For Romeo and Juliet, High School Never Ends

Myyki Blanco’s music video High School Never Ends riffs off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to explore homophobia, violence directed at an identifiable Other, and the thin line between being designated as “in” but not “of” Europe or other geopolitically defined spaces. Directed by Mark Lambert, with cinematography by Martin Ruhe, the video is styled as a short film. Set in rural Germany, the video features Blanco, an American hip-hop artist who identifies as transgender, in a relationship with a member of a street gang.  There is a dense visual language here, with Shakespeare’s iconic lovers as only one among a range of cultural references. But the video cues its audience to its Shakespearean intertext, quoting from the play’s prologue – “Two households, both alike in dignity […], From ancient grudge break to new mutiny” – in its opening titles. In this queer adaptation, Romeo and Juliet are less signifiers of amor vincit omnia than of violence and hate crimes as recurrent, relentless realities. Blanco and Lambert have drawn analogies between their production and the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe:

“It never once overtly comments on orientation or race, but only ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” explains Lambert.

Blanco adds:

“I had once thought Europe was my safe haven from American white supremacy, and how wrong I became.”

From the invocation of place – of America, of Europe – we move to the suggestion of heterotopias and alternate stories to the binary logic of “us” and “them”. The video intercuts images of the adult Romeo and Juliet figures with scenes of their teen counterparts, at once suggesting a lost innocence, a time before their bodies and desires were named and categorised as aberrant, and at the same time reflecting on the destructive repetition of phobic attitudes to successive generations of those deemed queer or deviant based on race, gender, or sexuality.

The video adapts the play’s own conjuring of Romeo and Juliet as existing beyond the space and time of their family’s grudge, bending it to contemporary iterations of race, gender and sexuality without reducing text or context. Blanco and Lambert might be said to identify the play’s legacy or its affect not as tragedy but love, in terms provided by Carlos Antônio Leite Brandão when he writes that

“the play makes us rediscover a kind of love that is free, a way to construct our humanity and our fate, which we are responsible for in a world dominated by business and by pragmatic, banal, and utilitarian relationships. Such love […] is really what must also be performed in our twenty-first century Veronas.”

Working by implication and a transfer of meanings, High School Never Ends suggests one kind of contemporary Verona based on violence, intolerance and hatred of the racialized Other, while it also gestures toward a space of possibility for Europe, a symbolic “Verona” in which an ethical responsibility to the Other is recognised. Romeo and Juliet emerges in this iteration as “European,” not in some essentialist sense of primary origin but rather as a text that speaks to the vicissitudes of contemporary European identity politics.

For more on Romeo and Juliet’s afterlives, see Stephen O’Neill’s “‘In fair [Europe], where we lay our scene”: Romeo and Juliet, Europe and digital cultures'” in Romeo and Juliet in European Culture, eds. Juan F. Cerdá, Dirk Delabastita, Keith Gregor (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2017).

What if Desdemona had a Sassy Gay Friend?

Sassy Gay Friend, a series by Second City Network, has become something of a YouTube phenomenon. It might be more accurately described as a meme. In the videos, iconic women from history and literature – including Eve, Ophelia, and Desdemona – are visited from the future by a gay best friend, who alerts them to the absurdity of the plot conventions, cultural myths and patriarchal ideologies that surround them. Sassy Gay Friend: Othello opens with Desdemona on her bed. A voiceover, in a mock-serious tone, explains: ‘Meet Desdemona from Shakespeare’s Othello. She is waiting in her bed to be murdered by her husband. This fate could have been avoided if she had had a Sassy Gay Friend’. Cue the emergence from a closet (the humour is not especially subtle) of the eponymous gay friend, played by Brian Gallivan. The video presumes a broad familiarity with the play’s plot, here comically distilled into its core elements as Sassy Gay Friend explains matters to Desdemona and repeatedly urges her to leave: ‘Tina Turner, we gotta private dance it out of here’. The pun on Turner’s song is indicative of the sketch’s easy humour. But the reference to the singer (who endured an abusive relationship at the hands of her partner Ike Turner) and to this particular song (about a woman who makes her living by dancing for the pleasure of men) has the effect of interpreting Othello as a text of male domestic violence and of the objectification of women.Other puns knowingly exploit established racial stereotypes about black men: ‘Does Moor mean more?’ he asks Desdemona and, as she laughs, adds, ‘now I’m being racist’. The video ends with the series’ catchphrase, ‘Now I’m being a stupid bitch … I’m such a stupid bitch’.

