I’ve just returned from my fifth WIFF film in four days! When I was describing my film choices to friends last week, I noted that they were all about…girls. But I didn’t mean it in an objectifying way! I meant: adolescence. Coming of age. Coming into girl identity, sexuality, queerness. Most of them, anyway. // RECAP!
First in my lineup was Mate-Me Por Favor/Kill Me Please (dir. Anita Rocha da Silveira, #fuckyeswomenfilmmakers), a feminist serial killer film that follows a group of four teen girls navigating adolescence in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro as it is impacted by a series of rape-murders in the area. The girls become morbidly fascinated with the murders, treating each new one as spectacle, as gossip; the protagonist, Bia, becomes especially fixated, strongly identifying with one of the victims after finding her near-dead on the way home from school–and even seeming to become her at times. The film emphasizes the vitality of Bia and her friends, their desire to live and be in their bodies, sexually, violently, amidst the death culture surrounding them. Notably, there are no adults on screen in this film. The last sequence, including the film’s last, long shot is stunning. This film, da Silveira’s debut, shares many themes and strategies with Sofia Coppola’s work, especially the commitment to capturing transitional zones of girlhood, and the use of big swells of pop music, though Kill Me Please has more nerve, I’d argue, with perverse black humor and unexpected moves in narrative logic. Bonus lesbian makeout scene.
Sunday I saw The Fits and Viva back to back. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer, #fuckyeswomenfilmmakers) is about girls on a dance team in Cincinnatti who start breaking into fits one by one. Gorgeous and unsettling, the film’s narrative seems informed by the story of the girls in Le Roy, NY, who broke out into tics and seizures several years ago (though those girls I believe were all white). Like Kill Me Please, The Fits explores the (Black) girl body as spectacle and as site of sometimes violent intensity. The film does not pin down the cause of the girls’ convulsions, but suggests they originate in a desire to perform belonging. While the fits make for a strong hook, the film centers on tomboy protagonist Toni, and her longing to be absorbed into the girl group; among my favorite moments were the sequences where Toni tries transferring the movements she’s learned as a boxer to group dancing. It’s a sweet story, the camera capturing Toni’s anxieties and determination to get those sequences right with tenderness. Almost entirely all-Black cast.
Viva (dir. Patty Breathnach) is a straightforward film set in Havana, about a baby drag queen, Jesus, whose new gig as Viva gets cut short by the sudden return of his long-gone alcoholic and abusive/homophobic/overall jerk father. A sumptuously shot, compelling film with fantastic performances, if fairly predictable as far as story goes. Thoroughly enjoyable and quite moving but I wasn’t blown away.
First Girl I Loved (dir. Kerem Sanga)—two girls fall for each other; one girl’s best guy friend gets jealous and homophobic/abusive; Cameron Esposito has a supporting role. I found this film pretty engrossing and I expect teens will love it: really commits to its characters’ big feelings. A solid portrayal of one teen doing her darnedest to pursue her queer desires with little support.
I wrapped my lineup with The Witness (dir. James Solomon), a riveting and emotionally difficult documentary that offers a powerful corrective to what we think we know about the Kitty Genovese case. The film follows Kitty’s younger brother Bill, 16 at the time of her murder, now in his late 60s, tracking down the facts and misinformation surrounding it. The New York Times comes away looking ugly and opportunistic, and those “38 people” who reportedly did nothing, the primary example for what has passed into common knowledge as “bystander apathy,” come away partially vindicated, as is Kitty, whose life, so fully erased by her death, gets recreated here through Bill’s witnessing. I have more to say on this film—to be continued, in a series of essays on reenactments in film.
My short story “AB 469: A Po(r)ny-ography in Three Parts” is now out in SPECS 7: The Unicorn Issue. The story is a response to a remark made by a legislator during a public hearing on trans-discriminatory changing room legislation proposed for Wisconsin public schools last October: “Would you feel uncomfortable changing next to someone with totally different body parts?” Taking a flight of fancy, it imagines shifting from “discomfort” to desire through select Katy Perry lyrics and My Little Pony fan fiction.
