Citizenship in Flames

Curator's Note

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about various revolutionary feminisms that preceded and continue to inform the sexual/political/cultural/theoretical aggregation we call queerness.  This has partly been provoked, I confess, by the incongruity of stumbling across an article about the Van Dykes in the New Yorker. Beyond the bizarreness of reading about lesbian separatism in that context, I was struck by the tendency of Ariel Levy’s “Lesbian Nation” to map the relationship between the Van Dykes’ moment and the one in which the piece appeared as one of near-incomprehensibility. Levy comments, “Now, when the phrase ‘lesbian mom’ is a commonplace, it’s hard to imagine a time when female homosexuality was so imbued with countercultural connotations so potent that women were drawn to it by ideology rather than desire.” Without pausing to examine the glut of assumptions that freights that comparison, Levy continues, “Similarly, if you are a young gay woman today, it can be difficult to understand the idea of organizing your entire existence around your sexual preference.”    

Well, okay. I recognize that as a career queer, I may have a slightly skewed perspective on that last point. But one thing that queer theory and the kind of feminism that sent the Van Dykes out on the road for the better part of a decade have in common is the recognition that one’s existence is already organized by and through sexuality; they’re simply seeking modes of creative response to that situation.  Both have, as well, unleashed a certain productive ambivalence about the notion of citizenship--recognizing the necessity of a pervasive critique of both liberal and communitarian frameworks, while working to develop alternative practices of citizenship and of belonging.

The clip I’ve chosen is from Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist classic Born in Flames. The film is set ten years after a non-violent socialist revolution has supposedly transformed the US; predictably, however, women and poor people still find themselves on the short end of the stick. The underground feminist network the Women’s Army tries to address this state of affairs in a number of ways, from organizing neighborhood women to oppose the defunding of their local day-care centers to defending women against assault by swarming the would-be rapists on bicycles, blowing whistles. Other feminists find the group suspect—some think they are not radical enough, others too radical, while still others question their methods—but ultimately they manage to collaborate without erasing their differences, disregarding the romance of unity.   Most of the activists in the film are queer (in an interview, Borden opined that it was their lesbianism, even more than their feminism, that so many viewers found upsetting) though this is simply another fact of life. Unlike Jamie Babbit’s 2007 homage to Borden, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, the film’s politics are not tethered to a predictable lesbian romance plot: rather, politics is itself the romance of the film. 

The clip begins as the Women’s Army’s founder, Adelaide Norris, is terminated, without reason, from her construction job (it is implied that this is the doing of the two FBI agents assigned the task of monitoring and neutralizing the threat posed by the Women’s Army).  The montage of women’s unrecognized and undervalued work that follows the termination scene culminates in a women’s right-to-work protest at City Hall.

What I love most about this clip is the way it maps the motion of women’s hands in ways that are both feminist and queer: feminist in the way it mimics the depersonalization and fragmentation of women’s bodies by the conditions in which they labor, queer in the way it refuses, as it drives this point home, to abandon the pleasure of the movements themselves. This dual capacity might, I think, be one good place to begin tracking where and how feminist and queer citizenship touch one another.



Dana, this is a wonderfully instructive post, and very appropriate I think as we begin winding down from the week's conversations (which I've so thoroughly enjoyed), because it calls us back to a foundational contradiction--among the many we've noted--between capital and wage labor.  If we retain (as I think we should) the slash that Karen posits between "queer" and "citizen," how do labor and capital map over their tenuous alliance?  I'm a big fan of Borden's, and I'm delighted and even a little relieved that you bring feminism out of the shadows of this discussion.  But from one "career queer" to another I have to ask a sort of obvious question: wither thou goest Marxism?   

For me, that question condenses many questions: has queer politics subsumed the history of the New Left (which drove a wedge between early second-wave feminists and gay activists), or erased it altogether?  In this time of economic hysteria, should we be more rigorously engaged in a theorization of queer labor as a base for understanding queer citizenship?  Might this help loosen "queer" from its assumed-complicity with capital? 

Great clip and such a good way to round out the week --

The competing frames of labor vs. citizenship kind of underscore the fact that we're talking about these things by building on examples culled from a commercial media system.  What I think is so provocative about this clip and the ensuing discussion is that they really bring to the fore the costs of identification, however psychic or ephemeral.  I haven't seen BORN IN FLAMES (but now feel like I totally need to) but my reading of this isolated clip is that the butch worker's appearance cost her a job. If we see "queer" as that uncomfortable umbrella concept, what does it cost to join?  How and when do those costs vary?  For whom?  Better yet, if we understand it as a pleasure made available for sale in a commercial media text (though I might be going out on a limb here, and I don't know BORN IN FLAMES' production context and extrapolating might be a bit risky), what are the psychic costs of identification?

Great questions, thanks! Hollis, a good point about identification with commercial media productions. Borden’s film was self-produced; it took her years, using non-professional actors and a total budget of about 40k, to get it done. But she has remarked in interviews that the gritty and disjointed look of the film—a result of both her own aesthetic/political choices and the conditions in which she was shooting—meant that it circulated primarily at art houses and festivals, and never found many of the audiences she was hoping to reach. And Dana: from one Dana to another, yes, yes and yes, though it’s Marxist-feminism rather than “straight” Marxism that I’d want to bring into the mix. (It’s this influence and commitment that I find so compelling about Born in Flames, as opposed to, say, the Van Dykes’ romantic individualism.)   And while there’s plenty of great work along these lines already in queer studies—I think of yours, Rosemary Hennessy’s, Alexandra Chasin’s, Matthew Tinkcomm’s—the field as a whole does symptomatically tend to subtract questions of class and labor from its formulations of (and polemics against) politics. 

Wonderful post, Dana! So good to see Borden's analog help reshape and bring to fruition our digital discussions this week. Thanks Hollis and Dana for bringing into the mix the modes of production/self-production that make Borden's work feel different from  (and yet also in concert with) the other self-produced clips we watched by ROTR and Magic Flute Productions. The sheer amount of labor that had to go into Born in Flames makes it look and feel like an artisanal artifact--and its distribution history attests to that. It is  also, likely the most expensive of the self-produced projects we viewed this week. I wonder how we might consider the medium in the message as we explore further the different modalities of Marxist feminism that may (or may not) apply to the trans-nationalism of "El Cazador de la Ciudadana" as well as ROTR? Does analog make poitics and labor more legible? Does the digital coast on its reputation of "democratizaton"to the point where it gets lazy about politics?

Karen Tongson | University of Southern California |

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