115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ways of Seeing, Ways of Being Seen: Josephine Baker and the Gaze

Dantzel Cenatiempo, University of Washington - Seattle

My paper examines how one of Josephine Baker's least well-known performances represents a turning point in her political consciousness. In this 1932 show, Baker draws on blackface, whiteface, and gendered cross-dressing to replace her contemporary media stereotype with a new, subversive image that flips European audiences' scopophilic gaze.


In December 1932 the Casino de Paris opened a show called La Joie de Paris starring Josephine Baker, who sang “Si j’étais blanche!” (If I Were White!) in a blonde wig and pale makeup. Although she would later become a well-known desegregation advocate, during her early career Baker slipped comfortably in and out of the racialized minstrelsy of her American homeland, using whiteface and blackface in various contexts.

Seven years into her now-famous career, the Casino Joie show represents a turning point in Josephine Baker's personal and professional trajectory. Here, Baker begins manipulating her public image by using whiteface and gendered cross-dressing to break stereotypes rather than confirm them. This was primarily a response to her personal frustration at European interwar Primitivism, which had boosted her career but also made her name synonymous with the infamous banana skirt. Rather than accept this profitable yet confining cliche, Baker began to innovate, flipping the European audience's unidirectional consumerist gaze on its head as she did so.

Questions of historical agency surround Baker’s penchant for such multilayered, ideologically complex performances of race, gender, and class. Josephine Baker found herself perpetually the object of audience observation but also developed innovative methods for leveraging her theatrical appearances to reverse and shift these gazes, often reloading them with alternate cultural messages. Many spectators at the Joie show were shocked by Josephine’s transcoded use of whiteface because it forced them to confront their own constructed identities. Drawing on theories of the gaze’s relationship to vulnerability, I will unpack the details of how Baker effectively disturbed white audience members’ customary ability to engage in pure scopophilia of a racialized Other onstage. Doing so during an era of formal segregation and pseudo-scientific racial theories amounted to nothing less than a political statement, and Baker’s activist commitments would only grow throughout the coming years.

In this paper I examine Baker’s use of racial, gendered, and class-based performance to question those very categories through destabilizing performances of their stereotypical manifestations. Baker’s re-framing of visual tropes will be placed alongside the work of Frantz Fanon, Ilya Parkins, Joanne Eicher, and Ralina Joseph to show how Baker’s legendary political activism finds it roots in her subversive performance style.