Radicalizing Fantasy and the Power of Disidentification

[Original post at Black Girl Dangerous]

Confession: I’d been looking forward to seeing Catching Fire, the second installation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian trilogy, for months. I had devoured all the books and after seeing the first film, my partner gave me a mockingjay pin that I nerdily wore on the edge of a scarf all winter. I saw Catching Fire already knowing that Jeffrey Wright had been cast as Beetee, the genius inventor, and how the white mediaverse lost their minds (again) about how this character couldn’t possibly be Black. I’d been thinking about the limits of the white imagination and how PoC don’t get bent out of shape despite the extreme dearth of popular mainstream media that reflects us. But then the urgency of my writing shifted when brilliant queer and cultural theorist José Muñoz passed away this week.

Muñoz was an unapologetic utopianist who encouraged us to find radical hope and resistance in spaces that weren’t meant for us. He used the term disidentification to explain how QTPOC and other marginalized people could “recycle and recode” images in dominant culture. In his own words,

The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message…and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus disidentification is a step further than cracking open a code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.

Muñoz told us that yes, we could love The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series and even use these stories in ways that empower us. Mainstream, capitalist media franchises could be refashioned and reimagined until they felt cozy in our hearts.

I would say the culture of mainstream fantasy is not meant for QTPOC and other marginalized subjects. Junot Diaz famously said, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and white people think we’re taking over.” The hysteria of otherness keeps characters of color in anthropomorphized racialized tropes or whitewashed into a sanitized, revisionist version of themselves. There is a difference though, between identifying with fantasy where characters of color are intentionally absent and reading into the unsaid spaces and silences of fantasy writing.

Disidentification is an easier leap when characters are intentionally vague. For example, Katniss has olive skin in The Hunger Games books. She could be a white girl who’s olive-hued from all her time in the sun OR a young woman of color huntress who’s got some color because of natural melanin.

It’s not just about assumptions of skin color either. My friend Clem posted this status on Facebook after seeing Catching Fire:

I really like the subtle approving nod that the movie gives to queer culture by including some gay characters and themes in it. You’ve got, (1) your gay fashion designer archetype, Cinna, (2) your bitter old queen/president with a taste for chinoiserie, white roses, and fine dining character, President Snow, (3) a gay kiss (OK, well maybe it was more like CPR, but I’ll take it), and (4) your Sporty Spice lesbian persona, Johanna.

This is a perfect example of disidentification. Clem’s status identifies how character subtleties can be reinterpreted and radicalized—“a survival strategy that works within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously,” as Muñoz said. A hero and a villain as queer in the same Hollywood blockbuster? How cool is that?

My fantasy disidentification is Hermione Granger, the smart heroine of the Harry Potter series who lives in the borderlands of Muggle and magical culture. JK Rowling included characters of color in this series—if a student at Hogwarts had brown skin, we knew about it. Lee Jordan and Angelina Johnson? Black. Padma & Pavarti Patel? South Asian. Cho Chang? Nondescript Asian (for a full analysis of Cho Chang and Asian stereotyping see this post by Diana Lee). White characters were not described by race, but by their lack of description. Hermione Granger wasn’t described by her race or skin color either, but only as having bushy brown hair. As a mixed race person, I read into Hermione’s unwritten silences and declared her a mixed race girl too. After all, name me a mixed girl whose multiracial identity isn’t manifested in her hair sometimes.

For me, Hermione is a powerful metaphor for the fears around race mixing in the United States. She’s called a “mudblood”—the worst insult to describe someone with Muggle ancestry. Magical and non-magical blood mixing sounds a lot like the racialized fears of miscegenation. Yet Hermione knows magic spells better than her “full blood” counterparts and saved their lives not only with her knowledge of magic but also her understanding of the Muggle world and what it takes for witches and wizards to “pass” as non-magical. Hermione defies the tropes of the tragic mulatta. And by recircuiting Hermione’s identity, I see a kick-ass mixed race heroine.

So thank you José Muñoz for writing into being our disidentifications. We’ll miss you and your shining queer brilliance.