Teachable Moments: Alamo Drafthouse, Cinefamily & the Future of Repertory Cinema

So I think its time to have a little conversation about value, worth and intersectionality.

Things are pretty weird right now. I was talking with a girlfriend the other day and both of us have been in the film community for a really long time. Long enough to remember when internet-based film writing/promotion and communities didn’t rule the scene. Imagine that! But internet/no Internet, there has always been misogyny. Always been racism. The homophobia has been lesser to an extent, but…that’s entertainment. It’s still there. We all know that transphobia is awful no matter where you go so…end scene.

gender neutral robot

 

Let’s set the stage. Current events: if you’re a straight white male celebrity who sexually assaults women, you might want to start getting scared. James Woods found this out the hard way when Amber Tamblyn called him out on Twitter last week. She wrote two brilliant pieces on Teen Vogue and the NYT, in response to him calling her a liar after she recounted his ill-fated pick-up attempt when she was just 16. Tig Notaro’s recent season of One Mississippi dedicates 2 episodes to addressing sexual assault, which is a direct shout out to Louis CK. Tig has spoken widely about CK’s refusal to address his problem, as have other female comedians.

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Real talk: this shit has been shoved under the rug in the entertainment world since the casting couch was invented and studio heads invited women in for “lunchtime interviews,” promising them the “role of a lifetime.” But women are finally breaking their silence. Which is great. This should be supported and encouraged, especially by powerful men in the media world. But there’s a big chance it won’t be. Why not? Because making a “bold move” such as that might mean outing their friends or losing their buddies. And that’s scary and uncomfortable.

Dudes, I’m calling you out. It’s time. It’s not brave for you to step forward and join us in talking about what’s actually going on. If anyone tells you you’re “brave” or thanks you, tells you how “amazing” you are for standing up, that’s straight up bullshit. You should have always been doing this. You just finally smelled what The Rock was cooking, ok? No back pats, no OMG YOU’RE SO AWESOME!

Make a decision. Look at what’s going on and be on the right side of history. Because history does not wait and it certainly has no sympathy.

Over the last week, some straight white men in the film community have had a few real HOLY FUCKING SHIT moments. These were all heavily tied into the fact that they have absolutely zero comprehension of what VALUE means or what or who might, in fact, be VALUABLE.

It is important to note that most of the recent conversations being had in the film world have been incredibly white and privileged conversations. We have not stopped for one second to address women/people of color, trans bodies, or any communities that might have felt equally bludgeoned by what has been happening in the repertory theater scene. And by that I mean the recent scandals at the Alamo Drafthouse and the Cinefamily.

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LA Weekly, September 13, 2017

I want to approach this discussion of VALUE on an intersectional level and include every body that has ever felt assaulted by today’s straight white male dominated film culture. It is a structure designed specifically to celebrate all that is white, male, moneyed and heterosexual and oppress all that are not. All marginalized groups-defined as women (women of color especially), people of color, queer folx; trans and non-binary identifying individuals- are considered outsiders from this Primary Group and ostracized. We may try to affiliate ourselves with those in this Clique, but the very nature of its construction denies us entry. We haven’t gotten good seats in the movie theater for quite some time.

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I have been in the world of cinema and media studies for most of my adult life. The world has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and I’ve changed with it. The one thing that has not changed is the way that marginalized groups have been treated. This is absolutely a question of VALUE. We are simply not considered to have worth.

Structures of value and worth are why women are spoken over on newscasts and televised political arenas. It’s the reason so few brown faces are protagonists in feature films, there are currently no Asian superhero movies and why black bodies have rarely been lit correctly on film and television until work like Insecure (creators: Issa Rae & Larry Wilmore, 2016) or Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014).

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Issa and Molly, Insecure, Photo: HBO

The incidents I will be discussing- the sexual assault troubles at LA repertory movie theater Cinefamily and the sexual assault/employment cover-up/what-have-you at the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse- are not ones that I plan to give space to here. Please feel free to Google them at your leisure; there are tons of articles available on both subjects. I will be using them and specific details/ experiences in context that I believe to be important to this piece but I don’t believe that I need to link any articles.

Moving forward then- value has been an issue for hundreds of years in marginalized communities. Consider the following: a body’s worth measured in economics (slavery) or a body’s worth measured in marriage and reproduction (a son is good, the family name/legacy continues, a daughter is bad except for marrying off/childbearing). What about a slave body that can reproduce another slave body (a woman of color)? Think on these things. These evaluations are not done by the bodies themselves but by an outside force; an oppressor. Whether it is White Supremacy or Patriarchal Heteronormativity, dominating another body because of your self-created value structures is just fucked up.

One of the primary topics of this article is sexual assault, an act that involves our physical selves. Our bodies. Our bodies are a big part of our worth. Our bodies are physical containers but they are also reflections of our PERSONAL worth. We value ourselves and we value our bodies. So what do we do when our bodies are violated? Worse than that, what do we do when those whom we value enact violence upon our valuable, worthwhile bodies? Who do we turn to when we are viewed as so invaluable that we cannot even be consulted about intimacy? That’s a fucked up feeling.

This was something many women faced at Cinefamily and have faced for years in the film community. Who would believe that so-and-so did THAT? “He’s so coooool Are you sure you remember right? You weren’t just a little drunk?” Because then he’s off the hook. If you’re drunk, the incident didn’t happen. And if he’s got some kind of high-level rep or if he’s famous then it definitely didn’t happen.

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IndieWire Headline, Aug 22, 2017 11:21 pm

Intimate violence is visited upon our bodies and we can do nothing about it. We are not believed because we have women’s voices. Or queer voices. Or black voices. Or trans voices. While white women like Amber Tamblyn can reveal their stories and talk back to James Woods, do you think anyone would’ve believed a black trans woman who wasn’t famous?

Let’s look at social structures of VALUE. White people don’t value POC. If we did, black bodies wouldn’t be strewn lifeless throughout American streets, while the white bodies that violated them are legally allowed to move on without repercussions. Women/women-identifying folx are not valued. If we were, there would be no such term as “mansplaining.” White women are valued more than Women of Color but that in and of itself makes me cringe. And let’s be honest: trans and non-binary identifying individuals get the worst of it. It’s not just that people don’t value them. People pretend they don’t exist. Value and worth. If society, structured exclusively by White Rich Straight Older Men sees no value in you, you play no part and you are worthless.

Having attended the Cinefamily for a long time, I always noticed that there were many female employees and volunteers. Like an overt amount. I knew a few of them. I also saw a huge turnover rate. I stopped going a few years ago except to certain screenings. I saw brilliant and painfully talented people get treated poorly and that left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Film School Rejects, AUGUST 25, 2017

There were a few men employed there, but for the most part, it was women and not in an “empowering women” way. Looking back, the presence of so many women employees had a display case feel. Which I thought was strange. I chalked it up to Cinefamily being an “extreme hipster” theater but that was definitely not it. Sometimes we tend to compartmentalize when we don’t want to see things that are staring us right in the face. This was one of those things.

To Hadrian (Cinefamily founder), cultivating the look and molding the culture around that theater was part of its cachet. He did a masterful job in many ways. On the other hand, other people who never received the credit did much of the work attributed to him. What is critical here is that he created an environment where the only value system at play was his own. In any other work setting, this would have been seen as abusive. In any other work setting there would’ve been a HR person to assist his employees. But his male-dominated upper management structure (which includes the board) was in charge of the entire feel and social landscape of Cinefamily, from screen to popcorn maker.

So the regular floor employees were intimidated as fuck. The value of the women had been as objects, the men as continuing the promoting of the world/culture that had been created. Sounds a little bit culty. Which has been mentioned before. But I really read this as a lot of fear and sadness and a deterioration of personal worth as you continue to be abused by a workplace situation that you used to adore.

Here’s the even shittier part: this is what the world of repertory theaters and film festivals has been like forever. So the fact that Cinefamily exploded when it did made me roll my eyes a little. I couldn’t help but think: OH FUCK. Here we go. So who’s next? And let me stress right now that I have a lot of love for a lot of people working in the film festival and repertory worlds. My archivist/preservationist world is 100% not without its horror stories. In fact, we are probably due for some explosions too. But we’ll deal with those when they happen.

 

Guerrilla Girls' Pop Quiz 1990 by Guerrilla Girls

 

As for theaters and festivals and their dreadfully loosey goosey culture…These white, straight and male-dominated events and networks have always had Questionable Incidents. In the past, they were sighed at, and “Oh, that’s just so-and-so”-ed at. It really was like Mad Men. Whispers and secret confrontations swept under the rug. It was expected and built in. But when the ladies talk behind closed doors, we’re not fucking happy about it. And we haven’t been happy about it for years.

Did you know that, guys? Or did you think things were ok? Because a lot of you had to know about a lot of the heinous shit that has happened over the last 20 years. Whether I am in academia, the film festival world, entertainment journalism or my current archiving/preservation community, I want some answers. If my girlfriends and I know, if we’ve been frustrated and angry because we couldn’t call someone out because they were Too Big Time, then you guys must know the stories too. You probably know worse stories and have laughed or just rolled your eyes about it. Every time you didn’t warn us or stop those guys or call them out or do something, you let the women in your life and in the film community know that they were not valued.

Friends. WE JUST HAD TWO NUCLEAR MOVIE HOUSE EXPLOSIONS IN LESS THAN TWO MONTHS. Think there’s something rotten in the state of theatrical? Cuz I fuckin’ do.

So let’s update. It’s 2017. Less rep houses, mostly due to the analog/digital changeover. So we’re down a lotta movie houses and up a hellovalot more film festivals. What did that do? Well, it gave us the white, straight male-dominated film culture that focuses on the White Male Film Geek as Lord King God. It is literally White Geek-Bro Supremacy. This is something that has been planted, cultivated and grown over the years, carefully and intentionally. Fed with social media and entertainment journalism, it is so large that it IS VALUE and considered something OF WORTH. Basically, these geeks bring in the bucks. But at what cost?

I’m here to tell you fuck White Geek-Bro Supremacy. There is nothing valuable that can be created by this system. It does not create communities of worth. It gives NOTHING back.  The Cinefamily, Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest are examples of this dynamic in action and each one of these has either imploded completely or fractured under the weight of its toxic masculinity.

Communities established under this structure do not value women of color who love to read comic books or cosplay because it is joyful. In fact, the communities developed by White Geek-Bro Supremacy do not center joy at all. White Geek-Bro Supremacy centers competition, bullying, and one-upsmanship instead of goodwill, respect and an infectious love for cinema. The cradle of this system is binary viewpoints (best/worst) and list-dependency (top ten most ___). It was heavily nurtured with the idea that some media was indubitably to be valued and some not to be valued, based upon a knowledgeable hierarchy that rose to the top of the message board/chat group communities and eventually published blogs and articles. Incidentally, this is how men ended up dominating authorship of Internet movie sites.

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from Katie Kilkenny’s article, “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?” in The Atlantic, Dec 27, 2015

White Geek-Bro Supremacy is what was working overtime during the Alamo Drafthouse turmoil this week.

Many thought the mess was about a sexual assault(s) committed by a former writer for an Alamo Drafthouse publication. It was about more than that. It was about a severe lack of transparency, the preferential treatment for a pal and the willingness to risk an entire company’s reputation and national operations on an individual relationship. This speaks of a special kind of blindness: Privilege Blindness. As my friend John Wildman eloquently wrote, a large problem in the Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s “crisis management” was that he never stopped to listen to those who should have been listened to.

This is a recurring theme with privilege. Those with White Privilege, Male Privilege, and Heterosexual Privilege have the idea that their privilege affords them earplugs & blinders. The definition of Privilege Blindness is “I will not make the space to listen to you because of xxxx reasons.” Guess what, honey? Not one of those xxxx reasons is valid. Grab a beer. Pop the top. Just get uncomfortable with this.

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When you do not take the time to listen to another person, you are telling them, “You are not valuable. You are not worth anything. You have nothing to tell me of any value. I do not see you as someone who could add value to my life. Your experiences/thoughts/feelings mean nothing to me.” When you do that to someone in a marginalized group, it can be both achingly familiar (we’ve lived our whole lives not being listened to) and possibly life threatening. While the aforementioned former writer for Drafthouse certainly did lousy things, he wrote one good thing on his now-deleted Medium post: “Believe women. Especially when they are talking about you.”

What is it going to take to destroy these systems of oppression? What is it going to take to break down years of abuse? The men and women who have spoken out against the ongoing practices at the Drafthouse are mirror images of those at Cinefamily. They feel ignored, stepped on, devalued and left in the cold. They were not hip enough. Not in the cool kids club. Stories of floor staff at the Drafthouse being treated as “lesser than” because they were not within the upper echelon of the Who’s Who. And I get it: it’s largely impossible in a company that size to have some utopian vision where people are all partying together. But it is possible to have people feel appreciated and like they are part of an institution that is doing something amazing for the cinema community, which is the image that the Drafthouse outwardly projects. Bottom line: the party should never end up being more important than the people who decorated the room for the celebration.

As for Fantastic Fest… Tim League’s gotta be a little sad about that right now. His actions have put him in that funky little zone where moral values have impacted his Financial Value. Fox Searchlight pulled their film from Fantastic Fest. That’s kind of a big deal. While FF usually goes for more unusual fare, it could always use a big studio film for a bump, especially after recently launching new distribution shingle, Neon. Get rid of the testosterone-fueled boxing-matches, limit the VIP-only bashes that create such clear hierarchies and go back to what made the festival unique- its content.

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Boxing match from Fantastic Fest 2014, Photo: Alamo Drafthouse, September 21, 2014

 

So this may have been a lot to get through for many of you. And it may not have made sense or connected to the Cinefamily and Drafthouse situations for some. But please trust me- it all does. Obviously right now I don’t give a shit about TL;DR. Some will read this, others won’t. I’m really pissed off. I hate that it’s taken the devastation of two cinematic institutions and one film festival in order to knock some sense into dudes’ heads and make them remember that women are people too, with feelings and needs and all kinds of INSANE THINGS.

And please know- I never wanted Cinefamily to die. However, in the form that it was in, with that board of directors (some of whom are still very active in the LA rep theater scene), it was impossible. There were amazing people at Cinefamily and amazing people are suffering unemployment now due to its closure. I also do not advocate skipping Fantastic Fest (unless you feel you need to). I think that taking the discussion to the source and holding people accountable is key. But don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.

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An interesting ad from an anti-rape campaign in Missoula, MT.

I don’t want to see Drafthouse go down in flames but I would like to see its encouragement of White Geek Bro Supremacy stop. This will take more than a few professional sessions with a “crisis management” team. This will mean letting real people – women, POC, queer folx, trans/non-binary film lovers- talk to you, Tim League. And you need to shut up and listen.

Turn a new page. It’s possible, but it’s going to take work. It’s going to take a lot of listening and a lot of people are going to have to get really uncomfortable. A lot of people are going to have to do some major self-reflection. But as Amber Tamblyn wrote to James Woods, “What you are experiencing is called a teachable moment. It is called a gift.”

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Women and other marginalized groups are done being quiet. We know our value and our worth, even if rich straight white dudes don’t. For many of us, discovering intersectionalism has helped. Working together we can be more powerful than by focusing on just our own separate issues. Many of us have discovered new definitions of value and worth in community organizing. But that also means that structures of white supremacy and patriarchy are in serious danger. We’re only going to get louder and more powerful.

So White Male Geek Squad? Y’all should get your shit together and clean up your act. We’re coming for you. And that’s a promise.

The Lack of Obsolescence: The FOUND FOOTAGE FESTIVAL, 10th Anniversary Tour

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As a moving image archivist and profound fan of VHS tapes, when I heard about the Found Footage Festival I grew very excited.

For many, I think the comic factor is attractive. And that is understandable. But that’s not why I was thrilled. I didn’t get excited because the on-coming works to be shown seemed cheesy or ironically “awesome, dude.”

I wasn’t ready to support this show simply because it featured thousands of work-out tapes of the 80s that had been rediscovered in thrift-shops all over the United States, or because it was ready to seemingly exploit weird and wild home-made after-hours “Buy this! It’s only $99.99!” Mr. Popeil-style programs.

The Found Footage Festival, founded and curated by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher got me because it was a film festival generated by the same confidence and love for visual media that San Francisco Guardian critic and Castro programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has discussed at length when he has railed against the modern viewer’s concept of “neo-sincerity” and the damage that this has done to pure enjoyment of the visual text. It is what I mentioned when I talked about the uniquely new concept of non-ironically loving what others seem to consider “Bad” media. When I was asked to do a list for Rupert Pupkin Speaks on Bad Movies We Love, this is what I wrote:

 

 

I believe that the term “bad movie” requires a great deal of unpacking. Tragically, when I was first in film school, * mumblemumble * years ago, it did not. “Bad” simply meant the opposite of good. It meant that you did not like the film. It was a poor choice at the video store or the box office, you wouldn’t do it again, you had to go off and knock back a bunch of beers with pals to wash out that “bad movie taste” and that was that. No recommendations for that cinematic failure. The movie sucked.
Somehow, in the last 15 or so years, “bad” has taken on all sorts of different meanings to people. Now we all remember what Michael Jackson meant when he asked, “Who’s bad?” but that’s not exactly what I mean. Although, in a way, it is. When we go around to look at people’s collections at their houses and we agonize that they have the most “amazing VHS collection evAr” because it has a few dozen films starring your favorite wrestling stars, what does that mean? Does it mean those are good films or does it mean those are good films to you? Please note that I do not use the term “bad” here. I do not believe that it comes into play. I absolutely hate when people use the “so bad its good” descriptor. That, to me, is like saying “but he only hits me because he loves me.” IT MAKES NO SENSE ON A LOGICAL LEVEL. 
 So let’s get a few things clear right now:
1)    There is no such thing as SO BAD IT’S GOOD.
2)    Very few films are ever perfect. Sometimes, it is in their imperfections and in their relentless references to time, place and cultural objects that you can find absolute glory.
3)    Polarizing terms applied to art (which, by its nature, exists in a gray area) are likely to change in time. How many films can you think of that were once completely shunned and are now considered “masterpieces”? Be careful of hyperbole. It’ll bite you in the ass.
All that said, when Jesse Hawthorne Ficks (of the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS film series at the Castro Theater in San Francisco) came down to L.A. one night to present ROCKULA, he spoke about a thing called neo-sincerity, and that hit home. He said that we don’t watch these movies because we want to make fun of them, or because we think that they are stupid or so that we can, somehow, feel more superior by knowing that we dress “better” or some such. We watch these films because something in them actually appeals to us and we do actually dig them. So, with that, I give you a few films that other people may index underneath the genre of “bad movie” but I love the HELL out of.

As an archivist, I have learned that all media has a certain importance and this festival seemed like one that would not only be entertaining (being fronted by comedians and men who genuinely love both the VHS format and the comic craft) but also fascinating to my own work as a preservationist. It spoke to me on many levels since their approach mirrors the work of Rick Prelinger and Dan Streible in certain respects. Perhaps not the same tone, but like those respected archivists, these young men have taken the Home Movie Day approach with collections of old VHS works and they have most certainly become not only connoisseurs of the craft but experts in their field. To be frank, these men can reasonably do what any archivist does with a given set of elements: assess the collection, catalog the works, then provide access.  In my eyes, the Found Footage Festival is a unique and new kind of traveling archive. Yes, they give humor alongside the visuals. But these works are also reflections of an era that (most likely) many audience members now were not alive for.

Most people in the audience never owned a VCR. I OWN THREE. YES, STILL. Also, these clips, much like home movies, are like time capsules and windows into another region or era that none of us ever were part of. I will argue that this Festival is an important one. And these guys can make you laugh while you ingest important things that you didn’t even realize were important. Because it just looks like a crazy lady with an unfortunately feathered hairstyle doing yoga.

I highly recommend that you attend one, two or all of their events, as listed here. The link to where you can ACTUALLY BUY the tickets is HERE

I WILL BE AT BOTH OF THE NEW BEVERLY SHOWS. LET’S DO THIS THING!!!!!!!!!

