April 11th, 2012 / 9:40 am

On Gender & Violence, inspired by Meghan Lamb’s “Girl”

After reading, and then listening to the recording of, Meghan Lamb’s gut-punching whirlwind “Girl” in the newest issue of the always excellent > kill author, I feel compelled to respond.

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”:

The lines:

Ice my wrist-es then I piss on bitches
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.”

LIDIJA WANTS COCK! LIDIJA WILL GO CRAZY IF SHE DOESN’T GET ANY COCK NOW! she just can’t deal any longer! it’s been far too long!

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.


  1. Bobby Dixon

      I like this and I just want to add a quick note. 

      When you mentioned Magnolia in this piece, I kind of clicked in about something in that movie that has always stuck w/ me and I’ve always tried to make sense of it. It’s something Julian Moore’s character says at the pharmacy (pardon my wall of text):

      Fuck you, too. Don’t call me “lady.” I come in here, I give these things to you. You check, you make your phone calls, look suspicious, ask questions. I’m sick. I have sickness all around me and you fucking ask me about my life? “What’s wrong?” Have you seen death in your bed? In your house? Where’s your fucking decency? And then I’m asked fucking questions. What’s . . . wrong? You suck my dick. That’s what’s wrong. And you, you fucking call me “lady?” Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on both of you. 

  2. Scott McClanahan

      Great!   Chris, I really love your essays.

  3. deadgod

      I doubt the gender de-determinacy argued for in the latter in contrasting “You could suck my disnick, if you take these jizzes” and “IMMA FUCK YOU WITH MY BITCH DICK BITCH”.

      The all-caps is “queer” where the pop-hop is “heteronormative” – but right there! –determinacy is re-inscribed… it’s not even been erased or at-all absent, has it?

      Lamb is making a problem of gender in destabilizing or at least exposing the assumptive hierarchy of boy/girl, but, to my perhaps-cloth ear, not more – though maybe artistically ‘better’ – than Minaj.

      Challenge isn’t “subversion”, necessarily.  And not only is subversion not limited to reversal, but (mere) reversal is only superficially ‘subversive’ at all.

      Power itself doesn’t admit of subversion.  (–except in the case of nothing, of nihilism.)

      I think the master’s tools in fact can be used to dismantle the master’s house, but I don’t think one can abide without instruments, without reaching hands into the world instrumentally, and, instead, purely naturally, as it were.

      I don’t think queerness or queering changes anything substantial or essential, and I also doubt that ‘queer’ indicates a movement into insubstance or nonessence, or into the raw condition for the possibility of things and events.

      Maybe, though.  Maybe there’s a shimmering under (sub-) or within (es-) gender difference, and queering discloses it?

      A scene I remember that, eh, involutes gender determinacy might be the genital (self-?)mutilation in Cries and Whispers.

  4. marshall mallicoat

      What does it mean that Meghan Lamb’s thing is written in something like AAVE? Surely that’s one of the most prominent features of the piece?

      What does it mean that what is called here a “queer representation of violence” is made by appropriating the language of a group of people commonly stereotyped as vulgar, super-sexual, and violent, and then using it to create a vulgar, super-sexual, and violent voice?

      Like, why does she need to talk black to talk about fucking bitches with her bitch dick or whatever?

  5. M. Kitchell

      isn’t the assumption that the poem is appropriating “talking black” instead of, I don’t know, denying any sort of racial insistence based on dialect that is drawn more from either physical context or zeitgeist than race more or less an oppressive move in its own right or whatever?

  6. Brooks Sterritt

      seems like both are fair points. seems like i just read a layer cake of [that was oppressive[no that was oppressive[no that was oppressive]]] XOXO

  7. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Bobby.

      That scene in the pharmacy is so good, so simultaneously controlled and sporadic.  There’s an interesting gender dynamic at play, for sure.  That scene actually makes me think of Julianne Moore’s character in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven — a strange connection.    

  8. Christopher Higgs

       Thanks, Scott!

  9. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Marshall. 

      You’ve raised a couple of tricky questions.  On the one hand, I think I understand what you mean when you say “written in something like AAVE.”  But on the other hand, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of “talking black” as a concept because it suggests that there’s some sort of essential connection between race and particular linguistic usages that I find problematically reductive.  I mean, I guess I would turn your question around and ask you what it means that you would equate the language used in Lamb’s piece with a particular racial identity?  It seems like you’re saying that “talking black” equals X, which implies that there’s a “talking white” that equals Y, perhaps a “talking Hispanic” that equals Z, etcetera.  That seems like a dangerously slippery slope.

      Ultimately, I get the sense that the speaker in Lamb’s piece represents an attempt to confuse identity on all counts.  The level of success the piece achieves at that endeavor is surely limited by its relationship to other cultural representations, but challenging those limitations strikes me as part of the value of the piece. 

