@silvermuon: an avatar, an invitation

Amber Jamilla Musser uses an IG alter ego to explore issues around Black femininity and the terms of representation.

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.



Just as COVID lockdowns were easing up, I launched an Instagram alter ego, @silvermuon. The account is primarily photos of me with a blunt, silver-grey, shoulder-length bob—a wig—doing things in my apartment. Through the lens of the pandemic, some of the performance could be considered a durational meditation on finding different ways to be in the same space without much external stimulation. In this case, it wasn’t only about different activities but also about finding and playing with a different version of myself. In retrospect, I consider the whole project a reflection on the quandary of representation.

More specifically, I became interested in how shifting the terms of representation could destabilise the idea of anything essential to the self. In the case of @silvermuon, I removed my usual glasses and donned a wig, and became curious about whether or not I would feel different—but, more, whether or not I would want to express myself differently. I was less interested in how I was being perceived by others, and more in how this new persona would compel me to perform. The wig’s bangs covered my eyebrows, intensifying the contrast between my skin, and the silver-grey of the wig drew more attention to my cheekbones and lips. I felt minimalist, chic, exotic—and I dressed accordingly. This version of me smiled with a closed mouth and was seductive and mysterious. The Instagram grid was filled with blurry images in black, white, and grey.   




I picked the name silvermuon as a play on the name of the popular Japanese Silver Moon anime series. Although I wasn’t actually engaging with the mythology, I liked that the name felt familiar, and my own memories of the series seemed to focus on the character’s eye-catching hair. I substituted moon for muon, the subatomic particle that, as my bio proclaimed, is “like an electron but spicy.” While muons were discovered in the late 1930s, it wasn’t until June 2020 that particle physicists discovered they were more magnetic than expected (a finding confirmed by the Fermilab in April 2021). This statement amounted to an admission that the Standard Model of Physics needed to be updated, confounding what we thought we knew about the behaviour of matter.1 In other words, the presence of the muon disrupts what we thought we knew about reality itself.

A part of me might have been thinking about the role of “the avatar” in Black female performance art, a genealogy that Uri McMillan brilliantly traces in Embodied Avatars.2 McMillan’s argument about the utility of the avatar hinges on the difficulty Black women have already had in occupying the terrain of representation. Since Black femininity is such an active space of projection for others, playing with the image through the avatar can be both generative and radical. McMillan begins with Joice Heth, an enslaved woman who was billed as George Washington’s nursemaid while touring with PT Barnum in the 1830s. Although not technically a performance artist, McMillan reads Heth’s inhabitation of this fictional figure as offering certain types of freedom—namely, the ability to curse and ignore orders, even as she was still viewed through the lens of the mammy stereotype.

Moving to the performance art scene in the 1970s and 1980s, McMillan describes Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being (1973–75), a series of performances in which Piper wore a large dark Afro wig, sunglasses, and moustache, as she cruised around New York City in the guise of what others might have presumed was a Black man. Among other things, The Mythic Being was an exercise in how race, gender, and class colour perception, and how different people occupy space differently. Additionally, McMillan finds echoes of Heth’s performance of non-respectability in Lorainne O’Grady’s work as Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie, dressed in gowns made of white gloves with a cat o’ nine, who turned up at various downtown art openings in the early 1980s to challenge ideas of who was producing avant-garde art.

Enlarging the frame of the avatar, McMillan also ruminates on the work of Narcissister, a performer who wears a doll mask when she performs. Although the specifics of each avatar differs, what brings them together is the charge of possibilities that emerge when these artists destabilise stereotype or expectation through play. By shifting norms of being toward the explicitly fictional, the avatar alters the fields of response and reality.

Although I am very much interested in the ontological fungibility of black femininity, the direct inspiration behind my @silvermuon wig and persona was Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You (2020). To me, Coel’s brilliantly coloured wigs fleshed out her portrayal of Arabella, lending her a hipness I associated with being a Black British queer millennial, a form of sophistication (and, not incidentally, for the time of lockdown) geographically distinct from me. In the HBO show, Arabella is a writer working on her second book when she is drugged and raped at a bar. The series shows the effect of the events on her romantic relationships, friendships, and social media presence. She becomes consumed with revenge and speaking on behalf of others who have been sexually assaulted (especially on Instagram)—the pressure becomes too much for her. Her life unravels, but she pulls herself together, moving through trauma.

Eventually, she finds her rapist and she must decide how she wants to proceed. As viewers, we are presented with several possible responses, deciding for ourselves which one to attach to. The series is somewhat open-ended, much like the process of dealing with ongoing trauma. Coel was particularly praised for allowing the story lines to remain unresolved—people change, but it is difficult to neatly fold these arcs into better or worse, they are simply being.3

Coel drew from her own experience of being raped following the success of her first television show, Chewing Gum. In this way we can register Arabella as an avatar of sorts for Coel, and I May Destroy You as a whole, as meta-commentary on Coel’s own life. From this perspective the title here is literal: the “I” of the avatar, who herself is chafing at the expectations produced by social media and her persona there, and the “I” of these meditations on memory, challenge the idea of the single unitary subject itself. In this context, the layers of avatars illustrate the yawning gaps between different versions of the self, and between who one is and who one is perceived to be. I May Destroy You is, in other words, a study in what cannot coalesce into a single narrative, as well as a study in the proliferation of avatars as a survival strategy. There are parallels, too, with the behaviour of the muon, who eventually becomes other separate entities—like the different endings for the series.

McMillan argues that the avatar enables play, critique, a form of freedom, and, as we see with Coel, a way to try to say something that was maybe not able to emerge otherwise. I noticed this with @silvermuon, too. Shifting my appearance led me to want to express myself in a way commensurate with this altered visage. Instead of posting fashion selfies, I posted slightly out of focus videos of movement—dancing, singing, smiling, eating fruit, doing yoga. I saw this blurriness as political, as well as an exploration of embodied aesthetics. I wanted to disrupt the objectifying gaze that is often focused on disciplining and classifying Black femininity by refusing stillness. Through the blur, I also felt like I was engaging with the camera on my own terms with an eye towards shaking up the stagnation of my surroundings. If life looked different through this lens, maybe it could be different?

Though the account still exists, I’ve stopped posting, partially because I no longer feel the need to creatively negotiate the confinement of my apartment, and partially because my girlfriend found @silvermuon unsettling—she was me, but not; and that was too close for comfort. I think, however, that I’ve been able to incorporate the ideas she let me test into my own way of moving through the world. I know that that layer of chic mystery is within me. So, like her namesake, @silvermuon induces effect and then rapidly decomposes into other forms. The enduring lesson, I suppose, is that we are always already vibrating with multiplicities, eager to emerge.



Amber Jamilla Musser is a writer and thinker who has published widely on black feminisms, queer of colour critique, psychoanalysis, embodiment and sensation, and aesthetics. Her research has been supported by grants from the Ruth Landes Memorial Fellowship and the Arts Writers’ Grant from the Warhol Foundation. She has also held fellowships at New York University’s Draper Program in Gender Studies and Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. She is currently a Professor of English at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She previously taught Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and American Studies at George Washington University.




1. Patrick J Kiger, “Muons: The Subatomic Particles Shaking Up the World of Physics,” howstuffworks, June 30, 2021,

2. Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

3. See Rebecca Wanzo, “Rethinking Laughter and Rape: Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’” LA Review of Books, September 22, 2020,

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 



Amber Jamilla MUSSER

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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The Stakes of Naming
Part of series

The Stakes of Naming

A series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live