David Jackson Proposal: Homo Normative Appropriation of the Signifying Monkey

David Jackson

March 15, 2013

CINE 322 401

Final Project Proposal






Scholars of the African Diaspora have developed a theory of discourse that explains how people who have been colonized have used various tools that allow them to cope with the trauma of being taken from the lands of their origin, and also acts as a radical method of opposition against the power dynamics imposed upon them through colonialism, assimilation into western culture, and the inherent capitalism in the wake of the industrial age.  One of the primary tools used by marginalized people that push back against European hetero-normativity is what Henry Louis Gates has coined as “the signifying monkey”.   In the wake of colonialism, colonized subjects were stripped of their culture, homes and language.  In their new habitats Christianity and the use of the English language were imposed on them.  Authors such as Gates, Mustapha Marrouchi and Onwuchekwa Jemie hypothesize that colonized subjects applied a deliberate manipulation of the English language to create a vernacular that communicates humor, theory, and explanation of their existence that serves as the counter argument of Western modalities that attempt to marginalize them.  This language coding, or switching also continues an oral tradition that was in existence before European conquest.

Gates refers to this language switching as a  “political, semantic confrontation between two parallel discursive universes: the black American linguistic circle and the white…related orders of meaning dependent on…their confrontation on relations of identity, manifested in the signifier” (45).  So, while white pronunciation of a word signifies certain hierarchical modalities, black vernacular, or slang signifies its own modalities that ignore, or oppose those hierarchical modalities.  These black vernacular usages are misread by the colonizer as a broken grasp of the ‘king’s English’ or a lack of education, when it is in actuality a fully realized mode of communication with its own rules of structure and usage, essentially “a word or utterance, in this context, (is) decolonized for the black’s purposes by inserting a new semantic orientation into a word which already has – and retains – its own orientation” (Gates, 50).

This signifying has evolved, as has the condition of the colonized subject, from slavery to neo-colonialism, where folktales grounded in oral tradition and signifying such as Bre’r Rabbit and the Tar Baby into modern day forms, such as ‘the dozens’, ‘sounding’, ‘busting’, or a myriad of other tags.  From the ‘dissing’ in rap music to the street corner ‘yo’ mama’ jokes in black neighborhoods, the signifying monkeys continues to provide opposition and salve to the traumas inflicted on marginalized bodies by  post industrial, modern day forms of colonialism, from consumerism to celebrity  culture.

As a marginalized sub-group of the hetero-normative colonizer, white homosexuals have also used the inherent power of the signifier to push back against power structures and to create a sense of community, belonging and tradition.  Although Onwuchekwa Jemie refers specifically to West African heritages, the use of the dozens can and has been appropriated by other groups to “bend, and stretch, break down, melt and reshape the English language, forging … a malleable instrument capable of carrying their own version of the world” (2).  Gay White marginalized groups have created a version of the signifying monkey that shows the juxtaposition of being both included and excluded from the western hetero-normative discourse.  The use of camp brings in an element of parody that is less subliminal than discourses that have the history of slavery attached to their history.

The films that I will focus on to compare and contrast the tradition and existence of the signifying monkey will be Paris Is Burning and The Boys In The Band.

In The Boys In The Band, I will look at the element of camp in the film and how it serves as a process to describe, inform, and educate a societal group that has a curious location of inclusion and exclusion from neo-colonialism.

I will look at Paris Is Burning to describe the morphing of the signifying monkey from an oral tradition to one that includes a new tradition where dance and the appropriation and manipulation, and display of fashion (a signifier of consumerism; read as a trope of hetero-normativity) and appearance by New York drag queens and impoverished gay men, serves as an indictment of the very structures that continue to colonize them.

I will compare these two films to Chocolate Babies and grapple with what ways these films share an attempt to condemn the larger society through the use of the signifying monkey and where they fail or succeed.


This component will contain clips from the aforementioned films that show the use of the signifying monkey.  I will also include clips of present day ballroom vogueing.


I will use this portion to show the birthplace of the oral tradition and it’s routes to the New World.  I will also show the locations were the aforementioned films took place.

