On Gender & Violence, inspired by Meghan Lamb’s “Girl”
What is going on with that piece? It’s so absolutely mesmerizing, so uncomfortably pleasurable, so sick and disgusting and lyrically beautiful, so caustic and terrifying, so violent and raw.
In part, I think the appeal for me comes from the shock of becoming the text.
That voice echoes other voices I have become or other voices that have become me in the past, and when it gets inside it resonates in a particular way that simultaneously evokes both uncomfortable and pleasurable sensations.
Do you recall that scene in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart between Bobby Peru and Lula Fortune in the motel room?
Notice the trajectory of that scene. It begins in minor threat. Lula, clothed seductively in black lace and red panties, red lipstick, red fingernails, and red heeled shoes, answers a knock at the door. Bobby Peru forces his way into the room, makes sure she’s alone, and then asks to use the head. “I don’t mean your head, head, I’m not gonna piss on your head, your hair and all, just going to piss in the toilet.” When he finishes, he comments on the smell of puke. Lula tells him to get out, and he gets aroused by her sudden burst of aggression. “You know, I sure do like a woman with nice tits like yours, who talks tough and looks like she can fuck like a bunny. Can you fuck like that?” Suddenly the threat level increases dramatically, as the combination of sex and violence becomes explicit. This tension builds and builds, horror and titillation intermingle, Bobby forces Lula to say the words “Fuck Me” and when she finally complies he breaks the spell, pops the tension bubble, zeros out the threat level, and concludes the scene with a bit of unexpected whimsy.
The tone in Meghan Lamb’s piece moves differently than the tone in the scene in Wild At Heart, perhaps in part because the gender of the speaker in “Girl” is indeterminate. Whereas Wild At Heart presents a heteronormative scene of violence, “Girl” presents a queer scene of violence. As well, I’m thinking the difference between these two types of sexual violence are for me distinct, and that there is something significant about the difference between them. But I make the connection because despite the differences, a similar affective force seems to haunt me when I hear or read “Girl” as when I watch Wild At Heart.
Similar, but different.
Unlike Wild At Heart, “Girl” withholds its vulnerability or else discloses it in such a way as to make it illegible to me. When I become Wild At Heart I become both aggressive and vulnerable, predator and prey. When I become “Girl” I must seek the vulnerable/prey position elsewhere, off-screen. Of course, for me to even speak of becoming the vulnerable/prey position is nearly tantamount to ignoring my privileged position as a man, as the culturally coded aggressor/predator, which I don’t want to do. When I become Wild At Heart I see reflected the darkness of being a man in relation to women, I see my role in that dynamic, I know I am guilty. When I become “Girl,” on the other hand, I see reflected a foreign body in relation to another foreign body. I know I am implicated, but I am steeped in confusion. There is an (unfortunate) ease to becoming Wild At Heart, an ease I am being denied by “Girl.” I have trouble becoming “Girl” and that trouble is part of what makes it so appealing to me.
Gets me thinking, also, about the relationship between men speaking violence, women speaking violence, and transgender persons speaking violence.
Consider Nicki Minaj’s video for “Stupid Hoe”:
You could suck my diznick, if you take these jizzes
You don’t like them disses, give my ass some kisses
Yeah they know what this is, give bitches the business
seem akin to Lamb’s “Girl” in the way gender gets subverted. Minaj never shies away from gender blending in her lyrics. Consider her track “Did It On ‘Em” where she goes, “If I had a dick I’d pull it out and piss on ‘em.” But the difference between Lamb’s approach and Minaj’s approach is that while the later appropriates male power and then redistributes that power from the female speaking position, the former corrupts the binary at its stem. Minaj wears the code of the female, whereas the code of the speaker in “Girl” is indeterminate. This is one of the reasons why I think Lamb’s piece is so interesting and provocative: it resists conforming to received gender identities. In this way, I think it is a radical text, an example of what Avital Ronell calls “extremist writing,” because of how it constructs and forces us to confront new identities.
And from my perspective, constructing and confronting new identities is a vital project.
Have you been following the whole dust-up over Pussy Riot in Russia? Seems their most recent “Pussy Prayer” landed them in prison for “hooliganism.” (I guess that’s a thing in Russia: hooliganism.)
I wonder about the efficacy of “Pussy Prayer” in that — like Nicki Minaj — it seems to merely reinscribe gender binaries, which serves to confirm power inequalities. Instead of questioning gender, it merely replays the dialectic by giving power to the pussy in a sort of inverted utilization of Frank T.J. Mackey’s “Respect the cock!”
Don’t get me wrong. I self-identify as a feminist or a male ally of the feminist cause, and in so doing try my best to take responsibility for my complicity in the system and work for positive change every opportunity I get. So I’m more than sympathetic to the cause of dismantling patriarchy in favor of a more equitable power structure. But what if, instead of doing a pussy prayer, those “hooligans” had presented a new identity? One like Lamb’s “Girl” who does not fit easily into the power dynamic already heavy with ages of conflict, oppression, and ideology? Could a gender indeterminate attack be more effective than one which plays into existing roles, or do I just think it might because of my position of male privilege? I know this is an old argument, going back at least to the French feminists of the early 1970s, so I’m not trying to say something new here, I’m merely thinking out loud in reaction to Lamb’s piece. And maybe that’s another reason why “Girl” is so damn interesting: it raises important questions that may have fallen out of dominate conversations, but have yet to find adequate resolution.
