Kimberley Mather (University of Manchester)
Hope, Desire and Futurity in The Watermelon Woman’s Queer Archive
‘The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.’Derrida, Archive Fever
Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman is a documentary style narrative that charts the journey of Cheryl, a young black lesbian filmmaker, in her struggle to make a documentary about a black actress from the 1920’s, Fae Richards. Through her research, Cheryl discovers that Fae was a lesbian and was in a relationship with a white female director. This relationship mirrors Cheryl’s own life as she starts a new relationship with a white woman. This film has been considered ground-breaking, both in its portrayal of black female history and its focus on black lesbian visibility, and as such, writing on The Watermelon Woman has often centred around these themes. Dunye’s work forces questions about the processes of history making and recreates its own alternative historical narratives whilst also making a space, within history and within the current cultural moment, for the black lesbian subject. However, previous writings on the film have neglected to consider the queer futurity of The Watermelon Woman’s archive. My aim is to consider how the creation and use of queer archives in The Watermelon Woman allow for a futurity that moves away from a reproductive imperative and allows for the possibility of hope.
The Watermelon Woman is unique in that it illustrates the journey and need to create an alternative archive and then reveals this archive as a fiction. My analysis of The Watermelon Woman is informed by its ending and the protagonist Cheryl’s statement of hope. Following Cheryl’s journey in tracing The Watermelon Woman and her necessary turn towards alternative archives, Cheryl speaks directly to the camera and states:
What she means to me, a 25-year-old black woman means something else. It means hope, it means inspiration, it means possibility, it means history. More importantly what I understand is that I’m going to be the one who says I am a black lesbian filmmaker who is just beginning, but I’m going to say a lot more and have a lot more work to do.
The queer archives of The Watermelon Woman, both real and imaginary, become ‘a pledge to the future’. These archival spaces become a site of cultural production and performativity that allows the queer subject to move away from the heterosexual reproductive futurity critiqued by Lee Edelman . However, rather than reject the future entirely, as Edelman implores, the queer archive allows for the possibility of queer hope. In this analysis, I will consider how historical absences structured by race and gender necessitate the turn towards queer archives and how the revelation of The Watermelon Woman’s queer archives as a fabrication exposes how queer history sometimes involves what José Munoz terms ‘complicated but necessary fictions’. The Watermelon Woman’s queer archive, I will argue, creates a queer temporality that allows for the possibility of a queer future and queer hope beyond the constraints of reproductive futurism.
Munoz equates queerness with hope and asserts that, like hope, queerness is always something that is still yet to come: ‘queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer’ . This queer hope is not about uncritical optimism but depends instead on disappointment, negativity and historical loss as essential to its transformative potential. This queer hope allows the queer subject ‘to imagine a future apart from the reproductive imperative, optimism and the promise of redemption’. Edelman, however, places queerness and futurity in opposition. The value of queerness is in its refusal a universal politics of reproductive futurism which places ‘unquestioned value and purpose’ on The Child and on heteronormativity . For Edelman, queers should embrace the negativity of this opposition and should live and define themselves against the future. Edelman’s analysis claims that the rhetoric of futurity that is pervasive in queer theory should be rejected and replaced with an embracing of negativity . For Edelman, queers should say no to the future, to anticipation and to hopefulness. Munoz’s vision of queerness as something that is still yet to come, and as generating hope, offers an alternative to the counter-intuitive nature of Edelman’s rejection of the future.
Throughout the multiple diegetic layers of The Watermelon Woman we see how this queer hope becomes enabled through the creation and use of different types of queer archives. It is the ephemeral and often covert and transient nature of queerness that necessitates this turn towards queer archive. For Munoz, ephemeral objects, such as the photographs of Fae Richards, are central to understanding a queer history that often does not leave a trace. As the ephemeral nature of queerness exists in the ‘traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things’  the search for a queer history demands new understandings of the nature of archival evidence and materiality. The Watermelon Woman’s queer archive depends heavily on photographs as ephemeral objects that have been collected and saved by those who knew Fae. In the interview with Shirley, the stone butch who would watch Fae perform, we see how the photographs of Fae she placed around her mirror became imbued with meaning and desire, illustrating how ‘objects are not inherently meaningful but are made so through their significance to an audience’ . It is the meaning given to an object which determines its importance as archival evidence, thus privileging desire and affect over the objectivity of traditional archival spaces.
