Wake Up and Smell the Estrogen!: An Interview with Bruce LaBruce (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton
The sexual politics of the revolutionary left have frequently proved surprisingly reactionary. In the early years after the Russian Revolution, for example, Alexandra Kollontai advocated free love, women’s emancipation, and the abolition of marriage. But the increasing rigidity of the Bolsheviks, and the subsequent era of Stalinist repression, derailed Kollontai’s efforts to fuse Leninism with what would now be called “sex-positive feminism.”
All too often, the mainstream left’s prudishness has yielded disconcerting hostility to nonmonogamous relationships, homosexuality, and sex workers. Yet, during the 1960s, many antiauthoritarian leftists rediscovered the legacy of Wilhelm Reich, the psychoanalyst and Marxist who was expelled from the Austrian, German, and Danish communist parties, as well as the International Psychoanalytic Association, for his claims that the class struggle should also entail a revolution combatting sexual repression. To a certain extent, Reich’s orgasmic conception of revolution unwittingly revisited some of the themes pioneered by nineteenth-century American “sex radicals” such as Moses Harman, as well as the Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman’s attacks upon sexual propriety and the constrictions of marriage. In addition, Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School theorist who proved most congenial to the counterculture, linked the capitalist division of labor to what he termed “surplus repression”—”restrictions placed upon the instincts that derive from social domination.”
Several films of Bruce LaBruce, the Canadian independent filmmaker and gay provocateur who has been assailing the sexual status quo for over thirty years, irreverently portray the desire of Reichians, Marcuseans, anarchists, and Situationists to combine revolutionary zeal with libidinal politics. LaBruce’s 2004 The Raspberry Reich and the recently released The Misandrists, tackle the foibles of left-wing sexual liberationists with a tongue-in-cheek, campy aesthetic that suggests an anarcho-punk reworking of Paul Morrissey, John Waters, Russ Meyer, and Rosa von Praunheim’s preoccupations.
In many respects, LaBruce’s films take aim at the “respectability politics” that even pervades the LGBT movement at a time when their critique of “heteronormativity” has transmogrified into assimilationist “homonormativity.” For LaBruce, transgressiveness has always been synonymous with political incorrectness, especially in the light of his gleeful inclusion of pornographic imagery in almost all of his features.
As LaBruce notes in the following interview, The Misandrists is a “tricky” film, primarily because its veneer of snarky, broadly acted farce conceals an earnest investment in the film’s mocking tribute (it’s difficult to avoid oxymoronic phrasing) to lesbian separatism.
A riff on the premise of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971), The Misandrists opens with the chance encounter of two German schoolgirls—Isolde (Kita Updike) and Hilde (Olivia Kundisch)—with a wounded political dissident named Volker (Til Schindler). In an impulsive act of derring-do, they clandestinely house him, a hated male, in the basement of an all-female enclave, an outpost of the lesbian separatist Female Liberation Army that doubles as a Catholic boarding school.
Big Mother, (Susanne Sachsse), as imperious as Rosalind Russell’s Mother Superior in The Trouble with Angels, enforces the mock convent’s ideological agenda with inflexible ferocity. At the beginning of each meal, she leads a prayer that proclaims “Blessed is the goddess of all worlds that has not made me a man.” She also has a weakness for deliberately inelegant bons mots on the order of “Wake Up and Smell the Estrogen.” Her partner Dagmar (Viva Ruiz) believes that pornography and prostitution are effective tools for subverting the “established order”—a credo that also reflects tenets that LaBruce has adhered to throughout his career.
If LaBruce is ambivalent about his zany separatists’ antics, it’s mostly attributable to the unfortunate propensity of many radical sects, even those which term themselves “anarchist,” to preach antiauthoritarianism while internally imposing authoritarian strictures. Big Mother, the personification of lesbian libertinism, is a rigid feminist-essentialist and has no room in the Female Liberation Army for a transgender member such as Isolde, who is forced to conceal her identity until the end of the film. A schism between dogmatism and true libidinal energy is underlined in the film by crosscutting between Dagmar and Big Mother’s boudoir, adorned with the famous mug shot of Emma Goldman after she was falsely accused of conspiring with Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President McKinley, and an ecstatic pillow fight between the girls that pays homage to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite.
