Monday, October 27, 2014

Girl Gang, "Bande de Filles"

Review "Bande de Filles" (released in English as Girlhood)
Director: Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Waterlilies)

You see them when you live in Paris, these small groups of black teenage girls that hang out near Chatelet or Les Halles, an area of the city with an enormous decrepit shopping center which smells of piss and bleach.

They move in packs, jostling and laughing. Picking victims of all races to heckle or scare, turn the tables for once. Everybody is a little afraid of them. God knows I am. They're the same girls that harassed me in high school. My sister was their white equivalent--getting in girl fights in high school and threatening to beat me up.

At the same time, they draw the eye. They're larger than life, practically glowing with beauty and rage and suppressed violence. I was happy when I found that Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Waterlilies) actually made a film about them. I saw Bande de filles this summer at a festival in Paris, and was engaged from the first mysterious scene where we watch two teams playing American-style football with all its brutality and grace. You only realize they're women when they pull off their helmets.

Afterwards, we see the girls walk back home through a gauntlet of darkness and trash, and groups of loitering men. They shrink with each step. By the time they peel off one by one to enter their apartment blocks, and face their own domestic horrors, they are timid and small. The last is Marieme, a 16 year old who hooks up with three other girls when it's clear she's not going to be able to escape the projects.

We're not sure how much is an act, or playacting. They are teenagers after all, and their moods are mercurial. They take as much childlike pleasure in their friendship as they do in invoking violence, and we also get a few wistful moments when they retreat to a cheap hotel room with their shoplifting booty to hang out and dance to Rihanna.

I saw it in previews with an audience that was maybe seventy-five percent white. The white people were a little tense. Especially when a white salesgirl got intimidated and harassed by the gang. But every now and then you'd hear these little snickers from the people of color, or sighs of recognition, particularly from black women.

Last week I read an article in Slate (French) by Charlotte Pudlowsky called, "Being Invisible as a Black Woman in France." She described how few images of black women there were in politics and culture, and hailed Girl Gang as the first major film in France with a serious budget and professional cinematographers to feature a story with all black female leads.

Pudlowsky found, "This absence of models, is an absence of possible dreams, is an absence of choices and an absence of tools." Especially when you're seen as foreign, as stupid, as eating weird food. Almost every black woman she interviewed for the article looked to the U.S. for images of black intelligence, beauty, possibility. They embraced Toni Morrison, The Cosby Show, even Whoopi Goldberg in Jumping Jack Flash because this little black computer geek was the hero!

And most of their response to Girl Gang was positive, though if a few wished it hadn't been set in the slums. Still, as one person posted, "Even if it's not really your world, your city, your job, you still recognize yourself as a black woman, and you turn to your friend and you understand that it's you up there on the screen."

I was disappointed this morning on Facebook to read comments from the usual French leftists casually trashing the film in yet another febrile display of white anxiety and political correctness, "I haven't seen it but..." The blah blah blah boiled down to, "Who does she think she is, a white Parisian lesbian making a film about young black women from the ghetto?" Or "Creating the wrong impression is worse than none." It is alternately too stereotypical and too sociological. Because of course black filmmakers like Spike Lee never set their work in poor neighborhoods, and never try to explain anything. Nope, pure art for them.

I don't understand the Left. Not in France, or here either. We hate the stereotypes of the "good" blacks as much as the "bad" ones, and when we get complicated images, we hate them, too. We especially censor any suggestion that these girls emerge from households where black men may wield an arsenal of weapons from humiliation to their fists to keep their female relatives in line.

Erase that, you miss how remarkable it is any time these young black women try to explore their own power, even if it means standing outside the schools and shaking down other students, entertaining themselves with shoplifting, staking out territory and getting in fights with other girl gangs to protect their honor, which may not shine too brightly, but still endures.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dusting Off Identity Politics

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Last week, yet another person told me that identity politics was dead. "Sure, as a strategy, it was okay for our generation, helped us get a lot done from AIDS to marriage, but the young ones aren't into labels. They use "queer" or whatever. Don't see the need for L-G-B-T at all." Which may well be true. Young queers can declare victory. Get married. Or not. Ride off into the sunset or ironically drink Bud out of mason jars at home.

