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Notes on Carmen

A Few Things We Have Yet To Learn From History's Most Incandescent Cross-Dresser

By Julian Dibbell 
(First published in the Village Voice, October 29, 1991)

"The hallmark of Camp," wrote Susan Sontag, I think you know where, "is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers." 

What then do you call a woman who walked, slinked, and shimmied around in a tutti-frutti hat that at its most extravagant became an Amazon River of bananas flowing heavenward, shrinking her to a doll-like appendage of its excess; a woman whose best performances were riots of artifice, every sinuous movement of her hands, mouth, and eyes predetermined by an unknown but precise gestural grammar, every feature of her face drawn with an exaggerated cartoon clarity? What do you call this woman, when Carmen Miranda doesn't say enough? 

"A foreigner reduced to the foreign," suggests Arto Lindsay. "A stranger reduced to what seemed strange about her." Lindsay can relate. Raised in Brazil, schooled in New York's avant-noise demimonde, and lately become a long-distance player in the high-stakes Brazilian pop game, the legendary smart-rocker has a first-hand feel for the existential perils Carmen Miranda faced in her translation from Brazil to America to global mythdom; from samba queen to 40-foot-high every-Latina to Chiquita Banana logo and drag queen heroine. Lindsay is also well-versed in the dramas Brazil kept between Carmen and itself: her central role in cementing the country's multiracial self-image in the '30s, the mutual feelings of distrust and resentment throughout her Hollywood sojourn in the '40s and '50s, the stategic deployment of her aura by Brazilian pop intellectuals in the '60s and '70s, years after her death. 

Accordingly, the tribute he unveils for her at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this Wednesday promises to translate her with greater care this time around. Two of Brazil's classiest female singers -- elegant Gal Costa, cool Bebel Gilberto -- Carmen's sister Aurora (who everyone always said had the better voice) will dig beneath the brash Hollywood image for the grace, humor, and occasional subtle pathos that made her one of the highest paid singers in Brazilian pop history. Spoken, visual, and musical interludes featuring percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, Laurie Anderson (yes, Laurie Anderson), Brazilian comic actress Regina Casé, and Lindsay himself will fill in some of the cultural and political context that surrounded her encounter with the North. Lindsay is not interested, he says, in producing another camp send-up of camp's most colorful icon. And God bless him: after all these years enveloped in giddy, winking affection, a cool but unironic appreciation of her talents and significance (complete with avant-garde imprimatur) is the least Carmen Miranda deserves. 

But is it what we deserve? In attempting my own unironic appraisal of Miranda's life and art, I find myself edging towards the conclusion that we aren't ready to abandon our giddy, winking relationship to her. Miranda the camp icon still has too many lessons to teach us. Identity and difference, the central problems of Miranda's life, have become the central problems of our politics (as the maelstrom of racial and sexual issues stirred up by the Thomas-Hill Affair finally and painfully confirms), and they are problems we seem doomed to take at once far too seriously and not nearly seriously enough. Perhaps camp, the refined art of being serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious, is just the finesse we need to tiptoe through the minefield of multiculturalism. And perhaps now is the time, with Miranda finally on the verge of serious attention, to take one last look at the camp in her, and take notes. 

Sontag dedicated hers to Oscar Wilde. Let's say these notes are for Pee-wee Herman. 

What Camp taste responds to is "instant character"...; and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence--a person being one, very intense thing. 

Corollary: if camp is the theory, then drag is the practice, and Carmen Miranda was one of the great practitioners. 

Don't think I'm claiming for Miranda a mastery of the highly codified, high-low art form embodied by such inspired gentlemen as the late Ethyl Eichelberger or the uptown ball queens. Nor am I referring, exactly, to the famous trail of cross-dressing impersonations Miranda left in her long wake, including turns by Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, TV weatherclown Willard Scott, and, at some point in his life that he later declared to be formative, that happiest of campers Ken Russell. No, what I'm talking about is drag in its broadest, most formal sense: the use of costume to identify (impossibly and effortlessly) with the Other, to represent her as an "instant character," shorn of the deep complications that make difference such a, well, bitch. 

And Carmen Miranda was playing that game from the minute she stepped off the S.S. Uruguay at New York City on May 17, 1939, imported by the sharp-eyed Lee Shubert to share a Broadway state with Abbott and Costello in The Streets of Paris. Right there on the docks she began projecting the prêt-à-porter persona -- a mix of savvy sensualism and effusive naiveté -- that would help filter North American perceptions of the Latin South for decades to follow. "I say money, money, money," she gushed to the journalists gathered to interview what was then just a curiosity: Brazil's biggest pop star, fresh off the banana boat. "I say 20 words in English. I say money, money, money, and I say hot dog! I say yes, no and I say money, money, money and I say turkey sandwich and I say grape juice." 