The nervy tonal shifts of The Misandrists have, perhaps predictably, generated wildly antithetical critical responses. Melissa Anderson found the escapades of the Schopenhauer-spouting separatists “riotous and exhilarating.” Inkoo Kang, on the other hand, puzzled by the film’s satirical treatment of what she considered an outdated feminist tendency and its “SAT-vocabulary-heavy treatises,” was not convinced by LaBruce’s yearning for “productive ambivalence.” LaBruce’s humor is clearly more appreciated by viewers who are in on his jokes and are fondly skeptical of, as well as familiar with, the attitudes he’s spoofing.
Cineaste interviewed LaBruce via email in June. Despite the limitations of this form of Q&A, his responses are both witty and erudite.—Richard Porton
Cineaste: Was Don Siegel’s The Beguiled the initial inspiration for The Misandrists? And what did you think of the Sofia Coppola remake?
Bruce LaBruce: Don Siegel’s The Beguiled was definitely the starting point when I began the script for The Misandrists, which was written from the end of 2015 to the beginning of 2016. It’s just some kind of crazy coincidence that Sofia Coppola and I remade the film at the same time, or maybe there was something we both picked up in the ether. I was unaware of her remake when I wrote it, and in fact my film debuted before hers—mine at the Berlinale in 2017, and hers a number of months later at Cannes. To even extend the coincidence, we both use pretty much the exact same handwritten pink font in the opening credits of our respective films. I love the original, which is set during the American Civil War, because it superimposes a psychosexual premise against a politico-historical backdrop, elucidating both.
The film is very Reichian, all about sexual repression and surplus repression, as well as touching on themes of authoritarianism, sadomasochism, race, class, domination and submission, female solidarity and empowerment—all my favorite themes! To be honest, I’m not so crazy about Coppola’s version, mostly because I was disappointed she didn’t really examine or refer to the lesbian subtext of the original, which is relatively latent but still obvious and important. She was also criticized for removing one of the most fascinating and central characters from the original—Hattie, the black slave/maid, whose fractured and ambivalent alliance with both the women and the male Yankee hostage brings up issues of otherness, outsiderness, power relations with regard to race and class, rebellion and resistance. Coppola’s claim that she didn’t want to presume to represent a black character as a slave is not only ahistorical but preposterous, considering it would have been an opportunity to revisit Hattie as a smart and ingenious (as well as sexual) freedom fighter with her own agency within an oppressive context.
My version, which, albeit only a very loose remake, is all about bringing out all the latent radicalism of the original. It completely blows up the lesbian subtext to the max, and it expands the agency of Hattie to three very powerful black female characters. As a queering of the original text, it reconfigures the narrative as a queer-core statement embracing intersectionality (the black and transgender characters are all eventually welcome into the radical feminist cause), and it emphasizes and literalizes the feminist subtext of the original. For example, in the Don Siegel version the amputation of the soldier’s leg is an obvious symbol of castration, which empowers the women and reinvigorates their female solidarity. In my version, the “castration” becomes literal with the gender reassignment of Volker, the captive “soldier.” Freud’s notion of “castration anxiety” is repurposed in the service of feminist and gender activism and female liberation.
Cineaste: I was curious how you became so familiar with the nuances of the lesbian separatist milieu. Are there specific aspects of German separatism that were (or are) distinctive?
LaBruce: When I was in high school and university, I hung out almost exclusively with women. In high school I wrote a paper citing feminism as the savior of the world, which deeply aggravated my male teacher, and as an undergrad I took a course called “Protest Literature and Movements” that introduced me to Juliet Mitchell’s Women: The Longest Revolution and the novels of Doris Lessing, whose novel, The Golden Notebook, I was obsessed with. When I took a postgraduate course called “Psychoanalysis and Feminism,” I was the only male student in a class of about fifteen women. At the end of the term, the class decided to extend the course as a summer reading group, and there was a vote to see whether or not I, as a male, could participate. I was voted off the island. I was disappointed, but I could also understand why they would want to keep it all female. I hung out more with radical lesbians in the punk scene, and I lived in an all-female household with members of a girl band called Fifth Column. I always lived with women right up until I was in my late thirties, when I finally got my own place.
