Perspectives on Blue Is the Warmest Color and Pariah and how it molded my stages of queerness from a queer, Black woman.
Have you ever sat in a room with Shame? Listened to her suck her teeth and watch her shake her head? Felt the growing fear that she’ll whisper your deepest secrets and fears into the ears of those around you?
I often sat with Shame, coming from a Black Southern Baptist background; but it was one particular night that she felt strongest. She slammed my laptop shut as the loud moans, heavy breathing, and slapping blasted through my headphones. She giggled as I glanced around the pitch black room for something or someone. She convinced me to open my door, creep into my living room, and hold my breath, listening for the voices or breathing of someone in the suite, although I knew that my suitemate had gone for the night and that I was totally alone. She convinced me someone could hear the sounds from my headphones–that they would point and yell, “She looking at that gay shit, y’all!” But I didn’t let Shame have her way. Once I was confident that the suite was empty, I quieted her down, opened my screen, and continued watching with her looking over my shoulder.
I had been watching the film Blue Is the Warmest Color, which stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos and is directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Three hours of an intense love between two young french girls, Adele and Emma, unfolding. Blue Is the Warmest Color–originally a graphic novel I read and loved while working at a bookstore–was adapted into a film by a problematic director. Think-pieces and critiques journaled the violence,inappropriate behaviors, and methods that Kechiche employed throughout the film, specifically the sex scenes. Viewers watch as Adéle, characterized by her messiness and insatiable hunger, struggles to find fulfillment in her desires until the moment she meets Emma, a blue-haired artist. The two fall in love, live together, and ultimately break up after Adéle cheats on Emma. The film ends with the two reconnecting and parting at Emma’s art show as adults.
The film is filled with scenes where viewers are forced to come face to face with Kechiche’s misguided image of womanhood and women’s sexuality in Blue Is the Warmest Color. One moment, in particular, is a scene where a queer male character talks over lesbian characters about female sexuality and expressions of desire. This character speculates about women’s desires and bodies while simultaneously assuming authority over the subject. This moment, not included in the graphic novel and constructed by Kechiche, could have been a space where the women’s politics of desire were addressed, especially in a lesbian space, instead their voices are hidden. It is not until I watch again that I am able to listen to the words of the women, enjoy and understand the looks they share, and the intimate ways desire manifests as they “listen” to the words of the queer male character. This scene, although problematic, proves to be important because it attempts to use desire in dialogue. How is desire constructed and manifested in the lives of these characters. Adéle, who struggles and explores her politics of desire throughout the film also happens to be absent from the conversation. Nevertheless, this scene manages to connect, for me, a construction of desire and experiences of shame.
Moments that I find myself drawn to, both the first time I watched and during my most recent experience watching the film, include scenes such as a queer male character talking over some of the lesbian characters about female orgasms. Here we can get a glimpse of the thoughts and opinions of Kechiche. The scene, at first confusing and intriguing, becomes annoying and unnecessary. Why? Because it presents a male character speculating women’s desires and bodies while simultaneously assuming authority over the subject. It’s easy for me to skip the scene altogether.
Later in the film, there’s a pivotal moment when Adéle’s friends confront her about her sexuality when they watch as she walks off with Emma, who they believe to be queer. There is a violent desire and demand for Adéle to explain herself and her relationship with the mysterious woman. We see Adéle react aggressively to the accusations of her lesbian identity. I was, once again, forced to come to face-to-face with shame in all of its manifestations. What during my first viewing seemed to be a shame solely resting on my shoulders as the viewer, erased the shame that manifested for the characters in the film, specifically Adele. The shame Adele feels having her friends confront aggressively and publicly shaming her, as well as the shame she feels for having these feelings of desire and curiosity that Emma brings to life in her.
Nevertheless, Blue Is the Warmest Color offers viewers a chance to watch young lesbian love in seemingly pure and honest ways. There are moments of tenderness and warmth, such as when the two share their first kiss in a park and Adéle leans back to smile. Then there’s a scene when they are at a Pride event, dancing and kissing and loving one another. The most notable is when the two are seated on a bench in the park kissing, touching, and giggling with each other. These are the moments where they just exist in young love. There is no shame.
After my first time watching it, I was eager to share it with my friends. I watched Blue twice more with my straight friends who had read the articles and think-pieces about the film. Our feminist studies background urged us to dissect the male gaze and the violent need for men to insert themselves in queer relationships. But I didn’t really want that to dissect the film or approach it academically. I would have rather spoken about how it sat in and on my body; how it followed me for weeks and tugged at the politics of desire I had long ago buried — or so I had thought. So the conversation, for me, felt unfulfilling. Only one of my friends, my closest friend since high school, allowed me the space to talk about how important the moment of watching the film was for me. No critiques, no dissections, just my reflections and emotions as I finally had access to something else: for me to share my feelings of curiosity and discomfort. This friend was the only person who also managed to see a small moment of freedom for me–a freedom she commended while she sat with it with me. . That moment managed to disrupt the shame that had haunted me.
