Mariposas en el andamio:
Imagining Utopia through Repetition and Excess
legs sit at the edge of a bed while hands put high-heeled shoes onto a
pair of feet. As the hand-held camera's perspective changes from the legs
to the torso and face of the subject, we see a man dressed in a white
tank top, wearing a baseball cap. We then move, jerkily, along with the
camera and observe as he puts a tape into a stereo. The camera cuts back
to the same legs, now clad in black pantyhose, as they dance to the music
around the room:
His look was piercing and contagious.
When he looked, something happened.
We again see the man's face,
upper body and hands that hold a makeshift microphone. He sings along
with the lyrics of the song:
I don't know what this thing is,
But my heart's skipping beats.
He spins and we see a close-up
of his face:
I am a demure girl.
Educated by nuns.
I never go out of the house, but I'm always in love.
The previous scene is the opening
of the Cuban documentary Mariposas en el andamio (Butterflies on the Scaffold),
directed and produced in 1995 by Luis Felipe Bernaza and Margaret Gilpin.
Mariposas depicts a gay-identified transvestite movement in the La Güinera
neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana by exploring three intertwined
narratives: one that observes the transvestites during their performances
and backstage, another that depicts La Güinera's transformation from
a shanty town to a "model" community development, and a third
that explores the subjects' private lives, their families, and the community's
reactions to their lifestyles through an interview format.
In my analysis of the film, I chose to focus on its more ambiguous and
contradictory moments. For example, how can we account for both "masculine"
and "feminine" traits, repeated through the same body, presented
through the "fictive" mode of documentary? How can we understand
the performance of this "demure girl" within the context of
constitutively homophobic, socialist, post-Cold War Cuba? In an effort
to tackle these questions, this paper will attempt to think through various
notions and layers of "excess" revealed through the trope of
the Cuban homosexual drag queen's body. My understanding of this excess
comes from a connection I make between Judith Butler's theorization of
gender as performance and Deleuze's Difference and Repetition.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze challenges both the dominance of
the traditional definition of the "concept" and the primacy
of representation. He argues that the displacement of the Same and representation
by repetition and difference reveals a contemporary move towards non-representational,
radically horizontal thought. Rather than leading to an order of sameness,
however, radical horizontality gestures to the precariousness of differences.
Furthermore, according to Deleuze, the difference that is produced within
and through repetition calls into question the status of the "original":
"Repetition is no more secondary in relation to a supposed ultimate
or originary fixed term than disguise is secondary in relation to repetition."
Similar to Deleuze, Butler questions the existence of the original (as
heterosexuality), by arguing that all subjects perform a certain gender,
a gender for which a copy is not discernable. Through "a convincing
act of repetition" (Butler, "Imitation" 23) gender is performed
through "the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated
acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame" (Butler, Gender Trouble
33) that, through their execution, constitute the very identity they ostensibly
express. A gendered identity is therefore not a "truth" or "nature"
manifested by the body; rather, it is an after-the-fact performative construction
that regulates corporeality, channeling it into separate gender categories.
Butler's rereading of J.L. Austin's notion of "performativity"
sees both heterosexuality and homosexuality as parodying the continued
mimesis of the unattainable heterosexual norm. The result of the constant,
failed re-enactment of the hetero-norm becomes parodic when it is acknowledged
that what is being imitated is in fact a copy of itself, not derivative
Deleuze also understands repetition as parody, stating: "[r]epetition
belongs to humour and irony; it is by nature transgression or exception
(5) He then goes on to argue that, while negation-like difference inscribes
all differences into the figure of opposition so as to determine them
further as contradictions, negation-less difference points towards the
diversity of non-representable singularities. In a positive Deleuzian
model of difference and repetition, it is not sameness that produces repetition,
but rather, difference. For example, if we were to repeat a word, each
repetition of that word would transform the word's history and context,
amplifying difference. For Deleuze, difference drives repetition, creating
instability and transformation. Because the only thing that is repeated
is difference, no two moments in life can be the same. Through his explication
of Nietsche's "eternal return," repetition is positive, purging
itself of negativity and identity: "Only Affirmation returns-in other
words, the Different, the Dissimilar. Nothing that denies the eternal
return returns, neither the default nor the equal, only the excessive
." (299). Difference is not the difference between different
forms, or the difference from some original model; difference is that
power that repeatedly produces new forms.