In San Francisco in the late Eighties, I hung out with lesbian separatists. Only I and a very few other queer punk boys were occasionally allowed into their circles. In Toronto in the Nineties, a number of bars would have a weekly or monthly “dyke night,” and they were the coolest parties in town where all the most exciting queers and queer punks would congregate. I was always more into intersectionality, forging bonds and solidarity between fags and dykes and transgender people, and encouraging racial inclusion. But I could understand why some lesbians and some gay men wanted to be separatists, to live exclusively in an all-female or all-male environment, respectively. It represented a certain militancy, an extreme gesture of the refusal of heteronormativity, a sexually charged bonding that rejected the dominant social order. When I started visiting Berlin regularly starting in 1990, I hung out more with gay male and transgender queers, but my producer, Jürgen Brüning, has always been very lesbo-centric, and many of my movies have featured strong and militant lesbian characters.
Cineaste: Some of the critical response to The Misandrists seems to be misguided, especially because a few commentators thought you were merely skewering lesbian separatism. Melissa Anderson, from my vantage point, had it right in claiming that it’s an affectionate parody of groups of this kind.
LaBruce: It’s a tricky film because I do allow for quite a lot of ambiguity in terms of how to read the film, and my own ambivalence about a number of problematic dynamics of extreme radical movements and groups are laid bare. I actually have a soft spot for both lesbian separatism and feminist essentialism, for example, but I also understand that any extremist ideology runs the risk of becoming dogmatic, or doctrinaire, or at its worst ends up betraying the very values and beliefs that their radicalism was predicated on in the first place. The theme of the oppressed becoming the oppressor runs through all of my work, and it’s something that I’ve witnessed first hand in some of the radical movements that I’ve participated in. For me it started out in the academic world when I would observe professors and academics living their personal lives in diametrical opposition to the radical ideas they espoused. We called them limousine liberals, Gucci Marxists, or champagne socialists. (My main mentor during my university years, the brilliant film critic and professor Robin Wood, was a true exception—he always practiced exactly what he preached.) Or you would have professors in monogamous marriages with children railing against monogamy and the nuclear family.
In radical leftist movements it’s often about beginning to act in ways that are at odds with leftist principles. Authoritarianism may creep in, or elitism, or hierarchical tendencies, or the marginalization or censure of oppositional voices within the movement. In The Misandrists, this is the essence of Big Mother. She is a formidable character, highly intelligent, militant, driven, and she has a great sense of humor! But she is also a bit of a left-wing dictator and a bit of a hypocrite—she encourages free love, but seems to be monogamous herself; she eschews social hierarchies while maintaining them; she doesn’t always practice what she preaches. (She forbids smoking, but smokes herself, also an example of her being privileged and “above the rules.”) She is also against any diversion from the strict order she imposes on the girls—she isn’t open to the idea of the “schismatic” Isolde, who is a transgender girl, from joining the ranks of their radical group, at least initially. (As Antje puts it, “we are free to love whomever we like— as long as she has a vagina,” and Ute points out that Big Mother would throw Isolde out if she thought she was a virgin.)
I love Big Mother, and I agree with pretty much everything she says, but she’s problematic, and emblematic of a lot of unfortunate tendencies on the radical left. The Misandrists, then, both supports radical feminism and offers a critique of it as well. It’s meant to be polemical. But the misandry in the film seems quite genuine and necessary. The “castration” of Volker is meant to be cathartic. It’s always exhilarating to turn the tables on the patriarchy, and the B-movie and exploitation film tropes of the film allow for some delicious feelings of revenge!
