‘Let that stage be your stepping stone, not your tombstone.’
Katori Hall’s masterpiece, P-Valley, moved me by it’s challenge to the omnipresent white gaze. P-Valley is set in the sweltering Mississippi Delta; the dancers of the strip club ‘The Pynk’ work the poles and return to Chucalissa – a crumbling city, facing relentless gentrification efforts speared by the (likely) descendants of grisly, vast plantations.
The plantation haunts the characters; it’s the warp and weft, guided by the cruel and agile hands of European settlers, to form the fabric of society and the various communities in the Delta. Centuries ago, European-American settlers displaced the indigenous populations to make way for themselves and the booming cotton industry, facilitated by slavery. Africans were transported to Delta towns in their thousands. By the early 19th century, cotton had become the Delta’s premier crop, for which there was high international demand. After the American civil war, white supremacist oppression modulated itself. Chattel slavery could no longer continue, but the subjugation of Black Americans persisted through sharecropping, convict leasing, and the evolution of the prison industrial complex.
Today, around one-third of Mississippi’s Black American population resides in the Delta; it is one of the most deprived regions in the U.S. The national poverty rate is about 15% and 22% for Mississippi. In most Delta counties, the rate is between 30% – 40%. Black Americans born into poverty struggle to get out of it, and the global pandemic has only exacerbated these inequities.
P-Valley does not shy away from this reality – it embraces it. The dancers in The Pynk, particularly Mercedes, Mississippi, Autumn Night, and Gidget (who we will return to later) come from various forms of hardship and have the grit, dark humour and survival skills that are tell-tale indicators of growing up poor.
Uncle Clifford, the club proprietor and the character with the most acerbic wit, experiences violent censure as an openly Black, gay, non-binary person in Chucalissa. They roll with the punches (and there are many) and concoct various plans to thwart the attempts of external forces to seize the club and redevelop it into a casino.
Over the course of the eight episodes, the major players behind the plan to redevelop ‘The Pynk’ into a casino are revealed, and their positionalities deftly interrogated. Andre Watkins, a Black man who acts as a conveyancer for Promised Land Casino and Resorts, arranges the sale of adjacent land to ‘The Pynk’, owned by the Kyle Brothers, for the benefit of Promised Land. His motivation, as a relatively classed and educated Black man, in facilitating gentrification is to bring ‘prosperity’ to the people of Chucalissa. These are the lies powerful people tell themselves to make the grotesque palatable. Gentrification of poverty stricken areas, where a majority of people of colour reside because poverty is racialised, ultimately raises housing and rental prices, forcing local businesses to close and communities of people to move out of places they carved homes out of.
In Chucalissa, the introduction of a casino, designed to make consumers feel as if they were on a holiday resort, is touted as an opportunity to increase tourism and generate revenue for the town. In reality, the people who would profit from this are already wealthy. The Kyle Brothers, in the words of mayor Tydell Ruffin are ‘part of the cotton connect that controls the city council’. When these white, wealthy men are introduced to Andre, they invite him to pick cotton off the lands they own. This explicitly racist remark tells the audience everything they need to know about the racial politics of the men behind the plot.
Mayor Tydell Ruffin, Andre’s overbearing and deeply misogynoirist godfather, is depicted as receiving a kickback from the Kyle brothers – donations to his mayoral campaign, in exchange for ushering through the sale of their land to the casino company by bringing forward an ordinance to foreclose ‘The Pynk’. Tydell, who regularly mistreats his Black secretary and deals in corruption, considers himself the saviour of Chucalissa. He is an example of a long list of Black men who ascend to powerful positions in a capitalist society and become agents of white supremacy. After all, the very people impacted by the foreclosure of ‘The Pynk’ are Black sex workers, formerly incarcerated Black men and gender-nonconforming people – all people at the very margins of Black communities across the world.
Tydell is a stand-in for Black politicians that carry the veneer of progression in society, but actively reproduce the material conditions of poverty and suffering of the Black working classes, including those who are partially or completely unemployed. In America, people championed the ascendancy of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency as an indicator of racial progress. This is despite the fact that over the course of her career she has done numerous things to actively harm and entrench the oppression of Black and brown people. As California’s Attorney General, Harris was actively opposed to the legalisation of marijuana, despite how its criminalisation has disproportionately incarcerated Black and brown people. In 2015, she opposed a bill that would require her office to investigate police-involved shootings, despite her awareness of police brutality and endemic racism.
