Hilton Als has been a theater critic for The New Yorker since 2002, and maybe a theater critic learns to conceive of life offstage as a performance too, or maybe a man becomes a theater critic because this is how he sees the world. The Women, Als’s first book, published in 1996, is about one particular role—that of the long-suffering, self-sacrificing “Negress”—in the pageant of American life. It is a part played by Als’s mother, by Malcolm X’s mother and by the Warholite Dorothy Dean, but also by the poet Owen Dodson and by James Brown, whose “hair and clothes were as perfect as any Negress’s” that Als had ever seen. The striking assertion of The Women is that a man can be a Negress too, if he sees himself that way and, more important, if other people see him that way. Als’s baroque argument is undertaken in the service of autobiography—he is a Negress himself—and that emphasis is the secret of its appeal. The personal inflection gives an intensity of focus to what is otherwise an extremely discursive book.
Als’s new book, White Girls, is a collection of essays, and while it’s more various and less personal than The Women, it remains a meditation on identity-as-performance. Like The Women, White Girls illustrates a powerful and disturbing idea: the world tells us that we are black men, white women, whatever, and we dress up in costumes and play the part, but alone in our houses or besotted on the street corner, who are we really, and who are we kidding?
First, though: Who are the “white girls”? Inevitably, Truman Capote is one, though he is not so much a girl as a woman. Als argues that he was “the most famous woman author—not writer, an important distinction—of his generation.” Unlike Carson McCullers, for instance, who “remained steeped in regionalism,” Capote “went on to become a woman of the world.” Als is writing specifically about the author photo that appeared on the dust jacket of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), which shows him stretched out on a couch, a kind of odalisque in a vest—a woman, Als says, who wanted “to be fucked by you and by any idea of femininity that had fucked you up.” It isn’t clear to me what this means, and there are long sections of White Girls that leave the earnest reader desperate for the clarity of The Women (in which Als says Capote looks like “a homely but spirited young girl waiting to be admired by someone like my father”), but no matter. The point is that Capote had a “drive to create a self that existed apart from the isolated, nowhere world of writing,” and in that spirit he made himself “an image accessible to publicity.” He played the part of the white girl, consciously, in order to sell books.
Als does not seem to care for Truman Capote as a writer, female or not, and dismisses Other Voices, Other Rooms as “an idea about femininity made palatable by Capote’s shal-low interpretation.” But Capote illustrates the central theme of White Girls: like “Negress,” these phrases—“white girl,” “woman author,” etc.—are rhetorical artifacts. They don’t describe a set of characteristics associated with skin tone or gender; they refer instead to a set of characteristics that have a perceived (and only a perceived) correlation with skin tone or gender. They refer to a way of looking and, most important, to a way of being looked at.
We all have a part to play. To some extent, we can choose those parts—“white girl” is a role anyone might try to play, though it’s not a role that everyone can play equally well—and to some extent, those parts are chosen for us. If The Women is largely an exploration of this idea as it applies to private life, White Girls extends the argument to include celebrities—people who do not play a generic cultural role but are instead required to perform some version of their individuality. They are the stars in public life, while the rest of us knock around in central casting.