Tuesday, November 25, 2008

7286: feminine anger

“There’s not much you can do with leggings, but I’m doing everything I can.” -Lindsay Lohan

As I face another New England winter, I decided to try a little experiment with hosiery, taking inspiration from one of my favorite sculptures, Snore, by Bruce Conner. (Some of my biggest style and role models have been, not stars, but artwork.) The piece, which lives in San Francisco’s De Young Museum, is a body created out of splintery boards, nails, red thread, and wads and stretches of used / dilapidated pantyhose. I love how Conner turns the symbol of feminine delicacy and propriety—perfectly maintained nylons that are supposed to cradle perfect female legs—and turns them into bulbous tumors worthy of the Alien movies, and coverings for bodies that can be the foundation of a house, or mafioso weapons of intimidation.

I’ve written here a few months earlier about the joy of run-pantyhose, in its affront to traditional femininity. Shortly after I wrote that entry, I was walking with my sister in the Castro wearing black run pantyhose when some North Face fleece-wearing white faggot walked by me and yelled out sneeringly, “You have a run in your hose!” Why did a faggot feel like he had to call out a mark of punk femininity? Why was he so threatened when clearly he had no physical relationship to femininity, holding hands with a similarly fleece-wearing white faggot? The manifestation of his threatened feeling was confounding to me. So I was like, Whatever. But my sister turned around and barked, “Yeah it’s called style, asshole!”

If the faggot was responding aggressively to my particular femininity, I loved it that it brought out my sister’s own mastiff-like feminine aggression. This notion of feminine anger is something about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately. This semester at RISD, I taught a class called “thingamajigirl: objects, humans, femininity,” which explored the conceptual crossings made between the idea of “girl” and the idea of “thing” in patriarchal societies. As I worked through my syllabus, I realized that I put together some texts that were PISSED—even though that was not why I chose them. In Flaubert, Terry McMillan, Natsuo Kirino, Toni Morrison, week after week I found myself reading—and reveling in—instances of feminine rage, feminine anger.

Feminine anger is often marked (by men) as hysteria or loss of control, when actually it is an emotional strategy of dealing with the frustration that is the world of men. Teaching the course, I happily got to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for the second time in one year. This time, it is the following passage that glowed neon-red at me:

Providence, she thought, was intent on hounding her, and drawing strength from pride in her own conduct, she was, more than ever before in her life, filled with a sense of her own worth and of her contempt for others. She felt ready to take on the whole world. She wanted to lash out at men, to spit in their faces, to crush them, every one....

Previously, I’d loved Emma Bovary for the faggoty drama of her shopping-addiction and sexual frustration. But now, I saw a whole new side of her: this rage, this laser-focused force of anger that gives engine to her life. In its own time, Madame Bovary was considered a dangerous book for female readers for the female sexual desire that it portrayed. But now I wonder if the real dangerousness of Emma lay not in her horniness, but in her anger.

Recently, I came upon a beautiful persona that synthesizes what I’ve been thinking about with Madame Bovary and Snore: Diane Lane as a 15-year old pissed-off-proto-punk girl in the 1981 film, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. (Thanks Tara J for telling me about this!) In the film, Lane plays Corrine “Third Degree” Burns, whose memorable uniform is: see-through blouse, vintage cardigan, panties, pantyhose, ankle socks, and booties.

Third Degree Burns’ outfit is interesting because it is not symbolic of her anger at the world: there is no safety pin or metal spike in sight. But what it does is provide a medium in which to explore her anger, by turning the submissive sexuality of “good girls” inside out. The softness of the 50s cardigan, offsetting the hard eye-makeup and hair, provides a strangely perfect frame for her angry self-presentation. Emma Bovary and Third Degree Burns have a lot in common: they do not sublimate their anger into softness, they allow feminine softness to serve as a language with which to express their anger. Men expect angry girls to look angry: they don’t expect softly feminine girls to express switchblade anger.


