“I didn’t come all the way down to Jamaica to become a slut.”— How Stella Got Her Groove Back
With the recent screening of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the spectacle of female sex tourism has washed up, once again, on the shoals of popular culture. According to reviewers, it is not a pretty sight. Women who travel to the spaces peripheral to “modernity” and, by the way, have sex with the natives are not rare; however, in the continuum of capital expansion that stretches from colonialism to globalization, such practices tend to lose their luster as a kind of radical cultural immersion. For men, of course, such sexual adventurism would hardly qualify as a narrative with anything new to say. The notion, however, that women would travel to remote or less developed parts of the world for the express purpose of having sex with men who are, in many cases, younger and poorer than they are seems to cut against the grain. Yet many studies show this to be the case. Whether characterized as “sex” tourism (commercial sex with the locals) or “romance” tourism (commercial sex with the trappings of a “real” relationship), this practice has inspired a good deal of academic research in the social sciences and in popular literature as well. In her 2006 book Romance on the Road: Traveling Women Who Love Foreign Men, journalist Jeanette Belliveau describes her subjects as “sex pilgrims.” According to the Amazon review, her book is “the complete reference for anyone who wants to learn about a hidden phenomenon that affects hundreds of thousands of traveling women and foreign men: Instant vacation love affairs that banish loneliness, provide cultural insights, offer one-on-one, hand-to-hand foreign aid to the world’s poor, create international children and sometimes even change the course of history.”
Who can beat that? I believe, however, that the representation of female sex tourism in the cultural imagination is also worthy of study, as such depictions reveal a great deal about the anxieties aroused by the “aging” woman’s sexuality. The staging of this cultural moment is explored in two radically different films, both, coincidentally, derived from works of fiction: the breezy How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), based on the book by Terry McMillan, and the far more disturbing French film Heading South (2005), based, in large part, on a short story by the Haitian writer Dany Laferrière. Both films indulge the notion that sex in the tropics with a dark-skinned exotic youth is all it takes to cure the malaise of the older woman. In one sense, the autonomy of the woman traveler is a real marker of progress. Sadly, though, the representation of female empowerment in these films is either complicit with racist attitudes still fraught with the lingering spirit of colonialism (Heading South) or in thrall to patriarchal norms (Stella.) In the former, sex tourism is punished; in the latter, it is celebrated.
We learn from the literature that women who sleep with the locals are not a uniform class. They vary in age and in their choice of destination; they vary in terms of their motivations and attitudes toward both their exotic partners and the imaginative geographies in which their partners are embedded. Improbably, for example, the Sinai is a popular venue for cross-cultural couplings. Some “ethnosexual” boundary crossings appear to pass unnoticed, while others are more disturbing, usually because they involve pairings between privileged white tourists of a certain age and marginal youths who navigate the interstices of the official institutions of tourism. Joane Nagel first used the term “ethnosexual” to describe “the intersection and interaction between ethnicity and sexuality and the ways each defines and depends on the other for its meaning and power” (10). In the Americas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica are popular venues for the pursuit of ethnosexual adventurism. These are destinations where the opportunity for women to have sexual or romantic liaisons with exotic Others further complicates the shadowy social relations in the “contact zone” where, for centuries, sexual commerce between male travelers and the natives, male or female, have followed, roughly, the contours of imperial power. The term “contact zone” was coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her groundbreaking study Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation to describe “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination, like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today” (3).
Travel as “displacement” has long been associated with experimentation, growth, and transformation — the possibility of being “other” to oneself. Certainly, there are aspects of female sex tourism that resonate in positive ways: empowerment (the realization of, or receptivity to, desires and subject positions that would be considered taboo at home) or its opposite (a dismantling of the self whereby power is repudiated, a more powerful impulse in male travelers) — or, of course, some constellation of these and other motivations. In the contact zone, where travel is shadowed by the ghost of colonialism, the lingering residue of oppression tends to muddy the waters of human commerce, rendering suspect the desires of western sojourners. The fictionalized representation of female sex tourism and, more particularly, its visual dramatization in film reveals a conscious (or unconscious) investment in this residuum. Edward Said used the term “imaginative geography” in describing how the West, in effect, “made up” the East according to its own emotional and cultural investments, as opposed to any observable reality. It is a useful one. Both Heading South and How Stella Got Her Groove back are heavily invested in imaginative geographies organized according to a common set of polarities, a cluster of binary oppositions that rotate around essentialist notions of culture, place, and gender. These, in turn, resolve into a web of enabling fictions that drive the narrative. So, for example, the juxtaposition of the developed “north” with the less developed “south” of the Caribbean carries with it a set of related cultural associations that can be valued positively or negatively: artificial versus natural or authentic, plenitude versus barrenness, work versus leisure, discipline versus laxity, exotic versus familiar, savage versus civilized, to name a few. This carries over to the “native” male as well (provided he is young and attractive), who is perceived as more natural and virile than the man of the north, be he black or white. But while Heading South is clearly a “text” of the contact zone, Stella has no interest in moving beyond the comfort zone of romance.
