Spring 2024

Becca Berglie, "Silk Chiffon and the Queer Joy Revolution"

(Cover image from the 1999 film But I'm a Cheerleader)

            Over time, members of the LGBTQ+ community have faces levels of homophobia and transphobia, violence, shame, and a lack of positive representation in media, which often focus on struggle, illness, or trauma. This paper explores the concept of Queer joy as a tool for liberation from harmful structures such as heteronormativity and compulsory heterosexuality, how Queer joy has evolved over time, and the role that Queer joy has in media. Through intersectional analysis of MUNA’s "Silk Chiffon" music video and the 1999 film "But I’m A Cheerleader," we see that when we shift towards joy, we can begin to liberate ourselves, celebrate authenticity, and see what makes life so fun.

            "Bag on my side ’cause I’m out ’til dawn. Keeping it light like silk chiffon.” These lyrics open MUNA’s “Silk Chiffon,” what I consider an anthem for Queer joy. The song is a soundtrack for moments in the community, from pride celebrations to Queer spaces, gay bars, and bedroom dance parties alike. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, societal and systemic roadblocks like homophobia, transphobia, violence, and anti-queer narratives brought to us by heteronormativity and compulsory heterosexuality have not always made life feel soft, inviting, nor welcoming like "Silk Chiffon." Aimy Tien, founder of The Queer Joy Project, shares, “So often stories of the LGBTQ+ experience center on coming out, tragedy, physical injury, or the trauma of being forced to comply with heteronormativity. Even now, with more diverse stories in media, happy endings are few and far between” (Tien). History and media have often represented Queer people in a way that captures darkness, struggle, or sorrow. When we represent the stories of Queer people through a lens of joy, we shift towards confidence and authenticity, in media and in our lives. Queer joy is power; it is resistance. This essay will explore the power of Queer joy through intersectional analysis of sex and gender in MUNA’s “Silk Chiffon '' music video.

Historical Background
            Queer joy is a feeling - it is personal, individual, and everywhere. Joy, defined by Kelever Cruz, founder of the Black Joy Project, is “an entry into understanding the oppressive forces we navigate through as a means to imagine and create a world free of them” (Cruz). Queer people have always existed, with evidence of same-sex relationships and deviance from gender roles in every documented culture dating back to ancient times (Morris). LGBTQ+ people have faced a long history of condemnation, living in secrecy, and facing risks of persecution, death, and danger (Morris). Over time, the obstacles that Queer people have faced have changed and differ around the world. Within the United States, early Queer joy could be found in Harlem, at drag balls like the Hamilton Lodge dating back to 1869, and speakeasy clubs in the 1920s showcasing Queer narratives and drag shows (Pruitt; Morris). LGBTQ+ nightlife like this in Harlem has remained essential to Queer culture, hosting a secret safe space for community, expression, and Queer joy (Stabbe).

            These spaces still came with risk - gay bars and clubs were subjected to police raids and oppressive social control, many being shut down throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project). These raids resulted in arrests, violence, convictions, and death (Philemon). The Stonewall Inn is known to be one of the most important places in LGBTQ+ history, being the home to the catalyst for Pride (Philemon). Stonewall faced multiple police raids, ultimately ending with two days of riots in June of 1969, marking the beginning of a movement towards Queer liberation (Philemon). Historians Dudley Cledian and Adam Nagourney explain, “From that night the lives of millions of gay men and lesbians, and the attitude toward them of the larger culture in which they lived, began to change rapidly. People began to appear in public as homosexuals, demanding respect.” (Clendinen, Nagourney).

            In 1970, pride marches and celebrations and the LGBTQ+ rights movement began in major cities (Library of Congress). Jonathan Jae-an Crisman and Marisa Turesky define Pride as a reflection of Queer joy and a tool for change. It provides a counter to the narratives against LGBTQ+ people where we can have agency to express joy in public spaces, demonstrating ritual and resistance. Pride is the power of practicing and experiencing Queer joy- "By taking joy in one’s own identity, an identity constituted from all that is antithetical to heteropatriarchal culture, one also disrupts the comfort of that culture” (Crisman, Turesky). Queer joy has been at the center of the pride movement as a revolution for social change where compulsory heterosexuality is challenged and resisted through individual expression. Today, Queer people are facing record numbers of anti-trans and Queer legislation, still navigating social acceptance and compulsory heterosexuality in society.

            In the media, the Queer joy movement focuses on providing a positive and joyful representation of LGBTQ+ lives. Media as an institution can, and often does, reinforce harmful narratives within our heteronormative society when showcasing Queer people in a negative or traumatic light (Heber). Specifically, Queer women are often killed off from TV shows or tragically die in movies, as described by the “Bury Your Gays” trope (Framke). As of February 2023, 230 Queer women were killed off from TV shows (Riese). At this magnitude, the killing off of Queer women signifies the social value of these women in broader society; that they are expendable and made deviant, in need of erasing. In their absence, there is little representation of Queer women in media. Oftentimes, if not killed off, Queer women in media are represented in negative lights or going through intense life situations such as illness, unhealthy family dynamics, or traumatic coming-out stories- and while these can be pieces in our complex lives, they are not our entire story.

            Highlighting Queer joy in the media, in one way, looks like showcasing Queer women living healthy, joyful lives and experiencing pieces of our complex lives, as done well in Casey McQuinston’s novel One Last Stop. In the novel, we see characters August and Jane navigate dating in New York City, and we see a positive relationship flourish without a true focus on trauma or sadness. Media representation is a way that helps us to celebrate and support LGBTQ+ people, our lives, successes, and happiness that make life so fun: a Queer joy revolution (Heber).