In our culturally paranoid age in which teenage anorexia is thought to arise from reading too much Us Weekly and In Touch and their toothpicklimbeddrugaddled starlet-heroines, is Lindsay Lohan our Emma Bovary, the worst role model a girl can have? Rehabed twice before legal drinking age, decadent shopper, graffitting public restroom walls with messages that equate Scarlett Johansson as a vagina, becoming a lesbian in act if not in name: yup. In a recent interview, Scarlett Johansson said that she doesn’t understand Lindsay’s “anger.” LL may not be a great role model for the daughters of middle-class suburban families, but that’s precisely why I love her, why she is my role model of feminine anger.

Lohan gives a totally underrated performance in Robert Altman's last film, Prairie Home Companion. Playing the Plathian nihilist (someone asks her, "What kind of songs do you write?" Her answer: "Suicide.") daughter of a country singer, Lindsay takes the stage for an impromptu version of "Frankie and Johnny" that reinstates anger as its rightful place in the song:

LL demonstrates precisely the kind of look-soft-be-hard ethos of feminine anger: wrapped in a granny shawl, singing an old bluesy tune about a woman betrayed, she replaces the desperation of the original lyric--"she shot him once, twice, three times" with a succinct aggression (not to mention a surprisingly powerful Garlandesque belting): "she shot the bastard in the heart." This is the LL I admire, I long to become.

This is a kind of love letter to LL, so I’m not going to delve into all the Dostoevskyan specifics of her private life and public trials (Except I do think that her referring to Barack Obama as “our first colored president” is not a racist gaffe as some have simplistically and unfairly labeled it: how can it be racist when she spends the rest of the interview singing her love and praise of him? Clearly, she meant to refer to him as ”a person of color,” [rather than “black” or “African-American”] to refer to the kind of post-racial blackness his election represents. Syntactical slip-up!!). Instead, I want to think about the dangerousness of the idea of “Lindsay Lohan” in a culture that still desires its girls to behave a certain, prescriptive way.

I’m the girl that censorship laws try to protect and cannot: I will try anything I read. Including spending $100 on a pair of leggings. I’m waiting with Buddha-like patience for two presidential things: for Barack Obama to be officially sworn in as the President of the United States, and for my 6126 by Lindsay Lohan leggings in “Mr. President.” One of them is a sure thing, the other depends on my status on the waiting list, and both will affect the way I carry myself through the world this winter and spring. Until I get my own knee-padded black leggings, I will make do with my layered ripped hose—which I will christen, in honor of LL: 7286.

Lindsay christened her leggings line “6126” as an homage to her idol Marilyn Monroe (MM’s birthday: June 1, 1926). What do leggings have to do with MM? Nothing. But I like that: Lindsay is seizing upon the masochistic myth of Marilyn and injecting it with a new feeling—ANGER—of which Marilyn could have used a healthy helping. The leggings I’m on the list for cites Marilyn’s famous breathy-sexed up rendering of “Happy Birthday Mr. President” (Or rather: “Mr. Pwesident”) to John F. Kennedy. Marilyn famously sang the song in a wiggly white gown studded with curve-accentuating crystal beading. LL’s “Mr. President” leggings refuse the coy, fleshy sexuality of Marilyn in favor of something harder. Compare the dress to the leggings:

The“legging” version of Marilyn is black lycra, with black quilted leather knee-pads. It’s naughty for sure: rather than swathing female sexuality in infantile translucency, the “Mr. President” leggings are built for a girl ready to kneel to give head. But oral sex is not necessarily passive (teeth!) just as it is not necessarily male-servicing. Moreover, its sharp black color and the utilitarian, race-car driver aesthetic of the knee-pads also grant its wearer an athleticism that doesn’t imply a supplicant kind of femininity. The leggings suggests that feminine sexuality is a dangerous sport that requires strength, audacity, and fearlessness on the part of the girl who will practice it.

No comments: