Bruised Fruit: A Novel
by Anna Livia
(Firebrand Books, 1999)
ISBN 1563411067 $13.95
reviewed by Melissa White
Author Anna Livia takes the reader on quite a ride through the pages of Bruised Fruit, a new novel from Firebrand Books. A magical spell cast by a little girl with a sheep's afterbirth influences the course of events from the first chapter to the last. The "long glistening tube of muscle and blood" that she slips into her dysfunctional family's mutton and mushroom stew has the power to end bad things and even transform them into good, with surprising results.
Livia serves up not one but three bona fide bisexual characters for our delectation. Following a childhood of incestuous abuse, Patti Asquith, blonde bombshell, is plagued by a little sex-related homicide habit. Ella Weissman, middle-aged therapist, feels trapped in a five-year romantic hiatus. And Sydney, hermaphrodite and art dealer, struggles under the pain of continual gender prejudice and pines after a woman who wants only friendship. By the end of the book, all of them find better ways to meet their frustrated sexual and emotional needs -- and new lovers.
The novel opens with two disconnected story lines running parallel and gradually moving toward integration. We meet Patti as a pretty nine-year-old who avoids encounters with daddy by roaming the neighborhood with her closest friend, the ill-fated pit bull, Lucky. Caroline Shields, another major character, lives in London, deep in abusive partnership with her lover, Amanda Tate.
Patti and Caroline are unhappy and isolated, and their stories remain separate until they begin taking action to change their lives. Patti grows up, reaches for independence and experiments with new jobs, including an amusing stint as a relative for hire. During one temp assignment she meets Takehiro Yamamoto, a former gangster from Japan who serves as her guardian angel. On her path of healing, Caroline learns how to make love with fresh produce, decks Amanda, and shortly thereafter changes continents. Both Patti and Caroline start over in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they find community with others who have been tumbled too roughly by life and have bruises to show.
Although most of the main characters struggle with histories of severe abuse, in Bruised Fruit their lives are woven together and transformed into a lighthearted but not quite convincing crime thriller. More than a couple of over-privileged straight white males die along the way, as if their deaths were the price that must be paid for other characters to enjoy a happy ending. Although the novel is delightful to read, and Sydney in particular is a compelling, unique character, I felt dissatisfied with the easy resolution.
Because You Don't Have To Apologize For Your Size
by Marilyn Wann
(Ten Speed Press, 1998)
ISBN 0898159954 $12.95
reviewed by Hanne Blank
Even if I weren't a contributor to it, and even if Marilyn weren't one of the coolest women I know, I'd still be delirious about this book. Marilyn Wann's Fat!So?: Because You Don't Have To Apologize For Your Size is a long-overdue call to chubby arms -- and bellies, thighs, butts, and double chins.
Unlike many of the other wonderful books in the growing literature on size acceptance, Fat!So? never falls prey to the apologetic tone or victim-itis that sometimes plague even the best and brightest examples of fat-positive writing. Instead, what you find here is militant, vibrant, funny, unavoidably accurate writing on the socially difficult and emotionally volatile topic of fat.
Liberally peppered with thought-provoking photos and jazzy drawings -- including a sexy flip-book (check the upper right hand corners of the pages) featuring the juicy cover-babe doing a strip-tease -- Wann's book takes an unrestrained, honest look at the realities of fat. Debunking myth after myth, Wann cites the medical literature with the same facility with which she draws from the collective wisdom of her enormous circle of fat friends and fans. Frankly, I can't decide which I like better: the fact that this book brings together so many nuggets of evidence (culled from the pages of respected medical journals like The International Journal of Obesity) that diets don't work, or the flabulous lists of snappy comebacks to bigoted remarks. With Fat!So?, you'll never again be at a loss for words -- icy or erudite -- when your doctor, mother, boss, or someone on the street needles you about your weight!
Being fat, Wann argues, is not so different from being queer or bald, short or green-eyed, coming from a particular racial background, or being left-handed. Fat is just another one of the things that people are. That said, I have to add that from my perspective, being fat is not unlike being bisexual: it's not invisible the way bisexuality (usually) is, but it is something about which everyone assumes "something can or should be done." When it seems that everyone has a stake in asking you to change, being fat, like being bi, often means you just don't -- literally in some cases -- fit in. Read this book. Its humanity, honesty, and warm humor guarantee you'll fit in just fine... even if you're skinny.
Johanne Blank edits Zaftig!: Sex For The Well Rounded, an erotica 'zine. Individual issues are $7. Write to Zaftig!, 54 Boynton Street, First Floor, Boston, MA 02130, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
edited by Robyn Ochs
(Bisexual Resource Center, 1999; $13.95)
reviewed by Kevin McCulloch
Robyn Ochs and the good folks at Boston's Bisexual Resource Center are back with the third edition of their tremendous Bisexual Resource Guide. Expanded and revised just in time for the new millennium, the Guide keeps getting fatter, juicier, more diverse, and more exciting.
