What does it mean to be “attracted” to someone? What does it mean to find a person desirable? With whom do we want to have sex and why? How do we know a person is beautiful? Are our attractions unchangeable and innate, or are they shaped by the world around us?
These are some of the questions explored in the documentary No Fats, No Femmes by Brooklyn-based media maker, Jamal Lewis. The film – it’s title reflective of a common refrain on gay dating app profiles indicating in whom a user is uninterested – intends to “interrogate and explore desire and the ways in which it is deeply informed by media, pop culture, and capitalism through interviews, archival research, and performance.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Jamal about the film, the politics of desire, media erasure, and the necessity of raising the voice of the most marginalized in every aspect of our lives – even our arguably most sacred, that of intimacy.
Hari: Thanks so much for speaking with me, Jamal. I’ve been watching you put No Fats, No Femmes together from a distance for a while now and I’m so excited about to see it come together!
Jamal: My pleasure – I’m excited for the opportunity to chat with you.
H: This conversation couldn’t come at a better time for me. The politics of desirability has been something that has been on my mind for quite a bit, and it’s something I think goes completely under-explored.
What made this documentary something you felt needed to be out there at this moment?
J: The vision for this documentary came to me during my time in undergrad (3 years ago). I was scrolling through Jack’d one evening and found myself completely frustrated by numerous profiles boasting a “masc for masc” bravado and listing “no fats no fems” as their “preference” and something that they didn’t want. Like, almost every profile. And I’m just thinking to myself, “damn! there is no end to this shit.”
So, I decided that I’d type this long ass message on my profile offering social critique about those profiles I’d encountered to see what folk’s response to me would be. Chile, people were not interested in that; they were very much so interested in and deeply invested in getting a nut. Some folks would respond with praise and affirmations about my confidence and intellectual fortitude — a “yaaaaaas” and “go awffffff” here and there. But it would end there. Fine.
Because I am very introspective, I’d often sit with myself and work through my thoughts about what I was saying, which would lead to me changing the profile — over and over again — to later erasing it all together. I eventually created a new one later just for my working idea about the film with a call for doc subjects on the profile. My pictures were up but I’d only had things about the film in the about me section.
H: What was the response when you mentioned you were interested in documenting this?
J: To be frank, I hardly received responses. A few folks would respond saying it was a good idea but no one really engaged me in a way that satisfied me. That was the moment I decided to take it on as a research and life project. Not just out of the bitterness of my own dating woes, but out of a critical curiosity to interrogate why we like what we like, and what informs it; who gets to be desirable and why; who doesn’t and why.
H: It’s so interesting. I come up against this a lot in my own conversations – this unwillingness to recognize how love, fucking and whom we find attractive is political. It’s like we, as a society, have created this whole untouchable area around intimacy in our lives – and perhaps the most important area – the area I think could use the most critique – leading to this massive resistance around analyzing any decisions relating to love and sex.
You hear terms like “preference” or “love is love” or “you can’t help who you like” and the conversation stops there.
J: Yes. Whom we decide to (and, not to) lay with (and, love) is political. It is a decision that we all make, myself included. It informs whom we save, whom we fight for, whom we deem worthy, whom we deem disposable, and vice versa.
At some point during the research process for the film, I was very gracious to those folks who’d argue “it’s just my preference” and “I like what I like and won’t apologize for it” because I believe that we all deserve agency over our bodies and desires; but it’s honestly lazy. When I encounter that argument I recognize both an unwillingness to critically engage desire/preference and a deliberate comfortability. And that’s okay. Not everyone will care enough to look inward and ask those necessary questions; hell, I was afraid to at one point until I realized that I had to give up wanting to be loved and fucked by patriarchy, so hard in my ass, that I compromise my self worth and integrity.
I knew that it wasn’t just as simple as preference. It couldn’t be. Desire is a cognitive and emotional phenomenon informed by something. And I want to explore that something in this film to unpack and debunk this preference argument, which would have you believe that desire and preference goes uninformed.
H: That “something” is shaping our desires is clear in how beauty standards have changed over time and how they are different from culture to culture and across genders.
