Recreating History: Applying Postmodernism and Queer Theory to Cheryl Dunye’s, The Watermelon Woman

Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) follows a young, black lesbian filmmaker named Cheryl, desperate to find and discover an original and interesting subject on which to base her new documentary film, that is, until she discovers Fae Richards, a black lesbian actress from the 1940s, of whom Cheryl is immediately captivated by. The aesthetic and contextual themes present within The Watermelon Woman relate strongly to postmodernist ideas, the concept of self-reflection and intertextual tendencies within film, as well as discussions surrounding Queer Theory, gender, and social identities within cinema. Postmodernism and Queer Theory, within the cinema, are similar in many ways, both originating from a poststructural turn in theoretical ideas during the late 1970s, where we also start to see discussions surrounding Feminism and Postcolonialism begin to develop, and both commenting on, and reflecting upon, new types of style and form appearing within society and film. These new styles and forms are in no way original, but are, according to the theories studied here, recycled elements of history, looping back on themselves, and creating, as theorist Jean Baudrillard outlines in Simulacra and Simulation, a copy of something from which there is no longer an original. Meaning that, the progression of history and modern development might have already ended, leaving us to create our own history from the past; this is where The Watermelon Woman begins to join the discussion.

During the course of the film, Cheryl, a black, lesbian filmmaker, as played by Cheryl Dunye, also a black, lesbian filmmaker, spends her time researching Fae Richards, building up her story using photographic evidence, talking head interviews with those that knew her, and seemingly old film clips of both Fae’s professional and personal life. Viewers are told through these direct interviews and video diary segments of Cheryl explaining her ideas that what we are witnessing within the film is truth. Audiences learn to understand aesthetic cues from past experiences of documentary that tell us when we see an interview scenario, when we experience filmmakers uncovering stories, photographs, and segments of old films on screen, then this documentary style must be the dominating one. The film even opens on an extended sequence of very low quality video, documenting in a handheld and home video manner, the reception of a wedding, in which Cheryl herself even points to and acknowledges the very camera equipment in which our gaze and viewpoint are generated from. However, The Watermelon Woman also uses non-documentary techniques within its narrative, featuring the same characters as in its documentary sections. During the film, we see Cheryl’s day-to-day life as she works in a video store, which are shot within a traditional cinematic form, and are segments in which Cheryl does not directly address or acknowledge the camera or audience in any way. The Watermelon Woman takes documentary style in one hand; narrative form in the other, then breaks down the aesthetic signifiers between them, creating a “schizophrenic temporality” (Jameson) within cinematic form, meaning that, the film’s physical space is impossible to pinpoint towards one manageable style or tone, the spectator’s gaze becomes spaciously shifted. Giuliana Bruno simply describes this type of schizophrenic temporality as resulting, “from a failure to enter the Symbolic order (and is) a breakdown of language, which contributes to a breakdown of the temporal order.” (Bruno, 1987, p.70) In deconstructing modern structure and blurring the boundaries between them, the postmodern tendencies of the film would suggest that we could be watching both a narrative and documentary film, at the same time, and within the same temporal space.

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It should also be noted that the film uses physically different types of media in which to shoot these conflicting cinematic styles. Video is used in the film during its documentary sections, and celluloid during its narrative sections, adding to this sense of aesthetic displacement generated by the film, but also commenting upon itself as a film, creating a somewhat paradoxical and ever-continuing self-referentially often strongly associated with Postmodernism. The film begins to question its own principles within its style, alerting us of the awareness it has of itself. As Cheryl breaks the fourth wall at times, and seems completely unaware of it at others, the film presents to us not one truth, temporality, or grand narrative, but a mixture of influences, styles, and content, blending smaller elements to create a fragmented, blown-up version of cinematic grammar. Cheryl Dunye plays a fictional woman, who at the same time, is essentially herself, as she makes a film in which this fictional woman also makes a film about another woman in which Cheryl Dunye’s film is named after. This set-up begins to spiral inwards towards itself, becoming impossible and spatially disjointed, commenting upon its own tone, its own meaning, and its own style. The film becomes a pastiche of itself, with Cheryl’s fictional documentary within the film becoming a part of, but separated from, the wider film itself.

The Watermelon Woman is symptomatic of film and cinematic style, it uses wide close-ups to cover action, and many conventional over-the-shoulder reverse shot set-ups during sequences of dialogue. However, The Watermelon Woman becomes postmodern in the way it attempts to deconstruct cinematic grammar as a directional decision of film form, not only within the ways it references a film within a film, but also in the way it focuses on an external fictional film within that film; a large degree of Intertextuality becomes the centre of The Watermelon Woman. During one significant scene towards the opening of the film, Cheryl addresses the audience directly, explaining to us that she is still yet to find a focused subject for the film that we are about to witness. Cheryl then explains to us that she does, however, have an idea for a subject, so turns our attention to an old film titled Plantation Memories, which she then screens a scene from. Within a single long take, Cheryl physically adjusts her camera set-up to face a smaller TV screen, which she then plays Plantation Memories on. In this moment, we are physically witnessing a film within a film, a video copy of Plantation Memories from which there is no original. The Watermelon Woman is actively conscious of films and the filmmaking process, not only in the way that Cheryl operates cameras, discusses films, and works in a video store, but likewise within its main theme of attempting to unlock and discover a mysterious woman who is seen acting within seemingly external, older films.

