It’s Time harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor Museum of Harlem, 2004)

It’s Time from House for Josephine Baker (parody series)
by Darell Wayne Fields, 2003. Originally published in
harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor (New York: Studio
Museum of Harlem, 2004)
Courtesy of the artist
“Of la Baker, I Am a Disciple”:
The Diva Politics of Reception
Jeanne Scheper
The US expatriate performer Josephine Baker (1906 – 75), who
lived primarily in France from 1925 to 1975 and became a French
citizen in 1937, is best remembered for spectacles of modern
primitivism such as the costumed cabaret dances represented in
films like the 1935 extravaganza Princess Tam Tam (dir. Edmond T.
Gréville, France) and Zouzou (dir. Marc Allégret, France, 1934).1
But she also famously staged her private life for public consumption, performing a vast array of personae in many different locations: as star of stage and film, as modernist muse, femme fatale,
primitive savage, international spy, transnational antiracist activist, and as an icon of motherhood.
Born Freda McDonald, Baker fled poverty and traumatic
memories of the violent 1917 East St. Louis race riots by seeking
work in the theater. At times considered “too skinny and too dark”
for chorus lines, she left St. Louis to work as a dresser touring on
the Theater Owners Booking Association segregated circuit for
African American vaudeville companies. Eventually she worked
her way into the chorus as a comic performer, and ultimately she
landed a role in Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s already popular
Camera Obscura 65, Volume 22, Number 2
doi 10.1215/02705346-2007-004 © 2007 by Camera Obscura
Published by Duke University Press
74 • Camera Obscura
and groundbreaking Shuffle Along in 1921. Here Baker got her
professional break and was quickly recruited to more principal
roles, eventually being tapped to star in an “all-Negro” show, La
revue nègre (1925 – 27). Caroline Dudley Reagan, a liberal white
New Yorker and socialite, conceived this show as a Harlem export
for Europe. Arriving in Paris at the height of la vogue nègre, Baker
achieved a status, fandom, and recognition that she was never able
to translate into commercial success in the US. Even so, Baker
became an iconic international figure, la Joséphine or la Baker,
moving through the transatlantic cultural circuits that helped
define popular female stage and screen performers in the early
twentieth century, a time when public performances of the “private” self coalesced as obligatory and defining elements of female
It’s Time (2003), a graphic piece from the parody series
House for Josephine Baker by contemporary architect Darell
Wayne Fields, appropriates the famous 1928 Adolf Loos design
House for Josephine Baker and puts the architectural design
under erasure with a large red X, whose ink bleeds across a parodic
Time magazine cover. The standard red frame of the magazine
cover is taken up in the red of the X, with its echo of black militant
resistance. The image of the house has been pasted over familiar
line sketches of Baker dancing naked or wearing a banana skirt or
one of her other vaudeville outfits. But instead of being erased or
covered over, these sketched figures seem to break free from the
page. Baker’s dancing body in motion seeps through the image of
the house, as a series of her dancing feet seem ready to carry it off.
As multiple dancing Bakers surround and overwhelm the outer
periphery framing the house, her mobility strikes a marked contrast with the solid and staid block of high modernist architecture
designed to captivate her.2
In the following pages, I examine the politics of Baker’s
mobility and her complicated staging of race, sexuality, and nationality by interpreting her performances, on stage and screen as well
as off, through the lens of spectatorship and reception. I examine the redeployment of Baker’s iconic status at three sites: the
famous 1969 photograph of Baker’s eviction from her home Les
The Diva Politics of Reception • 75
Milandes in France; the full-length animated feature Les triplettes
de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville, dir. Sylvain Chomet, France/
Belgium/Canada/UK, 2003) in which Baker makes a brief appearance as a cartoon figure; and Madame Satã (dir. Karim Ainouz,
Brazil, 2002), a film based on the memoirs of a legendary Brazilian drag performer, João Francisco dos Santos, that treats Baker’s
Princess Tam Tam as it was screened in 1930s Rio de Janeiro. These
citations mark some of Baker’s contemporary incarnations while
contributing to a retrospective portfolio of Baker as a cultural icon
and female star that sets her in motion rather than freezing her
in the frame. Using theories of disidentification, or “the critical
recycling of toxic images,”3 I examine how contemporary recitations introduce critical hindsight into the significations that Baker
herself exhibited on stage. “Disidentification,” defined by José
Esteban Muñoz as a performative recitation, can be liberatory, for
instance, when it critically recycles tired images or racist, sexist,
and homophobic stereotypes. According to Muñoz, disidentification may also be a spectator practice, “a way of shuffling back
and forth between reception and production” (25). By looking at
contemporary recitations of diva icon la Baker, I examine Baker’s
multiple and often conflicting performative embodiments of her
own iconicity as modern primitive.
Taken together, these competing and very different receptions reframe nostalgia for Baker, showing how nostalgia itself can
be a risky yet powerful affective structure for recycling the past in
order to imagine a future through cultural materials that have an
oppressive history. In this sense, modes of reception and fandom
work as productive forms of affective agency even as they participate in oppressive circuits of voyeurism and performance. While
Baker scholarship has effectively critiqued the colonizing ethnographic gaze and the racist male gaze that entrap Baker in a prison
house of primitivist discourse, much like the melancholy birdcage
from whose perch she sings in Zouzou, it has had less to say about
Baker’s other audiences, those who may have viewed Baker’s homesick birdcage lament for Haiti, for instance, from a transnational,
black diasporic, black feminist, or queer perspective. As part of my
discussion here I want to explore a certain queer feminist nostalgia
76 • Camera Obscura
for Baker whose bad-girl antics and daring performances of black
hyperfemininity in the early part of the twentieth century anticipate late twentieth-century self-marketers of female trouble such as
Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, and Lil’ Kim.4 Baker is the progenitor
for performances as mass marketable as those of megastar Jennifer Lopez and as commercially resistant as the cross-race, crossgender displays of cult drag impresario Vaginal (Creme) Davis,
who recently staged a cabaret tribute night devoted to Baker at a
Los Angeles bar renamed for another infamous twentieth-century
transatlantic club diva, Bricktops.5
Holding onto Baker as an icon of African American feminism can be unsettling since she made her living through the spectacle of the black female body on stage, deploying racist tropes
and perpetuating “Black Venus” narratives of primitivist exotic
sexuality, while also pursuing the trappings of white stardom.6 Yet
by looking past the desire to judge Baker’s performances either on
their political efficacy or on their aesthetic merits, we may fashion
a critical methodology that moves beyond the persistent dichotomy
of exercising or lacking agency: Is Baker a race woman or a race
traitor? Is she a pioneer of racial equality or a dupe of the racist
colonial gaze? Does she deploy resistant feminist camp aesthetics
or does she remain complicit as an objectified muse of the modernist male gaze? Is she an indicator of the emerging modern
era or a representative of the passing Victorian colonial period?