Cineaste: One of the most clueless reviewers, writing for an online publication called Hyperallergic, didn’t appreciate the film’s humor and branded it “equal parts Born in Flames and Girls Gone Wild” while concluding that the “film’s portrayal of lesbian desire looms perilously close to heterocentric schoolgirl porn.” This is either willful distortion—or perhaps, don’t you think, a paradoxical example of the “political correctness” you’re often at pains to critique? I suppose this sort of thing occasionally comes up when male directors depict lesbian desire (e.g., Blue Is the Warmest Color—even though The Misandrists doesn’t have much in common with that film at all.) https://hyperallergic.com/445157/bruce-labruce-the-misandrists-film-review/
LaBruce: Wow, “equal parts Born in Flames and Girls Gone Wild” sounds amazing to me! I think I’ll start using that quote in the press kit for the film! Yes, this stripe of political correctness and the critique it represents are so basic and obvious. First of all, the Seventies soft-core sexploitation films that I’m referencing in the film (treated with equal parts homage and parody) were largely made by straight men, and some of the films had lesbian undertones, but I don’t really see that as a problem per se. It’s really silly and naive to object to and be offended by every instance of a straight man representing female characters as sexy and as objects of desire. Russ Meyer, for example, had a great appreciation of women, and his movies, especially Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! and are deeply feminist even as the women are viewed as sexual objects, or more accurately, subjects. In general I have no problem with the sexual objectification of either women or men as long as the people performing it are willing participants and have their own agency and it’s thoroughly consensual. It’s not difficult to tell by the tone and tenor of a film whether or not the filmmaker is exulting and appreciating women, or deliberately demeaning them in a disrespectful way.
I even have no problem with the tendency toward the debasement of the love object, as Freud called it, which can apply equally to men and women. Sex is a force of nature that is complicated and sometimes even dangerous. The politically correct left nowadays tends to treat sexuality in general as if it’s something vaguely distasteful, and on the mainstream left there is a tendency toward a new moralism about porn and prostitution. I have no problem identifying myself as a pornographer (or a prostitute), and I gladly make porn featuring both men and women. (I recently made two more films for Erika Lust, a feminist porn company based in Barcelona, which will be released soon.)
I’ve read Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” like everyone else, but this simplistic notion of the “male gaze” seems quite antediluvian by now. In The Misandrists, as in many of my films, I take every opportunity to subvert the sexual gaze, to make the audience self-conscious of the way they watch sexual imagery and porn as spectators, often using distanciation techniques such as films-within-the film or having the gaze controlled by female filmmaker characters within the film. (At least five of my films that I can think of feature female filmmaker characters.) Secondly, as opposed to Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Misandrists is made by a gay man, a Kinsey Six gay man to be precise. But the idea that a gay man can’t appreciate the beauty and sexuality of women is absurd and insulting. I hope that reviewer is aware of how much misogyny actually exists in the mainstream gay world. I should think that when a gay man represents the sexuality of girls and women in such a fond and sensual and appreciative way, it should be a taken for what it is: a love letter to the female of the species.
Cineaste: The references early on to the girls “positing” themselves as ”subjects” betrays a familiarity with Hegelian Marxism or anarcho-Marxism. The commune/separatist boarding school might also be viewed as a parodic version of Rudi Dutschke’s injunction to create alternative institutions.
La Bruce: For someone who regards himself as a “recovering academic,” my films often do contain an awful lot of political and philosophical content. It’s all residual, from my academic training at university. I try to use it as judiciously as possible, and even sometimes to turn it against itself, or make it comical through satire. Or, counterintuitively, I make it ribald or sexually suggestive. In an opening scene of The Misandrists, after Ute complains about women not being allowed “to posit themselves authentically as subjects,” Editha, who is trying to seduce her (and who is later revealed to be a cop!), comes on to her by saying, “I know how we can posit ourselves authentically as subjects” while lying on top of her and moving in for a kiss. In a way, she’s taking the piss out of Ute’s academic pretensions, which have obviously been instilled in her by Big Mother. Later, when Isolde seduces Volker after revealing to him she has a cock, she says seductively, while baring her breasts, “It’s time to reconcile your revolutionary beliefs with your sexual politics.” It’s hardly the standard come-on line, but in my films the academic is often trumped by the pure expression of sexuality.
Having said all that, you’re right about the anarcho-Marxist angle. I’ve hung out with a lot of anarchists in my day, and they can be the most rule-bound, hierarchical, and dogmatic characters you could imagine. At heart, I am more like Isolde —schismatic, “a separatist amongst separatists.” I tend to be more of a loner, an outsider, and an individualist. Communitarianism is my worst nightmare! But I am sympathetic to anarcho-syndicalist and anarcho-Marxist propositions. And I’m very much against dogma and “political correctness,” to use a timeworn phrase. I might even consider myself a radical pragmatist. It probably explains a lot of the ambivalence toward the radical left in my work.
