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Bessie Cassidy

The 2015 film, While You Weren’t Looking, is a drama set in modern day South Africa which follows the lives of Terri and Dez, a wealthy, middle aged, mixed-race lesbian couple and their adopted daughter Asanda. At the beginning of the film, Terri and Dez appear to be a happy couple who still have a great amount of excitement in their marriage. However, after Terri discovers a hidden gift purchased by Dez that is never given to her, she begins to questions Dez’s fidelity, and cracks in their marriage begin to show. While all of this is unfolding, their 18 year old daughter Asanda is beginning to explore her sexuality. Her self-exploration is sparked by her kissing Shado, a queer character, who identifies as a “tommyboy,” at a club. Shado is from Khayalitsha, a poor township outside of the urban area of South Africa where Asanda lives. Through the depiction of these character’s stories, the film explores many of the different ways in which gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and class can intersect to shape people’s lives. As will be discussed, the film, While You Weren’t Looking, both contradicts and reinforces typical, heteronormative notions of family and domesticity, provides important representation for gender non-conforming people, and highlights the important role class oppression can play in gender and race oppression.

The lesbian couple in the film, Dez and Terri ...

The 2015 film, While You Weren’t Looking, is a drama set in modern day South Africa which follows the lives of Terri and Dez, a wealthy, middle aged, mixed-race lesbian couple and their adopted daughter Asanda. At the beginning of the film, Terri and Dez appear to be a happy couple who still have a great amount of excitement in their marriage. However, after Terri discovers a hidden gift purchased by Dez that is never given to her, she begins to questions Dez’s fidelity, and cracks in their marriage begin to show. While all of this is unfolding, their 18 year old daughter Asanda is beginning to explore her sexuality. Her self-exploration is sparked by her kissing Shado, a queer character, who identifies as a “tommyboy,” at a club. Shado is from Khayalitsha, a poor township outside of the urban area of South Africa where Asanda lives. Through the depiction of these character’s stories, the film explores many of the different ways in which gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and class can intersect to shape people’s lives. As will be discussed, the film, While You Weren’t Looking, both contradicts and reinforces typical, heteronormative notions of family and domesticity, provides important representation for gender non-conforming people, and highlights the important role class oppression can play in gender and race oppression.

The lesbian couple in the film, Dez and Terri, represent a fascinating mixture of both traditional and unconventional family values. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, heteronormativity is: “the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.” Dez and Terri’s unapologetic existence as a homosexual couple in a society where heterosexuality is dominant undoubtedly challenges the idea that straight love is the only normal way to express love. However, in the reading entitled “The New Gay Domesticity: Homonormativity in ABC’s Brothers and Sisters.” Gust Yep and Allen Conkle discuss a concept known as “homonormativity.” This concept is best explained by Lisa Duggan in her book entitled, The Twilight of Democracy?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy as: “A politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture.” (Duggan, 179). In Dez and Terri’s relationship, Dez is the breadwinner who fills a more typically “masculine” role. When Dez and Terri show up to a party together, Dez wears a suit while Terri wears a dress. This can be seen as symbolic of a normalized relationship between a man and a woman, and therefor conforms with the idea of “homonormativity” discussed in the readings. Dez and Terri also adopted a child, which can also be seen as an attempt at conforming to heteronormative familial expectations. The representation of Dez and Terri’s relationship in the film allows for a complex discussion on dominant social norms not only in society as a whole but also in the LGBTQ community.

The character Shado, who becomes Asanda’s love interest in the film does not conform to either typical male or female gender norms. Shado completely rejects the conventional feminine identity that is “often framed as the most valid, appropriate or good one.” (Meyer, Milestone, 93) by refusing to conform to conventional beauty ideals, which are a key aspect of mainstream femininity. Instead of attempting to be “attractive” by wearing revealing clothes or having long hair, Shado dresses in a more typically “masculine” way. However, Shado does not conform to typical standards of masculinity either. At the end of the film, Asanda is found in Shado’s bed by Shado’s brother’s boss who says to Shado: “You want to be a man so bad, I’ll show you what a real man does.” (While You Weren’t Looking, 2015) and begins to undress, signifying he is going to force himself sexually onto Asanda. This scene exposes how traditional masculinity expects men to be aggressive, violent, and see women as sexual objects to serve their “natural…strong sex drive which has to be continually satisfied.” (Meyer, Milestone, 115). Shado’s presence in the film acts as an extremely important step towards including more gender-queer representation in modern media.

One more important aspect of the film to note when analyzing it through an intersectional lens is how class differentiates Asanda and Shado’s experiences as two young, queer, Black, non-male characters. Kimberle Crenshaw writes in her essay: “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color:” “Where systems of race, gender and class domination converge…the experiences of women who do not share the same class or race backgrounds will be of limited help to women who because of race and class face different obstacles.” (Crenshaw, 1246). In the film, although Asanda and Shado were both susceptible to racialized misogyny and homophobia, Shado’s low socio-economic class prevented Shado from having the same shelter from violence that Asada did in her secure home in a wealthy area. This aspect of the film reminds the audience how crucial of a role class can play in shaping people’s experiences with oppression.

Overall, While You Weren’t Looking, is a film that explores many different intersections of power and has the potential to open up various important discussions. Through it’s depiction of Dez and Terri’s lesbian relationship, the film succeeds at challenging exclusively heterosexual representations of relationships and families in media, however, understanding the concept of “homonormativity” brings up a variety of important questions regarding whether or not existing representations of homosexuality in the media effectively challenge heteronormative expectations of relationships and families. The film also succeeds at providing complex and positive media representation for gender non-conforming Black youth, which is something that is rarely found in mainstream Hollywood films. Finally, the film highlights the extremely large role that class can play in how a person experiences oppression. Seeing the difference between Shado and Asanda’s lives encourages the audience to improve their understanding of the concept of intersectionality. Although the film has its flaws, it is ultimately a positive piece of media which both challenges social norms and inspires critical thought.

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