2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Identity, interactivity and performativity
in Michelle Citron’s Queer Feast
by Kathleen Scott
Michelle Citron has been an academic, filmmaker and new media artist for almost 40 years. Her films and new media projects such as Jewish Looks (2002), Visual AIDS (1997), What You Take for Granted (1983) and Daughter Rite (1978) address a wide range of topics related to the politics of sexuality and identity. These and other films have been screened at numerous film festivals and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York City, the American Film Institute and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as the Berlin, London and Edinburgh film festivals (Citron, “Biography”).
In this article I will be focusing mainly on Queer Feast, a quartet of Internet-distributed new-media works made at different points throughout Citron’s career that have been collected together at queerfeast.com. The interactive narratives of the Queer Feast quartet have been screened separately at art galleries, conferences, contemporary art museums, film festivals and media exhibitions around the world.
Queer Feast confronts issues surrounding the expression of queer desire and love; the difficulties and joys of monogamous lesbian relationships; the invisibility of queer communities within the larger society; and the role of performance in queer relationships. The narratives share a high level of interactivity that allows viewers to construct their own stories out of the various segments provided. Alongside my own analyses of the thematic and aesthetic tropes of Citron’s narratives, I include information and quotes from an interview I conducted with the filmmaker in January 2012.
First I will explore how the aesthetic and narrative content of Queer Feast relates to that of Daughter Rite (1978), one of Citron’s earliest films. I will then provide a short introduction to each of the works in Queer Feast, and discuss issues of identity, interactivity and performativity in these works at length.
Daughter Rite and Queer Feast:
tracing a genealogy of political filmmaking
Citron’s first film to garner widespread acclaim and scholarly attention was Daughter Rite, an experimental narrative detailing the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. The film blends home movie footage with fictionalized documentary interviews in exploring the complex relationship of two adult sisters to their mother.
Daughter Rite provided the opportunity for female viewers to share in a progressive feminist politics that was taking place both behind and in front of the camera. The film was heralded as a non-essentializing exploration of motherhood and the loving and fraught bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as a politically generative critique of the patriarchal power underlying the personal dynamics of heterosexual families. Linda Williams and B. Ruby Rich argue that Daughter Rite differs from classical Hollywood films that explore mother-daughter relations, such as Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) and Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), in that it provides an explicitly feminist account of motherhood. The film attends to the ability of maternal figures to both reproduce patriarchal power and impart a feminist consciousness to their daughters, instead of “merely exalt[ing] its ideal while punishing and humiliating the individual women” who take part in these relationships (Williams and Rich 17).
In this regard Daughter Rite presents a timely feminist film praxis that
“moves beyond the previously acknowledged boundaries of the positive ‘image’ of strong female role models and the avant-garde film’s negative lament of women’s inscription within patriarchal language” (Williams and Rich 22).
Daughter Rite employs many of the formal techniques on display in Queer Feast, such as the use of home movies, cinema verité-style footage, voice-over narration and image/voice-over disjunction to examine how visual representations of the past aid in constructing our identities—a process shared by filmmaker and spectators. These works share a blend of documentary and fictionalized elements that Citron employs to deconstruct the “truth-telling” capacities of documentary film, as well as to explore how we as viewers construct our identities from documentary and home movie footage. I will address the obscured lines between documentary and fiction in Queer Feast in my discussion of identity formation in these works.
Daughter Rite also prefigures the high level of spectator interactivity encouraged by the aesthetics of Queer Feast. In both works, the ambiguity of the images and narration allows
“each viewer…to discover for herself a wealth of connections within the film without ever having to say, this is what the film means or this is the author speaking” (Feuer).
Daughter Rite and Queer Feast are also linked by their engagement with contemporary political movements. Feminist film scholar Jane Feuer argues that Daughter Rite’s deconstructionist use of cinema verité footage reflected the realist aesthetic of feminist experimental films and documentaries that emerged in the 1970s. Queer Feast’s explorations of queer identities and relationships in the post-Stonewall era constitute its timely political project. The problems resulting from the invisibility of queer identities and desires constitutes a major thematic and aesthetic strand uniting the narratives of Queer Feast. These works seek to expose this invisibility by providing space for their previously silenced queer subjects to tell their stories. These subjects engage in a queer politics through their testimonies, which make visible their exclusion from larger cultural and social narratives surrounding relationships, desire, love and identity. In this regard, perhaps as important as the specific content of the narratives in Citron’s films is the fact that they are being told at all: the speech-acts of the films are fundamentally political by virtue of the challenges they present to queer invisibility.
Similar to the highly individualized reactions elicited by the intimate narratives presented in Queer Feast, Daughter Rite has resonated personally with many viewers. Feuer describes her reaction to the film as a conflation of her personal and professional lives, in which she writes about Daughter Rite “with the voice of a film critic, but [she] watched it as a daughter” (Feuer). In my discussion of the works in Queer Feast that follows, I will attempt to highlight the ways in which these works elicit personal reactions in viewers that dovetail with the politicized content and form of the works themselves.
