The Misandrists, written and directed by Bruce La Bruce, 1 hour 31 minutes, 2017.
As sexism – pure, naked sexism and misogyny – rears its ugly ahead in the liberal democratic public sphere, it appears ever more appropriate to look back for insight to the feminist 1970s: a time oft-mythologized1 and (at times) faithfully portrayed as the era of very angry women. The 1970s are a complex moment in North American feminism’s past. The way we re-visit this so-called ‘foundational’ era of the Women’s Liberation Movement, it seems, will play a role in how we can imagine the horizons of feminism’s futures. Whether through ‘wave’ metaphors or ‘generational’ pictures of feminist history, how feminists treat the 1970s comes to serve as a kind of litmus test. In her introduction to a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly on 1970s feminisms of South Atlantic Quarterly, Lisa Disch explains how this plays out.
Will she tell […] a story of “progress” from essentialism to multiplicity? Of “loss” of unity to fragmentation? Or of “return” to politics via materiality? None of these stories does justice to women’s liberation historiographically, nor should we expect them to. Each one is its own intervention into the present moment.2
Canadian queer director Bruce La Bruce’s first film centering women and the femme body takes a different tack: The Misandrists refuses an answer to the question, showcasing the vicissitudes of radical feminism in all of their delicious, shocking, messy, and frankly, sexy glory. We are invited to witness the joys and beauties of women acting and imagining together.
La Bruce’s Female Liberation Army, a fictional lesbian-separatist branch of the feminist resistance, is housed under the comically strict rule of Big Mother; for women fighting for sexual liberation, their daily routines are anything but free. We are presented with women who have decided that the sexual liberation they desire notwithstanding, discipline will be required to build feminist strength. They go from smoking and discussing gay porn in their panties to courteously and quietly dining at the table with their headmistress. While it may be tempting to read the film as simply a satirical account of radical feminism, this reading does a disservice to the revelry in artifice and exaggeration that characterizes La Bruce’s camp. Writing for The New York Times, Teo Bugbee writes that La Bruce utilizes camp to make a mockery of this feminist matriarchy.
The women’s “recitations of Big Mother’s doctrines are stiff,” writes Bugbee, “encouraging the audience to doubt the sincerity of their cause.” Certainly, the disjuncture between the women’s disciplined environment and indulgent sexual practices gives the audience a laugh. Still, the resurgence of the #MeToo movement and with it the almost daily revelations of sexual assault by powerful men looms large in viewers minds: I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the Female Liberation Army’s cause one bit. Indeed, The Misandrists (2017)’s campy approach to radical feminism notwithstanding, the film’s quaint picture of rebellious women speaks to contemporary feminist desires to see the radicalism of the second-wave burst forth anew, this time, without the trans-exclusionary elements of its pasts. La Bruce’s film is not a normative endorsement or rejection of radical feminism; instead, it places on display the pleasures to be found in creative feminist resistance, all the while exposing the contradictions inherent to a politics of gender and sexuality.
One thing that The Misandrists captures so well is that a radical feminism today cannot fail to learn from its mistakes. While I agree with feminists who advocate an abandonment of the “wave” metaphor in feminist historiography, on which account feminism is portrayed as following a neat linear progress (from middle-class white feminism, to working-class feminism, to intersectional feminism), we need to fess up to the misguided attempts to build power through separatist means. It was a mistake for the Womyn’s music festivals to exclude their trans sisters, to debate whether women could bring male children to women-only spaces, and to think that feminism required one to adopt political lesbianism.3 At the same time that striving for a world without men led many lesbian separatists in the 1970s to radically re-imagine their social worlds, a displaced worry about the precarity of their projects led them to exclude allies on the basis of perceived sexual difference. Their fear of the phallus or masculinity and exclusionary practices foreclosed the possibility that gender is, in Judith Butler’s infamous phrase, “a doing”, rather than something you are born with, or something that you have in your pants.
La Bruce’s Female Liberation Army features women of all stripes – femme, butch, white, Latinx, Black, and trans – that come together under the tutelage of ‘The Big Mother’ to plan for the lesbian revolution. No men, we are told, are allowed into the building that houses them. In a hilarious scene, the women’s dinner is interrupted as a policeman knocks on the door – he visits from the German army’s nearby station to inquire about a missing male enemy combatant. After each of the girls is questioned as to his whereabouts, outside the convent, they return to the table and Big Mother explains: I fucking hate those pigs!, while being sure to mention that she means the “man” kind, and not the “animal” kind, in keeping with tropes that associate lesbianism with vegetarianism. As the film progresses, we find out that one of the women has indeed been housing and slowly falling in love with the German combatant in the building’s den. As word spreads about this “secret”, so too does word spread about another: Isolde, one of the women, has a cock.
The strength of trans-exclusionary feminisms past and present led me to worry at this moment of the film. In her influential “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag tells us that camp can never be taken altogether seriously: but seriously, the dynamics and politics of how Isolde was treated after her “reveal” left much to be desired. For instance, the narrative arc of a “plot twist” felt inappropriate as a way of symbolizing trans existence and identity, given the frequent violence inflicted upon trans women whose aggressors claim to have been “fooled”. These hesitations notwithstanding, in the film’s squirmish culminating scene, we are happy to find that it is not Isolde’s dick that Big Mother decides needs to go. Her membership in the Female Liberation Army has never been dependent on transitional surgery, but the male German combatant’s will be.
We find out that Isolde has been secretly injecting him with estrogen, and the women agree that since this is the case and that she loves Isolde and supports the cause, she can become a member of the Female Liberation Army. Big Mother has decided however, that this particular membership will be conditional upon surgical castration. The scene is dark, the members of the Army standing in a neat line dressed in white awaiting, in front of them, for the combatant’s procedure to take place. This scene is at the same time cold and surgical, strangely intimate and ritualistic. As the combatant lies gently restrained on a surgical table, we see in their eyes that they may not wholesale disagree with Big Mother’s judgment. The disjuncture between feminist desires for political liberation and the messiness of sexed bodies is never more apparent: for about twenty seconds, blood spatters all over the women’s white clothing, they stare blankly and stand unflinching. Rather than assume that this exaggerated scene is simply a mockery of trans-exclusionary feminism, however, we have reason to approach the tension otherwise.
In accepting Isolde as she is but requiring the combatant’s castration, La Bruce’s film speaks to something profoundly feminist: the need for revolutionary catharsis to break the cycle of fear and despair that accompanies decades of being unable to imagine a world without patriarchal oppression. Decades of being told that without men, we would be nothing, and that as women, even as things got better, we would never be as powerful as men. I feel inclined to say: something about this scene was necessary, despite the perceived trans-inclusivity of the Misandrists’ Female Liberation Army. Perhaps, in order to harness truly transformative feminist action, we are going to need to dig up some of those profoundly satisfying elements of the radical feminisms of the past, to keep our imaginations going and sustain our hopes for a better future. This movie, on many accounts, is part of that imagination: not because it mocks the feminist past, but because it stages the beauty, hilarity, and power of women acting in concert to build a new world.
What La Bruce’s film so astutely points to is that we can re-create and re-ignite the energies of the feminist 1970s without falling into the traps of “gender essentialism”. The accounts are endless; the aggressors are all around us.
The Misandrists provokes us to consider antagonism as an essential part of the feminist project of social transformation. As Big Mother tells us, “Remember ladies. The fastest way to a man’s heart, is through his chest.”
i. For an account of how the feminist second-wave gets cast in this way, and in particular of how the ‘bra-burning’ woman came to stand in for the women’s liberation movement, see Victoria Hesford, Feeling Women’s Liberation Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2013; 25-81.
ii. Lisa Disch, “Introduction,” South Atlantic Quarterly 114.4 (2015): 697-699.
iii. For an example, see the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group’s classic case for political lesbianism in the pamphlet Love your enemy? (1981). https://materialfeminista.milharal.org/files/2012/10/Political-Lesbianism-The-Case-Against-Heterosexuality-LRFG.pdf
Agatha Slupek is a socialist feminist based in Chicago. She studies political theory at the University of Chicago, organizing grad workers with Graduate Students United-AFT. She is originally from Montréal, where she was active in the labor and student movements.