January 31, 2013

"Blowing Up the Law: On Foxfire, Vigilante Feminism, & Abandoned Buildings of Their Own" by Becca Klaver for Jenny Harrington

If most of pop culture is still a flight of male fantasy, there are sometimes blips, tears, and portholes that give us a glimpse of worlds ruled by girls’ and women’s desires. The girl gang movie Foxfire (1996) was one of those rips in reality for me when I first saw it as a teenager. Rewatching it, I can’t tell anymore whether my high school friends and I modeled our lives after the movie (the bedrooms like vintage or wicca shops, the abandoned buildings broken into), or if a movie that looked like our lives somehow made its way to us in suburban Milwaukee.

Foxfire, which was directed by a woman (Annette Haywood-Carter), written by a woman (Elizabeth White), and based on a novel by a woman (Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang), begins in a girl fantasy zone. Protagonist Maddy (Hedy Burress) is taking polaroids of her naked boyfriend in the woods (read: female gaze), and then she’s gliding through high school hallways on rollerblades, pointing her camera in every direction: cheerleaders in the bathroom, flash, girl passed out on the toilet, flash, boy grabbing his crotch in an effort to deflect Maddy’s gaze, flash. The rollerblades, besides being super 90s, give Maddy the speed she needs to zoom in and out of each shot before anyone can adjust her hair or try to protest. Maddy controls the image, and she’s ravenous, gobbling up everything around her.

The fantasy continues as a mysterious girl dressed in black, played by Angelina Jolie, arrives in town, stumbles into Maddy’s biology classroom, and sits down at the lab table across from her. The teacher, Mr. Buttinger, is trying to force Rita (played by Jenny Lewis of indie rock fame) to dissect a frog. Mysterious Angelina Jolie girl, who will eventually give her name as Legs, gives Maddy a what’s-going-on-here look, and Maddy tells her, “He’s always giving her shit. He’s such an asshole.” Legs’ response is a challenge and an invitation: “So make him stop.” She gets up, frees the (oddly still alive) frog from its pins, walks to the window, and tosses it out. Mr. Buttinger announces, “I’ll see you in detention also,” and Legs replies, “I don’t even go here,” and jumps out the window after the frog.

It turns out that Mr. Buttinger has been molesting Rita and other girls after school, and Maddy, Legs, and two other girls—Violet (who’s also been molested by Buttinger) and Goldie (who, we learn later, has been abused by her father)—devise a plan to catch and punish him. They walk in on him groping Rita’s breasts the next day, and then, in the film’s most satisfying scene, they kick his ass. The girls promptly get suspended from school, but this only amplifies Foxfire’s powers of teenage girl wish fulfillment: now they spend their days in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town, where they drink, smoke, dance, and give each other tattoos while Mazzy Star plays in the background. This house-of-their-own becomes the girls’ headquarters, the strategizing place for feminist vigilantism, and suggests the possibility of a utopian outside.

The girls’ possession of the house is the pinnacle of Foxfire’s feminist fantasy. Isn’t this the secret hideaway that every girl wanted? I know I did. In high school, my girl friends and I, the ones I watched Foxfire with, would sneak into an abandoned warehouse off the highway, write on the walls with lipstick, and hang out. We thought of it as ours, and as one of the only places we could go to really be by ourselves. When Tara was about to move away, Jenny and I decided that we’d throw her a going-away party in the warehouse, because Tara had always had the most ambitious visions for the space (a fashion show on one floor, a rave on another). As we were twirling streamers from pillar to pillar, setting up for the party one August afternoon, two cops walked in and busted us. We were arrested for trespassing, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and brought down to the station, where our parents picked us up. But there were no real repercussions in the end—even the $25 court fee was waived. My mom cut out the police report, whose writer seemed to have amused herself by writing “cupcakes and streamers were confiscated,” and gave it to me to put it my scrapbook. Similarly, the girls in Foxfire, after getting arrested for carjacking (they steal a car in order to protect Maddy from getting raped), get released back to their parents’ custody, with no real consequences. Everyone gets off scot-free except Legs—whose real name, Margaret Sadovsky, is revealed by the judge when she sentences her to juvenile detention. The judge’s reasoning is that she doesn’t have a legal guardian, but could use some adult supervision (although, of course, the adults in the movie are mostly evil or dangerous).

In Foxfire as in life, the abandoned house of feminist utopia can exist only temporarily, if at all.
The second half of the movie breaks down—stuck in social reality, conservative suburbia, where can this girl gang go? In some movies, like The Craft (also 1996), the girls might learn some magick. In other films, a girl might die, a narrative indicator that the world cannot absorb her. But nobody dies, not even the enemy, in Foxfire. What happens is that Legs the drifter leaves town (hitchhiking in the cab of a truck, the way she came in), and the rest of the girls presumably go back to their old lives—a predictable Hollywood ending that restores the pre-Legs status quo. So the tear in space and time is sewn back up, and although the girls will, of course, never be the same, we’re left remembering that age-old feminist problem: for all the individual acts of resistance, structural change is still a long way off. The wound in the flesh of the patriarchy closes up and heals. The Law shrugs off its challengers. The girls find themselves, through school suspension and no legal consequences, spit out by the circuit of institutions that surrounds them. Perhaps because they are young or perhaps because they are girls, their power either does not threaten, or is not understood by, the forces of law and order.