Wed, May 7, 2014 @ 8:30pm Meltdown The Meltdown
Thu, May 8, 2014 @ 9:00pm New Beverly Vol. 7 in Los Angeles, CA
Fri, May 9, 2014 @ 9:00pm New Beverly Vol. 7 in Los Angeles, CA
Sat, May 10, 2014 @ 7:00pm The Loft Cinema Vol. 7 in Tucson, AZ
Tue, May 20, 2014 @ 8:00pm Spegeln FFF in Malmö, Sweden
Wed, May 21, 2014 @ 7:30pm Cinema Neuf FFF in Oslo, Norway
Thu, May 22, 2014 @ 8:30pm Bio Rio Vol. 7 in Stockholm, Sweden
Thu, Jun 5, 2014 @ 8:00pm E Street Cinema Vol. 7 in Washington, DC
Thu, Jun 19, 2014 @ 7:30pm Colonial Theatre Vol. 7 in Bethlehem, NH
Tue, Jun 24, 2014 @ 8:00pm Regent Square Vol. 7 in Pittsburgh, PA
Fri, Aug 1, 2014 @ 10:00pm Leicester Square Theatre Vol. 7 in London
Sat, Aug 2, 2014 @ 10:00pm Leicester Square Theatre Vol. 7 in London
Tue, Aug 12, 2014 @ 8:00pm Fine Line Music Cafe Vol. 7 in Minneapolis, MN
Thu, Aug 14, 2014 @ 8:00pm The Bishop Vol. 7 in Bloomington, IN
Thu, Sep 11, 2014 @ 8:00pm Lesley University Lesley University
Sat, Sep 20, 2014 @ 9:00pm University of New Hampshire University of New Hampshire

 

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN: Professional Wrestling and the Female Fan

Hello!

So in the mid-2000s I was in graduate school for the first time and I wrote a paper that I REALLY loved on a subject that I REALLY loved (and still do) and made the wonderful choice to submit it to a highly esteemed international conference on feminism and television called CONSOLE-ING PASSIONS and they accepted it. I had just graduated at that point and I was high on academia like a 90s raver on Ecstacy. But, as Frank Sinatra said, I was going to do it MY WAY. That probably cost me the PhD stuff that I was applying for, but looking back on the whole thing, I’m not sure if I have any regrets. I love how my life has gone and I have produced some incredible things & work in my career so far. I’m blessed.

THAT SAID, this piece is my favorite piece that I did in my Critical Studies (now called Cinema and Media Studies) program at UCLA. I got me a nice MA sitting on my desk and I *loved* doing this paper. Every day was bliss. Talking to these women, getting to know them and their stories…I guess I shoulda known then that I would be some kind of oral history & documentation whore at that point, but this paper is still something that I hold with more pride than almost anything that I have ever done & the only thing that I regret is that I never submitted it for actual publication in a journal. Some of the details now are out-of-date so it is no longer a relevant paper (this is the way that wrestling goes…cie la vie!) but I submit to you that my theories- in particular the Discourse of Disgust and Viewing Transvestitism are as fresh and useful today as the time they were written back in 2005ish.

Of note:

1) This is an academic paper and not *technically* published in a journal but if you wish to use or quote ANYTHING AT ALL…ASK ME FIRST!!!!!!! It’s the nice thing to do. Don’t plagiarize. This is my baby. I worked really hard on this.

2) All interviewee names have been changed, with the exception of those who gave me explicit permission to use their real ones.

3) Enjoy the hell outta this. I love it & it fills me with happy feelings to know that I made it. It’s long, but I think it’s good. Ladies love the wrasslin’! It’s a true thing!!! ❤

4) Be somewhat kind…I wrote this a while ago…not sure if my work has gotten better or worse, but if it’s not entirely sound, I was in my 20s. Forgive?

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In the early 1950’s in America, when the Cold War was in full effect, Joe McCarthy and company were running Hollywood, and everyone who was anyone had credit, a brand-new refrigerator, and a ranch-style home, Bess Truman was asked what she would miss the most about the White House, now that her husband was ending his term of office. Without missing a beat, the sharp former first-lady responded, “Wrestling on Thursday nights.”[1] While her response may seem extraordinary to the average, non-wrestling fan, Bess was not alone in her affinity for the events that took place within the “squared circle,”[2] and she is still not. In my experience as a wrestling fan and in my research for this project, I have found that there are (and have always been) female fans of professional wrestling, who are just as vocal and just as dedicated to it as the men. However, to my great disappointment, what I have also discovered is that there is far less coverage or attention paid to female wrestling fans. It is almost as if we don’t exist. As an academic scholar who aligns myself both with feminism and subcultural concerns in general, I found that this invisibility presented me with a perfect chance to give these women a voice, and therefore break the institutionalized silence.

First of all, I would like to define a few of my terms. For the purposes of this project I will be working with information regarding the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and its two primary television shows RAW and Smackdown! As an aside, a small (but important) piece of background information is that the WWE was formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Occasionally, there might be references to Pay-Per-Views, as that is a huge element of the WWE organization (not to mention their revenue). There will be some discussion about live shows, as well as shows watched at home. Primarily, I will be concentrating on the televised text, but the live experience is also well worth noting. Because wrestling has a huge history, complete with its own terminology and main characters, I will be periodically defining terms within the footnotes. Much of the vocabulary used in wrestling has an even longer tradition within the carnival and circus world, and much of it was borne out of that tradition. For the sake of this piece, and aligning myself with the people I interviewed, the time period that will be discussed will be focusing mainly on professional wrestling from the last 20 years. Wrestling has an exceptionally long and involved history, of which many books have been written. However, for the scope of this paper, my concentration will lie with current trends and information as that maintains the most relevance to my area of investigation.

My methodology was quite simple: in order to achieve any information about why women would participate in a fandom organized around what is summarily a hyper-masculine and at times misogynistic display of events, I clearly had to speak to the women themselves. As a fan, I was aware of why I watched it, but why did other women? I knew a few women who liked wrestling personally, and I asked them if they would be willing to participate, and, without hesitation, they agreed. I then turned to a World Wrestling Entertainment online community that I am part of, and placed a small “advertisement.” I identified myself as a female and as a fan, and said that I was working on a project about female fans of professional wrestling, and asked if anyone would be interested in participating. I then left my email address and waited. It was crucial, in my book, to identify myself as a fan, in order to gain trust and access. As Henry Jenkins notes, regarding his own experience in studying fan culture, scholarly work surrounding fan culture has not always been kind, and professional wrestling is no stranger to heavy criticism. In order to demonstrate that the work that he was doing would be sensitive to fan concerns, Jenkins revealed his own personal affiliations with fan communities and identified himself as a fan, to the fans. In doing this, he was able to secure a better line of communication, as he had “reassured” them that he was not going to exploit them or denigrate their position.[3] I concur with Jenkins’ theories about self-identification for entry, thus I made certain that the people who would be participating in my study knew that I was an academic, but was also a fan. I feel that this revelation led to far more fertile results, as the fact that I, too, was a member of the marginalized group, gave the participants greater freedom to speak their minds.

I initially had approximately 25 women enthusiastically respond to my communiqué. Out of those, I was able to secure 13 solid interviews, which I conducted through email. While I recognize the problematic nature of this method, I feel that it was an amazingly successful way of getting information about this particular subject. Besides being an extremely international bunch, wrestling fans are very computer literate. Thus, the capacity that the Internet gives for communication over cities, states, and even oceans is quite positive. I was able to interview women from locations that ranged from California to Canada, Texas to New Jersey, Kansas to Australia. The age range and ethnicities that I came into contact with were just as diverse as the locations. These women placed anywhere from 16 to 32 years of age, and identified themselves as African-American, white, Vietnamese, and of Native American descent, as well as mixed ethnicity/race. Unfortunately, the Internet “problem” is still one to be recognized. Because of the impersonal nature of computer dialogue, I had no way of saying for certain (with the exception of the women I knew personally) whether any of the information that I received was true (i.e. responses could very well have come from men impersonating women, etc), and I also missed out on having the benefit of tangential information that one can acquire through personal inquiry. The questionnaires I received, however, were quite amazing, and the similarities in their responses were so prevalent that for the sake of this project (and in my own subjective opinion) I will defend their veracity.

Women are generally not expected to be fans of wrestling, let alone of sports. As one of my interviewees noted, the stereotypical view of women when it comes to watching sports is that they are usually “sitting around in the kitchen, annoyed at the boys for watching sports.” In an event that unabashedly presents misogynistic discourse and hyperbolic celebration of masculinity, it is no surprise that most people would figure that we would prefer the kitchen. But the simple fact is many of us don’t. Personally, I dig the living room couch. I have a better view. In this study, I will work through various issues in and around women and their experiences in being an otherwise neglected group in wrestling fan culture. Their deviation from the “standard sports fan” (read: male) creates their subcultural status, which gives them as much freedom as it introduces culturally imposed reminders of their supposed limitations.

Within this work, I will present issues in and around the pleasure of the wrestling text for women and why these women truly do find pleasure in it. I will also consider what I term the “Discourse of Disgust” that is present alongside the enjoyment of wrestling; a practice that I feel is singular to this particular subculture made of women. I will then account for their experiences as wrestling fans, and how others react to them, and how they deal with this interaction. Finally, I will conclude with talking about what I call “Viewing Transvestitism,” which I fell is one of the most salient aspects of professional wrestling spectatorship. Together, all these issues combine to form a community that is not only present, but also growing, and as such, deserves to be heard.

women at ringside, standing and reaching as if to catch something thrown by wrestler Gorgeous George who, though not visible in this image, was standing in the ring

Several women at ringside, standing and reaching as if to catch something thrown by wrestler Gorgeous George who, though not visible in this image, was standing in the ring.                                             Photographer: Stanley Kubrick
Date: 1949
Call Number: LOOK – Job 49-O46, frame 12 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Image from Look photographic assignment with title: Chicago city of contrasts.
Frame 12 of a contact sheet.
Forms part of: LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

The Whole Package

So why do women get so much joy out of watching guys beat each other up for hours at a time, anyway? In his highly attentive account of sports spectatorship, Allen Guttman notes that “not all spectators…are sports spectators…By this apparently paradoxical remark I mean to refer, for instance, to dandies of both sexes who strut and preen about the venue and never glance at the game…to spouses dragged by spouses to an afternoon of tedium, to parents who come because someone must…and to all others whose motives are extrinsic to sports, per se.”[4] While several of my interviewees noted this fact, the significant point in nearly all of their narratives was that they were not of this ilk and they actually enjoyed watching. The women that I interviewed genuinely love watching professional wrestling, and enjoy being part of the fan culture. One young woman stated that, “I had to get into it by myself. That is to say, I had no older brothers who were into it or anything. I saw RAW one night when I was 9 years old and I was hooked.”[5] In addition to this idea of self-motivated watching, many responses dealt with the evolution of their relationship with wrestling. Some may have started out as the kind of spectator that Guttman describes, but they quickly evolved into an avid fan. “My younger sister, who is 19, actually got me hooked on it,” one viewer related, “I used to catch the tail end of RAW when it was on USA because I used to watch The Highlander, which was on right after it. It would happen that way every week, and eventually I began picking up with whatever storyline was going on at the end of the show. My sister had a habit of taping both RAW and Smackdown! so I watched her tapes to get caught up and eventually started watching them on my own.”[6] What is particularly compelling about this woman’s story is that it was another female that got her “hooked.”  A good number of other viewers spoke of boyfriends or uncles or fathers who they watched wrestling with, and, although not interested at first, they too became “addicted.”

But what is the actual draw? In his highly influential piece on wrestling, Roland Barthes discusses wrestling as the “spectacle of excess,” and likens it to what one might have seen in “ancient theaters.” He deconstructs the absolute pleasure (and expectation) of seeing what he calls “the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice,” and states “wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly.”[7] While this is inarguably one of the central themes of enjoyment of professional wrestling, the women I spoke with, added more technical aspects to their enjoyment, beyond simply an intellectual satisfaction at seeing the good guy win, and justice served. One woman, Jessica, stated it quite simply as “the whole package…good in the ring, great with the mic[8] and not so bad to look at either.” Upon being asked about who their favorite wrestlers were, and why, most women cited this same “package,” and defined the pleasure that they got from watching these figures based on skill first, dramatic performance second, and aesthetic appeal third, if at all. Yet there was the feeling that Barthes’ concept of the theatrical playing out of good and evil applied. “The best thing about wrestling,” Catherine noted, “is the hero factor. You find a certain wrestler and they embody some hero complex in you…or your inner bad guy. It’s the classic story of bad vs. good.” One woman even referenced silent film iconography as one of the best things about wrestling. “I think [wrestling is] melodrama at its finest. Like those black & whites with the mustached [sic] bad guy that ties up the heroine.”[9]

Beyond the immense pleasure that these women find in the “real athleticism and grace” of wrestling, many of them described the enjoyment that they experience as being part of a kind of “vacation” mentality. Upon being asked if wrestling has impacted their lives, one woman responded, “Wrestling gives me a way to vent…If not I think I would go crazy from the pressure of [work]. There are so many things I have to keep my composure about at work or life. Wrestling (and sports watching in general) gives me “permission” and a forum to be out of control.”[10] Although Heather’s reasoning is slightly different, as she sees wrestling as a relaxing tool, not a cathartic one, the benefit she got from watching wrestling was “having a period of time each week where I sit down and watch TV instead of running around like a crazy person.” While other women noted that it gave them a kind of “stability” in their lives, knowing that they had a place to be on certain nights, and a program that they loved watching, others still maintained that watching it “is an escape. I work hard and I want to forget about work as fast as possible when I get home. Wrestling is perfect for that.”[11]

In David Morley’s work, Television, Audiences & Cultural Studies, he looks at issues of leisure time and families, discussing viewing habits of men versus those of women, and the power plays that occur within that dynamic. Although it is of note that his work represents quite a different population from my own, his discussion of Janice Radway is crucial. Concerning dynamics of power and gender relations within television viewing, Morley writes that

This issue raises the further problem of how difficult it is for most women to construct any leisure-time space for themselves within the home- any space, that is, in which they can feel free of the ongoing demands…[corresponding with this issue] Radway found that many of the women she interviewed connected their reading of romance fiction with their rare moments of privacy from the endless demands of family and work life. In effect, her respondents seemed to feel that romance reading was almost a ‘declaration of independence.’[12]

00901v

Spectators at wrestling match in Chicago.
Photographer: Stanley Kubrick
Year: 1949
Call Number: LOOK – Job 49-O46, frame 6 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Image from Look photographic assignment with title: Chicago city of contrasts.
Frame 6 of a contact sheet.

Thus, even though the social set-up is different in most cases (in my study, those who had children seemed to be single parents, and those who had significant others had no children), the need for leisure time construction of their own creation was still present, thus giving support to the socially enforced idea of a woman’s work “never being done.”

Not unlike those with marriage and familial responsibilities, these women have a necessity to make their own time, and create their own space. Thus, we can at least partially read these women’s attraction to their wrestling as a catalytic agent, giving them space from the hustle-and-bustle, and serving as the key to unlock the handcuffs they feel constrained by on a daily basis. They are their own liberators.

The bottom line is that women do find exquisite pleasure in wrestling. Whether it is through brilliant physical display or whether it is because it provides a much-needed respite from daily responsibilities, it is clear that there is an attraction to the “whole package” for these women. They love watching the performances of physical skill, and love to participate in viewing what Barthes called the “intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private.” Wrestling creates in these women a freedom that they do not have in their normal day-to-day lives.  With wrestling, they have “permission” to scream at the television, or to relax with the stability of scheduled time/space for themselves, and a program they get pleasure from. As well, as female sports fans, they are given the ultimate freedom of participating in what is commonly accepted as a male viewing space, thus erasing gender role confines.

Pretty Girls In Spandex

It’s not all love and flowers and positive energy out there in the female fans of wrestling world, however. There’s plenty there that is actively denied, rejected and absolutely hated. Many of the women I interviewed had conflicting opinions about certain wrestlers (some loved Randy Orton, some thought that it was terrible that he was getting pushed [13] as much as he was, etc), and others still differed on which televised show they liked better (RAW or Smackdown!). However, the one thing that they all uniformly agreed on (with rare exception) was the dissatisfaction with the current status of the representation of women in the WWE.

These women seem to be operating with what I have termed the “Discourse of Disgust,” which centers upon three crucial features. The first feature is what I call the “T&A/Catfight Display,” which references the idea that almost all of the female wrestlers in use today are there solely for the purpose of titillating the males in the audience, and not to demonstrate any wrestling skill. The second feature is something that I term the “Humiliation/Degradation Game,” which involves the constant positioning of female wrestlers into positions of powerlessness or subjugation. The final feature of this discourse is the “Paucity of the Protagonist,” which deals with the oft-mentioned complaint about there being a lack of high-caliber female wrestlers available, and the strong desire to have somebody to pick from, instead of just making do with who is offered.

In their perceptive account of the mass media and its representation of female athletes, Mary Jo Kane and Susan L. Greendorfer write about the hyper-feminization and the hyper-sexualization of sportswomen. They discuss that, after struggling for so long just to get into this arena (sports), the images that the media uses of different female athletes

Represent a modernized attempt to reinforce traditional stereotypical images of femininity and female sexuality…these feminized and sexualized portrayals are simply new variations on very old themes: media images as a product or tool of patriarchal oppression of women-and their bodies-through an institutionalized socially constructed system of gender roles and values.[14]

The female imagery that the WWE has used in the last 10 to 15 years ideologically supports this theory. As noted in the book, Sex, Lies and Headlocks, the late ‘90’s was when sex in the WWE (then known as the WWF) became used as a crucial selling point in order to gain viewers away from station TBS who had a competing wrestling show. As the authors note, Vince McMahon (owner and boss of the WWE) has never been much for women’s lib. They cited that “the WWF had a brief flirtation with feminism in the Cyndi Lauper years, but Vince made his feelings toward that side of the business clear when Wendy Richter, Lauper’s confederate, pushed him to expand his ladies’ division. Irritated, he stripped her of her title.”[15] We all know that sex sells. But, in alignment with Kane and Greendorfer’s theories, it is not so much that sex sells, but that sexual representations of women sell especially well, as they reinforce hegemonic notions of male supremacy through the commodification of women’s bodies as sexual objects. Anything that might possibly disrupt the status quo is inherently dangerous, and must go. Thus Wendy Richter was stripped of her title.

Now *that* is a look that should come back into style! Putting some riot into grrl!

Now *that* is a look that should come back into style! Putting some riot into grrl!

As for the sexual objectification of women in wrestling, Patrice Oppliger writes

Sexuality is used to exploit and subvert women…women are presented individually, as objects for consumption. Wrestling shows use many excuses to parade women around in next to nothing. Bikini contests are very popular anytime, but other events are used to get women in sexual outfits such as Halloween or Thanksgiving costume contests. Bra and panty matches were created to strip women within a wrestling competition.[16]

Watching any amount of wrestling, one notices that there is no equivalent of the “bra and panties” or “evening gown” match[17] for the men, nor has there been a significant change in the amount of clothing that the male wrestlers have worn over the years. Style might have changed, but the male uniform has stayed basically the same. Oppliger notes a definite change in the visual portrayal of female wrestlers over the years, stating that “many critics focus on the more recent exploitation phase, skipping over the early days of women in wrestling to a time when females began to wear fewer clothes and started getting breast implants.”[18]

Stripping female wrestlers of their clothing, dressing them in high heels and “strongly advising” (as Vince McMahon is rumored to do) that they get breast implants, are just more ways to disempower these potentially powerful figures, and place the focus on their sexuality and what they can do for the heterosexual male viewer, rather than what they can do in the ring. The hyper-feminization of these wrestlers only serves to uphold the idea that they are there for a “T&A” display, and their wrestling talent is negligible. This is a totally ridiculous practice, for many fans, as Oppliger notes. “Fans get tired of hair-pulling and ‘fake’ falls. In real life, men and women train together in wrestling schools, so they get similar skills.”[19]

tumblr_lio8u7TRk81qc6yqqo1_500

This is a pic from a Tumblr called “Diva Dirt” of wrestler (aka WWE Diva) Torrie Wilson smacking her co-Diva Jackie with a crossbody blow at Wrestlemania 20 in a tag team Playboy Evening Gown match in 2011. One can only assume that the evening gowns were removed earlier due to being an annoyance and catching on bra straps and garter belts?

