Bechdel Test Canon: Pariah
Warning: This post contains spoilers.
Today, we bring the Bechdel Test Canon to a close. This has been a challenging and rewarding experience for me and I hope you all got something out of it. Thank you for reading and happy watching. Also, in the spirit of feminist cinephilia, check in with FemBot Collective on Oscar night to follow Kristen Warner and Raquel Gates’ live commentary.
I originally thought to include Katarzyna Roslaniec’s Mall Girls in this series—but then I saw the Polish writer-director’s feature debut about a quartet of tween girls who trade sexual favors with adult men in exchange for shiny things. It’s an ugly film, and not just because the boom mic is visible in at least one scene. bell hooks’ essay against Larry Clarke’s Kids came to mind, particularly her articulation that the reactionary nature of these kinds of coming-of-age films ultimately furthers a conservative agenda.
In film, we often see girls surviving their teen years under extreme circumstances. Of course, many “real” girls live through poverty and abuse. But we must ask ourselves how we represent girls’ subjectivities. Do we view girls voyeuristically by situating them in abject living conditions? Do we pit girls against each other by placing them in binary categories and reducing them to types? Must we always put them in victimized positions they must then struggle to transcend? Finally, who do we overrepresent and who still idles at the margins?
When confronted with the last question, I knew I had to make a concerted effort to include writer-director Dee Rees’ Pariah. Let’s face it, there aren’t many coming-of-age films about queer black girls written and directed by queer black women. Feminism gets flak for not acknowledging, much less challenging, its own white privilege. As it should. It also gets flak from within when it does. As a cisgender white feminist who strives to be anti-classist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, pro-girl, fat-positive, and queer-positive, I often question why I still identify as a feminist. But while feminism is not my religion, it (re)orders the way I see the world and organize my life. Feminism is the change I hope to see, especially from within.
I made a choice to see Pariah yesterday. This meant leaving town. I contacted various representatives about a screener copy or information on when it would run in or near where I live in Madison. No luck, at least for now. I briefly considered downloading it, but wanted to pay for a ticket. So many other films become media events and motivate pilgrimages, in part because of careful marketing and in part because we let them. Why not make the trek to see a film like Pariah on the big screen? That meant making a three-hour drive to Chicago for a matinee screening at the ICE Chatham 14. I’m not patting myself on the back here. I am privileged with a grad student’s schedule and a car. Actually, I didn’t even drive. My partner graciously took the wheel while I reread Dick Hebdige’s Subculture for school.
In isolation, my efforts won’t change the system. First of all, I don’t believe boutique indies backed by Spike Lee need to be turned into social causes and to suggest that they do is deeply condescending. Also, seeing Pariah is a drop in the bucket. Conversely, withholding my $8 from The Help’s cash pile doesn’t change the game at all. Suggesting one film is nobler in its racial politics is even worse, and complicated by my desire to see Viola Davis win an Oscar. I'm not sure any of this will get Pariah lead actress Adepero Oduye out from under the fold. But maybe it will, if it matters to us.
OK yeah, but is the movie any good? I think so. What I especially like about Pariah is all the layers and dimension given to Brooklyn teenager Alike Freeman (a first-rate Oduye) and the people around her. Alike isn’t just a lesbian teenager trying to come out of the closet. She’s a good student. She’s an accomplished writer. She’s too shy for the lesbian strip clubs and bars her friend and mentor Laura (Pernell Walker) likes to frequent. She’s neither butch nor femme. She likes indie hip hop and alternative rock, yet is blindsided that one of her classmates is a Tamar-Kali fan because she took so much pride in being an outcast. She bickers with bratty kid sister Sharonda (Sahra Meliesse), but the two find comfort in each other when their parents fight. Sharonda also proves herself to be an ally when Alike comes out.
Alike’s parents—cop Arthur (Charles Parnell) and nurse Audrey (Kim Wayans)—work hard to be middle class and remember starting their family from a small apartment in Queens. Arthur denies his daughter’s sexuality, largely out of masculine posturing, but comes around. Audrey is guided by Christianity, partly as an attempt to ascend her class status. Her faith in God and suspicion of her husband’s philandering (mis)informs her intense homophobia. Ultimately, she cannot accept her daughter’s lesbianism. Detractors might be quick to speak out against Pariah for its vilification of black mothers. They could compare Audrey to Laura’s mother (Ozzie Stewart). Both women abandon their daughters. But the film doesn’t vilify Audrey. Wayans doesn’t either. As a fan of In Living Color, I knew Wayans’ character-based humor would provide depth to a character who cannot see past her narrow view of godly femininity. Also, the film’s investment in black female mentorship recalls Patricia Hill Collins’ notion of the other mother, a black woman who cares for children who are not her own. Alike has at least two other mothers. Laura is one of them. Alike’s writing teacher Mrs. Alvarado (Zabryna Guevara) is another.
Pariah is about intersectionality. Alike’s friend Laura is a working-class butch. Audrey hates her as much for her class position—and seems to link class with her decision to drop out of school and get her GED—as she does for her influence on Alike’s gender performance. Audrey would rather Alike associate with wealthier, straight-passing classmate Bina (Aasha Davis, out from under a messily written Friday Night Lights plotline on mental illness that marred a near-flawless first season). But Audrey has no idea that Bina is attracted to Alike and sadly, Bina ultimately breaks Alike’s heart after initiating sexual contact because she’s just experimenting.
Though it prompts a hasty conclusion, Alike’s early admittance into Berkeley suggests other other mothers, lovers, and friends. No doubt she’ll stay in touch with Laura and Sharonda—they all need each other. I’ll just hold hope that Audrey finds the strength to visit Alike too. To me, a film that engenders that sort of hope and possibility is worth gas money, an $8 ticket, and a trip to the concession stand. It’s why I wrote this series and what I hope to find when I go to the movies.
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