While I stand by what is essentially a satirical pornographic lesbian locker room fantasy written as a response to this specific situation, which was, at the time I wrote it, safely distant, I don’t pretend it is a comprehensive or adequate response to the oppressive reality of bills like HB2 or the broader climate of transphobia being expressed in various ways in U.S. culture right now; I stand in solidarity with trans and gender nonconforming people, and particularly trans women, who are affected by this legislation and this climate.
This Unicorn issue is truly magical. My por(n)y-ography shares space with Tim Jones-Yelvington’s brilliant One Direction avant-fanfic; JD Scott’s poetic sequence written to/with the Scribe Angel Siriel (Siri’s older sister); Sharif Shakhshir’s terrific “Unicorn Hunting,” a coming of age unicorn diaspora story in the form of an Assassins game; Shamala Gallagher’s prose poem “Untitled (Unicorn & Cheetos Poem)”; Minal Hajratwala’s poem “Operation Unicorn: Notice from the Department of Taboos” (I’m letting these titles speak for themselves); among others; and Brett Boyko’s cover art, titled “Genderfluid Unicorn Blues.”
Thanks to SPECS editors Kristen Arnett and Cathleen Bota, and everyone else on the team, for putting this creepy campy delight together and including my work in it.
As bonus material, here’s an essay I started on Robot Unicorn Attack several years ago and never finished, but will call finished now. Return with me now, to 2011!
Robot Unicorn Attack is a free online Flash game released in 2010. It features anachronistically crude graphics and two movement options: jump or dash. When you dash, you make rainbows. The soundtrack is Erasure’s “Always.” The game is gay.
A gay game, it offers the promise of winning under threat of death.
The song “Who Am I to Feel So Free” by MEN, released in 2011 with lyrics by artist Emily Roysdon, charts a brief and selective history of queer/trans feminist politics.
changed our names
used our hands
discovered options better than a man
and prosthetic sex
we built this world and we are asking your best
The song’s chorus is strikingly ambivalent: “Who am I to feel so free” can be read as a fist-pumping protest chant, expressing entitlement to be/feel/act free. At the same time the wording conveys an acute awareness that this entitlement is shaky, dubious. In this sense, the question is posed as genuine doubt: Who am I to feel free when my freedom and the freedom of others is perpetually under attack?
The song’s ambivalent relationship to freedom is enhanced by Shearon Van Riggins’ use of gameplay footage from Robot Unicorn Attack in their unofficial video for the song. The version of the song used here features vocals by Anohni, whose performance emphasizes the chorus’s ironies.
In the video, the song narrates our unicorn’s three attempts, and failures, to win. S/he is so free, it’s exhilarating to watch. S/he makes rainbows; s/he blows up but survives to run free again: I feel so free / I could never die / never die.…then the final death coincides with the last repetition of the chorus. Who! / am I! / to feel so free!: kaboom. Robot Unicorn has died.
Juxtaposed with the ambivalent lyrics of the song, the game’s win-or-die / win-then-die / always-die narrative archly comments on the teleological properties of gay and feminist liberation discourse, the rhetoric of which proposes a kind of utopic freedom enabled by winning again and again. The video is a giddy performance of both this utopic possibility—run free, robot unicorn, run free—winning!—while also relishing in crashing and burning, the queer art of failure. The video expresses camp resignation for the failures of gay and feminist liberation politics, amplifying the song’s ambivalence in fascinating and generative ways—ways that call out our failures to achieve collective freedom and coalition through intersectional justice.
Who is this robot unicorn, that s/he should feel so free? Whosoever rainbow-dashes alone, meets failure.
I want to be with you / make believe with you / live in harmony / harmony / always.
[Collective First Person by Nicki Werner, 2014]
“It strikes me as a barely explored pronoun, full of possibilities.” –Steven Milhauser
I’m pretty obsessed with the politics of pronouns in fiction writing owing to many of my characters’ genderqueer and/or non-binary identifications—and my own! Prior to coming to a(n) nb/gq identity, I often adopted third-person limited for more autofictional stories to enable critical distance—a distance that started to seem like disidentification. I was using “she” like a slap.
