February 1, 2010

Kate Durbin

Kate Durbin is the author of the poetry collection The Ravenous Audience (Black Goat/Akashic 2009) and the chapbook Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot (Dancing Girl Press 2009). Find her on the web at www.katedurbin.blogspot.com.

“Hell is teenage girls” –Jennifer’s Body

A Teenage Girl Speaks As A Melodramatic, Hysterical Demon

The coffin lid lifts. A teenage girl opens her black painted mouth, and out issues the gravelly voice of an old man:

Say teenage girls are attention whores—fashion fanatics, shopaholics, sex crazed, shit-talkers, bulimics, classless gum crackers, & Plath addicts. Loitering between the dress-play innocence of childhood and the plain-clothed penance of womanhood, they parade in shopping malls, movie houses, & back bedrooms, as seething, sequinned receptacles of excessive emotions, hormones, desire.

Say melodrama is the gaudy arena in which teenage girls perform their angst—often in the garb of flamboyant (“aggressive”) and/or over-revealing fashions, and histrionic poetry—which is dismissed by society and the church, including, as these girls turn into women, the church of the academy. However, like Plath’s much-maligned insistences that her despair was on par with the Holocaust, melodrama is the teenage girl’s sadness on steroids.

Say nothing is more melodramatic—and pisses off Mom and Dad more—than claiming to be possessed by the Devil himself.

WHISPER: And the Ouija spells: A T T E N T I O N (Is not all feminist writing some form of noisy attention?)

Say, like the demon, the teenage girl’s body is unearned—and therefore claimed by everyone around her. Stigmata, lipstick mark of Cain’s slutty girlfriend, branded by parents, the government, Urban Outfitters and Teen Vogue. Is there any wonder that her body must turn itself inside out, must vomit upon the world in revolt?

Say Anneliese Michel !

Say Regan MacNeil !


Say there is subversive power in the abject surrender of possession. The teenage girl’s body can be culturally uncontrollable in its unnatural movements, defying laws of god, state & the natural order. From levitation, vomiting gold coins, and inappropriate noises—speaking in tongues, barks, grunts, and mocking imitations of a male voice. Merge that with the anarchy of rapid bodily changes, a wild libido, death-glorifying fashions (fashion by its very nature is a celebration of the body’s fall from glory—I will be buried to decay like Marchesa Luisa Casati, along with my lace), and occasional self-induced starvation (a la Catherine of Sienna & Anneliese Michel), and you have a grotesquely gorgeous panic body, disrupting culture by over-literalizing its ideals, turning itself into a corporeal embrace and critique, an alarm bell and a sonata screaming in skin, tits, black painted eyes and lips.

Say the teenage girl’s body, perpetually in rebellious, unnatural movement, evades containment while screaming for attention—real attention, not the glassy-eyed rape of branding.

Say teenage girls acting out possession are performing a kind of shock art—similar to the feminist performance artists of the 60’s, 70’s, & 80’s (Schneeman and co.), similar to the oddly-orificed, fused bodies of the Chapman brothers, similar to the body-warping fashions of Leigh Bowery, similar to the self-immolators of the Vietnam protests, similar to the recent abortion artist at Yale, Aliza Shvarts, whose work may or may not be a “fraud”—just as demonic possessions may or may not be “frauds.”

Say all good art—bad girl teen poetry included—is a fraud.

Say the boundary between “life” and “art” is mocked in performance, whether a performative text (see Helene Cixous), a parade of unnatural fashions (high school halls become the theater), or a false fit of demonic possession. When one is possessed with performing the pose of this line, she must be ready to be labeled an attention whore, a witch, an interestingly packaged but ultimately substance-less sell out. In other words, prepare for your art, which is only your life, to be dismissed.

Say dismissal just ups the ante. The lashes get longer, the fits get wilder, the lipstick darker and over and beyond the lines of the lips, the poetics more hysterical. Until they pay attention or she dies. Usually she dies.