You mention you recognized that “something” as patriarchy in your life. I can definitely point to some ways patriarchy has influenced what I have (and do still!) find desirable. But do you think it’s always an attachment to patriarchy that leads to the fear of unpacking desire you describe?
J: I want to naively say yes, but everything is complicated; and while I’d love to blame much of it on patriarchy – which I should – I think it’s also the comfortability of being set in certain way of knowing and living.
A part of my coming-to-consciousness was understanding and seeing beauty as a form a domination, under capitalism. And it wowed me. It’s almost like being told that you have to stop playing with a certain kind of toy or thing because it influences your perception of self and the world, and not wanting to stop because it’s your favorite toy.
The film challenges that attachment by interrogating the root of our desire formation and later examining gender, race, and class as modalities through which desire lives.
H: I’m definitely attached to some of my toys hahaha. Some of those attachments I am still learning how to break, but for others I’m also constantly questioning if I need to break them. Do you think every desire shaped by society is harmful? How do we know which desires are and which aren’t?
J: Great question, Hari. I feel somewhat conflicted because I want to say no, even though my mind immediately answered yes (and I’m willing to later work through this point of contradiction because change is inevitable).
I do think every desire shaped by society is harmful. But what’s harm? Because harm and desire have become one for black queers; desiring dangerously is all we know.
As to your last point, I can’t say when or how we know which desires are and are not harmful; people have to decide that for themselves. I can only talk from my own lived experiences and attempt to gift that to the world in hopes that they’d ask of themselves (and, their desires) the same questions.
I do think, however, that there is a point of privilege in not wanting to let go of a thing because it works and is comfortable for you.
H: I’m of the mindset that we must question everything we’ve learned in this white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal, capitalist society of ours, even if that questioning leads us to being okay with the an action we’ve taken before the question.
I’m noticing a lot of people think questioning a thing means it is inherently wrong. I have a hard time getting through to those people, you know? Maybe your white partner is right for you. Maybe your “masculine” partner is right for you. Maybe your skinny partner is right for you. Maybe your partner fits the bill of everything that society says is beautiful, but they fulfill you outside of your need to meet those standards. The issue is unpacking the need to meet those standards.
How do you deal with getting people to understand that acknowledging a choice may have been influenced by oppressive systems does not mean that choice could not be influenced by honest things as well? You’re not saying no one should date anyone who isn’t a fat femme, right?
J: Lol! I am not saying that no one should date anyone who isn’t a fat femme — no one who isn’t me; I could honestly care less about that at this point. This film, while highly critical of desire formation, is a love letter to myself as I continue to work through my own shit.
People can date whomever the hell they want and that would be fine; I just want them to recognize that this intense longing for whatever it is that they want in that person, or the million other folks/things/nuts that they chase in their lives, is informed by many things — both systems of oppression/domination and honest, mundane things. We deal with it and help them understand by giving them the space and time to work through it on their own terms.
H: What are the most salient ways you see the politics of desirability being demonstrated outside of “no fats, no femmes” declarations?
J: Lol. In [Black] gay male culture in general. To name a few: bottom shaming, internalized homophobia, transphobia, femmephobia, etc. The list could go on and on.
H: I’m assuming a lot of that examination is through the lens of the 5 of you who are the subjects of the film whom you describe as “Black and Brown gender-non-conforming, queer, trans, fat, femme, and disabled people.” What brought you all together for this project?
J: I was fascinated by their profound analysis around race, class, gender, disability, and desire(ability). That and my desire to map and dream new worlds with them through this project. Their voices need to be heard – not because of them being multiply marginalized, but in spite of, if that makes any sense.
H: Makes sense to me. What can those of us who agree and want to support No Fats, No Femmes do now to be a part of this conversation?
J: Donate to and signal boost our Indiegogo campaign. I think it’s important that we wholly invest in projects for us, by us.
H: Great – thank you so much! Can’t wait to see the finished product and the conversations it provokes.
Jamal T. Lewis is a cultural worker and emerging multidisciplinary performance artist living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York, hailing from Atlanta, Georgia. Their work interrogates and explores identity formation, ugliness, desire(ability), race, class, gender, and sexuality through a Black, queer, feminist, abolitionist lens. In their free time, they enjoy sleeping and dancing.