(Originally published in the Los Angeles periodical High Performance, 1992)
When the media is a mile wide and an inch deep, certain things begin to happen. The complexity of any given voice falls away and grave polarizations set in. It’s not that popular culture disbelieved Anita Hill. There’s just a docile replacement. The culture has become more fascinated with what’s done to battle victims, than who might be right.
There’s also a reduction going on, chalking up male and female differences in behavior entirely to biology. This new essentialism is making a deadly comeback as we can see in regularly televised puppet battles between the sexes. The arsenal of literal and figurative weapons has been merely redistributed, projected in films, and entertained as national debate with Thelma and Louise on the cover of Time. Even magazines like Artforum run tandem features on the subject, such as Tom Kalin’s recent “Pussy Power” about Madonna and J. Hoberman’s “Girls with Guns.”
The slightest glimmer of credibility – when positioned between two constantly shifting but opposite choices – becomes a belligerent challenge. Angry Women by RE/Search Publications arrived on the scene to make such a challenge sometime between the Gulf War and the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill fiasco.
This sourcebook is one of the best volumes in Andrea Juno and V. Vale’s ongoing project to catalog some of the critiques made by the avant-garde. In fifteen interviews, powerful, articulate voices create a dissonant chorus around the issue of women’s anger. Each discussion reveals how land-locked and conditional these struggles appear.
One of the speakers, Susie Bright, points out that while “there is an openness about sexual subjects that we’ve never had before, [it is] at the same time, being condemned.” Avital Ronell uncovers how similar our current system is to the Nazi’s linkage between technology, communication and essentialism, as fascist ideals. In a landscape surging with useless chatter about femaleness, Angry Women documents the trends of feminist code-breaking art practice since the 1960s.
Separatism in the feminist movement often employed essentialist arguments, enabling women to create a physical space away from otherwise male-controlled domains. Women created a separate place for their own differences and bodies. Historically, this practice influenced practices like Body Art, where artists use the body to inspect the substance of physical difference, in art-shattering performances, like Carolee Scheemann’s “Interior Scroll” and Annie Sprinkle’s “Cervix Examination.”
These ideas, in turn, informed the theoretical components of deconstruction, which views gender identity as a social construct, not a biological given. For instance, Cindy Sherman’s perpetual make-overs capture popular culture’s role assignment of “The Girl.” But in her imagery there is no inherent core, perhaps because femininity may be seen a heavily mediated process of applique, or drag.
Angry Women provides some of the best examples of this second wave of feminism. Linda Montano’s interview reveals her early Persona Art to have set many of the conceptual precedents Sherman and others deploy now. Valie Export, in “Touch Cinema,” makes her body into a metaphoric movie screen that captures and analyzes the male gaze. Examples like these revise the media’s strict posturing of gender codes that are occurring now.
Thinking through multiple voices of the “Other” also helps us resist oversimplifications that romanticize “nature.” This is crucial when nature is currently tagged and mediated as female, and portrayed as something only science knows how to fuck or protect – with direct implications in how popular culture views wounds like child abuse and rape.
In fact, strategies of deconstruction translate differently for each individual. The black speakers in the book discuss the self in what Bell Hook describes as “positionality,” Wanda Coleman calls biculturalism, and poet Sapphire’s terms “specialism in Otherness.” Complexity and depth of lived examples are assembled in this rare history as as a contradictory, motivating, and non-fatal collection of voices.
Angry Women subverts the passive reception of media, and the popular consensus that “what you see is what you get,” an arena where the technological aspects of information delivery reigns supreme. Since “WYSIWYG” is a market term hyping a Nintendo-style computer interface as a form of reality, it’s difficult to think about “reality” without falling into this entertaining yet passive role. Since sound bites cut deep but don’t leave marks, they make useful information all that much harder to find. Alternative and smaller press histories help unpack the spectacles of what we generally get. Otherwise, battle victims, subconsciously coded as the passive viewers, become game points in an increasingly repressive, franchised and remote purview on life. Game on.