Review by Heather Cromarty
A little less then ten years after her first video, where she played the perfect conception of a virgin-whore, Britney Spears seemingly lost her mind. By then a divorced mother of two, Britney was for a short time uncontrollable, too wild, and unredeemable. She lived as a construction of our society, and when she failed to continually live up to expectation, without the mitigating factor of girlhood, she became too dangerous. Afterwards, and for years to the present day, she’s been a legal child, under the court-sanctioned control of her father. The production, “Britney Spears,” has been a visible locus of our society’s expectations for, and fears of, untameable girls. She is the modern example of a woman shut away for not performing her role perfectly. This is what happens when a public woman—in a spectacular way—defies convention. She is reduced to back to childhood.
In The Dialectic of Sex (1970), Shulamitih Firestone says “children of every class are lower-class, just as women have always been.” The linear conclusion combines women and children into one oppressed class. One can surmise that the girl child, lacking the potential to one day be a man, is the most derided and least desired of human beings under a patriarchal system. Firestone notes that “Historically childhood did not apply to women.” This is not to say that women are taken seriously from a younger age, but that women of any age are forever confused with having the intellect and capabilities of the child. This is how other marginalised groups become conflated with young girls. A French collective, Tiqqun, puts it this way in Preliminary Material for a Theory of the Young-Girl (Semiotext(e), 2012):
Consumer society now seeks out its best supporters from among the marginalized elements of society—women and youth first, followed by homosexuals and immigrants.
The Young-Girl, as explained in Theory of the Young-Girl, need not be precisely young, or physically female, but is always insecure about her place in society, easy to defeat and sway to a capitalist agenda. Wiping out freedom of choice with an abundance of choice, capitalism creates zombies of acquisition, a society drunk and corrupted on stuff. The Young-Girl especially has no way to remove herself. She may only play the game better and harder. The Young-Girl is the best driver of a capitalist society, the perfect consumer, and through her capitalism and patriarchy work hand-in-hand to benefit each other. Not only does the Young-Girl consume, she “is the one who has preferred to become a commodity, rather than passively suffer its tyranny. Shame for the Young-Girl doesn’t come from being bought, but rather from not being bought.”
George Bataille wrote in Eroticism (1957, trans. 2012) that, “For a man, there is nothing more depressing than an ugly woman” and that a woman’s beauty “has a cardinal importance, for ugliness cannot be spooled, and to despoil is the essence of eroticism.” (Beauty, for the purposes of the Theory of the Young-Girl, equals her degree of compliance.) Moving forward in time Firestone adds, “One does not have to bother actually degrading one’s sex object; [...] her attributes, by social definition, already render her degraded.” The degradation of the Young-Girl, an object that can be owned and given “compliments eroticism which heightens the value of the object of desire” (Bataille). Like bottled water, Tiqqun says the Young-Girl “is bought because she has value, she has value because she is bought. The tautology of commodities… demand rises the more expensive it is.” The Young-Girl feels worthwhile, now that she has worth, whether or not it comes at her expense. She is unable to participate in eroticism (Bataille didn’t leave much room for women to have an autonomous concept of it), but according to Tiqqun deals instead in “seduction,” which keeps “monads” impermeable to each other. “An impermeability to what she nevertheless embraces—that is what the Young-Girl calls ‘respect’” (Tiqqun).
Originally published in France in 1999, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl is written in short bursts, of no more than a couple sentences, in changing fonts. It is intentionally philosophical food for the oft-cited “MTV generation” attention span, cutting quickly from idea to idea. Each new scene illuminates the ones before. This is to say, it’s difficult going at first; these are pronouncements without the explication that readers are used to. The context is in the document itself, which requires completion for understanding.
Integration [...] requires that every person permanently self-valorize. (Tiqqun)
Another recent Semiotext(e) offering, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, is written in the same hyper, short-of-breath manner as Theory of the Young-Girl. A manifesto for legitimacy of the literature of “fucked-up girls,” Heroines seeks to unearth the lives of the “mad wives” of Modernism, and position the author herself somewhere in this un-canon, to align herself with the Heroines, and re-position the “girl” as a voice that deserves attention.