Although Butler would probably agree with Deleuze and posit that, in some
senses, alternative sexual orientations (homosexuality, transsexuality,
etc.) are both diverse and non-representable, Deleuze's repetition is
driven by a positive difference and affirmation while Butler's repetition
is driven by a failure that "never fully accomplish[es] identity."
(Ibid 24) Despite these critical differences, I would argue that Butler's
concept of excess, "which erupts within the intervals of those repeated
gestures and acts" (Ibid) can be productively linked to Deleuze's
understanding of positive repetition. Excess, according to Butler, is
characterized by that which exceeds, disrupts or cannot be contained within,
by or through categorical "sites" of identity such as gender,
race or sexual orientation. Even though excess cannot be expressed in
or by any single performative category, it continues to pose a "perpetual
threat of disruption." (Ibid) Although Butler's repetition is based
upon a failure, this failure can potentially exceed repetition, creating,
as Deleuze puts it, a difference that produces new forms, or new ways
to understand sexuality.
For Butler, then, drag performance activates its subversive potential
through excess --by drawing attention to, destabilizing and denaturalizing
the boundary between sexed bodies and "incoherently" sexed others:
This instability is the deconstituting possibility in the very process
of repetition, the power that undoes the very effects by which "sex"
is stabilized, the possibility to put the consolidation of the norms of
"sex" into potentially productive crisis. (Bodies that Matter
In response to criticism of
Gender Trouble, in Bodies that Matter, Butler problematizes any assumed
or inherent relationship between drag and subversion, stating that "drag
may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and reidealization
of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms. At best, it seems, drag is a
site of certain ambivalence
" (Ibid 125) Consequently, drag
can promote both the subversion and reaffirmation of the heterosexual
matrix, illustrating a "general situation of being implicated in
the regimes of power by which one is constituted and, hence, of being
implicated in the very regimes of power that one opposes." (Ibid)
Consequently, if drag's production of excess through repetition can disrupt,
uphold, or vacillate between the subversion and reaffirmation of heterosexual
norms, how can we characterize the transvestites' performance in Mariposas?
When is their performance subversive and when does it simply reinstate
In his chapter entitled, "Gender Trouble in the Land of the Butterflies,"
in Gay Cuban Nation, Emilio Bejel offers a somewhat cynical reading of
these performances, claiming that
[T]hey demonstrate little originality. The luxurious pretensions of their
presentations, the invariably tragic and even tacky songs, and their exaggerated
wardrobe are no different from transvestites the world over. (197)
While I am hardly in a position
to discuss the Mariposas shows with respect to an international context,
I do believe that there are "original" aspects of these on-stage
and behind-the-scenes performances that Bejel fails to recognize. First,
the "exaggerated wardrobe" to which Bejel refers is constructed
through creative substitutions for materials that are unavailable in Cuba.
False eyelashes are cut out of paper and glued with acetate, garbage bags
stand in for crinoline, and shoe glue is the adhesive used to attach artificial
nails. It is important to mention, however, that these fabulous costumes,
in their excess, become especially dramatic in the midst of the economic
scarcity of Cuba, where the American dollar is valued over Cuban currency.
For example, at the end of one of the performances, one of the queens
exclaims: "I'm tired of local money. Dammit, throw me a 'Washington'!"
