Queering the Binaries: Belonging and Becoming in Dee Rees’ 2011 “Pariah” by Danielle Straus

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“Just do it- do it now, lick it good, suck this pussy just like you should,” the camera rotates, with the unfolding of our first introduction to Alike or “Lee.” As the camera faces Lee directly, we are introduced to her sexual desire as a frank and matter-of-fact aspect of her being. As the camera cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot, we see Lee’s hand pulled up, by Laura’s direction, her AG (aggressive)1 friend, to give money to the stripper and do “whachu’ come here for” (1:30). However, after a moment of hesitation, Lee excuses herself away from the performance and fills a seat on the periphery of the night club. Re-adjusting her camouflage drawstring and her baggy polo, she sinks into the seat; “PARIAH,” duplicating the stripes on Lee’s polo, aligns itself with her experience, making it clear that Dee Rees’s 2011 Pariah is not about a coming-out narrative, but rather a story about Lee’s senses of belonging and becoming. This essay will explore how Pariah disrupts and queers the binaries of gender and sexuality in ascribed identities of Black girlhood by deconstructing space, liminality, temporalities, and ‘realness.’ Through a close analysis of several scenes in the film, this essay will look at specific cinematographic and theatrical elements such as color, costuming, setting, lighting, and shot/perspective to observe how Pariah enacts a radical queer politics, and how Lee’s disdentification allows her to fashion a queer world by working on, with, and against dominant, mainstream ideology and culture.

Looking at Lee’s journey from Catnip back home—the two worlds she is pulled between—we get a better sense of the issues she is dealing with and finds herself in the middle of. “In trying to please two gods, her mother’s conservatism and her own burgeoning ‘deviant’ sexuality,” and, I would argue, the expectations of the A-G community, “Alike is repeatedly exiled, always shifting and changing, and never given an opportunity to fully be” (Henderson 148). In a close-up shot, the camera shows Lee removing her cap, sutured with juxtaposing shots of pleasure and romance at the Catnip Bar against her abjection and isolation. It then returns to a medium shot of Lee, with an even deeper sense of displeasure upon opening her phone. To avoid disturbing her curfew, Lee pulls Laura out of the bar to catch the next bus. Here we see the open clash of these two worlds and their temporal logics. The world of the A-Gs and Catnip is a world wanting her to “stay ‘out’” while the world of Lee’s home-life, compartmentalizing this as ‘just a phase,’ views her as out for too long, as she ‘missed curfew.’ By trying to please both, but failing both, Lee enacts a queer temporality, refusing the conventionality of either in that she “lost track of time” (Lee’s words; 6:44). 

“Oh, wait, that’s an old one, I could delete that one” (3:07) Lee recites as Laura skeptically glares at her. Realizing she is lying, Laura says, “why you frontin’, huh?” (3:19). In this moment, similarly, to telling her mom about the “movies,” we get a fabricated representation of self—attempting (but failing) to attain a sense of belonging. The space of liminality and transition between these two worlds via a public bus outlines the ways in which Lee employs fashion as a protective performance. After demanding privacy from Laura, Lee re-dresses in the form of undressing. We see Lee remove her hat and polo shirt on the bus, revealing an “angel” (servant of god) shirt underneath, shoving it into a camouflage bag before getting home–a bag is used to disguise the two worlds she wants to keep hidden from each other. 

The liminal character of the bus as a place of movement and transit duplicates the kinesis Lee enacts in this transition. We see her look out the window, with her reflection staring directly into the camera’s eye. Lee’s gaze switches between looking into her own reflection and looking into the camera lens. The complete shot of her face is revealed, through an ethereal reflection in the bus windowpane on the left side of the frame, showing the instability and performativity of her identity as a set of repetitions, or, in this case, duality of repetitions, which simultaneously solidify and destabilize identities; thus, the image we see of her is an unsteady reflection. Similarly, the performance in this scene inverses and destabilises the public and private spheres, with Lee’s character queering these two binaries by finding privacy in this public space of transportation. The bus, linked on a scheduled track between these two places, is also a symbolic stand-in for the “middle” that Lee lives in; the liminality of failing to ascribe to the life of heterosexuality and hegemonic gender expression in her Christian home as well as the aggressive (or AG) lesbian identity. 

