Gender, Queerness, and Performative Masculinity as an Escape: An Analysis of Moonlight

Moonlight movie posterIn her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, Hortense Spillers argues that the gendered configuration for Black people through slavery and its afterlife is “the dehumanizing, ungendering, defacing project of African persons” (Ziyad, 2017). She points out that, historically, Black gender has not been used to indicate a shared womanhood or manhood with people within white society, but to highlight how black people are out of step with womanhood and manhood. Essentially, Black gender can never be done “right” (Ziyad, 2017). Moonlight expands on this as it captures the life of a black boy named Chiron as he grows into adulthood. His life is difficult not only because he is a black boy living in poverty with a single mother struggling with a drug addiction, but also because his homosexuality misaligns him with the standards of masculinity put in place by his peers.

There are many things in the film that show Chiron is left without ground for safety. For example, the only sense of security that he could possibly have at home is a negligent mother with a drug addiction. While she was once a seemingly good mother, Paula gets more and more neglectful towards both Chiron’s and her own needs as her addiction gets worse. She is aggressive towards Chiron for no reason other than to relieve her anger or to force money out of him. With no other parent to lean on, Paula was the sole source of Chiron’s mental, emotional, and physical stability. She did not allow for sufficient love, compassion, and understanding to be expressed. She left no room for the development of a mentally and emotionally sound individual, which explains Chiron’s pattern of shutting down as a child (i.e. always looking down, keeping quiet, being very limited and controlled with his physical reactions). His mother was supposed to be his rock, but she failed him. That crushes a child’s psyche. Not only did he experience this shattered sense of safety at home, but also at school with his peers.

The overall treatment of Chiron at school is absurdly terrible. His peers at his high school, and throughout his childhood, are aware of his sexuality—or, at the very least, they are aware that he misaligns with masculinity. Because of this, they bully him, and it has been like that since he was very young. This happens all the time to little black kids who don’t quite “fit in” due to either their queer status, their opposing views on masculinity, or due to them simply not aligning with this image of what a black male seemingly should be like. This does nothing but simply show these children, at a young age, that they are not protected; they cannot be safe once they leave the house and, in Chiron’s case, they cannot be safe anywhere. This absolutely hurts to think about. To add on, when he finally starts defending himself against a person that chips away at his safety daily, his bully, he is taken out in handcuffs and thrown in jail. This exemplifies how disturbingly low our lack of support for gay black men is, making it yet another example of how unsafe gay black men are. The less they fit into this white supremacist heteropatriarchy, the more impossible it is to escape from the harsh realities of life and be vulnerable.

Typically, there are levels to being able to rest, or escape from an oppressive reality. Black and Native peoples have it the worst as our environment simply doesn’t allow us to rest; if we do, it is not for long. When there are additional oppressive identities assigned to a Black or Native person, this “time of escape” becomes even more narrow. Clearly we see this with Chiron’s abuse both in and out of his home. When he actually does find a place of escape, in the form of a father figure named Juan, it is short lived. Later in the movie, it is revealed that Juan dies. Seemingly, the only time that Chiron is able to find escape, continuously, is by performing masculinity and masking his sexuality. After becoming an adult and being released from prison, it seems as though he has completely assimilated into this masculine standard and becomes the epitome of what it means to (stereotypically) be a masculine black man; he is a lot bulkier, he casually intimidates other men, he sells drugs in order to make money, and he can afford luxurious items. Other men either openly want to be his friend or respect him and want to feed off of his power. Once he is able to perform masculinity in this way, the bullying completely stops and his physicality is, then, in less immediate danger. Masculinity is his sense of safety and this is a prevalent performative survival tactic for gay black men (Butler, 1990).

Black LGBTQIA children are among the most risk at of bullying, harassment, and violence in the classroom, however, the face of the “bullied victim” is white. Why do you think that is and what are the societal steps that allow for the erasure of Black queer suffering?