New Queer Cinema, B. Ruby Rich

New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut

New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut
B. Ruby Rich
Duke University Press
March 2013

Excerpted from New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (footnotes omitted) by B. Ruby Rich. Copyright ©Duke University Press, 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


Free Radicals and the Feminist Carnivalesque

A persistent problem of New Queer Cinema, which I’ve addressed repeatedly, has been its lack of gender balance. Even including the low-budget productions where more lesbians have tended to work, the imbalance has only worsened. Hopefully there’s a new generation ready to jump into action, but I fear they are more likely to show up on YouTube than on film festival circuits, more likely to surface on blogs than in the newspapers I still read. I fear for their visibility. The NQC has been dominated by gay male directors who build oeuvres; lesbians pass through like comets, lighting up the screen before disappearing into The L Word credits and an otherwise unknown universe. Status differentials trump the category of queer.

From the start of NQC, there were only a handful of women, many already invoked in these pages: Alex Sichel, Shu-Lea Cheang, Rose Troche, Maria Maggenti, Cheryl Dunye, Hilary Brougher. For argument’s sake, include those who came just before: Patricia Rozema, Donna Deitch, Léa Poole, Sheila McLaughlin, Yvonne Rainer, Monika Treut. The ranks are woefully thin, the prospects dim.

Luckily, in 2007 one project snuck through: Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, 1999) found assistance in one of the few bright spots in lesbian production and financing: POWER UP, a nonprofit founded by Stacy Codikow to produce work by lesbian writers and directors. Babbit had already established a reputation with her earlier features, shorts, and stint as a television director (including, yes, The L Word). She was a good bet and she had a great idea: The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a film that went back to the source for new inspirations. The source, in her case, was Lizzie Borden’s legendary pre-NQC classic Born in Flames (1983), her inspiration the idea of reviving those gritty, exciting days of early lesbian-feminist feature filmmaking.

“She says I’m the inspiration, but I don’t see it,” Borden wrote me. Babbit certainly does: she always introduces Itty Bitty Titty Committee (IBTC) as an homage to Born in Flames and credits the earlier film for her film’s style, tone, and kick-ass spirit. If Babbit was looking for a route out of lifestyle narratives and back into the pent-up rage and political energies of lesbians in the 1970s and early 1980s, she found the right model. Borden was working in New York City at a moment in between the women’s liberation movement and a full-scale AIDS epidemic, in between feminism’s consciousness-raising groups and lesbian power-brokering, in between Reagan and… Reagan. Babbit, filming in L.A. in 2006, updated Born in Flames’s downtown punk-dyke attitude to reflect the lives of young lesbians today—if they live in a world of postpunk, pansexual, anarchist, communalist, anti-consumerist acting-out. Thanks to IBTC, there was a rerelease and reconsideration of Born in Flames unmatched since it first appeared in 1983, when audiences packed theaters to see it and a generation of theorists wrote about it.

Babbit appears to have taken to heart the lessons of Born in Flames. She echoed its production commitment to an all-woman crew, or nearly so. She respected and updated the driving musical soundtrack that had made early Born in Flames fans want to dance all the way to the revolution. She shot scenes in Super-8mm and 16mm, emulating the production formats used by Borden and other indie filmmakers of that time. Babbit’s long-time partner, the producer Andrea Sperling, personally masterminded the production, using the low-budget pickup style of the early storied NQC. And of course, there’s the title, impossible to hide behind, brandished like a fiery sword in front of the film itself, warning all and sundry what to expect.

In addition to her tip of the hat to Borden, Babbit invokes an entire roster of names with this film, a blast from the past, as though she’d synthesized a mixtape of lesbian and feminist Greatest Hits into the shapes, politics, and subtexts of her screenplay in a bid to make once-powerful ideas live and breathe again. Decoding her film becomes both a great game for the viewer and a process of enlightenment—that is, a subcultural lesbian-feminist Enlightenment, not necessarily the rationalist kind.

Itty Bitty Titty Committee opens with Anna (Melonie Diaz) a young Latina, facing a life crisis: she’s been dumped by her girlfriend and rejected by the only college to which she applied, she’s living at home with her parents, and her sister expects her to dress up as a bridesmaid for her upcoming traditional wedding. Her dead-end job has her manning the receptionist desk at a local plastic surgeon’s office, where a steady stream of women show up for boob jobs. She steels herself for a grim summer.