By examining her performances as new and different audiences
rework them, I construct a politics of performance in which Baker
moves through various locations and identities in order to carve
out a habitable space for modernism’s Others, for those bodies
classified and contained through scientific racism’s pervasive and
gendered ideology as primitive or deviant — and then rigorously
excluded and exploited under European colonialism and Jim Crow
Such tropes of difference, essential to apartheid logics as
well as to “civilizing missions,” were taken up and redeployed during the European interwar cultural vogue for l’art nègre by practitioners of modernism such as Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and
Pablo Picasso. To this list I would add Paul Colin and Josephine
Baker, emphasizing their collaboration in the production of some
The Diva Politics of Reception • 77
of the most famous primitive images of Baker, namely, a series
of hand-colored lithographs included in Le tumulte noir (1927)
and later echoed in Fields’s It’s Time. At times avant-garde artists
such as the surrealists sought to undermine colonial thinking by
revaluing the so-called primitive as an antidote to the repressive
edicts of “civilization,” seeing access to the creative unconscious in
African sculpture and religious artifacts.7 Nonetheless, they often
retained troubling and essentialist fantasies about the primitive
that took the form of racialized exoticisms. Even when artists and
writers attempted through their own experimentations to critique
imperialism and the destructive consequences of imagining civilization and progress through the violence of colonialism, they often
repeated the representational logics that structured ideas of European progress and modern civilization in relation to an imagined
atavistic African primitivism. Baker’s body became exactly such an
aesthetic site for exploring and expressing the fraught relationship
of modernism and primitivism. And while Baker herself capitalized
on such equations, she also refused to be scripted in many ways.
It is important to think through a figure like Baker at this
particular cultural moment. As 2006 marked both the centenary
of her birth and saw the production of new discourses of the “unAmerican,” Baker’s life is a reminder of the cultural connections
between the perceived dangers of entertainment and the perceived
danger of critiques of injustice at home and abroad. Precisely
because of Baker’s contradictory and multilayered deployment
of race, gender, and nationality, I argue that we can productively
reframe our own nostalgia for her, especially at this moment when
a turn toward nostalgia might take its most conservative form as a
turn away from current threats — imagined and otherwise — and
toward an idealized ahistorical past, thus erasing any progressive
politics of performance.
Instead, turning our critical gaze to multiple and other
sites of reception allows us to remember the extent to which Baker
produced complexity within the limits of the historical spectacularization and commodification of the black female body. Contemporary receptions of Baker may criticize or rework her image,
even as they explore the nostalgias associated with it, incorporating what Linda Hutcheon has termed “the necessary addition of
78 • Camera Obscura
irony to this nostalgic inheritance” of modernity.8 Such receptions
produce a range of performances, reminding us that Baker herself
produced a disrupted and disrupting narrative of black womanhood. These receptions ask: Who is watching? What is at stake at
these different points of reception? What happens if we refuse to
remember only one Baker, be that Baker onstage, Baker in the
banana skirt, Baker under FBI surveillance, or Baker very publicly
evicted from her home in France in 1969, an image she ensured
would saturate the global media?
Each site of reception not only works to identify a particular audience or consumer of Baker’s image but also produces an
interpretation of Baker that demonstrates the performative side
of reception. Each site not only produces meanings in excess of
her original performances but also works to restore significations
retroactively, allowing for lost meanings or potentials to come into
dialogic play. Rather than seeing such transhistorical exchanges
as moments at which the present imposes or fixes its own critical obsessions on the past, or as moments at which nostalgias for
authenticity do the work of erasure, we might see such critical recyclings as reinventions as well as restorations that both make visible
and produce Baker’s own diva politics.
Baker’s “Danse sauvage” from La revue nègre and her
trademark tutu of stylized bananas — in which she first appeared
in “Danse des bananas” for La folie du jour at the Folies Bergère
(1926), deploying her other
signature move, silly faces — present quintessential examples of the black female body
functioning as a liminal space
in modernism for an imaginary encounter between the
primitive savagery of the jungle and the civilized modernity of the cosmopolitan city.
Josephine Baker’s audience as
This encounter is parodically represented in Les triplettes de Belleville
reversed in the opening scenes (dir. Sylvain Chomet, France/Belgium/
of the animated feature Les Canada/UK, 2003)
The Diva Politics of Reception • 79
triplettes de Belleville. In a blackand-white retro toon-withina-toon opening, which pays
homage to Disney animation
of the 1930s, Baker makes a
Betty Boop – like cameo dancing in her famous banana skirt
to the musical accompaniment
of Django Reinhardt. Her audience is represented as a theater
filled with repetitions of the
same white couple: a lecherous
little old man accompanied by
an exaggeratedly fat society
woman in pearls. When Baker
appears onstage to perform
her banana dance — launching into a hallmark move in
A retro-toon representation of
which she imitates an animal
Josephine Baker’s banana dance in Les
by dancing on all fours — the
triplettes de Belleville
crowd of identical geezers
goes “bananas.” They jump up from their seats and, “going ape,”
literally turn into a pack of monkeys, rushing the stage after, as
it turns out, not Baker but her bananas. Here white male desire
to devour the spectacle of primitivism in the form of the black
female body onstage threatens to undo its own social performance
of decorum, exposing the infantile and sexual desires behind the
civilizing mission: that is, the drive for natural resources imagined
as the drive for the female body through the feminization, possession, and rape of colonial lands.9 Of course, they are also stealing
back Baker’s parodic phallic signifiers. As this scene illustrates, the
process of incorporating the Other always threatens the coherence
of the modern and the stability of the white civilized masculinity it
imagines, revealing its own miscegenous desires.
In 1931, Baker was elected Queen of the Colonies at the
Exposition in Paris, an irony not missed by the French public, who
decried Baker’s lack of claim to colonial subjecthood. Celebrat-
80 • Camera Obscura
ing the colonies of North Africa and their natural and cultural
resources, the exposition was designed around faux dioramas that
purported to display people in their native habitat. While Baker
later had to relinquish her title, her music hall performances constituted a parallel world of display and commodification of the black
body. However, as Mae G. Henderson argues, Baker’s performances
should perhaps be measured for their “distance from,” rather than
their repetition of, the ethnographic display of the black female
body epitomized by the historical exploitation of Sarah Baartman,
also known as the Hottentot Venus.10 Baker served as a transitional
figure in the move from such nineteenth-century ethnographic
spectacles of colonial difference to mass-entertainment spectacles
of imagined racial difference. Terri Francis has further shown how
“Baker’s popularity depended on the way Baker performed her
own fame and ‘freedom.’ ”11 Baker’s performance of freedom as an
expatriate served to reinforce ideas of France as racially tolerant,
suturing over the racial politics of French colonialism and assuaging colonial guilt while at the same time exposing the practices of
US racism.
