As it is wont to do, the blogisphere will tackle, pin-down, chew-up, devour, and spit out the story of the phony “lesbian blogger Amina” and her pseudo-lesbian editor, “Paula Brooks.” I would like to enter my two-cents to the fray by speaking as a “black lesbian.” I do not take on this position lightly, as was also true for Tom McMaster and Bill Graber who say they understood some of what was at stake during their lengthy charades as “lesbians.” However I do not do so because I hear this titillating character inside my brain or because I need a beard to write in support of lesbian issues. Black lesbians speak just fine for themselves, and much of what they demand and produce is the possibility to voice their experiences and knowledge into history and culture on their own.

I speak here as a “black lesbian” because when I was teaching my course on feminist online spaces during the Spring, to my surprise and initial confusion, so many of my students did. They were assigned to inhabit an online space for the semester and make a number of interventions there about feminism and anti-racism. Somehow, a significant enough number of them decided to do so as a “black lesbian” that this became a short-hand for us to name a number of online behaviors worth noting here:

  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference on the internet, a non-differentiated space where race, class, gender, and sexuality are neutralized
  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference for the bodies and lived experience of many humans who are more hegemonically situated
  • these limits so broken, the “black lesbian’s” position authorizes her to raise otherwise unmentionable or outlawed points about race, gender, class, and sexuality online by anchoring these forbidden thoughts to a body that seems to have the right and need to so speak
  • as if we white, straight, male, wealthy, Latino, biracial, bisexual, working-class, transgender, Jewish, Hungarian others don’t already have our own authority to trouble so easily or casually or “honestly” or “naturally” the norms, boundaries, and rules of the spaces we inhabit

Internet studies has thoughtfully and carefully worked through the reasons of the cyber-ruse over these many years, and I hope the blogisphere will find Lisa Nakamura’s work on cybernetic-tourism, or Allucquere Roseanne Stone‘s thinking about “virtual cross-dressers,” to be useful to think through today’s late-breaking fake-news. My own work on the “Increasingly Unproductive Fake,” in relation, in particular, to queer representation and YouTube ironic freefall might also prove helpful.

MacMaster blogs, “I want to turn the focus away from me and urge everyone to concentrate on the real issues, the real heroes, the real people struggling to bring freedom to the Arab world. I have only distracted from real people and real problems. Those continue; please focus on them.”

The problem with this plea, as sincere as it may be, is that popular culture reminds us again and again that men and white people always play better women then women, better lesbians than lesbians, and better blacks than blacks because the real ones are too right, or correct, or left, and in the end, it’s easier to palate difficult issues with irony.


I’ll be driving to Palm Springs this afternoon to attend their festival with my son. The Film Collaborative has been doing a great job with our distribution (the film is being released by First Run Features in March). And thanks to them we’ve been accepted to a swanky straight fest, who knew? Gay film festivals feel like the one bright spot in the moribund “indie” scene: providing dependable and supportive venues,  audiences, and markets for queer film. It’s truly always a pleasure and a privilege to have this well-oiled machine at ones service. A negative effect to this phenomenon, its flip side, is that “quality” or serious gay films have a harder time finding audiences, venues and markets outside the gay ghetto (really more like a resort, what with our high end and international festivals and tony corporate sponsorship). Queer film that may be about lesbian/queer life, but also, in our case about cinema (the documentary/fiction divide, the work of Patricia Highsmith), or more generic issues like aging and political generations, will most likely never be seen by interested and implicated if straight cineastes. Of course, the same goes for black cinema. For instance, by far the best review of the film so far,  by Danielle Riendeau, came out recently on AfterEllen. While we well attend to our niche audiences, as a devoted film community we have put little in place to speak to other potentially interested parties. Cheryl Dunye is lucky in that her films have been followed by academia, allowing her work to cross into this realm: but there, it’s usually attended to by the to-be-expected woman’s, black, queer studies scene rather than say the academic avant-garde.

In any case, it will be fun to see who comes out for the film (in the Berlin Q and A, I actually asked the straight-appearing and surprisingly male audience their thoughts on attending  lesbian film, which led to this interesting conversation).

