You and Us Make It Reverse: Itty Bitty Titty Committee’s Bad Drag, MEN’s Simultaneity, & Spahr and Young’s (Re)enactments

by on May.12, 2011

One more post on temporal drag and I’ll shut up about it maybe. This time I’ll approach it through counterexample.

The 2007 film Itty Bitty Titty Committee does some bad drag. That is, its temporal drag is flimsy and unclear about its relationship to feminist history. Directed by Jamie Babbitt (But I’m a Cheerleader!), IBTC chronicles the politicization of a young woman named Anna (Melanie Diaz) in present-day Los Angeles. Over the course of the film Anna moves from working as a receptionist at a plastic surgeon’s office to joining a group of radical queer feminists named the C(i)A (Clits in Action) who plot and enact feminist actions such as spraypainting slogans on offending businesses’ storefronts:

The C(i)A

The film is often charming and exhilarating, especially due to its raucous soundtrack and general exuberance for feminist theater; but it’s ultimately clouded by what I see as an embarrassing nostalgia for riot grrrl, ACT UP, the 90s generally — a nostalgia that doesn’t realize it’s nostalgia. There is no acknowledgment in the film that the 90s already happened, that that period of feminist/queer activism is over. (I’m not saying that feminist and queer activism’s dead, but that it looks much different now.) The datedness of the film is weird and confusing. When, in the film’s climax, the C(i)A manages to slip a papier-mache penis mold onto the top of the Washington Monument and blow it up, then infiltrate a news studio and invade American televisions with the footage, it comes across as a dead punchline to a tired joke.

There are a lot of delightful moments in the film, some hilarious lines, and hey, check out its mostly-female, superqueer cast. But its approach to historicization is woefully clunky, and has an effect quite the opposite of, say, Sharon Hayes’ performance In the Near Future, in which she holds up (among other signs) a “Ratify ERA NOW!” sign in New York in 2005. Talk about dated politics: Hayes acknowledges, indeed reenacts, one of the most glaring examples of 70s feminism’s failures.

In her book Time Binds, Elizabeth Freeman uses Hayes as one example of a slew of contemporary queer and feminist artists who are using temporal drag to communicate ambivalence towards past and present ‘progressive’ politics. IBTC doesn’t seem aware that it’s dragging, and moreover doesn’t forge a temporal link so much as it reinforces the purported split between past and “present”: embodying the schism between second wave lesbian feminism and third wave queer/postmodern feminism through the toxic, bed-death relationship of the two feminist icons in the film – Courtney, an older, Gloria Steinem-like pragmatic liberal feminist, and her young lover, Sadie, a radical queer anarcho-feminist and the leader of C(i)A. They break up by the end of the film: irreconcilable differences; not enough sex. Second wave feminism is old and emotionally abuse, doesn’t put out. Sadie hooks up with Anna, they blow up a papier-mache penis, win.

That’s one way to write feminist history, I guess. I’m more attuned to a model of continuity and affinity, and this is something that a lot of recent feminist and queer artists, including Hayes, have produced through their performance of temporal drag: an archiving of the past in continuity with the present. The reanimation of the past, often the 70s, is all over the place: Hayes; Peaches Christ Superstar; MEN; Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “Foulipo.”

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MEN is a band made up of JD Samson, Michael O’Neill and Tami Hart (with former members Johanna Fateman, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, and Emily Roysdon), who in their queer dance anthems enunciate a “we” that spans generations and maps out parallel temporalities.

Hart, Samson, O'Neill

You and us make it reverse, Samson chants on “Make It Reverse”: These bitches bring us back to the same thing / we missed at the time / we stopped at the wrong sign. On “Simultaneously”: Simultaneously / we look up to the sky / Simultaneously we will ask each other why. Time warps…parallel time…so much queer temporality! In my interpretation these songs are about grabbing into the past to retrieve its potentiality and reckon with its failures.

In “Be Like This,” MEN lament that nothing is working / not even a little bit… it’s hard to keep alight this flame – but, they declare, we’re gonna try to live again / And it’s gonna be like this. Though they stop short of verbalizing what that “this” will look like, they give space over to envisioning it.