These layers of film in different types of media, different topics, and from different time periods, create a spatial pastiche within The Watermelon Woman, since we never feel completely rooted in one place or with one overarching film aim, agenda, or truth. The Watermelon Woman takes this idea of Intertextuality, and morphs it in and around Linda Hutcheon’s concept of “historiographic metafiction”, which she describes as, “the process of making stories out of chronicles (which) focuses attention on the act of imposing order of (the) past, of encoding strategies of meaning-making through representation” (Hutcheon, 1989, p.66-67) Dunye creates, retells and reinvents historical events using fictional characters and ideas. The closing text of The Watermelon Woman informs us, “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction”. This tells us that what we have taken to be true for the entire film is nothing but a story, an invisible past that never took place, but was, at the same time, filler for the gap that history left for that story. Dunye uses cinema and imposed documentary filmmaking to create a new historical event from the ashes of old ones, recycling history as we know it, and using it to her own advantage. Jameson argues that these types of postmodern aesthetics may result in, as John Hill explains, “a characteristically postmodern loss of historical depth (which are) unable to re-create a ‘real’ past but only a simulation of the past based upon pre-existing representations and styles” (Hill, 1998, p.101)

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Within Postmodernism, The Watermelon Woman may begin to break down thematically, seeming unstructured, meaningless, and of little worth. Postmodernism, when applied too deeply to any given film, may begin to feel empty of context and human perspective, which is why, for The Watermelon Woman, Queer Theory becomes a useful tool in exploring the film further. Queer Theory may be applied to The Watermelon Woman not only within its gender politics by way of its characters, but also through the ways in which the film is built and styled. Dunye uses many filmic techniques that some may view as amateurish, such as side wipe edits, seemingly misjudged audio slices during cuts, and some very basic and static camera set-ups. The film, at times, feels as though it were thrown together spontaneously by inexperienced filmmakers. However, this style is not apparent within the film by misjudgement, but is a conscious decision by Dunye to create a “queer” or “camp” aesthetic within the film, one that intentionally sets itself apart from classical filmmaking, creating a somewhat playful tendency of self acknowledgement, open artificiality and stylization. On this, Susan Sontag, in her essay, “Notes on Camp” defines this camp aesthetic as “a way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon … not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization”. (Sontag, 1964, p.515-530)

This queer tone becomes an even larger statement when taking into account the ideas from which The Watermelon Woman stem from. The film is generated from a desire to learn more about the fictional character of Fae Richards, of whom, is discovered by Cheryl within classical Hollywood cinema, an era and style far removed from the aesthetic tone of The Watermelon Woman. Within the film’s queer and camp aesthetic, Fae Richards is no longer a side character because of her minority status as gay, black, and female, but is instead, celebrated and studied as important, as a celebrity. During one scene, Cheryl takes her camera to the streets, asking passers-by if they have ever heard of The Watermelon Woman, which few have. Over the rest of the film, Cheryl uses this cinematic queer indifference to take on the job of exposing The Watermelon Woman herself, since Hollywood has failed to. A queer and postmodern removal from conventional cinema allows The Watermelon Woman to defy social conventions, creating an entire legacy and famed celebrity culture from within a personality and sub-culture that would otherwise be regarded as unimportant.

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In viewing The Watermelon Woman, we are made aware of gender and sex as two opposing entities, sex as a biological conclusion, and gender as a social and active statement of identity. On this, Judith Butler explains that, “There are no direct expressive or causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation … none of those terms captures or determines the rest” (Butler, 1993, p.315) All of the film’s main characters are female and gay, with non-fixed and non-specific gender types, yet any spectator may identify with their personality traits and character conflicts, only, in different ways, and within different viewpoints, depending on the viewer. Queer Theory suggests that because gender as a concept is unstable, then so too is identification within the cinema. As spectators, we may transform our own sexual gaze, depending on whom we identify with on screen. The theory of queer spectatorship suggests that, using our own knowledge and perception of the world as viewers, we may shift our sense of identification depending on our individual identities; there is, therefore, no fixed subjective truth within the way we as spectators view films. Embedded cinematic codes, whether they are consciously or unconsciously placed in the text by filmmakers, allow different people to identify with different strands of thought and identification depending on individual experience. Alexander Doty explains, “’queer’ might be used to describe the intersection or combination of more than one established ‘non-straight’ sexuality or gender position in a spectator.” (Doty, 1998, p.149) This goes some way to highlighting the fact that, a straight, white, and male spectator is able to personally identify with the main characters of The Watermelon Woman. Some may argue that this is where Feminist film theory fails, of which, suggests that, fundamentally, the cinema is controlled from within a male gaze of dominance and desire, which is then imposed upon female characters. This view may present itself as out-dated and closed, whereas, in applying Queer Theory, we are often invited to understand the blended and fluid nature of gender within a postmodern society.

In reading The Watermelon Woman, Postmodernism and Queer Theory support and encourage each other, both filling in the gaps left behind by the opposing theory. An overuse of Postmodernism may leave the film feeling cold, meaningless and lacking in emotion. Whereas, to solely apply Queer Theory may lead us to become too concerned with character representation and gender politics, leading us to miss the centring points of historical recreation and intertextuality that the film and Dunye try to create. The theories are useful tools for understanding The Watermelon Woman as a viewer, but also, effective pillows of support to deepen our understanding of the film as active spectators.

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Bruno, G. (1987) “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner”, in October, Vol.41: The MIT Press.

Butler, J. (1993) “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in The Lesbian and Day Studies Reader, New York: Routledge.

Doty, A. (1998) “Queer Theory”, in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hill, J. (1998) “Film and Postmodernism”, in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutcheon, L. (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge.

Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.

Sontag, S. (1964) “Notes on ‘Camp’”, in The Partisan Review, December 1964: Partisan Review.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. beetleypete says:

    I haven’t seen this film, but have the sense of another ‘academic’ appraisal here Darrell.
    Despite the shortcomings in your review, I am now more interested in the film than I might have been. Job done mate.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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