The narrative of female sex tourism is also indebted to certain assumptions or culturally sanctioned notions about gender (what constitutes desirability or how power is mediated, for example) that are often reducible to a constellation of binaries. First, as applicable to woman: sexually desirable versus sexually undesirable, young versus old, thin versus fat, passionate versus sterile, “manly” woman versus “womanly” woman, beautiful versus homely. Then, as regards the relationship between the genders: who’s in charge? In truth, neither film is interested in disturbing the roles meted out by heteronormal, which is to say, patriarchal, imperatives. The subject positions are rigid, even as they may be at odds with the sexual identities of the subjects themselves. So even as race, class, and age skew the alignment of subject and subject position, the hierarchical structure of human relations remains intact and compels obedience. It is the phantom of heteronormality, moreover, that haunts the paradigmatic female sex tourism narrative, which by its nature, of course, reverses the model by which rituals of heterosexual courtship or sexual adventurism are commonly understood. As articulated in Heading South and Stella, this narrative has virulently antifeminist, and, in the case of the former, even misogynist overtones, offering no context in which a mature female sexuality might flourish without a fatal quid pro quo: the loss of the subject’s personal integrity or her autonomy.
The films could not be more different. I will not attempt to give them equal attention. Stella, the earlier of the two movies, is slight, a cheesy bauble that features a number of highly appealing actors doing their best to keep it afloat. On the other hand, it is useful to mine the film’s “unconscious” as a prelude to the darker and more troubling Heading South, in which two older women from the States vie for the attentions of the same young black man, Legba, who hustles female tourists at a small beachside hotel in 1970s Haiti. For purposes of simplicity, I will refer to “up here” as “home” and “down there” as “the south.”
Stella is a romantic comedy about a highly successful, self-sufficient African American woman, played by the stunning Angela Bassett, who has lost her “groove.” She books a trip to Jamaica (on the basis of a television commercial featuring an alluring Rasta man cavorting on the beach), where she meets a very attractive and much younger Jamaican man who enables her to get it back. The film is a full-blown Hollywood fairy tale, complete with a seriocomic turn by Whoopi Goldberg as Delilah, the homely but irrepressible sidekick. The film does not, of course, raise the specter of racism, but neither does it worry the issue of class. Rather, it negotiates alterity on the basis of exoticism. What begins as romance tourism, however, turns into the real thing. The “groove” that has been lost (and found), while cast in terms of “having a man in your life,” has much greater implications in terms of Stella’s self-definition. In its simplistic idealization of ethnosexual intimacies, Stella foregrounds only the age difference between Stella and Winston (Taye Diggs), whom she meets at a posh resort in Jamaica. His status as a desirable — but in no way taboo — “exotic” is established by implicit comparison with a couple of goofy African American athletes on holiday in the same hotel. That status also imbues him with a certain authenticity and wisdom against which Stella’s mere common sense and worldliness are bound to fail. Winston’s “difference” may be understood in terms of stereotypes that cast the Jamaican (even when he is bound for medical school at Stanford) in a series of binaries that valorize his superiority, not only to the boys from home, but to Stella as well. It is Winston who encourages Stella to follow her bliss (building furniture) rather than returning to her high-powered job in finance.
When Winston first approaches her in the hotel’s outdoor café (over breakfast, not late-night cocktails), our expectations naturally prepare us for a hustle. It turns out that, far from being a hustler, he is staying there with a friend and seeking legitimate work. Having just graduated from university, he is resisting his father’s wish that he attend medical school and thinks, instead, he might want to be a chef. The film takes great pains to distance Winston from any association with the common “trade” while preserving the sex-stud aura glimpsed in the television commercial that first lured Stella to Jamaica. Not content merely to allow Winston a “natural” nobility, the film stages an awkward meeting between the couple and his arch and disapproving aristocratic parents in their stately mansion.
Winston follows Stella to New York and surprises her at the funeral of Delilah — another sign of his preternatural sensitivity. Yet their relationship does not unfold seamlessly in the States, for he is childlike and enjoys watching simple television shows and playing video games with her son. She is at first reluctant to introduce him to her family. He feels hurt. One wonders, though, despite their physical attraction, what they might possibly have in common. Stella suggests as much. Winston proposes; she hesitates; he has been unable to convince her that age does not matter. He complains that she always wants to be in control. At last, he gives up. He tells her he is returning to Jamaica to attend medical school (this will realign him with the patriarchal imperative). Maybe it’s his decision, finally, to “man up,” but at the last possible moment, the camera cuts to Stella awaiting him at the airport escalator. This is pure Hollywood schmaltz. They embrace and the film ends with her parting question: “Ever hear of Stanford”? No state schools for Winston!
What is the nature of the “groove” that Stella gets back? The early expository scenes make this clear. The film opens to a scenic panorama of wooded hills at dawn but almost immediately zooms in on a jogging woman and then abruptly cuts to an office sequence in which that same woman — Stella, smartly dressed in a black business suit—is seen impressively fast-talking her way through series of lucrative financial deals. She moves briskly and competently though these scenes. The film then cuts to a male colleague who appears to be envious and who must, a few shots later, plead for her services to do some damage control on his behalf. At first she says she’s too busy but then relents. The next sequence finds Stella in an austere-looking spa where women sit in identical seats with identical robes and mudpacks on their faces soaking their feet in identical tubs. This is where we meet Stella’s sisters, who provide us with some necessary information. She is divorced and has a son; she works too hard (which we already know), and her sisters believe she needs a man. One of them is planning to fix her up with a judge. Stella says she doesn’t need a man. Sure.
