Spike Lee’s 1986 directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It, is a film about a woman. It opens with a Zora Neale Hurston quote: ”Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” Next, the title credits roll over a series of photographs of young black men and boys doing normal things around town town like swinging on a swingset, cooling off on a hot day in front of a fire hydrant, buying candy at a convenience shop. The overture here remembers classic Golden-era MGM films. What follows, then, is the introduction of the film’s central character, Nola Darling, as she looks headlong into the camera and says, “I want you to know that the only reason I am consenting to this is because I am trying to clear my name”. In the next scene, a man in the park puckers his lips at her, a smirk on his face. A few scenes later shows ten or so different men against a black background, reciting pick-up lines, which are followed by shots of men leering at Nola as she walks the streets in downtown Brooklyn. “Girl, I got plenty of what you need – 10 throbbing inches USDA government-inspected prime cut grade-A tube steak” as his tongue slithers out and down around his chin. Audio of men hooting and wolf-whistling sounds off-camera. In the 1994 Laserdisc commentary, Spike Lee laughs as he says, “It just amazes me that men think lines like this work.”
In November of 1999, Fiona Apple performs “As Fast As You Can” on Jay Leno. I love Fiona Apple even though I haven’t listen to all of her albums or anything. I love the way she looks – like she’s itching to tear off her own skin. If you look at magazine photoshoots with Fiona Apple she looks like she walked out in front of those lights and cameras immediately after having the most orgasmic nervous breakdown of her life. She always looks like she’s just gotten done crying, or like she’s about to start crying.
“As Fast As You Can” starts out: “Oh darling, it’s so sweet / you think you know how crazy I am”. While singing, Fiona’s hand is white-knuckled around the microphone, her eyes squint up at the studio ceiling in ways that suggest martyrdom. The men on stage with her, her band, are cloaked in black – black pants, black sweaters, black hats – and are utterly unremarkable. It’s almost impossible to notice them, like we’re willing to accept that all of the sound coming from the stage is emanating from Fiona herself.
If you look up the Jay Leno performance on Youtube, the first comment is a man with the username Mr. Brooks, whose icon is a blurry red face with no discernible features. Mr. Brooks writes, “Holy shit, her knuckles are blood red. She looks like she’s trying to strangle the microphone to death. No wonder I love this chick so much. She’s just so fucking intense.”
If you google “Fiona Apple Is Crazy” the results are vast and illuminating. Her “erratic” stage antics, a defense of those antics, a think piece about her constructed “crazy”, a tumblr page called fionaappleactingcrazy (an entry from 2012 with a youtube video titled “FIONA APPLE FLIPS OUT!”)
The year before this Leno performance, the photographer Joe McNally does a series about “Strong Women”. He photographs Fiona Apple in a subway car, dressed in full armor, as a modern Joan of Arc. Fiona chose the armor; I suppose McNally asked her who she wanted to be. She gets to the photoshoot late and has to leave almost immediately, so the crew puts her in the armor, smears makeup on her face, and McNally takes the photograph – the entire process reportedly takes 90 minutes. In the photo, Fiona’s hooded doe eyes look defiant in a sea of disinterested New York subway riders.
These crazy women. Fiona, Britney Spears, Courtney Love, Yoko Ono, Sinead O’Connor, Joan of Arc. Remember Joan’s most famous line: “I am not afraid…I was born to do this.” As recently as 2005, psychiatrists and scholars all over the world try to diagnose her with various forms of psychosis. One theory is that her visions were caused by bovine tuberculosis, caused by drinking unpasteurized milk.
I love the word fuck. It’s so great, isn’t it?
The first documented use of the word is in a text by Sir David Lindsey in 1569, who writes, “Ay fukkand lyke ane furious Fornicatour”, which more or less translates to “I fucked like a furious fornicator.” At one point in time, the 1999 film The Boondock Saints held the record for number of “fucks” said in a single line of dialogue. The quote: “Fucking… What the fuck. Who the fuck fucked this fucking… How did you two fucking fucks…fuck!” (to which another character replies, “Well that certainly illustrates the diversity of the word!”).
I’m of the opinion that men use the word entirely too much. Most recently, I hear a man say “fuck” while he’s grabbing his dick in a subway station. His eyes follow a group of young women passing a few feet away from me. His words are mumbled but I can hear the “fuck” escape. He says it like it’s both a gift and a threat, because it is. There is no follow up, because it’s not actually an offer, or a request, and he moves on to the next group of women. I think back to Spike Lee: “It just amazes me that men think lines like this work!”
I search the Oxford-English Dictionary for an early use of the word by a woman, and find none. I google it, and still find nothing. Who was the first woman who sighed with her lips around the word? Who was the first to scream it?
The first time I ever hear a woman say “fuck”, it’s while listening to Liz Phair. She has that really great song, “Fuck and Run” when she talks about getting fucked and abandoned at age twelve. But that’s not the first time I hear Liz say “fuck”. In 2003, Liz Phair releases the single “Why Can’t I?” It’s on the soundtrack for the film 13 Going On 30, that really mediocre rom-com, with that scene where Jennifer Garner does the “Thriller” dance in a miniskirt and 4-inch stilettos.
