by Yule Heibel on July 20, 2003

My last blog entry was almost completely beside the point, and I apologize to anyone who was led even further down the garden path by it. Instead of doing some homework, I assumed that Halley somehow originated the term “girlism,” and if Joel hadn’t mentioned the word grrl, I would never have realized that Halley’s use of the term “girlism” represents a hijacking of what a decade ago was a complex punk-feminist strategy. I was on the right track with Cyndi Lauper, but my despising of the queen of sell-out, Madonna, blinded me to the early connections between Lauper, Madonna, Courtney Love, and others. I’ve said sarcastic stuff about Madonna in past blog entries, and it’s time I explained why. When Madonna first came on the scene in the early 80s she was cool. She used sex as a performance to punch holes in the status quo. This was at a time when MTV was just starting out and many of us were seeing our first music videos on local late-night cable channels, not via the soon-to-become giant retailer. The success of MTV changed all that. By the 90s she was utterly co-opted, and “Madonna-sex” was used as a marketing tool. I’ll admit that this disappointed me very much, and although Madonna doesn’t control the media economy, I expected more of her than simple acquiescence. When she pulled her original version of the video Life in America at the start of the second Iraq war, she just kind of dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. As for wannabes like Britney Spears: she never even started with what Madonna had: Britney’s a sale flyer for K-Mart. It’s like the difference between de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in the late 18th century and its 20th century dialectical incarnation, as shown by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film in which de Sade’s treatise becomes a catalogue of fascist-totalitarian tortures. If a thing has potentially subversive powers in one epoch, it doesn’t necessarily carry them over into others, especially if it can be used to fuel an economic or political rationale. And that’s what happened to girlism, which gained such force by the early 90s that it was theorized by pre-eminent postmodern feminists like Judith Butler. (In a typo-slip, the author of this article refers to her as Judith Butter: Tango, anyone? Yes, it’s always back to sex.) Butler rejects gender as a fixed category and instead prefers “those historical and anthropological positions that understand gender as a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts.” Gender isn’t fixed; gender identity can shift and change according to context and circumstance. Our actual bodies are at issue, as are their representations: if your gender identity is fixed upon a set of categories — “girl,” “woman,” “man” — you, as an individual, are left with no room to maneuvre, to resist, to change. Hence, gender identity has to be fluid and changeable if it is to have any liberatory or explosive force. The connection between punk feminism, “girlism,” and punk girl bands — with names like Hole (Courtney Love), Cunts with Attitude, The Slits, Dickless — came about because these performers enacted a transgressive feminity — “look, no dick!, slit instead!, fuck you anyway!” — which used the symbols of femininity and pre-sexualized girlhood (hence the “girlism”) as an in-your-face slap to status quo notions of “womanhood.” While a juggernaut of theory was built up around this punk music praxis almost immediately, it was also nearly immediately co-opted into marketing and branding, especially via MTV. There is no way you can turn subversion into an ism (which is why feminism isn’t subversive per se: it is constructive, with all the attendant problems that entails). Grrls and girlist practice was originally a subversive performance that had nothing whatsoever to do with the slick, hole-less and artificially dick-ified Angels of Chuck. It had nothing to do with the glossy, mass-marketed “beauty” of the entertainment and advertising industries, beauty ideals that are destructive and limiting for the (individually beautiful) individual, but which hound that individual at every turn. It deliberately used “ugliness” and crudity, and in its nastier moments figuratively shat on the perfect model abstraction of the Beauty Queen. Butler’s theory that gender can be manipulated by the individual with some kind of freedom remains wishful thinking, however. From the link above: “Butler says: ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’ (Gender Trouble, p. 25). In other words, gender is a performance; it’s what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.” This is true as far as I can see, but as a blueprint for action, it is also immediately constrained by the realities of co-optation. For example, if the grrls use girlish signifiers to masquerade a femininity that confounds patriarchy, their theorists should be reminded that it’s legal in Canada to have sex with real, actual 14-year old girls. And if marketing makes it ever more desirable to sell sexualized “play-with-the-markers-of-femininity-but-dress-like-a-slut” clothing to 6-year-olds, we’ll just see more sexualized children, not more playful adults free of gender-constraints.


dawn July 22, 2003 at 3:14 am

“There is no way you can turn subversion into an ism”

I’m stumped by this one. Are two women holding hands in a movie theater being subversive? Some may argue yes, but I can use feminism or queer theory to theorize a normalisation of this subversion. Is that turning subversion into an ism? Does it remain subversive once it has been theorized or ismised?

Interesting post.

Joel July 22, 2003 at 5:53 am

I think subversion was turned into an ism with the whole “anti-political correctness” movement.

Yule Heibel July 22, 2003 at 1:15 pm

Dawn, my comment expresses my frustration with co-optation. Perhaps subversion can be practiced as a personal “ism” and remain subversive for the individual, but my worry is that on a bigger social scale, subversion becomes co-opted. For eg., if the dominant ideology persecutes homosexual love, the two women holding hands in a (dark) movie theatre are not being subversive as long as they unclasp when the lights go on. If they continue to show their love in the light of day, they are trying to subvert the status quo, and if they band together with others, you have a movement. My worry comes in at the next point: once the ideology of the status quo is (a) overturned or (b) that ideology has learned to co-opt the critique enacted by the subversion, the latter has been made harmless (“normalised”) on a social level. And once a thing is normalised, the market can regulate it. Or rather: it’s market-forces that begin the process of normalising something in the first place.

Furthermore, it then becomes increasingly difficult to express anything quietly, because everybody knows that in a bazaar, the one who shouts loudest is heard most. Thus, imagine McDonald’s eventually offering “Happy Meals” somehow designed for gay couples and their children (silly hypothetical eg., but picture the marketing even if the product remains elusive). The two women we started with might feel they now need to engage in a performance of subversion that challenges the status quo even more, because these particular women — troublemakers that they are — realize that this kind of market normalisation doesn’t represent an actual acceptance by society of their love. The society is still an unloving place, but its market can deal with anything: the market is ready to accept their love so that other lovers buy a product. If the two women now express their love quietly, they might feel like they’re “disappearing” themselves; if they shout about it, they might feel like they’ve let love be turned into product and theatre (I guess we’re back at the movie theatre again) at which point they might turn to other marketplaces (the university, for eg.) for validation.

At the same time, the market is a wonderful tool for rationalising society, which means that you can’t hope to change society for the better by eliminating it. People like me would have been burned at the stake in a less “normalised” age, but today I get to keep a blog instead. In a less normalised age, I wouldn’t have a computer, there’d be no internet, or movie theatres, or universities with their market offerings of theory courses (market place of ideas). We would be having this conversation up a tree, I guess.

Anyway, it’s probably just my basic pessimistic personality coming to the fore. I mean, I do go shopping, I’m not a hermit. But I can’t help but bite the hand that feeds me, too.

And we’ve also reached this dangerous time, which Joel points, of the “anti-political-correctness” movement, aka backlash.

Joel July 23, 2003 at 1:02 am

I don’t see the two women clasping hands as subversive. They’re just being what they are. “Subversion” is a noun of the elite, to describe things which they make themselves uncomfortable over.

dawn July 23, 2003 at 2:18 am

“There is no way you can turn subversion into an ism” – except through commodification. even if it’s not subversive anymore, you have still done just that.

Yule Heibel July 23, 2003 at 6:11 pm


Joel July 24, 2003 at 4:32 am

They sure the heck will try anyways! And many will believe that they’ve got something real.

Anonymous August 24, 2005 at 12:25 pm

You are the best. Thank you

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