Bechdel’s Bechdel (1997)

November 17, 2010

I have been following Alex Vesy’s “Bechdel Test Canon” at Feminist Music Geek. The Bechdel Test  seems to be going as viral as any lesbian thing ever could. I recently heard about it on NPR.

“The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.”

(This is a pdf of Alison Bechdel’s 1997 strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” can’t seem to get it on to the screen, sorry)

Couldn’t help but think about how I had passed the test years ago (as a producer of The Watermelon Woman, described in this comic that I’ve had on the bulletin board in my office since it was published in 1997, and which also mentions Alex Sichel’s 1997,  All Over Me and Disney’s 1997,  Hercules.)

I recently showed my latest Bechdel effort (Cheryl Dunye’s The Owls, 2010, which I produced collectively with the Owls Parliament, sixty or so queers who were moved to collectively make micro-cinema about our lives, community, and cinema). While the Bechdel Test is useful in reminding us how poorly we are served by mainstream media, it is always critical to include in the conversation the critical, community-sustaining, off-the-radar efforts within (post)identity-based counter-cultural (cinema) communities that have at their very hearts and souls an internalized Bechdel Rule which moved the makers to speak and make film in the first place and which move our micro-audiences to see and respond to us (like Bechdel above). The Owls only features women (save the cameos of three of our favorite gay male actors and one female character who presents gender-ambiguously) who talk and talk (in scripted narrative, improved narrative, and documentary talking heads, both in and of character) about everything but men: aging, murder, alcoholism, monogomy, children, violence, self-hatred,  the role of butch and trans in the lesbian community, the nature of queer community, the death of new queer cinema, the history of lesbian representation, AIDS and black queer activism, etc. 

FFFC, a new on-line journal that is a side-project of SIGNS, has just published my article, “A Lesbian Collective Aesthetic: Making and Teaching The Owls.” By including the written and documentary voices of several of the cast the crew in the article, I attempt to reproduce the “lesbian collective cinema aesthetic” that I discuss as central to the film within my “written” cinema criticism:

The essay is about making, teaching, and learning from lesbian cinema. I focus on making (and then teaching) our “generational anthem for Older Wiser Lesbians [OWLs], aging revolutionaries in a world they cannot control.” How our conversational, open-ended, film-based making is our “lesbian collective aesthetic.” Which is to say that, while most understandings of cinema aesthetics look primarily to film form and content (style and story), in the essay I suggest that the extra-textual feminist processes of collectively making (by first discussing and leaving room for multiple interpretations) lesbian cinema and identity and then critically and communally teaching (and then conversing again) about the practices of making cinema (and identity) are of greatest importance for me as an activist scholar, educator, and filmmaker, as well as for the collective of sixty-plus queers who participated in making the film.

My last post skirted the issue, saying I was “too busy” to perform my professorial labors properly: the hard work of “unpacking” lady Gaga. Ha. I’d actually taught the video to my under-grads, read and responded to helpful blogs by several of my favorite professorial types, and grilled my tween daughter about the prison scene (which looks a lot like her other Mom’s “illicit” HBO film, Stranger Inside, shot on the same location, which looks like the many women in prison exploitation flicks it campily quoted).

Virgina Heffernan’s recent post on the comeback of the music video finally helped me call this spade a spade. I didn’t “read” Gaga cause the work’s already been done: by bloggers, journalists, feminist pop-icons, and music video directors (“the density of its references implies that it contains secrets,” writes Heffernan). While there’s been a lot of tears spilled over the death of journalism, less has been spoken about the preempting of cultural studies/feminist/queer-of-color interpretation by the peeps, not to mention the corps. But it’s true! Some of America’s very top ambiguously-raced models make campy, gender-bending, self-referential, cinema historical homages with a pro-sex feminist flair.

There is something dead on about Heffernan’s assertion that, “they chose the right medium. Online video always seems as if it’s going behind the backs of managers and labels; the story of a video’s creation complements its scrappy aesthetic.” But I’d want to add something to her observation. I’ve written a great deal here about the rise of fake “bad” aesthetics (because of and on YouTube, as well as in indie cinema), and Beyonce’s tip of her hat to Bettie Page’s pulp porno style works in the same way. It’s not that its millions of viewers (like my erudite tween) believe the scrappy looking aesthetic is actually plucky, illicit, or back alley: they know it is faked, which makes it also expensive, legal, and mainstream. It’s also not secret (although it pretends to be), given that millions have seen it, and just as many have tweeted: “a trickle-up aesthetic,” according to Some Came Running.