On stage and on film Baker repeatedly functioned as the
primitive fetish, posing as a universalized colonial subject turned
modernist muse. The aestheticized encounter of European modernism and its colonial other demands the other’s incorporation
into the modern as its object. Les triplettes de Belleville disrupts this
process of incorporation, as it is impossible to locate a coherently
modern figure. Whiteness is represented as atavistic in the scene
described above, with the couples in the audience representing
a queer comic trope about the degeneration of white bourgeois
marriage: the fat lady’s excessive body implies the couple’s sexual
dysfunction, while the small man represents impotence and submission. This couple figures European civilization itself as excessive and degenerate. Similarly, the protagonists, the fictionalized
triplets, cleverly introduced as an act that shares the stage with
Baker, represent the passing of vaudeville stage performance, presented here in a form I call the nostalgic grotesque.
The crisis of masculinity implied by the grotesque male
body is essential to the modern, representing an anxiety over the
The Diva Politics of Reception • 81
postcolonial status of patriarchy. As the film ironically turns the
grotesque discourse of degeneration back onto the white male subject that produced it, it signals the inability of master narratives to
contain the vitality of those subjects they attempt to control. The
historical Baker’s dignity somehow remains intact in this scene as
the retro-toon places white viewers uncomfortably in the vaudeville
spectators’ seats, forced to come to terms with their own nostalgia
or desire for grotesque images of performing black bodies.12 In Les
triplettes de Belleville, clearly the white gaze emerges as primitivizing,
not the performance as primitive, as Baker’s audience turns into
the very thing it has fearfully projected onto her body.
Baker herself capitalized on the juxtaposition of primitive
and civilized, as her performances as “natives” (with their jungletheme costumes and animal associations) were set against public
appearances in haute couture evening wear. Feminists have long
argued for Baker’s deliberate parodic deployment of primitivist
tropes, finding resistance rather than acquiescence to exoticization in her use of comic faces; her intentional “forgetting” of dance
steps; her insistence on performing “her own idiosyncratic moves”;
and her ability to “manipulat[e] the conventions of primitivism
to gain a considerable amount of control over her audience.”13
Phyllis Rose (albeit in problematic critical language that maps the
grotesque back on to Baker) argues that Baker’s eye crossing “functioned like a magical gesture of self defense in a specifically erotic
arena. It wards off the relentlessly erotic gaze of whoever might
have been looking at her as, mythically, one warded off vampires
by making the sign of the cross. Afraid in some way of evoking
undiluted sexual excitement, she thwarts the deeply provocative
contact of eye with eye not just by averting her own eyes but by jamming them grotesquely up against one another.”14 Interrogations
of Baker’s agency continually return to such moments of comic
interruption, unscripted improvisation, or feminist camp overdetermination to question whether they produce new meanings
and disrupt old paradigms. Contemporary critics and artists must
confront all the ways in which Baker and her oeuvre seem constrained by racist US vaudeville performance conventions, such as
blackface, or haunted by traditions of ethnographic spectacle, or
82 • Camera Obscura
circumscribed by the particular obsessions of modernist aesthetic
primitivism. How do these ways of looking produce Baker? And
what is Baker’s own contribution to this figure?
The text in Fields’s It’s Time reads “Notes on the Eviction of
Josephine Baker.” With this caption placed below the Loos design
House for Josephine Baker, which is barred by the large red X,
Fields exposes the historical irony of a modern house designed to
captivate Baker but never built as a home for her. He also points
to her later very public eviction from Les Milandes, her communal farm in France and the site where she staged the creation of
her ideal family, whom she called the “Rainbow Tribe.” But Baker
can be viewed as having experienced numerous evictions. First,
we might see her as evicted from the US, driven out by her experience of racism and the images of white mobs of men and women
attacking black people in the violent East St. Louis race riots that
haunted memories of her childhood.15 Fields further describes
Baker as evicted from the aesthetic and cultural legacy of Harlem:
“The difference between Loos’ house and Harlem is not one based
on the obvious distinction between house and city. The difference
lies in how the two deal with blackness. Harlem has, aesthetically
speaking, moved on. It continues to manufacture and export blackness on an unprecedented scale and does so without Josephine’s
assistance. To put it another way, Harlem produces blackness while
architecture merely associates with it — Harlem evicted Josephine
long ago, while architecture continues to seek her audience.”16
While Harlem may have evicted Baker, relegating her to a kind
of shameful past, what is compelling is the fact that Baker herself
participated in the staging of these evictions.
In a photograph that received international circulation,
we see Baker, at age sixty-two, sitting on the back steps of her Les
Milandes chateau in the rain, surrounded by bottles of Perrier,
wearing only her housecoat and a cap, with a blanket across her lap
and bare feet. Her home had been put up for auction, and knowing
that the new owner planned to forcibly remove her, she contacted
the press, and the cameras rolled. But unlike Norma Desmond
(Gloria Swanson), the deluded diva of Sunset Boulevard (dir. Billy
Wilder, US, 1950), whose morbid expulsion from Holly­wood is
The Diva Politics of Reception • 83
staged as a grand entrance, Baker went kicking and scratching,
resisting her eviction from the scene. The year was 1969, and the
image of Baker’s eviction demands to be viewed in the context of the
civil rights movement in the US. Baker — whose political response
to American racism had been a self-imposed exile that provoked
criticism for her absence from the US civil rights movement — staged a particular image of her forced eviction. While Harlem
may have let go of her, Baker’s staging of the eviction was designed
to bring her closer to the quotidian experiences of Harlem.
In fact, as a vocal critic of racial discrimination, Baker spoke
out internationally about the lives of African Americans and other
people of color in the US. As a former member of France’s foreign
service and a spy for the French resistance against the Nazis, Baker
deployed her divadom as a political weapon, given that it provided
her with both a cover and the privilege of mobility. Later she would
draw explicit connections between fascism, apartheid, and racism
in different national contexts. She spoke passionately about the history of race riots in the US and wrote a column for a French paper
about her experiences of discrimination in the US while traveling
anonymously in the South. Using the moral authority of a global
perspective and the publicity machine of a star, Baker was able to
shame America for its racism. Unsurprisingly, the FBI and State
Department perceived any discourse other than one of progress
on race relations as a threat to national security and a tool of antiAmerican propaganda. As Baker became more outspoken, the US
State Department became increasingly invested in domesticating
her by making her a good subject and holding her accountable to
a citizenship that she had already rejected. Because her movements
could not be restricted by revoking her passport (she held a French
one), there were more subtle campaigns to discredit her at home
and abroad.
