The watermelon women and the queer counter publics

Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman”, is best gay feature film. Dunye spends a lot more time out of the bedroom than inside it in this funny, insightful look at a young lesbian filmmaker tracking the real life story of the subject of her documentary. Dunye plays Cheryl, a Philadelphia video store clerk who’s making a movie on the side. It’s about “the Watermelon Woman”, an obscure black actress who had bit parts in a number of pre-1950 motion pictures with titles like “Plantation Memories”. As Cheryl digs for facts about the woman, she discovers a surprising number of similarities between herself and her subject. The Watermelon Woman, actually named Fae Richards, was a lesbian who lived in Philadelphia, didn’t conceal her lifestyle. Cheryl becomes obsessed about learning everything she can about Fae, and her hunt leads her to friends and intimates of the late actress. It is also about Cheryl’s personal life, which ultimately becomes entwined with her filmmaking.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner introduce queer counter public in the article of “Sex in public”. It is the concept that is going against what the society tells as the social norms in the public. In this article what Berlant and Warner suggest is that the world is structured according to heterosexuality, according to the rules of good coupledom and nice, white picket fence families. There exists a whole set of accepted social behaviors that mark the good couple from the not-so-good couple. Normative behavior is any group of social codes that everyone agrees is proper, well practiced and beneficial to society.

As Berlant and Warner mentioned about queer counter public in their article, similarly Cheryl  created her own queer counter public by going against the norms of the society and making the lesbian scene in the film in public.


Cheryl Dunyas’ “The Watermelon Woman”: Layers of Queer Women

In breaking down the film, we can clearly distinguish three layers of story-telling. I identify these as Fey’s story, Cheryl-the-character’s story, and Cheryl-the-storyteller’s story; the latter of the three is a discreet story only visible through analysis of the former two. For example, Fey’s story and Cheryl-the-character’s stories overlap tremendously as a function of the deliberate choices of Cheryl-the-Storyteller. Fey’s story is as follows: a young queer woman of color with high aspiration in the world of film navigates the complicated relationship between her race and sexuality and that of her white female lover’s while also facing external pressures from both the gay (Cheryl Interviews a black woman who speaks negatively of the relationship) and heteronormative communities (Martha Page’s sister vehemently denies the relationship). In Cheryl-the-character’s narrative she is a young queer woman of color with high aspiration in the world of film also navigating the complex relationship between her identity and that of her white female lover and the reactions she gets from her disapproving, homonormative and racist friend.

Based on the quote form Dunye we saw in class, I believe the film is meant to design a set of analogies for the “counter public” to use when navigating the world of hetero and homo normativity. The analogies are layered to produce a sense of time depth while also reinforcing the main message. I believe this message is that although the history of American queer identities is partially lost, we can assume that it mirrors queer identities today, at least in terms of the trials a queer partnership encounters in a normative society. I believe this film is meant to also criticize the continuation of non-progressive ideas about personal relationships. I think she specifically focused on black lesbians because that particular intersection allowed her to speak to her personal experience.

Watermelon Women V.S Public

The Watermelon Woman is a very interesting film and it is consisted with different layers of meaning about Black lesbian identity. The filmmaker who is also the main character named Cheryl, portrays a black lesbian’s image in the film. She is very fascinated about Black lesbian history and some famous lesbians during the 1920s. One of them named Fae Richards; also know as the watermelon woman. Richard started as a singer and she became an actress, later also identified as a lesbian. Cheryl and Richard had many things in common, and she has become Cheryl’s motivation of completing that film; such as they were both into films, and women. It is indeed that movie makes them became public to the audience, although lesbian relationship or being a lesbian actress or filmmaker were not really acceptable by the society during that time.

We can describe the film and the characters as queer counter-public, because their action and their identity is against what is normal according to the heterosexual society. According to Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s Sex in Public, “Heteronormativity is more than ideology, or prejudice, or phobia againsy gays and lebians, it is produced in almost every aspect of the forms…” It is said that heterosexual are the norms, and heterosexual is acceptable to the public, but homosexual can cause people to fear and judge The films show us that there is specific clubs (gay clubs) for homosexual people to be, Cheryl and her friends went to a gay club to have blind date, and they also went to a club for shooting purpose, where lesbian performers and audiences are gathered together enjoy fun together. This is another way of showing homosexual is countering the public because homosexual activities were separated from the heterosexuals (public).

She is beautiful !

The Watermelon Women

In the article “Sex in Public” Berlant and Warners introduce a new term, the idea of the “queer counterpublic”. They state that the queer culture still uses heteronormative views of society to define themselves and their culture. They believe that queer culture should stop using heterosexual culture as the yard stick to define themselves. Queer counterpublics can be actual places such as clubs or bars or through gossip and print culture, such as The Watermelon Women.

