We Still Need the Women’s Army: Form and Politics in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames
“I don’t want to tell a story. I have no story to tell. I have problems to figure out.”
Lizzie Borden’s radical feminist quasi-documentary Born in Flames (1983) constructs its story through a deeply space-oriented plot. That is, where (the socialist democracy of the U.S.A) is often more important than when (ten years after “The War of Liberation,” a successful but now stagnant socialist revolution). Due to this structuring, the film escapes easy summarization, and is best discussed through its portrayal of various groups: the semi-rival punk-poetic Radio Ragazza and the empowering Phoenix Radio; the bourgeois female editors of the Socialist Youth Review; various striking organizations (secretaries and out-of-work women); and the Women’s Army, a so-called terrorist group that advocates direct action, and is gaining broader appeal among urban women. While these groups are disparate in their specific aims and leaders, through the guidance of Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), a leader in the Women’s Army, they begin to act as a radical collective body.
The upbeat anthem of unity and sisterhood, however, is not Borden’s refrain. Constantly eschewing easy categorizations on both a narrative and formal level, Born in Flames puts forth a vision of a complex feminist movement (and of the feminists within it), located in very real socio-political milieus. Often operating in a faux-doc style, the film does not always account for the origin of some of its shots: are the women self-recorded—literally taking the tool of representation into their own hands—or are the shots culled from surveillance footage? In fact, the theme of surveillance is established from the outset, when we hear a voiceover of a male FBI agent briefing a colleague on each feminist organization’s goals and leadership. By never establishing one author of the film (a choice that parallels Borden’s own method of working collaboratively with feminist groups), this multi-vocal formal structure prevents the work from being read as a singular narrative about the struggles of one political entity, and instead takes the social totality into account. In this way, Born in Flames navigates the difficult project outlined by Laura Mulvey in her 1979 essay “Feminism, Film and the Avant-Garde” to “assert a women’s language as a slap in the face for patriarchy” while also forging “an aesthetics that attacks language and representation.” As such, Mulvey proposes a politics and a form that are in generative tension.i
Though the film lacks a clear protagonist, such a role might be assigned to Norris, the leader in the Women’s Army described in the film as a “butch, homosexual, black woman.” Early on, she is laid off from her construction job, bringing issues of class (along with race and gender) to the fore of the Women’s Army’s concerns. Representing a trifecta of oppression (being black, working class, and female), Norris is an evidently over-determined character. But just as the film begins to centre upon Norris (charting her journey to Africa to meet with women in the Western Sahara and buy weapons), Born in Flames undermines this narrative clarity: Norris is arrested and found dead in her jail cell the next day. The cause of death is ruled as hanging, though the film suggests foul play. Her passing marks a turning point between Mulvey’s two sides of the feminist film aesthetic divide: it moves away from a positive identity-based representation of Norris, to stitch together a collective subject of politics.ii After Norris’ death, the Women’s Army goes beyond being a group interested in small-scale direct action politics—anti-rape bike squads, home care, child care, women’s advocacy, and so on—to one that will take up arms in the cause of radical equality. It is from this conscious shift to militant resistance that Born in Flames proclaims the value of collective feminist revolutionary action over individual opposition.
The film imagines radical equality both in terms of the future and through seemingly mundane actions in the present, embodied in daily life. Two montage scenes depict a variety of incongruous activities—cutting hair, caring for children, putting up posters, wrapping poultry in a grocery store deli, placing a condom on an erect penis—as the “disjunctive collage of women’s individual and collective work,” in Christina Lane’s words.iii Crucially, these montages map out the social reproduction of labour—a task that appears to be outside the busy hustle and bustle of the factory or the office, but is revealed as a “free gift” that the state and capital cannot do without. In Capital Volume 1, Marx makes reference to cooperation in the factory as labour’s “free gift” to capital, meaning that the camaraderie and efficient work-sharing between labourers produces surplus for the capitalist against the interest of the labourers. Thus, the work of social reproduction, largely done by women, constitutes the shadowy truth of this “free gift.” As Maya Andrea Gonzalez puts it, “capital cannot, if it is to remain capital, take direct responsibility for the reproduction of the working class.”iv Labourers must return, again and again, to the labour market precisely because they have to look after their own upkeep. In these montage scenes, form meets politics: Born in Flames makes social reproduction legible as work done outside the bounds of a so-called socialist state and unpaid for by capital. Thus, as the members of the Women’s Army care, feed, clothe, house, and educate one another, they begin to generate a powerful counter to the gendered division of social reproduction by embodying anti- or post-capitalist social relations in the present—a starting point for radical politics.
In shunning neat political representation, Born in Flames refuses to be summarized through any of its constitutive parts. In an interview with Anne Friedberg, Borden attests to the film’s difficulty: “Two things I was committed to with the film were questioning the nature of narrative…and creating a process whereby I could release myself from my own bondage in terms of class and race.”v The film’s take on both categories—narrative and collectivity—remains its internal strength, as it suggests that taking action for a better future won’t come through simple melting pot or mosaic solutions, but through intense internal and external struggle.
It is this process of addressing such divisive politics that makes Born in Flames important to a history of feminist cinema and Marxist-feminist projects (whose historical aims have been not only abolishing gender, but also capitalist social relations). Indeed, it is both the film’s formal innovations and the way its politics cannot be simply attributed to one voice or character that animates its continuing importance today. Born in Flames, above all, does not fit easily into liberal politics. Rather than polemically presenting violence or pacifism as viable solutions, Borden outlines a number of rhetorical, activist, and political positions, and allows their antagonisms to play out in the representational space of the film. This positions the fantasy at the heart of Born in Flames closer to a formal or structural fantasy than to a dream of the perfect revolutionary movement; Borden stages not a set of relationships but the very possibility for those relationships in the first place. That is, rather than portray a moment during whiche contradiction is masked or worked through, Born in Flames posits a filmic space where disparate groups can work through antagonisms and where the conflicts within and between categories of race, gender, and class are not washed over by liberal, multicultural ideology. It is not the question of how the film accomplishes this, but the question of how we might begin thinking about jumping registers ourselves, from the aesthetic-political register of the film to the collective register in our own cities and our own social relations that constitute the limit today.
Notes: I acknowledge that having lengthy thank-yous for short pieces like this one may seem indulgent, but I insist, as I argue in my piece, that knowledge and action are intensely collective processes. And since I’ve been thinking about this film for several years now, my reading of it has moved forward in step with many others. First, I’d like to recognize the hard work and dedication of cléo’s editorial team: thank you! I am also deeply grateful to my two sections of English 123 at the University of Alberta who watched this film with me, to the Marxist-Feminist Reading group for the lengthy discussions about social reproduction, and to Adam Carlson and Ryan Culpepper, with whom I presented a version of this paper at the 2012 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. Also, a special thanks to Alexandra Carruthers, Marija Cetinic, Jeff Diamanti, and Justin Sully for their feedback and suggestions for further reading.
[i] Laura Mulvey, “Feminism, Film and the Avant-Garde,” in Framework 10 (1979): 3.
[ii] Cf. Teresa de Lauretis, “Aesthetic and Feminist Theory: Rethinking Women's Cinema,” in New German Critique 34 (Winter, 1985): 154-166.
[iii] Christina Lane, Feminist Hollywood, 129.
[iv] Maya Andrea Gonzalez, “Communization and the Abolition of Gender,” in Communization and Its Discontents ed. Benjamin Noys (New York: Minor Compositions, 2011).
[v]Anne Friedberg, “An Interview with Lizzie Borden,” in Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 1.2 (1984): 43.