The staff of ‘The Pynk’, due to the legacy of chattel slavery and white supremacy, are threatened by ‘The Pynk’s’ foreclosure. Big L, Uncle Clifford’s de facto accountant and partner-in-crime, relies on the income from the strip club as he was formerly incarcerated. In one scene, he comments on the poor likelihood of him finding legal employment due to his previous convictions. His opportunities for employment are severely restricted by the prison industrial complex.
It is slowly revealed how Big L and Uncle Clifford begin holding drugs, and dealing, to keep ‘The Pynk’ afloat. This is none other than a commentary on the often illegitimate means Black people are forced into in order to keep themselves, and others, financially stable in racially segregated and economically unviable regions.
For a character like Mississippi, trapped in a violently abusive relationship with her white boyfriend, stripping puts food on the table for her and her children. She has a community in which she receives free childcare so she can work and often has her emotional and physical wounds tended to by the other staff in ‘The Pynk’. Many sex workers, like Mississippi, are acutely vulnerable to sexual and intimate partner violence, because they defy gendered expectations of womanhood and incur stigma due to the nature of their work. Men view sex workers, especially those that are gender nonconforming as disposable, and understand that they are protected in harming them because society does not protect sex workers.
This community is fundamentally shaped by white supremacy. Hierarchies and rivalries are built upon the seniority of certain workers and the relative attractiveness of others, which in itself is rooted in Eurocentric standards of beauty. Mercedes, the OG of ‘The Pynk’, the stripper at the top of the food chain, is a brash, unapologetic Black woman with inexorable ambition. She has stacked her paper for over 7 years in the hopes she can set up a gym and catapult herself from the insecurity and constant sexual harassment that strippers face. Mercedes has regulars and is widely established as one of the most beautiful workers in the club until the arrival of Autumn Night challenges that.
Autumn wields her beauty, ever enhanced by her lighter complexion and looser curl pattern, nimbly and quickly finds favour among the men in the club. One scene, which fuels the rivalry between Autumn and Mercedes, depicts them both competing for the attention of Andre. In no uncertain terms, he chooses Autumn and dismisses Mercedes, and she leaves, remarking “Some n*ggas can’t handle them a Melanin Monroe”. For many dark-skinned Black women, this is a familiar affront; Black communities across the world are divided by colourism. The depiction of God as a white man, the spread of Christianity throughout the colonised world and the commodification of Black slaves, reinforced whiteness as divinity, whiteness as the paradigm for humanity. A psychological imprint of white supremacy is to favour those that are closer to whiteness. Thus, when Autumn Night and the resident white girl, Gidget, make it rain in ‘The Pynk’, those racial dynamics are invoked, facilitating the money these workers earn at the expense of others deemed by the male gaze as less desirable.
Whether in a fictional strip club, or a real one, the male gaze never strays too far away. And it routinely ensnares gender-nonconforming people in its sights. Homophobia and transmisogyny inform Uncle Clifford’s routine dehumanisation by men like Tydell, who regularly refers to Clifford as a ‘thing’ throughout the series. When Lil Murda, an aspiring rapper and secretly gay man, is introduced onto the show as Clifford’s love interest, we watch him battle with the intensity of his attraction to Clifford, all whilst protecting his image and masculinity. The one straight friend in Lil Murda’s life finds out that he is gay and immediately counsels him to bury his feelings and focus on his career. He then berates him for his sexuality, saying this is something he will never understand. This blatant homophobia pushes Murda to snub Clifford in public. Clifford’s colourful and vivid dress sense, and pride in their sexuality and gender identity, contrasts against Lil Murda’s internalised homophobia. It is his fear of homophobic censure that ultimately destroys their relationship. The tragedy of the destruction is how all too familiar this is for closeted Black gay and trans individuals.
We live in a world that does not respect the humanity of Black people; here, the experiences of Black queers are rendered illegible to the white gaze. But I take solace in Black art – the thoughtful, harrowing and emotive rendition of Black life and Black communities, in their many facets, in our unyielding pursuit of life.