Heffernan continues: “In short, they’re garish, clumsy, erratic, dirty and densely allusive; they seem to come from the margins, back alleys and black markets of commercial culture.” The feminist/queer-of-color media studies classroom (and its beloved indie films, radical documentaries and art videos) were once those black alleys. But YouTube and blogging and other forms of rapid relay outside and beside and beyond and referring to the Professors have moved (some of) our reads, and references, into the limelight.

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.

I’m provoked. Just saw Paper Heart and this charming pseudo-naive cynical/happy fake-rumination on love by comedienne Charlyne Li pushes this blog’s fixations on fake documentary’s current yummy banality to new highs or perhaps lows.

I propose Paper Heart to be another member of what I’d like to call the slow-film movement (I’ve already written about Be Kind Rewind and Zach and Miri Make a Porno as high achieving students in this pseudo school, but we’d need to remember Dogme 95 as well), by which I really mean the bad-film movement, by which I refer to corporately financed and released feature films that at once mimic, make fun of and glorify an over-the-top parody of hand-made (DIY, YouTube) style. It seems that just as it true with food and foodies who relish expensive old-fashioned tomatoes, filmmakers are rebelling against corporate made excess, manipulation, expense, blandness and froth by faking the heirloom forms and humble preoccupations of people-made video: intentional shadows where any studio would produce over-lit scenes, staging actors in stinky Motel 6 lodgings as if anyone would stoop to such grimy lows, or actors underplaying scenes and feelings to the point of the zero-degree non-acting (of the fake-doc Office) that is all the rage on television and the YouTube that both leads and follows it.

However, the ultimate pinnacle of this new practice is represented through the inclusion of  Yi’s childish puppet shows (and hand-made score, written and performed by fellow [real movie] star, Michael Sera) which punctuate her film to illustrate the “true” love stories of the “real” corn-husker over-weight charming real-people documentary subjects she “finds” “on the road” (although critically, this film really does seem to like its real people, unlike say Borat or the recent indie narrative that covers much of the same ground as Hearts, Away We Go) as if the art practices of six year olds are the new cherished vernacular for adult indie cinema even as, or perhaps precisely because today’s six year olds actually produce masterful, highly mediated video through the ubiquitous use of home video programs (many made for children) that allow anyone to make slick media. My kids would never show the edges of  cardboard and pieces of string in their puppet shows. This corporate-financed retro-futurist throwback winks at nostalgic memories of an improbable time when there was any terrain of media untouched by the machine, just made by the wee babes. But face facts: it’s made by the machine. Hmm.

And how does Yi’s movie-making feel to adults? Sweet-ish. I guess. Sappy but self-knowing. Cynical in reverse. Because, of course, I’m currently working on my own mean-spirited contemporary fake doc, The Owls (just wrapped principle photography, yeah!) returning in its special middle-aged way to the hand-made styles, desires, and communities of its actual (not imagined) forebearer, the new queer cinema and the “real” indie feature of the 90s. We actually did shoot The Owls for $15K (and The Watermelon Woman for $30), while Paper Heart pretends to (I’d love to know its budget and finance history), and our crew actually fights about (and self-reflexively tapes) whether we should still strive for the beautiful Hollywood style many of us have become accustomed to or whether a brash, bad, ugly style that marks our actual poverty would be more interesting. The one Yi fakes. Furthermore, Yi and Cera bumble into love, playing themselves as naive, nerdy, almost asexual pre-teen-like grown-ups (something Owl’s star and director Cheryl Dunye did in her earliest work, She Don’t Fade for instance), while our cast plays it all as post-love: the site of violence, sadness, manipulation, and anger.

Which brings to be mind the edgy fake doc anthem of my youth, Sandra Berhard’s Without You I’m Nothing.

In our time we loved this fake doc because it angrily pushed against simplified and packaged ideas of race, sexuality, and gender. To fake was to cut, hard. Now it’s just to play, soft. Love/Schmove.