Notwithstanding the single-minded commercialism implied in this statement (and borne out in the course of her Hollywood career, which by 1945 would make her the ninth-highest paid person in the U.S. and probably the highest-paid woman anywhere), Miranda arrived acutely aware of the burden of cross-cultural representation weighing on her. She was friendly (some have said very friendly) with Brazil's President Getúlio Vargas, a jovial little Hitler whose populist nationalism was installing itself in every corner of Brazilian life and whose nose for a propaganda op was keen, and Vargas reportedly took her aside before the voyage to impress upon her the need to present Brazil's best and most authentic face to the world. Even without this pep talk, however, the expectations of a nation that had hitherto always sat on the receiving end of the world-cultural exchange would have made clear enough what her mission was. Carmen Miranda--who had come to Rio with her Portuguese parents at the age of two, and still traveled under a Portuguese passport--came to the United States with a mandate to impersonate Brazilian culture itself. It would be the drag performance of her life. 

But not the first one of her life. In fact, the costume she used to play Brazilianness to the Americans was not tailor-made for the job at all, but left over from a coup de couture she had pulled off the year before, in which the Other on display was a lot easier to pin down. The frilly dress with its bare shoulders and midriff, the oversized jewelry dripping from ears, neck, and wrists, the turban bursting with fruit--to the world beyond Brazil, all these evoked a hazy tropical abundance, but back home they signified with much higher resolution. When Miranda debuted the outfit in the 1938 Brazilian film musical Banana da Terra, there wasn't a pop fan who didn't recognize it as a stylization of the bahiana, the black Bahian woman who typically sits on sidewalks selling food, wearing the lacy white garments and colorful beads associated with adepts of the Yoruba-Brazilian religion called candomblé. Nor, apparently, was there a pop fan who didn't flip for Miranda's rendition. The bahiana became her trademark. 

That an image so specifically black should have been nationally (and later internationally) popularized by a woman so evidently white is not the irony it might seem. Or rather, it's an irony lost among the many that characterized Brazil in the '30s, when at last the nation was reconciling itself to its interracial heritage in a flurry of multiculti celebration. Without ever quite shaking the foundations of Brazil's power structure (which to this day remains top-heavy with white people), intellectuals were busily enshrining mestiçagem -- race mixing -- as the foundation of Brazilian identity. Meanwhile, on the radio, the heavily African-identified samba was living its golden age, well on its way to becoming the consummate national culture it is today. A new fluidity was entering into Brazilians' already quite fluid strategies of racial definition, and the pop audience that had nicknamed the palefaced Carmen the Queen of Samba certainly wasn't going to bat an eyelash if she declared herself a bahiana in all but the flesh. On the contrary, under the emerging cultural paradigm the spectacle of a white woman tossing on blackness like an accessory was a model of authenticity. Racial cross-dressing was now as Brazilian as rice and beans. 

Miranda would soon discover, however, the limits of that audience's tolerance for intercultural shenanigans. Returning from her astoundingly successful theatrical run in 1940 (the New York press determined that she had single-handedly saved Broadway from the deadly competition of the 1939 World's Fair), she prepared what she and her trusty accompanists the Bando da Lua assumed would be a triumphant homecoming show, consisting largely of selections from her new American repertoire. Mixing Tin Pan Alley creations she and her trusty accompanists, the Bando da Lua, had warped into samba form and Rio carnival marches they'd given a Broadway gloss to, the show provided a foretaste of the nimble cross-fertilization that would characterize her string of American hits (including collaborations with Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, and the Andres Sisters). The playlist contained some of the best songs of her career -- warm, cajoling, invigorated by first contact with an alien culture and free of the forced novelty that would mar later creations like the samba-klezmer "Wedding Samba." Yet to Miranda's tearful dismay, her international miscegenation was met with icy disapproval by the the blacktie opening night crowd, and soon thereafter by the critics. The show closed immediately, and though it reopened with great success two months later, revamped with numbers that deftly poked fun at the notion of her Americanization (and reassured audiences that she had come back to the black slums she had never come from to begin with), the earlier rejection had devastated her. She left Brazil in October of 1940 and never returned to perform there again. 

Exiled by the combined forces of Brazil's cultural self-policing and her own anxieties about authenticity, Miranda threw herself on the mercy of the American culture industry, which proved generous to a fault. With the U.S. government prodding movie makers to pitch in on the Good Neighbor Policy--designed to secure the allegiance and markets of Latin America in the event of world war--Fox produced a string of musical showcases for the Brazilian Bombshell, as she was now being called. The first of them, Down Argentine Way, made its contribution to U.S. geopolitical objectives with a fantasy of Argentina so absurd it caused movie-theater riots in Buenos Aires and got the film banned there until a few actual location shots were spliced in. The remainder didn't do a whole lot more to shore up Miranda's credibility south of the border, casting her as an increasingly generic Latin singing increasingly American show tunes. 