Say the only exorcisms I’m into are failed ones, where no demons are ejected, but instead clamor over one another in their need for notice. The exorcisms that leave the priest returning again and again, exhausted, defeated again and again in his ever-virile attempt to slay the chattering multitude inside. “Tell the world I exist,” Anneliese insists, over and over. “Satan?” the priest asks. After a long pause she responds in a deeper voice, “Yes?”

Say my feminist writing is itself a fit of possession, and when I climb inside the carcass of a dead woman—as I have with Marilyn Monroe, Amelia Earhart, and others—I do not attempt to empty myself to become her, but rather bump up against her, and all the others within. My writing, then, is a swollen corpse full of babbling she-demons, slobbering and vomiting on one another, emitting a chorus of unholy grunts.

Say when I enact these unholy grunts before a ravenous audience, in preparation I always gild my body in the garb of the girl. Possession, after all, is always bodily, always sexual, always performative, always artifice—demons have no interest in brains in jars, but they are quick to jump into the hot pants of a depressed and slutty teenager with too much makeup on.

Say Anneliese’s fake Austrian accent when speaking as Hitler, say sketchy subtitles from Catherine Breillat’s films, say conspiracy theories about Amelia Earhart’s last flight, say all the contents of Marilyn Monroe’s closet. Often I have translated a woman using information about her that might or might not be “true,” information that is never “direct,” yet speaks volumes to the cultural body she has become. Accumulation over accuracy. Making sure the heap of cast off stage clothes continues to grow and grow.

Say it is the teenage girl, not the demons, that the priest gathers all the forces of the patriarchy to cast out. For it is unhappy teenage girls who are the poltergeists, the firestarters, the ones the Ouija spells through. It is teenage girls who possess the liminal, libidinal spaces for the demons to enter: to seep, and, in tongues the masters cannot read, S P E A K.


Sarah Sarai said...

Wow. "demons . . . are quick to jump into the hot pants of a depressed and slutty teenager with too much makeup on."

I sure wish I'd been that teenage girl when I was a teenage girl.

Time to become a teenage girl.

Thank you. Maybe I missed the point? Maybe this is a wide enough net --of tulle-- it caught me?

anna said...

I love this. But. Like the ridiculous question posed on my local NPR station this morning, "can teenaged girls related to Holden Caufield?" this essay presupposes a non-literate teenage girl. Can teeange girls relate to Holden Caufield? I was made by literature. My identity er, matches the above not because of my hormones, but because I READ Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and that issue of re:Search magazine from the '80s called Angry Women. Culture makes teenaged girls. That is what they are possessed by and must expel (digest, and expel).

anna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Durbin said...

Thanks for your comment, Anna.

I can see how it might seem that the essay is pre-supposing a non-literate teenage girl in some places, but actually it doesn't ultimately matter if she's literate and reading Plath or not (though it does say "Plath addicts" in the first paragraph, so I was picturing girls who were consuming tons of Plath's works, as I was a teenage girl and still do today).

I was seeing the teenage girl's body as a liminal and loaded space, where despite what she is or isn't reading she is still not "fully formed" or crystallized into the maturity of adulthood, where whatever she is ingesting is, like you say, still digesting and expelling. That is why she is a problem--because she takes the poetry too seriously, because she rebels too severely (and physically). Because she doesn't have the remove that adults have to filter whatever she is reading or to carefully render the veil between art and life.

Also, because she is not a child or an adult. She is both at the same time, and neither, which makes her body grotesque.

Hormones just amp it all up, like drugs.

Kate Durbin said...


I love your comment: "Time to become that teenage girl." That is the point exactly. No need to be actually a teenager--it's about an attitude, a ballsy and rebellious one at that.

And OF COURSE there is tulle for all!

Andrea said...

I love your manifesto, Kate! I think it says a lot about what it means to be a teenage girl. I particularly like how you identify that liminal space and relate it to the 'boundary' between art and life, also how this text seems to me to embrace a younger, fake fur notebook wielding self, who can all too easily be lost when a girl 'grows up'.

Kate Durbin said...