Identity politics seems particularly dusty during specialized history months when PBS broadcasts a couple of documentaries on the likes of Harvey Milk like they do of Martin Luther King, or Cesar Chavez. Some simplistic little thing that fossilizes our struggles into something a kid can understand. Though nothing that breaks into straight, white, male History to indicate that our stories of liberation are as important and revolutionary as those of our founding fathers. In fact, are a kind of continuation of them. Not separate or apart.

Even I hate identity politics sometimes, because after years of calling attention to differences, we get groups of whacktivists who don't just acknowledge difference, but fetishize it, even enforce it, attacking any queer organizer who tries to offer parallels with, for instance, the black civil rights movements, because it is an "appropriation" of experience. Likewise, any attempt to connect queers in Nigeria with those in New York or even Mississippi are automatically denounced as a form of neo- or post- or maybe even pre-colonization.

Ostensibly attacking racism, or colonialism, it's hard to distinguish them from the bigots that believe that each group, each nation, is not just formed somewhat arbitrarily by skin color or sexual orientation, or gender, or geography, and the resulting experience, but is so profoundly and inherently different we're not just apples and oranges but sea slugs and skyscrapers. Which begs the question, if we're as foreign to each other as all that, on what planet can we be equal? Why bother with democracy at all?

The biggest argument to reconsider identity politics, is that even in places where City Hall flies the Rainbow flag in June, they'll still call you a faggot or dyke or tranny when they beat your ass, no matter how passé identity is. Critics of Obama don't really go after his politics, but his black skin. Women are still raped every couple of minutes just for having tits. When I was harassed on the street a couple of weeks ago it was as a big ole dyke. The legal barriers to my equality may be falling every day, but homophobia is still alive and well. Just like racism. And misogyny. All those things that impose identity, history, life experience, whether we want it or not.

Because the focus is identity, a more enlightened version of identity politics can respond. A willingness to do what Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing with race, asking what it means to be black, how racism is enmeshed in our national history and imagining some way to redress it. The only way to assure basic human rights is through political action. And the only way to wield political power is to be visible. And the only way for minorities to be visible is to organize around these arbitrary differences somebody started calling identities.

What queers need to articulate this time around, though, is that while differences exist, and they matter, they don't make us unrecognizable to each other, or the world. Like an extended family, each member may have a different personality, life, name, even gender, class, race, history or nationality, but we're still in it together.

If we are uncomfortable with the language that defines us, it is up to us to transform it by taking these awkward words and putting our bodies behind them, investing them with our lives. Only then, will they begin to change and "woman" will make room for the likes of me. And "lesbian" can mean blue jeans, Doc Martens and a Mohawk on Wednesdays, and on Saturdays a furry skirt and lipstick. Or wotever.

Even in our own community, we can intersect and be different and the same all at once. We can even shift between our identities because they aren't fixed. Though the consequences might be. The jobs we still don't get. The religions we're exiled from. The families many of us still leave behind to save ourselves.

We can do anything we want, except abandon the field of battle. I think in the midst of all this progress, we've failed to communicate to a younger generation just how vulnerable we are. That we LGBTQ people are a minority today, and always will be. A dangerous reality when humans have a predilection for punishing the different and powerless, and progress is never written in stone. Voting rights won generations ago are under attack again. Ditto for abortion rights.

Identity politics is dead. Long live identity politics.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Interview Sarah Schulman: One of the Last Lesbians Standing (In Publishing)

By Kelly Cogswell

Early in July I had a conversation with Sarah Schulman, writer, queer activist, and co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers. We talked about what contributed to the group's successful launch, including the vibrancy of the lesbian subculture in Seventies and Eighties. We also discussed why it's so hard for lesbians writers to break into the mainstream. Spoiler alert. Homophobia and niche marketing.

Here's are some edited excerpts:

SCHULMAN: When I wrote The Sophie Horowitz Story, in 1984, it was the third lesbian detective novel on the face of the earth. It was a brand new concept. And quickly became a reactionary idea. But for a very brief time, it was a progressive idea. Because the idea was that you could take a popular cultural form and put in lesbian content was something that hadn't happened before. Because my generation was the first generation that was out in popular culture. Prior to us, there was only underground lesbian culture and then there was popular culture. So, the reason that The Sophie Horowitz Story was so successful, even if it was still underground or whatever, was because people were excited at being inserted into the world.