Figure: Lee’s reflection in the bus window directly confronts the lens of the camera.

With the inversion or queering of conventional notions of the public and the private, Pariah explores the space of ‘becoming’ or ‘liminality’ in spaces of transition, deconstructing the forces of pushing and pulling, stretching and confining, and enhancing and erasing aspects of Lee. This liminality is extended to the hallways at her school, where she overhears her classmates’ desires for her to be “a little harder,” since she is in the “middle” anyway (17:31). Significantly, in this scene, there’s an almost drag-esque quality to the performances Lee switches in between; trying to achieve a sense of ‘realness’ in these two worlds, or attempting to construct a presentation of (either A-G or “Angel”), a category or genre that is as close to it as possible. However, this failure of both, and later refusal of either binary, subverts the logics of these two worlds and duplicates the kind of subversion of the coming out genre Pariah enacts.  

These aspects of queer (un)belonging and queer failure become more emergent as Lee fills a seat at her family dinner table. The geometry of the table, and the rigidity of the four corners, forcing Lee to “straighten up” (Audrey’s words; 11:42) emphasize the strict policing of her gender and social life. The anxieties of Audrey, and the pressures of her gender normativity and the Black politics of respectability, figure the table almost into a public stage. I now view the lighting around this table, which I previously understood to be “gimmicky,” as a clear cinematographic choice to present the table as an over-prepared, almost staged, place. This queering of the private space, with its impression of having spectators or a public audience looking in, underlines the performative aspects (and even further, logics) of the table. Audrey, positioned in the shot, behind Lee (over-the shoulder), is seen as always reaching for the camera, attempting to enact and formulate normative narratives for her family.

Figure: The table appears as if it is staged or under a spotlight.

Lee’s absence from conventional high school milestones fractures Audrey’s heteronormative ideas of Black girlhood. The conversation escalates after Lee reveals she won’t be attending the dance at school and the camera becomes shakier and unsteadier, quickly shifting focus as it disorients the viewer. This cinematographic effect is used to mirror the family’s fragility and unsteadiness, with Lee’s gender deviancy imagined as destabilizing the foundations of Audrey’s table and the refrain2 of normativity. In refusing both spaces of dance, at the club and at the school, Lee not only challenges notions of femininity but also the notions of Black girlhood and womanhood as a whole, enacting her own space of becoming. “What are your memories, mother?” Lee asks in a facetious tone, overperforming her politics of respectability by erasing her AAVE and adopting her mother’s Standard Written (white) English. In this, and in refusing attendance to what Audrey views as the conventional milestones of girlhood, Lee refigures her desires, mapping them across new axis and loci.

Figure: Audrey gives direction to Lee at the dinner table, reaching towards the camera.

Her later exile from this space, just as from the space of the gambling table, reflects her refusal to conform to both the uniforms and the performances of these two spheres. The uniforms of both, whether the pink sweater or strap-on, evoke senses of embodied or physical discomfort. Lee is either not enough—not hard enough, not masculine enough, not A-G enough, or she is too much—too queer, too deviant, and unfit for/rupturing out of the feminine or fitted clothing her mother tries to confine her into. 

Her subversion of these two worlds is most evidenced in her choosin’ to pursue an early program at Berkeley, moving, not south to the club or north-bound back home, but rather west to a future of her own whim. Here, queer temporality, the “earliness” of pursuit of her own dream and independence juxtaposes the previous “lateness” and contingency of her motion—the choice, transforming her once painful exile into a self-imposed sequestration from her mother. In this scene, we hear Lee’s full poem for the first time, and we get to experience it not reflected through other’s senses, but through our own. 

Figure: Lee’s presence on the roof at sunrise symbolizes new beginnings.

The liminality of this bus, to an unknown but far away path of Lee’s choosin,’ works differently than the liminality of the first bus we saw, whose motion and potentialities were confined between the two binaries of Lee’s worlds—driven by necessity and obligation over desire. This bus, on the other hand, represents Lee’s queer becoming, not in her failure, but an embracing of the subversion of those binaries. In becoming, this bus emphasizes mobility, change and kinesis as fundamental to subjectivity. Importantly, her costuming does not ascribe to a clear binary or uniform—thus, de-essentializing identity and subjectivity. In this scene, Lee reads her poem to her teacher; sutured over cuts of her journey taking “flight.” The queer rapture of joy and choice disidentifies from the runnin’ characteristics of (and between) her previous worlds. Resignifying herself as “not broken” but “free,” Lee takes control of her own narrative, defying assumptions and prioritizing her own pleasure. 