For months afterwards I poured into lesbian films and television shows on Netflix, albeit annoyed by all of the white women.There is undoubtedly an erasure of queer and lesbian black women and women of color in television and film. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see Pariah as a recommendation. Pariah follows a young, black, “closeted” lesbian, Alike, who lives in the Bronx with her parents and her younger sister. We watch Alike attend school, write poetry, and attend church with her family during the day. During her off time–those moments when she is not forced to present as straight and can explore her lesbian identity–she travels and explores the city’s lesbian scene with her best friend who dresses her up in masculine clothing and pushes her to talk with other girls. Pariah looks and feels different. There are friendships, homophobic parents, creativity, and heartbreak. There is blackness and confusion.
Notable moments and scenes from this film include a moment where Alike’s best friend, a masculine lesbian, purchases her a strap-on for her “image”. Alike is uncomfortable and angry at the small white dildo attached to her body and begs her friend to return it. Her friend urges her to wear it out that night and we see Alike awkwardly move in it and fumble with it moments before ignoring the girl her friend attempts to set her up with. I love the scenes where Alike seems her most vulnerable — standing in the mirror with her closest friend, tugging and shifting a symbol of masculinity, highlighting how foreign it is to her. It also highlighted the intimacy between the two friends. Other scenes include an unnamed masculine lesbian buying beer only to be harassed by a black man who seems to be disgusted, but also threatened, by the woman’s masculinity and sexuality. Pariah felt like a different film because it did not follow the love and relationship of two lesbian women, but rather chronicled the experiences of a black teenager exploring her lesbian identity and masculinity alongside the relationships around her. Balancing life where her sexuality is hidden or suppressed alongside a life full of moments where she feels celebrated and nurtured, which seem rare throughout the film. There is shame and discomfort. Unlike Blue, I did not share this film with others. Pariah was a film just for me.
Years later, I rewatch it and realize there are moments and habits from Alike–early moments of queerness–that I understand and to which I can relate. Her excitement for the possibility of love and intimacy alongside the fear of actually having love and intimacy. Her feelings of not being masculine enough or queer enough are made visible throughout the film’s entirety. Shame stalks Alike in similar fashion to the ways Shame stalked me. Pulling away from the kiss her friend shares with her and the feeling of being rejected. I understand why, years ago, the film sat with me and why–unlike Blue–it still sits with me to this day. I can still identify the shame, although now it does not haunt me. Because for me, queerness felt like something I was near but could not quite touch. It was with me but it was not in me. Today, I recognize that feeling as a part of the shame I felt and its many faces. Out and at another phase in my life and queerness, the films look and feel different to me. Blue is no longer important to me.; instead, watching it feels exhausting and drawn out, but I see moments, such as Emma’s fight with her friends, as a moment of gasping for breath and holding on to “normalcy”. While watching I can make phone calls, send e-mails, and watch videos as it plays in the background; but that fight brings me back. The moans, and breathing and slapping mean nothing anymore, and I don’t turn it down or search nervously around the room.
I watch both Blue Is the Warmest Color and Pariah as though I’m watching through new eyes. I’m also noticing the difference between watching something in shame and watching something with shame in it. Watching something in shame feels alienating and lonely. Watching something with shame in it feels like looking in a mirror. I am not isolated, rather I am forced to contend with a familiar feeling. I notice that watching something with shame in it (Pariah) sits with me because it feels so close to home.
I imagine my life consists of several phases in queerness; and queer films influenced these phases. There are the early days, your Before Queer (BQ) days. These were the days before I recognized my queerness, much less claimed that queerness. It was hard to imagine queerness or feel what it was like. But queer films provided the space for freedom and creativity that weren’t allowed in the BQ days, and allow you to imagine a queer future. Queerness was there and it was in me, but I did not see it nor did I live it. Then there were my Lost Queer (LQ) days–those days where I saw the queerness and recognized it, but was unable to claim it. It was where I could slowly imagine a queer future and a queer sense of being. Lastly came the Hella Queer (HQ) phase. It is where I am now. Where I have claimed queerness, where I can only imagine queerness, feel that queerness, and share it with those around me.
That happened because, before watching those films, I had worked hard to suppress my queer imaginary as an act of protection. But watching those films allowed me to give my suppression a rest and exist in a queer world. As a young queer woman coming into queerness and coming out to those around me–as well as to myself–these films were monumental. I watched both films for the first time in my earliest days as a young queer, Black woman, attending my college campus queer organization as an “ally”. These films allowed me to step from behind the façade and sit in the in-between–the in between of my identity, and the in-between of fear and freedom, a vast space where confusion rests. My own in-between.
This is a hello to the queer imaginary as it forms, grows, and struggles to manifest in my day-to-day life and experiences of fighting it, loving it, hiding it, and letting it in. I jokingly refer to both of the films as The Films That Made Me Gay. What they really are, however, are the films that helped me come into queerness on my own terms. This is my first written piece as an out queer writer, creating content that brings to life those worlds and spaces that manifest in my queer imaginary.