20th century / Arts / Contemporary

A Homage to Grace Jones: Icon of Incoherence

By Kate Kingsbury

Grace Jones

Grace Jones has gained international fame both within the music industry and on screen due to her androgynous image which challenges gender stereotypes and questioning of racial norms. It has been difficult for women in the music and cinematographic industries to escape the strait-jackets of normative gender roles, yet they- more than female scholars whose work is available predominantly to an academic minority- have the potential to reach large audiences and transform subjectivities of power and gender. Many female artists have preferred the dramaturgy of performances which rely on femininity. Flaunting standardized feminine sexuality has become commonplace simply because sex – if packaged in neat normative parcels – sells.

Jones deviates from gender norms, adopting clothes, behaviour and performances associated with the masculine gender repertoire. By making them part of a unique contestation of existing ontologies of gender, race and power, Jones let neither colour nor gender restrict her exploration of these performances. The power of this performativity lies in audience preconceptions and subsequent reactions. Jones shocked yet dazzled. Through the media of song and cinema Jones provoked reactions of fear, desire and confusion, establishing herself as an icon in popular culture. The result was a powerful mystique irreducible to simple dichotomies of male/female and a mockery of Western conceptions of Africa as a land of savagery and Europe as a land of modernity and civilization.

In 1981 Jones released a cover of the song ‘Demolition Man’, originally written by The Police. Jones appeared on her album cover (and on stage) dressed in a black tuxedo suit posing with a cigarette in her mouth. Her hair had been cropped short and square. Jones spat out the song’s lyrics in military-fashion in a deep harsh voice: ‘I’m the sort of thing they ban / You kept on coming you should have ran / I’m nobody’s friend / I’m a demolition man’. Jones’ re-appropriation of the song was purposely satirical. Jones’ raw performance constituted a questioning and a toying with the nature of masculinity, subversively performed with a female body. During her live stage performance of ‘Demolition Man’ a group of men and women dressed in identical outfits walked across the stage imitating Jones’ gait, in a military formation. It was impossible to distinguish the gender of the performers. Indeed ‘The Army of Jones’ served precisely to point to the ambiguity of gender and its arbitrary consignation.

In 1984 Jones made her screen debut alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film ‘Conan the Destroyer’. Jones displayed her muscular physique portraying Zula, a bandit who fought male adversaries. She aided Conan to win his battles, earning herself the title of Captain in the process. Jones provocatively embodied a character with charisma, dominance, resolve, strength and intellect, attributes traditionally reserved for Hollywood’s male characters. Her character was every bit as tough as the hero of the film, who in fact complains that Zula is ‘too tough’. Through this performance, Jones provides a dynamic and multi-dimensional ‘gender-bending’ role model. This character was far removed from the usual static, sexualised, side-kick or victim roles often held by women in action movies. This allowed Jones to build a unique repertoire within Hollywood.

Mayday

In the 1992 film ‘Boomerang’ Jones’ character Helen Strange arrives on screen driving a chariot led by male slaves, triumphantly wielding a whip. This evocative image further established Jones’ provocative persona; playing a female icon of power with control over male bodies. More recently Jones played a transvestite circus performer named Christoph/Christine in the 2001 television series ‘Wolf Girl’. Once again Jones’ character questions and toys with stereotypes of gender which attempt to control the behaviours of the human body.

Testament to Jones’ powers of subversion is her unusual portrayal of the Bond girl May Day in ‘A View to a Kill’ (1985). The character Jones played was not the typical Bond side-kick, submissively rescued by a valiant Bond. Instead, Jones played a violent, dangerous woman who aids Bond’s triumph in the final scene, sacrificing her own life in the process. There are significant moments in the film when Jones displays extreme physical strength violently throwing a male adversary to the ground. Her character also demonstrates physical and sexual agency rare in these encounters. Her sexual domination of Bond subverts the machismo and sexism he has come to represent. Additionally, the casting of an assertive black Bond girl brings a racial aspect to the scenario potentially subverting the concept Mbembe describes as a phantasmal, omnipotent, white phallus.

The performative conventions of gender and race only acquire meaning through the social-relational matrix in which they are enacted. Played out on the body, these conventions can interact to produce non-conformative acts, thereby challenging standardised norms. As Butler suggests, it is only through questioning and playing with normalised gender and racial stereotypes that new subjectivities can be formed.

Grace Jones repeatedly operated outside of approved, stereotypical symbolic orders. Purposely confusing gender and racial roles by enacting, singing and staging acts that challenge limiting conceptions of gender and race, allowed Jones to create new forms of subjectivity and demonstrate the instability of existing discourses of race and gender in the mass media. In this way she promotes new ways of being-in-the-world, in the Hegelian sense of a production, for both women and men.
Jones has appealed to feminist, black and gay communities due to her resistance to oppressive stereotypes and discourses and continues to be an icon who defines definition.

Grace Jones

Jones expresses this powerfully in her song ‘Living my Life’ where she states: ‘You choke me for living, I’m living my life, Living my life, Just living in my life, As hard as I can, As long as I can, As much as I can, As black as I am… Kill me… You can’t stop me.’

References:
Butler. J, Undoing Gender (2004)
Gell. A, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998)
Kershaw. M, ‘Postcolonialism and Androgyny: The Performance Art of Grace Jones’ Art Journal, Vol. 56, No. 4, Performance Art: (Some) Theory and (Selected) Practice at the End of This Century (1997)
Mbembe. A, De la Postcolonie: essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine (2000)
Veyne. P, Les Grecs ont-ils cru ˆ leurs mythes? (1983)

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