Re-centering Race in My Beautiful Launderette

Lauren Shoemaker

Dr. Lothian

ENGL 985

24 June 2013

Stringing together a few of the theoretical readings assigned this week was the common theme of re-centering race in discussions of desire.  Tinsley examines the “crosscurrents” of blackness and queerness through the Middle Passage and their manifestations historically and in literature.  Ferguson explores the pathology of the raced matriarchal family structure as a legitimation for exploitation of communities of color. Gopinath claims that “discourses of sexuality are inextricable from prior and continuing histories of colonialism, nationalism, racism, and migration,” and discusses the South Asian queer diasporic intimacies as memory of conflicting histories in “clandestine countermemories” (3).  Building on Gopinath’s argument of the inextricability of race and sexuality from narratives of nation and citizen, I want to explore further Hanif Kureishi’s film mentioned in her article, My Beautiful Laundrette, and its complex portrayal of racialized power structures and relationship to homonormative capitalist economy.

The homosexual intimacies between the white punk Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) and second generation British Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) are, according to Gopinath, a site of remembering historical power structures of colonialism and race.  She claims, “For Omar, desiring Johnny is irrevocably intertwined with the legacies of British colonialism in South Asia and the more immediate history of Powellian racism in 1960s Britain” (1-2).  If queer “impossible” desires are present to help the white colonizer achieve a cultural amnesia and the colonized subject of color remember such oppression, what happens when the specific time and place of the encounter have reversed such a power structure?  At the point in their lives when the two men begin their relationship, Omar is the financially-climbing entrepreneur learning the ropes of his family’s businesses while Johnny is a member of a politically active street gang without an apparent job.  Is such a cultural amnesia better achieved when Johnny is the hired hand of Omar?  Gopinath veers in another direction to make other points about the South Asian queer diaspora, but I think this film has more to add to the intersection of desire and participation in homonormative capitalist agendas.

I have to admit to having viewed the film with a certain slant as part of a comparative literature course on neoliberalism and postcolonial narratives.  Accompanying the film was an excellent student presentation on Thatcherism and the history of British occupation of the area of India which became Pakistan.  In this context, it would be difficult to view the film without making note of the happy ending the profitable business of the launderette offers to a plot highlighting power structures of racial difference and sexual deviance.  By placing at the forefront the economic motivations and transformations of characters and spaces, it becomes apparent that Omar, Johnny, and Omar’s family buy into capitalism as a solution to the oppressive history and hybrid identity.  The playful splashing in the sink between Johnny and Omar as they clean up their launderette after the race/class brawl between Omar’s family and Johnny’s gang is a symbolic cleansing that only financial success can buy.  Capitalism can purchase cultural amnesia as well as desire.  Such a “selling out” falls under the practices Lisa Duggan describes as homonormative, those practices that replicate a narrow race, class, and gender norm.

The space of the launderette at the beginning is a site of multiethnic, multiage, cross-class interactions that Delaney would likely approve of as rich contact.  There are old white ladies waiting by machines chatting, there is a dark-skinned man constantly using the public telephone, and there are kids of different races spray painting the walls and doors.  Omar’s rich uncle narrates the first glimpse of the launderette by calling it “nothing but a toilet, a youth club, nothing but a constant boil on my bum.”  He frames the kids as miscreants and troublemakers, he unplugs the phone mid-conversation on the man, and he sighs loudly as one of the women reports to him the news of a broken washer.  What the uncle sees is a rundown, unprofitable business, but what the launderette at the beginning of the film really functions as is a community center.  There are some clothes being washed, but the majority of the action is the social interaction.  The launderette is given over to Omar to try and improve the business, meanwhile proving himself to his uncle as a true businessman.  He enlists Johnny’s help to turn it around.

The transformation of the launderette and the development of Omar and Johnny’s relationship coincide at the same pace in the film, culminating in the grand opening/sex in the back room scene.  This scene has an entirely new meaning for me in light of Berlant and Warner’s article from the first week, “Sex in Public.”  Omar and Johnny defy the cultural expectancy to compartmentalize work and private spheres of life.  They celebrate with Champagne and sex in the back room of the launderette only minutes before the grand opening to the public.  The cinematic qualities of the scene are brilliant.  The back room is partitioned from the main room of the launderette by a one-way mirror so that all of the brand-new squeaky clean washers and driers are in full view during their love-making.  In the main room, the rich uncle enters with his white mistress and they begin to dance to the radio love song played over the sound system.  The multiracial homosexual relationship takes place in the same space as the multiracial heterosexual relationship, yet they are separated by the mirror.  The design of the camera angle is quite beautifully done to foreground the celebratory homosexual relationship but still capture the heterosexual and adulterous relationship through the glass.  While the launderette seems to be a space still inviting contact (at least for its managers) the glass is still a symbolic closet which Omar and Johnny remain behind.  The “No Loitering” sign and the removal of the public telephone mark a stark contrast to the community center feeling the space had before.  Now it is a sterile, neon-lit temple of capitalism, similar to the Disney-ification of Times Square.

There is clearly another connection to Gopinath’s article that I see emerging from My Beautiful Launderette.  The oedipal narrative is present in both the colonial aspect of “the Pakis” taking on capitalist ventures in the spirit of their colonizers (and practically beating them at their own game when you consider the white characters in the film are the unemployed street gang members) and Omar proving his worth to his uncle.  His change from jeans and t-shirts to suits shows his appearance to be taking on that of the father (or in this case, the uncle).  The oedipal narrative is so all-encompassing that there is no space at all for the women in the narrative.  The cousin who Omar is arranged to marry, Tania, leaves (or throws herself under the train) when she learns of Omar and Johnny’s relationship.  Rachel, the uncle’s white mistress leaves him after she is embarrassed publicly by being introduced to his family.  I agree with Gopinath that “the centrality of [the oedipal] narrative as the primary trope in imagining diaspora invariably displaces and elides female diasporic subjects” (5).

Re-centering the desires in the film around the continuing racism from a colonial past in My Beautiful Launderette reveals some middle ground where there can be mediation:  capitalism.  The scene where Johnny’s friends confront him illustrates his complacency.  One friend asks, “Why are you working for the Pakis?  We brought them here to work for us.”  Johnny simply answers, “it’s a job.”

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.  New York:  New York University Press, 1999.

Ferguson, Roderick.  “Something Else to Be.”  Aberrations in Black:  Toward a Queer of Color Critique.  Minneapolis, MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Gopinath, Gayatri.  Impossible Desires:  Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005.

Kureishi, Hanif.  My Beautiful Laundrette. 1985.  perf. Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha.  “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic.”  GLQ:  A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.  14.2-3. (2008):  191-215.

One thought on “Re-centering Race in My Beautiful Launderette

  1. alexislothian

    This is an elegant synthesis of key ideas from throughout the course; I really admire the way you brought everything together through My Beautiful Laundrette (a film that I must embarrassedly confess to not having actually seen, although I can at least claim some familiarity with its setting). I love the idea of the laundrette as a scene of Delany-esque contact made sterile through its upgrade, and the related idea that participation in capital “can purchase cultural amnesia as well as desire.” We’ve been talking so much in class about gentrification and the incorporation of racial and sexual others into capital as something that is happening here and now, but you remind us of neoliberalism’s origins in the Thatcher era.

    Your final example is powerful and makes me think about the ways in which immigrant success has fueled racist activity, especially in Britain, where there are large white working-class populations facing very high unemployment in contexts where people of color are often business owners. For Johnny, having a job (and a relationship) might be enough to let go of his racist past, but in the absence of similar jobs for everyone, tensions seem likely to ratchet higher…


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