The Contemporary Mulata and the Myth of Celebrity Essay
The Contemporary Mulata and the Myth of Celebrity
Alighting from her limousine, she slowly glides into view, a caramel-colored goddess, amidst the bright, flashing lights of the enamored paparazzi. Dressed in a tight gown that accentuates her plentiful curves, she treads upon the red carpet, her every movement calling attention to her innate beauty: high cheekbones, doe eyes, a button nose. She looks upon her ardent fans who file behind a metal fence and bestows upon them a knowing smile.
They shriek in delight and attempt to reach her, but they are too far way. She is untouchable and exotic. She is their myth. It is an indomitable fact that celebrities of contemporary times have achieved an iconic quality about them, almost mythic in every aspect. Created by incessant PR people and stylists, their very being is manipulated to illustrate an embodiment of perfection that hovers above mere masses. And at the very center of this shrewd business is the biracial woman, the neo-mulata.
Neither simply white nor black, her multi-faceted lineage serves as a problem for those who mean to categorize her in the predisposed niches of the industry. Ingrid Sischy, in an interview with highly-successful, biracial songstress Mariah Carey, reveals that the singer found the lightness of her skin, attributed to her Caucasian mother, an issue when it comes to obtaining record deals. “One person [at A&R Records] said I looked too white to sound the way I sounded…’you’re too light; you’re too black…. ’ I was this nebulous creature that nobody understood (Sischy 2007).
” Carey, who rose from the travails of her childhood and earlier attempts at stardom, is the perfect representation of the mulata in today’s celebrity-ridden world and her story is a showcase of how she transcended such oppression and identity-crises to become one of the most well-known figures in the entertainment industry. But, is this success suggestive of society’s reconciliation with her dual ethnicity? Or are they merely regarded in another level of “otherness” wherein their “exoticism” and sensuality become their source of marketability and appeal?
With this query in mind, this paper hopes to engage in an understanding of the position of the mulata celebrity, following an historical analysis of the rise of the mulata and racial performativity, and how they transition from being the “tragic mulata” and into a figure of mythic “otherness”. The “Tragic Mulata” and the Question of the “Other” Our current society views itself as a multi-cultural hodgepodge of different ethnicities and belief systems that is generally accepting of each other.
According to a historic survey conducted by the US Census (2000) wherein individuals are allowed to select more than one race, 6. 8 million or 2. 4 percent of Americans identify themselves with two or more races (Census 2000). We particularly observe this growing trend in popular media wherein personas, like Carey, and several others, like Halle Berry, Jessica Alba and Tiger Woods, are beginning to carve out their own accomplishments in a sphere with a distinct boundary between colors of skin.
This phenomenon begins the start of a multiracial decade, as Asian-American Thomas Kelly (2009) declares, especially marked by the seating of the first biracial president. This new era of cultural diversity in the United States begets changing insights of previously acknowledged racial ideologies that are characteristic of a supposedly forgotten societal code. But, it still happens that shifting views give birth or reawaken altered conceptions of the current society.
Such example would be the notion of the mulato or mulata (which we will focus on later). Considered a concept forgotten with colonialism, it is a term used to indicate an individual of mixed-blood, “a product of the miscegenation of a black woman and a white man (Arrizon 84). ” Technically, a Hispanic term that is associated to the racial structure of colonial Latin Americas , it is adapted in the United States soil to indicate a woman of such biracial attributes.
Remarkably, this symbol of racial oppression has come to serve as a figure of antislavery movements and literature in 19th century America. According to Eve Allegra Raimon, “embodying Northern and Southern ideologies, the ‘amalgamated’ mulatto (to use the contemporaneous term’ can be viewed as quintessentially American, a precursor to contemporary motifs of ‘hybrid’ and ‘mestizo’ identities (Raimon 4). ” The “tragic mulatto” functions as an allegory of the hardships of the slave community and as a vehicle to address these varied trepidations.
Through this, Raimon says, abolitionist of both races can further contemplate and consider answers for matters such as the bestowment of freedom and independence to mixed-race slaves, a wholly integration into the general society, and the full acceptance of their ancestry in the increasingly precarious Union (4-5). But to consider the plight of the “tragic mulatto” as the sole narrative of the anti-slavery movement is to disregard the unique experience of the “tragic mulatta”, whose gendered existence is an additional barricade in her pursuit of self identification.
Raimon adds, “The very tragedy of the figure’s fate lies upon her female gender (5). ” Hence, the predicament of the “tragic mulatta” remains on her sexual vulnerability, and her objectification as viewed through the eyes of her male “colonizers”. Adding to our presupposition of the female as the “Other”, the mulatta’s biracial roots further her identity even more into the realm of the uncanny. Considered an anomaly, the biracial identity hovers between the preconditioned concept of Blacks or Whites, or the slave and the colonizer.