Tellingly, the subheading given to Baker’s files on the FBI
Web site reads, “The famous nightclub entertainer was thought
to be involved in communist activities, however, no evidence was
ever found that proved otherwise.”17 The doublespeak of this sentence reveals the FBI’s continued attempt to script Baker as forever
under suspicion. Baker’s diva status necessitated a special form of
84 • Camera Obscura
repressive scrutiny. The US government did not simply engage in
a passive spectatorship by collecting data; rather, its surveillance
was aimed at defining the identities of those it watched. The clippings in Baker’s files were meant to implicate her on the wrong
side of the Cold War.18 As an archive, the 359 pages of FBI files
on Baker draw heavily on clippings from the communist Worker’s
Daily, the black press, and translations of items in the international
press. In an attempt to contain her mobility and political influence,
the State Department strategically disseminated this information
about Baker to foreign embassies and the US press, successfully
interfering with her ability to travel and speak out about racial
Ultimately, the FBI files on Baker serve as an ironic archive.
They show her as a captive of a kind of surveillance that attempted to
neutralize her political critique by framing her as an un-American
provocateur and propagandist. But they simultaneously document
all the ways she effectively escaped the bounds of US government
cultural and political control. In attempting to create a portrait of
extremism, these files instead depict a moderate, thoughtful, and
politically engaged Baker who, as an expatriate, claimed license to
critique US race relations through a transnational lens. Through
the FBI files we can construct another set of Baker performances,
namely, as a social activist, a role for which she is less often remembered. Nevertheless, I would argue alongside Mary Dudziak that
the FBI and State Department interference harmed Baker’s career,
“den[ying] her the role she sought for herself as a personal ambassador for equality” and creating the circumstances under which
Baker turned from the public sphere of the stage to the private
sphere of the family to express her political voice (569).
In 1954, Baker and her husband Jo Bouillon began selfconsciously conducting a pseudoscientific experiment in multicultural harmony by adopting twelve children of different races
and religions.19 Baker and Bouillon wanted to demonstrate that
their children could grow and thrive together and become a family, a “Rainbow Tribe” as she called them in response to white
supremacy. Baker’s rainbow vision of domesticity stands in marked
contrast to the domesticating marble house designed for Baker by
The Diva Politics of Reception • 85
Loos, a zebra-print affair of black-and-white horizontal stripes that
reduced the idea of la Baker to race and reduced race to a prison
house of competing visual grounds of black and white. Together
Baker, Bouillon, and their twelve children inhabited an experimental community at Les Milandes in which their private lives were
open to the public through official tours and visiting hours. It was
also home to Jorama, a wax museum featuring tableaux of Baker’s
life. Like other female stars of her era, she cultivated celebrity by
staging the details of her private life for public consumption, from
parading in public with large exotic pets during her early career
to publicizing her love affairs in multiple and contradictory biographical projects, and finally to exhibiting her public construction of the multiracial family as a model United Nations.
Family as multiracial spectacle became not only a way
of producing politics through the performance of domesticity
but also functioned as a new frame for la Baker, the diva. Family, romantic coupling, and the domestic represent exactly those
ends persistently thwarted in the narrative trajectory of Baker’s
films, in which she had white male costars. These limits reflect the
combined cultural fears of miscegenation and sexual promiscuity
projected onto Baker as a leading lady who represented both the
New Woman and the New Negro. These racist cultural anxieties
were exactly those that Baker defied in her life. The production
of a multicultural family by the diva became essential not only to
reinvigorating Baker’s star status but, as it turned out, also to the
endurance of her life and legend: her unofficially adopted child
(and male diva in his own right), Jean-Claude Baker, assumed the
active guardianship of Baker’s legacy, writing a biography of his
chosen mother, opening the restaurant Chez Joséphine, and setting up a foundation in her memory.
The public dissemination of the staged “private” self
emerges as an obligatory and defining element of twentiethcentury female celebrity. And transnational adoption as the public performance of motherhood-as-philanthropy has evolved into
a recurring contemporary motif of female stardom. Notable
examples include Mia Farrow, who in 1973 began serially adopting
children of different racial, ethnic, and national origins (also chil-
86 • Camera Obscura
dren with a variety of difficult health needs), and Angelina Jolie,
who, after joining the UN High Commission for Refugees, adopted
a son from Cambodia and more recently two children from different countries, as well as made a point of giving birth to her
biological child in Namibia. By invoking these two very different
actresses, I do not intend to conflate their intentions, desires, or
politics as adoptive parents. I do, however, want to point to an area
that remains to be fully explored by feminist criticism, that is, the
celebrity of family and especially the figure of the celebrity mother
engaged in cross-cultural serial adoption. Celebrity performances
of motherhood raise broader materialist feminist concerns about
the global traffic in children and the commodification of “disposable” bodies in the world economy.
Baker was well aware that her public performance of altruistic motherhood reversed several important racialized tropes: that
of the black woman as a bad mother, that of the white woman as
morally superior and thus fit to adopt, and finally, that of the black
child as universally needy or neglected. Baker as a black mother,
and a wealthy one, to poor white children, as well as to children
of other races, produced an important rescripting of public discourses on race and motherhood. Baker performed disidentification through the incorporation of “a moment, object, or subject
that is not culturally coded to ‘connect’ with the disidentifying
subject.”20 Baker undermined categories into which her body was
not seen to fit: female stardom, successful motherhood, and the
nuclear unit seen as a preserve of the white family. But I would
argue that Baker’s social performances as mother, wife, and activist
are as integral to understanding her cultural work as are her stage
dances and film performances. Baker’s staging of the Rainbow
Tribe turns out to be one of her most significant performances,
and an important element of that performance is the collapse of
the public-private divide. However, as a political critique of racial
prejudice, the Rainbow Tribe reasserted a problematic racial essentialism: Baker expressed racist ideas about the supposed predispositions of her children, seeing each child as having racialized
propensities toward certain skills and talents.