Besides nearly 200 pages of contact information for bisexual and bi-friendly groups in over 50 countries, the Guide includes articles on the definition of bisexuality, how to start a bi support group, how to find bisexual characters in literature and film, safer sex, and how to "get bi on the Internet." Whether you're looking for a bisexual disco in Berlin, a resource center in Zimbabwe, or kindred spirits in southern Mississippi, the indispensable Bisexual Resource Guide is the book for you.
directed by Jan De Bont
reviewed by Kai MacTane
Finally, along comes a movie in which even the mainstream press have noticed the presence of a bisexual character, and yet it's no cause for celebration. The Haunting stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo, an unapologetic bisexual woman, but it won't do our cause any help.
First, the standard review: The Haunting, directed by Jan De Bont (Speed, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Twister -- not a very encouraging résumé), is yet another version of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. While the 1963 movie of the same name did a wonderful job of bringing Jackson's subtle and complex psychological thriller to the screen, there's nothing subtle or complex about this movie. The script alternates between boring the living daylights out of the audience and trying to spook them with phony startling noises (such as the altogether-too-loud popping of a log in a fireplace).
The actors are mostly given little to work with, except Lili Taylor, in the lead role as Eleanor "Nell" Vance -- she is given altogether too much to work with, much of it self-contradictory and insipid. By the end of the movie, she is reduced to yelling "Stop it! Let them go!" at the ghosts and declaring ad nauseam that she "has to save the children". The fact that the children in question have been dead for more than a century could have put an eerie new spin on right-to-life rhetoric under other circumstances, but in the hands of screenwriter David Self, the repetition is simply tiresome.
Liam Neeson plays Dr. David Marrow, a psychologist researching fear, who has brought the other victims to Hill House under the guise of a study of insomnia and sleep disorders. Owen Wilson rounds out the major cast as Luke Sanderson, a shallow, feckless and not-very-bright fellow-participant in the insomnia/fear study. The special effects are rendered very well, but they can't save the movie from its own muddled plot -- and they're over-the-top for what should be a psychological thriller. When bones erupt in the main hall of the house, it just seems gauche. Altogether, this movie has nothing going for it but the sets; in every other arena, the 1963 original has it beat.
As for the bisexual content...
Theo arrives on-screen about 20 minutes into the movie, and within three minutes, she's declared very matter-of-factly that she has a boyfriend and a girlfriend. It's never mentioned whether they know about each other, but as a New York City artist, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume Theo's polyamorous as well as openly and unabashedly bi.
In Hollywood's twisted sense of morality, of course, this translates to "slut". Theo starts flirting with Nell almost immediately after arriving, referring to her as "blank canvas" and later bringing her a gorgeous robe (symbolically, the robe is a deep red color). She dresses the part as well, of course, slinking through the movie in low-cut tops, tight sweaters, scoop-backed dresses and miniskirts. The camera highlights this fact by lingering over her chest in frequent close-ups early in her screen time.
Luke and Nell even mention her revealing wardrobe at one point, and in the beginning of the movie, when Dr. Marrow and his assistant are going over the psych profiles of the participants, there is a mention of "classic low self-esteem with high narcissism" that must be a reference to Theo. So not only is she a slut, she's a narcissistic one who's covering up her low self-esteem. I'm sure bisexuals around the country will shortly be subjected to similar pop-psychology evaluations.
Lest there be any doubt of Theo's lack of real personhood, she is the only one of the main characters who has no last name. Even in the credits, she is listed simply as "Theo." As the movie progresses, she is relegated farther and farther into the background, eventually becoming nothing more than another warm body to be threatened by the house and its ghosts.
Ms. Zeta-Jones has played bi before, nearly stealing the show as the talented and charismatic villainess Sala in the 1996 flick The Phantom. She does so reasonably well -- when she's on-screen in either role, she's sexy as all get-out, and you get the impression that she would be a good actress if she had anything resembling decent dialogue or a real character to work with.
Alas, it seems Hollywood has yet to know what to do with a bisexual woman in a movie.
Fantasies In Contemporary Art and Culture
By Linda S. Kauffman
(University of California Press, 1999)
ISBN 0520210328 $18.95
reviewed by Michael Lefkowitz
You'll not find the word "bisexual" once in this book, and only oblique references to transsexuality. Instead, Linda S. Kauffman's Bad Girls and Sick Boys is a critical survey of contemporary writers, filmmakers, and performance artists whose common denominator is an interest in exploring how the body, both physical and social, is represented. Specifically, Kauffman focuses on the construction of ideas regarding sex, race and gender.
Kauffman contends that each of her subjects incorporates (note the root meaning of this word: to make flesh of) a performative anti-aesthetic in their (often literal) body of work. Their collective strategy is to confront and explore the shifting, and often taboo, cultural landscape of the liminal and mar-ginalized. All of the artists she discusses explicitly transgress boundaries and confront audience expectations. Much of the work addressed in her book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Put more simply, these are all people who will fuck with your assumptions. Their common battleground: the socially constructed body.