Like most people who grew up in the U.S., I have been indoctrinated my whole life by culturally sanctioned representations of heterosexual violence; but when it comes to queer representations of violence, like what we get in Lamb’s “Girl,” I have less experience to draw from.
I could, of course, simply attempt to assimilate the queer violence into my hetero understanding — which is what we seem to get with the Omar character in The Wire and the Lafayette character in True Blood — but this approach strikes me as reductive. I want to say, after reading and thinking about “Girl,” that the sexually violent dynamic between a man and woman works differently than the sexually violent dynamic between two men or two women or two persons of indeterminate gender. How, exactly, I’m not sure. But the sexual violence in Burroughs’s writing (in, say, The Soft Machine) compared to the sexual violence in Acker’s writing (in, say, Blood and Guts in High School) comes to mind as an example of the difference.
Likewise, another representational example for comparison that comes to mind is the opening sequence of Fassbinder’s In A Year of 13 Moons:
compared to the rape/torture scene in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
The former (Burroughs, Fassbinder) offer examples of queer sexual violence and the latter (Acker, Fincher) offer examples of straight sexual violence. For many, myself included, the Acker/Fincher examples are easily identifiable and conform to recognizable codes of heterosexual violence, while the Burroughs/Fassbinder examples are less easily categorized and assimilated, given the dearth of existing representations with which to make connections and correlations. In other words, the ubiquity of heterosexual representations of violence saturates the cultural landscape to such a degree that one could easily (mistakenly) assume it to be “natural.”
I feel this tendency arise in me when the speaker of “Girl” shifts between gender identities and I have trouble resolving my image of the speaker, even though I am aware of this bias and I know it is my problem not the problem of the text. I desire a visualization of the speaker, it’s a he, no it’s a she, no it’s a he dressed as a she, no, but why? Why do I desire definition so staunchly? The “speaker” is not a “speaker” at all. The words are merely words. It is a text and nothing more. Until it is. Until I listen to the recording of it, which changes things, gives a different life to the words, sure, but the voice speaking is — ingeniously! — as indeterminate as the words. It sounds like a robotic hybrid of gender signifiers, unrestricted by binary models. (Hello, Donna Haraway’s cyborg!)
Last August I wrote about the special Swedish Issue of Action Yes. In particular, I drew attention to the second half of the final stanza of Lidija Praizovic’s “Winter Diary,” translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson:
i simply say this: and i’ll stick to it
over my dead body
over my dead body
over my dead body
i’ll fuck before the winter’s out
Try as I did to explain my appreciation for that poem, the best I could come up with was, “Like a curious bystander at the scene of a crime, I am drawn to this piece despite feeling like a dirty voyeur.”
The commingling of sex and violence in “Winter Diary” feels safer to me than it does in “Girl” because I can place it within the spectrum of my experience and my culturally received ideas about heterosexual behavior. (The nymphomaniac is often a recurring character in the heterosexual male fantasy.) Thus, I can become it more easily than I can become “Girl.”
But both works derail comfort levels for me when they engage the connection between death and sex. “Over my dead body,” Praizovic’s speaker repeats. And “WE GON COME ON YOUR DEAD SOCKET EYES AND YOUR DROOLY DEAD BOOBIES,” Lamb’s speaker shouts. Although mixing the image of a dead body and sex is something Praizovic’s poem has in common with Lamb’s piece, there is obviously something different about their approach to the imagery. Here, for comparison, is the conclusion of “Girl”:
I think part of the difference has to do with the difference between a representation of straight sexuality and a representation of queer sexuality. Also, despite the fact that they share a kind of aggressive narrative intensity, the violence in “Winter Diary” is a different type of violence than the violence in “Girl.” For one thing, the former presents a dispersed schizo violence, while the latter presents a more focused violence. (Interesting that the straight piece works in a more dispersed fashion, while the queer piece works in a more concentrated fashion. — Here I notice how I have created this binary between straight and queer, which I’m not happy to have created, and which highlights my own limitations: not having an adequate critical vocabulary for talking about these issues without resorting to the phallocentric binary system I think “Girl” asks us to escape. Indeed, I haven’t done a very good job drawing conclusions here. It’s more accurate to say I’ve hopefully raised a few interesting questions, and tried to puzzle them out in my own limited way.)
Perhaps a better example of a heterosexual counterpart for “Girl” than “Winter Diary” is the necrophilia scene in Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q, because it is equally focused and equally explicit. As well, it too is difficult for me to become.
I’m not sure how this post wound its way here, but I think I’ll end with that scene, sans commentary. Well, okay, one bit of commentary, which is to say:
I have not mentioned the aspect of humor. Humor certainly plays a role in “Girl,” Wild At Heart, Nicki Minaj, Pussy Riot, Magnolia, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, and even Visitor Q. Across all of my examples, across all of these threads, humor shows itself. Unfortunately, I am utterly unprepared to comment on the relationship between sex, violence, and humor. I leave that for another day, or better yet another writer.
If you haven’t seen Visitor Q, well…scroll down at your own discretion!
At any rate, I hope you’ll take the time to read & listen to the recording of Meghan Lamb’s piece “Girl” and give it some thought, too. It’s a piece worth taking seriously.