The Diva Politics of Reception • 87
Despite the multiple ways in which Baker’s politics were
domesticated by others — symbolically in the form of modernist
architecture, more literally by state-sponsored surveillance during
the McCarthy era — her performances and her iconic diva status
(whether on view in her stage shows and films, or in receiving the
Legion of Honor from French president Charles de Gaulle, or in
her role as the mother of the Rainbow Tribe) open up reception
spaces of more progressive critical possibilities. To conclude, I
turn to queer appropriations of Baker in order, again, to reimagine Baker’s own politics of performance. Baker’s late stage career
might easily be read as another tragic ending to the reign of a
sex symbol threatened by the decay of her beauty — according to
mainstream standards and quickly changing aesthetic tastes. Here
it is important to note the way in which the term diva is sometimes attached, with negative connotations, to the body of older
women, and especially to older black female stars, in a way that
relegates them to the past. In defiance of such gendered scripts
of female stardom, Baker continued on stage until the week of
her death, performing primarily in the mode of high glamour,
wearing costumes that evoked her most provocative and revealing
early performances. Her costumes suggested nudity with the use
of flesh-colored body stockings and form-fitting evening dresses
that flattered her svelte body and enhanced her larger-than-life
image, which was literally augmented by the use of huge cabaretstyle feather headdresses. Unabashedly exhibiting a performer past
her prime whose indomitable spirit refuses to conform to the limits
of the body or social strictures, Baker’s performances neatly lent
themselves to camp appreciations of the diva. In fact, for her 1973
return to Carnegie Hall in New York she was marketed explicitly
to an American gay audience.21 A foremother of the “bioqueen,”
Baker had a humorous appreciation for the tools that made her
female stardom radiate, and she approached the construction of
glamorous femininity on the stage with the same disruptive humor
toward gender identity that had characterized her representation
of race and female primitivism in her early career.22
Drawing attention to the performativity of identity categories, Baker recycled the cultural fantasies attached to her person
88 • Camera Obscura
and to her own mythology. Her queer appropriations of the constructedness of gender and race went beyond the production of
a high camp sensibility as “expressing what’s basically serious to
you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance,” to cite Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 definition.23 It was rather Baker’s ability to
cannibalize oppressive forms that at times gave political salience
to performances that otherwise might appear retrograde. Here I
am borrowing Maryse Condé’s formulation for the anticolonialist tactics of Caribbean authors: “Cannibalism is what you do to
what you love. You eat what you worship but also make fun of it.”24
While Baker unabashedly sought the fame and fortune of a diva,
she simultaneously understood all the ways in which she was not,
as a black woman, meant to claim the space of glamour, wealth,
or high art. She understood her own uncanny position and cannibalized the tropes of stardom and negrophilia: she incorporated
them, digested them, and recycled them to her own ends. Hence
Baker’s own iconicity comes to lend itself to cannibalization, to a
reworking of nostalgia for potentially liberatory redeployments.
Karim Ainouz’s film Madame Satã is based on the memoirs of João Francisco dos Santos (1900 – 1976), the son of slaves,
a gay street fighter, a criminal, and a drag performer who spent
twenty-seven of his seventy-six years in prison, becoming a legendary figure in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.25 The establishing shot
of Madame Satã shows a badly beaten Dos Santos (Lázaro Ramos)
staring at the camera while a voice-over recounts his numerous
social and criminal offenses, including (according to the subtitle
translation) the charge that he is a “passive pederast, who shaves
his eyebrows and imitates women, even changing his own voice.”
He is introduced to us in a long take that mimics a police mug shot.
For Dos Santos, who makes a living as a petty criminal and a pimp,
almost every space is impossible to inhabit — something to which
his bruised and bloody face testifies. Through the character of
Dos Santos, the film explores the legacy of slavery in the aftermath
of abolition (1888), as well as Afro-Brazilian diasporic cultures of
resistance and survival.
We see the film’s first evocation of Baker as the camera pans
across Dos Santos’s apartment to glimpse newspaper clippings of
The Diva Politics of Reception • 89
her tacked to the wall by his vanity table. Asked by a stranger if he
is a fan of Baker, he responds, “Of la Baker, I am a disciple.” Dos
Santos sees himself not as a fan but as an initiate of la Baker. For
him, Baker has something divine to teach. Through Baker he can
gain a measure of freedom by manifesting her performance and
authorship of glamour, celebrity, and female stardom. In short, he
is given license to inhabit cultural spaces that have excluded his
body, spaces that would otherwise prove toxic for him. While he is
punished for impersonating a white cabaret star, Dos Santos can
inhabit la Baker’s esprit and vestments with impunity.
Early in the film, the cabaret where he works as a dresser for
a white performer appears to offer some respite and opportunities
for creative fantasy. But this potential is shattered by the realization
that his employers have no intention of paying him for his work,
and that the woman he dresses is filled with contempt for black
people. She is especially contemptuous of his admiration of, and
aspirations to, her line of work. When she comes into her dressing
room to find Dos Santos wearing her costumes and queering the
words of her performance, she is livid.26 He apologizes and effusively praises her, trying to explain his admiration for her art by
revealing that he has learned all the words to the number. She is
disgusted and cruelly rejects his praise. He gives her his word that
it will not happen again, and when in return she verbally abuses
him and dishonors “his word,” he becomes enraged, rips her costume, tears into her dressing room, and physically attacks her.
The cabaret first appears in the second scene of the film,
following the opening image of Dos Santos’s arrest. The initial shot
in the cabaret is of a blue beaded curtain over which we hear the
soft and gravelly voice of a chanteuse performing the story of “The
1,001 Nights,” as glasses clink in the background. At a musical cue
from the piano, the curtain is pulled back to reveal a close-up of
Dos Santos’s face emerging from the beads. Suddenly, the film cuts
to two well-dressed men watching the act from a café table, then
back to Dos Santos lip-synching, then to another man standing
and watching, then back to Dos Santos, creating circuits of visual
exchange and a space that are coded as homosexual — until we see
a shot of a woman’s breasts in a glittering costume. The film cuts
90 • Camera Obscura
ambiguously between the woman’s body and Dos Santos, suturing
their cabaret performances. When the camera finally pulls back to
a space behind Dos Santos, we can see that, in fact, he is standing
behind a beaded curtain at the back of the bar singing to himself
and watching the woman perform onstage. We realize that the
film’s editing has momentarily allowed Dos Santos to realize his
dream of being center stage. However, he is not the one actually
singing and being watched by the male customers; the female performer is.27 Later in the film we discover that it is not really the
white star whose role Dos Santos wants to inhabit, but that of la
The second occasion in which the film explicitly evokes
Baker is when we see Dos Santos in a movie theater watching Princess Tam Tam. What interests me most about Madame Satã is how
it represents Dos Santos’s disidentification with Baker’s primitive
personae. Disidentification in this scene suggests identifications
across gender and nation that are less about performing a new
identity or inhabiting an old one than about the possibility of performing against any fixed identity altogether — performing con-
Lázaro Ramos as Dos Santos and Marcélia Cartaxo as
Laurita in a movie theater watching Josephine Baker in
Princess Tam Tam. Still from Madame Satã (dir. Karim Ainouz,
Brazil, 2002)
The Diva Politics of Reception • 91
Josephine Baker in
Princess Tam Tam (dir.