And then, just like Alice in the looking glass, one fateful encounter changes her life. Leaving work late, Anna discovers Sadie (Nicole Vicius) spray-painting graffiti on the clinic walls: incendiary slogans exhort women to love their bodies and abandon surgical “improvements.” Sadie invites Anna to her group’s next meeting, flirting madly while she describes it: Clits in Action, or C(I)A, a sort of underground cell carrying out mysterious actions. The film then morphs into a coming-of-age tale in which Anna is inducted, not into lesbianism (she already is one), but into politics, consciousness-raising, the duplicities of love, and the passion of activism. (Incidentally, it also appears to be her induction into a race and class to which she doesn’t belong: a majority-white group with a style and lifestyle outside the realm of her simple Latino family.) The courtship of Sadie and Anna then plays out against the forward motion of C(I)A brainstorming and actions. The cell’s members tag slogans, crash store windows, disrupt press conferences, infiltrate a television show, and pull off a major, spectacular action in the nation’s capital as a grand finale. In between, though, they play the age-old games of lesbian bed-swapping and heart-breaking.

That’s the plot, but IBTC is more than its style or story, and its homages are not there just for fun. It’s a history lesson and a call to arms, a guerrilla action keyed to audiences fed up with a status quo that seems to have left them behind long ago. And its strategies reach beyond the mise-en-scène.

Consider its hall-of-mirrors casting. Melanie Mayron is Courtney Cadmar, a second-wave feminist leader with a backstory: as a visiting lecturer at Smith, she’d swept away young Sadie. Mayron starred in of one of the earliest feminist independent feature films, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), and was in the cast of television’s iconic show of the 1980s, thirtysomething. She’s a perfect choice to embody this earlier era.

Cadmar appears on a television talk show hosted by the archconservative Marcy Maloney, played by Guinevere Turner of Go Fish and Watermelon Woman fame, a casting choice that links IBTC explicitly to the early NQC. The déjà vu continues. Another C(I)A member is Laurel, played by Jenny Shimizu, who was the It girl of the 1980s known for her modeling, rumored love affairs, and brief squiring of Madonna; she now describes herself as a “sober Samurai.” When the C(I)A girls pick up sexy hitchhiker Calvin on the side of the road, s/he turns out to be Daniela Sea, who played transman Mac on The L Word.

In this use of casting as a way to “write” a film’s meaning beyond its screenplay, Babbit is following Borden too. Flo Kennedy appears in Born in Flames as a strategy advisor, but she was defense attorney to Valerie Solanas in “real” life. The editor of a journal collaborating with men in power was a young Kathryn Bigelow, and the woman on the World Trade Center roof was Sheila McLaughlin.

In Babbit’s case, the casting strategy encourages her publics to recognize their lineages on the screen and invest accordingly, while her considered choices of names and actions deepen the film’s grasp of history and links it firmly to the Born in Flames era and influences. Carly Pope, boss-lady of the C(I)A, adopts Shulamith Firestone as her nom de guerre, invoking the uncompromising theorist whose book The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution was published when she was only twenty-five. Firestone was a revolutionary futurist convinced that the fundamental key to women’s liberation was to separate procreation from women’s physical bodies; she’s a visionary who used Marx, Engels, Freud, and Beauvoir to critique the structures of gender power, called on women to rise up against the oppression of their own biology, and helped found the first women’s liberation organizations. This is no casual moniker that Pope’s character has chosen. Naming, like casting, has power.

They Knew Their History Well

In keeping with the examples of both Firestone and Born in Flames, the C(I)A’s politics are a brew of earlier clarion cries updated for the present. Its agenda too calls for women to repudiate patriarchal norms and stop playing by the rules, since politics-as-usual gets us nowhere. Purposefully interventionist, the C(I)A disrupts events both public and private, at one point even crashing a meeting at the home of the Cadmar character where fiery young Sadie hangs her secretly bourgeois hat. For the C(I)A, only direct action personally instigated can be trusted to turn the tide.

