Black Lesbian characters in South African Popular-Culture

Part of my Queer journey was looking for representations of myself. I guess in a way it was an attempt to validate my existence, to know that people – womxn – like me could exist in the world. Pop culture and pop icons were some of the spaces and figures I looked for representation in.

This is why I am so protective of the label of “Black Lesbian”. Although I feel more Queer than Lesbian (I’ll explain this later), lesbian identity was one of the first frames of reference which legitimated my existence. This is a natural need in us all – in order to dream yourself into a possibility, you have to see images of that possibility. For example, in order to imagine yourself as a doctor, lawyer, actress, there must be images that tell you that those dreams are a possibility. In short in order to dream a future, there must be a past through which we can imagine that future. That is why positive representations of black lesbian anything are so important to me.

I have argued before that one of the most important tools of white supremacist patriarchy is the control of images of representation of minorities – whether black, lesbian, transgender – in the media. This is why the phrase “Black is Beautiful” was one of the important tools in the fight against Apartheid. Magazines such as DRUM played an important political role in creating spaces and images of black beauty. In contemporary times the natural hair movement – a movement which centres black hair-care – which preceded the Black Lives Movement continues to play such an integral part of black self-actualization and critical self-affirmation. Hashtags such as #Blackgirlmagic; #BlackOut and #Blackboyjoy have fulfilled the need for black people see themselves reflected in all their difference and variety.

Coming back to the representation of black lesbians in South African film and pop culture, the picture is bleak. The figures I have been able to find follow certain tropes and do not reflect the complexity of lesbian existence. Our storylines either portray us as obsessive murderous stalkers yearning for the affections of heterosexual (straight) womxn or our storyline is filled with sexual assault and violation.

South Africa’s first prominent lesbian character was Wandi, played by Mbali Ntuli a straight actress, in the soapie Rhythm City. Wandi was talkshow host who became friends with Lu (played by songstress KB). For all intents and purposes Wandi was an accomplished talk-show host. However the storyline of the character ended with Wandi having an obsessive and dangerous infatuation with LU (KB’s character). Wandi’s character simply existed to further LU’s storyline. This reinforces the idea that lesbian – in fact most characters representing minorities – simply exist to support and are auxiliary to the heterosexual. We simply aren’t portrayed to have multi-dimensional lives. In short we are accessories; there to enhance the heterosexual life.

Of course there’s been other lesbian characters, but the general storyline is one which features death or sexual violation. Remember Beth (played by Sibulele Gcilitshana – second from the left in above pic) – from the drama series SOCIETY – although Beth had everything, even an emotionally manipulative partner to boot, Beth came to be defined by the rape and violation of her partner. Of the two characters, Beth was the most complex – a layered and multi-dimensional character (an aspect I attribute to the fact that one of the producers is a lesbian womxn).

The movie While You Weren’t Looking received rave reviews for its multi-dimensional portrayal of lesbian/Queer life. Whilst I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised by the storyline of a mixed race (Coloured* + white) couple’s grappling with infidelity and marriage life in general. I was not impressed by the storyline of the only Black lesbian in the movie. Shado (played by Thishiwe Ziqubu). 

Again Shado becomes a vehicle for another character’s sexual curiosity and exploration. Both characters are nearly sexually violated however we never really go deeper into Shado themselves and in the end they are the only character who has no resolution. Shado simply disappears once they have fulfilled their role of raising the other character’s awareness around “curative rape”.

Black lesbian lives – Wandi, Beth and Shado – have come to be defined by death. I imagine a 10 year old me watching those and realising that my life would come to be defined by death, sexual violation or simply to disappear. This is why this blog is such an important project for me. I hope to begin conversations that will help reshape our understanding of ourselves in order to begin the construction of alternative positive and affirming images of ourselves. And where there are none, we can begin to create them – and where we are not in the positions to create we can begin to engage critically with what is being depicted.

*Coloured – or Cape Coloured – In South Africa Cape Coloured is a racial designation given to people of mixed racial and ethnic ancestry. Unlike in the USA and UK the term is not a racial slur and people often identify as Coloured (capital C) rather than Black or Mixed-Race.

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