Changing Identities

In Ophelia Speaks: Resurrecting Still Lives in Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Annette Debo states that Ophelia “emphasizes the performative nature of her sex work, how she takes on other identities in order to be looked at and to protect the self she considers her own” (208). Ophelia not only takes on other identities during her sex work, but also does so in her overall life.

Ophelia does take on another identities in the brothel. Countess P tells the girls in the brothel to “see yourself through his eyes…let his gaze animate you” (Trethewey 11). Here the Ophelia, along with the other prostitutes, has to take on a role of someone she is not. She has to act according to how her customer wants and follow his lead. The woman is a malleable object to the customer. He can choose how he wants the girl to be and she has to immediately follow.

Not only does Ophelia feel the pressure to take on other identities in the brothel, but also in her earlier life. She “took arsenic- tablets [she] swallowed/to keep [her] fair, bleached white as stone” (Trethewey 20). When Ophelia went out into society and consequently was looked at, she felt the need to change her outer appearance. Taking the arsenic, made Ophelia more pure, white, and acceptable throughout society. In another scene, Ophelia leaves the brothel and goes out into the town. She dresses in “proper street clothes/a new bow on [her] white straw hat,/[her] white linen jacket cleaned/and pressed” (Trethewey 28). However, as she dressed like a white women and her skin matched that of a white women, a man recognized she was merely performing. The man realized that this was a place she was not allowed to be. Although Ophelia tried to properly dress and put on an identity of the upper class, her efforts were thwarted. She felt the need to dress up and become someone different just to live her daily life. Ophelia not only feels the need to follow Countess P’s instructions to put on an identity for the men in the brothel, but also feels the need to put on an identity to just survive.

2 comments
  1. Ali, I agree with you that Ophelia takes on different identities throughout the novel. Working as a prostitute, one has to learn to mold herself into what the customer desires. Debo states in her article, “it is her job to become an actor in their desires.” As both you and Debo have recognized, it is Ophelia’s responsibility to construct herself into anything they wish for because that is how is how she will make a living. By performing the tableau vivant, in which Ophelia strikes a pose like a painting, remaining motionless, it gives the customers watching the opportunity to imagine Ophelia into their desire and as a result, Ophelia must take on the character of someone else.

  2. Ali, I agree with you that Ophelia certainly has to put on a mask to survive in her daily life. In the society, a little bit of black is seen as non-white. As a sex worker, Ophelia has to constantly watch out for her appearance to make sure people are not judging her or stare at her. Identity, therefore, becomes an important but pretentious weapon to her. If she pretends to be white, she might get more privileged and be more accepted by the society. However, she fails to hide her blackness, and this further explains that identity can sometimes be changed but the real self is always there. Someone will find out who you really are.

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