For years, women seeking their rights in the United States did the opposite: they played by the rules, to little effect. In a serendipitous intersection of history and imagination, Itty Bitty Titty Committee had its premiere in Austin at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007. The same year, a new campaign was launched to build support for reviving and passing the Equal Rights Amendment. The last campaign had ground to a halt twenty-five years earlier: it ran out of time, three states shy of the vote required, after incessant attacks by the right-wing orator Phyllis Schlafly, who declared, “ERA means abortion funding, means homosexual privileges, means whatever else.” She twisted arguments and whipped up hatred, dooming the amendment in the final months of 1982—the very year that Born in Flames opened in lower Manhattan, with its posters all over the wooden barriers that dominated New York City streets at the time. The legislation was defeated at the very moment that Borden’s film arrived on screen to rally women to rise up and fight. In a replay of that timing, just as Itty Bitty Titty Committee debuted in 2007, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and the National Council of Women’s Organizations pushed for the amendment to be put back into play once again.

If this back-and-forth of dates and campaigns is whiplash-inducing, keep in mind that the vital question of strategies and their limits motivates the women of IBTC throughout. Consider that the Nineteenth Amendment, the one that gave women the vote, was first announced as a goal in 1848 at Seneca Falls, where women seasoned by their successful work as abolitionists came together to petition for an equal right to suffrage for women, among other goals. They would encounter such insurmountable obstacles that Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would all die before the right to vote was won. Over seventy years later, in 1920, the amendment finally passed by one vote—cast, ironically, by one Harry Burns, a young man from Tennessee who’d been urged to vote for its passage by his mother.

Similar hardships faced the ERA, which merely sought to ensure equal rights in the workplace for women. The ERA was first proposed at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the original Seneca Falls convention in 1923, three years after women won the right to vote. Submitted by Alice Paul as the Lucretia Mott Amendment and rewritten in 1943 as the Alice Paul Amendment, it has yet to pass. Keep this history in mind: for more than seventy-five years, an alliance of well-connected and well-behaved women with considerable assets and connections has been unable to pass an amendment to guarantee equal treatment before the law in the workplace, regardless of gender. No wonder a girl might get fed up with the usual channels, let alone a gang of girls bent on revolution. In the 1960s oppositional positions were manifested to an extraordinary degree, in keeping with the cultural and political ferment engulfing the United States and the world at large. The postwar age of change and rebellion, full of dreams of transforming societies, inevitably encountered the nightmare forces of repression aligned to prevent any such change. Amid such turbulence, second-wave feminism was bound to contain contradictory forces too from its very beginning.

In this corner, in 1963, Betty Friedan shakes up American society with The Feminine Mystique, which posits the unhappy state of women in the United States as “the problem that has no name,” a depression resulting from social exclusion and devaluation. In 1966, after three years of traveling door to door to organize women, she founds the National Organization for Women (NOW). Among its first calls: the legalization of abortion and passage of the ERA.

In the other corner, two years later, 1968, Valerie Solanas writes the legendary S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto and declares, “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex.” Famously, she later went to The Factory and shot Andy Warhol, then surrendered to a traffic cop in Times Square. In the same year, the women’s liberation movement arrived and waved a bad-girl banner at now: the Redstockings held a whistle-in on Wall Street, the New York Radical Feminists gave testimony in support of prostitutes, and masses of radical feminists had attitude to spare.

Even journals faced off: Off Our Backs on the one hand, Ms. on the other. Don’t be fooled by the history books: the relentless calls to action had an effect. They created virtually all the institutions taken for granted by women today, from Title IX to the Guerrilla Girls, academic fields of study, and laws on domestic violence. It was an enormous sea-change, followed by more battles, exhaustion, and conservative pushback.

Lizzie Borden knew this history well and built her film from its blueprints. Babbit and her writing partners multiply their pasts, stitching together Borden’s and their own. Choices of casting, naming, scoring, and narrative make the audience flagrantly aware of the C(I)A’s connections to more recent and therefore better-known bad-girl histories. Cue the music. Enter the Riot Grrrls. As the Bikini Kill zine once declared, “BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.”

The Riot Grrrls were America’s very own return of the repressed, the rewriters of history come to earth to rescue feminism from the “F-word.” Bastard daughters of punk and bastard sisters of grunge, the Riot Grrrls were brought together by shared experiences of marginalization and a determination to kick open a place for girls in the rock ’n’ roll scene of the times. Riot Grrrls wasn’t just the name of a music genre or band; it was a whole culture of zines, clothing style, self-respect, and women in the mosh pit. With Kathleen Hanna and other musicians and writers in the media spotlight, the phrase announced a new generation. In their search for ideas and models, many of them even credited their feminist studies classes: “The whole point of Riot Grrrl was that we were able to re-write feminism for the 21st century. Feminism was a concept that our mothers and that generation had, but for teenagers there wasn’t any kind of real access to feminism. It was written in a language that was academic, that was inaccessible to young women. And we took those ideas and re-wrote them in our own vernacular.”

Band members, writers, and fans saw themselves as reclaiming the ethos of feminism past—just like Itty Bitty Titty Committee one decade later, its soundtrack packed with songs for its revolution by Sleater-Kinney, Heavens to Betsy, and Bikini Kill. Riot Grrrl started in 1992, parallel with the New Queer Cinema. It bubbled up out of twelve years of Reagan–Bush and popped into visibility full-grown, surfacing in the area around Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and the University of Oregon in Eugene (and Washington, D.C., where the name and idea reportedly originated). Determined to rescue a new generation of girls, the singer-musician and Riot Grrrl leader, Kathleen Hanna, teamed up with Tobi Vail to write the first Bikini Kill zine and form a band with the same name. They helped spark a movement.

With the C(I)A posse as Riot Grrrls redux (too much so for some young audiences who fault its 1980s ambience), Itty Bitty Titty Committee mixes the bad-boy energy of early New Queer Cinema—helped by Sperling’s formative link to Araki—with lesbian-feminist anger, boisterous boasts, and furious ambition, all aiming to shake things up. The IBTC has the born-again urgency of a new generation’s desires, its pure and undiluted energy, and its fury over the injustices of life, love, and death.

Such connections are not speculative, just a reminder of a time when worlds collided. In 1995, when HBO decided to commission a series of short music videos for girls, the NQC wunderkind Sadie Benning teamed up with Kathleen Hanna to make Judy Spots. The five shorts feature Hanna as the voice of Judy, an animated cut-out girl who survives dead-end jobs, incest, and girl-on-girl jealousy, only to find happiness with—of course, an all-girl band. Hanna and Benning then teamed up to form an actual band together. Le Tigre was a huge success. Its lyrics spoke directly to girls and women disheartened and craving just such inspiration.

Ten short years of progressive change,

Fifty fuckin years of calling us names…

Yeah we got all the power getting stabbed in the shower

And we got equal rights on ladies nite.

Feminists we’re calling you.
Please report to the front desk.

Violence against women, the ERA, Alfred Hitchcock, and a call to arms are all assembled into a feminist frame with lyrics reportedly inspired by Shulamith Firestone’s ideas. Not such a stretch: in 2003, when Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution is back in print, Hanna’s words of praise will be printed on the back. It’s no accident that the leader of the C(I)A pack is named Shuli. These aren’t coincidences, for Babbit surely knew these histories, overlaps, and referents when she was putting IBTC together, naming its characters, picking its music, and creating the C(I)A posters in Guerrilla Girls style.

I’d suggest that, in addition to Babbit’s nods to a feminist history of politics, music, and zines, there’s another politics here: the antics of the carnivalesque, a mode of sociopolitical intervention not unlike the C(I)A’s seemingly chaotic working process. The carnival as model is the legacy of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose posthumous publications initiated an excited academic exploration into the carnivalesque as a mode of political interference. Bakhtin’s idea of the carnival as an instrument of power available to the powerless inspired feminist discourses in the 1970s for its suggestion that actions aligned with the grotesque, the disobedient, and the parodic could indeed be powerful enough to break through the laws of the state and effect change.

In Itty Bitty Titty Committee, the guerrilla actions undertaken by the C(I)A are just as carnivalesque as any of the dump-your-bra-in-the-trashcan demos of the late 1960s, ACT UP “kiss-in” actions of the 1980s, or apolitical flash-mob actions of the twenty-first century. If they transpire in IBTC in the alternative universe of a movie script, that ought not preclude the power of cinematic fictions. Culture does not follow the linear track of political action: it works on perception, subterranean and subtle, and lodges in dreams. To act, in life as in film, we must first imagine acting.