      That said, I think you have a good point…race should be taken into account.  As should class, and education.  I didn’t do a good job of bringing those concerns into my post.

  10. deadgod

      So:  recognizing that a text is “queer” isn’t homophobic, but recognizing that a text is “black” is oppressive and scrambling on a slippery slope to reinforcing racism.

  11. mimi

      i do not particularly like the Lamb piece (in fact i do not ‘like’ it at all – ‘why would someone even want to read that skanky shit?’ i wince hearing that kind of shit on the street corners) but i do find the types of questions/discussions it engenders (har har) interesting

  12. shaun gannon

      jesus that was the SHIT i feel gross as hell right now

  13. Davey Houle

      Wow. Great piece, Meghan Lamb! And great piece about that great piece, Christopher Higgs! Made my evening!

  14. reynard

      damn chris

  15. Vomithelmet McGee

      It took me soooo long to get through this post! So it turns out I have something to ask. Why is Winter Diary violent? I’m not sure I understand it because it was translated from swedish and was the two ways of looking at “over my dead body” intended? Either way I don’t understand it. This is a female who really badly wants sex but she is not necessarily threatening so it feels a lot different than Girl. But you could read it as threatening but that’s your choice right?
      “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?” More effective how? How would you do such an attack? I think when you are talking about a patriarchy you are talking about something binary. I would consider it to be a society that does not allow femininity to have power and that includes femininity in men. The Pussy Riot group would feel the same to me if a man joined in doing what they were doing.

  16. Alice Sirk

      What I find most interesting about Lamb’s piece is that for all its attempts at provocation, it feels like a petulant art student’s half-stoned screaming.  While some of the discussion leans on the side of ‘tricky’ and ‘intriguing’, the piece itself doesn’t seem to warrant the effort.  Seriously, y’all, this is the kind of stuff I got used to seeing from undergrads who fancied themselves enlightened because someone told them about Viennese Actionism and they thought it would be meaningful to take a piss in a gallery. 

  17. Christopher Higgs


      To your first question, I would say violence comes in all shapes and sizes, and perhaps most importantly it doesn’t have to be threatening.  In Camera Lucida, for instance, Barthes writes, “The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but
      because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because
      in it nothing can be refused or transformed (that we can sometimes call
      it mild does not contradict its violence: many say that sugar is mild,
      but to me sugar is violent, and I call it so).”

      To your second question, about efficacy, check out Donna Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which is one theoretical example of scrambling gender determinacy.  It offers a way of rethinking the human (as posthuman) that denies gender determinacy in favor of an indeterminate creature she calls a cyborg.  This creature indulges the boudnary breakdowns that work to create the border of the “human” by opening up new possibilities for identity.  When you say, “I would consider it to be a society that does not allow femininity to have power…” the problem you are reinscribing is the idea of “femininity.”  To think in terms of feminine and masculine, to write in those terms, to speak in those terms, is to succumb to their authority.  That’s another way of saying what I was trying to say.  “Girl” does not succumb to that authority.  Instead, it thinks as a cyborg, a posthuman creature, rather than a human, rather than male/female.

  18. Christopher Higgs

      Ouch, Alice!  Your comment reminds me of those critics who scolded Duchamp for putting a shovel in a museum and calling it “In Advance of a Broken Arm,” or who scolded Jackson Pollock for “basically just splattering paint the way any child could do,” or who chided Andy Warhol for breaking down the boundary zone between commercial art and high art by putting a stack of Brillo pads in a museum and calling them art.

      I truly wish I had students who would take a piss in a gallery.  (If you have those students, you should count yourself lucky!)  But then, I don’t care a wit about art being “meaningful.”  To me, the search for meaning in art or the ascription of meaning to art is barf city.  I paraphrase MacLeish, “Art should not mean / but be.”  

      Viva la petulant art students!

  19. deadgod

      –so that’s a compliment, Alice.  In pissing on the piece by saying it’s like art students pissing in a gallery, you’re not meaning but being petulant like a lucky pedagogue’s charges.  Irony:  it’s not just a whitticism.

  20. Vomithelmet McGee

      I suppose I have wondered ‘what is not violent?’ before. You should have filled this page with photos of sugar.

      ok thanks, I will check it out! I understood your essay and I thought these were good things to think about too. Though some of it was a bit painful you know.
      I think my better question was actually how would you do such an attack?

      “To think in terms of feminine and masculine, to write in those terms, to
      speak in those terms, is to succumb to their authority.” I think if you use the term ‘patriarchy’ you succumb to their authority too. Anyway, I happen to like femininity and masculinity.