January 9, 2013

"Who Gets the Girl: A Note on Possession Flicks: Drawing Heavily on Kate Durbin’s Demon Notions, My Favorite Movies When I Was 10, and Some Other Stuff " by Danielle Pafunda

Consider the child-bride, Marie Antoinette, imported to France.

Roberto Calasso describes it thus:

Marie Antoinette entered the pavilion from the Austrian side. In the last room before the border she was slowly undressed before the escort that had accompanied her from Vienna. Not even a ribbon or a hairpin was to remain in contact with her body. She was thus offered, naked, to fabrics woven in the new French land—to the silk shift, the stockings from Lyon, the little slippers fashioned by the Court’s shoemaker… The softness of the clothes that came to her from Versailles was the embrace of the new god… This act of sacrificial stripping affected her complete transfer to the land that was clothing her with her destiny.

She’s our first super model, our first toddler-in-tiara. In an era when Enlightenment and the sanctity of the individual ruled, well before postmodernism made it hip to be bare, Marie Antoinette was quickly and cleanly relieved of her interiority. No more Viennese or French than her hair ribbons. She was possessed, literally, figuratively, brutally. Off with her head, and out pour the ghouls.

As an object, the girl is ripe for picking and inhabiting. Kate Durbin’s A Teenage Girl Speaks As A Melodramatic, Hysterical Demon clues us in to this, asking us to wonder why the teenage girl makes such a fine demon-host. Is it because she’s bred to be an airhead, a bubble brain, a silly goose? She’s not meant to worry her pretty little head, she’s a womb that must remain pure, a vessel with room for legions. Durbin:

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.
Demons like room to stretch. Who’s emptier than a slutty teenager, an innocent little girl, a virgin belly? Consider The Exorcist in which Regan MacNeil, 12-years-old, unremarkable, lonely, played by the sweet-faced Linda Blair, makes a fine home for “Captain Howdy.”

Or The Exorcism of Emily Rose,

based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a German Catholic woman who underwent 67 exorcism sessions in 1976.

And, of course, exorcisms occur worldwide, primarily, or so it seems, performed on girls.  It’s interesting to note, though perhaps not surprising that our Western films and legends have the demons occupying white, able-bodied, often middle class girls, in other words those who fit our default assumption of pure, non-threatening, valuable property.  Location, location, location.

We have analogical vessels like Dracula’s Lucy & Mina, kept in the dark about the demon feeding off them, about their own potential transformations,

The Shining’s creepy twins, meant to spook us with their uncanny appearance, their secret world to which we have no access, but also that site on which the demon daddy takes out his aggression,

and Rosemary’s Baby—here we have the stellar combination of hollow bodied girl meets empty maternal vessel.

In women, in the hollow of the body below the ribcage, lies the womb. It is very much like an independent animal within the body for it moves around of its own accord and is quite erratic. 
Aretaeus of Cappodocia
Thus, we know that women, lacking as they are in substance, can be possessed by their own organs, can even be possessed by their own power. As is Mia Farrow, Drew Barrymore and Cissy Spacek in Carrie are dangerously impregnated with a demon they sustain but cannot control.

But who is the real demon in this formula? Who or what’s getting exorcised? Because feminism historically assumes the woman its central subject, we take each other to task about the whiteness of that woman, her ableist body, middle-class income, colonial privilege, and so on. We’ve even questioned the woman part of the equation, but we’ve largely continued to assume girlhood an unfortunately abject condition out of which one grows, and make the mistake of imagining it more temporary-than-formative. It’s only recently, with the burgeoning field of girls’ studies, that feminism has begun to ask how girls might be the central subject of this politics. As one who considers this in her own teaching I like to revisit Deleuze & Guattari:

This body is stolen first from the girl: Stop behaving like that, you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re not a tomboy, etc. The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her….The girl is certainly not defined by virginity; she is defined by a relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness, by a combination of atoms, an emission of particles: haecceity. She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs.  She is an abstract line, or a line of flight. Thus girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order or kingdom: they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes…
In her genealogy of girlhood Girls Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory, Catherine Driscoll makes fine use Gilles Deleuze’s becoming, identifying it as a move away from “dominant hierarchical understandings of subjectivity,” concluding “[f]eminine adolescence is not a transition from one state to another but a contingent and in some cases reversible movement” (198). Viewed in this way girlhood becomes a radical site to which we can return, from which we might resist, and one that should necessarily appeal to readers and writers.

Consider Winter’s Bone—Daniel Woodrell’s novel, and Debra Granik’s film adaptation in which the main character Ree, a teenage girl, is swiftly relieved of her girlhood, and driven to the complete state woman.

She isn’t interested in pop music, she isn’t interested in fashion, and she isn’t interested in boys. And while in the novel there’s a provocative-if-hesitant queer subtext, that subtext is aggressively submerged in the film. She doesn’t listen to music or wear make-up. Hard knocks have required her to divest herself of all the trivial indulgences of girlhood. Ree wins our hearts with her selfless, unimpeachable defense of her family, her seemingly natural mother-grizzly instincts, and her ability to take a punch.

In a curious turn, the 20-year-old actor Jennifer Lawrence who plays Ree, also plays Katniss Everdeen in Gary Ross’s film version of Suzanne Collins’s immensely successful YA trilogy Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, she’s much like Ree, fighting for her family’s survival, largely asexual, unimpeachable. As the trilogy unfolds, those tropes normally considered trivial, despicably girly will save her life and trigger a revolution: fashion, smooching, and otherwise resisting the patriarchal markers of mature womanhood Katniss defeats the powers that be in the capitol and liberates a nation. The unprecedented appeal of this dystopic, messy, teenage girl.

Here’s a spoiler alert. Diablo Cody (who also wrote Juno) coopts the demon possession story, revisioning it. While we could dicker a long while over whether or not it’s a truly feminist tale, whether or not Megan Fox’s character plays with or produces male gaze,

the moral of the story is this: Needy, bit by the demon, isn’t possessed, but absorbs some of its powers into her already substantial self. With her newfound powers, she busts out of prison and wreaks vengeance on the men who roused the demon to begin with. 

Needy accomplishes that which Rosemary, our Firestarter, Carrie, and Regan were never allowed, and proves to us that, as Kate Durbin says:
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.
The girl herself—the demon speaks. She is that entity which we, even feminist we, have been anxious to cast out. Clad in her trivial, frivolous, sparkly, tacky, trashy garb, reeking of Love’s Baby Soft, hair in braids, threatening to bring us all back down into the gulch out of which we struggled. And here, we might ask, what is the radical, untapped potential of the monster girl, the demon lurking in so many of our histories? If she’s so abject, so feared, if she must be held down, spit upon with holy water, and cleansed from her own body, what could she do if we left her right where she is? 

Danielle Pafunda's books include Manhater (Dusie Press Books), Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies (Noemi Press), My Zorba (Bloof Books), and the forthcoming Natural History Rape Museum (Bloof Books 2013). She teaches at the University of Wyoming.

No comments: