(Featured image: Jamie Babbit’s Itty Bitty Titty Committee)
From Clara Bradbury-Rance (Kings College London):
Politics of citation in contemporary queer feminist cinema
‘Name one person whose life was so much better because they broke a couple of rules?’ asks Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy in a rhetorical bid to convince herself that a strong sense of responsibility is what it takes to thrive in life beyond high school. ‘Pablo Picasso. Rosa Parks. Susan B. Anthony’, replies Beanie Feldstein’s Molly. Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart occupies a mode of excessive citation familiar from films and shows like Clueless, Gilmore Girls and Buffy. In particular, its myriad citations strive to situate its aspirations as a knowing, discerning, queer/feminist text. Citing the past is a tactic for imagining yourself into a politicised future. In this list, I introduce you to some entertaining moments of queer/feminist recollection in films and shows that flaunt their influences and wear their political media histories on their sleeve. Sometimes these citational practices reveal an imaginary of American exceptionalism or an attachment to an overly simplistic feminist lineage, but they will all get you thinking about how feminist and queer histories circulate in pop culture, whether via the bedroom wall, karaoke choice or well-chosen slogan.
BOOKSMART (OLIVIA WILDE, 2019)
Two teenagers enter a miniature crisis on the day before graduation when they realise that, in a bid to excel at school, they haven’t had any ‘fun’ … because they’ve been spending too much time adorning their bedroom walls with pictures of Virginia Woolf, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Michelle Obama and … Jane Goodall. Available to watch on Netflix.
ITTY BITTY TITTY COMMITTEE (JAMIE BABBIT, 2007)
A group of young activists calling themselves C(I)A – Clits in Action – reek as much havoc as they can, romantic or otherwise. With cameos from Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Shimizu (“oh god, another baby duke come to save the world”) and none other than Guinevere Turner, the one-woman citation of lesbian culture par excellence, this film revels in its queer feminist histories, whether high brow or low. Jamie Babbit’s riot grrls plant statues of Angela Davis outside city buildings and quote Audre Lorde at gay marriage parades; the character “Shulie” is a deadringer for you know who even before she’s given an uninvited lecture on the dialectics of sex. This film is woefully difficult to get online but needed including anyway. I have it on DVD; talk about throwbacks.
D. E.B.S (ANGELA ROBINSON, 2004)
Charlie’s Angels meets teen comedy with some good old coming of age thrown in. The pinnacle for me is Jordana Brewster as bad-guy Lucy Diamond lip syncing Erasure’s “A Little Respect” in a pleasurable aestheticisation of recognition, kinship and queer heartbreak. Holland Taylor (aka Peggy Peabody) steals the show as Ms. Petrie (“What did you think this was – a joke? Let’s divert federal resources and man-hours so that I can have my collegiate lesbian fling in style!”). Available to watch on Amazon Prime.
BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (JAMIE BABBIT, 1999)
The beloved conversion therapy camp story with an emphasis on the camp. Natasha Lyonne dazzles as she discovers that loving Melissa Etheridge and eating tofu means she’s a lesbian, as confirmed by RuPaul. Locker displays and bedroom décor are delivered as evidence by witnesses for the prosecution. Available to watch on Amazon Prime.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (DESIREE AKHAVAN, 2018)
Never mind digital sharing – is there anything more excessive in its citationality than the bedroom wall? This is surely why the stripping away of markers of Cameron Post’s lesbian identity at the “God’s Promise” conversion therapy camp must start with “decorating privileges”. Cameron’s moment of reckoning – delivered in flashback – comes watching none other than Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985), and playfighting with her friend over whether or not she knew all along where the film’s famous seduction scene was headed. Available to watch on Netflix.
APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR (DESIREE AKHAVAN, 2014)
Shirin is the archetypal millennial subject: reaching the end of her twenties and discovering that both profession and romance are hard-won and short-lived. Here, she teaches some kids to make a movie about farts and reels from a breakup. From The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) and Scenes of a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973) to Stone Butch Blues (Leslie Feinberg, 1993) via Sex and the City (Darren Starr, 1998-2004), Akhavan’s film shows how the politicisation of queer culture so often seems to be itself a kind of tactic of citation, a repetition of appropriate practice borrowed from others. Akhavan’s multiple references to Sex and the City – found in every one of her writing projects bar the early-1990s set Miseducation – also function to comment on heteronormative representational conventions. If I were to cite a third Akhavan text it would be The Bisexual, which like The Slope emphasizes and exacerbates its ambivalently obsessive attachments to The L Word as problematic emblem of lesbian culture. Available to watch on BFI Player.
CIRCUMSTANCE (MARYAM KESHAVARZ, 2011)
In which two young women imagine life elsewhere, with L Word aesthetics and film noir imagination. Another suggestion that Sex and the City seems to have transcended the narrowness of its on-screen representations to circulate in queer and feminist pop culture: a spoof on RuPaul’s Drag Race; the Instagram account @everyoutfitonsatc popularizing the ironic hashtag #wokecharlotte; and a scene in Circumstance in which four Iranian teenagers dub the show into Farsi for a prohibited underground black market double-bill with Gus van Sant’s biopic Milk (2008). Available to watch on BFI Player.
TWENTIES (LENA WAITHE, 2020)
A screenwriter struggles to write. Including even though it’s not a film, because I’ve just finished it and I’m in love. And, set in Hollywood with a title sequence bringing mid-century technicolor to contemporary queer life, Waithe’s stand-in Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs) knows her Hollywood film history enough to subvert it, even as she revels in an enduring devotion to All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950). Available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
THE WATERMELON WOMAN (CHERYL DUNYE, 1996)
An icon of the New Queer Cinema. Cheryl Dunye plays a version of herself, working in a video store and making a documentary about the Watermelon Woman. Dunye shows that a well-documented history of cinematic invisibility can look more like visibility with a twist, if you look hard enough. Shameem Kabir talks about the pleasures of subtext and “reworking the received”; Judith Mayne calls it “finding the lesbians”. Dunye’s film plays with these very questions on screen – not just finding but inserting lesbians into film history. Available to watch on Kanopy.
STUD LIFE (CAMPBELL X, 2012)
The perfect double bill with The Watermelon Woman, just for the queering of wedding photography hijinks. Campbell X gives us irresistible queer masculinity and urban sublime, shrouded in aesthetic nods to film noir. Available to watch on BFI Player.
Clara Bradbury-Rance is a Lecturer in the Department of Liberal Arts at King’s College London. Her book Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory was published by Edinburgh University Press and translated into Spanish by Osífragos (both 2019). She is on the boards of [email protected]’s and the SCMS Queer and Trans Caucus. She is a contributing editor for the journal MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture and was guest editor of its special issue on Feminist Pedagogies in 2020. Her current research explores the politics of citation and imagined networks of activism in contemporary queer and feminist visual cultures. You can find links to more of her work at https://linktr.ee/cbradburyrance and follow her on Twitter @CBradburyRance.