What Heroines does very well is create hunger for related reading. It encouraged me to go back to women writers; not Zelda or Vivenne, but Cixous and Jean Rhys and to re-read pieces of Plath’s biography. The gauze of agenda forces an intellectual curiosity of a kind that is so integral to Zambreno. For if the character of Kate Zambreno she gives us is so flawlessly flawed, embodying the cherry-picked illnesses of her subjects, it is the spiderwebs full of names in the corners of her house/book that are the real winners. “I do not experience the anxiety of influence with these women writers that I love,” she writes, “no no, I experience the ECSTASY of influence.” That much is wonderfully clear.
Heroines is a survey of literary women (and men) at once sweeping and detailed. Zambreno is interested in the minutiae of these women’s lives: their treatment at the hands of their men, their work, their clothing, the time spent in institutions, lists of literary friends and enemies. Yet when the book is set down for a while, the reader is mostly left with is Zambreno herself. Ironically, the travails of Viviene(ne) Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald are somewhat lost, merely a conduit to Zambreno’s biography. The wives act as canvases on which Zambreno can paint her life in “glittery silver toenail polish from OPI’s Swiss collection, an homage to [Zelda's] time in the Swiss asylum.” Brilliant and apologetically self-aware, yet unwilling or unable to pull herself out of depressions and sickness, Zambreno is decadent in her dysfunction. (Unlike Simone Weil, who “pushed bravely past her sinus headaches.”) “I am an invalid voluptuary,” she says.
Heroines is a weird “you’ve come a long way, baby,” where Zambreno is not committed for committing the sins of the past wives, but is still a “baby,” admitting that she–or perhaps her character–is testing the limits of infantalism and invalidism. (In the LARB, Emily M. Keeler notes negotiating the difference between Zambreno Author and Zambreno Character, saying “Does a ‘critical memoir’ demand some distance between narrator, character, and author?”) “I know how lucky I am,” Zambreno writes, “How every morning I wake up enveloped in support and love. How John considers it way more important that I have a successful day writing than anything else. He allows me my moods, my myopia.” She is careful to note, too, how good their sex life is. “In the world of Young-Girls, coitus appears as the logical sanction of all experience” (Tiqqun). It is a disturbing version of “having it all,” the romantic madness of the wives, their (seemingly) luxuriant illnesses, and a husband who is all forgiving. (It is likely I approached parts of Heroines very cynically, unable to indulge my own “irritable bowel,” my own “howling headaches,” going to work every day, literature living only in my “spare” time.)
Zambreno is constantly “sick sick sick.” This gives her time to read, write, and think. “Our maladies speak crassly and loudly for us” she says, and her documentation of illness and perfomative desperation is wedged in to a presupposition of her own making. “I hate that there is this role, the mad wife. And I hate when I play it,” she says, but if it’s devilish bargain, she has willingly entered into it. Self-aware and ironic, again, she notes that “American housewives who first read Nin’s journals felt they were given permission to leave their marriages, but then felt betrayed when they learned the truth” that Nin’s writing life was bankrolled by a husband. As Zambreno’s is. “Nin whose project was to write the ‘absolute truth’ in her diaries,” always read to me like she was lying. Heroines was illuminating on this point. Zambreno, contrary to Nin however, is candid about her living situation, though no less indebted to a man.
The privilege displayed in Heroines might be troubling for a segment of readers. Zambreno’s not unaware of her position and she is careful to thank her husband for supporting her ambitions in the midst of her bodily chaos. Does she do this because she’s reading about these awful husbands and is so thankful she doesn’t have to deal with such things? Is she defensively positioning her husband as “not one of those” while aligning herself with the mad wives? “Christ,” she writes, “I’ve become one of those essayists awash in their own privilege, yet I feel in many ways far far away from Joan Didion in her Malibu mansion.” But this awareness is no fix; if Didion is the marker of privilege, most of us will fall short. She writes of “the subaltern condition of being a literary wife,” which is a stunning misuse of the term, and seems indicative of her relative blindness to her own privilege.
