An exploration of sexuality in the performances of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton and Ma Rainey

In the film “Bessie”, director Dee Rees captures the tough, fiercely independent persona of Bessie Smith as an extension of her ravage vocal cords and enigmatic performances. Bessie begins as a struggling young singer and is taken under the wing of Ma Rainey who pushes her confidence on stage as a powerful vocal performer. Ma Rainey compares ambition to a hole in the stomach, saying, “You got to fill up that hole yourself, sweetheart. Nothing and nobody else will fill it”. Rainey performs masculinity in dressing up in a man’s suit on stage and singing the blues in a passionate low vibrato. Blues music allowed for Bessie and Ma Rainey to face the issues of sexuality head on. Bessie and Ma Rainey both exhibit fluid sexual identities  in exploring lesbian dalliances and cross-dressing on stage. These women provided their audiences across the country with alternative ways of conceptualizing their own sexual identities. Josh Kum depicts Bessie as “the dame of an era of transvestism, sexual exploration, and rampant gender-bending. She was a central figure in a blues world populated by stage after stage and rent party after rent party of, as “Foolish Man Blues” puts it, “mannish –acting women” and “skipping twistin’ woman-acting men” (Kum, 109).

After performing as an open act for Ma Rainey, Bessie strikes out on her own in building her own audience and head-lining a tour. Bessie demonstrates a fierce authority over her own music and discourse in a predominately white male music industry. At the party scene, Bessie splashes her drink in the face of a white liberal author who fawns over her “dusky pathos”. As even in the most glamorous party settings, Bessie stays true to her strong female and black identity. In the film Bessie seems to become an icon for female strength and independence in striking out of her own and pioneering the blues. In the performances of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Willie Mae Thornton maintain a confident attitude in placing sexuality and play with gender expectations in the foreground. Big Mama Thornton deep husky vocals on “Hound Dog” have resident and forceful vocals. In Elvis Presley’s rendition he simplifies the lyrics into a “gender- appropriate narrative and picks up the pace of the tune a little, adds a hiccup to “crying” so that it becomes “cry-hin”(Halberstam, 188). Ironically, Presley’s masculinity comes into being in part as he draws on Thornton’s confrontational black femininity.

 

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