In this final shot of Lee, and in the entire movie, we get flickers of the light shining in, using the cinematographic aspects of the lighting as a heuristic to illustrate what her poem is describing. Contrasting the previous bus scene with obligation, urgency, and reflection, in this scene, the reflection does not include Lee’s face; she reads her own poetry, tells her own story, and presents herself as she is. What’s important is that Lee’s final style assumed more balance and comfort in her own body; no urge to re-adjust, re-dress, or undress, and more ‘fit’ than her previous baggy and confining attire. This emergent liberation is also evidenced through the cinematography and the use of lighting in the final seconds of Pariah. We are made to “see the love light shine out through [her]” and in the past few scenes, to “see the love shine in through [her] cracks” (1:20:40). 

Figure: Lee looks out of the bus window with joy as she is choosin’ her own destination.

In conclusion, Lee’s subversion of identity categories (the A-G and her mother’s “Angel”) paired with Pariah’s subversion of genre or narrative (a story of belonging and becoming as opposed to a linear coming out narrative) are further enhanced through the queering of temporalities, geographies, liminality, and realness. The drag-esque quality of Lee’s two uniforms, expressed most strikingly with the pink blouse and the strap-on, allow for identity categories such as gender and sexuality to appear as performative and always in motion—just as Lee, although a character faced with obstacles, heartbreak, and failure, is always kinetic. Importantly to note, however, is that the pariah, or insider/outsider dichotomy enacted throughout the film, is blurred to reach characters beyond Lee: as we see Audrey both on the “outside” of the social spheres of her workspace and exiled from the intimacy of her marriage, and with Laura, an AG, in exile and a place of rejection from her own home. In this, Lee, or Alike also queers the narratives of exile, showing that many characters are A-like.

1Elisa Norris describes A-G as a gender identity and expression wherein black and Latinx women “adopt and perform a Black/Latino masculinity that is informed by hip-hop culture and urban aesthetics” (Pritchard 140).
2I use “refrain” here in the poetic sense, as a line frequently returned to, for structure and stability. What is ironic in this sense is that Lee, the poet, it the force destabilizing this space of refrain that Audrey has so meticulously constructed


Henderson, A. A. (2015). Chapter 7: The Rebirth of Queer: Exile, Kinship, and Metamorphosis in Dee Rees’s Pariah. In 1096476793 830687079 J. Metcalf & 1096476794 830687079 C. Spaulding (Authors), African American Culture and Society after Rodney King: Provocations and Protests, Progression And ‘Post-Racialism’ (pp. 141-155). Farnham: Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315565989

Monaghan, W. (2019, Spring). Not Just a Phase: Queer Girlhood and Coming of Age on Screen. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://research.monash.edu/en/publications/not-just-a-phase-queer-girlhood-and-coming-of-age-on-screen

Muñoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. United Kingdom: University of Minnesota Press.

Pritchard, E. D. (2017, Fall). Black Girls Queer (Re)Dress: Fashion as Literacy Performance in Pariah. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/qed.4.3.0127

Rees, D. (Director), Rees, D. (Writer), & Cooper, N. (Producer). (2011, December 28). Pariah [Video file]. Retrieved December 01, 2020.

Sutherland, L. M. (2005). Black Adolescent Girls’ Use of Literacy Practices to Negotiate Boundaries of Ascribed Identity. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1207/s15548430jlr3703_4

Danielle Straus is a rising senior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She is passionate about racial justice/climate justice, radical feminism, disability justice, LGBTQ++ activism, and subverting binaries. Originally from San Diego, California, Danielle loves art, the outdoors, reading novels, and anything queer. As an English major and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies minor, she is most interested in writing about theory, cinema, and literature. Along with creating ceramic and wood sculptures, Danielle’s lifelong dream is to publish novels of her own.

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