So I moved away from third limited to embrace first person, which avoids binary gender pronouns for the most part (Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body being the classic example of a gender-ambiguous, potentially genderqueer narrator). Right now I’m experimenting with no-pronoun third-person—i.e., repeating the protagonist’s name in place of using pronouns—as well as they/them third person, second person, and—I’m coming to it—
Collective first. Our topic at hand. Aka first person plural. Aka “we.” While it’s been on the rise in US fiction, it remains underused and underexplored.
Like “you” (see Erica Hunt’s terrific essay on second person in Citizen), the pronoun “we” is “flexible and ambiguous” (Maxey 2), its boundaries shifting and porous: at any given moment, it is unclear how many “I”s a “we” might include. This presents opportunities for authors to negotiate the individual in relation to the social, to draw lines (or refuse to) around various groups or social categories, to dramatize belonging and exclusion.
Probably the most well-known example of collective first is Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), in which a singular narrator’s use of “we” reflects the dystopian society’s erasure of individuality (via the lost “I”). “We” here functions as an institutional weapon of forced conformity and suppression of self, and when “I” arrives, it’s loaded with utopic possibility.
First plural can also be used to make the opposite, and, we think, better, argument. For example, Andrea Lawlor’s chapbook Position Papers envisions a compelling anti-capitalist world in which “we will eschew individual possessive first person.” The proposal is somewhat tongue in cheek, as Lawlor uses possessive singular on the very next page—“In my country…”—but persuasive nonetheless. Throughout, collective first invites the reader into a proposed collectivity that is intentional and accounts for difference. Indeed, it operates much like philosopher Kay Mathiesen’s theory of collective consciousness: “collective subjectivity,” she writes, “requires plurality (i.e. that there be multiple conscious subjects), awareness (i.e. that there is genuine intentionality), and collectivity (i.e. that the collective subject forms a social group)” (236).
To adopt a collective perspective, Matheisen says, is to “understand and predict what another person is thinking” through simulation of thought (that is, empathy) and “to model within ourselves the beliefs, values, etc. of the collective” (247). Given that arguments around who belongs and doesn’t have been / continue to be used as weapons of discrimination and criminalization, to invoke collective first in this way has tremendous political potential.
More commonly, we’ve seen it used less politically, to represent small town subjectivities: e.g., William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930) and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993). As Ruth Maxey has noted, both narratives adopt a masculine retrospective collective voice—a “we” that, while remaining flexible and ambiguous, invites only some readers into it. In a variation on the small town point of view, Christopher Grimes adopts a bureaucratic “we” in The Pornographers (2012)—one that is constructed deliberately (and satirically) to exclude women (and, arguably, people of color, queer and trans people, and other marginalized identities). Since the novel is structured as one impossibly long sentence, the effect is a babble of collective anxiety, the “we” trying desperately to hold onto itself and its authority.
More recent examples of collective first tend to highlight difference and singularity within the group, as TaraShea Nesbit has observed (cw: in this article, a racist slur is used in a cited book title). In Justin Torres’s We the Animals, for example, the retrospective narrator increasingly shifts from first plural to singular to chronicle his fraught individuation from his family, as he confronts his undeniable (queer) difference. In the final multi-part chapter, the narrator is abruptly expelled from the group; the narrative’s shift from first plural to a distant third to a dissociated second to finally a reluctant, terrified first singular illustrates how violent the process of individuation can be (especially when forced).
Then there’s the narrator of Aimee Bender’s “Debbieland,” who actually refuses to individuate. Having come of age as part of a gang of girl bullies, the narrator has retained her collective identity into adulthood; the reader doesn’t realize until halfway through that her “we” is actually an “I.” Her continued use of collective first implies stunted growth, a resistance to maturation that isn’t cute—it’s a potential social threat, protecting her from accepting responsibility for her actions. As in We the Animals, collective first is strongly associated with adolescence, supporting the notion that adulthood means individuation; an adult “we” is suspect.
