There is a sequence in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood [Bande des filles] which opens with Marieme, Adiatou, Fily and Lady – the eponymous bande – dancing in a circle, eyes lowered, bathed in kerosene light. It’s club filler par excellence; the sort of scene that, with a bit of cross-cutting and a few flashbacks, might cement the characters’ development and ready us for the next act. We pull back: the girls aren’t in a club but a hotel room, alone. What we expect is a repository for thematic concerns; what we get is four girls dancing. For three long minutes, the girls luxuriate in uninterrupted pleasure, the demands of cinematic structure melting away to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’.
The film is full of wrong-footings like this. Some – that underneath their helmets the American football players that open the film are women, that Adiatou is playing minigolf, or that what’s strapped to ex-gang member Sweety’s back is a baby – are minor. Others less so, like the revelation that Marieme binding her breasts may not be simply an occupational necessity; or that her joining a girl gang, while first painted as an attempt to impress her lover, Ismael, is more meaningfully entangled in her relationship with her brother. Just as the girls promise to settle into coherence, they issue a sharp reminder: ‘You don’t know us.’
Mainstream media are frustrated by this. In almost the first breath of his feature for The Observer, Jonathan Romney describes the stars of Girlhood as ‘perplexing shape-shifters’. They are, and it’s no surprise: when critics like Romney are in search of the ‘Real Thing’, some ‘sociological detail’ that will pinpoint what it is to be a black woman, what recourse is there but to perplexity? The problem is that there’s so little room for black women in Western media that each representation is forced to become representative. Let’s play word association: rapper? Nicki Minaj. TV host? Oprah. Actor? Cue Karidja Touré, who plays Marieme: ‘The role model for me and Assa [Sylla, aka Lady], the American actress we really love, is Lupita Nyong’o – she’s really an icon of African woman.’ Such statements read as if scripted by Romney, a critic romanced not so much by the film as the prospect of new “reality” of black womanhood; the thought that Karidja might be the new Lupita.
Touré is caught in the paradox of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls ‘strategic essentialism’. She’s no fangirl: she uses the term ‘icon of African woman’ advisedly, as a more powerful antidote to white American hegemony than the more accurate ‘Mexican-Kenyan actor’. But its side-effect, the contraction of space for black women to a single ‘icon’ against whom all others are measured, is toxic. Touré arrives back where Romney starts: the now strangely nightmarish ‘Real Thing’ of black womanhood.
This unlikely dovetailing of political solidarity and pseudo-anthropology is an oddly familiar story, and one best told by Juliana Huxtable. The African-American prose-poet writes in ‘Untitled (Destroying Flesh)’:
UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF-CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING. PRIMAL SELF-RECOGNITION DISASSEMBLES AS \IT FORMS, TRANSFERRING CORPORAL MATTER INTO THE VIRTUAL AND IT DOUBLES BACK AS A FANTASY OF OURSELVES… OR PERHAPS ITS ALL JUST A NIGHTMARE. LIKE THAT TIME I REALIZED THAT FOR US BY US WAS A MESSAGE MORE SEDUCTIVE TO THEM THEN IT EVER WAS TO US.
Huxtable’s slippage from ‘fantasy’ to ‘nightmare’ is interesting. A fantasy is OED-defined as a ‘fanciful mental image, typically one on which a person often dwells and which reflects their conscious or unconscious wishes’; a nightmare ‘a very unpleasant or frightening experience’ (as in ‘the traffic was a nightmare’). Based on this, the axis of opposition is not pleasantness/unpleasantness, but subjectivity/objectivity. Fantasies are individually meaningful, non-transferrable; nightmares are socially corroborated (we all agree that traffic is nightmarish). Huxtable’s warning is that fantasy will slide into nightmare unless it ‘DISSASSEMBLES AS \IT FORMS’. Failing to ‘DOUBLE BACK’ in ‘SELF-RECOGNITION’, the ‘FANTASY OF OURSELVES’ becomes a ‘NIGHTMARE’, a performance ‘MORE SEDUCTIVE TO THEM THEN IT EVER WAS TO US’. The fantasy that fails to creatively and spiritually enrich the fantasist becomes a ‘MESSAGE’, a communicable account of existence.