The women I interviewed felt very strongly on this issue. Due to their adoration of watching a good physical display, and feeling that the WWE was concentrating too much on this “T&A/Catfight Display,” they almost uniformly preferred to watch the men wrestle rather than the women. One viewer, Maggie, expressly stated, “I think the state of the women’s division is…pretty bad. They really have been demoted to just ‘pretty girls in spandex.’…Women [in wrestling] today also wear significantly less clothing than did the women of just 10 years ago. I don’t know how these things would impact younger viewers, but they certainly disgust me, even now.” Joy stated simply, “Not that I don’t like women, but so much of women’s wrestling is just T&A. They lack skill, but can flip their hair or swaggle their hips at the drop of a hat,” while still another took offense to this display, saying that she doesn’t “appreciate that some of the female wrestlers have no skill and are strictly used as eye candy. It’s a waste of time…”[20] One viewer even cited the “bra-and-panties/evening gown” matches as offensive, saying that having these women come up there “mostly to show off their tits and ass” in a match that generally involves them “stripping each other’s clothes off, and whatnot,” actually is direct incentive to watch the men wrestle.

The “Humiliation/Degradation Game” is also offensive to these women. One fan, upon being asked what the worst aspects of wrestling are to her, strongly responded, “some of the God awful storylines involving the girls on occasion. Things like Dawn Marie/Torrie Wilson and Torrie’s dad Vince McMahon making Trish Stratus bark like a dog, etc.” [21].  Yet another complained “these days, the WWE features women like Torrie Wilson and Lita, who cower in the presence of large angry men. It’s insulting…I hope the young fans don’t look up to these weak women, as I looked up to Madusa [older generation female wrestler], and I wish there were stronger female figures in wrestling.”[22]

Former female WWE Champ Madusa aka Madusa Miceli aka Alundra Blayze. Pictured here in her famed feud with Bull Nakano

Former female WWE Champ Madusa aka Madusa Miceli aka Alundra Blayze. Pictured here in her famed feud with Bull Nakano, circa mid-90s

In answer to my question about how watching wrestling impacts the female viewer, Jessica wrote, “I think its bad when they have storylines that degrade women. To me, that’s the biggest insult you can give a female viewer.”[23] These women’s rejection of the subjugation of women is a strong facet of their presence within the female wrestling fan subculture. In order to maintain their fanship, they must be able to watch and experience these segments, yet negotiate their own feelings of offense, in order to continue to participate in wrestling culture. To continue to watch a program that you find alternatively pleasing and insulting is to be placed in a continual location of ambivalence, and takes much dedication and desire to persevere.

Looking at the first two categories of the Discourse of Disgust, it is not a far leap to see the conclusion of this issue, the “Paucity of Protagonists.” While working through the T&A/Catfight Display and the Degradation/Humiliation Game, one can see the development of the third feature. By the WWE’s insistence upon women displaying their bodies over their talent, and performing roles of subordination to male wrestlers through humiliation and degradation, female fans are not left with much in the way of “favorite female wrestlers.” As a result of the first two categories, there is clearly a dearth in strong female iconography for the female consumer to a) identify with, and b) enjoy. The women in my study noticed this, and actively stated that they wanted this situation to change. One woman stated, frankly,

 I prefer watching men wrestle, because there don’t seem to be all that many good female wrestlers around today…Too many of them are fitness-model-gone-wrestler…the women’s division was better [in the past]. Those women could really wrestle and they were entertaining to watch. Today, a woman’s wrestling match has been stripped down to a “Puppies!”[24] comment from Lawler [Jerry “the King” Lawler, wrestling announcer] every thirty seconds…Unfortunately, with     such a small pool of talent, the women can’t consistently put on good matches.[25]

Her dissatisfaction was echoed by another woman’s sentiment. When this fan answered my question about whether or not viewing wrestling/being a wrestling fan can formulate a kind of feminism, she remarked that wrestling has “helped people see that women can get in there and mix it up just like the men, [but] when you have the Stacy Keiblers [female wrestler] getting in there who can’t wrestle, I think it takes it all back a step.”[26]

Her dislike of Stacy Keibler came from the fact that, in her opinion, Keibler was a participant in the T&A/Catfight Display, and had very little wrestling talent, and was there based upon looks alone. As a result of the compromised location that most female wrestlers occupy, there are very few available for women who appreciate the actual physical display of wrestling to choose from. Some fans noted that there are certain female wrestlers who they will watch, as they appreciate their wrestling ability, but unless those wrestlers are on, they choose to watch the men, as the men exhibit a more consistent display of entertainment and high wrestling caliber. As well, the low number of female matches also seems to play a part in this, as one woman criticized the WWE, saying that she would really “prefer if women’s matches got more air time, rather than RAW going to a commercial during the only women’s match of the night!”[27]

In the formulation of a female wrestling fan subculture, you clearly have the features that give them immediate pleasure and satisfaction in viewing, but I would argue that to a certain extent, the participatory nature of negotiating their displeasure, and their identity as players within the Discourse of Disgust, also formulates a large part of their pleasure as fans.

John Fiske writes, “the meanings found in the text shift towards the subject position of the reader more than the reader’s subjectivity is subjected to the ideological power of the text.”[28] Fiske’s conception of an active audience fits the population of female wrestling fans to a tee. These women, through their rejection of the ideologies that the WWE is putting forth, are tailoring the program to fit their own subject positions. Their choice and preference of watching men wrestle over women, is a dynamic location of spectatorship, where they are given the freedom to pursue their own pleasure in the program. The disgust that they show in their consideration of the representation of women wrestlers should not be taken lightly, as their protests are valid. However, they do not let these misogynist ideologies rule their personal viewing pleasure. In his deconstruction of Stuart Hall’s theory of preferred reading, Fiske notes that the “value of the theory lies in its freeing the text from complete ideological closure, and in its shift away from the text and towards the reader as the site of meaning.”[29] These women, therefore, have stripped the text of the offensive elements, freed wrestling from its “ideological closure,” and brought it back to their own site of subjective textual analysis.

Many of these women did re-read the texts given, placing them in an ideological space that was more pleasing and gratifying to their own subject positions. One woman wrote, of the aspects involved in the Degradation/Humiliation Game, “we’ve seen storylines where females are mishandled or emotionally abused by the males and they overcome it and get out of it. And while it may be just a storyline to some, to others it is reality and it gives them the courage to be like the wrestler and get out of that situation.”[30]  Sara explains that her adoration of wrestler Stephanie McMahon has affected her life greatly. “Stephanie McMahon…has done wonders for my personality and self esteem. She’s shown me that, yes, a woman can succeed with men all around her…Everyday when I get up, I can turn over and say to myself, ‘It can’t be as bad as I think, because Stephanie Marie McMahon has been through worse.’” Fiske’s discussion of Turnbull’s work with female spectators of the television program, Prisoner, is exceptionally useful in this capacity. According to Fiske, Turnbull’s results related how he found that

Images of strong, active women fighting the system, gaining minor victories (although eventually succumbing to it) give them pleasure (in the resistance) and a means of articulating a discourse of resistance to the dominant ideology that paralleled the discourse (often called rebelliousness) that they used to make sense of their social existence. The contradictions and struggle between authority and resistance to it existed in both the program and their subjectivities, and the meanings that were activated and the pleasures that were gained were the ones that made social sense to the subordinate and powerless.[31]

These women expressed feelings of marginalization, periodically, whether it was as a result of being one of the very few female fans that they knew, as a result of working in a traditionally male field, or just as a woman in general. However, many of these women were able to combat those feelings through their reappropriation of female figures in wrestling. As Henry Jenkins has written in his seminal text on fan culture, “fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests.”[32] Although many of the same people who wrote about how they “now have people to look up to, i.e. Lita, Trish Stratus, rather than actresses,” exhibit all three features of the Discourse of Disgust, they occupy a wonderfully free and paradoxical space where, as an active reader, they can reclaim Trish Stratus as someone they look up to, and see as a strong woman. On the other hand, because of their subject positioning, they can also reject the T&A/Catfight Display, and regret the Paucity of Protagonists.

Surprises and Eyerolls

Another way in which female wrestling fans have formulated an active subculture is in the way that they “react to their reactions.” Although some fans, like Jacky, are “usually shy to mention it anyone, it’s like I am afraid, I don’t know why,” others will go ahead and tell people of their fan status. Upon being asked how other people act in response to the revelation that they are female and a fan of wrestling, many of these women have been met with pronounced derision. Sara states, “what surprises me most about being a ‘female fan’ is when people realize that I am one. Apparently, since I’ve gone away to college and have a good job and a normal social life, there’s no way I can be all of those things and a wrestling fan. Newsflash: I am, and that’s just the way it is.” Kelly stated that the typical response she receives is “’Oh my god! You know it’s fake don’t you?’ followed by hysterical laughter,” while Jennifer reported, “They think I’m crazy and ask if I know that it is fake. They usually are shocked…like I don’t fit the profile of a wrestling fan.” Heather deconstructed the reaction in three ways. She said that when she tells someone that she is a wrestling fan, she gets one of three responses:

a) Getting laughed at/made fun of- to this day, I still get the “hey ask Heather, she watches wrestling” whenever something comes up that might be categorized as “white trash” comes up (nascar, monster truck, etc)

b) I find kindred spirits- there is a fairly large group of people I work with who are wrestling fans- mainly male Hispanic. They are always pleasantly surprised to find I like wrestling because they didn’t expect a girl, and didn’t expect me, in particular, to enjoy it.

c) I get a generic “I used to watch that” with an undertone of  “but I certainly wouldn’t watch that anymore” type of response. Wrestling gets tagged as being something you watch when you’re a kid.

Joy said that her general reaction “varies between surprise and eyerolls,” while Jessica actively marked the response up to gender. She said, “I usually get a ‘Really?’ and I think the reason is because I’m female.” All of these women exhibited similar conditions of reception to their fandom. While many of them accounted for the response as a result of gender deviance (girls aren’t supposed to like wrestling), academic/social status (“you’re too smart to like that!”), or underestimation of their intelligence (“you know it’s fake, right?”) others, like Heather, did report a positivity that they encountered, when they found “kindred spirits.” In fact, more than one of the women I interviewed said that they had met their significant others through their wrestling fanship, as well as many good friends.

These women seemed to encounter criticism from every section of people they told, except for the “in group”- other wrestling fans. Jessica said “some of the guys I know are actually impressed, especially when we start talking about wrestlers or shows. They like to have someone different to talk to about what’s going on in the world of wrestling,” while Maggie stated that her “liking of wrestling is met with a sense of wonder and awe by other wrestling fans [but] meeting other wrestling fans seems hard to do, these days.” Within this section of responses, it seems that women occupy an almost revered position, as unusual fans. Their narratives seem to account for a certain glory that they take in being a subculture within a subculture. As these women are straying from gender convention within the fan culture of wrestling, which is made up primarily of men, these women are given respect and admiration for their fanship. Their own personal gain is that they find other “kindred spirits,” which, as Maggie related, is not a simple task. Within other fans’ responses they are given support and recognition, while in mainstream society, their tastes are infantilized (wrestling is only watched as a child), their intellect devalued (don’t they know it’s not real?), or their academic accomplishments used as weapons (you’re too smart to watch wrestling).

Jenkins maintains, “sports fans (who are mostly male and who attach great significance to “real” events rather than fictions) enjoy very different status than media fans (who are mostly female and who attach great interest in debased forms of fiction).”[33] I would like to address the issue of the problematic nature of being a sports entertainment fan, and discuss the fact that wrestling (which many consider to be a sport) fans do not enjoy the same status as “regular” sports fans. While Jenkins’ point is, on the whole, probably an accurate one, the idea of sports entertainment brings out a whole new way of looking at that statement. While the matches are fixed, and there are writers and fictional storylines, wrestling is a conundrum in its sports identity. Not only do these women experience discrimination because of their pleasure in wrestling, but so do the men. Wrestling fan culture is not a far cry from any other fan culture, where the participants are continually mocked for their affiliation. What makes wrestling particularly fascinating, however, is its conflation of sports (real) and “media”(fiction). Lori brings up a crucial point when she says, “the worst thing about wrestling is mostly the general public’s attitude towards it (ESPN’s 2nd most hated sport, I believe the poll said). Just because there is an element of choreography doesn’t mean that all of it is ‘fake.’ You can’t exactly fake getting thrown through a table, can you?” The fact that ESPN, a major sports channel, classifies wrestling as a sport, yet everyone feels the undying need to remind wrestling fans that what they are watching is fictional, locates this program in a liminal space, haphazardly jumping between elements of reality and fiction, without a fixed identity, causing critics left and right continual frustration. Wrestling’s fiction/non-fiction identity causes its fans unending strife as well, because they must deal with having to defend their fanship, as well as the authenticity of their program. Sara says, about having to stand up for her love of wrestling, that she has learned to “take it with a grain of salt, people just ‘don’t get it,’ and I brush it off as much as I can.”

In Ien Ang’s study of Dallas watchers, she outlines the ideology of mass culture as a process where “some cultural forms- mostly very popular cultural products and practices cast in an American mould- are tout court labeled ‘bad mass culture.’ ‘Mass culture’ is a denigrating term, which arouses definitely negative associations. In opposition to ‘bad mass culture’ implicitly or explicitly something like ‘good culture’ is set up.”[34] Female fans of professional wrestling are subjected to the same tyrannical ideology of mass culture that Ang’s Dallas fans were. In my reading of their narratives (which, like Ang, I tried to do “symptomatically,” to try to find out what the viewing pleasure in wrestling meant to these women), I encountered multiple instances where the fans either maintained a silence about their viewing habits for fear of ridicule, or, more often than not, when they expressed their love for wrestling, they were laughed at or told that what they watched was, in some way, “bad culture.” However, like Ang’s participants, many of these women were able to express to me their own ideology of populism, developed as a result of being attacked for what they liked one too many times.

As Ang defines it, the ideology of populism is “first and foremost an anti-ideology: it supplies a subject position from which any attempt to pass judgment on people’s aesthetic preferences is a priori and by definition rejected, because it is regarded as an unjustified attack on freedom.”[35] I would like to suggest that the participants in my project have a special dualistic relationship to the ideology of populism, as they occupy a very distinct marginal space. First of all, they are already predisposed to this ideology, as they are breaking gender stereotypes by taking pleasure in a hyper-masculine product that is not generally marketed to women, and thus forming a subculture all their own. Hegemonic standards can be likened to the ideology of mass culture in their dominating structure. Thus, by breaking conventional ideas of gender propriety, these women already have a highly developed sense of the ideology of populism, requiring the freedom that conventional standards of femininity refuse to allow.  Secondly, as participants of a subculture (wrestling fan culture, in general) that is consistently assailed as being exemplary of “bad culture” or “low class/bad taste,” they have had to counteract this as well, by formulating a strong sense of freedom of taste. So when I read about “taking things with a grain of salt,” or the ardent statement, “Newsflash: I am [a wrestling fan], and that’s just the way it is” I saw these responses as a strident inflection of the ideology of populism, and the “taste freedom” that it supports.

All The Soap Opera Without Any of the Stupid “I-Love-Yous”

While fan culture can be a difficult location to exist in, women and men who love wrestling are provided an opportunity at what I call “viewing transvestitism.” For men, this means participation in a genre that has historically been rendered “feminine,” while women have the chance to participate in one that has been labeled “masculine.” Through this participation, both sexes have the opportunity to shed the socially decreed gender taste conventions, and, in a sense, “see how the other half lives.”

Wrestling has repeatedly been described as a “male soap opera,” as it contains many, if not all, the essential elements that traditional soaps like Days of Our Lives, General Hospital or One Life to Live contain. First of all, it does involve a family, the McMahons. But wait- it gets better- not only is there a family, but it is the “most dysfunctional family in America,” as many of the WWE advertisements proclaimed, in the late 90’s.[36] While currently the family is not center-stage, it was a huge focus for many years. To this day, divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, extra-marital affairs, and other “top soap” dramatic elements are still active parts of the storyline. Not only that, but there is never any conclusion. A match may end, Eddie Guerrero might have kept his title because of a disqualification, but that does not mean that the conflict between him and John Bradshaw Layfield is over, by any sense of the word. Professional wrestling works on the same principle that Tania Modleski wrote that soap operas do: “Tune in tomorrow, not in order to find out the answers, but to see what further complications will defer the resolutions and introduce new questions.”[37] Through wrestling’s connotation as a highly masculine form of entertainment, the feminine soap element becomes masked, and acceptable. Yet I find it utterly fascinating that this is the one instance where a male character, totally muscle-bound and alpha-male coded, can get up on stage and shed tears, as wrestler Kurt Angle did a few weeks ago, and the male spectators will not be called “weak” for feeling for the guy. I understand it however- through the diegetic narrative, men are allowed to cross that boundary, enter into the feminized world of the soap opera. In this context, because wrestling is soaked in the hyper-masculine costuming of sports, the soap opera becomes re-named a “male soap opera.”

Female spectators get a chance to break free from the mold as well. As Heather said, one of the great things for her about participating in the wrestling fan culture is, as a woman, you get to “have a ‘boys night’ of sitting around, eating BBQ, and drinking beer, while not being classified as one of the women who are sitting around in the kitchen annoyed at the boys for watching sports.” Lori notes that being a female wrestling fan is “no different than a girl knowing the rules, etc. behind any other sport, like football or basketball. She then becomes more like ‘one of the guys.’” In response to my question of how wrestling impacts the female viewer, Jacky said candidly, “I think it makes them feel like they watch it and it doesn’t matter that it’s a ‘male show.’ I guess it makes them feel like they’re equal and they are not seen as ‘the female watching the show’ but ‘the fan watching the show.’ All these women exhibited strong acknowledgement of the social conventions that gender-type wrestling as “male,” and yet all of them also talked about the pleasure that they get from crossing over into that realm, while still being firmly aware that they are female. The viewing transvestitism that takes place in their engagement with the wrestling text allows them access to what would commonly not be at their beck-and-call. As we saw in the easy acceptance of female wrestling fans by male wrestling fans, this is no surprise, as it is an aspect of the fan culture. However, the ability and freedom that is involved in breaking the strict “boys watch sports/girls don’t watch sports” code is one that gives these women enormous strength, both in their fanship, and in their personal lives.

Newsflash: I Am, and That’s Just the Way It Is

I get enormous pleasure out of watching wrestling. I have my favorite wrestlers, and my favorite storylines, and I have a date every Monday and Thursday night with the television to participate in a program that alternately offends me and gives me suspense, pleasure and excitement. When I turned the questions that I asked these women back upon myself, I found that many of my responses lay along the same lines. There were differences, but overall, I found that the pleasure I received from the wrestling text came from a series of negotiations with my desire to read wrestling according to my own subject position. Just as any of the fans I was in contact with, I am, what Fiske calls, an “active reader.”

I have tried to be as fair and partial about the representation of wrestling and female spectators as I can, but I’ll admit that I can only go so far. I am certain that there is much within these pages that female fans would disagree with me about, but there are just as many people out there who would subscribe to Ang’s ideology of mass culture, and put me down for spending so much “valuable” time on an “invaluable” subject.

On the whole, I think it is crucial to recognize these women’s voices, and their active formation of a subculture within a subculture. It is not easy for a woman to break free of the things that are deemed gender-acceptable or unacceptable. These women’s active participation and intelligent deconstruction of what they watch, and why they watch it, show that not only are they remarkable examples of strength in the face of socially enforced gender restrictions, but they are also engaging in a process by which they are taking the power back, and joyfully transgressing ideas of what a woman “should be watching” or what a woman “should be enjoying.” By joining forces with the rest of the wrestling fan community, they can be seen less as a female, and more as a fan, an experience they might not receive in other areas of their lives. Yet gender is not entirely erased, as shown by these women’s pronounced activity within the discourse of disgust. They are quite aware of the ideological misogyny that the WWE exhibits, yet they make the choice to either re-read it as something that they find positive and meaningful to them, or reject it entirely, concentrating on a different part of the text that does not seem hateful to them. The operative word in this equation, however, is choice. These women know that being part of this liminal group actually affords them choice, and having a choice makes all the difference.