Thanks, Andrea! I love the fake fur notebook. ;-)

Zach Kleyn said...

Wow. This is really damn good. It makes me want to be a girl, period!

becca said...

So I finally have a chance to spend a little time with this, which I've been meaning to do, because there is so much here! (Happy Valentine's Day?!)

First, I'm really struck by the idea that your piece seems to suggest (in a bunch of different ways) that girls are the purgers (of vomit, gold coins, etc.) because the culture feeds them THE MOST SHIT. I think that is right on. It would be cool if we could convince bulimics to puke all over magazine stands, to connect the effect back to its source. That one is public and one is private makes it difficult to link them back up.

And then, of course, the other difficulty is that girls can wield the content of those publications (for magazines, insert all media outlets) in a way that you seem to have done and still do, Kate. The "arty girl" way, la via de Lady Gaga, Taking Fashion Back, highlighting the artifice of selfhood, putting the fashion back into self-fashioning. (This is when the purge goes public again??)

The other idea here that really interests me, and is something I've tried and failed to write about in a way that really captures it, is that TEENAGE GIRLS CAN ACTUALLY DO MAGIC. I mean, I'm sure some people are reading your Ouija and levitation details as the cutesy images of sleepovers, but I'm reading them like so: "Hmm, yeah, I remember when my friends and I had these powers, and then we grew up and traded them in for Lady Skillz." And of course this sounds crazy to you, reader, but that is the whole point. Nonrational powers that get buried, shoved down, when girls grow up, because they are not valued by the larger culture. They are scoffed at; you are a Crazy Lady if you still believe in or practice them. You are a nut if you teach a class on The Goddess, etc. I feel this every time someone tries to police my speech -- every time I turn back into a superstitious, crass, full-o-wonder teenage girl and dare to say something out loud in that voice, I turn around and someone's shushing me. We can't say that shit in this big bad world ruled by Logic, Reason, Progress: in most public places, there is someone there to stop us.

Kate Durbin said...


The entire time I was reading your comments I was nodding emphatically. I love what you say about the purge going public--that seems so essential. Wielding the vomit with intention, so it doesn't become just self-abuse (though of course, I've always seen suicide as a big fuck you world, so all self-abuse is an attempt by the abused to abuse the abuser at some level, and it does succeed at that).

But yeah, that idea of channeling the vomit in our work now, seems really interesting/crucial. And the real belief in magic, not just an intellectual belief.

The teenage girl's body is magic, a fetish object--because she is not child or adult. It's also a weapon. And hormones are her voodoo powder.

I'm wondering about collectivity too--because, like you said, it was always at the slumber parties that the girls harnessed the most power. What could a girl gang do, with channeled power (okay, now I am thinking of that awful movie the Craft--do you remember it?) But maybe the gurlesque could be seen as a movement like this, to some degree...though I feel movement is the wrong word, since it's more abject than that.

becca said...

Yeah, drawing a continuum from vomit to suicide is really important, because of course some types of self-abuse are more dangerous than others.... when does self-destruction hit self-immolation?

I think the idea of collectivity is crucial, too. In my own life, what I always think of when I think about groups of teenage girls and their powers is my JV high school girls' volleyball team. It was the last time I was ever on an organized sports team :), and we had this really tight-knit group. Our coach -- a goofy, kind math teacher, a man -- had us over to his house for dinner, and then afterward taught us how to lift a girl up with just a couple fingers. It involved us putting our hands together first and concentrating, like sports teams do. But then we took that energy someplace way beyond volleyball. It worked so well that every day before practice we'd have someone lie down in the locker room and we'd hold a different kind of "practice," until we were lifting each other with a couple fingers and barely any effort. It wasn't exactly levitation, but it wasn't gravity either, if you know what I mean!

I won Most Team Spirit. Get it? Haha but it's true.

I don't know how this translates into poetry, besides an AWP slumber party, but I want to concentrate on that and see what happens.

And yeah, hilariously enough, The Craft is the only pop culture reference I can think of when I talk about this stuff, too. It came out when I was in high school, so maybe it helped us feel like we were normal as we burned underbrush and chanted "So mote it be" down by the lake?!

And on the flip side, as Virginia Woolf and plenty of others remind us, how many of those women who did magic in the past -- those "witches" -- were really artists? "The Witch's House" was a teenage attraction down by Lake Michigan where I grew up -- but the witch herself was actually a visual artist, Mary Nohl, who just happened to be awesome enough to put her own sculptures in her yard.



Andrea said...

The Craft was very popular with my friends and I in our early teens and yes, at sleepovers. Thanks for the reminder. It’s right that this is spoken about on a level that’s more than ‘cute’, though. I mean, Western culture at large is quick to dismiss practices of non-Western cultures as superstitious nonsense, for instance. I guess it’s similar with the things that are important to teenage girls.

Kate Durbin said...


I'm really interested in self-immolation actually. I am obsessed with the Vietnam protestors who self-immolated in the Latin sense of the term of suicide by fire (must I note that I am not planning to self-immolate and do not encourage others to do so?).

I do see self-immolation as performance art, just as I see the teenage girls acting out possession or performing witchcraft to be performance art--especially when done publicly and to get the attention of those in authority. It's sort of like Old Testament prophets walking around in sackcloth and ashes. For me, being able to channel that sort of thing into fashion is useful. It's still bending the art/life false binary but in a way that is not totally destructive to myself, but rather, constructive even as it's accosting.

The reason I was so drawn to Anniliese Michel, whose story is really sad by the way, is because she claimed to be possessed by a whole bunch of different historical male jackasses, such as Hitler and Nero. I loved that when she would get asked one question by the priest, she would let another voice answer. I feel that that is something that is really useful to us as writers, but also can be translated over into the realm of costume--so that even the voices or characters in our fictions/poetries cannot become static. The witches, as you say, can still work their magic, as long as they are working outside the "natural" laws.

I feel like that was kind of off topic from what we were originally discussing. But yes, collectivity is important and how to develop it further? I'm not sure except that perhaps part of it is the collectivity we create with the voices in our work, and then also with each other as writers and artists.

Congrats on the Team Spirit award, by the way--I am not at all surprised that you got that award!

Kate Durbin said...


I was not allowed to watch the Craft but my best girlfriend and I secretly watched it anyway. I think it's interesting how in that film the main character (Fairuzu Balk's character) ends up being punished for her "dark" powers--or at least I think that's what happens to her. Isn't she killed in the film? While the others decide to move on from practicing Wicca?

In any case, I really like what you say here and think you are onto something with comparing the superstitious practices of teenage girls to Non-Western cultures. I think teenage girl-dom could be considered non-Western culture, or at least Western culture's dark shadow or red-headed stepchild.

Now I want to re-watch the Craft, and bust out my black lipstick!

becca said...

I just checked, and you can stream The Craft on Netflix! Now if only I had the time alongside the means....

Kate Durbin said...

That's what we'll do at our AWP sleepover! Maybe...

katie said...

Thank you. I like this quite a lot. I like to think or hope that I haven't yet lost that "teenage" passion, that urge to speak in tongues.

I hadn't heard of Anneliese Michel - what a terribly sad but fascinating story. A similarly (in my mind) tragic story is that of Christine Chubbuck - you should look her up if you haven't heard of her.

But I have to wonder why we are so fascinated with these martyred women? I don't really know if I should feel guilty, but sometimes I do, for just being another spectator.

Angela Genusa said...

I'm way late for this party and I apologize... but I'm glad I didn't miss it altogether! Great, great essay, Kate. Maybe I was just precocious, but I was obsessed with witches and magic in elementary school. I was never allowed to go over to another girl's house again after her mother caught us putting names of mean classmates on paper slips in a coffee can and lighting it on fire. My idea from a book I read on spells ... LOL! I still own magic items and fetishes... some found, some bought at botanica stores. Reading through this also made me think of Courtney Love's song "Doll Parts": I WANT TO BE THE GIRL WITH THE MOST CAKE!