Cineaste: Perhaps some West German antiauthoritarian leftists are also besotted with Emma Goldman—hence the allusion to her in the photo?
LaBruce: Probably. I know I am! I thought the image was particularly appropriate as it’s the mug shot taken when she was arrested for allegedly being a co-conspirator in the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz in 1901. Obviously, she didn’t have anything to do with it, but it was said that the assassin had been inspired by Goldman’s statement that “all rulers should be exterminated.” No doubt Big Mother would have no problem with assassinating patriarchs! However, if you dig a little deeper, Goldman’s political beliefs in terms of feminism have been deemed as problematic by some feminists, mostly because she was skeptical about women’s suffrage, fearing that it would merely encourage women to participate in a corrupt, capitalist partriarchal system and thereby perpetuate their oppression. She hated liberal reformers, and Big Mother would definitely agree. Some critics have accused Goldman of supporting heteronormativity, when in reality she made supportive statements about homosexuals and gender outcasts, and reputedly was, herself, bisexual. She has been criticized for calling for harmony between the sexes, believing that they should be united in their opposition to capitalist hierarchies, but of course she meant only if they can exist on absolutely equal terms. (Big Mother would not care for this.) And finally, she believed in sexual freedom, which Big Mother would wholeheartedly endorse!
Cineaste: The injunction to “fuck freely” references Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Perhaps you could say something about the influence of that film on your work, especially because there are also Reichian themes in The Raspberry Reich.
LaBruce: Makavejev’s Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organism, both of which I saw when I was in film school, have been a big influence on my work, as has Wilhelm Reich. I studied a lot of psychoanalytic theory at university, and my film mentor, the great film critic Robin Wood, was a somewhat devoted Reichian. In The Raspberry Reich, Gudrun, the leader of the would-be radical leftist terrorist gang, believes in the healing power of the orgasm. She believes that if everyone got in touch with their orgasm, a great wave of psychic healing would wash over the Earth and eliminate all wars. That’s very Reichian. As for WR, I love everything about that movie. I love the aesthetic, the agit-prop style, the irreverence, the stark sexuality, and the sexual dialectics. It’s a great political allegory about the failure of Soviet Communism, but communicated through the lens of sexuality.
The inextricable link between the political and the sexual is really what my movies are all about, and that I owe to Reich and Makavejev. The use of sexual explicitness in Sweet Movie had a huge impact on me. Actually, in The Raspberry Reich I have a scene of two boys walking down the street eating each other’s ice cream cones, flagrantly flaunting their homosexuality, which pays homage to a similar scene with Jackie Curtis in WR. I also love the terrorist in WR who is running around New York City masturbating with a gun, which I completely stole for my movie.
Cineaste: In The Raspberry Reich, there are of course references to the Situationist subculture via extensive quotations from Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. Do you consider The Misandrists something of a companion piece to the previous film?
LaBruce: As a punk in the Eighties, I was heavily influenced by the Situationists, who were quite proto-punk themselves. My friends and collaborators were very much into the strategy of détournement in our punk fanzines and experimental super-8 films—hijacking imagery and ideas from the capitalist media and reconfiguring them to turn that system against itself. I definitely use that strategy in The Misandrists, which “queers” a number of mainstream films in service of my feminist, anticapitalist agenda, movies as wide-ranging as The Trouble with Angels, Ship of Fools, Women in Revolt, The Beguiled, The Dirty Dozen, and Ulrike Meinhof’s Bambule. (The Raspberry Reich “queers” WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, and Godard’s La Chinoise.) I would say that in a way The Misandrists is Situationist in its strategy even more so than The Raspberry Reich inasmuch as it stays fairly strictly within the conventions and expectations of certain narrative genre films—B-movies, Seventies erotic exploitation films, Sixties Hollywood films, European art films, B-horror films—but subverts them for its own political purposes. I also enact a kind of détournement on a number of feminist texts such as de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Ulrike Meinhof’s collected columns Everybody Talks About the Weather... We Don’t. Although I believe my film still remains a kind of feminist text itself, it subverts and reorganizes those texts to challenge or question some of their assumptions.