[1] Truman, quoted in Sugar, Burt Randolph. “’Sports Scholar’ Analyzes Wrestling.” Solie’s Vintage Wrestling. 5.553. 18 March 2000. http://members.aol.com/solie3/svwn553.html. 1 June 2004.

[2] “squared circle” is commonly used slang within the wrestling community for the area of the wrestling mat

[3] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[4] Guttman, Allan. Sports Spectators. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

[5] I will be used pseudonyms for my participants, in order to protect their anonymity

[6] Jessica

[7] Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

[8] Being “good with the mic” implies the wrestler’s capacity to dramatically perform their “part” well, and display the given role’s personality in a powerful way. This may involve “cutting a good promo” which is a fictional segment designed to advance dramatic storyline.

[9] Theresa

[10] Theresa

[11] Sara

[12] Morley, David. Television, Audiences & Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[13] Giving a wrestler a “push” means that they are being given a good amount of wrestling time- many times a new wrestler will get a big “push” at the start, and if that doesn’t work out, the wrestler will either be left out until they figure out a new gimmick for them, or he’ll simply be sent packing

[14] Kane, Mary Jo and Susan L. Greendorfer. “The Media’s Role in Accommodating and Resisting Stereotyped Images of Women in Sport.” Women, Media and Sport. Ed. Pamela J. Creedon. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994. 28-44.

[15] Assael, Shaun and Mike Mooneyham. Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: the Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.

[16] Oppliger, Patrice. Wrestling and Hypermasculinity. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003.

[17] These matches are similar, in the objective is to relieve your opponent of any clothing save the bra and panties. In the Evening Gown match, however, the wrestlers are dressed in evening gowns, whereas in the general Bra-and-Panties match, they might be dressed in other clothing.

[18] Oppliger, ibid.

[19] Oppliger, ibid.

[20] Heather

[21] This storyline involved wrestler Dawn Marie making a romantic play for archrival Torrie Wilson’s father, then blackmailing Torrie into a sexual situation, saying she would call the wedding off. However, Dawn Marie tricked Torrie, and not only “took advantage” of Torrie sexually, but went ahead and “married” Torrie’s dad, anyway. The second storyline featured Vince as a performer in his own program, forcing wrestler Trish Stratus to bark like a dog, as punishment for her participation in a fictional relationship with Vince, when their “relationship” started to “go sour.”

[22] Maggie

[23] Jessica

[24] “Puppies”-a term used by one of the announcers meaning breasts; taken up by a wide population of male fans, who show up in the arena with signs saying things such as “Show us your puppies!”

[25] Maggie

[26] Jessica

[27] Jessica

[28] Fiske, John. Television Culture. 1987.

[29] Fiske, ibid.

[30] Jennifer

[31] Fiske, ibid.

[32] Jenkins, ibid.

[33] Jenkins, ibid.

[34] Ang, Ian. Watching Dallas. 1992.

[35] Ang, ibid.

[36] Assael, ibid.

[37] Modleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance. Hamden: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1982.

Measuring Up: Sarah Silverman: 1, Variety Critic: 0

**DISCLAIMER: DUE TO SUBJECT MATTER, THIS ENTRY CONTAINS A FAIR AMOUNT OF UNLADYLIKE LANGUAGE. PLEASE BE AWARE OF THIS IN ADVANCE. THANK YOU AND HAVE A LOVELY DAY!**

Okay.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t have the time to write this piece. I’m in the middle of doing a lot of different things for work right now, but I am taking about 20 minutes out to rant and talk (somewhat intelligently, I hope) about something that I feel strongly about.

Last night a male friend of mine asked me to write about this issue because he felt that he couldn’t. He felt that if he took it on, someone would think he was “mansplaining.” Personally, I think that’s bullshit because he’s a very smart guy and could do an incredible job with this material, but I looked at the article that he was telling me about this morning and….hackles raised.

Apparently some dude at Variety thinks it’s just not ladylike or funny for a female comic to have a dirty mouth. He feels that she is “limiting” herself. And her career.

In fact, his TITLE says it all. The article’s title is, “Sarah Silverman’s Bad Career Move: Being as Dirty as the Guys.” Excuse me?? Bad career move? Where have you been for the last few years, Brian Lowry, TV Columnist? Sarah Silverman HAS A CAREER. And a very good one at that! While I am not the biggest fan of all of her work, I really like her a great deal and I know she is excruciatingly and painfully talented, even if some of her comedy sketches don’t fit my tastes. And…she’s been around forever.  That whole “She had her own show” thing. Yeah.sarahsilvermanprog“Being as dirty as the guys.” Are we, as women, still being measured up to male standards of things, Mr. Lowry, instead of simply being appreciated and valued as funny and valuable parts of the comedy community? And, for the record, not all male comics go dirty. I’ve seen amazing sets by Patton Oswalt and Eddie Izzard that were clean as a whistle and I laughed so much I thought I was going to die. So…dirty like those guys? My question to you, Brian Lowry, TV Columnist, is…HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR COMEDY VALUE SYSTEM AND WHY IS IT BASED ON MEN? Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, some funny ladies…certainly not 100% clean. Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers? Seriously!

Hey Brian Lowry- three words: DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK. Have you EVER heard of Mae West? C’mon, buddy. Up your game.

You state, “This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue. The lament here is that in the wrong hands it can feel gratuitous or become a crutch, whereas unlike many of her contemporaries, Silverman has enough tools that she can and should do more.” This just seems like outright condescension and patriarchal nonsense. Would you have said the same thing about a male HBO special? Substitute “female” with “male” please, insert another present-day young male comedian (Brian Posehn for example) and see how that sounds. Is this something that makes any sense at all? Listen to how this sounds.

Men who criticize strong, powerful, funny women are scared to death of what they bring to the table. Sarah Silverman is one of those strong, powerful and funny women. Whether you like her content or not.

Louis C.K. is one of my favorite comics. And that fear is completely foreign to him. He knows better. This is why he has had Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Parker Posey, Chelsea Peretti, and Maria Bamford on his television show, Louie.louiemaria

Lowry, I think you would do well to take some lessons from Louis. Well, really, most people could.

So after reading your puerile garbage about how Sarah has “limited herself by appearing determined to prove she can be as dirty and distasteful as the boys,” I have to get this straight. Your point is that if she wanted a “real” career, she would start performing in accordance to more “broad values,” of the comedic world? I guess if she did, she would have a better chance to transition past the “39-seat room, the most intimate of standup settings” where this special was shot and towards that “main stage” that you reference. And- that 39-seater- that was surely not the artist’s choice, right? Did you ever once stop to think that maybe, just maybe, Sarah is in charge of her own career? The one that you keep pointing out as needing to have commercial appeal?

Well, as you say, once all this “unladylike” stuff is ironed out, her “overuse” of the word c**t stops, her career will blossom and she will finally get main stage and become a “success” as you see it, right?

Well, sir, you know what I have to say to that, in all of my lady-like approach? Fuck that. Fuck your patriarchal expectations, fuck your inability to just say, “the content isn’t my thing but I appreciate a strong woman working in a male-dominated field that has MADE a career for herself and LOVES what she does on a daily basis.” Fuck your inability to be a good critic, sir. FUCK THAT. Fuck your condescending attitude and your unwillingness to examine a woman’s work according to a media and vocational structure that may run parallel but not identical to that of Standard Commercial Work.

Most especially, FUCK you for connecting her aesthetics to her talent or career or ability in any way, shape or form. This is one of the more insidious ways that sexism creeps through and whether you are aware of it or not, your comment about “Despite all manner of career-friendly gifts – from her looks to solid acting chops –” may seem nice, but has no place in this review. If you were reviewing Ricky Gervais’ latest HBO Special, would you make a comment on his “smashing good looks” or his “manly appearance” before reviewing the work? If I am wrong on this one, and it is, in fact, part of your writing style, to comment on everyone’s physical appearance when you review their work, male or female, I apologize. If it is not, and you were just (again) trying to give Sarah another pat on the head, saying “See how great you could be? If only you didn’t say that “c” word so many times and washed that purty little mouth out a few times….we can take you so far! You’re a real looker!” then…FUCK THAT.

Mr. Lowry. In the end, I would direct you to a fantastic article by comic Rob Delaney. Please read. Women are funny. And, much like any other comic crossing the stage or film hitting the screen or TV show you watch, no one is expecting you to like everything they chat about or do. But I would say this: Go back and look up the rift between Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson and get back to me on how hard it is for women in the comic world. Go back and look up Mae West and pre-code and get back to me. See how many women don’t get spots on stage at open mic nights just because they are women or see how many of them get made fun of/get people who want to sleep with them/are taken advantage of. Then, Mr. Lowry of the Variety TV Columnist world., THEN you can talk to me about how you are going to be Sarah Silverman’s motherfucking career coach.

Until then? BE QUIET AND LET SARAH DO HER THING.

If You Don’t Cry, it Isn’t Love: Art & Peter Gabriel

If you don’t cry, it isn’t love. That’s a quote from a song by the Magnetic Fields and it’s how I feel about most art. Film, music, theater, experimental dance.


It’s gotta have you in its CRAW, not letting go. It could be so funny that you don’t know if you’ll ever breathe again, it could have visuals that are so striking that you simply don’t understand how science could connect eyes and emotion that fucking hard.
Any way you slice it, from eyeball to eardrum, if you don’t cry, it isn’t love.
I’m going to see Peter Gabriel tonight & I’m listening to Mercy Street which makes me cry every time.I cannot even imagine what it might sound like at the Hollywood Bowl, a location I have been visiting since I was a small child (if not since I was in utero!).  Just the thought fills me with awe.

Some artists command their work like a preacher commands a church. It’s a terrible analogy, but Gabriel’s grip on music is so far-reaching it seems spiritual to me. So perhaps he is more of an old style mystic reborn into soundtracks and rock bands? John Cusack lifting that boombox up in SAY ANYTHING is iconographic, to be sure, but it is not entirely for Cameron Crowe-reasons, or Cusack-reasons. It is the spirituality of Gabriel.
His last name, Gabriel, is the name of an angel.
This has not gone unnoticed by me.
So in late 1999 or early 2000, I was in these really shitty seats in London, seeing The Magnetic Fields do their opus album, 69 LOVE SONGS over 2 nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. I was beside myself. This was my favorite band, a favorite album, the whole thing. So I’m in the balcony, and they bring out some guy to sing with them, but, as it was so far below me, he was completely unrecognizable visually. I got disgruntled for a minute. “Who’s that old guy?” I thought, in my early 20’s idiocy.

Then he opened his mouth and began to sing “Book of Love.” I will, for the rest of my life, be apologetic for ever having been initially disgruntled at the man I didn’t recognize as Peter f-g Gabriel being on stage with my favorite band. I nearly fell over the balcony and died that night. No joke.

Tonight I will cry.
A great deal.
Unapologetically and without any kind of sadness. In fact, I will do so with great joy.
I will cry because I am in love with the fact that music makes me feel. I will cry because music reminds me that I have opposables and that I’m not always attached to a computer or a phone or technology. That humans can connect to each other through sound, touch, feel and sight. Because art is as real as any relationship you might have with a friend because it CAN effect you that deeply and you can get that much out of it.
If you don’t cry, it isn’t love, if you don’t cry you just don’t feel it deep enough and that means the universe to this L.A. girl.

It always will.

It’s Been 20 Years: The L.A. Riots…This Revolution WAS Televised.

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots. 20 years ago I was sitting in a classroom, wearing a Catholic school uniform.

In my personal life, I was listening to Guns’n’Roses, Metallica, Queensryche and Nelson, about to be 14 years old (my birthday is in May), and things were…well, as good as they can be when you are an adolescent girl with a heavy metal-loving and high culture obsessed personality. That is to say, I was a normal kid with abnormal interests and thus…miserable.

But that day I was just like everyone else. I was an Angeleno, and I was terrified, angry, confused and hurting. At that age I had no ability to break apart the confusion of the news footage. And when I say “confusion” of the news footage, I mean CONFUSION. When the verdict was announced, and Los Angeles blew the hell up, these white, privileged reporters had no clue how to handle it. As a certified media scholar and media archivist in-training, I am beyond grateful that they went nuts on live-camera. We now know WHAT NOT TO DO and who not to hire in a city as diverse as the one that I have been born and raised in. Did I consider this at the time? Not a stitch. I was just scared. I had a baby brother. I had a family that I loved (still have both those things, although the “baby” brother is WAY taller than me now, so…maybe not so “baby” anymore). I had a city that I revered and…It had just erupted into pure, unadulterated chaos, and….THAT was NOT supposed to happen. Only was supposed to have that happen. I was the one with the adolescent whacked-out hormonal shit going on. My city was supposed to be my ROCK. What was going on?

The interesting thing is that as the 1992 “Civil Unrest” (and as an aside- I’ve never understood that term- who came up with it? It was not civil in any way, shape or form. Sure, it was unrest, but…these were RIOTS. Pure and simple. Is it more politically correct to candy-coat them? Is “civil unrest” an academic term for what occurred?) is one of the best examples of the term “this revolution will be televised.” Every breath taken, every person pulled out of a car, every store looted, every shop owner who fought back…was displayed in full color on our screens at home, at work, at university, where ever we might have been, 20 years ago today.

Even more fascinating, in looking back on this event, the footage I wanted to find for this, I was unable to find. I could not find any footage from news reporters from that first day and the initial announcement, when everything went crazy and they didn’t know what to do. When they were “off the script” as they say, and things were not exactly going according to plan. I’ve seen that footage twice- once live, when it was happening and then again when I took a class on television studies, and we discussed the racial make-up and transitions of newscasting in Los Angeles post-April 29, 1992.

If you weren’t watching or didn’t see it, it took on a beyond ridiculous architecture. Some people could argue that people in the middle of an emergency simply handle situation poorly and say things that they, perhaps, do not actually mean. However, it soon became ragingly clear that the sheer WHITENESS and economic disparity of the televisual news medium was ultra-present and to have that be the link to what was happening in South Central Los Angeles? Wow. The individuals and authority figures who had been chosen to give The People the information about an emergency situation were, quite obviously, so far removed from anything like this or, quite frankly, from Los Angeles herself, that it was a media disaster. No wonder I couldn’t find any of the footage when I was looking for it today.

It changed soon after, but that was the revolution of this situation on television. After this happened, we saw more reporters of color, we saw more documentation of different economic situations and we saw a different news-reporting engagement. While the ethnic situation still reflects this, news has gone back to fluff and fodder, but for a minute, we had some real “news” events. Now, not everyone reflected this. Certain reporters have always managed to be reasonable. But the vast majority of Los Angeles news reporting collapsed in upon itself and had a crisis, some of which can be reflected in this video here:

Or this one. This reporter’s discussion of her relationship to the Watts Riots really underscores the huge distance that these individuals have from the communities that they are reporting on. While the act of looting is, indeed, illegal, is it not of interest to her that quite a few of the folks they were just looking at were carrying out diapers?

Anyone who was in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 remembers the smell, the sights, what they were doing, everything about it. Everyone from Los Angeles remembers what they were doing as well, even if they weren’t here. I can’t speak to the rest of y’all. I was in my science classroom with my teacher Ms. Michaels and the rest of the girls. Ms. Michaels had a crazy buzz-type haircut with a rat-tail and spikey-ness in the front. She was pretty cool. She wheeled out the TV, and we sat there, totally silent as things unfolded and we waited for our parents to come and get us.

I didn’t feel so tough then.

I remembered my mother telling me about the gas lines as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis, so I forced her to get a full tank on the way home…just in case we had to leave town. There was a curfew enforced, and the looting and fires didn’t remain contained to South Central. They were a few steps from my front door, in Hollywood.

But that stuff didn’t disturb me. I watched my city burn, sitting atop a ladder in my backyard. I smelled the smoke, I listened to my girlfriends talk about “looting at the Beverly Center” and shook my head.

I was, quite literally, glued to the television. And I didn’t remember that until I sat down to write this. We were watching every little thing. I can’t count the number of store-owners I saw sobbing outside their property on live-television. I can’t fathom all the people I saw discussing how wrong they thought it was that people were burning their own damn neighborhoods. I think if I had a nickel for every time I had heard something about burning Beverly Hills or Simi Valley, I’d have a better chance of paying off my student loans faster!

Realistically, seeing Reginald Denny getting pulled out of a truck at age 13 made my skin crawl and I will never ever know what it’s like NOT to have that feeling and image and experience now. It wasn’t like a horror movie, it was something beyond a horror movie. It was the horrors of the real world. That is something that you will never come back from. The remainder of my time spent watching the television and watching the footage only exacerbated that situation. Like the Vietnam War footage (another salient example of how visual media has revolutionized our eyes, ears, selves and souls), the live Los Angeles Riot media work really created a new realm for many people like me.

My first experiences with action footage, really. I watched people with guns. Many many guns. And not the  police, either. I do like a good action movie. But when action is mixed with reality with injustice? I’ll take that in my fictional media, but not in my real life. Revisiting these instances has been not only difficult but enlightening. This video was a doozy.

The L.A. Riots was an incredible event that centered on the visual and what was being watched. It was catalyzed by a video (the Rodney King tape), followed up by the court case (I have distinct memories of a goodly sum of photographs from the trial decorating every news station and paper in town) and completed by the event itself with the voracious coverage, from every angle possible. Not only were the helicopters filming, people were filming, photographers were snapping pictures constantly and every news channel was rabidly running around every strata of the city to get it all covered.

The media archivist in me loves this. We have footage of a historical event, and tons of it (provided it has been archived and preserved properly).

The Angeleno in me doesn’t give a shit and thinks it’s all exploitation anyway. How many of the reporters even cared? This was our city; these were our people. They were hurting, angry, in pain. Justice was not done and everything went to hell and people were just trying to pass judgement and get a good story. People died, lost their homes, jobs, physical and mental well-being. People were scarred for the rest of their lives because of this and half of our news media was simply there to TMZ-it, pre-TMZ. No one gets on top of their roof with a gun, prepares to shoot people and comes out of the situation in a happy place, mentally. Well, not unless they’re in an action film. And how many of those guys are truly “stable” when you think about it?

The revolution has been televised. It was done so via the televised events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago  , it was done by the broadcasting of hours upon hours of the bloody Vietnam War. This event was no different. What was different was that with certain figures who were involved, they were able to synthesize their situation, both event and media-wise, and reflect it back to those who would listen.

This example has a few pretty interesting pieces in it, and a great deal of discussion about the Riots from the social and internal perspective of people within the community.

However, the best example I found within my research was an interview that was conducted by Ted Koppel with two opposing gang members.

There’s a song by Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson. It’s a duet on Brick by Brick  called “Candy,” and it has a line in it that keeps running through my head, “The big city, geez, it’s been 20 years…” While that song is technically about a lost love, sometimes I feel like my innocent affection for Los Angeles was lost that spring day in April when I climbed to the top of the cafeteria steps at Immaculate Heart, high up on the corner of Franklin and Western; that cafeteria that meets the American Film Institute campus, and watched all the fires start with the rest of the girls I went to school with. It doesn’t mean I no longer love my city (that would be impossible), it simply means that this set of experiences forced my hand a bit. Instead of a gradual development, I had to open my eyes really quickly and see the “big city” (and its media) for what they really were.

As it stands today, I look at what everyone else is remembering, and it’s fascinating. I look at what I am remembering and I think that is interesting too.

How far we have come in 20 years and yet…we have not come very far at all. Many of the places that were destroyed during that time are still vacant lots. The dead are still dead and…Rodney King? Well, he is still unimportant. He was only the masthead to the boat. Let it fall, and the larger vessel remains. What will never disappear is the power of the media to change everything and as technology progresses so will the power of the media. A film like KICK ASS (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) used the same Rodney King-DIY-video-principle only constructed it via the internet, having a video made on a cellphone go viral within an extremely short span of time. This is the world we exist in now.

Not much different from the video camera of yesteryear. Just different formats and tools. As we move forward, perhaps we can remember this and try to keep that in our thoughts as we deconstruct both our media and the tools that we use to create it. The more it changes, the more it (and we) stay the same. If we did not take the time to fix ourselves and the problems that we had 20 years ago, how do we expect to move forward with proper and responsible media now? Do we? Can we realistically expect to have a diverse and representative media world if we were unable to rebuild the Los Angeles that broke itself apart almost a quarter of a century ago? Or do we continue to ignore the empty lots?