Some recent scifi narratives, meanwhile, are not afraid of “us”! Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and the Wachowski sisters’ Netflix series Sense8 both adopt a new form of collective first involving multiple characters linked across bodies.
In Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the narrator is an AI entity designed to exist across many bodies, as the brain of a ship and its ancillaries (AI drone troops who have been installed in colonized human bodies). A number of different passages show the narrator experiencing multiple scenes simultaneously, from the point of view of different ancillaries, a simultaneity that’s initially quite dizzying for us readers to take on.
Is this a variation of collective first? The narrator rarely adopts “we” as a perspecive. Maybe she’s a multiple “I” as opposed to a “we.” But isn’t that what “we” is? We don’t know! This point of view seems related to but not quite collective first. The best description might be cloud subjectivity, as proposed by Joshua Rothman.
One of the most interesting dimensions of Leckie’s cloud subject is that its bodies matter very much. The bodies the narrator finds herself occupying are not blank slates: one of them likes to sing. Owing to corporeal history/memory, individuality is not entirely erased; this is one way in which the colonized haunt the novel. Also, the cloud fractures at numerous points in the narrative, requiring the ancillaries to act as disunified individuals. To me this is one of the most striking aspects of Leckie’s collective subject(s): it insists upon a whole, cohesive self that contains multiple, differentiated selves. Cohesion and plurality are not contradictory.
Sense8’s cloud subject operates similarly, though so far the show emphasizes plurality over cohesion: the first season spends a lot of time revealing how the links between the eight sensates work. We learn with them that they can feel each other’s feelings; take control over one another’s bodies; but it’s selective—they are not experiencing all eight sets of realities all the time. The show celebrates interdependence and co-subjectivity: its various conflicts are resolved through each individual’s skills and what they can contribute to the group (not unlike the set-up of Orphan Black, RPGs, or cooperative tabletop games like Pandemic).
We remember the rise of network narratives in the early 2000s (Crash, Traffic, Syriana, Babel, The Wire). Narratives like Ancillary Justice and Sense8 combine what Caroline Levine has identified as the affordances of network narratives with those of collective first point of view. And whereas some other constructions of multiple subjectivity tap into cultural anxieties around the fear/threat of sameness across subjects, these narratives are excited about the possibilities of collective consciousness.
Collective consciousness, Sense8 argues powerfully, is anchored in empathy. The eight sensates provide emotional support for one another; they learn from each other; they help one another make difficult decisions: Nomi, for example, who is trans, steps in to help Lito confront his fear of coming out publicly as gay. Capheus helps Riley work through her fears that something terrible will happen. (Something does! but that’s unrelated.) Yet there are limitations to what they can know and understand (and I hope in subsequent seasons, these fissures and gaps will get more attention).
Like Ancillary Justice, the show attends to differences across bodies. The writers have fun with gender difference, for instance: Lito experiences Sun’s PMS; Will takes on Riley’s pregnancy (both tropes of genderswap fanfic, incidentally). When Capheus is called “bitch” repeatedly by his antagonists, Sun (whose life has been deeply impacted by sexism) steps in to react. These moments of intersubjective exchange seem importantly trans and feminist in nature. Moreover, through them, empathy is proposed as rooted in the body, driven not by emotional intelligence but corporeal experience. The sensates do not need to simulate the thoughts and feelings of others: they are feeling them in their bodies.
I hope the next season will explore more of the negative aspects of trans-subjectivity: What about when a sensate resists, wants to refuse, the exhausting prospect of feeling with/as someone else? While the show’s celebration of empathy-based collectivity is provocative and politically valent, it’s important to remember that this empathy is forced.