The mockumentary The Watermelon Women is a story that revolves around identity. Cheryl Dunye, the director and actress, uses Cheryl and her friends to tell the story of young, black lesbians living in Philadelphia. The main character, Cheryl, then uses the watermelon women to tell the story of black women during the 1930s as well as telling her own story through different forms of media. Throughout the film, the focus centers on the documentary that Cheryl is making which can be considered a mediated form of queer counterpublic. Cheryl is trying to create a documentary that will show the life of not only a black women but also a lesbian living during the 1930s. She is creating her own story through her search for the identity of the watermelon women. It allows her to tell the story of black lesbians the way that she wants them to be seen by the world. This is true not only for Cheryl the character in her documentary in the movie but also for Dunye who is using Cheryl to tell the story of young black lesbians and give them a space in the film world.

The Watermelon Woman

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s work, “Sex in Public,” argues that aspects of heterosexuality are ingrained in everyday culture in America-in the products we buy, the language we use and the media we consume-but many of these aspects do not focus on sex. On the other hand, mainstream focus on “queer culture” is visible only through sources that do center on sex, in pornographic stores or even queer sex education. This cultural fixation on the sexual aspects of queer life suggests that the lives of queer people are in fact focused on sex. However, this is not the case, as suggested in Cheryl Dunye’s film The Watermelon Woman. The film explores various aspects of identity and how they intersect, by exploring Cheryl’s life as a black lesbian juxtaposed with her findings about the life of the Watermelon Woman, Fae Richards. The character Cheryl’s interactions with her friend and coworker Tamara, love interest Diana, and other contacts she makes in her search for information about the Watermelon Woman showcase the existence of a “queer counterpublic,” made up of the spaces where queer people can congregate to explore their history, tell stories, or exclaim their pride in their identity. This is seen when Cheryl and her coworker travel to search in the CLIT archives, and when they videotape a cultural performance for their side business. The narrative develops Cheryl’s obsession with documenting the life of the Watermelon Woman as beginning with a fixation on her portrayal of a stereotype, the mammy, but lacking in focus on the bigger story of her life and the other aspects of her identity. Her interaction with June Walker, Fae Richard’s later partner, exposes this inconsistency in her approach and provides Cheryl with the tools to rectify her focus and approach her documentation of Fae Richard’s life from a new angle.

Queer Counterpublic in The Watermelon Woman

Through the character of Cheryl and her obsession with bringing to light a previously unacknowledged figure in Black and lesbian cinematic history, Cheryl Dunye offers a queer counterpublic, uncovering what has gone unseen and unrecognized by the larger culture despite being a part of mass culture. The character Cheryl refuses to take mass culture at face value with its lack of Black lesbians in Hollywood/mass culture and instead investigates a figure that in itself creates a counterpublic. The Watermelon Woman Fae Richards is representative of buried queerness, someone who existed in the public sphere as a queer woman of color, and the lack of recognition that nearly everyone Cheryl speaks to as well as the lack of care that many people show toward Cheryl’s search and the possible significance that Fae poses as a historical Black lesbian figure.

The relationships in the film as constructed by Cheryl Dunye present a counterpublic of their own. In Berlant and Warner’s “Sex in Public,” the intimacies that are developed and seen within a queer counterpublic are not the traditional forms of intimacy, as they are not necessarily related to kinship, property, nation, or the domestic sphere in general. The relationship between Cheryl and Tamara is a clear show of this, as they present an intimate, familial relationship between two Black lesbians not engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship (and thus not crossing into a domestic space). Fae Richards presents the public aspect of counterpublic, as she is a queer figure (being both Black in the 1920s and 1930s and being a lesbian) that was famous and has a traceable history. Though the character Cheryl has difficulty finding information about Fae, it does exist, similar to the at times difficult to uncover queer historical narrative. Cheryl Dunye’s goal in making The Watermelon Woman was to present a figure that was not previously seen, that of the Black lesbian actress, both through Fae and Cheryl.

Counterpublic in the Watermelon Woman

Cheryl Dunye’s documentary, The Watermelon Woman, explores the life of a black lesbian and the tension her sexual identity brings to her work. Cheryl, the fictional character, seeks to interview the watermelon woman. She discovers that Fae Richards is the watermelon woman who is also a black lesbian. Cheryl is intrigued and becomes obsessed in gaining perspective from Fae after learning she identifies with the same identities, as a black woman, and a lesbian. Cheryl’s preoccupation with Fae is exhibited through her various attempts to come in contact with her after learning of her sexuality. However, Cheryl and Fae both differ in the degree of normativity with their sexual identities. Cheryl is more “public” about her sexuality in comparison to Richards.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s piece, Sex in Public, they define queer counterpublic are, “by definition, formed by their conflict with the norms and contexts of their cultural environment, and this context of domination inevitably entails distortion… counterpublics…are both damaged forms of publicness, just as gender and sexuality are, in this culture, damaged forms of privacy.” In other words, queer counterpublic is a form of queer theory that goes against the institution of the heteronormative culture. Dunye as a director, and actor performs counterpublics through the creation of this film. The film focuses on the sexuality of the main character, Cheryl, and her subject, Fae. By Cheryl, creating vested interest in Fae, as a director and actress, she goes against the heteronormative culture by documenting both her sexuality and that of Fae’s. In conclusion, she normalizes their sexualities through the disclosure of their experiences.