Los Angeles is a place where you can walk down the street and hear a multiplicity of languages, taste a variety of foods, see a gutload of moving images in different languages. This is a beautiful thing. But awareness is a key feature of any intelligent person and if you think that things have changed much in the last 20 years, you’re dead wrong. The interview that Koppel took with the gang members could’ve been done yesterday. The L.A. Riots changed the landscape of our fair city, but did they solve the problem? Not quite.

To me, the idea that the role of the responsible news media is slowly dying out scares me more than anything else. It means that not only are they no longer being demanded but they are no longer wanted.  When something like this occurs, we are that much closer to Los Angeles Civil Unrest 2: Electric Boogaloo, once more with feeling. Let’s try not to go that direction. I don’t have an answer for what to do, I only know that the first step is awareness and y’know, maybe that’s enough for now.

So This is Permanence: Joy Division and Me, Pt. 2

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go

All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.

Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,

Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong,

Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long

—-“Twenty Four Hours”, Closer, Joy Division (1980)

I know that it is largely frowned upon in academic and professional communities to get “too personal” within the realm of online writing, but sometimes I feel it is important to drop our guard, let people in, and give readers access. Sometimes, the more personal the better.

I was asked by someone today, “Have you come out as an epileptic?”

It was a strange question. I have never considered myself  particularly “closeted” nor have I ever felt that it was something that I have had to necessarily hide. On that same token, hearing that question, I have also never placed it on the same level as the struggles that people have had with their sexuality and coming “Out of The Closet” in that context. However, after giving it some thought, I came to a striking conclusion: the process of dealing with life as an epileptic can bear remarkable similarities to the process of dealing with living life as a person of alternative sexuality in a heteronormative culture such as ours.

Please do not mistake what I am trying to say- I am in no way trying to say that what epileptics go through is on par with Matthew Shepard, per se. But I live this life every day. It’s no party. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up, the last thing I consider when I go to bed. It affects everything I do and everything I am. It makes me entirely different from the average person walking down the street. I cannot imagine that this experience is that far from the queer experience. You may be surprised to hear it, but my entire world and life has had to be reorganized due to epilepsy and not everyone is open to it. I never really sat down and thought about it at all. Until today. Then it really blew me away.

Would you be surprised to find out that the reaction that I get from many people when I tell them that I’m epileptic mirrors homophobic reactions? Let’s face it- aside from politics, religious nonsense, and plain old-fashioned stubbornness, homophobia is really just a bad case of not being educated about the LGBT community. Well, when people squirm around me, and refuse to meet my eyes, begin to treat me with kid gloves, or, in some cases, take me off the “date-able” list immediately after finding out about my seizures (it has happened), it’s simply due to not being educated about the disease. In 2012, that makes me really depressed. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

OK, I don’t get to live everyone else’s life. And at the end of the day- am I unhappy about this? Not really. I enjoy my life every single day. I have an full and astonishingly brilliant life! I’m training to become a film archivist (my dream!), my film calendar is always full, and my social world is rarely lacking. I’m an exceptionally lucky individual. But being epileptic is difficult and exhausting, both mentally and exhausting. And as my life continues to get more exciting and wonderful, my mind returns again and again to Ian Curtis and my heart aches for him. I wrote about my relationship with Joy Division once before, and said I would return to the subject, so due to the earlier prompt, it looks like I now am.

People like you find it easy,

Naked to see,

Walking on air,

Hunting by the rivers,

Through the streets,

Every corner abandoned too soon

Every time I hear “Atmosphere”, I hear Ian’s pain, so loud, so biting. And to be perfectly honest? I recognize it. I feel it. It reflects my experience. To an extent, it irritates me that I use this song to synthesize my own poorly functioning neurology, but the kinship I feel with Ian Curtis goes a long way. In general, I try not to personalize things but with Curtis…it’s remarkably difficult. Additionally, not knowing about any other public figures with seizure disorders until I began doing research (as it turns out, Prince had epilepsy as a child), he was the one person that I could identify with. Joy Division’s songs, while clearly appealing to a mass audience, really had very specific meaning to me. I believe that Ian Curtis put a good amount of his experience with epilepsy into his music. It’s too present and I can read it too plainly. Indeed, the fact that Curtis was Joy Division’s only lyricist supports that thesis.

At times, even song titles read like the feelings that I have felt since my first diagnosis at 13 and since my condition has worsened after age 30. Tunes like “Atrocity Exhibition,” “I Remember Nothing,” “She’s Lost Control,” and, especially, “Isolation” have all played large parts in the make-up of my epilepsy-marriage to Ian and his own possible lyrical catharsis.

Isolation” is a really tough song for me. Released a few months after Ian’s death on the album Closer, this song really cuts into what some of the bigger chunks of epilepsy can be, psychologically. When he sings

Mother I tried please believe me

I’m doing the best that I can

I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through

I’m ashamed of the person I am 

it always hits me in my gut; knocks the wind right out of me. Whether it makes sense to anyone else or not, the most embarrassing thing I have ever dealt with in my life has been my seizure disorder. It has taken me years to overcome the shame and embarrassment that I used to feel in regards to my disease. Not only did that shame create even more problems for me, but it also blanketed me in the very thing that Curtis sang about: isolation.

Ian Curtis was only 23 years old when he hung himself. People have been arguing for years about what the “real” catalyst for his suicide was. If you listen to his lyrics, it’s all right there, plain as day. But that’s just from my perspective.

I realize that Ian many other problems: depression, familial discord, the lot. However, it would be dense and ignorant not to recognize that brain function is linked to both depression and seizure disorders. Ian’s former band members have come forward in the last few years talking about his epilepsy and painful struggles. Stephen Morris told NME magazine, “Looking back, I wish I’d helped him more. I think that all the time… But we were having such a good time, and you’re very selfish when you’re young. Epilepsy wasn’t understood then. People would just say, ‘He’s a bit of a loony – he has fits.””  According to an article in The Guardian, Bernard Sumner says that, amidst the plethora of problems raging in Ian’s world, it really was the epilepsy that did him in.

“Ian’s problems were insurmountable.Not only did he have this hideous relationship problem, he also had this illness that he contracted at 22. And it wasn’t a mild form. It was really, really bad and it occurred frequently…The epilepsy must have cast a shadow over his future, particularly his future with the band, and his relationships cast another giant shadow. Plus, he felt extremely guilty about his daughter Natalie… I remember him telling me he couldn’t pick Natalie up in case he had a fit and dropped her..Sometimes a drumbeat would set him off. He’d go off in a trance for a bit, then he’d lose it and have a fit. We’d have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing-room where he’d cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had just happened to him. The heavy barbiturates he was on seemed to compound the situation; they made him very, very sad. I just don’t think there was a solution to Ian’s problems.”

Every bit of that makes perfect sense to me. I can’t begin to tell you how many tears I have shed due to being epileptic. Out of frustration, embarrassment, anger and resentment at my “lot.”

I have had seizures at the movie theater in front of my friends and perfect strangers. I have had seizures at the gym and fallen off exercise equipment. I have had them alone on the street and then tried to get a taxi but found that I was literally unable to speak because my brain was not in working order yet. I attempted to tell the cab driver where I wanted to go and all I could get out were the words for the mall that was near my house. I cried a good amount that evening. Can you imagine not being able to speak? The words were in my head, I could imagine a picture of my house, my street, but I could not tell him where I lived nor could I get words, simple WORDS, out of my MOUTH. I have seized getting ready to go somewhere and had to call someone to ask them if they knew what I was supposed to be doing that night because I couldn’t remember.

Mind you, I have a graduate degree. I am working on a second one. I can have an incredibly detailed conversation about the glories of pre-Code cinema or Sam Fuller with you. I can do a great many things. My epilepsy in no way affects my intelligence level on the whole. But the minute my brain short-circuits, I don’t remember my own name and I become a semi-functional vegetable.

I remember watching Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) for the first time, and I was overwhelmed.

I had read Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From a Distance a long time previous and had been so hungry for some sort of media engagement that featured an epileptic that I don’t think I ever looked at the book critically. I still haven’t. To tell you the truth, I am uncertain if I could separate myself from Ian Curtis long enough to look at the book critically due to my connections with him. And Corbijn’s movie only tightened the grip.

Ian was on Tegretol. I’ve been on Tegretol (or the generic form, Carbemazepine) for a little under 20 years. They put Ian on Phenobarbitol. They put me on Phenobarbitol as a teenager. It was probably one of the worst levels of hell-drugs I have ever experienced. Phenobarbitol turned me into LINDA BLAIR in The Exorcist. If I wasn’t crying, I was yelling at my baby brother. If I wasn’t crying or yelling, I was sleeping. If I wasn’t crying, yelling or sleeping I was completely and totally irrational and unpredictable. So, being a teenager and irrational and unpredictable anywayphenobarbitol took me up to 11+. Ian Curtis was in his early 20’s. That’s not far from where I was. When his bandmates talk about his mood swings and his depressions and his unreliability, I cannot help but wonder: was this actual depression or was this the hardcore barbiturate that they had this young kid pumping through his slender frame, multiple times a day? Phenobarbitol ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.

Thirty years ago, they really didn’t know much about epilepsy, let alone the medications for it. They learn all the time. I remember that they had me on a medication at one point when I was 15 years old that I thought was great! It was a hunger suppressant, so I lost an incredible amount of weight really quickly, which I thought was fantastic! Unfortunately, the side effect of this medication for other people was a red blood cell count so low that they died. Nice, right? Needless to say, they’re still working out the kinks in MANY of the medications that deal with these issues. But I think it’s essential when thinking about Ian Curtis to recall the surrounding medical conditions of epilepsy and seizure disorders, because no one knows about them and no one talks about them.

For example- did you know that many of the very same medications that they prescribe  as antidepressants are also used as anticonvulsants or can be used for people with seizure disorders? Most people I talk to don’t know that. But it makes sense, right? It’s all brain chemistry; mixed up in that crazy web of electricity and wackiness between the ears.

I guess the question still remains for me today: how much of Ian’s depression came from a depression disorder and how much of it stemmed from the anti-seizure drugs and simply being epileptic? It’s a reasonable inquiry since I have on the receiving end of both. Who’s to say that if Ian hadn’t suffered from epilepsy he wouldn’t have been completely normal? From what we know, he had been having seizures for far longer than he had been letting on, and from personal experience, that is usually the case. I had little petit mal seizures for an entire year in junior high and never said ONE word to anyone about them. Nothing at all.

Peter Hook says of Ian’s suicide, “The police described it as a textbook case: suicide brought on by depression, well-documented by his cries for help…Unfortunately, we were all too young to understand.” While most of this is true, I would have to disagree about his death being a textbook case. Ian Curtis suffered from a variety of outside stressors, but he was a very young man who had absolutely no one to turn to about being stigmatized by an illness that he never asked for and yet was put upon him. He was involved in a music scene that catalyzed and worsened the condition and yet it was his life. How do you manage this? The pills are supposed to make you better, but they are, quite literally, making you see double, causing mental confusion, possible nausea, and mood swings like you never even knew were possible.

My memory of the drugs they gave Ian were that they made me feel like the girl that I once was had shrunk up inside me and was in the fetal position, looking out, and the world was really really fuzzy. Yet, in that condition, I was still physically functioning. It was a living nightmare. I was lucky: my parents saw my misery and got me off that medication straight away. Our boy was not in that position. Maybe that’s also why I feel for him.

Joy Division speaks to me because I know it, I live it, I am those songs. The themes that he would write about- ideas of atmosphere, memory, time, control– these are all things that an epileptic has in limited doses. I never know whether or not I’m going to be on my way to school and will have to pull my bike over to avoid having a seizure while I’m riding. My memory? Well, seizures control that. And one of the medications I’m on makes my memory not as sharp as it used to be. And time- I have no idea how long my seizures last. No idea at all. I have to ask people. As Ian’s epilepsy worsened, his songs got progressively darker and more tied into all of these themes. They became his only outlet.

Additionally, I don’t believe that Deborah or Annik Honore (the woman with whom he was carrying on an affair just before his death) were able to understand his feelings about having a seizure disorder anymore than he was able to express them. I have only been able to come to grips with and express my own feelings about my seizures in the last few years and I am 10 years older than Ian was when he died. To this day, this is the first time I have written out anything having to do with my seizures or what I go through. Why is epilepsy private, personal, intimate? I don’t know. It’s a stigma. Ian didn’t feel that it was socially acceptable to have it 30+ years ago. I don’t feel like it’s socially acceptable to have it now. It’s certainly not the topic to discuss at parties. Wanna clear a room or stop a conversation? Talk about the seizures.

Some people call epilepsy a disability. I haven’t let it rule or ruin my life. As I said above, I love my life and I’m living my dream. And I consider Ian Curtis to be a strong, talented and gifted icon that was dealt a really rough hand. I believe in my heart that if he had not had seizures, things would have gone differently. I cannot guarantee that he would not have OD’d or something of that ilk, but I am fairly confident that the kind of pain that he suffered in his life would have been much less.

Ian Curtis’ suicide was tragic, unnecessary, and entirely preventable. I wish I could travel back to England circa 1980 and say, “Ian, it does get better.” As cheesy as that current anti-bullying campaign and its ads are, I believe that they’re the truth. Especially in this case. Since 1980, the medications for depression, seizures and all kinds of neurologic therapies have improved by leaps and bounds.

I can only hope that within the next 30 years it gets even better. Not unlike the gay community, people with seizures hurt, feel pain, feel isolated, embarrassed by the fact that out of nowhere our neurology will suddenly control us instead of the other way around. Our lifestyles are different and we have different ways of doing things, but, at the end of the day we’re not different people. Ian Curtis was more talented than a large percentage of the non-seizure-having folks I know, and has been inspirational on the music that has been made since his passing. He was creative, unusual, and gifted. The brain misfirings never changed that.

My biggest fear is that one day I will not be able to write anymore. There. You have it. I have admitted to the larger reading public and strangers everywhere my biggest fear. I am deathly afraid that one day I will have a seizure that is so big that it affects my brain to the point that I am no longer able to function on a writerly or intellectual/academic level. These are the things I think about every day when I take my pills in the morning, afternoon and night. “Please let me be ok today, and let the pills continue to work.”

I used to think that the seizures were gone, then I got older and they came back, and my relationship with Joy Division took on a new meaning. So this is permanence means something totally different to me now. I will be an epileptic for the rest of my life, but it is not a death sentence and it does not in any way shape or form mean that I am a lesser person. If Ian Curtis could be so incredible and fire up that stage, I can do whatever I want to do. He did not have the resources that I have. That shatters me. But I am not Ian. So for now, what it means is that I should move forward with my dreams, keep doing all the amazing film work I’m doing and just dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio…


Get Into the Groove: Desperately Seeking Susan and Genre Revision

Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie… a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.

            -George Orwell

When Susan Seidelman received a script entitled “Desperately Seeking Susan,” in 1985, it had already been floating around Hollywood for 4 years. When she saw the title, she knew that it was meant for her, practically sight unseen. The story, a screwball comedy with a feminist streak a mile wide, seemed almost too good to be true, especially considering who sent her the script, and who was already on board to support the film. Not only was the film’s content a powerful commentary on contemporary female identity, definitely unusual, but it was set to involve a female director (Seidelman), a female writer (Leora Barish), female producers (Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford), two (at that point, uncast) female stars, and a female film executive (Barbara Boyle) who really fought for the production. For the time, that many powerful women involved in a single film production was almost unheard of. This was an incredible opportunity, and Seidelman answered their “want ad” with a resounding yes.

Susan Seidelman on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan

These days, what most people remember about Desperately Seeking Susan is not the multiplicity of ways that it subverts and reworks genres, nor the running commentary it gives on class and sexuality, but the fact that the film stars an extremely youthful and (at the time) barely known Madonna. Although Madonna is a crucial aspect of this production, I would like to present an analysis of the film that lays bare more than a mere “star vehicle” for Ms. Ciccone. I propose that Desperately Seeking Susan’s goal was to look at past film genres with strong female roles, and rework and “mesh” them into an entirely new kind of film; a film that was as much a new kind of  “Woman’s Film” as it was a good old romantic comedy.

In 1972, a little bit over 10 years before this film was made, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women equal rights. That same year, sex discrimination was banned in schools and in Eisenstadt vs. Baird, the Supreme Court guaranteed that the right to privacy included the single person’s right to use contraception. The next year, Roe vs. Wade gave women the right to safe and legal abortion, while the year after that saw the ruling of Corning Glass Works vs. Brennan, which ruled that employers cannot justify paying women a lower wage just because that is what they got at the “going market rate.” These years and the next few saw huge leaps for women and the feminist movement. It is no wonder that this film, made in 1985, would choose to make such a bold statement about wanting to break free from the suburban doldrums, a loveless marriage, and a life lived for someone else in favor of a life that is fulfilling, exciting, and personally rewarding.

The appearance of Desperately Seeking Susan after an entire film decade that had been devoted to the exploration and celebration of masculinity could not have been a huge surprise, however. With a few exceptions like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and a plentitude of underground experimental films, the 70’s film structure tended to focus on a cadre of young talented men, who were each expressing their own personal “vision.” The irony is that the explosion of feminism happened at the same historical moment, and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. Julie Christie notes, “What it seemed like to me was like boys had been let out of school. So it was like, ‘School’s out!’ so the energy was unbelievably high, and I think that is what characterizes North American filmmaking of the 70’s, is the energy. That inimitable American, male energy. And it’s fantastic, but it wasn’t a great time for women.”[1]  So, when an entire decade passed without recognition of the gender politics that were flying as fast at the bullets in Vietnam, women like Susan Seidelman decided that they had to bring their voice to the screen. Thus Desperately Seeking Susan was born.

It's a life so outrageous it takes two women to live it!!

Although Desperately Seeking Susan was criticized at the time for being “sheer nonsense despite the odd, forlorn laugh”[2] and the plot laughed off as “outrageously contrived,”[3] this film, which opened in March of 1985, made a very respectable amount of money on its opening weekend, and ended up as a big hit. The film tells the story of Roberta Glass (played by Rosanna Arquette), a bored and unhappy housewife from Fort Lee, New Jersey, obsessed with the personal ads, and Susan (played by Madonna), a carefree, somewhat promiscuous street-wise party girl, with a penchant for getting in trouble.  After Roberta reads several messages in the paper to Susan from Susan’s lover/boyfriend Jim, Roberta’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she goes looking for Susan, using the personals as her trail. What she doesn’t know is that Susan has gotten mixed up in a criminal scheme that even she isn’t aware of, and Roberta herself becomes enmeshed in the same scheme. After Roberta purchases a jacket that Susan sells to a second-hand shop, and gets a heavy bonk on the head while wearing the jacket, everyone (Roberta included- amnesia works wonders-) thinks that Roberta is Susan. Meanwhile, Susan ends up searching for Roberta, because inside the cast-off jacket is a key, literally, to her whole life which she has left in a locker. The rest of the film tells the tale of their search for each other, a criminal’s search for the stolen goods that “Susan” (really Roberta) possesses, as well as Roberta’s eventual self-discovery (in more than one way), through the very strangest parts of New York City.

Much of the theoretical work that has been done on this film involves ideas of identity, self-discovery, desire and female spectatorship. However, they all seem to hit on one aspect in passing that seems central to the viewing enjoyment of this film: Desperately Seeking Susan is not a “new” film. It is a child of many genres. Be that as it may, it still adds a new element. As Jackie Stacey notes in her essay comparing All About Eve to Desperately Seeking Susan, the central aspect of Susan (like Eve) is that it involves a heroine “whose desires and identifications move the narrative forward.”[4] Karen Hollinger, as well, has noted, “In many ways, Desperately Seeking Susan consciously revises conventions associated with earlier woman’s films.”[5] While other classic genres may have had central female characters, it is not often that an entire film’s progression is dependent upon the woman’s perspective. Due to that factor, we can see that this is where Susan makes liberal use of the genre of the “woman’s film.” Like Mildred Pierce or All About Eve or a multitude of other films in this genre, Desperately Seeking Susan does the precise thing that Mary Ann Doane has suggested is a central aspect of the woman’s film genre: it “obsessively centers and re-centers a female protagonist, placing her in a position of agency…”[6] By looking at the agency that is given to both female leads, we can see that the texture of the film was very much inspired by the desire to create a new film that would (and could) relate to contemporary women. Instead of the melodrama of the early women’s films, the makers of Desperately Seeking Susan replaced it with zany comedy and romance, thus bringing in yet another essential genre: the screwball comedy.

