Friday, November 1, 2013

The Problem With Queenie on American Horror Story

To be honest much of the time, I hate watch American Horror Story. From season one, it has been filled with racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. When I learned that Gabourey Sidibe had been cast, a shiver of dread went down my spine. Though Sidibe is an Oscar nominated actress and is extremely talented, the fact that she is fat, dark skinned Black woman meant little chance of  a well rounded character. While I am not surprised with the hot mess that Queenie has become, I am disgusted. Why bother getting an actress who is so talented and then reduce her character to a cheap stereotype?

American Horror Story: Coven has taken Queenie and run down a positive bingo card of racist and fatphobic stereotypes and portrayals.

She is loud, angry and, yes, sassy - the trifecta of a cookie cutter Sapphire character. Snarky, loud and angry, she just needs some finger snaps and to talk about wig snatching.

Her signature power is being a human voodoo doll - which is problematic on many levels. First of all, the “voodoo doll” is not a major factor of Voudoun, or wasn’t before Hollywood got its hands on the religion and decided to transpose one of the most well known aspects of European witchcraft. The use of a poppet to transfer effects onto a person is an ancient tradition in many branches of European magical beliefs - in Voodoo? Not so much. But it remains the most stereotypical “Black people” magic that television and our general culture know of - Voodoo is Black people magic. Voodoo = Voodoo dolls so of course the Black witch will have a Voodoo Doll power.

It has the added bonus of reducing Queenie to an object and forces her to graphically mutilate herself (even if the wounds disappear) to fight her enemies.

This bodily destruction is especially poignant because Queenie is fat and fat people are coded to hate their bodies - which includes Queenie. While Queenie describes her virginity as her “waiting”, she is clearly lonely, unhappy and looking for companionship and a relationship. Relationships that are considered beyond her, even comically, because of her weight. She even overtly talks about her weight and her eating as being because she is unhappy, lonely and abandoned - that food is a comfort to her. Queenie can’t just be a fat character, she can’t be a happy fat character - she has to be miserable in her fatness, her eating is portrayed almost as a form of self-harm and rarely does an episode go by without one character commenting on her weight in a mocking and derogatory fashion.

And on top of all that, her backstory involves her, a Black woman, fighting with a Black man over fried chicken. Chicken. Seriously, it could have been anything in the world and American Horror Story chose to have Black people fighting over chicken. We should be grateful there wasn’t a watermelon dessert and a fifth of malt liquor as a drink, I suppose.

It only took until the third episode for American Horror Story to cross an extreme line. When LaLaurie is threatened by the minotaur she created, Queenie jumps up to help. Queenie went on a tour of LaLaurie’s house and is well aware of the crimes this woman committed - not only that but LaLaurie has hurled racist abuse and even physically attacked Queenie.

Queenie could have thrown LaLaurie out to the minotaur, she could have turned her back, but instead Queenie channeled Mammy and decided to help this woman who tortured scores of Black slaves for the sadistic pleasure of it. Not only did Queenie help LaLaurie, she risked her safety to protect her by going outside. Why are we alway getting the stories in the media of Black people rushing to protect hateful bigots? We don’t even get a proper explanation as to why Queenie would decide to help LaLaurie.

Things go from bad to worse when Queenie gets outside. She doesn’t use her magical powers to disable the minotaur, no, Queenie starts to frantically masturbate. But wait, what’s wrong with masturbation you say? Well, honestly, nothing but when it is done by a fat Black woman who has been portrayed as unloveable, while she croons for a half beast man to have sex with her, well, that’s just (say it with me folks) RACIST. This encounter with the minotaur will be Queenie’s first sexual experience and she of course is the only virgin in the girl’s school. No man will have sex with Queenie and it is heavily implied that this is because she is both fat and Black.

We must take a moment to deal with the minotaur itself because it is a very specific kind of horror. Black men have long been constructed as beasts and this is particularly true when it comes to sexuality. They aren’t understood to be gentle lovers, capable of being in a committed relationship. They are nothing but beasts with roving dicks desperate to get sex anywhere and anytime they can. What does it say when a White writer literally turns a Black man into a sexual predator for the sake of entertainment? Further, what about the fact that the Black man is wearing the head of a beast because he is a victim of horrific racially based violence? By placing that animal head on him, LaLaurie turned him into an animal and American Horror Story reified it by making him act like one. It screams racism and no amount of twisting, turning, or white-washing can cause this horrible scene to be read in any other way.

When you put the minotaur together with Queenie the message is that Black sexuality is necessarily bestial. There is no relationship to humanity because by virtue of their race, both Queenie and the minotaur are understood to be “other”.

Queenie has been used to make some interesting points - she has asserted her intelligence, she has commented on the effect of being brought up watching an overwhelmingly White media. But these tiny moments of intelligence and depth in Queenie are overwhelmed by the endless stereotypes, shaming and racist attack. What could have been a deep and compelling character portrayed by an excellent actress has instead become a cringeworthy collection of just about the most negative and prejudiced portrayal imaginable. Sidibe is a talented actress, but she seems stuck in roles that will not allow her to express her talent because of her race, her gender and her weight.