Edmond T. Gréville,
France, 1935) as
shown in Karim
Ainouz’s Madame Satã
flicting identities in order to explode each, or performing a space
of contradiction that enables new social formations. Muñoz argues
that the rejection of toxic notions of the self by minoritarian subjects is not simply an individual rebellion but is part of the process
of the creation of “counterpublics — communities and relational
chains of resistance that contest the dominant public sphere.”28
And it is this potential Dos Santos sees unfolding.
Through such processes of disidentification, Baker as a
colonial exotic in Princess Tam Tam can be reworked by Dos Santos
as a liberatory figure. Elizabeth Coffman has argued persuasively
that “in Princess Tam Tam, the gaze or camera perspective is white,
masculine, and . . . ambivalently ‘colonial.’ ”29 In this film, driven
by a Pygmalion plot, Baker plays a universalized colonial subject,
Alwina, an anachronistic primitive living in the modern moment.
She serves as a muse whose primitivism (blackness in the film is
represented through a conflation of nonwhite ethnicities from
African American to African and Arab) becomes a conduit for the
white colonial subject, here a British author, to regain access to his
creative unconscious. Seemingly “tamed” by the British author and
his agent, Alwina is brought to Paris to test her skills at passing as
“civilized.” The scene we see Dos Santos watch is the final dance
number and the moment at which Alwina fails the test.
However, as the character Alwina fails, the film allows the
diva, la Baker, to break through the character and appear “as herself” in the film. Alwina, dressed in a satin gown, has been brought
to an upscale Parisian nightclub to watch a Busby Berkeley – style
dance number. In Madame Satã, we see Dos Santos watching this
92 • Camera Obscura
scene intently, and as a flicker of a smile appears on his face, the
camera cuts to Alwina at her table furiously drinking champagne
while she passionately watches the stage, barely resisting the urge
to dance. As the sound of African drums and maracas grows more
intense, a thoroughly intoxicated Alwina takes to the stage, kicking off her shoes — one landing in an ice bucket and the other
hitting an old man in the head. After a cut back to Dos Santos, we
(and he) watch the famous sequence in Princess Tam Tam that cuts
rapidly between Alwina-as-la Baker — who has torn her dress to
gain the mobility to perform her own unique diasporic vernacular
dance — and the image of an African male drummer who seems
completely foreign to the nightclub scene, perhaps because the
footage appears to have been spliced in from an ethnographic
film. The sound of the drumbeat soon overtakes the scene, signifying Alwina/la Baker’s “return to Africa” and the failure of this
colonial My Fair Lady experiment.
In Madame Satã, as the editing, camera work, and Baker’s
dance in Princess Tam Tam become increasingly energetic, the
film cuts to Dos Santos as he sinks into his theater seat displaying an expression of intense pleasure. His sinking gesture marks a
moment of a private communion between diva and devotee. Interestingly, Madame Satã edits out a key plot element in Princess Tam
Tam — the fact that Alwina’s drinking is the result of a plot by the
writer’s jealous wife who hopes to undo her husband’s experiment
by exposing Alwina’s “civilized” appearance as a facade. But the
wife’s plot fails when, like Dos Santos, the nightclub audience loves
the performance, and Alwina emerges as a star, triumphing in a
version of Baker’s original succès de scandale at the Théâtre des
Champs-Elysées. But in Madame Satã, the shot of Dos Santos tucked
into his seat and smiling gives way to images of the Alwina/la Baker
dance sequence. At the climax of this number, the film cuts to Dos
Santos standing before a mirror, fully made up and getting into
character, after which he triumphantly takes the stage as the diva
Despite his initial expulsion from the cabaret, and later
from an upscale nightclub, Dos Santos, taking a cue from la Baker,
The Diva Politics of Reception • 93
realizes his dream of becoming what he calls “an artiste” engaged
in queer public performance before an audience of admirers.
After his first drag performance he confides to the owner of the
bar, “When I was on stage, I was filled with ecstatic joy.” Looking at
the bar owner’s pictures of himself as a young boxing champ, Dos
Santos tries to make the bar owner understand his own sense of triumph, implicitly juxtaposing the two realms for the public performance of gender: boxing and drag. Previously, we saw Dos Santos
perform only privately in his shared apartment in a decaying urban
building that is nonetheless portrayed as an idyllic rooftop escape.
The apartment and, later, the Lapa bar form the key sites for Dos
Santos’s own staging of diva resistance to state, class, and social
violence through the production of queer family and community.
Taking center stage, so to speak, in the domestic sphere, even during long absences in prison, Dos Santos acts as both protector and
pimp for Laurita (Marcélia Cartaxo), her child, and Tabu (Flávio
Bauraqui), who together work the streets to support the Dos Santos
household. Within complexly gendered power dynamics of matriarchal and patriarchal domestic violence, butch/femme control,
and queer affiliations, Dos Santos cares for and protects the family,
managing its survival in an informal economy.
When he finally talks the bar owner into allowing him
further performances, he does so under the guise of heterosexual love — he will perform ostensibly in celebration of Laurita’s
birthday. The performance he choreographs is in fact an act of
mourning for the loss of his gay lover, Renatinho, who was killed
in a hate crime. The realized performance, in which Dos Santos
dramatically emerges onstage as the diva Jamacy, is not, I would
argue, a female impersonation. Rather, it is a transnational drag
performance of queer male cross-identification with black female
stardom. I want to suggest that Baker’s mobile diasporic diva iconicity grounds this performance. Jamacy performs for a queer
multiracial family of friends, lovers, and children, including prostitutes and strangers who come together at the local bar in Lapa.
Like Baker’s, Dos Santos’s performance of the diva is framed by his
own staging of family. Both divas imagined they had the right to
94 • Camera Obscura
have a family. Imagined family offers an idyllic space in which the
domestic functions as a political imaginary that exceeds the limitations of the nation-state, especially as the nation-state is imagined
through racial hierarchy and class immobility. All this is realized
by complicated diasporic transnational circulations of culture that
bring Josephine Baker, an American expatriate in a French film,
to a Brazilian audience.