The next sequence is at the airport; Stella is seeing her son off. He will be spending two weeks with his father. The boy reluctantly turns back to face his mother. She asks what’s wrong. He implores her to “have some fun.” Following this the camera pans to a highway out of the city into the hills, and we are introduced to Stella’s magnificent home, spacious, with glass walls, immaculately appointed. The glass windows are important because they allow us to see it is raining outside. Stella is alone in the great room tinkering on a grand piano. The house is a metaphor for Stella, beautiful but incomplete. She turns on the television set and sees a travel ad for Jamaica, portrayed as a sexy and romantic getaway, into which she projects herself. As she admires a close-up of a comely man in dreads, the phone rings and it is “Judge,” the man Stella’s sister wants to fix her up with. Indeed, he is an occupation rather than a person. His dry, effete voice and dialogue are juxtaposed to scenes of the Rasta man. We know who wins out. Stella calls her best friend, Delilah, who lives in New York City, to propose a trip to Jamaica. Delilah does not answer, so Stella leaves a message. She immediately calls and leaves another message telling her to forget about the trip; she can’t get away. Cut to Stella in another area of the house, a greenhouse/potting shed. It is still raining. Stella reaches for an empty pot as Delilah calls back and convinces her to take the trip. Just as this sequence juxtaposes Judge and the Rasta man, so too does it force the viewer to contemplate the difference between the idealized Stella and the endearing but decidedly funky Delilah (who is later killed off with much pathos). Beauty is rewarded, homeliness punished or, perhaps, punished so beauty can be sufficiently domesticated.
We don’t need to know much more in order to understand how “romance tourism” will figure here. Stella’s world is materially showy but lacking in romantic love. Too much self-sufficiency, it is suggested. What is more, as a successful woman — and an African American one at that — she is upsetting the natural order of things. She likes to be in control. A hint of a more “womanly” Stella is revealed in the potting room; this presages her later admission to Winston that her true passion is building furniture, with its resonance of nesting and nurturance. It is significant that she does not wish to study architecture in order to build the houses themselves. Stella is out of touch with her “inner woman.” Even her young teenage son is wiser than she is — a prescient reminder that age (even life experience) is not a signifier of sagacity. A similar juxtaposition — that between the sexy Rasta on television and the “judge” — points toward a valorization of the primitive exotic as against the educated and more “appropriate” professional. Finally, the natural beauty that surrounds her home is dampened either by her highly disciplined jogging feet or a soaking rain. Stella’s “groove,” then, might be her unacknowledged desire to return to a more “natural” (i.e., patriarchally sanctioned) feminine ideal. Motherhood, apparently, is not sufficient; however, it does further enhance her womanly credentials, especially as contrasted with the characters in Heading South.
Stella relies on several twists to what we might consider the “dominant” narrative of female sex tourism. Though we might imagine, and the research suggests as much, that many female sex tourists travel to places like the Caribbean because sex is hard to come by “up here,” Stella implies no such thing. Stella’s “problem” is not related to her age, except to the extent that it has allowed her to achieve a tremendous amount of professional and financial success and raise an adorable and precocious son. She is forty-something, but she’s a knockout. The camera is not shy about lingering over her many attributes. What Stella needs to do is to recast her life, and she does so under the romantic tutelage of a man young enough to be her son. At the same time, the film does not permit her to engage in casual sex (other than with Winston, but by that time the film has established him as a serious love interest) or cavort with common “beach boys,” because that would be disruptive to the patriarchal ideal she is to embody. Hence, her love object needs to be an almost appropriate mate. (The “almost” is what drives the romance plot.) Of course, he is too young for her, but this, the movie argues, is his strength. Of course, his class credentials are impeccable. Of course, he will become (in the happily ever after, it is strongly suggested) a prosperous doctor who will take care of her, even as she takes care of future clients by helping them to “feather” their own nests. (Clearly, she is prosperous enough to effect this lifestyle change on her own.) So what’s the more disturbing takeaway? Between a (let’s say) uptight and fun-challenged beauty, on the one hand, and a witty and charming plain Jane, on the other, the beauty will always come out on top. It gets better. Between a highly successful and mature career woman and a barely post-adolescent boy from the island of Jamaica (this is not Paris or London we’re talking about), who’s going to be dominant? The boy, of course! Between an age-appropriate professional man from home and that same barely post-adolescent boy, who’s going to get the lady? The boy, of course! And these outcomes are all glowingly endorsed by the film.
Stella’s departures from McMillan’s novel are telling and underscore the extent to which the movie seeks to more subtly align its main characters with patriarchal ideals and soften Stella’s black particularity. In the first place, McMillan’s Stella is a far saltier character than her film counterpart, both in terms of her language and her behavior. She’s not convinced that being a “slut” in Negril is the worst thing one could do. Unlike the Angela Bassett character, she does not avoid black vernacular speech. What is more, she has some problems with “feminine odor” and, from time to time, opts to forgo the panties when dressing for the evening. Finally, she’s commodity driven, an over-the-top exemplar of rampant consumerism. Evidently, the writers felt she needed some cleaning up. Here’s how they did it. The novel kills off Delilah before the narrative begins. So, the movie, by keeping Delilah alive for a while, allows her to embody Stella’s racially distinct voice and gutsy personality. (Whoopi Goldberg’s presence saves the movie from terminal blandness.) This leaves Stella free to inhabit a more idealized (and ladylike) persona. Delilah’s presence in the movie, moreover, is a constant reminder that outer appearances are aligned with inner worth. This becomes clear on the first morning in Jamaica when both characters stand side by side on the beach in preparation for a run (which Delilah, by the way, forgoes). Beauty wins out every time. The movie also remakes Winston; in the novel he is poor, despite having a doctor for a father. More importantly, he rejects medical school in favor of becoming a chef. Evidently, a humble chef-hero was not found to resonate in quite the same way as an aristocratic doctor-hero would in terms of patriarchal imperative.