As Arrizon mentions, “the mulata’s syncretic amalgamation represents a confluence of worlds and cultures. As product of transculturation, they mark serious hierarchic imbalances implicated in the invention of the ‘new’ world (Arrizon 83). ” The current society now has to find a way to contend with this systemic imbalance, this unknown force, having been accustomed with centuries of a historically dualistic system. Instead of creating a dialogue with this unknown, the dominating White culture, instead, places the “biracial” in the level of object: an enigma known but not conversed.
This imbalance then, in addition to the crisis of gender, creates a two-fold issue which is central to the dilemma of the “tragic mulatta”. As Hiram Perez mentions in her analysis of the mulatto/diva, “Racial otherness compounded by feminization doubly disposes and exposes the mulata…to the erotics of spectacle (Perez 117). ” We also find the source of the “tragic mulatta” in the assessment of the history of colonization.
According to Arrizon, the dynamics of the colonial society’s judgment of inter-racial pairing (following the white male-black female rule), created a structure that saw black women as sexual objects for the white colonizer. And because her identity is, essentially, unclassifiable and unexplainable, she is considered a libertine and a wild woman, whose sexuality the white male wishes to govern (103). Her body is also a bastion of this unmitigated sensuality, derived upon a close analysis through racial performativity.
“Her body has been defined merely as an erotic symbol, embodying the African dance or the musical instrument that conducts the movement of her body (101). ” Likening the body to the movement of the Latin dance Rumba, Arrizon says that “the ‘beat’ of her body determines her position as an object of irresistible attraction (98). ” The movement of her body emphasizes aspects of her physical being that is uniquely biracial—honey-colored skin, appropriate curves, a small face—all seeming mutations of the Western female ideal.
Despite having exotic looks, she is enough “white” to be able to transcend any racial taboo while still teetering beyond the typical norm. In another study done by Frances Aparicio on salsa and its suggestive lyrics, she finds that those that elaborate on the mulata/black body and its overemphasized sexuality actually reveal racial oppression (99). With this in mind, some have even gone so far as to say that the mulata body is a symbol of prostitution (105). Essentially, the tragedy of the mulatta is derivative from this base assumption of her role in the social structure.
Because she is not completely “black”, she remains a favored woman of the white male, but since she is not also innately “white” the attraction remains in the realm of sexual fervor. She remains in the gray area where she is neither hated nor wanted. “While she is sexually desired by white men, she also represents the racial impurities and threats to whiteness, embodying an ‘unnatural transgression of the rules of social property (106). ’” She becomes an “Other” in an excluded bracket of society. She is an “Other” devoid of racial inclinations.
From Tragedy to Triumph? In today’s society, the concept of the “tragic mulata” is typically discussed amidst analysis of many literary texts concerning the anti-slave movements and remains now a mere symbol of what once was an era of great oppression. In film, especially, notions of the black woman as the “tragic mulata” have changed into a more positive perspective (Beltran 56). The biracial in film now represent the cultural diversity of the American people, an enigmatic emblem of a multiracial future.
They now have new face, one of success and triumph, with past errors serving as background that bolster this new image. One of these faces, as previously discussed, is multi-awarded singer Mariah Carey who traces her lineage to an African-American father and an Irish mother. Apart from Carey, there are also several other entertainment personas of multi-racial lineage that has achieved international renown, especially in this growing world of inter-cultural affiliations.
One persona that has made a milestone in film history is award-winning actress Halle Berry, whose affecting performance in Marc Foster’s Monster’s Ball (2001), as a convict’s widow who falls in love with her husband’s white correctional officer in a racially-prejudiced community, won her the first ever Best Actress Academy Award for a person of African-American descent. But besides these tragic roles, she has also played a manipulative vixen, a gun-wielding secret agent, and a sensuous anti-hero in The Flintstones (1994), James Bond: Die Another Day (2002), and Catwoman (2004), respectively.
She and Carey are in every way considered the epitome of modern celebrity. According to Graeme Turner in Understanding Celebrity, “‘Fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness,’ says [Daniel] Boorstin, the celebrity develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality form those of their competitors in the public arena (Turner 5).
” In a society that finds biracial attributes a fascinating concept, and a concept that now represents an entire generation, it is easy to assume that the two personas mentioned acquire their success, not just through talent, but through the people’s intrinsic fascination of their “unlikeliness”, their racial ambiguity. In a study done by Mary Beltran on the new breed of multiracial actors entitled The New Hollywood Racelessnes: Only the Fast, Furious (and Multiracial) will Survive, the “racelessness” of this new breed of actors reverberate with the current majority of ethnically diverse audiences that flock the cinemas (54).
They see in these “heroes” the values and qualities imbibed on them by their varied cultural upbringings and they like it. For the producers and film executives, casting these actors ultimately fills the gap between a “traditionalist” cinema and its younger, more international viewers. But, despite creating a positive perspective of the biracial on film, what I found most disconcerting about this analysis is its lacking of a feminist reading.
