Queer Vibrations

Curator's Note

The clip I have chosen is perhaps a surprising source for recent thoughts regarding affect and queer privates. It may seem unlikely as a spark for theorizing various levels of privacy vis-a-vis queerness - for instance, the neoliberally privatized sexuality of Lawrence vs. Texas. Why then a subcultural Chinese-Cantonese heterofemmy make-up demonstration? With this meditation on a femme-appearing person’s cheap alternative to a “modern” practice of mascara application, a practice about which I confess almost zero expertise, I hope to complement the discussions already present in this week’s In Media Res submissions.

I remain highly conflicted about this video’s appearance here for two reasons, one being the possibility of racist collusion simply by my participation in a certain Internet architecture of reference; and two, for its radical departure from the topics addressed in the three previous posts. I suspect that this video has been compelling to me not in spite of, but along with what has occupied my thoughts and feelings about the severe and indeed extreme crackdown on certain bodies of color, on all bodies of color, and indeed too on nearly all bodies except seemingly those of the densely privileged, exemplified in the wave of corporate, legal, military, and police actions recognizable in a relentless parade of key words that keep streaming along: today’s snapshot for me is “Arizona”, “(public) education”, “Middle East,” “working class,” “downsizing,” “students,” “teachers,” “disabled,” “environmental disaster.” That is, I believe that being drawn to this video clip is not just a copacetic rescue from the onslaught of toxic happenings at all scales; there is something more here, and I want to (begin to) find it.

I am in utmost alignment with the force and spirit of Queer Privates’ emphases on the urgency of theorizing queerness in an time of explodingly neoliberal privatization, as outlined in the organizers’ opening post this week. While I’ll be speaking in that symposium about topics that I consider entirely grave – illness and estranged domesticity, transnational labor, toxicity, queerness and white fantasy - I am hoping in this departure to indulge, in a thankful nod to Lauren Berlant and others, considerations of the cultural entourage of neoliberalism. That is, I am concerned with how neoliberalism shapes, configures, and releases certain cultural energies that racialize and sexualize in such a way as to create the realm of the minor.  It seems potentially useful to plumb that region of the minor to come up with something that I hope is somewhere between blissful fantasies of escapist media and the clench of representational abjection.

In this brief clip, we see a tight close-up of the face of a woman demonstrating how she puts on her eye make-up, and hear her step-by-step advice. The clip is limited to the “mascaras” step, and she explains in accented English that she some mascara is equipped with little batteries that apparently vibrate the wand.  Here she conspiratorially informs the viewer that if you don’t have the fancy vibrating one, you can do the same thing: “if your mascara don’t vibrate, you just vibrate your head, like this.” Stroking the mascara along her eyelashes, she demonstrates by shake her head in tiny increments, vertically and then horizontally.

Is the clip I have posted here embarrassing? I fully acknowledge that its modest popularity (for it has been widely viewed, reposted, commented upon, and even parodied) might be at least in part directly tied to a certain kind of anti-Asian racism, as may be true for those fans of Margaret Cho who “love” her only because they now have a way to mock a certain racialized linguistic failure they identify in her mother. But what of those (self-identified Asians especially, here) who love it, who hit play again and again and can’t take their eyes off the screen? There is something else to be found here: a gleeful adoration, a mirth that celebrates the possibility of her impossible transgressions. It might seem that such a seemingly trivial clip is inappropriate for a venue like this; I struggled with the feeling that other posts might be more well-suited for this week’s theme, being either simply more urgent or more openly about survival, so that anything else is a privilege. Yet this “triviality” is precisely the position that queerness has held, precisely the opportunity that has been offered (and is sometimes shallowly squandered) in thinking deeply about the possibilities of “gay shame.” Can this triviality be rescued here, without reducing femmeness to makeup, national or linguistic migration to cultural competence, performance to aesthetics or prosthetics?

Let’s continue to refuse the minoritizing sentiments that are launched toward apparently minor things, and continue to infuse “queer” with its most potent edges, moving far beyond the sexual and into places it does not readily claim as its own.  Such a view of queerness bears remembering, and it too is charged with a kind of affective (if not activist or protest) politics. I’d like to point to this clip’s sweetness, its vulnerability, its tenderness. And what my thinking about racialized lead toxicity, the nationalized threat of immigration of certain “toxic bodies” other than presumably immigrant people, and state sovereignty has taught me – and from a very different direction, queer of color critique – is that what seems sweet, small, silly, harmless, private, feckless, feminine, and honeyed is not beyond politics. Especially not now.

