Asking for a Drag Show, or Notes on Mutation in She-Ra, He-Man, Feng Sun Chen, Clarice Lispector, Pedro Almodóvar, and Other Princesses of Power to Come
by Lucas de Lima on Sep.07, 2012
As I haven’t read Paul Legault’s book, I’m using the recent discussion only as a springboard. It’s the concern about the book’s gender politics, specifically, that got me thinking again about my favorite topic of the year—mutation!
In my chapbook Ghostlines, I dress up in drag before mutating into a bird. This happens in “MARIAS,” a poem about the anonymity of that most common Latin American name. Anonymity tends to be brutal—the poem mentions the endless murders of Ciudad Juarez, for instance—and I believe its brutality can lead to a kind of contagious sympathy. Most of us can sympathize with, and have experienced, the plight of the anonymous. When someone is stripped of their name, they are marginal beyond speech, as if deemed too monstrous and unrecognizable to deserve linguistic agency or representation. As writers, we react to this plight in different ways. Some try to speak on behalf of those who are silenced, and critique the conditions that have led to such oppression. Other writers are compelled to transform themselves as well as the world, becoming something entirely unforeseen in the face of marginalization.
I want to say that these writers become bad copies of the monster. To borrow Johannes’ term, they speak in something like an ‘ambient translation’ of the other. Instead of trying to represent the conditions of monstrosity, the writers I’m thinking of proliferate the affects of otherness by making themselves susceptible to all manner of suffering. This is what Kate Schapira calls the ‘dirty energy’ of the potatoesque, that most soil-ridden and torturous aesthetic.
In her review of Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree, Schapira notices “a changed life, a torqued life, and not a human life” in Feng’s poems. This image I dug up of He-Man gestures precisely at such inhuman mutability:
As children of the 80’s, my brothers wanted to be He-Man while I wanted to be She-Ra. But maybe He-Man himself felt the same way as me. Check out his pink vest and purple fur briefs! Flanked by a cyborgian Tom Selleck and an inversely colored tiger, He-Man seems to be asking for more queer transformation from the gods. Even the arbor around him bends to his will and changes color, splashed with a rainbow of femininity. The hero’s name, in all its comical hyperbole, is surely the punchline of this drag show.
When she wrote in drag and created male stand-ins for herself in her novels, Clarice Lispector played She-Ra to her narrators, injecting them with a dirty feminine energy they could not live out.
In the Hour of the Star, the character Macabéa materializes in all the anonymity of an industrialized Brazil as a poor, uneducated woman who only eats hot dogs and drinks Coca-Cola. It is to the narrator’s credit that he follows the book’s “occult fatal line” when he dies with Macabéa. His name, after all, is Rodrigo S.M.: he is Mr. S&M. By pushing his receptiveness to a woman’s fragility to its very limit, Rodrigo is broken on the leather sling he writes from past the brink of expiration. In death he is submitted to the sacred sadomasochism of drag, of its monstrous sympathies, through and through.
Lispector also dies after writing the Star, as if herself crushed by so many degrees of mortality, the silencing which we are all destined to meet. Is her book a prismatic swan song? An unravelling and layering of misogyny, refracting the feminist battles to come? It certainly anticipates the horrid blurb written on new translations of her work: “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”
Thankfully, Pedro Almodóvar passed on the chance to make sexist pronouncements about Lispector. The filmmaker was asked, in correspondence included in A Breath of Life, to write an intro for the novel. After declining because he feels inadequate to the task, Almodóvar points to transmutation as a theme shared with his film The Skin I Live In:
Speaking of Breath and Skin, I found a paragraph that defines transgenesis in an exquisite and precise way. “I want the colorful, confused and mysterious mixture of nature. All the plants and algae, bacteria, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, concluding man with his secrets.”
In the word ‘transgenesis’, Almodóvar suggests just how queer creation is. To create or become something new is always to copy some preexisting model, but end up swerving from it in inexact mimicry, as any translation inevitably does. The human body can no longer find animal-like integration into nature, no matter how much we try in a ‘colorful, confused and mysterious mixture.’ Our inability to ever definitively adapt to political and ecological instability is, actually, what keeps the promise of mutation alive as an invitation to monsters. This is the “desperation and multiplicity of the individual” Almodóvar identifies in Lispector when she writes, “I live losing sight of myself. I need patience because I am many fatal paths, including a dead-end alley.”
As we sympathize with freaks of nature, we thus spawn new, potentially deathly versions of them. A secret of transformation, a potato about to explode in us, monstrosity is determined by bonds so quasi-causal we can hardly trace them, much less predict them. Like She-Ra and her friends, we only turn into princesses of power through an occult feeling within:
Fabulous secrets were revealed to me the day I held up my sword and said, ‘FOR THE HONOR OF GRAYSKULL’!