The Watermelon Woman’s ‘devoted occupation with a collective history’ is motivated as much by desire as it by historical absence . This ‘pull of the past on the present’, what Freeman terms ‘temporal drag’, is evident in Cheryl’s identification with Fae and occurs at the intersection of race, gender and desire . Cheryl explains that she knows she wants to make a film about black women as ‘our stories have never been told’ and refers to Fae and other gay characters as being ‘in the family’, thus illustrating how desire intersects with race and kinship in the ‘a queer historical impulse’ to ‘touch across time’ . Through Cheryl’s desire to recover Fae’s past, Fae becomes the queer spectre of the film. Carla Freccero’s notion of queer spectrality defines a queer spectre as ‘a non-living person in the present’ and involves the willingness to be haunted in order to work through the trauma of history and it’s affects . Dionne Brand offers an analysis of blackness in which it is always defined in relation to lack and thus becomes a haunting presence: ‘one enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience’ . The specific use of the stereotypical mammy figure illustrates this haunting of history and, in being mediated through Cheryl’s desire, calls attention to the implicit sexual tensions between the white mistress and black female slaves . In a more explicit display of this sexualisation of the mammy/mistress relationship and it’s haunting in the present, the scenes from Plantation Memories can also be heard in the background when Cheryl and Diana are in bed together.
Monica Pearl considers the mammy/mistress relationships in early 20th century films as a ‘quasi-companionate queer couple’. These relationships, although never necessarily or explicitly sexual, are built around the white mistress’s dependence on the emotional and physical labour of the black maid or mammy. This interracial pairing is repeated throughout the film in a number of guises. Firstly, in an almost identical repetition of the white mistress/black maid trope in Plantation Memories, we see Martha Page’s sister being comforted by her black maid following her interview with Cheryl and the distress caused by the questions about her sister’s relationship with Fae.
Pearl elucidates that the homosocial interracial relationships in racial narratives of early 20th century cinema are a response to the cultural anxieties around miscegenation and act to alleviate these fears. The negativity of the Queer is here used in order to ease the anxieties of a reproductive futurity which is constructed not only in relation to heterosexual reproductivity but also in terms of race. At a time when film production was regulated by the Hays Code and miscegenation laws, the possible sexual transgression of the quasi-companionate queer couple functioned to distract the viewer from the possibility of a more transgressive heterosexual coupling . It was the presumed unlikeliness and unspoken nature of homosexuality, and its ‘existence as spectre’ which ‘made it useful as ballast against darker, or even equally dark, fears’. Dunye both parodies and critiques the effects of this erasure in the disbelief of the academic experts in the film. In a scene in which academic Camille Paglia plays a satirical version of herself, Cheryl interviews her as an ‘expert witness’, a gatekeeper of knowledge. Paglia comments on the cultural role of the mammy figure, claiming that attitudes towards the mammy should be one of veneration rather than shame and reclaims the mammy figure for herself by relating it to her own Italian grandmothers. Paglia then goes on to attack white, middle-class feminism by stating; ‘if the watermelon symbolises African-American culture, rightly so, because look what white middle-class feminism stands for: anorexia and bulimia’. The irreverent and farcical nature of this interview ‘conveys the sense that academic ‘experts’ lead us ineffably back to their truths more than to any usable past’ . Paglia also cannot accept that Fae and Martha had a sexual relationship. She refuses to accept that a relationship that was both same sex and interracial was even possible at the time. Dunye overlays this was stills of interracial couples in 1930s and 1940s club scenes eluding to the fact that the interracial couples, although maybe not understandable or feasible to the academic, did in fact exist.
At the end of the film we learn that The Watermelon Woman is a work of fiction. Plantation Memories and all the photographs used in the film were fabricated by photographer Zoe Leonard and Dunye as a reaction to the lack of archival evidence available . Illuminating the paradoxical nature of these invented archives, Leonard states that while Fae Richards herself did not exist, ‘she could have lived, though even if she had we probably wouldn’t have known about her’ . The fabrication of archival documents, born out of necessity, illustrates how the past is made up of ‘complicated but necessary fictions’ . The Watermelon Woman’s queer archives illuminate the partial and illusory nature of history but, rather than just fill the gaps of history, Leonard and Dunye use these gaps as performative, generative spaces.
The revelation of the film as fiction has been described by Thelma Wills Foote as a ‘hoax’ perpetuated on the spectator . In referring to the ‘hoax of the lost ancestor’ Foote is referring not only to the hoax played on the spectator who believes that the events of the film were real, but also to the irrevocable loss that defines the past. She describes how the spectator is bereft at learning that the events of the film are not true, just as Cheryl is bereft at learning that Fae is dead . I would also add to this the loss that is felt by the viewer through June, who has lost her partner and also loses control of their story as it is appropriated and misrepresented in Cheryl’s final film. Although Foote interprets the ending in this way, I would like to suggest that the ‘hoax’ perpetuated on the viewer is a necessary fabrication that opens up the possibility of a queer futurity. Rather than saying ‘no to the future’ – as implored by Edelman – the fabrication of the archives allows for a queer futurity centred on hope. This is a futurity that is not constructed through a heterosexual reproductive imperative, but which places its lost ancestor, Fae, a black lesbian uncredited actress, as the source of this future hope.
- Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998) (p.18).
- Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory And The Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
- José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999) (p.83).
- José Esteban Muñoz and others, Cruising Utopia, 10Th Anniversary Edition (New York: New York University Press, 2019) (p.1).
- Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss And The Politics Of Queer History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009). Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss And The Politics Of Queer History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009) (p.147).
- Lee Edelman, No Future, p. 4.