“Why Can’t I” is Liz Phair’s breakaway hit, pulling her out of the shadows of 90s alt-rock and into early 2000’s girl pop. She gets reamed by the critics: Pitchfork gives it a 0.0 rating, which just seems unnecessary, and says, “it’s sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair would be reduced to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized teen-pop.” A critic from the New York Times writes that she “gushes like a teenager.”
I’m barely a teenager when I hear the song for the first time, on one of the early Now That’s What I Call Music volumes (13? 14?). Towards the end of the song, Liz sings, “Here we go, we’re at the beginning / we haven’t fucked yet, but my heads spinning”
I loved that “fucked”! I was eleven or twelve sitting on the grass next to my dad’s shed, listening to the song on my turquoise walkman, relishing that “fucked”. I was no stranger to the word (I was listening to Dookie when I was nine) but this was a girl saying “fucked” and I would whisper the word under my breath and smile.
There’s this thing academics do that I hate (Figure 1.: a long list of things academics do that I hate). One thing specifically: “queer” is a verb. Queer is a tool – we “queer” the narrative, we “queer” time itself. I sit in a class in early January while my professor and three of my classmates argue if the temporality of a text is “queer” because it works differently from the way it’s supposed to. They don’t seem to see the problem with this.
This concept has expanded beyond the relatively insular world of academia. A vegan friend of mine posts an article on Facebook: “Queering Animal Rights”, which I’m sure gets a lot of clicks. A straight couple I’m friends with tell me that they consider themselves queer because they fuck other people. A co-worker tells me that she understands why I’m afraid to hold my girlfriend’s hand in public – she doesn’t like PDA either. 30 different articles on Vice about “the queer experience”, and another 20 about “queer history”.
When I’m 15 and dating a boy who will later marry a man two years before I talk about marrying a woman, I’m sitting on a school bus waiting for the last kids to shuffle on board. There’s this one kid in my class, he’s fat and mixed race and glaringly effeminate – an easy target in a small Alabama town. This boy in the seat in front of me nudges his friend and yells, “Alright, y’all, we can go, the queer is here!” A year before that, I’m 14 when a boy in art class holds me down in a chair, pours water from a bottle he’s cleverly labeled “HOLY WATER” and breathes the phrase “queer dyke” into my face.
The first films with gay characters are films about gay suicide. The 1961 film Victim is released in the UK when homosexuality is still illegal. It’s about a married lawyer, Farr, who is being blackmailed, along with his male lover, for being secretly gay. At the climax of the film, Farr’s blackmailers paint FARR IS QUEER on his garage door. Victim is famous because it was one of the first films with a gay protagonist that doesn’t die or go to jail. The movie ends with Farr reuniting with his wife.
In She’s Gotta Have It, Opal Gilstrap is the only lesbian character in the film. She is one of the characters pursuing Nola Darling, along with the three male leads. In her opening scene, she says, “You’re not born lesbian or heterosexual – both traits are within us”. In the commentary, Spike Lee says, “The reason why we introduced ‘the lesbian’ into the whole equation is not to really get into the whole “lesbian issue” but just to show you that lesbians could be just as hot in pursuit, as uh, as men.”
The lesbian issue, the queer experience. “The lesbian”. “The queer is here!”. In the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, Harvey Fierstein says, “Every movie I saw was heterosexual and I had to do the translation. I had to translate it to my life rather than seeing my life.” When we “queer the narrative”, is that what it is? An act of translation? I think about Hollywood, after The Code. The Production Code banned references in films to any of the following: rape, open-mouthed kissing, lustful embraces, sex perversions, seduction, abortion, prostitution and “white slavery”, nudity, obscenity, and profanity. In the case of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, the legal department at RKO sends a memo to the film’s editor, telling him to remove the use of the word “nuts” (as in the line from the script when George Bailey says, “I think you’re nuts”) and “dang”. The years after the Code, gay filmmakers would do anything to put reflections of themselves in their movies – awful sibilant “s”es and limp wrists that go on to construct stereotypes. They put Marlene Dietrich in a suit, Joan Crawford in a cowboy shirt and jeans. Someone else puts ‘the lesbian’ in a film to show that she’s just like men, a lawyer in London burns a photo of his lover and reunites with his wife.
References (In Order)
Spike Lee, She’s Gotta Have It (1994 Criterion Laserdisc release)
Fiona Apple, “As Fast As You Can”
Fiona Apple live on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno:
Joe McNally, “Fiona Apple” (photograph)
Saint Joan of Arc’s Trials ed. T. Douglas Murray
The Oxford English Dictionary, “Fuck”
Troy Duffy, The Boondock Saints
Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville
Gary Winick, 13 Going On 30 (2003)
Now That’s What I Call Music Vol 14
For references and further reading about “queer” discourse:
Jillian Keenan, “Is Kink A Sexual Orientation?”, Slate
Dora Mortimer, “Can Straight People Be Queer?”, Vice
Basil Dearden, Victim (1961)
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, The Celluloid Closet (1995)
Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life, 1987 Criterion Laserdisc release
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alice Lesperance lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and their cat. She writes about music, films, dead media and dead women. She’s written for The Youngist and One Week, One Band, and is the founder/editor-in-chief of Shakespeare and Punk. Find her on tumblr.