Illuminating the Web: An Analysis of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Moonlight

by Sophia Garbarino, November 11, 2021

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) explores the life of Chiron, a gay Black boy living in a low-income area of Miami. We follow Chiron as he struggles with his mother Paula’s drug addiction; as he meets Juan, his mother’s drug dealer, who quickly becomes a father figure; as he relies on Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, who nurtures him as a mother would; and as he discovers his sexuality with his best friend, Kevin. Chiron’s peers constantly target him for being gay, eventually leading to a physical fight and Chiron’s imprisonment. Years later, we see Chiron went back to the streets after being released from prison and now sells drugs just like Juan. In the end, it seems Chiron has come to terms with his sexuality but has yet to find a welcoming environment in which to explore it. In this essay, I will demonstrate how Chiron’s relationships with Teresa and his mother are foils that challenge the concept of family while illuminating the gendered, heteronormative complexities of Black experiences.

Chiron’s mother suspects his homosexuality early in his childhood, and while she never physically harms Chiron because of his sexuality, he does not grow up in a happy home. Like many addicts, Paula’s condition breaks up the family, and she partially blames Teresa for providing the safe environment he needs, calling her his “lil play-play mama” (Moonlight). Unfortunately, Paula is one of many women of color victimized by a vicious cycle of racism and the housing and job discrimination that comes with it. She’s pictured wearing scrubs several times, indicating some type of medical occupation, but it is not enough to support her family and her addiction. As a woman of color, she is a member of the lowest-paid group in the nation, meaning she earns less than she would if she were a Black man or a white woman (Lorde). She and Chiron also live in a predominantly Black area where drug abuse and incarceration rates are high. As such, we can see that public racial conflicts enter the private home even without considering sexuality yet.

Heteronormativity – “the assumption that heterosexuality is the standard for defining normal sexual behavior and that male–female differences and gender roles are the natural and immutable essentials in normal human relations. According to some social theorists, this assumption is fundamentally embedded in, and legitimizes, social and legal institutions that devalue, marginalize, and discriminate against people who deviate from its normative principle (e.g., gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons)”

“Heteronormativity”

When we do consider sexuality and gender, the effects of heteronormativity and sexism are unmistakable. Like Paula, Teresa never judges Chiron for being gay, but unlike Paula, she can provide a safe haven for him when he needs it. She becomes his “chosen family,” meaning they are unrelated but support each other the way a healthy family should (Chu). Family, then, is not defined by involuntary biology and a two-parent household, but by the privilege of love and any number and gender of parents. In this way, Teresa and Paula are foils for each other: one is the archetypal bad mother while the other is the nurturing savior. However, Teresa is only able to be a positive mother figure because of Juan’s drug dealing income, and throughout the film, we are constantly reminded that Teresa is Juan’s girl rather than an individual woman. She and Paula are both oppressed as Black people, women, and more importantly, Black women.

Additionally, they would be treated worse had they identified as LGBTQ*. Despite their oppressed position, both women are also privileged by their heterosexuality; Chiron is not so lucky. Being Black and having few strong role models in his life leads him back to the streets after being released from juvenile detention, but being gay is what sends him to prison in the first place: he defends himself from homophobic bullies and is consequently arrested. The web of oppression is quite tangled and Moonlight’s ending, where Chiron reveals he has never had any romantic or sexual relationship except the single experience on the beach with Kevin, suggests that there is no simple solution. Paula, Teresa, and Chiron form a disjointed hybrid family, and while they share the trait of being a Black person in the United States, their experiences are not the same. These three characters demonstrate just how intersectional oppression and Black experiences are.


Works Cited

Chu, Kyle Casey. “Why Queer People Need Chosen Families.” Vice, 13 Nov. 2017, http://www.vice.com/en/article/ywbkp7/why-queer-people-need-chosen-families.

“Heteronormativity.” APA Dictionary of Psychology, dictionary.apa.org/heteronormativity. 

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider, edited by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 1–6.

Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins, performances by Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe, Plan B Entertainment, 2016.

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