As its idiom and catchphrases suggest, Sassy Gay Friend is largely about the gags. What we have here is a fairly safe form of queerness and of homosexuality, one that presents the gay man as possessing a valuable commodity (his savvy attitude), to be extended back in time to literature’s clueless heroines. Yet the laughter is dependent on the queer advice that Desdemona receives. Perhaps the video ultimately does imply a queer reading of Othello, one that parodies traditional masculinity, while simultaneously questioning the role assigned to women by the forms of heterosexual desire as expressed in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Parody becomes an instinctively queer form here, encouraging us to look again or anew. High camp and fast-paced, Sassy Gay Friend: Othello deploys a postmodern knowingness to debunk the canonical Shakespeare and its complicity with such grand narratives as patriarchy.

You can read more about race and gender in YouTube Shakespeare in Chapter Three of Shakespeare and YouTube:

Race and YouTube Shakespeare: The Story of Othello

Billed as a trailer for the Red Door Theater’s production of ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged]’, The Story of Othello was commissioned by the theatre company as a backdrop to the live performance. Directed by Derrick Acosta of Mega64, The Story of Othello riffs off Reduced Shakespeare’s Othello Rap, reworking its opening lines and including visual cues to their Shakespearean style costumes. The video exemplifies a form of response to Othello in popular culture and on YouTube more specifically. Here, the play’s interweaving of race and sex is treated comically through parody and exaggerated performance. Two specific genres are targeted, namely the hip-hop and the boy-band music video. But it is with the treatment of race that The Story of Othello proves most interesting. The characterization of Othello is semiotically loaded with a specific cue, since the actor (Shaun Conde) wears an Afro wig. His direct performance to camera, another device from the music video that is patently parodied here, is interspersed with close-ups introducing the characters and title sequences which emphasize the narrative aspects of the rap. Parody can have a range of effects, from complict laughter with the stereotypes invoked to a laughter informed by critical distance. But as parody becomes one of the predominant modes on YouTube, does it not risk re-activating the very strereotype that is its target? The Story of Othello’s humour has the potential to put into circulation in an uncritical way a series of racial stereotypes as well as troublesome attitudes to sexuality. The comic treatment of Othello’s sexual desire for white women is a case in point: the refrain of the song playfully suggests Othello’s obsessive tendencies: ‘He said girl, you know I think you’re fine/ Girl I’m gonna make you mine/ Desdemona you’re making me groana/ You’re the hottest white woman on this side of Verona’. The specificity of Othello’s sexual preferences are further suggested, as we see a close-up of a lustful Othello, before the video cuts back to the rappers making pelvic thrusts to camera at the thought of Desdemona, followed by the rapper Dallas’s direct address to camera: ‘White women, where you at?’ Othello is presented as obsessively desiring Desdemona and the whiteness that she symbolizes for him. The video offers a parody of the gender politics of Othello, and also of hip-hop videos, especially the privileging of the male gaze and the positioning of woman as the object of desire. Yet it also trades in a set of stereotypes of voracious black male sexuality and the threat of rape that it has carried in the (white) cultural imaginary. While the narrative establishes Iago as the root of marital destruction – ‘There was a bad dude / Iago, such a menace/ He didn’t like Othello, the Moor of Venice’ – it simultaneously dwells on Othello’s destructive obsessiveness, both in an action sequence in which Othello leans over and smothers a sleeping Desdemona. The gestures and dance moves accompanying the final chorus signal a performative attitude to, and parody of, the hyper-masculinity of R&B and its address to women. But as the video cuts to an image of Othello hanging from a doorframe – ‘Yo, then he killed himself too, peace’ – it is not clear how such playfulness and irony applies to his story and its racialized baggage. Perhaps registering the difficulty of Othello itself, The Story of Othello seems contradictory. Its ironic aesthetic at once facilitates the disclosure of cultural stereotypes about race and sexuality as found in Shakespeare and contemporary urban music. Yet it also re-activates problematic associations between blackness and violence against women. Read more about this video and race in YouTube Shakespeare in Chapter three of Shakespeare and YouTube