The Queer Take: Lessons from Tina Turner, Princess Diana and Rekha's revenge lookbooks
There must be a reason that tragic female figures making public statements through their image hold sway over the queer imagination.
The Queer Take is a column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
Blue denim jacket. Black leather dress. Black pumps and sheer stockings. Big blonde hair. Blue eyeshadow. Bright red lips. Tina Turner crooning, “What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion? What’s love got to do, got to do with it? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” has always been my go-to break-up song. It isn’t just that her voice performs the dual task of carrying the hope and the heartache of being with someone. It is this perfectly put togetherness of her image in the aftermath that truly kicks ass. It has allowed me to imagine that there is something new on the other side, even if it is (only) a new look.
Ten years after Tina Turner topped the charts with this hit, another public figure deployed this idea to bombastic effect. From the very second she steps out of the car to visit the Serpentine Gallery, Diana, Princess of Wales, knows she has taken control of the conversation to come ahead. On the same night in a television interview, Charles, Prince of Wales, confesses to the whole world that he has been having an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles for the entire duration of his marriage to Diana, but it’s rendered merely a whisper. Everyone was (is still?) too loudly talking about Diana in an off-the-shoulder, form-fitting black silk-chiffon dress by the Greek designer Christina Stambolian.
There must be a reason that these tragic female figures making public statements through their image hold sway over the queer imagination. Closer home, the image of Meena Kumari, hair undone but everything else immaculately applied, tossing and turning in bed, begging her lover Guru Dutt not to leave, comes to mind. I must have been seven years old when I completely believed, and continue to, the transformation of Rekha in Rakesh Roshan’s Khoon Bhari Maang after her husband — played by Kabir Bedi — pushes her into a river of crocodiles and leaves her for dead. It takes just a little bit — makeup, wardrobe and attitude — to turn from gharwali to glam-doll. What’s not to believe?
In coming to love these women, I’ve been convinced that the superficial is actually solid, and the frivolous has force.
Perhaps, the secret sauce to being queer is this knowing that everything has consequences, not always glorious but it is always something. And even the tiniest change can result in the catastrophic. I’ll admit, it is the idea that revenge was the driving force for switching it up that really does it for me. This isn’t just the sparkle of swapping synonyms, it is this need to acknowledge and account for agency in one’s decision-making. It is an attempt at declaring — I played my part, and I played it superbly.
It is seeking to understand I can project “too much” or “too little” upon first meeting someone not just because I want to protect myself — a result of decades of being rejected. Although, I’ll say that from behind the distractions and diversions, I’m in control, I have choice. I know that previously a lot of my choices with regards to mainstream people have stemmed from the fear of rejection but lately, I’ve come to know that not everyone deserves to know me. And I have allowed myself to be at peace with the other parties stewing in their first impressions and prejudices. I’m not here to change your minds and hearts. I have come to know that I just know you better than you.
I have learned from these moves made by these women — in fiction and in the flesh — that the symbolic smashes systems but it has to be a precise hit. So, it isn’t that distracting and too much on meeting everyone, I know precisely when to deploy it. And that’s a lesson I have had to learn too.
My friend N was telling me about one of his favourite short stories, Vladimir Nabakov’s Symbols and Signs. He was using this story about an aged Russian couple going to visit their insane son on his birthday to demonstrate the ways that the world of fiction works in relation to the real for his class on writing. He spoke of the ways that readers might read the repeated symbols and signs in the short story in order to lend sinister motivation to each action but the characters in the story don’t see it the same way. He explains this as a counterpoint to the insanity of the son resulting from precisely this ability to draw connections between symbols and signs: He means that if we went around making connections between everything in the world, we might drive ourselves insane, while I’m convinced by this glowing example of the written word to understand the game between the fictional and the real. He might be right about the real world too: in trying to pinpoint the origin of my own actions, I have driven myself insane. And I’m not the only queer person to do so.
And who can blame any of us? Every single day of our lives, we have to answer some version of the question: When did you know? In searching out the answer, we’re forced to turn our lived life into lines of fiction. We’re forced to put together a flash of skin, a gulp of desire, a tingle of the body and so on into words that can relay all of these sparks. While I have learned I can do nothing about this question, except to find fun ways to answer them each time. I can do something about the way I occupy the world. If I’m truly going to stop going insane, I might have to make a slight shift too. I’m no longer coming from a place of hoping to be understood, I’m coming from a place of revenge. The desire to triumph despite everything telling me otherwise. And I know it will be best because it comes served cold, ice-cold.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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