- Lee Edelman, No Future, p. 4.
- José Esteban Muñoz, “Ephemera As Evidence: Introductory Notes To Queer Acts”, Women & Performance: A Journal Of Feminist Theory, 8.2 (1996), pp. 5-16 (p. 10).
- Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive Of Feelings (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003) (p. 245)
- Serdar Küçük, “The Watermelon Woman Ve Brother To Brother Filmlerinde Siyah Queer Deneyimi Ve Yenilenme Olgusu”, Sinecine: Sinema Araştırmaları Dergisi, 2019, pp. 431-453 (p. 431).
- Elizabeth Freeman, “Packing History, Count(Er)Ing Generations”, New Literary History, 31.4 (2000), pp. 727-744 (727).
- Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- And Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999) (p. 1).
- Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) (p.23). Carla Freccero, “Queer Times”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 106.3 (2007), pp. 485-494 (p.489).
- Dionne Brand, Map To The Door Of No Return: Notes On Belonging (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2012) (p 25).
- Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I A Woman?: Female Slaves In The Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985).
- Monica Pearl, “Imitation Of Life And The Quasi-Companionate Queer”, in Fear Eats The Soul (Manchester: HOMEpublications, 2016), pp. 89-103.
- Monica Pearl, “Imitation Of Life And The Quasi-Companionate Queer”, p.101.
- Monica Pearl, “Imitation Of Life And The Quasi-Companionate Queer”, p.101.
- Eve Allegra Raimon, “Making Up Mammy: Re-Enacting Historical Erasure And Recasting Authenticity In Cheryl Dunye’ s Watermelon Woman”, in Too Bold For The Box Office (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012), pp. 3-18 (p. 9).
- Julia Bryan-Wilson and Cheryl Dunye, “Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue”, Art Journal, 72.2 (2013), pp. 82-89 (p. 83).
- Huey Copeland, “Photography, The Archive, And The Question Of Feminist Form: A Conversation With Zoe Leonard”, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, And Media Studies, 28.2 (2013), pp. 177-189 (p. 184).
- José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications, p. 83.
- Thelma Wills Foote, “”Watermelon Woman” Text Version”, Ejumpcut.Org, 2007 <https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc49.2007/WatermelonWoman/text.html> [Accessed 16 December 2019].
- Thelma Wills Foote, “Watermelon Woman”, no page numbers.
Brand, D., 2012. Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
Bryan-Wilson, J. & Dunye, C., 2013. Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue. Art Journal, 72(2), pp. 82-89.
Copeland, H., 2013. Photography, the Archive, and the Question of Feminist Form: A Conversation with Zoe Leonard. Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, 28(2), pp. 117-189.
Cvetkovich, A., 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University press.
Derrida, J., 1995. Archive Fever – A Freudian Impression [Mal d’Archive: uneimprssion freudienne 1995] translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Dinshaw, C., 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durhan, NC: Duke University Press.
Dyer, R., 1997. White. London and New York: Routledge.
Edleman, L., 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press.
Foote, T. W., 2007. Ejumpcut.org. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc49.2007/WatermelonWoman/text.html
[Accessed 27 January 2020].
Freccero, C., 2006. Queer/Early/Modern. Durham: Duke University Press.
Freccero, C., 2007. Queer Times. South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 106:3, pp. 485-494.
Freeman, E., 2000. Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations. New Literary History, 31(4), pp. 727-744.
Küçük, S., 2019. The Watermelon Woman ve Brother to Brother Filmlerinde Siyah Queer Deneyimi ve Yenilenme Olgusu. sinecine: Sinema Araştırmaları Dergisi, pp. 431-453.
Love, H., 2007. Epilogue: The Politics of Refusal. In: Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 146-163.
Muñoz, J. E., 1996. Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 8(2), pp. 5-16.
Muñoz, J. E., 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Muñoz, J. E., Chambers-Letson, J., Nyong’o, T. & Pellegrini, A., 2019. Cruising Utopia, 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: New York University Press.
Pearl, M. B., 2016. Imitation of Life and the Quasi-Companionate Queer Couple. In: O. Kholeif & S. Perks, eds. Fear Eats the Soul. Manchester: HOMEpublications, pp. 89-103.
Raimon, E. A., 2012. Making Up Mammy: Re-enancting Historical Erasure and Recasting Authenticity in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman’. In: Too Bold for the Box Office. Lanham: Scarecrow Press Inc, pp. 3-18.
Richardson, M., 2011. Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in The Watermelon Woman. Black Camera, 2(2), pp. 100 -113.
The Watermelon Woman. 1996. [Film] Directed by Cheryl Dunye. United States of America: First Run Features.
White, D. G., 1985. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton.
Kimberley’s paper was one of several submissions we accepted from our Call For Participation at the start of the 2019-20 academic year. We received some fantastic responses for both seminars/sessions and blog posts – keep an eye out for these across the rest of the year! And, if you would like to put forward an idea, keep an eye out for future Calls For Participation or email us directly: email@example.com