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How, then, to escape a nightmare, to rediscover a black identity lost in the performance of it? Fantasise, create from within. It’s in this way that Vanessa talks back to Touré in episode 5 of strolling, the documentary webseries by black British director Cecile Emeke: ‘Lupita is great but […] I wanna see Vanessa, I wanna see myself’. Or as Christelle puts it in episode 1 of flâner, strolling’s French counterpart: ‘Sometimes you just want to stop everything and just think about something else. Escape from the reality. That’s what I’ve found to be even more connected to my blackness.’ Neither Vanessa nor Christelle have abandoned ‘blackness’ as a strategic category – on the contrary, they want to ‘be even more connected to’ it. The difference is that they seek it within, Touré without. Like their director, they are in pursuit of ‘something else’, a fantasy of selfhood borne of an internal sense of ‘blackness’ but that doesn’t necessarily talk to any ‘reality’ of it.
Emeke’s ‘something else’ is ackee & saltfish. Unlike Huxtable, unlike those with whom she strolls, Emeke disdains seriousness in pursuit of fantasy. ‘Which three characteristics from personal friendships would you say inspired some of the details you’ve weaved into the rapport of Rachel & Olivia in Ackee & Saltfish?’ i-d asked her, in misjudged earnest. ‘Banter, banter and banter’. Yet despite the humility of Emeke’s enterprise, her series continues to innovate representations of black women. Namely two black women, Olivia and Rachel, ‘SELF-CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING’ who surprise and delight us with each fresh upload. Self-described as a series of ‘small, random, golden and banter-filled moments’, the series’ shapeshifting, like Girlhood, is formally inbuilt. The episodes, which form no narrative arc and last only long enough to sketch out character, refuse totality. This is also a stylistic principle: Emeke’s visual idiom cuts speakers off a half-second short, creating new rhythms (tellingly, Christelle’s issue with Girlhood is that ‘they didn’t have any rhythm’) whilst eliding pauses where ambiguities might resolve. But most explicitly, you see it in her titles: strolling (like flâner) is carefree, unpredictable, directed by its own desire.
Yet Emeke’s fantasy isn’t entirely aimless, but toys with antagonism. ‘Stroll’ comes from the German Strolch meaning ‘vagabond’ or ‘thug’, and the English inherits its disaffection. Emeke is poised between indulgence in fantasy and resistance of nightmare. So it’s unsurprising Touré and Sylla look to African-American performers like Nyong’o: it’s they who are most practiced in this sort of poise. Take Rihanna, at whose altar Hannah Giorgis worships in her joyous romp of a Buzzfeed article:
‘RiRi crafts notably rebellious black female self-determination in this spirit, eschewing propriety in favor of a carefree, self-indulgent womanhood not contingent on respectability. She demands authority over her own body, narrative, and career […] refus[ing] to shrink into the constraining molds handed to her — the “acceptable” ways to perform wealth, womanhood, blackness, and victimhood […] The appeal of Rihanna’s persona lies partly in its constant evolution, in her refusal to be called the “new” anybody.’
Rihanna’s brand positioning is far from uncomplicated: she both does and doesn’t give a fuck about the system that oppresses her, is both ‘carefree’ and ‘rebellious’. Like the Bande des filles, like Olivia and Rachel, indeed like Emeke and Huxtable, Rihanna fantasises against the ‘constraining molds handed to her’. Her ‘constant evolution’ isn’t pure ‘self-determination’ but a form of resistance against definition. Like the caterpillar in Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mortal Man’, it’s by ‘go[ing] to work’ on ‘the cocoon which institutionalizes’ that Rihanna’s ‘[w]ings emerge’ and she is ‘[f]inally free’.
Perhaps, then, fantasy and nightmare are symbiotic; the threat of captivity incentivises freedom. It’s implicit in the OED’s split definition of ‘free’: ‘able to act as one wishes; not under the control of another’. Hence the shiftiness of Girlhood and half-caught glimpses of ackee & saltfish: it’s the need to outrun the nightmare that sustains fantasies of black womanhood, that keeps black unicorns running freely, still.