Category Archives: Lesbianism

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too

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Running Time: 55 min

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too (2013), Dir. Su Friedrich and Janet Baus

Lesbian Avengers
(lesbianavengers.com)

Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too documents the 1992-1993 activities of a New York chapter of the lesbian direct action group the Lesbian Avengers. The film gives a sense of the flamboyant and unapologetic yet varied direct action tactics the group used, from eating fire at protests, to leaving stink bombs outside the office of a lawyer for a homophobic school superintendent and covering his office with “Homophobia Stinks” stickers, to protesting inside the office of SELF Magazine after the magazine planned a conference in Colorado, a state that had recently passed an anti-gay and -lesbian amendment. We see extended footage of the protest in favor of the multicultural Rainbow Curriculum; an anti-violence march and vigil in Greenwich Village following the murder of two gay people in Oregon at a time when Oregon had an anti-lesbian and -gay measure on the ballot; and of the Valentine’s Day installation of a statue of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s lover, next to the statue of Stein.

Formally, the documentary cuts back and forth between interviews with members of the organization, extensive footage of direct actions, and often hilarious clips of passers-by responding to the question, “Who do you think the Lesbian Avengers are?” The candid, conversational interviews, filmed during Avengers meetings, and the glee and raw power of the extensive protest footage combine to relay a sense of the explosive political energy of these lesbian activists, fed up with invisibility in women’s and gay movements and respectability politics among their fellow lesbians in this historical moment. Absent from the film is any overview of the group’s structure or sense of how the group was situated with respect to other queer activist groups. The film, directed by two Avengers, treats each action as a victory, and functions as a call to action, ending with the Avengers’ hotline number. The content of the interviews shown, which feature racially diverse lesbians, suggest that the group took an intersectional approach to; as one woman says, “Anything can be a lesbian issue.” However, critiques of the group by lesbians of color are given no screen time in this documentary.

Suggested Uses:

Because the documentary focuses exclusively on the Avengers, with little attention to coexisting groups of the era like OutRage! and ACT-UP, and because it presents no criticism of the Avengers, it is of limited use in conveying historical information. It would be more useful in conveying the mood of the group and in presenting a compelling case for the Avengers’ brand of activism. While it is necessarily one-sided, it could be an entry point into the women’s and gay movements in a high school history class, or in a college class focused on lesbian activism, if shown in concert with readings or films that offered other perspectives on the activism of the time. Or, watch it just for fun!

Bibliographic Item:

the march, off our backs: The radical feminist periodical off our backs documented the Avengers’ activities, including the inaugural Dyke March in Washington, DC.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

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Running Time: 92 min

broadsheet.com.au

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Dir. Mary Dore

Synopsis: Dore’s film covers a huge range of issues in the rise of the women’s movement, mostly between 1966 (beginning a few years back with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique) and 1971. The documentary covers a range of issues the women’s liberation movement focused on, from abortion to birth control to equal pay to employment opportunities to self-defense and rape, and locates the beginning of the movement in the political energy of the Civil Rights, antiwar, and Black Power movements of the 1960s. The film also emphasizes the huge number of everyday, ordinary women who worked together to begin the movement, underscoring the role of consciousness-raising groups and collective organization rather than focusing on just a few women.

Formally, the film cuts often between interviews — always brief, interesting and relevant — and footage of past protests, speeches, and events, usually featuring the women interviewed. This effort to weave together interviews and past footage makes the film much more engaging than lengthy interviews or tape might be. SBWSA‘s interviews also lend a pleasing affective texture to the film, emphasizing the sense of women involved in the movement that it was long overdue as well as the catharsis and necessary support of consciousness-raising groups and a new (for white women, at least) understanding of the personal as political.

The film touches briefly on certain schisms within the women’s movement and towards the end focuses on the rollback of certain feminist gains such as abortion rights, but overall emphasizes the movement’s unity and triumphs — at the cost, perhaps, of truly delving into the painful and bitter exclusion of and alienation felt by Black women, for instance, from the feminist movement (the issue of lesbianism is given more time, but the Combahee River Collective’s statement and movement, though it emerges a few years past the film’s purview, would be an invaluable addition to the film — along with a few more minutes’ analysis of lesbian separatism, rather than what the documentary does, which is conclude that lesbianism was added and treated as important almost immediately by feminism after the Lavender Menace raised the issue). An unfortunate perpetuation of the universalism of the term “women” pervades the documentary, which, with a few notable exceptions in Fran Beal and Linda Burnham, focuses its interviews mostly on white women (a striking contrast with the footage and images from the past, which clearly show many Black women and other women of color involved in the organizing and activism taking place). The film could have made interesting connections between the ways in which certain spaces within the women’s movement would not permit the entrance of male infant children and modern day trans exclusion, or touched upon any number of issues which are brought up in the film but remain salient for the women’s movement (antifeminism from women, rape culture, etc.) but instead strikes a joyful and positive tone throughout. This is certainly in service of a noble goal of emphasizing the power of collective organizing, but misses the force which acknowledging difference and difficulty can generate.

