Photograph by DVSROSS on Wikimedia

“I Create My Own Space”: A Conversation about Fierceness

Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric by madison moore is an exploration of what it means to be fabulous—and why eccentric style, fashion, and creativity are more political than ever. madison moore answers these questions in a timely and fascinating book that explores how queer, brown, and other marginalized outsiders use ideas, style, and creativity in everyday life.

We celebrate Pride Month 2023 with a selection of excerpts, featuring titles about gay icons and artists, legal debates and triumphs, cultural and literary criticism, works by LGBTQ+ authors, and more.

madison moore—

S T Y L E I S P O L I T I C A L . The way we dress shapes how strangers react to us as we walk down the street, and it alters the dynamics of a room the moment we walk through the door. More than just looking good and showing off, style is also about conceptualizing a unique version of the world—a separate dimension, a portal—and bringing that world/portal/dimension with us everywhere we go. Fierce—a word that indicates the potential violence of style—highlights what aesthetic visions do: they create chaos. In this interview I discuss the power and chaos of fierceness, eccentricity, and radical styling with an untenured black female scholar who has been told more than once, and by more than one institution, to tone down her look, an unsubtle suggestion that blackness, wherever it appears, always presents a surplus, an excess that needs to be tamed. But instead of allowing that excess to be suppressed and placed under punitive surveillance, she has used it to create space for herself on her own terms.

Fierceness is a term that I think captures the political heft of what eccentricity is and how style impacts people in the here and now. It’s a violent word—FIERCE!—but I’d like to think of that violence as creative and aesthetic rather than punitive or harmful. There’s an urgency, an immediacy with fierceness. Instead of asking for permission to exist, fierceness seizes that permission and places a lien on it. And in the process it creates space. I’m wondering how practicing fierceness in everyday life has impacted you personally, creatively, and professionally.

When I hear that term it makes me think of a James Baldwin quote from his 1962 article in the New Yorker titled “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which is: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does.” I feel like sensuality and being present in your body—to me fierce is being present and occupying that space. You’re saying, this is my space. It is uniquely mine, and by uniquely mine I don’t mean this sort of rugged individualism, but uniquely mine as this intersection of categories, realities, and aesthetics that come together in this body. That’s what fierceness is—that flatfooted grandma stance. “Take it. Do what you will with it, but take it.” For me, that’s fierce. Just standing in one’s own space.

You have such a great sense of style, but even in the twenty-first century there are folks out there who think that having style or being expressive automatically means you’re empty intellectually or that all you care about is the surface. Have you faced any style-induced struggles or policing, especially as a black female scholar working in a largely white university context?

There are so many challenges at so many times to my authority as a scholar, my authority as an intellect, my legitimacy as a scholar, the rigor of my work based on my positionality, so for me, when I give that job talk or that conference paper, it’s about saying, “I’m here. I’m standing in this space and I’m representing everybody who came before me.” And it’s my armor. It’s me saying: “I’m going to be myself and that’s going to be expressed in my work, in my dress, in the way I move, in the way I talk.” I express myself in my gesture, in my look for the day, in my shoe choice, in my earrings. And I just feel like all of that allows me one more level of exclusion, and it kind of sets the tone for me to say, “This is me. This is my work. This is what I do.” I feel like I use fierceness to put people on notice.

I had pushback in grad school. Professors who looked out for me, who really believed in me, who said: “You look like you spend so much time and money on your outward appearance that you don’t seem serious. That can be a hindrance for you.” But if I’m going to be in this space, I’m going to be me. To borrow a phrase from [the rapper] Fabolous, you can get down or you can lay down. I’m coming! So I think my clothes help me do that. My look helps me do that. It’s me expressing myself in this space where I’m not supposed to be.

When I look at my grandmother and the women who came before me, they occupied an even more contested space. It’s always about being subservient. So my grandmother would be walking into those homes while she was cleaning them, while she was earning her master’s degree, in her fiercest coat with the full collar and saying, “You may think that this work defines me, but I define myself. Here’s how I signify that to you—in my look.”

Whenever I hear folks say that fashion and style aren’t political, or that fashion shouldn’t matter, I think about the people out there who feel compelled to turn down their outward appearance just so they can walk down the street and get a sandwich or because they want to be loved. More people should realize how dehumanizing it is to feel pressure to renounce yourself just so you can walk down the street, be taken seriously, or keep your job.

I think when one of my advisors said to me, “I know where you spend all of your stipend,” it made me . . . I already felt like I was in a space where I don’t belong, so that signaled that I need to signal to people that I’m serious, so that they’ll take me seriously. So, let me tone down my earrings, let me tone down my bangles, let me put on my flat shoes and give them what they need to feel comfortable. But it just made me feel even less like myself and even less like I belonged there. Because in truth, I realize that I don’t belong anywhere. I create my own space. And I do that by being myself. So I put back on my bangles, I put back on my wedges and my four-inch heels. Everybody else can walk in flats, if that’s your space: work. I love a ballet flat. It’s just not my thing. So I’ve gone back to what makes me comfortable, and I’ve found that I’m a better professor, I’m a better teacher, I’m better when I’m in my own space. I’m not uncomfortable, I’m not resentful. When you surrender parts of yourself, you become incredibly bitter and incredibly resentful. So I’m not a good mentor when I’m trying to fit into someone else’s model, I’m not a good scholar. It’s no small thing to be yourself. If I have to do it somebody else’s way, I’m not going to do it.

You’re talking about inhabiting your own space and not waiting to be given permission. I know it sounds very utopian, which I don’t think is a bad thing, but it’s clear that the forces that oppress us—capitalism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, systemic inequality—are not going to collapse or disappear in our lifetimes. Are we all supposed to wait until we have achieved equality for everyone once and for all? I don’t think so, because that day may never come. And that’s why I think it’s so important to express ourselves immediately, right now, and to hell with people who don’t get it.

When I think about fierceness I equate it with what I heard growing up in the church. And it’s this spirit of excellence.You step out, you come for everybody. If you’re going to do it, do it all the way. And those church ladies with their big hats, they are like . . . what! And all for the glory of god. I love that. It’s just like everything to the fullest. Some people—even though they admire a fierce person, they kind of shy away from it, thinking either they can’t be like that or it’s a performance. And I think everything is a performance in some way, but it’s not a performance in the way that people think. It is the fullest expression. Encouraging people to bring more of themselves to a space is something I encourage students to do all the time, because the space needs you.

Fierce is the highest level of expression, the deepest form of engagement. Fierce is not just a look. You know, RuPaul is fierce. Nobody comes for RuPaul. And it’s not because he has the face that’s beat, it’s because he will read you. Don’t come for him. Don’t. He’s not just a pretty face. He can tell you about any number of topics. When you come across somebody that’s fierce, you’re not just looking at a look. You’re looking at someone who owns the space. Of course that’s a tool for success, because it’s about an incredible look, a high level of skill, and the ability to present it all in one. That’s what makes people amazing.

How do you think fabulous eccentricity impacts people in their everyday lives?

When I see fabulous people I feel like I can be more of myself. When I see RuPaul I’m like, “That cheek is killing me. I’m going to do mine just like that.” It draws you in to say. . . there’s more. There’s more of me to express, there’s more joy, there’s more beauty. There’s something joyous about fierceness. Fabulousness makes people want to be more themselves. And we let them have it. It’s an armor. It readies you for battle. It’s my way of saying, “I’m myself,” it sets my energy and it sets my tone, but when I’m dressed, I feel my grandmother with me, I feel like I’m not alone.

Probably the most difficult thing about choosing to stand out is that it so closely courts risk and danger. By being yourself and living your own fantasy, you’re also subject to surveillance and policing and you become a potential target for any level of violence. What’s so compelling, I find, is that folks take the risk anyway.

People won’t be comfortable. There are people out there who aren’t comfortable with me now, and they wouldn’t be comfortable with me if I was any less extra. Out of the history from which fierce comes, these are people that are already marginalized, so it’s not like the spaces we’re occupying are welcome to us in the first place. Walking into the space as I am lets them know that I’m comfortable with this body that they’re not comfortable with. And that’s a risk, because people don’t want you to be comfortable and confident if they’re not comfortable with who you are. But we do live in the social world, so what are we supposed to do? Wear one bangle instead of twenty? It’s tough, because we do have workspaces and we do have to feed our families and we do have to walk down the street. Sometimes you have to fold into the pressure, but you know, I’m always like . . . let me put on something extra underneath! You know, to sort of be myself. I think you always have to have a reserve. The self has to be expressed. It does. People need to know that you can carve out a space for yourself where you don’t have to surrender at all.

Fierceness, fabulousness, and all other visions of spectacular appearance are about imagining space and carving it out for yourself in the here and now, not waiting for the right time to do so in the future. This is important because brown people live in an ecosystem that is constantly on the attack, one that steadily reminds us that we are “too much,” “over the top,” and that we ought to “tone it down” or suffer the consequences. “Renounce yourself,” the philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote, “or suffer the penalty of being suppressed; do not appear if you do not want to disappear. Your existence will be maintained only at the cost of your nullification.”1 What he’s saying is that society wants weirdos, outcasts, and eccentrics to be suppressed, and it will systematically penalize anyone who steps too far out of the box. The only way to stay alive and safe, Foucault says, is to participate in the fantasy of a bland, normative group consciousness.

But fabulousness resonates and has value, I think, when we decide not to cave in to this oppressive ecosystem but to confront it with our versions of the world. At some point we do cave to the demands—we take off our bangles and we take off our wedged heels, so to speak—but soon enough the things we do to feel “safe” don’t necessarily feel safe anymore. They produce just as much anxiety as the fear and reality of being reprimanded verbally, physically, and professionally. So when we say, “This is my space,” we’re creating the tiniest utopia and asserting ourselves in a world we’re not supposed to inhabit, and that is a beautiful gesture.

There are folks we will make uncomfortable whether or not we’re fully expressing ourselves. They don’t like us, so why should we walk around looking so fabulous and free? But how does the way we inhabit our bodies have anything to do with anybody else? Why do you feel so threatened by how comfortable we are with ourselves? How does the way we dress have anything to do with the way we teach, the art we make, the kind of friend or lover we are, the food we make, the intellectual work we do, or any of our other talents and contributions? We know that the more visible we are, the more we are also subject to surveillance. But we shouldn’t let oppressive systems zap all our joy and vibrancy. The second they do—the second we throw in the towel and renounce ourselves, as Foucault put it—the system wins.

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 84.

From Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric by madison moore. Published by Yale University Press in 2018. Reproduced with permission.

madison moore, PhD, is a cultural critic and DJ whose writing has appeared in TheaterThe Paris ReviewCrack MagazineJournal of Popular Music StudiesApertureThought CatalogOutSplice Today, and Interview. Born in Ferguson, Missouri, madison currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, where they are an Assistant Professor of Queer Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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