So yes, there is a complexity involved in writing about something so easily taken up in racist ways—particularly when bodies of color are under such serious threat. But I want, then, to focus on the tremendous vulnerability in this woman’s face pressed up to the screen of the computer camera, to spend time considering the powerful intimacy in this clip, as well as to the alluring hint of privacy in her smile. For me, there is a fine line between shame and celebration, a line around which I waver as I watch. The complete contextlessness that YouTube promotes plays a role here: without investigation, I have no idea where she is coming from ideologically, or where she is literally from, geographically. Is she mocking an accent, or inhabiting it? What iteration am I catching her on? (I found at least one imitation of this clip; but is there someone specific that she herself cites, beyond the convention of the make-up tip or instructional video? Like any hunt for authentic origins, such a line of questioning would be fruitless.)

This clip, too, evokes some of the mystery that I feel about feminine self-crafting. Is this what I'm missing, being so very not femme? How did I miss that it could involve people vibrating their faces? If I feel intimacy here, what is that intimacy about? How do these things come to us queerly? Clearly the language is potently (but perhaps inadvertently) sexual: she describes the “big head” and the “small head” of the wand, and there is an erotic thrill to watching the vibrating of her head, to seeing her lips open and her tongue move to the corner of her mouth. I feel tenderness towards her, too: her breathing is, while audible, incidental and seemingly unselfconscious, reminding me of effort, sincerity, concentration. It is as if this head-vibrating is a secret which she has discovered and made public. This kind of self-care - the making of the face - is something that toggles between private and public. It is a ritual performed by oneself for oneself, but is also directed outward, to mold or manage how one is regarded.

It is impossible to know if she is serious or if she is trying to be funny, and in fact those questions of sincerity or intention do not matter much to me.  For the clip strikes me as deeply about face—about being uninhibited but also about the disciplinary forces of gender entrainment. She’s offering/giving up her face as she is trying to tell us about the creation of her face. I'm embarrassed by what she's doing with her social face and yet take pleasure in it, too; here then is my gay shame. So her private-made-public gesture, available to all on the Internet, is a particular gift, one that while adhering to a certain kind of neoliberal discourse of privatized femininity and feminine affect, simultaneously rejects its proper bounds of individuation, sexuality and race. I have confessed to being uncomfortable posting this as my contribution to this forum, but such unease also interests me: does it signal that I am inappropriately expropriating my own proper privacy by making it public, and by what terms then is this privacy proper? For whom does this video simply get recirculated as a shameful, abject Asian moment? If it is still acceptable to design Hollywood comedy so that the Asian position is by default funny (I have heard audiences uproariously erupt when a movie simply cuts to an Asian face), then what does it mean to laugh when watching this? Does it matter who is laughing? And how does such laughter function both as potential damage, but also as tenuous lifeline, amidst the true horrors of our current moment? There is so much variation here.

Ultimately, this clip is for me very queer, because, in its tremendous pull on a me that is otherwise overcome by neoliberalism’s terrors, it provides a tremendously eclectic and perhaps even politically unacceptable link to the vulnerability of certain transnational (potentially immigrant, certainly racialized) communities. But it plumbs the minor to raise these questions: In the face of a choking economy, who especially feels the need to attach styling (citizen-styling?) to the possibility of some kind of employ? And in the face of a nationalist spasm as this, who must be a diligent student of the stylization linked to survival? I was struck by the remarkable kinship this video bears to the trans instructional videos you’ll find elsewhere on YouTube, in which FTMs and MTFs post how-to tips for occupying a range of gender positions more comfortably (details about packing, voice, or electrolysis, for instance). So, “cosmetics,” yes, sometimes, but they are also, in the incredible modesty of the brush-stroke or the binding, about lives at stake. Lives passing through, and by, and as, while simultaneous borders of language, geography, class, gender and race are being rewrought from above and with fascinating speed and multivalent force (as previous posters this week note so powerfully). I won’t speak in the language of hope here, but I confess to being profoundly touched by the possibility of a minor, queer vibration.



Thanks for the post Mel!  I was struck too by the erotic overtones of the video, especially in the reference to the "vibrating wand." There seems something queer to me about rejecting a more sanitized vibration and instead inhabiting it in the body, and putting it on display, at such close range, for such a long time. 

It occurred to me that femme, at least in some femme performances, could be read as making public those acts that are supposed to be private in an idealized version of femininity. Vibrating one's face on camera is one way. As is, I think, a vibrant queer fat femme movement in which femme performances buck the broader cultural directive to make those bodies as inconspicuous as possible (at least, this chubby femme tries to make the body's interaction with the clothing that covers it- something that's supposed to be unnoticeable - the main thrust of her femme-ness).  

And ideally (and I think this video does this), femme can point out the ways that privacy is not allowed equally to all bodies. Some bodies, because of norms of race, gender, class and ability will never be allowed to keep the process of putting on femininity entirely private. And that fact is entirely tied up in the more "serious" questions of neoliberalism and violence and that have been in play this week thus far. 

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