But it started much earlier. The first WOW festival was in 1979 and I was involved in that. But that was a reflection of something that was already ongoing. There were things like Women News, which had existed before then, and the St. Mark's Lesbian Health Collective, and Ana Simo's project, Medusa's Revenge Theater. So that's the Seventies. And that's still underground culture. But there is a way that it's commenting on the world.

COGSWELL: I also remember reading the David Wojnarowicz book, and it was also a dialogue with the larger world.

SCHULMAN: But that's many years later. I also don't think that's the same. Because that's more an extension of underground culture. There's a split aesthetically. I come out of underground culture and I understand what it was. But I was also part of the move towards the insertion of the lesbian subject into The World. And this desire to be seen on your own terms in a public way. And there's always been a tension around that. I mean, it still exists. Today, you can be out as a lesbian writer, but if you have a lesbian protagonist, you can't have a successful book. You have to have a secondary character. And this has been true for decades, now. And it's still true.

COGSWELL: Who do you think is still trying to do that? Insert lesbians on their own terms? Into the world. Because it seems like that project has been abandoned.

SCHULMAN: People are trying. I run writing groups in my apartment for women who have queer content. People are also constantly sending me their manuscripts. I see that there are plays being written. I see that there are films being made. I see that there are books being written, but they never get out there. Or if they get out there and they're buried. But like this year, I chaired the Lammys lesbian fiction panel. And we read sixty books. And it was hard to find ten nominees. The best writers are abandoning the lesbian protagonist because they want to have real careers. And the ones who stick with it are either in the very early stages of their development, and don't have a lot of craft, or can't get published.

But it doesn't mean that the impulse isn't there. People are still doing it. They have a need to express. They just can't get into the marketplace.

COGSWELL: Do you think it's harder now than it was? I noticed that After Delores was published on a mainstream press.

SCHULMAN: Yeah, but you have to understand how that happened. First of all, I only got paid five thousand dollars for that book. Just so you understand that. So, a lesbian of my generation-- that is to say someone who has always been out -- got a job at Dutton as an editor. Right out of Smith College. And she already knew my work because I was known, and especially Girls, Visions and Everything was known. And a friend of hers stopped me at the health food store, and said that this woman Carol had gotten this job and that I should send her my next book. So I brought it over to the office. And then she called me a few days later and said she wanted to publish it.

Now this was before niche marketing. Right? Niche marketing starts in 1992. This is before that. So, when that book was published. It got a mainstream review in the New York Times by a man. Today, it would be reviewed by a lesbian. Because of niche marketing. Because of the containment. The containment was not in place yet.

COGSWELL: Do you see any way out? Do you see any way to go outside niche marketing?

SCHULMAN: In one of my books, I can't remember which, maybe as early as My American History I wrote out like a whole plan. Of how to turn around the problem of lesbian fiction. I had proposed a subway ad campaign with the prominent straight writers of the day. Like Amy Tan, and Terry McMillan, these people, saying, "We read lesbian books." Or companies sending lesbian writers out on tour with their famous straight writers. Or things like that. I mean, there's ways to do it. You just have to give people permission to read these books. But they don't want to. Because the homophobia is stronger than the desire for money.

It's true. I mean, people are trying to exploit every single underground impulse that exists, any little fucking thing that a person does you see it in an ad the next day, or you see it. My last book, or second to last, Gentrification of the Mind, has turned into some kind of cult classic, I get letters all the time, but the people who are willing to exploit everything in the world, don't want to exploit that. It is ideological. It's a problem of ideology.

I've talked to all of these organizations like Publishing Triangle, I've met with them, I've sent proposals. I'm like, what if you spoke to the publishing industry? What if you had meetings with people and said, "Look. You are repressing this literature." What if agents kept presenting the material over and over again? Until the point when editors were used to it and saw that it was coming? But they won't. They won't do anything that would actually produce a positive outcome.

The other thing is lesbians in publishing will not do anything. The last time I had a round of discussion with young lesbian editors I found they had no sense that their ability to be out on their job is a product of anybody else's labor. And they don't feel like they owe you anything. I mean, in one of my books I say that there was a time when any gay girl could call any other gay girl in America and she would call her back. Right? But forget it now.