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Elizabeth Grosz from “Histories of a Feminist Future”:

The past endures, not in itself, but in its capacity to become something other. This becoming infects not only beings in/as duration but the world itself. This is why feminist history is so crucial: not simply because it informs our present but more so because it enables other virtual futures to be conceived, other perspectives to be developed, than those that currently prevail. In this sense, the astute feminist historian stands on the cusp of the folding of the past into the future, beyond the control or limit of the present.

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In the introduction to their recent co-edited volume on feminist poetics, A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young engage similar issues within the discourse of experimental poetry:

We are somewhat exhausted from wondering why what we call the experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry scene that so defines our lives continues—despite forty years of explicit feminist discourse in the US; despite endless examples of smart, powerful books written by women; despite endless discussion and essays about the intersection between feminism and experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry—to feel at moments weirdly aggressive towards anything that even suggests the possibility of a contemporary feminism, or the need for feminist activismnow, or the possibility of a feminism that isn’t only historical.

They’ve explored this problem in numerous ways (e.g., the notorious “Numbers Trouble” kertuffle), but perhaps most interestingly (to a post on temporal drag) through “Foulipo,” a performance (the script of which is collected in A Megaphone) in which they (re)enacted body art techniques (e.g., nudity) to embody and pay homage to “a somewhat beleaguered feminist tradition.” Like Hayes’ performance, Spahr and Young’s “Foulipo” action puts on 70s-era feminism to contest the perceived “post”-ness of feminist politics –- in this case within the discourse of experimental poetry — and reignite a bygone moment of possibility and defiance.

This moment is so fundamentally “beleaguered” — plagued by present-day embarrassment over its crude essentialisms — that its revival is something of a shock. Spahr and Young address this in their intro the fact of these traditions and moments, and their essentialist politics (“Numbers Trouble”) being oft and easily maligned. Freeman similarly addresses the second-wave feminist as, well, kind of a drag, malignant and threatening to the advancement of a “progressive” feminist/queer politics.

This is how IBTC animates her — the past holding back the present — whereas MEN, Hayes, Spahr & Young animate her differently — occulting the past to reconfigure the present — acknowledging its failures but reigniting its possibility: feminist historiography via art.

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6 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    “Occulting the past to reconfigure the present”–I love this, Megan. Thanks for this super-lucid read.

  2. Mathias

    Thanks for these great posts and inspiring discussions of temporal drag!

    But talk about simultaneity – I got across your posts just after having finished writing an article on MEN’s “Simultaneously”, queer temporality, and – surprise! – Elizabeth Freeman++… (mathiasdanbolt.com/2011/chewing-the-scenery)

    We need to talk!!

  3. megan

    thanks, lara!
    mathias, wow – your article sounds phenomenal, as does the project as a whole. do keep me posted on publication. and geez, yeah, pretty much every song on TALK ABOUT BODY really deserves that level of attention – such good songwriting. glad we’re in touch!

  4. Josef Horáček

    I’ve been following the thread on temporal drag somewhat haphazardly but find it very compelling. I especially love the concept of “feminist historiography via art.” But let me get to my point.

    There’s an elephant in the room. His name is Ezra and he weighs ten thousand pounds. He claims to have written a “poem including history” and says that “all ages are contemporaneous in the mind.” I don’t trust him. For one, his version of history makes me worried about my personal safety, what with all the despotic, charismatic, enlightened (male, non-Jewish) leaders who pretend to know what’s good for their people. I don’t trust him with my money but find him hard to ignore all the same. I think he might have a thing or two to say about temporal drag and translation, for example.

    But seriously now, how would Pound figure in the debate on temporal drag? Go ahead, hate on me!

  5. megan

    josef, thanks for the provocative question. i can’t personally speak to it, being embarrassingly underread in pound’s work. i’d definitely be interested in hearing more of your (or other folks’) thoughts on it.

  6. Josef Horáček

    I’ll need to sit on it for a while. The connection between temporal drag and translation might be a productive one, for my own project at least. I’ll try to re-read the back entries.