This book, Off-White Hollywood, American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, came out in 2001! What rock have I been living under? I've been so starved for critical pop-culture writing, I've been pouring over some really dry stuff...like The Diva's Mouth and The Adoring Audience and Guilty Pleasures and what seems like the textbook from Duke University's Culture Studies program Hop on Pop. How thrilling to see some critical feminist writing about Cher...and ethnicity! And Cher on the cover even!
In Cher Zine 3, I catalogue my trials trying to track down feminist pop culture writers who were even willing to talk about Cher. I finally found three or four brave women to interview. But here was Diane Negra's book sitting right under my nose! This book is truly awesome but be warned: it's full of really academic egghead stuff.
I've heard many girls-of-color (Latinos, Persians) comment on Cher's non-whiteness as being of significance to them--especially growing up in the 1970s, but I never hear anyone else talking about Cher in an ethnic context.
Negra starts with her thesis, how over the years in Hollywood, movies have made meaning of whiteness and ethnicity and how studios have manipulated, absorbed or rejected ethnic female stars to further American social and political ends. She says the six stars she chose to discuss "have been substantially neglected....stars who are economically, industrially and culturally significant, but for whom there is a vacuum of critical commentary." Amen.
She talks about how ethnic women are often delegated to stereotypically virtuous or villainous roles. And how this fact throughout the years reflects existing American cultural values.
Chapters two and three are on two silent screen stars, Colleen Moore and Pola Negri. With Colleen Moore we see how her Irishness was co-opted in roles of the child waif, with the fresh-faced-innocence of Irishness co-opted to undercut fears of Irish Immigration. Cementing her image as an innocent also served to undercut the image of the New Woman, the Flapper, who was liberating herself from Victorian repression. Publicity represented her as an innocent doll, a hard-working Irish girl, the ideal woman for the patriarchy of the time.
Pola Negri's chapter details how a star persona failed to sublimate herself to American values. Negri, with an Italian name, a Polish heritage and a German career, thwarted Hollywood's attempt to create a persona for her. She was left with the image of a vamp (short for vampire), a villainous image of ruthlessness and blood-lust, that served to enforce America's fears about people from Eastern Europe.
Chapters four and five deal with the Classic Hollywood Era with stars like Sonja Henie and Hedy Lamarr.
Sonja Henie's Norwegian heritage was given the Scandinavian treatment and her whiteness was hyper-personified. Her image was charming, virtuous, healthy, blonde, and white. Very white. Everything she owned or wore was white. During the depression this served as a distraction from the images starvation and poverty. Embracing a Scandinavian also reflected America's dispatch of Isolationism and the country's growing desire to spread American culture abroad and acquire foreign objects. The foreigner went from being dirty and scary to being someone worthy of Americanizing.
Hedy Lamarr was able to acclimate to a fully American persona as well, although she imported a scandalous nude scene from a Czech film in her past. When the whiteness of types like Sonja Henie became "flat erotically," Lamarr served as the erotic beauty standard. Now you could be a desirable trophy wife to the patriarchy even if you weren't so white.
Chapter six jumps to the modern ethic persona of Marisa Tomei. Here we explore how a current "exhaustion of ideas" prevailed American culture in the 1970s and 1990s and how ethnic rediscovery and performance became acceptable and exploitable and seen as more natural and authentic.
Cher is the seventh chapter. And because she has a sort of "free-floating ethnic identity," she troubles the facile assumption that whiteness and color are self-evident and mutually exclusive categories." Negra describes how Cher started as a patriarchal production (of Sonny Bono, Bob Mackie, David Geffen...and even with director's such as Robert Altman, Mike Nichols and Peter Bogdanovich) with her ethnic displays of Native American (and other ethnicities easily assumed in a variety TV show format), but how her coup from the patriarchy, her current persona (and self-awareness of it) "represents a transgressive figure involved in her own self-production."
Cher is a "complex persona that indicates a confusion of gender, class and age distinctions and problematizes the security of whiteness." Negra dissects the variety show vamp (which include the ethnic songs of "Gypsies Tramps and Thieves," "Dark Lady," and "Half Breed"), the movie Suspect, the "Perfection" performance in the Heart of Stone tour (where with a male impersonator she acknowledges herself as a fictionalized production), and the X-Files episode tribute to her.
"Cher makes spectacularly visible the paradox of social expectations for the female body." (speaking of Dolly Parton in Joyful Noise...see the next post) Negra says. Cher "strenuously resists the properties of white femininity"....and is "indigestible to mainstream conservative culture."
Just when all things seem swell, Negra finally has to call Cher out, criticizing "plastic surgery as empowerment," saying surgery and the enforcement of thinness are "antithetical to the interests of women" although these things "serve the economical interests of others"....that being the economic interests of The Man.