A UTOPIAN CURRICULUM

PART FOUR: VOGUING

By Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

As I continue to write this Utopian Curriculum series, it feels important to address questions raised from previous essays. In online conversations and email exchanges around parts two (Black Panther) and three (Sultana’s Dream), a particular point raised was whether something can be truly utopian if it is only positive and ideal for a specific demographic. It is apt, then, to dedicate part four to the art form of voguing.

I specifically chose this to comment on the subjectivity of the utopian impulse because it carries a politics of liberation within specific parameters — when being performed by queer folks and with a goal towards queer cultural celebration — but becomes devoid of that utopian potential when those parameters are missing. José Esteban Muñoz explains in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) that utopias from marginalised bodies — in this case, queer bodies — carry extra weight within the spaces wherein those bodies have communal connections.

With that reading in mind, the history of the space that birthed voguing is essential to understanding why it is utopian. Expressed through a variety of styles, vogue is a dance form that evolved out of the Harlem ballroom culture of the 1960s. The ballroom was a specific LGBTQ+ subculture that offered community and safety to Black and Latine queer folks. Family units organised into Houses where experienced elders (House parents) provided guidance to youth (House children).

The pioneering House of LaBeija was specifically set up to offer a home for racial and ethnic minority LGBTQ+ youth as a response to the racist structures of the early drag pageant circuit. All major Houses still consist of mostly Black and Latine members, though there has also been a recent growth in Asian Houses and queer mentors like Kumari Suraj. Notably, the ballroom scene is especially protective and celebratory of its trans and gender-diverse members. It is in this space of love and acceptance that voguing came to be. 

This exactly fits two key aspects of utopian thinking — the first being that utopianism responds to specific social concerns (in these instances, racism and heteronormative discrimination), and the second being the specific reading of queer utopias created and celebrated within communal cultural spaces described by Muñoz. 

Reclaiming Camp

Vogue supposedly takes its name from the famous fashion publication, the heavily stylised cover images of which are replicated by dancers when they pose. Sharp movements frame the face, complemented with exaggerated hand choreography and different walks. There are various styles (like old school, new school, and femme), each with a slightly different focus and scoring system. But at its heart, voguing is about redirecting scorn because the types of effeminate motions that are ridiculed to bully and victimise queer folks are the same movements that are celebrated in the dance form.

According to the testimonies of vogue practitioners in documentaries like Paris is Burning (1990) and Kiki (2016), the idea for voguing developed as a shield against harassment faced by queer folks for being “too effeminate”. Drawing on histories of fashionable mincing walks, fops, and dandies – mostly white and classic Eurocentric ideals of masculine wealth – voguing took flight as a way to redirect camp as defiantly queer. In other words, the ballroom and its dance reclaimed pejoratives as a means of empowerment. This history reflects how one of the core tenets of utopianism is a focus on reconfiguring material challenges into new and ideal realities; in this case, queerphobia is reconfigured into queer empowerment.

A Utopia and its Topos

This leads to an interesting demarcation. It is not just the action of dancing “effeminately” that is radical but also where it happens. After all, people who are overtly queer have historically been targets of violence in public spaces. But within the safety of the ballroom, performative queerness is transformed into a revolutionary act. This feeds back into the etymology of the term “utopia” – especially drawing on the Greek topos meaning place/location. Thus, the ballroom becomes the space in which the utopic act of voguing can be practiced to its full potential in a safe and celebratory environment.

There is often a risk in trying to unconditionally universalise the power of utopian thinking (a common critique of Michael Shermer, and one of the reasons why Karl Marx disliked the term being applied to his theories), but this ignores the fact that conditions of liberation vary according to context. Importantly, this does not mean that different movements cannot have the same objective of a better future, but the means of achieving this must be mindful of realities on the ground.

Vogue can be studied from a utopian perspective precisely because of its connection to community, space and place, and commitment to radical change.

In the case of queer liberation, the type of politics and empowerment offered by voguing and the ballroom is different to, say, queer diversity initiatives in the workplace and higher education, or the normalisation of Pride. All of them share the same goal but approach it in specific ways; vogue can be studied from a utopian perspective precisely because of its connection to community, space and place, and commitment to radical change.

Theorists like David Bell and Sara Ahmed have written extensively about the potential of community organising, with a theoretical understanding that material challenges vary for each case study and, thus, solutions need to be adaptable without losing the overall universal goal of equity. (I have also had similar reflections on queer of colour community building for the Queer Asia blog series.) All of these works are framed from an explicitly utopian standpoint, where community organising from a vulnerable or marginalised perspective is inherently about creating an objectively better world.

Voguing, in particular, is an exercise in the type of social dreaming that kicked off the academic discipline of Utopian Studies. It sets itself apart from other forms of community organising by being both pre-planned (compared to spontaneous acts such as revolts and protests) and unstructured (compared to the established norms of, for instance, labour unions). While it is absolutely possible — and valid — to have a utopian interpretation of other types of community organising as well, the decision to highlight voguing in this curriculum stems from how it fits several of the utopian aspects discussed in the first part of the series.

