Sunday, December 27, 2015
Same Shit, Different Decade: Heterotopia and The Disruption of “Ladylike Speech” in the SCUM Manifesto and Hothead Paisan
I will be presenting this at the SW/TX Popular Culture Association this February. I also presented it at the EGO (English Graduate Organization) at Western University this past November.
A great deal has been written about woman as the abject subject, about woman’s ability or inability to speak, to speak truth to power, etc. In this presentation, I am going to discuss Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, as a space outside of social control, offering a place that is both liminal and carnivalesque, not merely as a “safe space” for women’s speech, but for women to be truly transgressive. I will look at Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto and Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan as two sites for not only women’s unpopular speech, but moreover, for “unladylike speech,” for cursing and scatological references as well. Finally, I will use Foucault’s heterotopia to talk about the resistance of the two authors and their work by not only patriarchal culture, but also from lesbian culture, and therefore the resistance to culture norms on all sides. My research will draw not upon the “usual” feminist scholars like Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, but upon theories of comics, cursing, and upon the notion of heterotopia and the disruptions of carnival. In this way, it fits with the panel’s theme of both “Sequential Art,” providing a history of women’s comics in particular through the highly influential Hothead Paisan, but also the tie of Hothead to feminist history through her obvious connections to Solanas.
In 1968, a treatise called the SCUM Manifesto was published by a radical young feminist named Valerie Solanas, whose primarily claim to fame at that time was that she had shot the artist Andy Warhol. The shooting was in no way related to the manifesto, but her publisher jumped on her sudden “fame” in order to sell more copies of the manifesto. The manifesto was all about her belief that the male was the inferior of the human species and had projected all of their own inadequacies onto women and then convinced women, through ideology, that all of this was true about the genders.
In 1991, there appeared a comic book named Hothead Paisan. Hothead travelled through the world as an angry dyke, fed up with most men as well as what she called “spritzheads,” those women who were inimically tied to their husbands or boyfriends, who did and considered only what they wanted. She went around killing and maiming men who were considered a threat to her and her fellow women. Her main target: white men in glasses and ties. Diane DiMassa, creator of Hothead Paisan describes her avenger in the first issue like this:
Her brain just totally shit the bed one day and she starts believing everything she sees on t.v. . . . She’s going about her daily queer routine and all this t.v. crap is seeping in and she’s getting psychotic, and like she needs therapy really bad, but she doesn’t know it. I bet her boundaries would be really fuzzy. I bet she’d be a lot of fun to be around. I bet she’d be a real . . . HOTHEAD PAISAN. (1)
Thus, we are brought into the world of Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, an avenging fantasy. Cartoonist/author DiMassa, in a way, gets to play Diana Prince to her own Wonder Dyke alter ego.
With the SCUM Manifesto, on the other hand there is some ambiguity about whether Solanas meant the manifesto as a call to action or simply a critique of patriarchy, DiMassa makes it very clear that this is a fantasy world, for herself and her readers, a place where you can vent your feelings safely and fantasize about those who hurt you, who disempower you, and who stand in the way of full personhood. Compare the opening of Hothead Paisan with the opening paragraph of the SCUM Manifesto:
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there reminds to civic- minded. Responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex. (1)
This is a call for revolution in a revolutionary time. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries had seen a number of similar manifestos, including the Communist Manifesto, the Futurist Manifesto, which was ostensibly an art manifesto but also had fascist leanings and political content, and most frightening to white men in power in the 1960’s, a number of writings by the Black Panthers talking about self-defense. They had heard Malcolm X talking about the “chickens coming home to roost.” To have these kinds of writings by women and blacks at a time of social upheaval, it would have been difficult for many not to take this as a literal call to action.
In “Shooting Solanas: Radical Feminist History and the Technology of Failure,” Dana Heller gives details of Solanas’s past that might read straight out of Hothead Paisan:
“A childhood friend recalled that she frequently played by the boardwalk where, once, she beat a boy severely for harassing a younger girl. On another occasion, she was expelled from Holy Cross Academy for striking a nun. And in high school, where she was often mocked and made fun of by other students, she once hauled off and punched a boy whom she believed had placed a tack on a chair. It turned out to be the wrong boy.” (173)
In fact, Hothead Paisan owes a huge debt to the SCUM Manifesto, for without it, there would likely not even be a Hothead Paisan, nor would there be such a large audience for Hothead. In issue #21 of Hothead, published in 1999, there is an excerpt from the SCUM Manifesto reprinted on the back inside cover along with pictures of middle fingers (22).
