By Claire Amsden
As an aspiring social activist, a problem that has concerned me for some time is how to measure the efficacy of various forms of resistance against dominant power structures and hegemonic norms. Reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality complicated my understanding of power and resistance by demonstrating that the two do not exist as a clear-cut dichotomy, but instead influence and produce each other in various ways. In light of this knowledge, responsible resistance must be aware of the ways it challenges the power it is resisting, but also the ways that it reinforces that power as well. Personally, I hope to inform and develop my own actions and behaviors by examining different forms of resistance in order to most effectively bring about change. On a larger scale, I think critical analysis of the interplay between power and resistance is integral to any advocacy work by marginalized/non-normative communities and their allies.
Recently, the work of Xandra Ibarra – a lesbian Mexican-American neo-burlesque performer, community organizer, and activist for immigrant and anti-rape communities – has caught my attention because her performances embody both the successes and failures of expressions of resistance. Ibarra transforms into the persona La Chica Boom in artistic pieces that critique her subject position in relation to “coloniality, compulsory whiteness, and Mexicanidad.” She performs “hyper-raciality/sexuality/gender” in order to exaggerate her experience and deconstruct hegemonic normative narratives of her identity. Some examples include her performance “Nude Laughing/Jouissance of White Womanhood,” in which Ibarra, encased in sheer nylon with various symbols of white womanhood pressed against her body, laughs and writhes on the ground until the nylon eventually rips and she crawls out, leaving a trail of ballet shoes, a blonde wig and a string of pearls behind. In addition, her piece “Tortillera,” which references both tortillas and a slang word for lesbian, invokes what Ibarra calls Mexi-minstrelsy as she dresses up as a Mexican housewife and makes underwear tacos with a Tapatio strap-on.
These performances reveal Ibarra’s critical opinion of her relationship with the normative whiteness and gender expectations of American culture. At the same time, she also has a critical understanding of the multivalent nature of her performance – she can’t control the various meanings her audiences attribute to her expression. In an interview with Art Practical, a magazine on contemporary art and visual culture, Ibarra admits that the form of burlesque lends itself to the attribution of contradictory meanings to her performances. While burlesque gives her a lot of freedom in her expression of race and sexuality, the association of burlesque with objectification, and the fact that burlesque culture and audiences are mainly white, distort her intended meaning and even reinforce the colonial ideologies she wants to deconstruct. She states that the critiques she embodies through her performances often go over the heads of her white audiences that merely see her as a “sexy, hot Latina.”
However, like the emphasis in queer theory on malfunction as a form of resistance, Ibarra uses the inherent risk and failure present in her work as resistance in and of itself. Alpesh Patel analyzes the dynamic of failure in Ibarra’s performance “Fuck My Life” in his article “La Chica Boom’s Failed Decolonial Spicticles.” This performance evokes the failure of decolonial work to restructure colonial power dynamics, with speakers placed in the audience voicing racist responses that Xandra Ibarra has received from her past performances. However, the performance itself fails in its attempt to recontextualize this failure as present audience members join the speakers to engage in similar remarks. This is the risk of subversive resistance – because resistance works within the structure of power in order to deconstruct that power, it often ends up reinforcing that power. However, when discussing “Fuck My Life” Ibarra states that the piece “calls upon the practice of endurance amidst the consequences of failure,” acknowledging the limitations of her artistic performance and yet underlying her need to keep trying anyway.
It is not Ibarra’s obligation to account for the ignorance of those in power by tailoring her performative expression to those perspectives in order to more effectively “teach” others about her position within society. In the words of Audre Lorde, that would make it “the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes.” This is an additional burden to bear that displaces the responsibility of social change from those who benefit from the status quo onto those who are marginalized by it. I do not in any way wish to discourage activism on the part of oppressed groups, but rather am trying to demonstrate how power shapes even the structure of social change to maintain current power dynamics.
However, this tension does not faze Xandra Ibarra. Despite her analysis of the way La Chica Boom is perceived, she also states that the performances are first and foremost for herself. While she never aims to purposefully reinforce social hierarchies and stereotypes, her “responsibility” is to express her views in a way that is fulfilling in the context of her experience. Her activism achieves even more than this, and her performances have been supplemented by extensive academic articles on the same topics of colonialism, whiteness, and Mexican identity in particular. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of her audience to educate themselves about her perspective if it is unfamiliar to them, because they are implicated in her struggle to redefine her subject positions by representing the very norms she contrasts herself against.