Many of my peers have been driven out by this. There were maybe fifteen or so people who were publishing lesbian fiction during the time I was at Dutton--and none of those people are publishing adult fiction today. Except me. And those were all very interesting writers. Because it was a system of attrition. I just happened to be very, very, very, you know. Committed. I will spend a decade getting a book published. But other people are not willing to do that.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, September 01, 2014

Re-Reading After Delores, by Sarah Schulman

By Kelly Cogswell

After Delores
By Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2nd Ed. (2013)

These days I mostly read to entertain myself and kill time, though books are still what I turn to when I need to understand my own life, or try to lend it meaning. After I gave up on the Bible, I obsessively read The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde's collection of poetry. Later on it was James Baldwin's essay The Fire Next Time. Both helped me survive in a world that hated queers, black ones especially, but white ones, too.

I found Dorothy Allison's Trash when I was trying to digest what it meant to be a southern lesbian, a Kentucky dyke in New York. And David Wojnarowicz' pure queer rage in Close to the Knives destroyed me, inspired me, made me want to make art, or maybe harm myself, and others.

A couple years ago, when I was thinking about the Lesbian Avengers, and trying to remember the New York they emerged from, I re-read After Delores (1988) by Sarah Schulman. Before I read it the first time, I'd seen her around. Gotten to know her a little in our small queer activist world. After Delores was a revelation. A lot different from her recent books like Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.

Still, I'd kinda forgotten about it. Blocked it out, really, because the book was too uncomfortably true. And reading it again, I not only remembered an East Village full of queers and artists that would maybe colonize a bar, or create a gallery or theater, I remembered the pleasure of the book itself. How natural it was, how full of a dykeness that was merely taken for granted. The narrator is nothing we're used to. Not some cute, cuddly lesbian dying to please, or the usual mess of a victim with yet another terrifying story of incest and rape, drug addiction, suicide attempts, and redemptive therapy. Not even a deadpan postmodern observer of hetero families.

No, what you get is a young East Village dyke waiting tables in a crappy diner. She's a little awkward, maybe even self-loathing. She doesn't know what to wear. Drinks too much. Can't quit thinking about her snaky ex-girlfriend Delores who dumped her for a woman with prospects. She has moments of thinking she looks pretty good. Other times, she's a little disgusted, or disgusting. She has issues of personal hygiene when she's miserable, and flashes of tenderness. She's honorable. Or would like to be. That's why she tries to solve the murder of another, younger dyke.

In many ways, the narrator could be me. Me then, in the Nineties, bumbling my way through relationships, and crappy jobs. Broke. Messy. Which is why I'd put it out of my mind. Reading this was a little like poking myself with a sharp stick. Schulman brought lesbians alive right there on the page.

You'd need dozens of books to convey the same information if you turned to nonfiction. And all the social scientists and gender theorists still wouldn't capture either the complexity or simplicity of identity. That thing you are when you go out of the house without a thought for the straight world, or even the judging queers. When you do what you do, and are what you are. Pre-verbal.

Here, Schulman pulls it off, writing as if she was entitled to, as if the battle was won and queers were human, and as universal as Philip Marlow, or Augie March. Maybe more so. This should have been the beginning of something. But it wasn't, really. Of the dozens of dykes writing about our lives in the Nineties, only a few like Eileen Myles have persisted. Only a few new ones have begun. Or been published. Because we're just not wanted.

So when lesbian writers want to be taken seriously, we often abandon our lives for more lofty subjects. And if we want to make money with dyke characters, what is there but porn, or cozy mysteries? And any dyke that tries to do something else. Good luck with that. Dyke presses have their bottom lines and are not always more welcoming than the mainstream.

Then of course, there's queer theory. Where lesbians are deciphered and deconstructed nearly to death. I'm told we don't even use that word anymore. We've been declared obsolete before we've even had a good chance to look at who we are, describe our lives from many points of view, digest them. That simple act of description is incredibly radical. It keeps our feet in reality. Entertains ambiguity. Our humanness. It is the necessary jumping off point.

I suppose this means lesbians don't have a future. Not because we'll be exterminated as an entire class, instead of individually. But because we haven't imagined that future. How can we without books and art, and lives lived consciously as dykes?

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).