Unlike Stella, Heading South is a tragedy. Where Stella has a romance ending, Heading South ends in death. A postcolonial narrative set in the contact zone of a small Haitian hotel catering to North American tourists, it is keen to highlight not only the disparities of age, social class, and privilege that divide Legba from the North American tourists but also the oppressive conditions of his existence. If Stella is invested in an idealized imaginative geography that pits sunny Jamaica against rainy northern California, Heading South contrasts the tourist enclave, a colonial-type outpost in Duvalier’s Haiti, not only with home but also with the native spaces, which are crowded, poor, and threatening. Then there are the characters. Stella is a liminal figure; not only is she still beautiful and sexually appealing, but she is also the mother of a son and still capable of bearing children, still capable of recuperation. Winston is of a social class that is indisputably higher than Stella’s. The women of Heading South have crossed over into sexual invisibility. They are, quite literally, in “no man’s land.” Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) makes this perfectly clear when she states, “There’s nothing in Boston for women over forty. I’ve checked out every bar in that goddamn stuck-up city and there’s nothing there that’s even close to Legba.” The film itself participates in this objectification. Briefly told, Heading South is about the rivalry between two American women, Ellen and Brenda (Karen Young), for the “affections” of Legba (Ménothy César, a nonprofessional actor), a handsome beach boy who earns a living hustling the female tourists. In a subplot of his own, he unwittingly runs afoul of his high school girlfriend’s “keeper,” Colonel Beauvais. Both he and the girl are murdered and their bodies dumped on the beach near the hotel. Devastated, Ellen and Brenda depart, having come to grips with the loss in two radically different ways.
Stella stages its happy ending in the airport. Heading South both begins and ends in the small, bare-bones airport of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but it is not a happy place. The movie begins on a threatening note. A middle-aged, respectable-looking Haitian woman approaches a dignified black man in the arrivals area and pleads with him to take her daughter. She explains that her husband was handcuffed in his office one day and taken away. She doesn’t know why. She has never seen him again. Now she is penniless. Her daughter is a beautiful girl, and the mother fears that she will be preyed upon. “Being poor and beautiful in this country,” she explains, “she doesn’t stand a chance.” The mother would prefer to “give” her daughter to the gentlemanly figure rather than let “them” have her. The gentleman in question, it turns out, is Albert, the manager of the hotel who is there to retrieve Brenda from the airport. He refuses, and the woman warns him that it’s hard to tell the good mask from the bad, but that “everyone wears one.” Both she and her daughter disappear from the film, but this brief sequence foreshadows the sexual and political predation whose connections the narrative will explore. It also helps to situate Albert, whose integrity will illuminate and complicate the ethical valences that the film puts into play.
If this sequence at the airport does not sufficiently represent a space that is antithetical to home, the unruly streets of Port-au-Prince certainly do. The “native space” of the city is experienced from the back seat of a van against the soundtrack of a single woman’s voice singing. She might be a local. This is third-world space: impoverished, colorful, teeming with children asking for handouts, the site of political and economic oppression. These sequences highlight the separation of Brenda from the brute reality of Haiti, even as she is immersed in it. In the same way, the small beachfront hotel called “Hotel Petit Anse” is an oasis of calm, a colonial-style outpost where the illusion of gentility masks, for its guests, the continuities between the mean streets of Port-au-Prince and the sexual predation that passes as “romance tourism.”
The fifty-something female characters from North America are a study in contrasts but bear a common burden — that of being sexually unfulfilled at home. Brenda is earnest and feminine, at least at first. She is married, but has no children. Ellen is a modern-day spinster. The doyenne of the group, she is a commanding and handsome woman (as one might expect a sixty-ish Charlotte Rampling to be). “Welcome to paradise,” she tells the newly arrived Brenda. They are both Americans. A third woman, Sue, who is a supporting character and also single, suffers from a weight problem. None of these characters is like Stella, the shining jewel around which the film revolves. That privilege is reserved to Legba. The camera, like the male gaze (and ours as well), averts its eye from their aging bodies that are discretely, and with one modest exception, shrouded in bathing suits. Legba, by contrast, is available to us in full-frontal nudity, standing movie convention on its head.
