Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It don’t matter if you’re black or white: MJs racial and gender ambiguity

Much has already been said about Michael Jackson’s racial makeover. Some have speculated that it was an attempt to deny his blackness. Others suggest his medical procedures were an attempt to erase the image of his father as it was reflected in his own face. Certainly he felt compelled to alter his nose again and again for reasons we many never understand, tho there is growing evidence that plastic surgeries can become an obsession.

But I’d like to offer another possible interpretation for these changes: that his desire was to become all races, all humans. I am not arguing that white is the universal default. No matter how white MJ came to appear, we never for a moment forgot that he was black. His music, dance, and other contributions to black culture (and to American culture) are undeniable. But examine his humanitarian videos: in Black or White we see Jackson metamorphize from human to black panther and back again (am I reading too much into that metaphor?). And in an exquisite representation of his belief in the oneness of humankind, we watch smiling face after smiling face morph from one race to another and from one gender to another.

Jackson’s ambiguous gender and sexuality were also frequent subjects of discussion. His pre-pubescent voice, underdeveloped physique, our doubts that his marriages were “real” (that is, that he was even capable of consummation), each contributed to MJ’s apparent polymorphism, as well as to the frequent references to his childlike nature. After all, children, in American ideology anyway, are pre-sexual and gender neutral.

Perhaps, not content with the narrowness of his given self, Jackson made himself over into a universal figure. He was both child and adult, man and woman, black and white, gloved and ungloved. He was not “either/or” but “both/and.” Jackson stood at the crossroads of socially polarizing forces. His music and dance shattered divisions of race, gender, and class. His corporeality came to reflect that. He violated the cultural order, unmasking its ability to divide us. And that made him subversive and threatening, and, for people who cannot tolerate that threat, perverse.

The body—its surfaces and its interiority—is a reflection of social norms and altering the body is a comment on those habits. Perhaps Michael Jackson’s body modifications and presentations were a somatic response to his social politics. This isn’t to say that the other explanations are false, only that there may be another way to look at it (both/and not either/or). It is, after all, just me speculating, but then speculation is all we will ever have regarding Michael Jackson’s fantastical transformations.

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