Subaltern is not just a classy word for “oppressed,” for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie … Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. … They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.” (Source: Wikipedia. I acknowledge that Wikipedia may not be the best source material, but upon a quick investigation of the term ‘subaltern’ this most perfect of quotes appeared.)
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to create, women needed space and money: essentially the independence from any other responsibility. Zambreno asserts that “before he ever published a thing … [Flaubert] was milked and fed and cultivated and allowed. He was encouraged, and enabled.” This is the ideal, and yet, it is a sort of chauvinism. Often the argument for women to become equals (in a larger context) states that we have to start acting like men. Man is still the default. In worse times than Zambreno’s the “idea was the women got sick because they were trying to be like men when really they should be kept in an infantile state.” Other men said do away with the feminine altogether: “William Burroughs, who killed his wife… said and acknowledged this most plainly when he gave advice to an aspiring novelist: SHOOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK” So what does a woman writer do? Does she become the man, and shoot the interior bitch? As Zambreno asserts her right into this archetype of male independence from outside responsibility, she conversely spirals into a performance of the feminine as it has been defined by men: crazy, sick, concerned with appearance, infantilised, lonely, and claustro-agaraphobic. It leaves Zambreno appropriately—though probably not consciously—confused.
The very moment one acquires her, she is taken out of circulation, the mirage fades. (Tiqqun)
The other anxiety felt in Heroines is of leaving behind the forgivable silly charms of the Young-Girl for the erasure of the woman. “The hag is the writer” who can be taken seriously and girls “are charming diversions until they grow old or one grows bored with them.” A woman only leaves the girl behind “when she is expelled or violently expels herself from being considered a young lovely object (through age, illness, or madness).” Yet the option to go insane, so perfectly and dramatically, is denied to the current crop of young girls, so they are stuck—like Zambreno—in disarray, never knowing precisely where it is they stand. “If only the lack of meaning, so obvious throughout the Young-Girl’s life drove her insane; but no, it only leaves her in her state of terminal nonsense.” (Tiqqun) Zambreno is forced to maintain her beauty ablutions, which perform a resistance to being taken seriously. It is sabotage to her notion of self, yet almost impossible to refuse.
[The Young-Girl] is thus the first case of asceticism without ideal, of materialist penance. Whatever she says, it is not the happiness that the Young-Girl is denied, but the right to unhappiness. Yet she must remain essentially unhappy. (Tiqqun)
Unhappiness forces the Young-Girl to exert one of her meager list of powers: her spending power. Zambreno goes “for counselling sessions at Sephora. I consume. I am consumed.”
“I must be a woman,” Zambreno thinks, “because I am mad.” Madness is the moment in which one becomes a speaking, thinking, adult woman. “We forgive the eccentricities of young girls (sometimes), but almost never those of older difficult women.” Zambreno sees in the Young-Girl the possibility for a literature that is vibrantly and eminently human. It’s odd though, that she says “no one had told me you could write things about being a fucked-up girl” when we had Elizabeth Wurtzel (and Courtney Love) and the succession of mental illness memoirs in the 90s, and mid-century the legendary “Sylvia Plath along with fellow housewife-poet Anne Sexton. Sylvia who only took the mask off for her poetry.” But for the current crop of Young-Girls, it’s possible the “’true face” is still a mask, a terrifying mask: the true face of domination. Indeed, as soon as the Young-Girl “‘lets the mask fall,’ Empire is speaking to you live” (Tiqqun). This terrifying picture is Britney with her head shaved, brandishing an umbrella at the photographers there to feed a ravenous society images of “madness.” Like Zambreno’s Heroines, Britney is now sedated, heavily controlled, and logistically made a child. The ultimate recombination: full-grown woman forced back into Young-Girlhood, sold and packaged by parents and lovers, managers all, doped and denied agency.