The original story by Laferrière consists of fragmentary testimony provided by the three women and Albert to an official concerning Legba’s death. The film, however, stages these sequences as nondiegetic interventions at strategic moments, with the characters addressing the camera directly; there is no interlocutor. They provide our primary information about what brings each of the women to Haiti, as the women do not discuss their motivations amongst each other in great detail. In lieu of the extravagantly laid out expository scenes of Stella that fully set up the difference between home and the south, Heading South offers only these brief testimonials regarding the deprivations associated with home. Because these sequences are anomalous, however, one is compelled to consider what other “work,” besides exposition, they accomplish. Instead of bearing witness to the circumstances of Legba’s death (as the text suggests is the case), these sequences unfold as confession, implying some underlying guilt or, at the very least, some need to justify or explain their “status” as, to be blunt, sex tourists. Albert’s “guilt” or shame arises from his job as a servant for white Americans, but for Ellen, Brenda, and Sue, who represent, collectively, a set of “types” that cut across class and national boundaries, guilt, it is suggested, is associated with abjection, need, and the “unnatural” lengths to which they must go to assuage their hunger.
Ellen addresses the camera in French, wondering how such a handsome boy as Legba could have been born in the “dungheap” of Haiti. Port-au-Prince, she asserts, is an “animal compound.” Nevertheless, she has been coming to the hotel for six summers. “The moment I arrive,” she asserts, “I feel at home.” She is a professor of French literature at Wellesley who can no longer attract the attention of men; she resents her young female students whose sexual preoccupations and romantic sufferings she bitterly excoriates. She speculates about the boyfriends, imagining that they must all be alike and that they “surely enjoy having all those girls at their mercy.” The thought disgusts her. Ellen is a character who is both ideologically obtuse and painfully unself-aware. Wearing the “mask” of disdain by which the formerly beautiful might use to disguise the loss of their sexual power, she is consumed with contempt for home, which she reduces to a sexual desert. Moreover, as a professor of literature in the 1970s (and French literature, in particular, considering the seminal impact of French theory that was just then beginning to transform the field of literary studies), she strikes me as deeply out of touch with the times. For a white person to “feel at home” in Heading South’s Haiti, especially one so closely tied to the humanities, she would require an arsenal of defenses against any number of emergent and prevailing ideologies, both academic and in the culture at large.
Brenda is a simpler case. She explains that she was on vacation in Haiti with her husband when she first encountered Legba, a poor, starving boy of “no more than fifteen years old.” They “adopted” him. One day she and Legba were sunbathing by themselves in a remote area. Overcome by desire for him, she allows her fingers to wander inside his bathing suit. Feeling his erection, she throws herself upon him and, at the age of forty-five, has her first orgasm. This singular experience is represented as the defining moment of her existence, and she weeps copiously just describing it. Brenda has been obsessed with this moment ever since, and she has come back alone to reclaim it, never considering that someone else might have a prior claim. For our purposes, it must be pointed out as well that the scene marks a startling departure from the Laferrière text, in which Brenda’s husband accompanies them. It is he who encourages her to seduce Legba and then watches them have sex.
Chubby Sue is a working-class woman from Canada; she has an easier time attracting a lover in Haiti than amongst her male coworkers in the factory. She describes having slept with one of them once; he seemed “embarrassed” the next day and probably, it is suggested, regretted the episode. He was a “pleasant guy” she says, somewhat wistfully. Being in Haiti, though, makes her feel like a “butterfly.” “We all change when we get here,” she asserts. She claims to love Neptune, her Haitian lover. “It would be laughable elsewhere, but not here,” she avers. “Here it isn’t because we are all different.” There’s no irony in her voice. In Haiti, she’s a butterfly rather than a dumpy middle-aged woman; in Haiti, Neptune isn’t really “black.” That is to say, he’s not black in a “negro” way, but rather in an exotic and primitive way. She probably would never identify herself as a racist.
In addition to allowing each of the women to “self present” or “confess,” as the case may be, the film also takes pains to dramatize the differences between Ellen and Brenda. Dark-haired Ellen could be described as a “manly” woman: in control, professional, unemotional; when she’s not wearing a bathing suit, she’s always in pants. She’s also arrogant and bitchy, as when she entertains a group of hotel guests (and their teenage lovers) by making fun of Sue’s weight (imagine the meanest of the popular girls in high school). She’s the one in charge and seems prepared, at first, to mentor Brenda in the ways of the game. In an early sequence that features the three women dining together, Ellen lays it all out for her: the white men down here, she claims, aren’t “the least bit horny.” What is more, “if you’re over forty, the only guys you can interest are natural born losers or husbands whose wives are cheating on them.” Sue chimes in, “Let’s be honest; here I don’t even notice whites.” Ellen is all hard edges; she presents herself as a realist who has assessed the cold, hard facts of her situation and made a decision to pay for what she can no longer, at age fifty-five, hope to get for free. She takes pride in her insouciance as she succinctly explains to Brenda: “I’m crazy about love. Sex and love: I’m not really sure anymore. I always told myself that when I got old, I’d pay young men to love me. I just didn’t think it would happen so fast. Other than that, I have no problem with it.” She doesn’t strike one as the type to be “crazy about love.” Ellen’s perpetual smirk conceals an unacknowledged fragility. The whole façade depends on Legba’s fealty, which Brenda threatens.
