by Gillian Robin
Detroit’s earrings in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) Image obtained from racked.com.
“What’s all this?” I asked as I walked into my Unit 3 dorm room, exhausted after reading a 36 page journal article about gold leafing in illuminated manuscripts. I was a freshman and those were the light-hearted, pre-Trump days where my biggest problem was the budgeting of meal points.
“Beads,” my roommate, Kate, replied, “for, like, making earrings.”
I immediately dropped my backpack, forgot my fatigue, and picked up some wire and pliers. As a newly-liberated, almost-official person (I was still 17), I often looked to sparkles and hair dye as equipment for personal cultivation. Kate, my partner in self-determination, encouraged and paralleled my crafty endeavours, from going “halfsies” on an overpriced glitter face stick, to letting me borrow her purple lipstick, to buying ink and rubbing alcohol for our dorm room stick and poke parties. These fleeting and often foolish experiments resulted in nothing more than fun instagram posts and compliments at themed parties. But when I walked in on Kate’s explosion of beads, I felt a certain radicalness in crafting, in making something to embellish or express myself that didn’t rely on permanent body modifications or shelling out $30 for lipstain. I felt, for the first time, that my representation was genuine, that by removing naive impulsion or the mediation of market I was free to honestly create myself.
In Boots Riley’s chillingly-relatable, authentically “Oaklanish” Sorry to Bother You (2018), Cassius Green’s sign-spinning, performance-artist partner, Detroit, used earrings as not only a method of expression, but as a form of aesthetic protest, a means of appropriating femininity and gendered clothing and politicizing. In a world of pussy hats and vagina patches, Detroit’s earring collection represents the true potential and liberation of craft that I discovered in my dorm room. Within craftwork, there lies an ability to co-opt historically feminine skills and qualities (dangling earrings, knitting, embroidering, quilting, etc.) in order to erase binaries and expand conceptions of gender. By having control and technical aptitude with a needle and thread, we are able to use our skills and perform our gender as a way of collapsing those very notions of gender. When I see artsy, men or male-presenting people with painted nails and one dangly earring, I can’t help but feel empowered, as if the slippage of between art and craft mirrors this slippage of gendered binaries that our generation fights so ardently for.
Kate and I weren’t the only one’s picking up trash around campus to make earrings out of. I looked around, and most of my femme friends made or inherited earrings that meant something bigger and deeper that freshman year boredom. We were following our foremothers, using our boundaries of femininity to our advantage. Except instead of making essential tools, like baskets and blankets, we represent our utility to the world by actively forcing ourselves into it, one pom-pom earring at a time.