Sunday, March 7, 2010

Evolution of the Exotic Other

What do all four of these women have in common? They are all rebuked for the breeching of "typical" society and societal norms. These women all have "behaved badly" in the eyes of popular society and that's what makes them so deliciously interesting.

During the time of the Harlem Renaissance an actress, Josephine Baker (pictured), was also famously known for her exotic beauty and her love of all things fabulous. Her disregard for what was expected of women during that time period and her pride of being an African American actress contributed to her widespread success. It is no coincidence that Nella Larsen’s character Clare was famously described for her beauty and her lack of caring about societal norms and pressures. At the same time her potential sexual promiscuity/ambiguity draws a close parallel to Josephine Baker. In fact using Josephine Baker to inspire the role of Clare would be interesting because Josephine Baker had a very promiscuous sex life, which even included some women during her life time. This could correspond with the possibility of Clare and Irene having some sort of homosexual feelings for each other in the novel. Also early on in the book Clare is described as having a smile that was “just a shade too provocative for waiter,” implying that Clare has some sort of seedy, whorish past (Larsen 149). Baker was also able to bridge many gaps across gender lines, especially being the first performer to refuse performing to a segregated audience, and she was responsible for her own version of passing, in the sense of being given privileges that other black people at the time wouldn’t have had because of her popularity. Josephine Baker was more widely known for her fight against racial issues rather than her sexuality, and therefore it is understood that if Larsen based Clare on Baker, it would be for highlighting racial issues rather than sexual ambiguity. Finally given Baker’s celebrity status at the time of this novel it would not be unreasonable to believe that Clare was based off of Baker, especially in terms of creating a character that people really want to read about. -> Baker singing/dancing the Cha Cha Cha, a showcase of her clear sexuality and use of it. -> playing on Baker's African roots and association with the sexuality that comes from being exotic.

Catherine begins a new chapter in crossing cultural norms because of her affinity for imitating masculinity. Ultimately she meets her fate within the Garden of Eden for her "wanting too much" power and creating her self deteriorating spiral into the depths of her sin. Catherine's obession with her transformation into an "other" that is dark skinned and fair haired is also meant to be seen as a way of explaining her sexual transgressions. By becoming more and more exotic Catherine is given permission to act outside of societal constraints with and explanation that she simply doesn't know any better. Catherine does create the foundation for others to step out of societal realms and explore an androgynous area where people can simply float "sexlessly" and do what makes them happy instead.

The path that these four women have paved is the perfect breeding ground for a new kind of woman who "does what she wants" and doesn't live by what is accepted by society.

Ladies and Gentleman I give you... GaGa

She's known for her crazy way of pushing every boundary imaginable but Lady GaGa holds a special place in all of our hearts. What is interesting about her is the fact that she couldn't be more white/un exotic in race but what she lacks in the former definitions of "exotic" she makes up for in her style. Some ask if she's a transvestite, while others think that she holds no gender/sexual standing. But Lady GaGa is essentially the product of what was created during the early 1900s.

I personally think that Lady GaGa is the embodiment of what we have been focusing on in this class, she is queer because of the way she defies definition and refuses to be identified by her sexual orientation. After she had disclosed that what got her into song writing was a bad break up with a male drummer she “later regretted disclosing her orientation, saying, "I don't like to be seen as somebody who is using the gay community to look edgy. I'm a free sexual woman and I like what I like. I don't want people to write that about me because I feel like it looks like I'm saying it because I'm trying to be edgy or underground."She had previously told a crowd at one of her concerts that her song "Poker Face" lyrically discusses fantasizing about a woman while being in bed with a man.” I think it is also interesting that Lady GaGa came onto the scene with a very eccentric style that helped her gain the fame that she has now attained. Now more and more I am seeing a softer side of GaGa that is interesting because I have associated her with being very loud and crazy in terms of style.

I think this goes back to the way that Josephine Baker crafted every body movement she used to ooze sex appeal or the way that Catherine carefully shaped the story of her, David, and Marita. I think that rather than looking at this women as people who have crossed cultural gender and sexual norms, it would be even more accurate to say that they are skilled artisans. Each of these women have created a persona for themselves and carefully chosen elements that will further project that image. I essentially look at them as works of art who are all working towards their own idea. Clare’s goal is to “pass” in order to have the status and power that she had always wanted. Catherine’s desire was to be able to explore life freely and to push herself outside the limits of society and just enjoy life without feeling pressured by “norms”. Josephine Baker wanted to be an entertainer and have the same star power that Lady GaGa now has today. All of these women have created steps for their successors to follow in hopes that they will create a new and more beautiful image than what proceeded their own. Those images are the representations of “Queer” and what it means to those individuals who are living it and not just experiencing it.

**Thomas, Matt. "Going Gaga". Fab magazine. Retrieved August 11, 2009. -> Lady GaGa performance, you can't talk about this girl without watching her at least a little bit!

Thanks to You Tube for all my videos on Josephine Baker and Lady GaGa.
Josephine Baker photos:

Catherine/ Mena Suvari,,20212978,00.html

Larsen, Nella. Passing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1986. Print

Lady GaGa:


  1. I really enjoyed the journey you create through the"Evolution of the Exotic Other" because I really get a sense of that "exoticism" that feeds into the notion of being "queer" as well. When you discuss Catherine, I like your argument that "By becoming more and more exotic Catherine is given permission to act outside of societal constraints." She breaks social constraints to become an "exotic other." However, you fail to mention how Catherine begins much like Lady GaGa: a white, American, and very "un-exotic" woman. However, her physical appearance does change in order to create her shift into this world of "otherness" on a skin-deep level, but we all know that it extends far beyond that. Through personal desires and choices, one can construct this idea of being an "exotic other" as well as someone (like Josephine Baker) who embraces her inherent "otherness."


  2. I definitely think you raise a good point Rachel, there is a definite similarity between Lady GaGa and Catherine and their desires to push outside of the fact that they are in the normative realm of society and instead push themselves outside of that. I think that Lady GaGa is also very interesting that she has admitted to having some sexual contact with women (I found this out later). I wonder if her outward "exotic" appearance could be seen as a way of her preemptively trying to project her self from that fact that she wouldn't be considered "normal" for her sexuality so she chooses to become an outwardly noticeable outlier.

  3. (Haha Ps that was me, Laura on the last post!)

  4. Everyone just can't get enough of GAGA this quarter! haha