Saturday, July 11, 2009

The queerness(?) of Michael Jackson

This article about Michael Jackson and his status as queer icon was recently posted to my departmental listserv. I tend to agree with what it suggests about MJ's victimization by a system of compulsory heterosexuality that he tried to fit but couldn't. (I'm less certain about whether he actually had vitiligo, but his eventually cartoonish efforts to whiten himself through bleaching and surgery go well beyond dealing with a medical condition.)

Among the exchanges in response to the article over the list, one friend suggests that Jackson didn't actually aspire to normativity. I can see why he'd be tempted to say that - through the late 80s and early 90s, a surprising amount of academic writing was devoted to discussions of MJ's ironic embodiments and performance of identity, masculinity, sexuality, and whiteness. It seems fair to wonder why anyone who wanted to seem 'normal' would choose to have his face altered in such a way that it looked inhuman.

But I'm of the opinion that MJ was entirely too conscious of normative white America's ideal images. The problem, and it's the same problem that appears to have informed many of his life's decisions, is that he tried to normalize himself in the way that a little boy would - by exaggerating to the point of parodic and grotesque excess. That is, it would be parodic if it weren't so sincere; and it would be endearing (rather than disturbing) if, like a child, we thought that he was expressing some inner-essence - a masculinity that he would eventually grow into.

And as for 'the queerness of Michael Jackson'? Another friend adds that "Queer also isn't synonymous with deviant, although often, what is regarded as deviant can be included in what it is to be Queer". So failing to be heteronormative does not make one queer - especially in MJ's case where it seems so clear that he wanted to be heteronormative and just didn't know how to go about doing it. No one ever perfectly matches the demands of compulsory hetersexuality, but it's rare that someone who wanted so badly to match it ended up missing the mark so spectacularly.

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