Secondly, in contrast to the drag queens depicted in the well-known "Paris
is Burning," none of the transvestites discuss a desire to "pass"
as "real" women-perhaps partly because access to resources that
would allow them to "pass" (costumes, makeup, even sex-change
operations) is limited, if not completely unavailable. Instead of seeking
"realness" through material means, the queens in Mariposas seem
to seek a more psychic authenticity. For them, their "realness"
is located in the fact that they feel that they are expressing who they
"really" are, while at the same time acknowledging, as one performer
puts it: "you're cultivating a character who isn't real. You're not
really a woman."
Finally, the originality of the queens can be found in their efforts to
redefine the controversial relationship between homosexuality and notions
of "appropriate" Cuban heterosexist nationalism. Significantly,
post-revolutionary nationalist leaders like Castro have often pathologized
the homosexual body, establishing it as a threat to the health of the
"body" and productivity of the Cuban nation.
Significantly, throughout the film, numerous references are made by both
the performers and by community members to the drag queens' productivity
as members of society. Fifi, the leader of the La Güinera construction
crew even connects the acceptance of transvestites to the future of Cuba:
"If the nation accepts these cultural workers, these workers for
society, as we did here in La Güinera, we'll be successful as a nation."
Similarly, a song entitled "El tiene delirio de amar varones"
by Pedro Luis Ferrer accompanies one of the backstage scenes. The song's
lyrics read as follows:
They discriminate against him for being gay and don't consider anything
But when they call him to pick up a gun he works harder than most.
He loves men passionately.
He likes them strong and healthy.
He's punished day and night but he is a human being.
Could this happen to a machista?
Who treats women cruelly-like a slave.
Could this happen to someone powerful,
Who scandalizes the neighbors by giving their sons luxury cars.
They discriminate against him for being gay.
People should be able to do as they please as long as it doesn't affect
In addition to defending homosexual
relationships, I believe that "El tiene delirio" reveals one
of the primary political goals of Mariposas' filmmakers-to incorporate
homosexuality into rearticulated notions of Cuban nationalism by recharging
its value for revolutionary consumption.
Although the pairing of this song with the seemingly apolitical dressing-room
images may initially seem incongruous, the two ultimately work together
by pointing to the Cuban homosexual's body as a potential site for redefinition
and transformation. Specifically, much of this scene points to the constructed
nature of gender through evidence of bodies in transformation from "man"
to "woman." While one minute we may see a body we identify as
male, a few minutes later we may then see what "looks" like
a woman. Furthermore, many shots from this scene juxtapose both "masculine"
and "feminine" traits in the same body, undermining our ability
to comprehend this body in terms of binary notions of male/female, bringing
about what Marjorie Garber has called a "crisis of category"
Therefore, these behind-the-scenes frames of the drag queens literally
reveal the very constructedness of gender that Butler theorizes. Moments
of disruption and excess obscure bodies that are easily recognizable as
either "male" or "female." The bodies in these frames
represent both excess and spectacle; they are both fractured and coherent.
This excess creates a hyper-visibility which connotes the ambivalence
of drag explored by Butler-on one hand, these performances can be seen
as resisting a history of homosexual erasure, while on the other hand,
these transvestites replicate certain hegemonic class structures by transforming
themselves into "woman."
To conclude, I wanted to cite another of Bejel's statements regarding
[T]he attraction of a show like the La Güinera transvestites and
the documentary Mariposas en el andamio lies to a large extent in its
capacity to form a specific utopian promise. (Bejel 210)
Throughout this essay, I have
attempted to think through the multiple layers of repetition and excess
that constitute the Mariposas en el andamio documentary. I have identified
a performative excess (performance on top of performance), a material
excess (fabulous costumes and makeup), a physical excess (existence of
both male and female signifiers in the same body), a visual excess (the
hyper-visibility of the Cuban drag queen), and a political and cultural
excess (the representation of the marginalized Cuban homosexual). Although
Bejel makes the previous statement as a part of a broader critique of
the film's shortcomings, and while Mariposas' call for acceptance of dissident
sexual identities and for more inclusive notions of the Cuban nation may
at times seem heavy-handed, like Butler I would like to think that it
is this very failure of Mariposas' "utopian promise" that activates
its disruptive potential.
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