(cut and paste the link below into your browser to see a prezi of my proposal)











Barnes, Clive.  “Boys in the Band’ Opens off Broadway.”  New York Times 15 April 1968  page 48

Gates, Henry Louis.  The Signifying Money: A Theory of Afro-American Criticism.  New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa.  Yo’ Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Rhymes from Urban Black America.  Philadelphia, PA:  Temple University Press.  2003.

Marrouchi, Mustapha.  Signifying with a Vengeance: Theories, Literature, Storytellers.  Albany: State University of New York, 2002.

Paris is Burning.  Dir. Jennie Livingston.  Miramax. 1981.

The Boys in the Band.  Screenplay by Mart Crowley.  Dir. William Friedkin.  Cinema Center Films.  1970.

Chocolate Babies.  Screenplay by Stephen Winter.  Dir. Stephen Winter.  Open City Films.  1997.


3 thoughts on “David Jackson Proposal: Homo Normative Appropriation of the Signifying Monkey

  1. wednesdaywild

    This is such a fascinating topic! Your prezi was extra helpful as I wasn’t familiar with either film, and both clips communicated camp and “reading” well. I’m still a little hazy about the precise definition of signifying monkey, but I’m sure you’ll make that clear in your project. Does it refer to the act of manipulating language or is the signifying monkey the reorganized language itself? Will you argue that it can be any tool or behavior (like voguing) that subverts colonizing structures? It’s interesting how you consider white homosexuals a subgroup within heteronormative neo-colonial culture, and I’d like to hear more about that. Is it simply a matter of being white that automatically places them on the colonial side (as opposed to the colonized) of the post-colonial relationship? I think the application of the theory of signifying monkey might allow me to better appreciate Chocolate Babies. Perhaps some of what I perceived as dysfunction and self-hatred and cruelty, which scared me away from the film and made me feel pretty gross when watching it, was actually a matter of misinterpreting the characters’ uses of language. I look forward to seeing your complete project!

  2. channabach

    Fabulous topic! Specific, compelling, and the films you are focusing on are quite rich texts to examine.

    Paris is Burning has spurred a ton of scholarship–many folks have critiqued the anthropological gaze that Livingston employed (as a white, middle-class, cisgendered lesbian filming black, poor drag queens), examined the way white straight audiences have appropriated black queer dance and signifiers, and analyzed the kinship practices and families the queens build in excess of heteronormative white models.

    Make sure to be specific about what you mean by homonormativity–this is a technical term that was coined by Lisa Duggan in The Twilight of Equality (see Readings page) and has been taken up in queer of color scholarship. It names a specifically neoliberal cultural practice tied to late capitalism, neocolonialism, and the upholding of a heteronormative white, bourgeois sexual politics (for example, pleas for military participation or marriage rights). Is this what you will be analyzing in Paris is Burning & Boys in the Band? These films don’t really seem invested in homonormativity in this sense…

    Some resources you may find useful: Hortense Spiller’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”**, José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications*, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia*, Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead** (especially the last chapter about Tupac & Bill T. Jones), Judith Butler’s “Gender is Burning”, bell hooks’s “Is Paris Burning?”, Richard Dyer’s “Stereotyping”**, B. Ruby Rich’s “When Difference is (More Than) Skin Deep”**, Gever, Greyson & Parmar’s Queer Looks*, Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”**, J. Babucio’s “Camp and the Gay Sensibility”**, M. Meyer’s “Reclaiming the Discourse of Camp”**, Marlon Riggs’s “Notes of a Signifyin’ Snap Queen”**, Jackie Goldsby’s “Queens of Language: Paris is Burning”, E. Patrick Johnson & Mae Henderson’s Black Queer Studies*, and Kobena Mercer’s Welcome to the Jungle.

    Excited to see your project!

    1. djac2012 Post author

      Hello Professor,

      Thanks for the feedback. I did not know that the term homonormativity had been coined. I thought I made it up! I love how it sounds. Anyway, I will have to change the title of my project, because that is not my focus, as you surmised. Perhaps I will find another phrase that describes the ways that the practice of the signifying monkey have evolved and been utilized by subgroups within marginalized groups.

      David Jackson

      On Mon, Mar 25, 2013 at 3:35 PM, Queer & Feminist Film Studies, Spring

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