In a painful scene, she frolics in the waves with Legba, Putting her head under water, she emerges with her hair flattened out. He tells her she looks old, but she only laughs. At the end of the film, she tells Albert that she had imagined Legba and his friends making fun of her and all the other women, but she avers proudly, “I didn’t mind; I was never afraid of pain.” This seems to capture Albert’s notice. Ellen wants to control Legba, but she also likes to feign powerlessness, as when she tell Brenda that Legba must be given free reign. “He belongs to everyone. He makes the decisions.” Ellen is evidently unaware of the self-contradictory nature of her remark. Brenda does challenge her, though: “He does or you do?” It never occurs to either of them that Legba might belong to himself. When it is discovered that he is in some kind of trouble, she pulls him aside (actually she drags him into the kitchen of the hotel restaurant and orders everyone else to leave), and tells him that “they” can help him. She orders him to stay at the hotel where he will be safe. “You’re not my mother!” he exclaims. She tells him that she can get him a passport and take him to the States, where he won’t have to work. Legba storms out, asserting whatever autonomy he has — the freedom to say no. When he turns up dead, she is appalled at the police inspector’s indifference. In her self-referential world, it is their quarrel that has somehow caused his death. But the inspector is not interested in “an investigation.” Boys like that, he tells her, “often end up that way” (one of the “dime a dozen,” that is, from which the ladies may take their pick). He reminds her that she knows nothing about Legba. When she asks if they might be in danger, he mutters to Albert, in Creole, “Tell her that tourists never die.” Legba’s death appears to have a transformative effect on Ellen. “What am I doing?” she asks Albert. When we last see her, she sits, devastated, in the airport. It is unlikely she will return.
Blond Brenda, in contrast to Ellen, is soft and womanly. She wears dresses and appears, at first, to treat Legba more like an individual than a sex toy. She would be the classic “romance” tourist, except for the fact that she’s also the classic “hysteric,” a term historically associated with female sexual dysfunction. She is so infatuated with Legba that she does not understand the unwritten “rules” that structure the social geography of the hotel. For example, she attempts to bring Legba into the hotel restaurant to eat with her, but Albert refuses to serve him. Sue protests that he always eats with them on the beach, but Albert asserts in the restaurant it is different. Ellen looks on with concern from another table. Albert finally agrees to bring some leftover chicken to Legba (white folks, as usual, call the shots), as Brenda retorts, “It’s incredible how racist they can be!” Ellen joins them, jeering cruelly, “the big boy has made it to the restaurant.” But Brenda has, in effect, rented him for the evening. She suggests they go for a walk on the beach. Ellen remarks to Sue, “It looks like little Brenda knows what she wants.” When they are at a sufficient distance from the hotel, Legba dutifully disrobes. Brenda has, after all, paid for it, but she has a real investment in the emotional aspects of the relationship, at least in the beginning.
Over the course of the film we watch her transformation from a “good girl” into a borderline personality obsessed with nubile black flesh. Distraught by Legba’s disappearance late in the film, she wanders off in search of him. Wandering is always a weighted concept where women are concerned, with its resonances of rule-breaking and boundary crossings. And so Brenda leaves the tourist enclave and makes her way, disheveled and looking a bit off kilter, to a Haitian bar where she makes inquires about Legba. She is clearly the only white person in the place, but she seems oblivious to this fact, a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the boundary-breaking culmination of her narrative arc. She takes a drink and sits down, attracting the attention of a Haitian man. She indicates her interest, and they share an intimate moment on the dance floor as she relaxes blissfully into his arms. The character of Brenda exists, it seems, to dramatize the effects of anorgasmia, at the feet of which all of her pathologies are laid. Her susceptibility to the irrational becomes evident when she succumbs to a drum-induced trance while dancing with Legba. She is also a pill popper and, after Legba’s death, edges closer to a breakdown. In a sequence that takes place in her room where she has come after Legba’s death accompanied by Sue, she is showering while Sue is talking to her from the next room. When Brenda opens the bathroom door, she is briefly nude before wrapping herself in a towel. It is so interesting that the director has chosen this moment, rather than a love scene, to reveal Brenda’s nakedness, and I think we need to consider, not only the symbolic weight of her nudity, but of the shower as well. On the most obvious level, she is cleansed of grief and initiated into a new existential domain, which the film translates as madness. Though the nature of her trajectory has yet to be revealed, her paranoia and hostility to Sue (“Stop looking at me that way. I’m sick of those looks that say poor Brenda, crazy as ever”) prepare us for the film’s culminating judgment of this character. Instead of steering us toward notions of vulnerability and prelapsarian innocence, her nakedness appears sinister. She “opens” the door, but it is a prelude to her embrace of “shameless” sexual predation. We might also say that she has shed the armature of subject formation, sliding tragically (it is suggested) though the grid of intersecting disciplinary regimes that both form and constrain her, freeing her up to embrace an existence wholly given over to sexuality. There is, literally, nothing to hold her back. So, while she had been preoccupied earlier with Legba and whether he had real feelings for her, she now wonders, “Maybe Ellen was right. Maybe I didn’t love Legba. All I know is, I loved the way he looked at me.” She resolves not to go home (“I have no home”), but continue on to all the other islands of the Caribbean. She has become like William Burroughs in Tangier, vowing to “fuck his way” from one end of the city to the other. She is smiling, gazing at the open sea. But, really, she’s a goner.