I would argue that the utilization of the female-character-as-driving-force serves as the glue to piece together a film that is essentially derivative of other genres, into a new film that is as self-conscious about its “quotations” as it is about its additive dimensions. However, the genre that is most present within the text of Desperately Seeking Susan is that of the screwball comedy.

Wes D. Gehring defines the screwball comedy of the 30’s and 40’s as possessing “five key characteristics of the comic antihero: abundant leisure time, childlike nature, urban life, apolitical outlook, and basic frustration (especially in relationships with women).”[7] While, for the majority of this discussion, I would ask that Gehring’s definition be opened up to include the term “comic heroine,” his analysis is quite helpful. Comparing Gehring’s definition of the screwball comedy to Desperately Seeking Susan, not only do the creators of the film take pause to recognize the screwball comedy influence[8], but at the time of release, one magazine went so far as to write, “Like the screwball comedies of yore, it [Desperately Seeking Susan] places people in a highly improbable situation and requires that they consult their own sorely tested inner logic to find a way out.”[9] The very fact that Susan came off as a screwball comedy to the naked eye is enough to link it to Gehring’s definition.

Seidelman’s film takes Gehring to an entirely new level, linking it to the strongly feminist discourse that is the backbone of this film. According to the definition, Roberta Glass fits Gehring’s description of the comic anti-heroine in the screwball, to a “T.”  Roberta has an abundance of leisure time (she is a suburban housewife), is portrayed as very childlike (even her husband infantilizes her, patting her on the head, etc), exists within urban confines (the majority of the film takes place not in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but on the crazy city streets of New York), has no overt political perspective (except to remember her real identity, which has a slightly political undercurrent), and is in the thick of an utterly frustrating relationship with Des (played by Aidan Quinn) on one side and Gary (played by Mark Blum), her husband, on the other side.

However, unlike the comic anti-heroes of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, the idea of a female-centered screwball comedy is somehow revolutionary. All of the assets that we would come to expect out of a male protagonist in one of these pictures come with very different attachments for a woman. Desperately Seeking Susan somehow manages to subvert genre conventions, and flip them on their respective heads. For example, the “leisure time” that Roberta supposedly has, is depicted with a rather ironic twist. From the opening shots of Roberta in the beauty salon to her visit to New York City, she is using her leisure time under the auspices of pleasing someone else: her husband.  It is not her leisure time; it is pointedly his.

Although Roberta clearly enjoys the luxury of the salon, an important section of the conversation there revolves around the fact that, while it is her birthday, she is concerned about how Gary will like her new haircut. Roberta isn’t too certain, as her look reveals. We can see Roberta straining against her confines, even here. The scene, opening up to the strains of a 1950’s girl band singing “It’s In His Kiss (the Shoop Shoop Song),” displays various women in various stages of being “beautified,” from leg-shaving, to nail-polishing, to hair-cutting. Susan Seidelman states,

           Because the film is very much about identity, who somebody is on the outside versus who they want to be on the inside, we decided to open the film in a beauty parlour because that is so much about female identity, and appearance and transformation. I think in the original script the opening was set in a department store…and ultimately, in one of the many rewrites, it was changed to a beauty salon because I think the idea of being remade, which is what beauty salons are about…you go in being one person and you come out hopefully transformed into somebody else, is really the essence of what the whole movie is about.[10]

Thus, amidst the highly feminized world of the salon and amidst reminders of all kinds of superficial beauty, we are introduced to our heroine. It is here that she does two things that solidly state her position in her world (which she reveals is not quite her world after all) and it is here that she begins to, as Seidelman discusses, transform. Initially, she relinquishes control of her haircut, because her sister-in-law, Leslie, and her hairdresser reassure her that, “He’ll love it.” However, it is at this point that she flat-out states her discontentment with her life. Sitting under the hairdryer, we watch as Roberta’s transformation begins.

She sighs, commenting on the love affair that she has been watching develop in the personal ads between two people named Jim and Susan (all the messages begin “Desperately seeking Susan”), “Desperate…I love that word…it’s so romantic…” To which her slightly horrified sister-in-law replies, “Everyone I know is desperate, except you,” and gestures at Roberta. Indignant, Roberta looks out from the hairdryer and says, “I’m desperate!” She is met with peals of laughter from Leslie, to which Roberta responds, “Sort of…” and looks dejectedly back at her newspaper. But the look turns into one that is almost akin to that of a stubborn child being told that they can’t do something: they’ll do it anyways, no matter the consequences. The next shot centers on Roberta’s fingers, holding a blood-red nail polish brush, circling the ad in the personals, with a very steady hand. Thus we have borne witness to the first stage of Roberta’s transformation and the beginning of her attempts to reclaim her own identity, from the people and the situations beneath which she has been living for a long time.

When she goes into the city the next day, Roberta’s husband asks her to pick up the car stereo for him, and remind the clerk that she is his wife, because they get a discount. It is almost as though Gary wants Roberta to remember, as she is leaving the stability of the suburban world for the chaos of New York. It seems that by saying this to her, he reminds her that she is his wife, and his property.  However, this is where the whole situation begins to change. When she reclaims this leisure time as her own, and uses it to pursue Susan, she forgets the car stereo, and, upon arriving back in Fort Lee, timed perfectly to the chicken beginning its twirl around the rotisserie and her housewife-ly duties of synchronized cooking with Julia Childs, her husband inquires about the stereo. This is the point where we realize that Roberta Glass has begun to break free of that ownership. Wearing the jacket that Susan sold to the vintage store and Roberta bought right after, mixing eggs in perfect time to Julia, she reveals to Gary that she has forgotten all about the stereo. She has repossessed that leisure time, both sartorially and actually. It should also be noted that visually, as well, she is the one in control. She is the one the camera follows, and through the different settings there is an evolution. She moves from a location that deprives her of personal power and agency to one where she willfully commands it, based upon personal desire. The personal desire to follow Susan overpowers everything else. That desire is so powerful, that she forgets the car stereo, and with it, forgets Gary’s claim upon her, in order to follow her claim upon herself. We as viewers are drawn into this world, into this location from which Roberta Glass operates, wanting nothing more than for her to escape, and supporting her desires above all else. We are desperate for her to become that “desperate” that she says she is.

Throughout the rest of the film, we are shown a number of ways in which Roberta is breaking free of her stuffy, suburban housewife life. She hits her head while running from the criminal who mistakes her for Susan, after he sees her wearing the jacket that used to belong to Susan. What the amnesia does is serve as a catalyst for the formation of a new and more pleasing personal identity for Roberta. Having to confront the fact that she does not know who she is, Roberta must “find herself.” She thinks she is Susan, being in possession of all of Susan’s personal effects through the locker key she finds in the jacket pocket, not to mention having people consistently mistake her for Susan, as a result of the jacket.

As we have seen, from the very beginning of the film, Susan is Roberta’s polar opposite. She is sexually liberal, streetwise, and self-assured. More importantly, from what we can see, Susan is also a great deal happier than Roberta. Roberta’s amnesia and subsequent quest for her true identity while thinking (and acting) as if she were Susan, becomes our way of seeing that Roberta’s emancipation from her life lived for others can only be achieved through her own self-discovery, even if it is through someone else’s “identity.” How can she escape Julia Childs and a husband who basically ignores her? She must leave it all behind, and become someone else, even if it is not intentionally. As Karen Hollinger succinctly states, “Roberta’s temporary assumption of Susan’s identity as a result of her amnesia allows her to merge with her ideal and experience a psychological rebirth. She finds a new identity by introjecting the positive qualities she finds in Susan into her own personality.”[11]

Frank Capra, a director of many screwball comedies, said that he used comedy to “warm people to my subject…I get them in the spirit of laughter and then, perhaps, they might be softened up to accept some kind of moral precept.”[12] The creators of Desperately Seeking Susan utilized this same method. It is a very funny film, but the message behind it cannot be ignored or denied. The feminism that may not have seen the light of day in the cinema of the 70’s is vibrant and alive with Arquette’s Roberta and Madonna’s Susan. It is a disruption of the traditional view of woman as homemaker, and a forced recognition of woman as full-fledged person, unto herself. This commanded viewpoint was done, a la Capra, through the use of casual humor and relaxed laughter.

Andrew Kopkind noticed that Desperately Seeking Susan was a film that was definitely communicated in “classic Hollywood forms. Leora Barish’s script contains all the ritual elements of farce, even to the obligatory climax where all the significant characters arrive in the same room to sort out the confusion…[but] neither she [Roberta/Arquette] nor Madonna [Susan] is redirected to a conventional existence, which is the way farces usually end…it is unmistakably a woman’s-eye view…”[13] The acknowledgement, then, is that this film, while standing on the shoulders of well-loved and received standards, is creating new standards of its own. Without changing the formula of what makes a screwball comedy pleasurable, Desperately Seeking Susan pulled a “Capra” and inserted some truly important things to think about, in between the laughs and the ridiculous nature of the plotline. And, after a decade of boys celebrating school being out, it was high time the girls hit the playground, and hit the playground they did.


[1] A Decade Under the Influence. Dir. Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme. 2003. DVD. Independent Film Channel/Docurama/New Video Group, 2003.

[2] Simon, John. “Desperately Seeking Susan.” National Review 37 (1985): 48-50.

[3] Kopkind, Andrew. “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The Nation 240 (1985): 568.

[4] Stacey, Jackie. “Desperately Seeking Difference.” Feminism & Film. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 450-464.

[5] Hollinger, Karen. In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

[6] Doane, Mary Ann. “The Woman’s Film: Possession and Address.” Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987.

[7] Gehring, Wes D. Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

[8] Commentary track. Desperately Seeking Susan. Dir. Susan Seidelman. 1985. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.

[9] Author Unknown. “Beautiful Dreamer in a Minefield- Rosanna Arquette.” Time 1 April 1985: 76.

[10] Seidelman, Susan. Commentary track. Desperately Seeking Susan. Dir. Susan Seidelman. 1985. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.

[11] Hollinger, ibid.

[12] Frank Capra, quoted in Schiekel, Richard. The Man that Made the Movies. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

[13] Kopkind, ibid.

More Than Two White Stripes: For Poly Styrene and Ari Up

 

       When I heard that Poly Styrene died yesterday, I thought it was another cruel internet joke. See, apparently the internet and celebrity deaths have become the best “joke” companions, as I have heard rumors of, quite literally, at least 4-5 other famous people dying within the last few months and they have been untrue.

But this was Poly fucking Styrene. I suppose the language use there should cause me to put a parental advisory on my blog now, eh? In any case, Poly Styrene. She was 53. And (plug your ears/cover your eyes again) she was fucking cool. I’m too young to have experienced her fully. I admit this. I was introduced to punk as a teen by a bunch of extremely nerdy and overly intelligent guys who (amazingly) are still my friends. They liked good literature, ska and punk rock. I met them at Rocky Horror. This was over 15 years ago. And when I heard the first few strains of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” it changed my life.

In fact, the first thing I did was put it on my answering machine. Yeah, ok, so I had my own phone line at home. But it was much easier. Just trust me. For years, my outgoing answering machine message was the opening of that song. It struck me because a) she was a girl like me and b) she was young like me. She was a little awkward looking, but she was OH MY GOD SO DAMN COOL.

Poly Styrene

There was something inspirational in the pure existence of that song. Alongside listening to my Descendents, Agent Orange and Bad Religion and whatever other bands we were rocking out to at the time, I knew she existed and that was pretty…cool. Because at the time I couldn’t admit to my friends that I liked other kinds of music because I thought they would disown me. Until I found some tapes on the floor of one of my friend’s apartments that were decidedly not punk. Then I knew that we were all on the same page, more or less. But that’s another story for another time.

There are so many problems that I see with Poly passing so young. First of all, it comes RIGHT on the heels of Ari Up’s death back in October, 2010. That was only A FEW MONTHS AGO. and the two women were only a few years apart. Not only that but…they both died of cancer. No offense again to those who can’t deal with a bit of swearing (you may want to skip to my film discussion a few paragraphs down) but…fuck that shit. This just plain sucks.

Ari Up, 1962-2010

I can’t help but try to think of the “punk rock women” we have in music now and notice the glaring space that is there. EmptyEmptyEmpty. The cancer that has taken these women has removed this very thing from our lives and it is of such importance. At least it is to me. And if you even attempt to give me Alanis Morrissette or something like that, I…can’t be held responsible for what I’ll quote at you through various academic sources.

We have Patti Smith. And the remaining Riot Grrls/Riot Grrl culture…who don’t seem to be up to that much these days and should be making more of an impact on things. We need women like Poly Styrene and Ari Up. And we need people to know who they are and to remember  them. These things are crucial. When our little girls are wearing pounds of make-up by 8 years old (and it’s not war paint) and the outfits are insanely small in order to betray themselves not in order to give themselves some steam, we have problems. And we’ve had problems for a while. Don’t get me wrong. I work out at the gym to Brittany Spears’ song “Toxic” and I love the video. But I’m an adult.

I was raised on X-ray Spex and The Selector and Bikini Kill and shit like that. Oooooh boy. And now I sound like the “when I was your age” person. But fuck it.

PUNK ROCK IS GOOD FOR YOU!! AND PUNK ROCK MUSIC BY WOMEN IS HEALTHY AS HELL!!

In conclusion, what I want to say about Poly and about Ari is that while cancer may have removed their bodies, it will NEVER EVER remove their indelible mark upon me or upon hundreds of thousands of others across the globe. I don’t care that Hot Topic sells X-Ray Spex shit (if it does), at this point. I just want her voice to be heard. I know that she went on to become a Hare Krishna and incredibly religious and that that is what she would like to be remembered for. And perhaps if folks are REALLY awesome, they will go and do the research, listen to those albums, and have that as part of the collection. Similarly, they will include Ari Up’s reggae stuff with her Slits records.

To Ari and to Poly- two women who rocked the stage harder than they know. As a female who never made it as a musician or as an artist, i have to work within the rhetoric of academia. I use you two as idols anyway, I hope you don’t mind. As you said so succinctly, Poly, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I say Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”

THE FOLLOWING IS A PIECE THAT I WROTE ABOUT A FILM CALLED “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS.” IT’S A FILM THAT FOLLOWS GIRLS IN PUNK ROCK MUSIC, AND I WROTE IT A VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME AGO SO PLEASE BE KIND. BUT I FELT THAT NOW WOULD BE THE APPROPRIATE TIME TO PUBLISH IT SINCE IT HAD NEVER SEEN THE LIGHT OF DAY. I DEDICATE IT TO ARI UP AND POLY STYRENE: THANK YOU FOR  EVERYTHING.

        

  

Just Two White Stripes, Ain’t Ya?

The Bizarre True Story Of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

So I went to go see a friend’s band play. I got there a bit before they went on, took one look at the band before them, and, unimpressed, headed to the bar and got a beer. I chatted for a bit with my brother and a few other friends, and then went in, just in time for the band to start. My friend Alex turned to me and said, “Have you ever seen them before?” I shook my head, no. Her eyes got wide, and she said, “You’re going to love them.” I turned my eyes to the stage, and watched, as the music began. She was right. I did love them. But what truly hypnotized me was the way that my friend Cooper held the stage. Her presence was hypnotic. As she played her guitar, and sang into the microphone, I was engulfed in my thoughts about what it is to watch a female musician playing rock’n’roll, and why it is exactly that I get such a thrill from taking part in that process. I watched her play, and I watched her scream/sing, and realized the politicalness of her performance and the almost primal elements that are brought forth, when a woman gets up in front of people and participates in the rock’n’roll world. Her screams resonated of a silence that we have been forced to live with for too long, and her obvious pleasure in her instrument, and her glowing sweat and smiles spoke of the rejection of the standard methods of rock communication that have been codified within the music world. A woman, grabbing a guitar, getting up on stage, and pronouncing herself a part of rock’n’roll, is a woman who has had enough of her limitations as a female. The screams/utterances that she makes, the riffs she lets loose, the beats that she hits, are all a part of an anarchic statement against the rock’n’roll hegemony that has existed for so long. Yeah, watching Cooper was something else. She was transformed from my friend, to the kind of example of fighting patriarchal dominance that I feel lucky to be audience to. God, I had fun at that show.

In a piece that Bell Hooks wrote about the pop-star Madonna, she states that

Her image…evoked a sense of promise and possibility, a vision of freedom; feminist in that she was daring to transgress sexist boundaries; Bohemian in that she was an adventurer, a risk taker; daring in that she presented a complex, non-static ever-changing subjectivity…She was the embodiment of that radical risk-taking part of my/our female self that had to be repressed daily for us to make it in the institutionalized world of the mainstream.[1]

The excitement that Hooks releases in the descriptions of Madonna’s earlier image presentation is the same kind of excitement that I felt upon the viewing of a film from the early 80’s, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Not unlike Madonna, the main characters of this film asks viewers to imagine a different world, a world in which a young rock’n’roll girl can takes risks, can be transgressive, and can fight against sexist boundaries. However, like Hooks’ later commentary in this essay, where she discusses how the evolution of Madonna’s image has “engender[ed] in diverse feminist admirers feelings of betrayal and loss,”[2] this film also recounts a tale of defeat, primarily by the hands of the patriarchal male-dominated system that seeks the removal of power and control from young women who have tried their best to steal it away. Now the question here is, does it make this film any less powerful because the women are defeated? Is Madonna’s early image any less seminal as a result of what Hooks sees as Madonna’s later reification of patriarchal sexual exploitation? In my opinion, these issues should not be ignored; they certainly problematize things, but they do not remove the incredible force and strength of the initial presentation. Within the Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, I think it is fair to say that the sum of the film is far greater than its parts.

            All Washed Up

After Nancy Dowd had received such high praise for her work with the film Slap Shot (1977), she was commissioned by Paramount Pictures to write two more films. Initially titled All Washed Up, the film was made in 1981. As a result of Dowd’s legal battles with Paramount in regards to her sexual harassment on the set and her desire to have her name stricken from the credits, it was stalled for another year. At this point, they showed a test screening during which the audience reacted poorly to the “downer” ending, and feelings towards any future for the film were not very high. Paramount, however, did release the film in 1982, but only to an extremely limited amount of “art-house” cinemas, and just so that they could fulfill their contractual obligations. The film sat on the shelves of Paramount for three years before the USA channel sought it out for their popular late-night program, “Night Flight.”

USA's Night Flight

At this point, a studio executive thought it would be better if they went back and shot a happier ending. So, three years after the initial release, they re-shot a few “MTV Style” scenes, even though a few of the young stars had grown a great deal taller, and looked quite a bit different from they had in 1981, and let Night Flight have the film, where it was shown enough times to develop a small but dedicated cult following.

The film tells the story of Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, and her sister Tracy (aka Dee Pleated) and cousin Jessica (aka Dizzy Heights). Their lived existence within their steel-mill town is depressing at best. Corinne decides to start a band with the other girls called The Stains, and, as a result of the drug-related death of one of the members of a heavy-metal/hard rock band that comes through their town called the Metal Corpses, they get the chance to go on tour alongside a British punk act called the Looters. Although their musical knowledge is practically non-existent, The Stains develop a large following due to the combined efforts of Corinne’s revolutionary self-presentation and an interested newswoman who supports their efforts through her show. However, after being suckered into a deal with a “big time” promoter who co-opts their image into money-making schemes and exploits their popularity with young teenage girls, The Stains become victims to the Industry Machine, and are “outed” to their fans who promptly reject their former heroines, and leave the three teens to deal with the consequences.

Be A Professional

This film has a multiplicity of “real life” rock’n’roll connections, just within the cast and crew. The members of the Looters boasted such names as Paul Cook and Steve Jones (members of the Sex Pistols) and Paul Simonon (member of the Clash), while the director of the film, Lou Adler, well-known for directing the film Up In Smoke(1978), was even better known for his work in the music industry, producing such bands as Jan & Dean, the Mamas and the Papas, and Carole King, not to mention playing a significant role in the planning of the first Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967. One of the most significant “rock crossovers” as far as the film’s content was concerned, however, was creative consultant Caroline Coon.