Legs is the exception: institutions want to exert their power over her, to swallow her up in them, because they understand that she is a roving, dangerous, outside-the-law figure. Mr. Buttinger tries to give her detention, and the town judge succeeds in sending her to juvie.  But another way to read Legs is as a figure for the circulation of vigilante feminism. She doesn’t stay for long—in school, in juvie, in town—but wherever she goes, she stirs up action and resistance and carves out alternative spaces. And so at least two feminist possibilities emerge from Foxfire. First, there’s a vengeful, vigilante, DIY feminism: go find the teacher and beat him up, go steal the car and drive away. Second, there’s separatist, utopian feminism: the girls form their own society off the grid (hence the profusion of atmospheric candles), a home of ecstatic girly joy (the dance party scenes are second only to the ass-kicking scenes) and mutual protection.

Foxfire’s ass-kicking, girls-against-the-world brand of feminism is aligned with the anarchic “gaga feminism” J. Jack Halberstam describes in the new book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012). In an analysis of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video, Halberstam writes:

it ties Gaga and Beyoncé to a kind of Valerie Solanas (the wild feminist from the 1970s who shot Andy Warhol and wrote the SCUM Manifesto arguing for the “cutting up [of] men”) version of feminism, a dark feminism, a Thelma and Louise ride against domestic violence, the law, patriarchy. It is also a feminism built around stutter steps, hesitation, knowing and unknowing, embracing your darkness.

Although the girls don’t want, like Solanas, to bust the entire system, but instead choose their targets on a case-by-case basis—and although they don’t, like Gaga and Beyoncé in the “Telephone” video, try to kill everyone in sight—the Foxfire girls, with their avenging, vigilante strategies, certainly seem to be part of the gaga feminist genealogy. Halberstam argues that Lady Gaga is not the inventor or even the central icon of gaga feminism, but merely the latest incarnation of a dark feminism with a history, one that can be traced back to anarchist feminists such as Solanas, Emma Goldman, and Shulamith Firestone, and linked to performers like Grace Jones, Poly Styrene, and Yoko Ono. A recent description of a Halberstam talk about the book puts it this way: “In Gaga Feminism, Jack Halberstam locates Lady Gaga as less an icon than an avatar for new forms of gender and sex politics.” In Foxfire, gaga feminism is, of course, embodied by that other global superstar/avatar, Angelina Jolie.

I see gaga feminism as one strand of what is usually called third-wave feminism. Framed in this way, it has other important precursors, located in this mid-90s blip that let in not only Foxfire (1996), but also Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Lilith Fair (1997-1999), and riot grrrl culture. Setting Foxfire in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s instead of upstate New York in the 1950s (the original setting of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel) seems, now, in a way that went over my head as a teenager in Wisconsin, a deliberate nod to the riot grrrl movement, which was at its height at this moment (Bikini Kill broke up in 1997). Foxfire demands “revolution girl style now” (Legs: “So make him stop”), and tries to create safe spaces for girls amidst a culture of violence and sexual assault, just as the riot grrrl movement did by creating safe spaces for girls (safe areas to dance in mosh pits at punk shows, among other strategies).
There’s a scene in Foxfire that especially embodies this riot grrrl ethos. Around halfway through the movie, a group of jock boys creep up on the abandoned house where the girls have set up headquarters, and where they’re currently in the middle of a frenzied dance party to The Cramps’ “Let’s Get Fucked Up.” Big bully Dana demands that the girls undo the damage they’ve done by beating up Mr. Buttinger and accusing him of sexual harassment: “If Coach Buttinger loses his job because of you sluts, you’ll pay.” The (anti-)logic here is that girls must pay twice: first by getting assaulted (which is their own fault, because they’re “sluts”), and then by the social punishment that further ridicules, stigmatizes, and ostracizes them for sticking up for themselves. The girls threaten and sexually humiliate the boys right back. Violet replies: “That’s pretty big talk, Dana.” Dana comes back with: “You know Violet, I was thinking about you last night.” Violet: “That’s funny, Dana, because I was thinking about you, too. Oh, yeah, that fuzzy little head of yours buried between my thighs, just going away at what you love best—why don’t you tell all your little friends here how much you love the way it tastes?” Maddy giggles and squeals, calls out a few more taunts, and the boys back off and leave. Besides the riot-grrrl-esque dancing and shit-talking, this scene also reminds me of the movement’s response to slut-shaming: riot grrrls had a habit of writing “slut,” “bitch,” and “whore” in magic marker on their bodies and clothing, a feminist strategy designed to shock viewers into awareness through the reappropriation and ironic reversal of pejorative terms.