At the silent heart of the film (and the short story) is Legba, the poor, the compliant, the sublime. But in Laferrière’s story, he is also referred to as a drug dealer and hoodlum in addition to his characterization as a prostitute and gigolo. The film offers no such sense of his agency, so that even in the scenes of his life outside the hotel his powerlessness is the focus of the narrative. His abjection is comparable in some ways to the castrated female of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” who “stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (433). Like the female sex goddess, Legba functions both “as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (436), thereby messing with the signifying power of the Phallus. Taken as a subject position as opposed to as an organizing principle of gender, the Phallus can operate free from anatomy. And so, “as the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of impotence” (437. We could easily substitute the concept of “the colonizer” for the term “male protagonist.”
Legba is first glimpsed lying on the beach, as if dead. It is only when Brenda approaches him and he awakens that we realize he is simply sleeping. His deathlike form on the beach foreshadows his corpse at the end of the film. And, indeed, he is an object, a beautiful dead thing. His passivity is almost a trope. Brenda describes him as “motionless” at the time of their first sexual encounter. Indeed, she throws herself upon his inert body, inert but for the erection, which she discovers after placing her hand inside his swimming trunks. Ellen takes his picture while he is lying face down on the bed, nude. “Don’t move,” she says, and the camera zooms in on the image of his prostrate form that appears in the viewfinder. When not motionless, Legba is seen being treated to lunches on the beach; Ellen discretely places some bills in his pants pocket. Where is Legba in the Oedipal drama that metes out power according to the visibility and invisibility of sex organs?
On the other hand, the film is generous in allowing an imaginative glimpse into life on the streets of Port-au-Prince, including the indignities suffered by the poor at the hands of a local bigwig who wears his power like a pair of outsize testicles. Legba is a witness to this, but he is impotent in the face of administrative abuse and terror. We see the price to be paid for inadvertently crossing the line. One day, on the streets of Port-au-Prince, he is followed by a menacing limousine. Inside, it turns out, is his former Haitian girlfriend. She invites him into the car to share a few words, explaining how she came to be kept by the Colonel, and implores him to be her friend. Subsequently they are both shot and dumped on the beach. Legba’s powerlessness is near absolute. He is caught between the hard oppression of a vicious dictatorship and the soft oppression of his female masters. But the latter has its limits. Legba, after all, could have taken Ellen up on her offer to return to the States with her, but he vehemently rejects that idea. What remains hidden and of no interest to Brenda and Ellen is crucial to our understanding of Legba’s predicament. His death, for example, is beyond the scope of their capacity to either control or understand. In this respect, the film’s postcolonial sensibilities dramatically foreground the continuities between private acts of exploitation and political oppression, both of which extract their heaviest pound of flesh from the poor. On the other hand, in director Cantet’s zeal to expose the degradations suffered by the powerless and disenfranchised, he implicates his female characters a bit too mercilessly in this assault on human dignity. Cantet has argued that the film makes a serious attempt to explore women’s desire. “The desire of women is not often talked about in cinema, especially if it concerns women over forty,” he explains. “Here, not only do we talk about it, we listen to the women themselves talk about it.” And yet his film seems to tear its characters apart for acting on it; their narrative of abjection can only be realized by aligning them, in a “micro” sense, to be sure, with the master narrative of conquest and imperialism that is such a familiar feature of the contact zone.
The postcolonial perspective of Heading South is articulated by Albert, under whose judgmental eye this sex trade goes on year after year. A liminal figure, he the only character who mediates between north and south, a function he performs quite literally as he shuttles the women back and forth between the hotel and the airport. His “interview” with the unseen interrogator reveals his inherited hatred of white people and particularly Americans, whom he identifies as “invaders” and “occupiers.” His bitter summation tells the whole story: “This time the invaders aren’t armed, but they have more damaging weapons than arms: dollars! So that everything they touch turns to garbage.” Here the camera cuts to Legba lying on the beach. “The whole country is rotten.” While the film endorses Albert’s struggle for dignity in his role as witness to the “garbage production” that the sex tourism embodies, his humanity and manhood are clearly invisible to Ellen. After Legba’s death, she shares with Albert an erotic reverie about Legba. Albert receives this information dispassionately; he does not acknowledge her words, and his averted gaze is a powerful register of the subjectivity that Ellen disregards. Being forced to bear witness against his will, he too has been, effectively, emasculated, turned to garbage.
Prostitution in the modern world always begins with the idea of poverty. And yet the “protocol” of sex tourism as depicted in the film requires that its players somehow mask the asymmetrical nature of their relations with, at times, an absurd appearance of heteronormativity. Outright payment is discomfiting. Gifts and meals are not. Every attempt is made to preserve the fiction, not only of romance, but of Legba’s autonomy as well. If he gets to “choose,” well, you’re not buying his services. It preserves his dignity and allows the women to feel desirable. In a particularly jarring sequence, Legba is seen on a “date” in town with Brenda. He is dressed in a neatly pressed shirt and pants escorting her out of a cab (and paying the cab fare) and through the crowded streets of Port-au-Prince. He even buys her a tobacco doll from one of the market vendors and tips some locals who have consented to having their picture taken by Brenda. This seems consistent with the charming hustlers who narrate many of the Laferrière tales, but not with Legba (who doesn’t seem to own clothes, much less such well-tended ones). Heteronormal values are hard to shed, even as race and class have reversed the “natural” order.