Dos Santos’s Baker-inspired drag performance becomes
the centripetal force for the formation and survival of a queer
counterpublic imagined as a space of radical freedom for new formations of family, class, sexuality, race, nationality, and gender. All
this is a result of what Brett Farmer calls the “fabulous sublimity
of gay diva worship,” understood as “a practice of resistant queer
utopianism” and “of queer authorization and becoming” with its
“disorganizational impulses” that significantly move “toward both
subjective fracture and subjective restoration.”30 By paying attention to Baker at multiple sites of reception — like those evoked in
Les triplettes de Belleville, the Rainbow Tribe/Les Milandes eviction
photo, and Madam Satã — we can break free from the captivity narratives of nostalgia, colonialism, and Black Venus eroticism that
often fix Baker in reductive and reactionary frames. By revealing
her ability to move through and cannibalize paradoxical class,
racial, national, and gender identities, Baker’s performances and
diva iconicity have marked out potentially resistant and liberatory
psychic and cultural spaces for many a twentieth- and twenty-firstcentury Other.
The Diva Politics of Reception • 95
For their gifts of time and insight, I thank Maurizia Boscagli, Karl
Bryant, Dana Collins, Tiffany Willoughby Herard, Laura Holliday,
Zia Isola, Kristin Koster, Fred Moten, and H. L. T. Quan. Special
thanks to Denise Ferreira da Silva for directing my attention to
João Francisco dos Santos. Versions of this essay were presented at
the School of Criticism and Theory (SCT) at Cornell University
(2004) at the annual meeting of the Modernist Studies Association
(Vancouver, 2004), and for Dana Collins and Dan Gee’s Creative
Knowledges/Cultural Productions course at the University of Missouri
(Kansas City, 2005). I benefited greatly from these conversations
and especially from the community of scholars in the “Literary
Cannibalism” seminar at SCT led by the fierce intellect of Maryse
Condé. For their astute editorial contributions, I owe much thanks
to Alex Doty, Patty White, Sharon Willis, and the Camera Obscura
editorial collective.
1. Baker’s films also include the silent film La sirène des tropiques
(Siren of the Tropics, dir. Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant, France,
1927). Other archival footage includes Paris Was a Woman (dir.
Greta Schiller, UK, 1995); It’s Black Entertainment (dir. Stan
Lathan, US, 2002); Jazz (dir. Ken Burns, UK/US, 2001); Intimate
Portrait: Josephine Baker (dir. Mark Israel, US, 1998); The Secret Life
of Sergei Eisenstein (dir. Gian Carlo Bertelli, Switzerland, 1987);
Chasing a Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker (dir. Christopher
Ralling, UK, 1986); Zelig (dir. Woody Allen, US, 1983). Kino
recently released a DVD of Zouzou with extra song selections
and commentary: Josephine Baker: The Woman (2005). There have
also been a number of biographies and fictionalized accounts
of Baker’s life, including the forthcoming Josephine Baker in Art
and Life: The Icon and the Image (Champaign: University of Illinois
Press, 2007) by the sociologist Bennetta Jules-Rosette. In English
see Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra (New York: Doubleday, 1989);
Stephen Papich, Remembering Josephine: A Biography of Josephine
Baker (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976); Lynn Haney, Naked
at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker (New York: Dodd Mead,
1981); Bryan Hammond and Patrick O’Conner, comps., Josephine
Baker (Boston: Bulfinch, 1991); and Billy Klüver and Julie
Martin, Kiki’s Paris: Artists and Lovers, 1900 – 1930s (New York:
Abrams, 1989). In addition, Baker authored and coauthored
96 • Camera Obscura
a number of autobiographies, including Marcel Sauvage, Les
mémoires de Joséphine Baker (Paris: Éditions Correa, 1949); and
Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon, Josephine (New York: Harper
and Row, 1977). More recently, see the invocation of Baker as
Frida Kahlo’s lover in Frida (dir. Julie Taymor, US/Canada/
Mexico, 2002).
2. Darell Wayne Fields also uses the double entendre of the word
captivating to describe Loos’s design: “The final composition
is truly ‘captivating’ but has little to do with the wonderfully
complex person formally known as Freda McDonald who was
born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906” (harlemworld: Metropolis
as Metaphor, organized by Thelma Golden [New York: Studio
Museum of Harlem, 2004], 92).
3. See José Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the
Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1999).
4. As this piece goes to press, Beyoncé Knowles has performed a
tribute to Baker for Fashion Rocks at Radio City in consultation
with Baker’s son Jean-Claude Baker, appearing onstage in a
sparkly version of the banana skirt surrounded by a chorus of
similarly banana-skirted figures and even incorporating some
of Baker’s signature choreographic moves. Interestingly, the
tribute was orchestrated to signal Beyoncé’s seriousness as a solo
performer who was the author of her own moves, reinforcing
Baker’s iconicity not only as a marker of success but as a sign of
artistic authorship and innovation. Patricia Hill Collins in Black
Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New
York: Routledge, 2004) clearly sees Baker as part of a genealogy
of “distinctive sexualized spectacles performed by Baartmann,
Baker, Destiny’s Child, and [Jennifer] Lopez [that] invoke sexual
meanings that give shape to racism, sexism, class exploitation,
and heterosexism. Each spectacle marks the contradictions of
Western perceptions of African bodies and of black women’s
agency concerning the use of their bodies. Together they
frame an invented discourse of Black sexuality” (27 – 28; original
emphasis). She allows Baker some degree of agency: “From
[Baker’s] point of view, she escaped performing ubiquitous
‘mammy songs’ ” and “ensured that she was well compensated”
The Diva Politics of Reception • 97
5. The African American entrepreneur and entertainer Ada Smith
was nicknamed “Bricktops” for her red hair, and she opened
clubs on both sides of the Atlantic by that name. On Bricktops
and Harlem cabaret culture, see Shane Vogel, “ ‘When the
Little Dawn Was Gray’: Cabaret Performance and the Harlem
Renaissance” (PhD diss., New York University, 2004).
6. On the function of the primitive narrative of the Black Venus in
France, see T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus: Sexualized
Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 106.
7. Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, “Josephine Baker and La Revue
Negre: From Ethnography to Performance,” Text and Performance
Quarterly 23 (2003): 118. The famous Menil collection archives
this relationship, displaying African “artifacts” in separate but
equal quarters with the famous surreal works they inspired.
Although it is praised for its liberal presentation of equality,
the display often fails to account for the difference between the
status of cultural artifact and that of aesthetic artifact in ways
that erase surrealism’s complicity in colonial practices.