Applying utopian politics to voguing is not just a purely intellectual exercise either. Meghna Chakrabarti and Anne Bauman recently wrote a collaborative piece with several vogue dancers and ballroom House parents about how the changing context of queer visibility means that voguing has had to grow. So, while vogue may have historically been used to empower youth at a time of legalised discrimination and the HIV/AIDS epidemic (as seen in HBO’s Pose), the current ballroom scene in the USA has taken on the challenges of immigrant inclusivity, police brutality and the opioid crisis. Meanwhile, voguing in the North of England is specifically about recreating class solidarity in a post-industrial age (as seen in the documentary Deep in Vogue). Therefore, much in the same way that utopias constantly evolve to tackle new challenges, voguing acts as both a specific performative act and a changing process of queer liberation.

Diluting Utopian Power

The importance of these topos inevitably means that voguing can also be less (or even non-) utopian if used in different ways. A popular example is Madonna’s music video for “Vogue” – the song popularised voguing in mainstream, non-queer circles and has led to a popular misconception that she pioneered the form.

To be clear, Madonna is a white cisgender woman who has eschewed sexual labels but has publicly been in exclusively monogamous heterosexual relationships. Her voguing performances are devoid of the struggles that birthed the art form in the first place – queerphobia and racism. While queer youth of colour find comfort and self-expression in voguing, as described by Anja Matthes and Sony Salzman in their article for The Atlantic, Madonna is effectively appropriating a form of defiant expression for monetary gain and cultural clout. In doing so, the utopia behind voguing — using the dance form for community empowerment — is completely lost.

This is not to say that non-queer folks cannot engage with voguing in a utopian sense. In the ballroom competition Legendary, one of the participating Houses consisted of cisgender women, many of them white and heterosexual. But the difference here is that this group is being invited into a space to perform and enhance the value of vogue without profiting from it, not disconnecting it from its topos. Where Madonna simply does the choreography, the House in Legendary embodies the politics.

Incidentally, this is also why the voguing mini-challenge during the popular makeover episodes in RuPaul’s Drag Race is also less-than-radical, even if it takes place on a queer-led show. It is not about reclaiming and rechannelling queer trauma in the service of creating a better tomorrow; here, it is a purely superficial (and always fleeting) glimpse at just the choreography aspect of the dance, often tied in with ridiculing queens who cannot dance well rather than uplifting the ones who can. Going back here to José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, what makes certain forms of art and protest queer is not (just) their practitioners but also the systems of cisheteronormativity that they undermine.

Respecting Agency and Context

The takeaway from this piece is not that utopianism can only happen under certain conditions. Rather, utopias are a response to forms of oppression contemporary to their imagining that are produced by and centre the marginalised and the vulnerable. This liberatory imagination is also central to the ethos of voguing. Actions like voguing, in other words, are heavily influenced by conditions of temporality and space, and denying any of these circumstances is denying the utopian power that resisting them can have.

To take it a step further, it is not just a directionless act of resistance; vogue imagines a better space by actively challenging cisheteronormative standards of living. There is an intentionality behind it that speaks poignantly and authentically to the types of new worlds that utopia imagines.

Key texts

There is no central key text in this instalment. Instead, I am offering a list of shows and documentaries that share the history of voguing.

Deep in Vogue (2018), dir. Amy Watson and Dennis Keighron Foster

Kiki (2016), dir. Sara Jordeno

Legendary (2020), produced by HBO Max

Paris is Burning (1990), dir. Jennie Livingston

Pose (2018-2021), dir. Various, including Janet Mock

Works cited

Ahmed, I. (2020), “Queer of Colour Community Building as Radical Utopia: QTIPOC Notts”, in Queer Asia QA Blog. Available at https://queerasia.com/qa-blogs-2020-rrn-ahmed-community-building-radical-utopia/

Ahmed, S. (2006), Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

Bell, D. (2017), Rethinking Utopia: Power, Place, Affect. Routledge.

Chakrabarti, M., and Bauman, A. (2019), “The Growth (and New Contexts) of LGBTQ Ball Culture”, in WBUR. Available at https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/12/11/ballroom-scene-lgbtq-ball-culture-vogue

Matthes, A., and Salzman, S. (2019), “In the Kiki Ballroom Scene, Queer Kids of Color Can Be Themselves”, in The Atlantic. Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2019/11/nyc-kiki-community/599830/

Muñoz, J. E. (2009), Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press.

Supplementary reading

Collison, C. (2019), “The Joburg ballroom culture creating ‘queer utopia’”, in New Frame. Available at https://www.newframe.com/the-joburg-ballroom-culture-creating-queer-utopia/

Contreras, D. T. (2005), “Utopian Drag and Gender Politics”, in Unrequited Love and Gay Latino Culture. Palgrave MacMillan.

Hart, B. (2012), “Dance as Community Organizing: Building a Vogue Practice Space”, in Radical Faggot. Available at https://radfag.com/2012/11/12/dance-as-community-organizing-building-a-vogue-practice-space/

Wolde-Michael, T. (undated), “A Brief History of Voguing”, in Smithsonian. Available at https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/brief-history-voguing

Ibtisam Ahmed (@Ibzor) is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and International Relations, the University of Nottingham. He is completing his thesis, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy: the British Raj as a space of political utopia” in which he challenges the notion of imperialism as a benign civilising force while highlighting the radical power of grassroots anti-colonial movements. He has co-edited and been published in multiple books, journals, and websites. He is also heavily involved with queer activism in his home country of Bangladesh and in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in the Commonwealth.

Respond to A UTOPIAN CURRICULUM

Leave a reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.