” that performs “a utopic fluidity of identity” as dance scholar Ariel Osterweis theorizes. Quite the contrary, the artist makes it very explicit that identity is not at all fluid, as the body is constantly being policed, regulated and molded into multiple static visualities. The “fluidity of identity” that Osterweis extrapolates from Narcissister’s mutability appears to signal more of an extreme self-erasure that magnifies the working of racial-sexual fetishes across her body, than an enactment of a utopic ever-changing self. Nonetheless, the utopian still emerges not from the promise of a reflexive self, but from a reflective and introspective laughter that brings less of an affective relief, than a collective sense of responsibility and awareness around the “bind of representation”. Such radical race-humor allows racist-sexist stereotypes to paradoxically be enlarged, made explicit and at once be laughed at, deflated, to the point where there can be pleasure taken in Narcissister self-racialization and self-sexualization.
My argument that Narcissister utilizes racialization-sexualization as a possible technology of pleasure can appear quite unintuitive, but as Jennifer Nash points out, “black pleasures can include racialization even when (and precisely because) racialization is painful”. It is important to not mistake Narcissister’s literalization effort as an act of baring pain in front of whiteness in order to critique the white-centric mode of pleasure production. Rather, it is a radical form of ecstasy in racialization-sexualization itself, an effect of race-humor that plays with the painfully tight bondage between visuality and minoritarian subjects. By expounding the matrix of social relations that cut through the explicitly racialized female body, Narcissister paradoxically shifts the urgency away from the pain of the cut, towards the pleasure in the cut, the collective responsibility around the cut and the potential healing of the cut that can happen along with the residual of historical racial-sexual pain itself.
 Jennifer Christine Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Duke University Press: 2014), 6.
 Robin Bernstein defines “scriptive things” by their ability to hail an individual into subjecthood, to script the subject’s behavior but not without opportunities for resistance and variation, creating a dance between people and things. See Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race.” Social Text 27, no. 4 (101) (2009): 73.
 Ariel Osterweis, “Public Pubic: Narcissister’s Performance of Race, Disavowal, and Aspiration.” TDR/The Drama Review 59, no. 4 (2015): 106.
 Jennifer Christine Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy, 127.
 Celine Parreñas Shimizu, “The Bind of Representation: Performing and Consuming Hypersexuality in Miss Saigon.” Theatre Journal 57, no. 2 (2005): 248.
 Ariel Osterweis, “Public Pubic”, 104.
 Jennifer Christine Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy, 4.