Like the “tragic mulata” whose experience is wholly different from that of the conceived “tragic mulatto”, the new mulatta’s depiction on film (and, generally, in the entertainment industry) cannot be entirely equated to that of the male biracial because until now there still lies a pervasive view of the woman on screen/on stage as objectified and highly sexualized. This harkens back to our analysis of the mulata body, her body and her sexuality remains her source of identity and without it she herself would remain anonymous. The modern biracial woman still uses her body as a tool for recognition, as we shall later explore.
But, in order to differentiate herself from the historical notions of the “tragic mulata”, she is now created, through the wizardry of the showbiz machinery, into a figure of myth, an exotic beauty that, still, undoubtedly, revolve around the socially-excluded territory of “the other”. Leaning towards racial anonymity could actually mean much strife for an individual of biracial ancestry. In an interview with Barbra Walters (2002), Berry admitted that she doesn’t consider herself biracial because her mother had told her to identify herself as black because she would be looked upon as black.
In order to lessen the tension related to being biracial (such as inter-race marriages), she had decided to associate herself with one race and completely admonish her relationship with the other, despite that fact that it was her Irish mother who had remained with her ever since her African-American father had left. As Arrizon mentions, “similar to gender performtativity—according to Judith Butler, gender can always be adopted and then performed—race performativity not only subverts the dominant hegemonic discourse but borders the relation between self and other, black and white (and the in-between) (Arrizon 111).
” Berry chose to conform to a particular race in order to alleviate the racial tensions that come with her dual ethnicity. Later on in her life, Berry dabbled in pageantry, even winning the Miss USA in 1986, and modelling before transitioning into the small screen with roles in short-lived series Living Dolls and Knots Landing, and finally in the big screen with her breakthrough role in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). As a figure in the public eye, she used her features to make her distinct from the other personas in a white-washed industry.
This, essentially, resonates of our understanding of the trials of the “tragic mulata”. Instead of beginning her quest for identity through the recognition of her own two races, she uses her body and sexuality to derive at an individuality supplied to her by the patriarchal system. Using this as an analysis of Berry’s life, she, despite acknowledging one aspect of her self, continued to bank on her innate “exoticness” through participating in beauty pageants and modeling, to create her own identity.
Carey’s story also echoes this assessment, but her discovery of self goes through a different medium. According to an analysis of Carey’s rise to fame in Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentificaiton (2008) by Hiram Perez on the correlation of the diva and the mulatta, her music is a necessary step to achieving “emancipation” from an overly oppressive marriage (with music mogul Tommy Motola), and therefore, a detraction from the conventional idea of the “tragic mulata”.
She says, “The mulatto’s unstable constitution spelled disaster for Carey from the start. But it also set the stage for Mimi’s emancipation, and that is why perhaps, we queers of color abide the tired—yet seemingly inexhaustible—tragic mulatto stereotype. To glory in the dusky diva’s emancipation, we must reify the symbolic of blood from which we all, paradoxically, seek emancipation (Perez 114). ” These two iconic figures, having dislodged themselves from the traditional notion of the mulatta now seek to find an alternate plane from whence they can glorify in their multi-ethnicity.
But this gets lost, I argue, in the process of the audience assessment of them and their personalities. They still remain, despite themselves, objectified amidst the bright lights of celebrity. Turner calls this the “human pseudo event” wherein the ideal person (the actress and the singer) is “fabricated for the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility (5). ” In essence, the celebrity becomes the commodity of the media and of society.
When the mulata ventures into this sphere, she once again finds herself depraved of her much-regarded racial identity and is reduced once again to the body: the honey-colored skin, the appropriate curves, the small face. Her being is lost amidst the flashing lights of the photographers. She resumes her place as the “other”, both in gender and in race. Vera Kutzinski states, as summarized by Arrizon, that her body “may be feminine in appearance, but much more significant than its gender attributes is that it is the site of an erotic ‘performance’ represented as the feminine (Arrizon 112).
” With this in mind, the mulatta body is conceived as a ‘mythical site’ that gathers everyone to view its spectacle. The body transcends any metaphysical, cultural, and racial boundaries, even so now that it has come into the eye of an unrelenting audience that only yearns to view it in its perfection. And with an audience of varied ethnicities, the body becomes their Ideal, their symbol of “otherness”. It becomes a “mythic other. ” Redeeming Identity Carey calls herself “nebulous”, suggesting hazy images hovering above traditional standards, and perhaps until now upon the viewer’s eye, she still is.
Like Berry, they both remain figures, not just of stardom, but of multi-ethnicity that tries to regain footing in a world at a loss for racial recognition. They are nebulous despite their success and renown because, as public perceptions go, they are but figures. So, as the fans scream and shriek, attempting to reach out and hold a veritably fabled hand or touch this ambiguous celebrity skin, she walks gracefully past, nothing but an object of myth. Works Cited Arrizon, Alicia. Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performance. University of Michigan Press: USA (2006)
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