by Mara Lee
A couple of years ago, there was an outburst of protests in Canada, triggered by the design of the new hundred-dollar bill. On the bank note you see a woman leaning over a microscope, a depiction that is supposed to celebrate Canada’s medical innovations. The protests were because the woman at the microscope had facial features that looked slightly Asian. Critical voices were raised from all sides, but one of the objections was that the bank note was racist, as it, quote: “represents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences”.
I remember reading this and I was like, Wuh, can’t imagine the agony, just walking the streets of Vancouver or Montreal, then suddenly someone calls out, “Look, a scientist!” and I go, oh my God, he called me a scientist, I guess there is nothing left for me to do but go straight home and self destruct?
So now, I turn to Canada with a sincere request: Can we please swap stereotypes? You can get ours and we’ll get yours. So all Asian-looking women in Sweden, Denmark and Norway can cruise around, feeling the impact of being a scientist for a day, and you, my Canadian counterparts, will in your turn experience what the relationship between a hundred-dollar-bill and Asian women really signifies, in Scandinavia. No need to be a scientist to figure that out.
A stereotype often exaggerates or represents something in a false or overly simplified manner. But if we turn to the postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha, he stresses that stereotypes above all constitute anxious, colonial knowledge. What makes a stereotype racist is thus not only its content. It has to do with time, something that is represented as unchangeable and fixed. Stereotypes are arrested language, arrested time. To counter them, we have to put them in motion again.
Let’s start with red lipstick.
Make-up can be coded as politically charged whenever it doesn’t reproduce certain gender stereotypes. And above all, in relation to transgressive sexual identification, will make-up be seen as something subversive? But I don’t want to talk about subversiveness (only).
I want to talk about kissing.
And it’s not about gender performativity (only). It’s about time. Time to talk about history. For which subjects does history become a bodily matter? Matter that any second can transform into erotic matter?
Answer: For the subjects who throughout their lives have been identified as precisely bodies, and as bodies are excluded from the production of knowledge. These subjects are unrecognized, trivialized, marginalized, repressed, forgotten, closed or, quite simply, erased.
How do we then remember them?
Well. We have to get in touch, literally. We have to reach out and get in touch with the body that has been erased from our production of knowledge: the female body, the body of color, the disabled body, etc.
Back to the kisses.
Red lipstick. Make-up. Feels good to do this. More. Red.
Why do some people feel this urge to put on too much lipstick?
Why is it that the sheer applying turns you on?
What is it about applying lipstick in a mirror, that on your lips connects you to a deep, deep desire? You can’t describe it, only that it feels like you are doing something forbidden, shameful.
You shouldn’t be doing it. You should be ashamed of yourself, for doing this.
The stereotypes definitively have something to do with the act of putting on make-up as connected to shame and desire.
Many stereotypes or insults: the slut, the whore, the pervert are connected to sexuality, in some way. Those are the most shameful because they aim at your intimate life. And the shame and hurt intensifies because one can neither affirm or deny them. Whatever you do, you lose, because neither a yes, or a no, can undo its performative working; it’s already too late. In other words: denying and refusing can’t take away. It might, on the contrary, strengthen a stereotype’s effects. Because when confronted with the speech acts that we call provocations, or insults, an answer in terms of truthfulness or falsehood is not valid, because the performative is a question of force and effect, and the answer must answer precisely in that mode. Force and effect.
How? Apply more lipstick
Counter-performing. Lots of lipstick on and around
More lipstick, your lips
Puncture the stereotype with a greater force, not as parody, not the subversive invading your performativity, more like temporal drag, or, so I am not risking reproducing face, not keeping yet another stereotype here; i.e., the drag artist, I might instead say mimicry, temporal mimicry.
Red lipstick can uncover not only stereotypes but, most important, the history of stereotypes. All the red lips that were silenced and shut in the past.
The red stages a connection with the shame, the guilt, the grief, everything that contemporary society wants to clear and hide away by putting on the market a more acceptable stereotype – the scientist. When lipstick becomes part of temporal mimicry, its main task is not to embellish. Rather on the contrary. Its main task is providing a resistance to progress. I mean progress in the chrononormative sense: one where all sluts will transform smoothly into scientists. Eventually.
But progress that does not take into account history is no progress at all. Temporal mimicry constitutes a resistance; it requires that we impose an unwanted and repressed history upon the present. Elizabeth Freeman calls it “a usefully distorting pull backward”. Temporal mimicry might in this case function as an anachronistic haunting; not a hateful one, but a necessary one. One of desire. Because there’s so much stolen desire. So many unkissed red lips.
Going back and kissing your specters can be a good strategy, especially if the stereotypes that are haunting you are sluts. You know, they’ll give in to you, eventually.
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Mara Lee is an award-winning Swedish novelist, poet and scholar, and a former student of Trinh T. Minh-ha (UC Berkeley). Lee’s work, including her most recent novel Future perfect and her Ph.D dissertation in artistic research The writing of Others: Writing conceived as resistance, responsibility and time, revolves around issues of power, otherness, femininity and desire. Throughout her writing, Lee approaches the mechanisms of othering, and of writing/living as Other. Another main focus is temporality, and how an investigation of the temporality of the writing of Others might disclose alternative methods of resistance – counter inscriptions.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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2 thoughts on “Kissing historically”
Hi Maysie, and thank you for your response. A quick explanation: I was focusing on one specific quote that also appears in the CBCnews article that you mention, namely: “Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences.” This was also the quote that was highlighted in swedish media. But obviously it was more to the controversy than that, which both the articles manifest. And I should definitively try to be more explicit and distinct about the final version of the bill, where the asian features were whited out.
Thanks for this article. There are a few incorrect facts about the $100 bill controversy which I’d like to mention.
The current $100 Canadian bill does not have an Asian woman scientist on it.
The controversy is that during a time when images for Canada’s paper money were being redesigned, the image on the back of the $100 bill was an Asian woman, and received negative comments during focus groups. Primarily, racist feedback in the realm of “she’s ugly”, and “I don’t want to see an Asian woman on a Canadian bill”. So the Bank of Canada gave in, and changed the image to what they referred to as an “ethnically neutral” woman.
The Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter voiced strong opposition to both the giving in to the racist feedback at the focus group level, as well as to the Bank of Canada’s description of a presumably white woman as “ethnically neutral”.
Here are two articles from Canadian media about the $100 bill controversy.
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