David Levithan’s YA novel Every Day offers a counterexample, presenting co-subjectivity as undesirable and often challenging. The novel adopts the point of view of a floating subjectivity who wakes up each morning in a different body. Deeply affected by each host’s body—its capacities and limitations, its corporeal history—the narrator negotiates a complex new co-subjectivity…every day. This is often difficult, as some bodies are easier to live in, and feel with, than others. At one point the narrator finds themself in the body of someone struggling with severe depression; the book presents their suicidality not as an emotional/mental state but a powerful bodily urge that the narrator must fight: “I have to convince myself that this isn’t a pointless life, even though the body is telling me it is” (63). Like Sense8, the novel privileges corporeal reality—but gives serious consideration to the negative dimensions of intersubjectivity.
These speculative narratives invite us to feel with characters negotiating involuntary intersubjectivity and collective consciousness; to have our own trans-subjective exchanges—voluntarily. The dirty truth is I’m often a reluctant empathizer, and would not want to be “we” all, or much, of the time. But I’m a great reader; this is my contribution to the group. It’s possible my community doesn’t need an essay on collective first and multiple subjectivity—I can’t read your minds—but I wanted to write it. So I did.
A journal I’ve been super psyched about since I first learned of it last year (though it’s been around since 2012) is Nat. Brut. I intentionally left it off my dazzling and comprehensive 2015 Year-End Review List because I wanted to sing its praises separately.
Then! I received an email from editor in chief Kayla E. inviting me to join Nat. Brut’s board of directors. I learned more. I agreed. Now I’m not just on board, I’m on THE board (!) (or will be when my term starts, I think in March) of one of the most thoughtfully and beautifully made journals around.
Have you seen it? It’s stunning…
…and activating, energizing, invigorating. Nat. Brut is pro-art, pro-social justice; it publishes art across media and genre, centers marginalized voices, and promotes environmental sustainability.
Issue Six (Fall 2015) was my intro. I bought a copy mainly because Meghan Lamb, whose work I follow, contributed to the supplement, a comics zine. More on that below.
Issue Six assembles a generous, diverse collection of fiction, poetry, features, and visual art, plus a foldout comics poster called “Early Edition.” Among my favorite pieces are:
- Afabwaje Kurian’s “Butter,” which deftly explores tensions between black African immigrant and African American communities through the story of a Nigerian girl’s fraught relationship with a classmate, and her first, confusing encounter with the n-word.
- Elise Liu’s “John and Mary and Jenny and Mike,” an equation-based reworking of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” that pluralizes not only the available storylines, but the original couple, recasting them as a range of characters with different social and national identities.
- Morgan Jerkins’ “Asha,” a succinct and compelling fabulist parable about Black women’s domestic labor and the exploitation of generosity.
- David Rice’s “On the Murder of Nicola Teensmah,” a story in the form of an essay on a fictional film—convincing, unsettling, surprising, oddly funny.
- I’m spotlighting the fiction because I was so impressed with/excited about the range; other highlights include poetry by Justin Wymer, Margarita Delcheva, Talia Lavin, and Adam Fitzgerald; Kayla E.’s interview with Jayson Musson, the artist behind the ART THOUGHTZ YouTube series; and Chitra Ganesh’s She the Question, a comic that reconstructs from a feminist perspective images from the Amar Chitra Kathas comic book series for children (published in India and distributed around the world).
- And so much more.
As a supplement to the issue, Kayla E. created and illustrated All of Them Witches, a zine of four comics that rewrite sexist horror comics from the 1950s, written by Meghan Lamb, Stine An, Carrie Guss, and Ashley Keyser, and edited by RL Goldberg. Sharp, funny, pulling no punches, these four “re-mixes” do exciting work to resuscitate the pulpy, perverse sensationalism of their originals, while correcting—with triumph—their insulting misogyny.
Much of the journal content is available on the website, where Nat. Brut also publishes original content, including this terrific roundtable of women and nonbinary comics artists responding to the erasure of women in this year’s list of nominees for the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême.
From 2005-2008 I co-published a zine called Mildred Pierce and Nat. Brut is sort of what I envisioned that project growing into: a beautifully printed yet somehow sustainable journal/magazine that publishes smart, fresh literature, art, essays, and comics; art and ideas that are in many ways resistant and thoroughly politically and socially engaged. Nat. Brut is doing all that — & more! I’m eager for Issue Seven. ❤