Caroline Coon

Coon had not only lived through punk in the UK, but had managed the Clash, been a staff writer with the music magazine Melody Maker, and written the seminal work on punk, 1988: The Punk Rock Explosion. Her input on The Stains was immeasurable. Coon describes her work with writer Dowd and the preparation for the making of the script, and states,

I took her [Dowd] around the punk scene in London and up North. She had this

idea of young women in a steel town in America which was full of unemployment, empowering themselves through rock’n’roll to escape…I was showing her where it happened, but also where the Damned, the Sex Pistols and the Clash lived, the kind of environment where it first took place. So Nancy went back to Hollywood and wrote the script. Then I was hired by Paramount as creative consultant and dress designer.[3]

Coon’s lived punk experience, along with those of the various members of different musical outfits, all combined to form an authenticity within the presentation on the screen. As well, Coon’s own experience as a woman in a male-dominated subculture was particularly essential to the film’s development, as she was able, along with Dowd, to construct that experience both visually and textually throughout the film. In fact, in all probability, Coon’s experience might not have been that dissimilar to that which was portrayed on screen, as she has been quoted as saying, “Whatever I did was sabotaged by the fact that I had tits.”[4]

Dowd’s desire to represent a picture of the punk rock ethos and the female experience within it was underscored by the remarkable presence of so many very real rock’n’roll legends. However, during production of the film, that very same presence and the problems within the hyper-masculine world of rock became as explosive as the climax of the film itself, causing Dowd to demand that her name be taken off the film entirely.

They Have Such Big Plans for the World, But They Don’t Include You

Punk musician Lene Lovich noted that the advent of punk rock was great, because “the whole idea of it in the first place was to do your own thing, which was really exciting, and people who couldn’t play were getting up and and playing because they really wanted to play.”[5] But, as Gillian Garr recounts, Lovich realized that no matter how “subversive” the music was, or how “alternative” the punk world announced itself to be, it stayed fairly close to strict gender norms- “attitudes towards women frequently remained steadfastly the same.”[6] What is interesting in Garr’s discussion of Lovich, is Lovich’s own take on why it was that women were treated as mere “novelty acts,” or disregarded as serious musicians. Lovich opens the sealed space of the music world to encompass society in general, and deconstructs her experience as being more than reflective of the male-dominated music business, but as indicative of those societal norms.

I was aware that women can be noticed because they are a novelty. But to be taken seriously, to be given some sort of credibility, is much more difficult. I think it’s because music is part of society, and you have to wait for society to catch up for things to change. I think many women would have liked to have done music, but you had to be willing to be completely manipulated, you know,  “Wear this dress…you can move as long as you shake your titties”- it was very confining…I think the stereotypes are fairly strongly stamped in people’s brains, especially people who run record companies.[7]

Lene Lovich, new wave/punk rock musician of the late '70's/'80s and beyond

While Lovich’s ideas about “waiting for society to catch up” are problematic, they also highlight the importance of the women, like Lovich herself, who did not wait for the world to catch up, and the intense strength of women like Nancy Dowd and Caroline Coon who fought the Rock’n’Roll Boys’ Club at every turn of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Lovich’s revelation of the manipulative and misogynist nature of many of the “big wigs” in the recording/music industry only evidences further the problems that ran rampant on the set of this film, not to mention the filmic text itself.

For Dowd, a patron of the same ideals of punk rock that Lene Lovich found so inviting, Fabulous Stains was an important film to make. However, the partnership with Lou Adler brought all kinds of unseen problems that dated as far back as Adler’s career in the music industry. David Clellon, who played the slimy booking agent/promoter in the film, said in an interview, “I think that the reason why Lou didn’t get Nancy Dowd’s story maybe is because he is more part of the problem than part of the solution. To me, the Mamas and The Papas was easy listening, pleasant music, catchy themes, cute lyrics. It was very easy to listen to but it wasn’t revolutionary music.”[8]

The music that the Stains played, however, WAS revolutionary music. It was punk-styled, yet it had a clear feminist edge. The first time the band performs, in the film, it is clear that they are not exactly musically competent. At the end of their set, however, as the audience is booing them mercilessly, Corinne removes the cap that she has been wearing, to reveal a shock of black hair with white skunk-like stripes going up the sides. Even her band mates are astonished at the change from her previously blond hair. Corinne stares defiantly at the unfriendly bar patrons, and states, unapologetically, with a tangible anger in her voice, “I’m perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me- because I don’t put out!” Corinne “Third Degree” Burns then storms off stage defiantly, having created far more than just a mantra for the band.

"I'm perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me because I don't put out!"

Her statement can be read a number of ways. Not only does it refer to the denial to “put out” sexually, the denial to physically lie down for someone else, it also plainly announces Corinne’s refusal to subscribe to the categorical subjugation of women. Corinne is not going to “put out” for anyone. She’s perfect. Even if no one does “get” her. She denies outside control, and she denies anyone else’s ownership of her. This kind of sentiment couldn’t have been farther from the sleepy strains of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” or the aching sadness of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Dowd’s script spoke of a rejection of the sweet, sugary “pleasant music” that David Clenon described, and of a reclaiming of power- a power that, no matter how “counter” any given counterculture was, had been denied women time and time again.

In her book, Scars of Sweet Paradise: the Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Alice Echols notes that although the “sexual revolution” of the 60’s brought about a certain level of sexual freedom for women, it also maintained conventional gender norms quite stringently. She remarks that, “the sexual revolution was a mixed blessing. Women were having more sex (and with less guilt), but they were also more sexually vulnerable. Instead of undoing the deeply rooted sexual double standard, free love only masked it in countercultural pieties.”[9] This era was the one from which Lou Adler had emerged, and prospered in, and this ideology was one that he clearly still upheld. As far as he could tell, women’s sexual liberation gave him license to uphold a “groovy” male rock’n’roll attitude (read: women were sexually free to do as they pleased, therefore so was he). Being involved in a production concerning that which he knew best (rock music and industry relations) he saw only that: a rock movie. This gave him authorization to continue the party that he’d been having for the last 20 years. It didn’t help that the rest of the musicians in the production were also male, and part of yet another hyper-masculine movement: punk. To Dowd’s dismay, the overt displays of testosterone off-camera made things more than a little bit uncomfortable.

Fee Waybill of the Tubes who played Lou Corpse, the lead singer of the Metal Corpses, recalls the “ambiance” of the set. “We had the designated ‘drug trailer,’” Waybill notes, “so that we would all go smoke pot to get into character, y’know, because we were drug addicts.”[10] David Brown, another actor in the film and the founder and head of the seminal punk rock record label, Dangerhouse, concurred with the descriptions of the drug-fuelled “party” atmosphere that Adler had created. In regards to Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains, Brown said, “We all thought it would be our ticket to success. Really what it turned out to be was a huge cocaine party for Lou Adler and his friends.”[11]  To truly back up this notion, it is not surprising that Paul Cook, one of the members of the Sex Pistols, remembered Lou and the experience fondly. He had lived rock’n’roll, as well, and this party was what he was used to. His comment on the whole situation was that Lou “was a really great guy. I have nothing but good words to say about him…Nancy and Caroline Coon thought we were bastardizing their idea. They took it too serious, you know?” [12] Excuse me, please? How could they not have taken it seriously? Had Cook not been a member of the in-group, he might’ve seen that Coon and Dowd had every right to be upset. As a male, and as one of the rock musicians, he had privileged status. He was part of the Boys’ Club. Being surrounded by the same environment that had prevailed over rock music for years, it is fairly easy to see how women like Caroline Coon and Nancy Dowd had a difficult time making a picture that was geared towards their own experiences, and not those of the majority of the population on the set.

But that wasn’t the least of it. In a film that was summarily about three young girls trying to throw off oppression, and actively pursue a future of their own choosing, it is reprehensible that the sexism that ran rampant on the set went to the extremes it did. Nancy Dowd relates the incident that finally pushed her over the edge.

   The Skunks [the look-alike fans of the Stains] were saying all sorts of outrageous things I had written. One of the old camera operators    refused to operate the camera. He said it was obscene and disgusting…He didn’t like [the content of the film] at all. During the scene in Burger King, I was supposed to read lines to somebody and I had to stand right next to this same operator so the eye line would be correct. He went to turn the knob on the camera and instead he grabbed my breast…Here I was with this ultra-rebellious girl story and that is the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in a movie. I couldn’t talk about it for a long time.[13]

Because of the time period during which this film was shot in, Dowd had little way to seek legal action. Sexual harassment was just part of life. As Lauraine LeBlanc notes, public sexual harassment is “a form of ‘sexual terrorism’ that functions as one aspect of the social control of women…sexual harassment and assault restrict women’s right to full participation in the public domain…public sexual harassment relies upon and reifies…power distinctions between women and men. Clearly, then…this form of sexual harassment contributes to sex discrimination at a broad societal level.” [14] LeBlanc’s discussion of the incursion on a woman’s personal space in order to claim control and power should not be taken lightly. In Nancy Dowd’s experience, she was humiliated, on the set of her own film, in front of a cast and crew. The camera operator who was clearly threatened by Dowd’s work and its “outrageous” and “obscene” content, felt the need to reassert his male dominance by grabbing Dowd’s breast. She had won an Oscar at this point, for her script, Coming Home. And no one on the set (least of all Lou Adler) raised an eyebrow. “There was a kind of silence and nobody, including…Lou Adler, said anything. That kind of thing would never have happened in a million years on Slap Shot, never. And that was a male picture.”[15] Dowd’s commentary in regards to the action occurring specifically because of the high feminist and female-empowering content of the film is significant. Dowd’s previous film, Slap Shot, a film about a male hockey team, was in no way textually problematic. It maintained status quo. However, three women who take it upon themselves to rock the world, and change everyone’s perspective on the way a woman should be seen and treated, is chaotic and deviant, something that disturbs traditional patriarchal norms. Thus, violence was inflicted upon Dowd, because she dared to upset the “balance.” She became so enraged after this incident that she left the set, not to return, and struggled to get her name taken off the picture. She is credited, not as Nancy Dowd, but as “Rob Morton.”

These Girls Created Themselves…

To better comprehend this film’s radical status, it is important to recognize not only the production issues surrounding it which caused it to remain hidden from sight for many years, and the ironic reinscription of standard male rock’n’roll practices that infiltrated the set, but also to look at the actual film text as well. The film’s tagline, “These girls created themselves…” is a direct assault to the idea that in order for women to succeed in rock, they must first have gained permission and help from someone else, in this (and in many other) cases, from a man. It is the recognition of the historically patriarchal nature of the rock business, and it is in express defiance of that history. Recognizing that break from conventional standards was not all that this line represents, however. The “DIY” ethic that this sentence seems to reference has been a huge part of punk rock culture, as noted by many important scholars and participants in the punk movement. Thus, having real life historical punk figures in the film as well as a pronounced emphasis on The Stains being a punk-rock band led to a direct discourse about women’s agency and the expression of individualistic femininity within punk, a subculture that, like rock, was highly male-dominated. These girls sought their own formation in a climate that was highly adverse to their doing so.

In her seminal work on punk and girls’ gender resistance, Lauraine LeBlanc states, “in the male-dominated world of punk, masculinity defines the subculture’s norms, values and styles. These norms, in many cases, directly contradict those of femininity, thereby requiring that punk girls reconcile these disparate discourses in constructing feminine punk identities.”[16] Within this film, Corinne Burns overtly engages in constructing her own female punk identity through a process that scholar Henry Jenkins has called “textual poaching.” While Jenkins’ work focuses primarily on fan cultures, I believe that his interpretations of Michel DeCerteau’s ideas about “poaching” from a text are particularly relevant to this film, especially in tandem with LeBlanc’s ideas about the creation of feminine punk identity in a hyper-masculine environment.

When Corinne first meets the punk band that The Stains go on tour with, it is at a concert, and she is an instant fan. Already a disenfranchised girl in a town that has given her nothing, she has become somewhat of a local celebrity by getting fired on live television and receiving a large media response, empathizing with her situation. One night she is at the local disco, and becomes entranced with the performance of Billy Frate, the lead singer of the Looters, a British punk band that has, due to an unfortunate sequence of events, been forced to play a bunch of dive bars, in small-town America, supporting a terrible, washed-up metal act called the Metal Corpses. Beyond the actual filmic representation, I feel it is important here to quote Dowd’s actual script at some length.

Corinne stares at the stage in disbelief. In Billy she has seen for the first time

someone who has made the synthesis between rebellion, sex, beauty, violence,

rock’n’roll and meaning it.

CORINNE

(impressed)

God.

BILLY

I’ve seen the place you live in. I’ve seen what you’ve been told to put up with. You know what you’ve got? You’ve got fuck all. What have you got?

CORINNE/OTHERS

Fuck all!

He rips into another teenage anthem.

Corinne walks towards the front of the disco. Suddenly all of the tired, despairing boredom of Charlestown has disappeared for her. Onstage there is energy and fury and anger at life – a refusal to grow fat and tired – and a sexuality so unabashed that all her denials of love seem provincial and inexperienced.[17]

Corinne’s experience at the show inspires her. She goes backstage afterwards, to

talk to the band, and finds herself lumped in with the groupies, not a situation that pleases her. She approaches Billy, telling him how much he liked his performance and tells him how the bands they normally get are “really just nothing, but you’re really unusual.” [18] His response is that of the traditional punk nihilism, but she persists. The exchange that occurs next is of the utmost importance.

CORINNE

You look like you made yourself up.

BILLY

Well, that’s better than looking like somebody else made me up, in’it?

CORINNE

I want to be like you.

BILLY

Be yourself.

Henry Jenkins writes, “fans [choose certain] media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests.”[19] As Dowd wrote in the script earlier, and as is pictured on-screen, Corinne’s experience of the punk band, mirrors the struggle that she has been facing internally. Her admission to Billy, “I want to be like you,” doesn’t mean that she wants to be Billy Frate, singer for the Looters, British punk band, it means she wants to be like what he has cast forth onstage. In effect, she has “poached” the image, not the man. Not unlike writers of fan fiction, or participants in on-line communities, what Corinne succeeds in doing is taking what she has seen in Billy’s performance and using it as a vehicle to express her own “cultural interests.” Part of this entails making the traditionally masculine “punk” image into one that melds Corinne’s own burgeoning sexuality and overt femininity with her demand for personal justice. Billy’s ideologies and calls to be heard correspond with Corinne’s own, just with a very different trajectory: Corinne is ultra aware of her existence as a marginalized figure, both within the rock’n’roll world and society at large, whereas Billy’s concerns lie with the class issues surrounding his British home, as well as his own personal sense of male anger.

Corinne’s ability to take what she needs from the performance and manipulate it, make it her own, is a highly revolutionary act. Yet not as revolutionary as when she actually does lift one of the Looters’ songs. Later on in the film, as the Stains are getting more and more publicity, and their fanbase is growing larger and larger, Corinne actually steals the Looters’ main song. Diegetically, it is supposed to read as retaliation for Billy’s supposed betrayal of Corinne in his attempts to find a different support act. Yet, when we see the Stains play the song, what we are really seeing is a literal representation of Henry Jenkins’ argument regarding textual poaching.

In his discussion about fans as active readers, Jenkins points out that, many times, fans “fragment and reassemble” the texts provided, in order to participate in a form of cultural production that is wholly their own, and tailored to suit their own pleasures. He addresses the fact that, primarily, this is because they are at a disadvantage, not able to fully participate in the hierarchy of cultural production, because they are the consumers, not the producers. He writes, “like the poachers of old, fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness. Like other popular readers, fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence entertainment industry’s decisions.”[20] Truly, Jenkins’ descriptions of television fan groups could just as easily be descriptions of women in rock’n’roll.  Corinne’s reappropriation of Billy’s song, her “fragmentation and reassembling” of the Looters’ text to a Stains text, is quite simply an expression of her own experience as a marginalized person. By “poaching” their song, Corinne is able to create a whole new product, not unlike many other female musicians have by covering male artists’ songs. Sure, she stole their song, but it means something totally different now that it erupts from her mouth. Ideologically, she has basically said that she cares not for the way that she and her band have been positioned in this “Boys’ Club,” and thus she will take their work, and use it for her own ends. It is a way of fighting the forced second-class citizenship that she has been given due to her female status. Like the fan’s experience of not being able to participate fully in the production of their favorite text, Corinne’s experience has been that of a woman in the male-dominated social economy of rock’n’roll, having to take what she is given. Thus, like the fan who creates her own fan fiction to get what she wants out of a given text, Corinne reappropriates the Looters’ song, and takes what she wants, proving to the Looters’ and everyone else how instable their control over her just might be.

       Female Existence Should Not Be a Rush to the Grave…Or the Supermarket

In the book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain quote punk icon Patti Smith as saying, “Most of my poems are written to women because women are more inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women. The masculinity in me gets inspired by the female. I fall in love with men and they take me over. I ain’t no women’s lib chick. So I can’t write about a man, because I’m under his thumb, but a woman I can be male with. I can use her as my muse. I use women.”[21]

Patti Smith, the Punk Rock Godmother

While it is important to recognize Smith’s own admission of her oppression, as well as her over-extension of heterosexist fantasies as to who is being inspired by whom (what happens to the gay/lesbian artist, in Smith’s world?) it is also significant to note Smith’s ideas regarding fluid gender identification. Smith, as a performer, has always been visually coded as more than slightly androgynous, and here, she recognizes her mental processes as being just as flexible. This refusal to stick to the strictly defined categories of masculinity and femininity is a living, breathing function of the punk rock existence for a female.

The Stains’ adoption of hyper-feminine aesthetics alongside an aggressively sexual and “tough” demeanor seems to reflect the desire to stay away from strict gender categorization, and yet maintain a female identity. This was not unusual for women in the punk world, and presumably, as a result of Caroline Coon’s role as creative consultant, it is the reason why the physical appearance, attitude and conduct of The Stains brings to mind such influential female bands from the punk-rock era, such as the X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Au Pairs, and the Raincoats, amongst others. This band of young women seems to act almost as a kind of quoting gesture on the part of Coon and Dowd, of the bands that paved the way for these filmic “girls who created themselves.”

The Stains’ rebellion against gender stereotypes in the film reflects the same rebellion that had in a way created them.  The album cover of The Slits’ 1979 release, Cut, for example, showcased the women in the band, topless, wearing loincloths, their bodies mud-soaked. Contrasting their nudity with a clear affiliation to primal elements (loincloths) yet completely covered in mud, this album cover obscured any kind of “sexy” element that might have been drawn from the photo. This is the same band that Lucy O’Brien notes, “wore knickers [underwear] outside their trousers, wound reggae rhythms around a speed feminine sound and ridiculed ‘Typical Girls.’”[22]

The Slits, "Cut"

Lauraine LeBlanc’s work with punk women seems to corroborate these same ideas of gender transgressions that the Slits took part in. She states,

As I interviewed girls…I found that they navigated through conflicts between the gender norms of punk and femininity by constructing strategies of resistance to traditional gender norms…my research shows that punk girls, by positioning themselves outside of the mainstream culture, engage in active resistance to the prescriptions and proscriptions that overpower…adolescent girls. In negotiating between the norms of femininity and the masculinity of punk, these girls construct forms of resistance to gender norms in ways that permit them to retain a strong sense of self.[23]

The Stains seem to walk that fine line, and occupy that liminal space throughout the film. Their sartorial declarations seemed to parallel those of the Slits, in that their clothing, often sexually provocative, was worn in such a way as to announce their femininity while at the same time ridicule it. By strongly claiming femininity and yet actively denying conventional standards of beauty, attitude, and demeanor, the Stains, like the Slits, turned gender norms on their head. Locating themselves in the netherworld that LeBlanc discusses, between masculinity and femininity, the Stains had a kind of access to both worlds, and were able to present that and share that with their fans, like what the Slits and Patti Smith were able to do.