When I think about gaga feminism or riot grrrl or third-wave feminism—these feminisms born in the 1990s, stifled post-9/11 (for more on this stifling, see Halberstam’s final chapter), and finding their, ahem, legs, again today (see: the Gurlesque in poetry, Pussy Riot in music and politics, the rerelease of out-of-print Bikini Kill albums, the 60s “girl group” music revival, the TV show Girls and everything else with “girl” in the title these days, the new 2012 Foxfire movie adaptation), I think about teenage girls. Not just because I was one in the 90s, when the culture was trying to figure out the difference between riot grrrl power and Spice Girl power and mostly ignorantly conflating them, but because teenage girls’ lifestyles incubate anarchic resistance. An adolescent girl’s bad attitude, her big F-U to everything around her, is not merely a hormonal surge, a phase, but instead a wildly appropriate reaction to a culture that wants to control and exploit her body, convince her to be complicit in that exploitation (by disposing of her disposable income, for example), and punish her for fighting back.

What I’m suggesting is that in addition to inventing new feminist practices, we might also remember the ones we used to employ, and borrow some from our own lives—from the petulant, defiant, smack-talking, hysterically giggling girls we once were. Girls who staked out their own spaces and invented their own rituals. In Foxfire, the girls get suspended for two weeks for beating up Mr. Buttinger. When they’re receiving this mild sentence, they’re piled on a couch together, laughing derisively at the principal’s line of questioning (“What are you girls, some sort of gang here, hm? Girls who run with foxes, that sort of thing?”). This laughter gets them another week of suspension. It’s as if conspiratorial giggling is almost as bad, almost as punishable, as beating up a teacher. And isn’t it? The principal needs to investigate the claims of sexual assault against Buttinger, and he might discover that vigilante justice has been done. Two weeks. But laughter in the face of the law is infuriating, unjustifiable, anarchic. One week. Here we can recall Helene Cixous’ foundational text of second-wave feminism, “The Laugh of the Medusa”:

A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there’s no other way. There’s no room for her if she’s not a he. If she’s a her-she, it’s in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ with laughter.

Medusa, Gaga, Buffy, Angelina—the power of the mythical or iconic woman, for feminism, is the way she can harbor forces of resistance, laugh in the face of the law, and pull open the portal for a minute to let the light stream through. Utopia—what is it, but the affirmation that our reality might be otherwise?

When I think about borrowing strategies from our teenage girl selves, I’m not sure how they’ll translate to our adult lives, when most of us are no longer members of girl gangs, and when the price of rebellion and anarchy seems a lot steeper.  I wanted to write about Foxfire because I had a longing for it—to watch it again, to remember what it taught me as a teenager. Now I understand that that feeling was half nostalgia, and half yearning for other presents and futures. When I commute through New Jersey, on a train I take because I am avoiding a man who harassed me on the bus I used to ride, I stare at the industrial ruins—the empty factories, the piles of cinderblocks, the rusted machinery, the brick warehouses with smashed windows shimmering like oil puddles—and I long to inhabit them. I can’t fully explain this urge using logic or language. It’s visceral, it’s outside logos—it’s right below my ribcage. I look over my shoulder at the seats around me on the train, worried I might run into this man who would masturbate and stare at me on the bus, and then I look out the window at the hollowed-out buildings. And I want them: want to possess them, not like an owner or a sexual aggressor but like a ghost. I think about how I should probably get out of the big city, quit this epic commute, and find an empty house in Detroit or someplace. Milwaukee. I think about how I tried to stand up for myself using the good force of the law, with good cops on my side, and how it all went according to plan, a successful undercover sting, and how that was not enough to make me feel safe. How I actually feel less safe. Of course there’s a whole separate story here, but it’s a story, too, about the longing for vigilante feminism and safe spaces. I think about how I wish I had a girl gang on my side, how women (and men) said they wanted to beat this guy up, said they wanted to do a magic ritual, but ultimately felt powerless, like me. I think about the crumbling facades of warehouses, the blowing up of institutions. The trees that grow inside abandoned buildings, trees like girls and women. I stare at the wasteland and think, One man’s junk, and think of the great salvaging women who have made art out of trash. I stare and try to catch sight of my favorite ruins, and my desire goes out the window.

Watch Foxfire on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ym6J3gVs-RY

Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and the chapbooks Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost, 2009), Nonstop Pop (Bloof Books, 2013), and Merrily, Merrily (Lame House Press, forthcoming). In 2011, she and Kate Durbin curated the Delirious Hem forum SEAM RIPPER: Women on Textual and Sartorial Style. She's a PhD candidate in English at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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