A Productive Fake has a Stake: Unnaming in THE OWLS

September 11, 2009

Over the past few days I’ve been teaching my recent writing about fake docs on YouTube to my Media Studies seniors, while thinking a lot about THE OWLS (and reading Trans Theory, more on this below) and chatting with my friend and colleague, Jennifer Friedlander, on her recent writing on art-world scams and reality-TV shams, as inflected by Lacan and Zizek. It’s enough to make a girl’s head swim with delight, below some avenues of flight (please, please, please respond, these ideas are new, and dangerous, and open to change):

While we were making THE OWLS, Campbell X, our “sound-man” (she’s a talented British director in her own right) noted in one of our talking-head interviews (the crew and cast were interviewed across the production about the themes and meta-themes of the film: queer cinema and identity, lesbian culture, aging, and the like) that as an English-woman of Caribbean descent she found it important that the two black characters in the film (played by Cheryl Dunye and Skyler Cooper) respectively, were not NAMED as black in the screenplay. The B-team (shooting the “documentary” component of the film), myself, Mariah Garnett and Rhys Ernst discussed (on camera) with Campbell the productive potential for unknowing in such post-identity moves.

Skyler and Lisa, Sky and Lily, THE OWLS

Skyler and Lisa, Sky and Lily, THE OWLS

How could we guess the complex intellectual, artistic, and political ripples that would surface just the next day upon the visit to our set of theorist and activist Jack Halberstam to engage the cast in discussions of trans vs. butch identity and politics. For it came to our attention that the film’s six characters were also unnamed in relation to their gender/sexuality identification, although, given Cheryl’s interests, the assumption was that all the characters were probably women, who were lesbians, and mostly butch. Just so, it turned out that Skyler chose to play her character Skye, as an androgynous looking but female identified woman, just as she chooses to enact herself.

Some of the B-team, Rhys and Mariah, THE OWLS

Some of the B-team, Rhys and Mariah, THE OWLS

And here the so-called “generational divide” presented itself, on one “side,” the nostalgic celebration of the lesbian or female or feminist, on the other the seeking for gender and sexual unmooring. During Jack’s talking head interview, he identified as “transgenderd butch” and then suggested that trans-people still need to be named (or counter-intuitively moored) because unknowing leaves them unseen, as fresh and fragile and mostly invisible is this position, even as post-trans theory hopes for the differences between performativity and materiality, the image and the body to remain unfastened and unfixed.

Carol, Cheryl, THE OWLS (all photos by Love)

Carol, Cheryl, THE OWLS (all photos by Love)

Which brings the theoretical and political concerns that I’ve been toying with her, most recently, to a certain sort of front and center. Unknowing and unnaming, like any tactics or forms, are only relevant in relation to goals, communities, bodies, and practices. They too must at times float and at others be fixed. While the unknowing of race is liberating for Cheryl, Skyler and Campbell, the unnaming of trans silences for Jack, Mariah, Rhys and Deak Evgenikos. The ironic free-fall I’ve been thinking about lately, the place where the difference between the “real” and the “fake,” the known and the unknowable, the fixed and the uncertain are indeterminate is an unproductive place of muddle (if perhaps fleeting fun) until it is attached to something that matters: a stake in the future. A stake, which signifies the hard, mean and cutting over the soft, drab, and unmoving (of say the anchor).

As we discussed in class yesterday, while it once seemed enough to work towards a future where people learned that there was a critical distance between themselves and the “objective” or “ideological” productions of dominant culture, this knowledge, so obviously secured in what Friedlander identifies as the contemporary audience’s “knowing very well but even so” is not enough if it occurs in isolation, as an end in itself, unlinked to a body, a movement, or best of all, a project of becoming.

Lisa and Campbell, THE OWLS (photo by Love)

Lisa and Campbell, THE OWLS (photo by Love)

Whereas in my recent writing I had been wanting an anchor (to the “Real,” or what Zizek calls “the shock of the truth”), I now reconsider this to be an attachment and a commitment to a dream of a better reality.

8 Responses to “A Productive Fake has a Stake: Unnaming in THE OWLS”

  1. Campbellx Says:

    I think the thing about Skye (Skyler Cooper) and Carol (Cheryl Dunye) who are of African descent in this film is that their bodies embody their ethnicity enough. Don’t you think?

    They also do not use the signs and signifiers common in mainstream film to keep reminding the audience that they are African American.

    This may leave the audience free to explore other aspects of the characters’ personalities/genders/generational divide issues. The conversation between Carol and Skye about Audre Lorde was a pivotal one in looking at a chasm of knowledge between the two women that seemed to be unfillable.

    I can understand Jack’s perspective on the “un-naming” of gender probably making it invisible. But it will be interesting to see how Skye’s character is “read” by audiences in terms of gender without naming her. Iris (Guinevere Turner) does have a questioning moment with Lili about Skye’s gender.

    I personally like “un-naming” in characters in films about marginal people because through un-naming in our own work we move from the margins and centre ourselves in our own work and world.

  2. brigidlioness Says:

    For some reason I’m feeling the need to distinguish between how unnaming works in politics and how it affects viewers’ interaction with media…irrevocably linked as they may be.

    Do I think it’s necessary to remind viewers that Skye and Carol are African-American? No. Does that mean that racism has ended and black identity has become mainstream? No. I’m having a difficult time explaining why I don’t think that all of Skye and Carol’s identities and experience need to be preceded by consciousness of their blackness, but I don’t think they should. I wouldn’t want my whiteness to constantly take precedence over all of my other identities either!

    I want to agree with Jack and say that we live in a world where to be unnamed or unlabeled is to be invisible, and vulnerable. It would be extraordinarily difficult to win rights and protections for unnamed communities.

    However, leaving a person or character in a video unnamed or unlabeled seems to work well with a politics of liberation and empowerment when it comes to gender *representation*. For a butch viewer, that character can be a model of lived butch experience. For a trans viewer, that character can also be trans and representative of trans experience.

    There is also power in the ambiguity, of forcing viewers to draw their own conclusions without a prescribed one to adhere to. That “questioning moment” is valuable.

    Wow, that was a lot of rambling. Sorry.

    (This is Claire, one of your Media Studies seniors, by the way. = ) )


  3. […] time for queer theory writing now. None of the fun and glamour of queer  collective […]


  4. Hi, any chance you have an Iphone compatible version of this article, I would like to read the whole post on my commute?

    • MP:me Says:

      i don’t know who to do that but woud be happy to, is is a widget in wordpress, will look, but if you know something else, please pass it on…


  5. I’m dying to see this film. But a couple of thoughts:

    (1). Naming is a perogative of the named. Or rather, self-naming – since in reality, we are all named by anyone who views us. In some respects, “gay liberation” was all about disrupting the default-names we were given: i.e., a relatively masculine gay man is read as straight, or a femme lesbian, and could we get to a point where sexuality was not automatically “assumed”. This is probably untenable, since we all use our assumptions about the world just to get through the day. But if we could only get them to take their assumptions a little less as fact ….

    (2) And maybe the biggest point, is an old idea that got dumped somewhere along the way, which was, rather than simply discarding our “anchor” names, which we feel as caging, we try to expand what fits inside those names. Think Gloria Steinem, on being told that she didn’t look (at the time) fifty years old. “I am fifty; this is what fifty looks like.” So does gender have to look and act only one certain way, or can it encompass a broader range? Can sexuality? Again, there is probably a limit, but expansion is worth at least something. (But I’m not casting doubt on trans identity, God knows, don’t get me wrong)

    In relation to this film specifically, though, it’s interesting to look at the unnamed-gender issue from the other perspective: if this film is about self-identified lesbians, then must female-gender-identified-butch-lesbians be forced to name themselves as such? Depending on who is watching the film, of course, you can usually listen to the easily identifiable “testosterone-rasp” of a trans and know the gender identity. But it seems uncomfortable, suddenly, that it’s the butch who is now under pressure to clarify her gender identity so as not to oppress through invisibility the transman. In my world, the butch still suffers the most dominant culture abuse of any lesbian.

    Thoughts?

  6. MP:me Says:

    Thanks for these useful thoughts. A few remarks: the unnaming in this film occurred in relation to RACE not gender or sexuality, but at least in the case of these two black women, their race was always visible, just not a talking or plot point. Then naming occurred around gender ambiguity, locking identities in place instead of letting them enjoy the radical potential of the unbound. I like the idea of growing into the “queer” or “fag” or even “nigger,” strategies we’ve taken up to say that words can’t hurt us. And while the film was made by some “self-identified lesbians” our collective was more expensive, including queers, gay men, and transmen (not all feminists by the way, ugh).

  7. Discoking Says:

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do🙂


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