Suggested uses: There is nothing new here — in fact, there is a lot missing — for those who have taken even an introductory Gender & Sexuality Studies class or studied the rise of feminism. Its most appropriate use might therefore be in high-school US history or possibly health classrooms, or as an engaging way in which to begin to study feminism’s development, though obviously much more research should still be done.

Bibliographic items: “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Written by the group of lesbian radical feminists calling themselves the Lavender Menace and responding to the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement. The manifesto was passed out as part of a demonstration at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in 1970 (which did not feature any openly lesbian women). Often cited as a major moment and text in second-wave feminism, perhaps the foundational document for lesbian feminism. The next year, delegates at the 1971 National Organization of Women’s national conference declared lesbian rights a key concern for feminism.

The Combahee River Collective Statement and the anthology Words of Fire, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, both of which provide more nuanced looks than the documentary at Black women’s role in women’s liberation.

The Kickstarter campaign for the film contains interesting information about the filmmaking process and creators’ purposes.

FtF: Female to Femme, Directed by Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark (San Francisco, CA: Frameline, 2006), 48 mins

FtF: Female to Femme provides an intimate look into the community created by femme lesbian women in California in the early 2000s, and the struggles these women face as their sexuality, gender expression, body image, and various other identities clash with the queer community and society as a whole. Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark explore the multifaceted nature of femme lesbians’ feelings of alienation and their search for comfort with themselves and within their communities. The documentary takes us into the private spaces of FtF support groups, burlesque shows and performers, and interviews with self-identified femme women of varying ages and racial identities in order to explore what the transition from female to femme really means, how it feels, and what it entails.

The film is an attempt to explore a very specific subset of the queer community, but it deals with aspects of transitioning and discrimination that, in the present day, come off as partially ignorant of the ways in which privilege functions in society at large: namely, the transitioning of women from “butch” to “femme” seems as if it would also be a transition from going against society’s expectations to going along with them, from being less privileged in society to more privileged. However, the film does an excellent job of dealing with these issues as they relate to personal experience and feeling rather than the larger social implications of transitioning from female to femme. It is the women’s experiences with this transition that are at the center of this film, rather than other people’s perceptions of or societal implications of “femme”.

Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1989)

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Running Time: 30 min

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Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women is a documentary tribute to the lives of jazz musicians Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and Ruby Lucas, including their forty year romantic partnership.  The ladies’ careers were so prolific that after a few minutes, they begin to sound like myths.  Tiny started her own all-female jazz band and travelled around the country playing before she turned 30.  Ruby was on Louis Armstrong’s very good side, and played at least three different instruments in countless bands (including Tiny’s).  Together, they cultivated “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot”, a queer club in Chicago; one of few safe spaces for queer people at that time in the city.  These ladies have lived well and authentically, and director Greta Schiller doesn’t skimp on their accomplishments.

But Hell Divin’ Women is more than jazz history and lively vintage footage. It weaves the public with the private beautifully, featuring rare musical recordings, home videos, off-the-cuff interviews with the couple, publicity photos, and narrative poetry by Cheryl Clarke.  The result is a nostalgic and intimately fresh approach to historical documentary with some good laughs too. Ruby and Tiny are hilarious.  They know who they are; it seems like Greta Schiller does, too.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of scholarly materials on the film, but I personally found the film’s references to 1950s queer Chicago subculture fascinating, such as the couple’s famous club in the South Side. This Chicago Encyclopedia entry details more about the highly intersectional history of gays and lesbians in the city.

The third and fourth paragraphs relate specifically to the black gay and lesbian community that formed the South Side during the Great Migration, which Tiny and Ruby largely contributed to.  Strangely, their bar is not mentioned.

Goddag, mit navn er Lesbisk (Hello, my name is Lesbian) (2009)

Directed by Iben Haahr Andersen and Mina Grooss. Denmark, 2009. 52 mins.

This 52-minute documentary discusses the experiences of lesbian women and couples in Denmark. The film contains interviews with each of its subjects wherein they discuss everything from social perceptions of lesbianism in the 1950’s to the sexual liberation of Denmark as a whole to sex toys. The documentary is narrowly focused on lesbians–it does not discuss bisexuals or other queer women. Goddag, mit navn er Lesbisk contains a considerable amount of nudity and sexual content. Almost all of the couples interviewed in the film neatly fit into the stereotypical butch/femme dichotomy that codes lesbianism as heteronormative, though some of the couples acknowledge this stringent categorization as problematic in queer communities and society as a whole. The documentary spends a long time discussing misandrist radical feminist movements and phallophobic lesbian collectives without necessarily addressing that both of these groups make up very small, if at times loud, extremist sectors of the lesbian community. Stylistically, the film includes surrealist animated segments that function as transitions between interviews and subject matter and metaphorical representations of what the voiceover is saying. Thirty-seven minutes into the film, the matter of public perception of lesbian couples is discussed. This issue is key in queer female communities; many female/female relationships are perceived through hetero-lens as strong female friendships when in reality these are romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Related article: http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/ccies/dk.php#homoerot
Especially sections 6 & 7 on hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality, gender and transgenderism.

Screenshot from the film, including an animation to represent gender roles: goddagmitnavnerlesbisk
(source: http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C2374360/hello-my-name-lesbian, screenshot by Kemmer Cope)