Foucault describes the concept of a heterotopia as a “sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live” (24). They may be linked to the mode of festivals and to the Bakhtinian notion of carnival, a time that allows for inversion of social roles for a short period of time, allowing the “marginalized” a brief taste of power. Heterotopias are always separate from the usual spaces of society. One of the more uncomfortable aspects of heterotopias include not ever having the feeling of being at home. They can disrupt the history of yourself, of your identity; they may shake things up in a way that you might not be prepared for. There is also a sense of transgressing space, going where you are not allowed to go. They are often associated with the liminal state of ritual, the process of becoming, of transformation. There may at the very least, then, a stage of disorientation as you are between states of being. There are any number of women, for example, like authors Dana Heller and Diane DiMassa, who have stated that the SCUM Manifesto changed their lives. To encounter something which makes you question everything around you, however exhilarating, often comes with a state of severe disorientation that can make you “shit the bed,” as DiMassa says.
Comics as Heterotopic
Kristi Lynn Abrecht’s master’s thesis, Illustrating Identity: Feminist Resistance in Webcomics talks about heterotopic space as occurring online. But with the mimeograph “revolution” of the 1960s and the “desktop publishing revolution” in the 1990s, making mass copies of your manifesto, zine, or comic became possible for the masses and it became very feasible to make and distribute your own artwork, which meant that commerce, and hence censorship, need not be a part of getting your art and your message out to the public.
The heterotopia of a comic strip is, in my mind, more complete than that of a manifesto, or a text, which can represent in words and typography, the layout and placement on the page but does not have the added representation. Scott McCloud calls the cartoon “a vacuum, in which our identity and awareness are pulled . . . an empty shell” (36). No matter how realistic or unrealistic, just drawing a simple smiley face in a cartoon box, McCloud tells us, is enough to represent someone. It doesn’t matter how good the representation is, just that there is a more or less human figure that the reader can identify with. This is not to say that text cannot also offer a heterotopic space. In fact, anything that tells a story can involve people in a very distinct way. Thus, either normative or non-normative fiction has a great deal of potential. In the “The Science of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts Through Distraction Like Nothing Else,” Jonathan Gottschall says that “While the brain watches a story, you’ll find something interesting—the brain doesn’t look like a spectator, it looks more like a participant in the action.
So while text can do a great deal to involve the reader, or spectator, in the action, when you combine the identification of the reader in a text with the identification of representation in a comic, you have something very powerful that can add up to a “space” where the reader becomes a participant, and actor in what is going on, and when you add a place of the unthinkable, a denaturalized space in which things like language and power are not taken for granted, then you have what Foucault describes as a heterotopic space, one where the author and the reader are free to try on other identities and to operate outside of social control.
Hothead Paisan and the SCUM Manifesto
For Valerie Solanas and Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan alike, this heterotopia allows them to speak outside of the normal rules of decorum. To have a space where women can say what they want, including shit, fuck, scum, without having to care about being seen as vulgar, unladylike, particularly in 1960s America, let alone 1990s America, to be outside of social control, was a very liberating thing. Even in the 1990s, Hothead herself is still reacting against feminist and lesbian norms.
“The last thing I need is some lesbian Rambo . . .” comments a character in comic #5 (6). “I find Hothead disgustingly violent! She acts just like the men she’s bashing! We, as women, must set an example and act in a peaceful, NON-VIOLENT WAY, GODAMMIT!” She then adds that she “doesn’t like seeing male genitals and blood and gore!” (7). This allows DiMassa the chance, as cartoonist, to intervene and explain that this comic book is satire. In issue 2, Hothead gets lectured by her blind lesbian friend Roz for eating meat. Roz says “Do you know what they do to cows?” to which Hothead replies, “DON’T. I can’t bear it” (7). We see that hothead cannot deal with anyone’s ideas, men or women’s, about who she is supposed to be and how she is supposed to behave. Hothead cannot cater to this expectation of being a caring nurturing person who would not harm any living being, which was perpetuated both inside of the lesbian movement, as well as within the culture at large. She says to Roz that she should come with a warning:
Caution: Socially bizarre dyke, not quite up to political snuff; eats meat likes sex toys, has never protested in D.C., prone to raving and episodical behavior, including vicious mood-swings! Into ambushing, farting, and hanging upside down! Consider carefully before befriending! (7)
There is, here, not only a disdain for heteronormativity, but homonormativity as well. Hothead longs for a space in which she can be herself, outside of any norms at all. And in fact, like the liminal or ritual space often associated with heterotopias, she often has private spiritual moments as well where she has alternatingly affirming and let us say “curative” moments with elements of the universe, including the moon and the mother goddess, the latter of which is represented by a common lamp.
Possibly the most telling commentary on Valeria Solanas’ work comes from reviews of the film about her, I Shot Andy Warhol. Heller brings up the review in Ms. Magazine in which Jennifer Baumgardner “insist[ed] that Solanas's writings and actions were by no means the work of a committed activist but of an abused crackpot who was never a part of any legitimate feminist community” (qtd in Heller: 171). She writes of Baumgardner’s “handwringing expression of angst over Solanas's newfound celebrity status as misunderstood lesbian avenger du jour. Baumgardner” she explains, did “elaborate back flips to discount the film's closing claim that the SCUM Manifesto has become "a feminist classic.(171)" Rita Kempley, a writer for the Washington Post referred to Solanas as an “obstreperous, male-bashing, pain in the patoot” (qtd in Heller:169).
Rejecting Feminine Language
One of the ways in which both Solanas and Hothead transgress against society in general and against feminism is in their use of language. Both are completely unabashed in their use of scatological and sexual terms, which are completely taboo for women. It is one thing for women to talk about penises and vaginas in clinical ways. But to talk about dicks and pussies and shit in those very words, to refer to women as whores and sluts, is to subject yourself to censorship and censure. The SCUM Manifesto, for example, states:
“To call a man an animal is to flatter him: he’s a . . . .walking dildo. . . . he’ll swim a river of snot, wade in nostril-deep through a pile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.” (2)
Even an anarchist bookstore currently selling the SCUM Manifesto in 2015 says “It’s a bit of weird one. I’m not sure why we’re selling it. I find it quite offensive. But maybe you want to buy it as a horrible birthday present for some you don’t like” (http://freedompress.org.uk/store/products/scum-manifesto/). Solanas is not afraid to use the vernacular, vulgar words to get the point across and that, especially in the 1960s, could have great impact or could be incredibly shocking for readers. Or both. For Solanas, words were her weapons and these words were not chosen by accident. They were chosen exactly to shock people into awareness, even revolution. For Solanas, the written word, the space of the text, was her heterotopia.
The culture of the 1990s may have been somewhat different, but for Diane DiMassa to show severed penises, which she did routinely, or to show a “cross-section of the penile brain” as she does in issue #5 (4) and #6 (8) adds another element to women’s censored speech acts. In issue #10, we see Hothead talking Fig. 9 or thinking to herself (the balloons are not 100% clear on this) “Holee shit! It’s like eight feet long. Chicken [her cat] will never believe it!!” (8).
Shortly thereafter, in issue #10, a man says to Hothead, “I know I can make you come” (14) and after a few more choice words, she puts a stick of dynamite in his mouth saying “I’m just gonna shove this foreign object into this hole where it’s not wanted . . “ (14). Later, in issue #17, Hothead herself gets schooled by a group of crudely drawn “liddle girls” (sic), drawn as if they themselves had been drawn by little girls. Hothead says “You’re so cute, but where did you come from?” to which the girls respond “not cute! not a toy! don’t trust no one. Daddy ruined everything men are pus rockets . . . .useless pieces a shit (sic) . . .” (6). Thus, all women, young and old, need a space in which to speak and to be able to speak in language that is not sanctioned or pleasing.
The Poetics of Cursing
In “The Poetics of Cursing,” Brown and Kushner assert that “the scandal of cursing stems perhaps less from its obscenity than from the way that the obscene refutes notions of linguistic and bodily self-possession,” two things that have been traditionally required of women in “polite society,” ie, regulated space. Remember that the space of heterotopia also includes the space of rituals and of carnival. In “The Derelict Playground: A Bakhtinian Analysis of the Graphic Novel Medium,” Rick Hudson says that “The carnival revels and delights in ‘the language of the marketplace’: oaths, curses, and obscenities; their appeal lies in the fact that they are ‘forbidden’ and themselves highlight the grotesque body – referring to defecation of sexual acts – or the willfully profane” (36). This is particularly applicable to women, who are not supposed to have grotesque bodies, let alone talk about them, which makes it all the funnier when in issue #8, Hothead, in “spritzhead disguise,” takes aim (literally) at the “feminine hygiene” aisle of the grocery store, shooting at products like “Yeast Garde,” “Borne Blonde,” “Daisy Razors,” and , “I Live to Scrub” (4). Hothead is eliminating all products that do not allow women to be themselves, but impose patriarchal ideas of how women should look and smell. Think about the continued proliferation of these products and you will see that this is as much an issue now as it was in 1994 or in 1968, when both Diane DiMassa and Valerie Solanas were creating. Regulating the “grotesque body” of women never goes out of style, it seems. The ability of women to talk about such things, particularly in “mixed company” is also regulated. If you don’t believe me, walk into a room full of men and talk about “that not so fresh feeling.”
Much scholarship exists on women’s speech, but it is useful to think of writing, comics, and the self-publishing revolutions of the past 40 years as helping to create not merely “safe space,” but an alternative space, sometimes liminal and ritualistic, and at other times, carnivalesque, a heterotopia where women are not only able to talk about difficult subjects, but also to transgress normative functions of all kinds and to talk about bodies in vernacular, vulgar, and grotesque ways, as both Valerie Solanas and Diane DiMassa have done, each transgressing social values in their own ways.
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