A carnivalesque action frees the imagination to envision a different world, a sort of voluntary amnesia in which obstacles and disciplines can be “forgotten” long enough to be flouted, with the fond hope that they won’t necessarily be “remembered.” Shuli and Sadie and their crew stage symbolic actions to catch the world’s attention: papier-mâché mannequins to redefine women’s bodies or an elaborately silly action turning the Washington Monument phallic to make a point about male political power.

The off-kilter irrationality of many of the C(I)A actions in the film can render them illegible, as I’ve heard from friends who considered the monument an infantile gesture. And yet such actions are perfectly consistent with the language of groups shut out of systems of power. Just as terrorism is sometimes described as the last resort for groups deprived of any other political speech or avenue, left only with violence as a means of seizing attention, so does the carnival offer a peacetime alternative to those whose demands are otherwise rendered mute and illegitimate, even in a porous, so-called democracy. By this logic, since the C(I)A radicals don’t have drones to deploy, they try tricks instead. The same charge of absurdity was leveled at Borden for the World Trade Center ending to Born in Flames. After 9/11, though, Carla Freccero incisively linked this guerrilla action in Borden’s film to a sense of terrorism as violation, spotting “the semiotic logic of the cartoon” that rendered the action more symbolic than silly.

Itty Bitty Titty Committee exercises a related brand of cartoon logic, but in a sly last act, Babbit goes out of her way to answer the prosaic criticism usually leveled at those who launch such all-consuming actions: How do you earn a living? Babbit takes care of her characters’ futures with end credits—her film’s final fantasy—that provide employment for Anna and the others in their imaginary, post-IBTC futures.

Babbit dares return to the funky, low-budget world of early NQC in order to engineer a revival of the spunky days of lesbian feminism and to situate it in a world as imaginary in its own way as Borden envisioned. Her film is a place where the professor runs away with the talk-show host, where terrorism of the televisual kind can launch careers, where an ideologue and a vet can live happily ever after, and where even Anna’s mommy turns out to have a past. Babbit made IBTC in an era far removed from both feminism of the 1970s and early NQC. But that didn’t stop her.

As lesbians continue to struggle to find legible zones of representation on screen in a post-NQC universe, in a film industry simultaneously locked down (to outsiders) and threatened (by technological change), yet as inhospitable to women and lesbians as ever, IBTC offers another way: not simply DIY, but rather DWO, “Do it with others.” Group action is her retort to lockstep, DWO her retort to hipster DIY, the current brand of individualism. No, we can make our own. (Michel Gondry must have listened: he cast Anna’s actress, Melonie Diaz, in Be Kind Rewind [2008] playing Alma, a character who prevails over abjection to save the day.)

Itty Bitty Titty Committee has an infectious effect on viewers willing to exercise their suspension of disbelief. Its metafilmic incorporation of popular culture and lesbian history is slyly empowering. Babbit tills new ground here, modeling inspirations and aspirations very different from other post-NQC as well as her own earlier work. This is a film that solicits queer identification in the interest of agency, for both its characters and its audience. But it also has a clear mission to reclaim the specifically lesbian history that can be muffled by the category of queer.

I think of Itty Bitty Titty Committee as a banner rather than a product. It’s out there in the world now, to be taken up by the guerrilla cinebrigades of the future, wielding whatever technomachines are waiting in the wings, turning those new gadgets loose on new sets of obstacles, blazing a trail into the next iteration of representations, fighting the good fight, ready for the next generation of lesbian heroines. You go, girl!

Excerpted from New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (footnotes omitted) by B. Ruby Rich. Copyright ©Duke University Press, 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

B. Ruby Rich is Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for scores of publications, from Signs, GLQ, Film Quarterly, and Cinema Journal to The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, and The Guardian (UK). She has served as juror and curator for the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals and for major festivals in Germany, Mexico, Australia, and Cuba. The recipient of awards from Yale University, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and Frameline, Rich is the author of Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement, also published by Duke University Press. See more at: Duke Univeristy Press / Catalog