Theoretical Framework

            Intersectionality is a framework in which one can better understand themselves and others and how aspects of our world interact with each other. Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term, explains it as “... a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” (Crenshaw). Intersectionality allows us to recognize that identity and how one experiences the world are complicated. Pieces of ourselves and our society interact with each other to create complex ways of being in the world. While Crenshaw’s conception of intersectionality directly addresses race and gender, intersectionality can be used to understand other intersections of identity. Intersectionality challenges us to see that people and concepts can be “both/and” (May 70). The both/and concept is a way of understanding the complexity of our lives and our identities as not just a box to check but a complex web. For example, a long-held (and now changing) stereotype of lesbians is that they must be masculine-presenting, butch, or a tomboy to be validated in their identity. When we look at this stereotype through intersectionality, let go of the mythical norms of what someone should be, and acknowledge the unique relationship to womanhood that many lesbians may resonate with, we can see that someone can be both feminine and a lesbian.

            Intersectionality as an analytical framework can be applied to lived experiences and media case studies to help us better understand how social and political identities interact with each other, how institutions reinforce systems of oppression, and how we interact with the world around us (Crenshaw). We can apply the prism of intersectionality to MUNA’s “Silk Chiffon” music video and its references to the 1999 film "But I’m a Cheerleader" by looking at the intersections of sex and gender within the institution of media and entertainment.

            “Watch her silk dress dancing in the wind, Watch it brush against her skin, Makes me wanna try her on” - The "Silk Chiffon" music video opens with band member Katie dressed as a cheerleader being dropped off at a “Straight is Great Camp” being run by Phoebe Bridgers. The music video is based on the movie “But I’m A Cheerleader”, where the main character Megan is accused of being a homosexual by her family and friends and then sent to “True Directions,” a fictional conversion therapy camp. Megan denies the accusations by her family and friends by stating that she “is not a homosexual” because she has a football player boyfriend and is a cheerleader. Throughout the movie, Megan navigates her feelings for another girl at True Directions, Graham. Megan comes to terms with her sexuality throughout the movie while seeing silk dresses dancing in the wind and ultimately ends up in a relationship with Graham.

            Megan's iconic “I’m a homosexual!” scene reflects the realization that many Queer women have after years of abiding with compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity. Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that being straight or cisgender is the default or right option that we learn through socialization. Megan rejected even the idea of her possibly being Queer because of these expectations of being straight that society and gender socialization had placed on her through compulsory heterosexuality, which emerges from patriarchal logic. "But I’m A Cheerleader" showcases the dark subject of conversion therapy in a way that displays Queer joy and allows Megan and Graham to move through self-discovery, acceptance, and love (Lotz).
            Silk Chiffon pays homage to the classic Queer movie by introducing it to a new generation and showcasing a representation of Queer joy; band member Katie Gavin shares, “I think it’s really important for Queer people to be our own archivists, and point to these other references that span generations,” which is exactly what the music video does (Jossell). We see the same camp aesthetic, the famous scenes, the women in pink scrubbing the floor, the men in blue being taught how to chop wood with an axe, and the same representation of heteronormativity. Phoebe Bridgers' character in the music video is based on the director of New Directions in the movie. We see her serve as a coach trying to “set an example” for the girls, ultimately being the representation of heteronormativity through her language and actions of how to live a “normal life.”

            The film and music video are both full of moments of self-discovery and Queer joy. We see Megan experiencing classic “gay panic” when she passes out from eye contact with the other girls. There are moments where the lyrics “she’s so soft” come to life in true Queer joy fashion, as band member Katie, portraying Megan, touches hands with, kisses, and dances with the other girls at the camp, rejecting the narrative of compulsory heterosexuality. This is significant as they are highlighting Queer joy under the harsh circumstances of conversion therapy, rejecting expectations that are held for women within the institution of gender and sexuality.

            Both the film and music video reflect heteronormativity through color- putting the women in pink and the men in blue. The music video ends with MUNA playing at a gay bar, a space for Queer joy where lights of all colors shine, symbolizing a space of expression and Queer joy- where individual people are given the space to express themselves freely throughout the gradients of gender and sexuality and moving towards liberation from heteronormativity, while the film ends with Megan and Graham running away to experience the joy of life being so fun together.

            “Silk Chiffon” and its inspiration from "But I’m A Cheerleader" are an important representation of Queer women and Queer joy in media. They show us how breaking away from the narratives of compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity can liberate us through Queer joy. While it is easy to get lost in the harmful narrative against Queer people today and feel lost, alone, and angry, Audre Lorde tells us that we cannot use the master's tools to destroy the master's house. These systems, institutions, and narratives are built out of anger and want us to be angry (Lorde). It is when one makes a personal and collective shift towards what the systems don’t want that the revolution begins. Feminist theorist Bell Hooks writes, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” (Hooks). MUNA’s own Katie Gavin claims that “...if the world is gonna change in the way that it needs to, it's very important for our revolution to be based on joy, and what brings us joy, and chasing after that.” (NPR). Queer joy is the revolution. Queer love demonstrates that we are all made of magic. When we choose love and joy is when we choose liberation and start to see that life can be so fun and feel soft like silk chiffon.

            I would like to express my deep gratitude to Leah Ramnath for pushing me to make this work the best it could be, for opening my eyes to taking ownership of my writing as scholarly work, and for guiding me through the process of this research, analysis, and reflection. My writing would not be where it is today without Dr. Cheri Lemieux Spiegel- Thank you for being a guiding light down my road and providing the encouragement to write about what fills me with joy. This paper would not exist without MUNA, Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson, and their music. Thank you for being the soundtrack to my and many others Queer joy. Lastly, this is for all of us who have googled the “Lesbian Master Doc” or had a Megan “I’m a homosexual!” moment. For angry girls, emo queers and crybabies, and those in between, we are all made of magic. The joy is ours to claim.
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