But in the States the best of these films clicked massively, and it's not hard to see why. Miranda was herself an instant character, her charms all readily apparent and chomping at the bit. Stuffing dangerous amounts of Portuguese into her songphrases with acrobatic grace, tossing off looped English ("How do you do I'm sure; I'm fine thanks") with breezy self-certainty, and clocking 10 or 11 different impish expressions per minute, the Carmen Miranda of films like That Night in Rio (1941), Weekend in Havana (1941), and Springtime in the Rockies (1942) was a seductress of remarkable surface energy. 

Only in one of the films, though, Busby Berkeley's hallucinatory and criminally unrentable The Gang's All Here (1943), does the mise en scène rise to the level of her flamboyance, bringing some of Miranda's deeper meanings for Americans up and over the top. The opening sequence, for instance, in which Miranda spills out of the S.S. Brazil along with sacks of sugar and coffee and a two-ton bushel of tropical fruit that doubles as headgear, maps the pleasure of watching Miranda onto the nation's sweet-toothed and historically brutal hunger for the monocultural exports of Latin America. And as for the "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" number -- an orgy of giant phallic bananas and vulval strawberries through which Miranda moves with a contained chaos that Pee-wee himself surely took some notes on -- nothing in cinema has captured more accurately the North Atlantic fantasy of the South as a site of innocent erotic anarchy. 

But landing a niche in the depths of the American psyche seems to have been small comfort to Miranda. She remained indignant and insistent about her role as the international incarnation of her culture, challenging any who questioned her Brazilianness to "look at me and tell me if I don't have Brazil in every curve of my body." Worse, her anxieties led her into a variety of pharmaceutical addictions mingled with massive depressions. Marriage in 1947 to an American producer only served to alienate the close Brazilian companions she kept with her always. A nervous breakdown in late 1954 forced a brief and purely convalescent visit to Brazil, her first in 14 years, but immediately upon her return to Hollywood she was hard at work again. On August 4, 1955, she taped her first television appearance, a spot on the Jimmy Durante Show, and just a few hours later died of a heart attack, alone in her bedroom. 

Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of "style" over "content," "aesthetics" over "morality," of irony over tragedy. 

So read between the lines. No content: no meaning. No morality: no politics. No tragedy: no history. And yet, in her afterlife as a camp object, just as in her own lifetime, Miranda has crossed paths with all of these. 

In Brazil, after years of neglect, Miranda resurfaced in 1968 with a polemic vengeance, lurking in the final line of a song called "Tropicália." "Viva...Carmen Miranda-da-da-da-da!" sang pop auteur Caetano Veloso, who wrote the song as a manifesto for the tropicalista movement, a tendency within the arts and especially within popular music that sought to fuck with whatever hierarchies it could get its hands on. Hierarchies of taste in particular were a favorite target, and the then generally disdained Miranda served as a handy weapon. "When I put her in the song," says Veloso, "it was like Andy Warhol putting the soup can in his painting." It was, moreover, a spitwad in the face of nationalists who accused the tropicalistas of selling out to U.S. imperialism because they used electric guitars and rock arrangements. Nearly three decades after the debacle of her return to Rio in 1940, the memory of Carmen Miranda was avenging itself on the heirs of the xenophobes who had helped drive her to misery. 

Outside Brazil Miranda's camp revival was less obviously critical, taking a form hinted at early on by Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. Miranda was, for all the variety of her cultural cross-dressing, in some sense also and above all a drag queen proper. As slyly sensuous as her movements may have been, there was something markedly unsexy about what she did with her body (even the notorious accidental beaver shot, taken one day on the set of Weekend in Havana when she forgot to wear panties under her skirts and later circulated throughout Hollywood, seems curiously devoid of prurient effect) -- all her florid femininity was displaced instead onto her costume and make-up, the drag queen's tools of first resort. It's no surprise, then, that the rediscovery of Miranda in the North coincided with camp's genderbending moment in the pop sun, the early '70s heyday of glam-rock, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and (what do you know) Ken Russell. Miranda's supremely superficial sexuality fit right in with the period's foregrounding of the social construction of gender, joining in what Andrew Ross and other cultural critics have called a premonition of the anti-essentialist sexual politics that have lately become so trendy and so useful. 

Funny: camp declares itself to be utterly apolitical and so did Carmen Miranda. But if a camp approach to sexual politics is possible, then why not a camp approach to identity politics in general? Surely that is the message coded up in Miranda's story, a message full of warning and encouragement to anyone seeking to shoot the rapids of a true multiculturalism and come out alive. On the one hand, her life offers us the frightening spectacle of a woman trapped inside a two-dimensional identity, pinned there by the pop audience's appetite for instant character. It's a reminder, too, of the unfortunate self-caricature any peripheral culture still must undergo in order to get noticed in America's central media markets. But on the other hand, the uses that have been made of Miranda's memory in Brazil and throughout the world remind us never to give up on the liberating promise of her dress-up life. And that's a crucial reminder, because though all of us know by now that biology is not destiny, it's a little harder to remember that neither is identity. Camp says we can make identity our plaything and get away with it -- if we're lucky. And Carmen wishes us luck.