What makes the pretense of romance particularly hollow, beyond the literal prostitution that it softens and prettifies, is that there is no “relation” to speak of, no intersubjective connection between the women and their lovers. Just as they dislike blacks up north for the color of their skin, they like them “down here” for that very reason. The process of Othering, a legacy of colonialism, makes the very idea of intimacy seem ridiculous, yet both Ellen and Brenda are convinced that Legba loves them. Though the viewer might well cringe, they appear to show no sense of embarrassment, each quick to rifle through her bag, when he must ask for bus fare to go into town. These are women, moreover, who evince no interest in Haiti or the lives of the boys they sleep with. Ellen doesn’t even like to go the colorful market, though Sue finds it good place to pick up tchotchkes. And the less they know and the less subjectivity they grant, the more these boys can function as magic mirrors, reflecting back the image of the desirable woman. This, as much as the sex, is what they pay for.
Ellen, Brenda, and Sue all share a common attitude toward the black men they desire. They all seem to agree that black men are “different” in Haiti than they are up north. Brenda wonders if it’s because they’re closer to nature, or maybe it’s the sun; she decides they’re more “gracious.” Ever the pragmatist, Ellen proclaims that the big difference is that here “you see them stripped to the waist” which embarrasses Brenda. Ellen intuits Brenda’s reason for returning to Haiti. She tells Brenda that these cute guys “are a dime a dozen. Take your pick.” On the one hand, they appear to be fungible; on the other, they are objects of obsessive attachment. Despite the emotional investments of these women in individual black men, their discourse is full of racist and exoticist assumptions. Up north, Sue would never date a black man. Ellen dislikes “black guys in Harlem.” She complains later, in the presence of Legba, that a shirt Brenda has purchased for him makes him look like a “black in Harlem.”
How does the film mete out its justice? Ellen, whose raison d’etre, it seems, is enjoying the attention and sexual prowess of Legba in her Haitian retreat, is expelled from paradise. Of the three women, she is the most capable of transformation, but the film does not grant her this. She understands that her “relation” to Legba, and perhaps to Haiti as well, was not as she had imagined, but that’s about as far as it goes. It seems unfair somehow, to deny her the very insights that the film is so keen on delivering to the audience. Brenda, the sexually frustrated bourgeoise, finally comes into her own as a loose cannon. Having bought in to her new drug of choice — young black bodies — she is prepared to fuck her way through the Caribbean. Her “nymphomania” is inseparable from her identity as a privileged white woman whose economic status allows her buy the services of impoverished native boys to satisfy her now insatiable libido. She will probably end up dead in some island dive. The movie appears to give Sue a pass by virtue of her class status and her weight — and perhaps because she is Canadian. She even insists on carrying her own stuff when the group goes off on a picnic, refusing the proffered assistance of one of the boys. All three women are in Haiti because of their failure to meet the feminine ideal, the standard of desirability: Ellen is too old, Sue too fat and working class, and Brenda is frigid. With the qualified exception of Ellen, they have learned nothing. The movie offers nothing to women like them either. Let’s put them at one pole. At the other end we have Stella.
It might be useful to contrast the text of “Heading South” by Laferrière with Heading South, the film. The short story is part of a “novel” composed of loosely connected narratives translated into English under the title Heading South. In that work, “Heading South” is somewhat anomalous in having no narrator, as such. It is composed, as stated previously, of “testimony.” Beyond that distinction, it is the only one of the stories to offer the perspectives of white tourists. To be sure, there are other white characters in the novel, but these are individuals who are, more or less, permanently established (or become so) in Haiti. Taken as a whole, the text is very spirited and generous, offering an earthy and risqué portrait of ethnosexual race relations in modern Haiti. While the character of Legba is briefly mentioned in one of the stories, he is featured only in “Heading South” but not as a speaking character. In “Beach Bar,” three of the beach boys sit at Albert’s bar and have a laugh over the women that they service. They are so different in tone from Legba, as Cantet chooses to represent him. What’s more, Haitian society is far more fluid and lively than is hinted at in the film. The young men are resourceful and clever; they give as good as they get. The sex between female tourists and black boys is on a continuum with that carried on in the society at large. Everyone does it, even Albert, who has a sexual liaison with Legba on the beach. That would certainly have complicated Cantet’s screenplay! His directorial decisions, therefore, point to a set of preoccupations that are, for the most part, absent from the original.
Heading South does not equivocate. Sex tourism is on a continuum with colonialism; it is the softer side of oppression, but it robs its impoverished victims of their humanity and dignity nevertheless. How profoundly depressing to witness the discredited narrative of colonial domination and white culpability gaining new currency by shifting the burden of guilt from men to women! The film’s takeaway forecloses any positive outlet for the older woman’s sexuality. She is alternately pitied and scorned, a resounding endorsement for celibacy! Finally, female sex tourism on film is not scandalously prurient. On the contrary, it tends toward the inane or the embarrassing. It breaks no new ground, offers no creative way out of the fixed binaries, which are already overrepresented in pop culture. It may stage certain reversals (even as it repudiates them) but does not tamper with notions of hierarchy. More importantly, the representation of sex tourism in these films resonates with a profound discomfort in matters relating to the mature woman’s sexuality. Investing that sexuality with a power that, once acknowledged, must then be domesticated or discredited, these films appear to endorse a depressing and retrograde antifeminism.
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