8. Linda Hutcheon, “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern,”
University of Toronto Libraries, 19 January 1998, library
9. Where Sigmund Freud in 1926 used the metaphor of the dark
continent in a way that conflated femininity, race, and place,
stating that “the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’
for psychology,” here that conflation is reversed in such a way
that colonialism figured as sexual lust is exposed as a desire for
natural resources (it is the bananas, not the body, so to speak).
Sigmund Freud, “The Question of Lay Analysis,” in The Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. and ed. James
Strachey and Anna Freud, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth and the
Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953 – 1974), 20:212 – 13.
10. Henderson, “Josephine Baker,” 128.
11. Terri Francis, “Embodied Fictions, Melancholy Migrations:
Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Celebrity,” Modern Fiction Studies 51
(2005): 829.
12. Cedric Robinson terms as Negrobilia the phobic desire behind
those collections of mammy figures, pickaninnies, and the other
stock characters of Jim Crow racism that continue to be recycled
98 • Camera Obscura
in the US racist imaginary. See Black Marxism: The Making of the
Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2000).
13. See Rose, Jazz Cleopatra, 109; Anthea Kraut, “Between
Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of
Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine
Dunham,” Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 433 – 50; Wendy Martin,
“ ‘Remembering the Jungle’: Josephine Baker and Modernist
Parody,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and
the Culture of Modernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 313; and
Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus.
14. Rose, Jazz Cleopatra, 109.
15. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “An Interview with Josephine Baker and
James Baldwin,” Southern Review 21 (1985): 597.
16. Fields, harlemworld, 93.
17. Recently, the FBI has amended the accusatory tone of the
subheading, which now reads, “The FBI records reflect that this
famous African-American nightclub entertainer was accused of
communistic affiliations.” See Freedom of Information Act Files,
“Josephine Baker,” (original
text accessed 21 August 2004; amended text accessed 27 August
18. For an analysis of the importance of US domestic race relations
to US foreign relations during the Cold War and the perceived
danger of Baker to US international standing, see Mary L.
Dudziak, “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War,”
Journal of American History 81 (1994): 543 – 70.
19. Jean-Claude Baker gives an unflattering composite sketch of
Les Milandes as a poorly managed profit-making scheme in
his cleverly titled chapter “Life Is a Cabaret at Les Milandes”
in his celebrity biography of Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart
(New York: Random House, 1993). Jean-Claude currently owns
the restaurant Chez Joséphine in New York, which he opened
in 1986. And although he declares in The Hungry Heart, “I’ve
never even been her fan” (xvii), a phrase he repeatedly invokes
in public appearances, he remains the staunch steward of her
legacy. See the Chez Joséphine Web site, www.chezjosephine
.com (accessed 3 September 2004).
The Diva Politics of Reception • 99
20. Muñoz, Disidentifications, 12.
21. Rose, Jazz Cleopatra, 250 – 53.
22. The editors asked that I define this rather fluid colloquialism
used in gender queer performance and drag communities. Bio
signals a reference to a biologically born female who performs
femme drag. However, it can also refer to those who identify
as women, or alternatively women or transgender people who
identify as butch or masculine, when they perform hyperfemininity. Queen has connotations of feminist camp as a riff on
the male homosexual queen and drag queen and challenges
their proprietary claim on femme performance while also
signaling the figure of the drag queen as a source of femme
performance knowledge.
23. Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening (New York:
Noonday, 1954), 110, qtd. in Pamela Robertson, Guilty Pleasures:
Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1996), 1.
24. Maryse Condé’s formulation was explicated in her “Literary
Cannibalism” seminar held at the School of Criticism and
Theory, Cornell University, July 2004. The concept is cited in
Louise Yelin, “Globalizing Subjects,” Signs: Journal of Women in
Culture and Society 29 (2003): 450 – 51.
25. The title of the film references Dos Santos’s real-life stage name,
which he took from the 1930 Cecil B. DeMille film Madam Satan
(US), the story of a young wife who wins back her husband’s
affections by attending a costume ball on a Zeppelin disguised
as “Madam Satan” and throwing out vamp lines like “Come
now, these are baby games, who wants to go to hell with Madam
Satan” and “If you come to hell with me, you may find it heaven.”
26. These small slips, such as the word sultry becoming salty, turn
into complete rewritings following the scene in which he watches
Baker perform in Princess Tam Tam. Dos Santos creates his own
pantheon of performance personae including Jamacy, the
Queen of the Forest; the Shark; and the Wild Pussycat. In his
elaborate mythology, he defines himself as “son of Iansã and
Ogum” (West African orishas worshipped by slaves).
27. Here the film reverses another important trope, that of the black
voice appropriated by the white singer, so powerfully evoked in
Julie Dash’s film Illusions (US, 1982), the story of a black woman
100 • Camera Obscura
hired to do voice-overs for white starlets in the 1940s. While
Baker’s body has been the site of much critical attention, her
voice has not and deserves sustained attention.
28. Muñoz, Disidentifications, 146. Rita Felski develops the idea
of a “feminist counterpublic sphere” in “Politics, Aesthetics,
and the Feminist Public Sphere,” in Beyond Feminist Aesthetics:
Feminist Literature and Social Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1989). She writes, “The category of a feminist
counterpublic sphere provides a useful means to theorizing
the existence of an oppositional discursive space within
contemporary society grounded in gender politics, making it
possible to examine the mechanisms by which this collectivity
is constituted, its political implications and effects, as well as
its potential limitations” (155). Lauren Berlant discusses “the
collapsing of the political and the personal into a world of
public intimacy” (Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to
Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship [Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1997], 1), while also stating that “there is no
public sphere in the contemporary United States” (3). More
recently, see Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New
York: Zone, 2002), and the “Public Sentiments” special issue of
S&F Online guest edited by Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pelligrini,
Scholar and Feminist Online 2 (2003),
29. Elizabeth Coffman, “Uncanny Performances in Colonial
Narratives: Josephine Baker in Princess Tam Tam,” Paradoxa 3
(1997): 381.
30. Brett Farmer, “The Fabulous Sublimity of Gay Diva Worship,”
Camera Obscura, no. 59 (2005): 170, 173, 177, 183; original
Jeanne Scheper is a postdoctoral fellow in Women’s Studies at the
University of Houston, where she teaches “Feminist Approaches to
Performance Studies” and “Feminist Theories of the Archive.” She has
published articles in Feminist Studies and Women and Performance. Her
interview with David Wilson, cofounder of the Museum of Jurassic
Technology in Los Angeles, appears in Other Voices 3 (2007). She is
currently revising her book manuscript, “Moving Performances.”
The Diva Politics of Reception • 101
Josephine Baker postcard, autographed for the author’s
grandmother, 1975. Collection of the author