Cineaste: What were the details of your being sued for using that iconic Che Guevara poster in Raspberry?
La Bruce: Oh, dear. It’s quite a saga. Long story short, my co-producer, Jürgen Brüning and I were sued by the estate of Alberto Korda, the personal photographer of Che Guevara and author of his most famous photograph, for using that image in The Raspberry Reich without permission. Considering its ubiquity, on lunch pails, backpacks, and coffee mugs, we assumed we would be safe in using the image, but in fact we were sued for a million dollars Canadian for its use. The estate had only sued one other entity— a vodka company—for copyright in that case, for using the photograph for blatantly commercial and capitalist purposes. In our case, we contravened their other prohibition: using the image to defile or degrade the public image of Che. (Otherwise, they claim to approve of the noncopyrighted use of the image.)
I guess it didn’t help that I blew the photo up to wall-size and had a character named Che masturbate on it! The fifty-page summons was delivered to my door by a sheriff in Toronto, and it was all very intimidating. It was somewhat ironic, considering that the film, although a critique of the radical left, is obviously sympathetic to certain socialist and/or communist beliefs. (Although I was also well aware of Che Guevera’s toxic homophobia, and purposefully “queered” him in the film as much as possible.) As the suit was filed in France, which has some of the harshest copyright laws in the world, the celebrated gay French attorney Emmanuel Pierrat, with whom we shared contacts, defended us, and he did it as pro bono as possible. The case dragged on for close to a year, and finally we technically lost, but the damages were severely reduced. Including court costs, we ended up having to pay close to €30,000, which effectively ate up all of our profits. (The film’s budget was around €60,000.) It was a complicated case involving the distribution of the DVD (Amazon, for one, was named in the suit), and so there are a number of countries in which we’re not legally allowed to distribute the film. We did, however, excise the image from the hardcore version of the movie, entitled The Revolution Is My Boyfriend, replacing it with slogans like “Fuck Copyright” and “Intellectual Property is Counterrevolutionary,” and it can be distributed legally. My husband at the time was Cuban, and about ten years later I travelled to Cuba with him to show my movie Gerontophilia at the Havana International Film Festival, with some vindication. I wrote an article about the whole affair for Black Book magazine, which you can find on my Website at brucelabruce.com.
Cineaste: The anarchist writer Bob Black once compared feminist separatism to a cult and claimed that separatists found it difficult to extricate themselves entirely from “patriarchal” society. Some of this comes out in the film, and separatism’s own authoritarianism is apparent in the initial hostility toward Isolde and her transgender status. (I suppose these scenes also reference certain old-style feminists’ hostility to the transgender rights movement and the derogatory label “TERF.”)
LaBruce: I do consider separatist movements as cults in some regard, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think separatists find themselves unable to extricate themselves from patriarchal society per se, but rather from a dominant order that is based on privilege, class stratification, hierarchies, and authoritarianism. (I guess that mostly means patriarchies lol.) One question The Misandrists poses is: if there was a dominant matriarchal order, based on female essentialist principles, would it actually be more equitable, more egalitarian, and less hierarchical? Feminist essentialism posits the biologically female as more nurturing, more empathetic, and more attuned to Nature (Mother Nature, the cycles of menstruation tied to the moon and the tides, etc.), but of course we also know that Nature can also be very chaotic and volatile and hierarchical, and, in some sense, seemingly unjust.
Big Mother is a dominant force of Nature (evidenced by her primal scream after the castration/gender reassignment scene), and pretty strictly authoritarian, but she does come around at the end and accepts both transgender characters as part of the female revolution. After Ulrike Meinhof, she also believes in the principle of “counterviolence,” i.e., countenancing violent extremism by women if it is a reaction against violence perpetrated against them by the patriarchy, a kind of fighting fire with fire strategy. But of course this position opens up the potential of being just as morally questionable and indefensible as the enemy.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination, due in 2019 from Verso in a revised second edition.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4