I’m Perfect, But Nobody Gets Me Because I Don’t Put Out

The space that Nancy Dowd opened up with her script, All Washed Up is one that has yet to close. Toby Vail, a member of the influential band Bikini Kill, and one of the original members of the Riot Grrl movement, is quoted as saying that Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is “the most realistic and profound film I have ever seen.”[24] While Vail’s compliment is at least slightly hyperbolic, there is no reason to disbelieve her sentiment. The Riot Grrl movement followed very similar lines as the Stains and the Punk Godmothers, and is, to this day, recognized as one of the most powerful, pro-female rock movements of all time.

The re-ignition of interest in this film within the last few years is reflective both of the problematic location that women still occupy within rock’n’roll and of the still-burning fire to resist that oppression and not “put out.” The strength that was detailed in this film about young women resisting gender conventions and actively engaging in revolt against traditional social expectations by being rock musicians is a strength that few films of today carry. Although there have been a few notable exceptions, such as Prey For Rock’n’Roll, and even, to a certain extent, Josie and the Pussycats, there is still the eminent notion that women cannot be part of the rock world and stand on their own two feet. We have had plenty of films about men participating in rock’n’roll (Rock Star, Almost Famous, Sid & Nancy, Purple Rain, This is Spinal Tap, School of Rock, etc), but where are the Rebel Girls?

Before Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill ever sung “Rebel Girl,” a film was made about those “rebel girls” and the unfortunate misogynistic practices of a record industry set out to keep the Boys’ Club from ever breaking up.

Part of the "tacked on" final scene...

Dowd’s writing and message are just as strong today as they were years ago. Looking back on the whole thing, it’s really a small miracle that Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains could have made it as intactly feminist as it did, considering the production circumstances, and Dowd’s own disgust and abandoning of the project. Yet, it seems that this is the spirit of Punk Rock. Making it, even though no one thinks you will. Doing it, even though no one thinks you can. Reworking the situation, so that you can make it, and you can do it, no matter how unorthodox. Dowd and Coon’s battles against Adler and his Boys’ Club continue to pay off with each and every viewing of this film. Regardless of the issues that were had, or the somewhat ridiculous tacked-on ending (each Stain has “miraculously” aged a few years, and grown remarkably taller), the spirit of “not putting out” still shines through.

Now, whether that is just my subjective “textual poaching” or not might be debatable, but what holds through all, without debate, is that this film presents an extremely provocative and powerful example of punk rock women in all media, fiction and non-fiction, and the consequences that come alongside that, within the world of rock’n’roll. Whether it should be a film that is considered in parts, as bell hooks saw Madonna’s latter image betraying her former, or in the whole, by seeing that no matter what, the image of girls rockin’ out to the beat of their own drum matters most, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a film that truly is required viewing. Corinne “Third Degree” Burns said that she believed that every citizen should be given an electric guitar for her sixteenth birthday. Well, the economy is a little tight right now. Maybe folks can’t quite work out a guitar. So…what about the DVD?


[1] Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge, 1994.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacobson, Sarah. “Why They Didn’t Put Out…Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: The Expose of a Cult Phenomenon.” Grand Royal 6. 1997.

[4] Garr, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle: Seal Press, 1992.

[5] Garr, ibid.

[6] Garr, ibid.

[7] Lovich, quoted in Garr, ibid.

[8] Jacobson, ibid.

[9] Echols, Alice. Scars of Sweet Paradise: the Life and Times of Janis Joplin. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

[10] Jacobson, Sarah and Sam Green.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains: Behind the Movie. Documentary. First Aired on “Split Screen” episode #38. May 24th, 1999.

[11] Jacobson, Sarah. “Why They Didn’t Put Out…Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: The Expose of a Cult Phenomenon.” Grand Royal 6. 1997.

[12] Jacobson, ibid.

[13] Jacobson, ibid.

[14] LeBlanc, Lauraine. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

[15]Jacobson, ibid.

[16] LeBlanc, ibid

[17] Dowd, Nancy. All Washed Up. Original Script- Fourth Draft- revised. Paramount Pictures. January 30, 1980.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[20] Jenkins, ibid.

[21] McNeill, Legs and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

[22] O’Brien, Lucy. She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop & Soul. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

[23] LeBlanc, Ibid.

[24] Jacobson, ibid.

[25] Jacobson, Ibid.

Cover to Cover: The Palimpsestic Identity of Sin City

We’ve all heard it before- there are no new stories, just new storytellers. While people may buy into this theory, seeing only familiar plotlines, tired characters and repetitious outcomes, many times it is in the retelling of a familiar text that innovative styles and new diegetic constructions are born. Raymond Chandler once said that a good fiction “cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”[1] And what is a distillation but a condensation or a purified form of something? Keeping Chandler’s argument in mind, we will explore the various and sundry ways by which stories travel.

Raymond Chandler

In the worlds of literature (which includes comic books), and film, a certain story or media item may bounce back and forth and back again. While we have recognized that there is the distinct possibility that all stories may be within the category of “already told,” the process of distillation and retelling catalyzes a new product that carries with it characteristics and features exclusive to that telling. One could almost say that these are simply new blankets out of old wool.

In his work Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative, Will Eisner explores the differences between film and comic books. He states that there is a “substantial and underlying difference,” between the two art forms, most notably in the way in which each separate text is consumed. Films, he says, are a non-participatory art form, while comics leave the reader “free to roam, to peek at the ending, or dwell on the image and fantasize.”[2] While Eisner’s definition of cinema spectatorship can be problematic, his conception of the active and participatory comic book reader is useful as far as comparing the different texts of Sin City . Within comic books, the reader must decide for him/herself how they are to interpret the visual representations of a car slamming its brakes, or a word balloon with the word “BAM!” in the center of it. Aural interpretation in film is not quite one of those aspects up for discussion. Brakes sound like brakes, and thunder sounds just like, well, thunder! The disparity between these two audience interpretations does seem to follow the idea that, as far as sound is concerned, there is more creativity and freedom within a literary text.

These differences in audience participation can also be applied to ideas of motion. To state the obvious, in the cinematic text, motion is the defining feature. Unlike painting, sculpture, or literature, it is this series of moving images that sets the cinema apart from all other art forms. Ricciotto Canudo wrote that movement in film “possesses the potential for a great series of combinations, of interlocking activities, combining to create a spectacle that is a series of visions and images tied together in a vibrant agglomeration, similar to a living organism.”[3] As a living organism, the function of each separate part is not as dynamic as the execution of the whole. While comic books work on a similar principle, Eisner’s idea of the “trapped spectator” of the cinema is applicable here. The time function of film, an aspect that has no bearing in the world of comics, does not allow for the luxury of individual image evaluation. One must experience all the images at once, sequentially and within the allotted cinema time, before any interpretation may take place. Tragically, this can be seen as Sin City’s undoing, as far as a successful interpretation of a comic is concerned. While the film may trump many other comic book films in its ability to faithfully take original imagery and project it cinematically, it also loses something in that process, due to the way that the audience is able to interact with the material. Long story short, there will always be a difference between the book and the film.

So what happens when a comic book, a forum meant for uninhibited and participatory readership, is put into cinematic form? What occurs when the boundaries are set? In the DVD commentary track for Sin City, Robert Rodriguez states that his selling point to Miller was the ability to translate the comics through new technological advances. Rodriguez states that he felt that the Sin City comic text was so similar to cinema, that, through the use of green screen technology, they would, in effect, be drawing the comic book cinematically. Essentially, all they needed to do was translate the comic book panels, and paint them onto the film, using a digital camera as a brush.[4] By doing this, the comic book was literally translated. But only visually. Eisner reminds us that there is more to comics than just the visuals. On the other hand, the painting that was created by Miller and Rodriguez was a crucial one to the development and future of comic book cinema.

It is worth noting that the key word that both Miller and Rodriguez use within the DVD commentary track is, in fact, translation.  The use of new media technology (few sets were built for this film, it was all done through computers and “green screen” use) and meticulously faithful visual replication done in conjunction with the artist/writer of the originating literary text, makes this film the closest visual representation of a comic book that Hollywood has ever produced. It is completely possible to read along with the graphic novel (one of which is conveniently included with the Director’s Cut DVD…can we say synergy, boys and girls?), and match panel to screen, with just about every shot. I know. I’ve done it.  Sin City, the film, looks EXACTLY like the comic book. As Nick Nunziata write, “Sin City isn’t a movie, it’s a pulp Frankenstein, black and white pages of comic book paper strapped to a gurney and electrocuted into pulsing life by the lightning of Robert Rodriguez and Miller himself…It isn’t an adaptation but a physical manifestation of the comic.”[5]

While Nunziata also states that what worked within the confines of a comic book doesn’t necessarily work within the moving picture format; the one thing that cannot be denied is the appropriateness of Sin City as a translational text. Born out of the melding of a multiplicity of different media forms and genres, it is only fitting that it be re-presented in the context of a melding of forms. It is Sin City’s nature, for better or for worse.

Out of the Past: Sin City’s Historical Precedent

Really, it all makes perfect sense. Sin City is a translation in and of itself. Frank Miller, a seasoned comic book professional, knowing full well what he was doing, decided to take on the film noir genre directly with Sin City. Why not? He had already been doing it in one form or another for years. He had spent time with Batman, in the seminal Dark Knight Returns, a character who can best be described in the way that Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton describe the private detective in noir films: “midway between lawful society and the underworld, walking on the brink, sometimes unscrupulous…fulfilling the requirements of his own code and of the genre as well.”[6] Before Dark Knight, Miller’s work with Daredevil had also proven his ability to create the ideal noir protagonist, as Matt Murdock (similar in many ways to Batman) was a “brooding, isolated individual…a deeply tortured soul, torn apart by his own internal contradictions as a lawyer and an extralegal vigilante.”[7] In other words, Miller had had enough practice. With the comic book Sin City, there was no pretense. He was not going to mask his love of pulp fiction under the guise of superhero comic, nor was he going to cater to traditional comic book visuals. He was ready to walk (or draw, in this case) down the famed “mean streets” that Raymond Chandler wrote of.

So he did. But to be perfectly frank (pun intended), as a comic book, Sin City not only broke ground in the way it was written and drawn, but also in that it was a translative experiment that went horribly, horribly right. If Miller had just wanted to take pulp fiction and make it into a comic book, he could have done just that. If he had just wanted to put film noir into comic form, he could have done that alone, too. However, what Miller did, was to breed the two texts into a third. Why not have your cake and eat it too? It is part of the magic of the comic book medium, after all. Sin City is a visual-literary work that combines all of the rough and terse dialogic properties of a Mickey Spillane novel with the existential angst of film noir characterization. Within the comic text, Miller manages to deftly mate the “hard-boiled” James M. Cain-style violence with the German Expressionist visual tendencies innate to film noir. This hybridic work translates the two artistically different forms into one. Is it a coincidence that this melding of forms mirrors a period in time where a series of films sought to translate gritty crime fiction and post-war anxiety into a highly stylized media format? I think not.

Visually, the comic book of Sin City kept the same cinematography through drawings that film noir had through a camera. Each panel has “constant opposition of areas of light and dark,” and the reader constantly bears witness to the bars of shadow that visually slice bodies up, and create “jail bars” for the characters. Additionally, as Janey Place and Lowell Peterson have noted about noir lighting, these small, tight areas of light, and the overwhelming spaces of black  serve to create a “closed universe, with each character seen as just another facet of an unheeding environment that will exist unchanged long after his death; and the interaction between man and the forces represented by [the] noir environment [are] always clearly visible.”[8] As Miller very clearly understood, the format and structure of sequential art, the panels themselves, can be used to emphasize the sense of claustrophobia and confinement that film cameras and lighting crews worked diligently to achieve.

The most salient example of Sin City’s relation to the crime fiction and film noir worlds can be found within the very inhabitants of Sin City, itself. Almost every character in the diegesis is a crime fiction/noir archetype. The character of Marv literally depicts the figure that Robert G. Porfirio has called the “Non-Heroic Hero.” Marv is a man whose world is “devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero. He has been wrenched from familiar moorings, and is a hero only in the modern sense in which that word has been progressively redefined to fit the existential bias of contemporary fiction.”[9] Marv’s inclusion in this filmic category is evidenced by the remark made by Dwight, in A Dame to Kill For. His narration states, quite simply:

Most people think Marv is crazy, but I don’t believe that…There’s nothing wrong with Marv, nothing at all—Except that he had the rotten luck of being born at the wrong time in history. He’d have been okay if he’d been born a couple of thousand years ago. He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield, swinging an ax into someone’s face. Or in a Roman arena, taking a sword to other gladiators like him. They’d have tossed him girls like Nancy back then.[10]

In addition to his “anti-hero” status, Marv also falls into the category of unreliable narrator, not unlike those described and written about in great detail by crime fiction writers like Jim Thompson, or those that figure prominently in films noir like Detour or In a Lonely Place. As defined by Philip Hobsbaum, the unreliable narrator “may be identified as one whose vision is disturbed…The unreliable narrator may not be insane, but he may, if we take the text as ‘centre’, be eccentric. The unreliable narrator tends to be embittered (rather than disillusioned); paranoid (rather than wary); inexperienced (rather than innocent); self-absorbed (rather than self- aware).”[11] In The Hard Goodbye, the first book in the Sin City series, Marv is searching for the person who killed Goldie, a woman he was enamored of. While driving along, he thinks he sees Goldie, and thinks to himself,

That wasn’t Goldie back there. I let myself get confused again. It’s okay when I smell things that aren’t there or even when I hear things. But it’s pretty serious when I see things…I got confused. I would’ve been all right if I took my medicine when I should have….I forgot to take my medicine. When you’ve got a condition it’s bad to forget your medicine.[12]

This excerpt, exposing his dependence on pills for coherence, and his off-hand admission of hearing voices/smelling things on a more than frequent basis establishes his position within both Frank Miller’s work as well as the noir world at large. Marv’s unreliable narrator and anti-hero status help to emphasize Sin City’s position as a new text that actually really is based “out of the past.”

Sin City as Palimpsest

Literally, a palimpsest is defined as a “manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.”[13] Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City is nothing short of a cinematic palimpsest. From the original papyrus of hard-boiled fiction to the films in the 1940’s and ‘50s known as film noir to the most recent cinematic amendment in 2005, Sin City meticulously wends its way around all of these culturally significant texts, emerging as a multilayered work, containing not only the original “writings” but each subsequent “rewrite.”

Distinctive and dynamic, the gestation of this film is nothing short of organic. While it erupted onto the silver screen in 2005, its birth was the culmination and third stage of a very involved process. It can be argued that Sin City symbolizes the final step in the staircase of literary and cinematic crime fiction. The first rung on the ladder towards what Troy Brownfield refers to as the “noir movement,”[14] is the literary stage. This refers to the pulp fiction and detective novels that very heavily influenced Frank Miller’s work. These short stories and novels created a literary category that served as the foundation for the cinematic genre known as film noir.

As has been established by countless film academics, this literary tradition of crime fiction catapulted film noir into existence. Whether it was through film adaptations of books like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, or by the filmic participation of individuals whose identity was pre-established in the literary crime-fiction world, it is an undeniable fact that without these writings, the cinematic landscape of film noir would not have been fully realized. Through this second stage, the transition from book to film, the noir literary canon helped to establish a singular narrative style and technique of describing this dark world and its inhabitants. The effects of this can be seen not only in the dialogue of the films, but also in the plot structure and character dynamics.

This step pushes us forward onto the next stage in the process: re-membering and re-visualizing the literary and filmic products. Already a recombinant product, film noir was reunited with its bookish origins in 1995, when Frank Miller began his run of Sin City. Frank Miller, an avid fan of film noir and its lineage, took the literature and films and sewed them into a comic book text, maintaining and reaffirming the stylistic and thematic properties of both. As Brownfield aptly observes, “There is influence. Influence and tradition. Sin City swims in influence and tradition and Frank Miller knows it. His collection of mini-series and short stories are a modern monument to the hard-boiled school and film noir.”[15]

Leafing through the comic, one is exposed to literally dozens of references to the books and movies that made up this “movement.” Sometimes blatant, but always respectful, the film of Sin City displays its ancestry from the very beginning. The first scene in the film, taken from a short story that Frank Miller wrote entitled “The Customer is Always Right,” is a direct nod at Billy Wilder’s film, Double Indemnity (which itself was an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel of the same name). As the film opens, we watch as a man and a woman stand on a balcony, blanketed in standard noir climate: darkest night and steady rain. The scene, complete with voice-over, matches the visuals and the dialogue in the comic, perfectly. The couple “tenderly embrace, and, as they do, he shoots her in the stomach. This reenacts the fatal embrace between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray near the close of Double Indemnity.”[16] Opening the film in this manner introduces the viewer to the process by which Sin City, as a film, came into being. While the multi-textual references in this opening scene may not have been caught by the vast majority of the audience (tragically, not many folks out there do a whole lot of time with the work of Wilder or Cain), this scene graphically and contextually underscored the evolution of Sin City, both as homage and as palimpsest. By calling forth James M. Cain and Billy Wilder in one fell swoop, this scene shows us how Miller and Rodriguez intentionally reworked and involved the literary and film noir genres within the boundaries of new story structures.

As Frank Miller stated in an interview with the Comics Journal in 1998, working with established generic formulas should not be dismissed as a kind of “pandering. I believe that genre is a structure that one can work within.”[17] Using genre as his tool of choice, Miller constructed a world in which the written word as well as the highly stylized visual form held sway. In the previous incarnations of crime novels and films, this bifurcated power structure was not at all present. Miller’s comic rewrote the past, putting a new “skin” over these previous manuscripts. It was scarcely a hop, skip and a jump to the final stage in the process: the cinematic translation of the comic book text.

Frank Miller makes the statement that “[Sin City’s] springboard is film noir. There’s nothing nostalgic about Sin City, it does use echoes of old movies and old books but it uses them in new ways and I think that the result in this film is quite startling…very fresh…it does not reassure the audience…our hero does not end up being applauded by everyone in the room or getting a medal.”[18] In the final stage of comic to film, we can see this unusual history literally illustrated. From literary to film genre, from comic book series translated to film, there is a level of refraction that occurs in this process that establishes Sin City’s identity as a text that has experienced multiple inscriptions, all the while never erasing the remnants of that which came before.


[1] Chandler, Raymond. Letter, March 7, 1947. Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962). The Columbia World of Quotations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. www.bartleby.com/66/. (accessed on May 23, 2006).

[2] Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 1996.

[3] Canudo, Ricciotto. “The Birth of a Sixth Art.” Quoted in Cinemas of the Mind: A Critical History of Film Theory. Ed. Nicholas Tredell. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd., 2002.

[4] Rodriguez, Robert quoted in Sin City. Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller.  Feature Commentary with Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson. 2005. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2005.

[5] Nunziata, Nick. “Review: Frank Miller’s Sin City.” CHUD.com- Cinematic Happenings Under Development. http://chud.com/index.php?type=reviews&id=2099 (accessed June 28, 2006)

[6] Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver & James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

[7] Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

[8] Place, Janey and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[9] Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[10] Miller, Frank. A Dame to Kill For: A Tale From Sin City. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 1995.

[11] Hobsbaum, Philip. “Unreliable Narrators: Poor Things and its Paradigms.” STELLA: Software for Teaching English Language and Literature andIts Assessment. http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLl/STELLA/COMET/glasgrev/issue3/hobs.htm (accessed on July 3, 2006)

[12] Miller, Frank. Sin City: The Hard Goodbye. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 1991.

[14] Brownfield, Troy. “Sin City’s Family Tradition.”  Newsarama. http://www.newsarama.com/movies/SinCity/SinCityAnalysis.html (accessed on June 28, 2006).

[15] Brownfield, ibid.

[16] McCartney, George. “Sin City.” Chronicles Magazine. http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/cgi-bin/movies.cgi (accessed on June 27, 2006).

[17] Groth, Gary. “Interview with Frank Miller.” The Comics Journal Library-Frank Miller-The Interviews:1981-2003. Seattle: Fantagrahics Books, 2003.


[1] McCloud, ibid.

[2] Eisner, ibid.



[1] McCloud, Scott. Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, 1993.

[2] Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 1996.


[1] Sin City. Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller.  Special Features: “How It Went Down.” Perf. Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson. 2005. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2005.