In Kauffman's analysis, it is their focus on (one might almost say exaltation of) the bad and the sick which provides the conceptual underpinnings for their oppositional strategies. Of particular note is her analysis of the performance work of Bob Flanagan and Orlan, and the writing of J. G. Ballard. Flanagan, who died recently due to complications from a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, devoted his artistic career to publicly exploring the corporal limitations of his "sick" body -- sick in the dual sense of physical illness and of perversion. Invading the ostensibly sacred confines of the museum and the art gallery, he exhibited both his extreme masochism and his steady physical deterioration from disease. In one memorable performance, visitors to the gallery in which he had installed himself as a living exhibition would find him on display in his hospital bed, suddenly and unexpectedly to be hoisted by a winch to be suspended naked and upside down from the ceiling.
Orlan also emphasizes the erotic and performative aspects of the medicalized body. She has repeatedly undergone plastic surgery, again staged in public venues (often using electronic broadcast and interactive media), emphasizing specific facial features of cherished "old master" paintings (such as the Mona Lisa) in order to re-create herself as a composite of the many cultural signifiers for feminine beauty within the Western tradition. Proclaiming herself the first woman-to-woman transsexual (and thereby incurring the wrath of many in the transgendered community, with whom she shares little, if any, common ideology), she problematizes and de-naturalizes the notion of the essential or non-culturally inscribed body.
J. G. Ballard, in much of his writing, also explores and eroticizes the intersection of technology and the (social) body. His text The Atrocity Exhibition becomes a central metaphor in Kauffman's analysis. Ballard's obsession with pornography is set in opposition to those of Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon and Edwin Meese. But where Ballard focuses upon the pornographic use of technology as a system of alienation and control, Dworkin, MacKinnon, and Meese see pornography as a dangerous threat from outside of the system -- a transgressive social force against which the repressive apparatus of state control and censorship must be rallied.
Turning her attention to the ongoing battle over censorship and the definition of pornography, Kauffman places the "atrocity exhibitions" staged by each of her chosen cultural agents in direct opposition to right-wing oppression. The right to control how the "body," both physical and social, is permitted to be represented becomes the actual site of the battle between these two opposing ideologies. The body, in Kauffman's analysis, becomes the place where the act of transgression or repression actually happens. As her argument unfolds, she devotes more of her discussion to the impact of the actions of the Meese Commission on the possibility of maintaining genuine artistic freedom in the United States.
Kauffman's text is most relevant in its highlighting of the political importance of this struggle. It falls short, however, in that it often relies on an assumed complete agreement on the part of the reader to carry its meaning. For instance, while chances are that 99.9% of the presumed audience for this book would agree with her assertion that MacKinnon is insane, I often found myself wishing that she had spent more time seriously addressing MacKinnon's arguments. While "Censorship is wrong" and "Transgressive art is good" are certainly opinions her readers might be sympathetic with, they do not serve on their own as truly engaged critique.
As a brief introduction to the works of the artists she admires, this book serves quite well. As a genuine academic study of "fantasies in contemporary art and culture", it could have used a narrowing of scope, and more discussion of the actual questions raised by the works discussed. To link, for instance, the performance work of Orlan with the horror films of David Cronenberg solely on the basis that they are both "sick boys and girls" does not ultimately do justice to the many deep fears and uncertainties that each is addressing, nor to some of their very real ideological differences.
Lastly, while Kauffman is to be commended for paying serious attention to artists who are often marginalized and ignored, she has left some serious gaps. With the exception of some filmmakers who are only invoked when issues of "race" are specifically addressed (and primarily in the context of a black/white dichotomy), I found her choice of cultural agents to be overwhelmingly white. It would have added greatly to the scope of her argument if the prescient social interrogations of Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Ana Mendieta, Leslie Marmon Silko and Wanda Coleman (to name but a few) had been included.
The underlying assumption that "race" is an issue only for those who are marked as being "third world" or "minority" is extremely problematic. Whiteness is equally constructed, and to give it an unquestioned centrality within her arguments is to tacitly reinforce the dominant (white) culture's standards. She does not delve into any of the possible questions that would arise if these white artists were also seen as being marked by race. As is far too often the case, whiteness is maintained within this text as an unacknowledged standard of reference through its very invisibility. A black filmmaker needs be acknowledged as such and interpreted through that filter, yet to refer to Orlan, Flanagan, Ballard, and Cronenberg as contemporary white voices obsessed with the dissolution and transgression of the boundaries of the socially constructed white body seems literally unthinkable.
This is a loss to her argument, I think. If the dominant culture were to be seen as having gained its apparent centrality through imperialism, and not simply happenstance, it would give new force to a serious discussion of what is really at stake in the battle over how the body might be allowed to be represented.