In addition to individual engagement with the narratives, the online format of Queer Feast raises questions as to the exercise of political choice when we decide what to watch, and how to watch it. These shared formal and thematic tropes allow us to trace a political continuity in Citron’s work. Both early (Daughter Rite) and more recent (Queer Feast) examples engage spectators in the process of interpreting the images and constructing feminist and queer political agendas from these interpretations.
As American as Apple Pie, made in 1999, is the oldest work in the quartet. It begins with a pie graphic overlaid with keywords such as “butter, cut,” “texture,” “roll,” “crimp,” and “peeled” that correspond to the different segments of the film. Each segment features film of a pie being prepared and baked, including extreme close-ups of a pair of hands crumbling dough to make the crust and spooning in apples smothered in butter and spices. A voice-over consisting of conversations between two lesbian partners accompanies these images. The couple’s dialogues chart the course of their relationship through various stages, both high and low: birthdays, professional success, family medical emergencies, the difficulties of raising a teenage son, jealousy and hints of infidelity.
Cocktails & Appetizers (2001) consists of separate segments that we access by choosing small drinks icons from an illustrated menu. Options such as “Daiquiri,” “Mint Julep,” and “Tom Collins” lead us to pieces that detail the breakup of lesbian couple Jean and Max, and Max’s subsequent relationship with the seductive Jesse. As in As American as Apple Pie, the images in Cocktails & Appetizers, mostly close-ups of women against black backgrounds, do not correspond directly to the voice-overs.
Jean, Max, Jesse and various friends and acquaintances provide the voice-overs that convey to us the intimate details of the three women’s romantic entanglements. Each of the segments is quite short, around 30 seconds or less, and feature films of various women performing seductive acts: smoking, eating olives out of a martini, brushing back their hair to put on an earring or slicking it back to achieve a butch look, and adjusting masculine clothing such as a man’s dress shirt and a large belt buckle.
In the longer final section of the narrative, we witness Max and Jesse’s first tryst immediately after the former was still in a relationship with Jean. Max and Jesse first meet when Max photographs Jesse for an exhibit. A light flirtation develops between the two as Jesse poses in different butch/femme outfits, erotically slipping on a silk stocking or lowering her shirt as Max directs. Jesse finally takes Max’s camera from her, and, after directing Max to lie on the bed, kneels over and kisses her before the scene cuts to black.
Mixed Greens (2004) is the longest and most interactively intricate of the four narratives. It begins with a menu of forty-eight vegetables (cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes). Each choice contains a segment on the topics “Desire,” “Family,” “Heartbreak,” “Mysteries,” “Place,” and “Other.” Viewers compile their own film of eight segments, which they place in a video player at the bottom of the screen. A film composed of these segments then plays, and it can be altered depending on the segments viewers choose to include.
Citron describes Mixed Greens as a “do-it-yourself movie about identity, belonging, and the things we desire” (Citron, “Curriculum Vitae”). The segments in Mixed Greens tell a wide variety of stories related to these themes, ranging from Citron’s great-grandfather’s experience in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the early 1920s, to the “witch hunts” for homosexuals in the 1950s and 1960s McCarthy-era United States, and the personal romantic histories of Citron and many other queer women and couples inspired by Citron’s interviews with real-life subjects.
Citron’s interviews with real-life subjects inspired the multiple narratives centered around queer relationships in Mixed Greens. The stories of these relationships usually address, as Citron notes, issues related to identity and belonging. These issues include family dynamics within queer households, lack of family acceptance for queer women, the depression that can result when we are compelled to hide our sexuality in order to conform with what is “normal” and expected, learning to “own” your sexuality, and the bonds of solidarity and support that can form within queer communities. The film also details some of the less politically salient aspects of these relationships, such as the difficulties of maintaining monogamy within committed partnerships and marriage, adultery, bisexuality, and relationships with straight women.
Stylistically, Mixed Greens incorporates many of the same formal traits as As American as Apple Pie and Cocktails & Appetizers. The film often employs aural/visual mismatches in which viewers are left to establish connections between the images and voice-overs, as well as moving photographs and Polaroids that develop as the subjects inside tell their stories. Many of the photographs and videos are also accompanied by texts underneath that comment upon the topics under discussion at the time.
Leftovers (2011), the most recent of the four narratives, shares the story of elderly working-class lesbian couple Norma and Virginia, who have lived in the Northside of Chicago their entire lives. We never actually see the couple; we only hear Citron narrating the story of their friendship with a younger gay neighbor named Kevin. We also hear an unidentified female voice reading short fragments of poetry throughout, later revealed to have been written by Norma. Kevin strikes up a friendship with Norma when he sees that she has a limp and begins driving her to the grocery store every week. He is struck by her insistence on maintaining complete privacy regarding her personal life; Norma never admits to a sexual relationship with Virginia, her housebound lover.
As I will discuss, the aesthetics of the film reflect its concern with articulating the isolation and invisibility of the reclusive couple. Leftovers affectively conveys the distance Norma and Virginia keep from the outside world, whose non-acceptance of their relationship renders them invisible. This invisibility is emphasized when Norma dies, and Kevin is the only person intimate enough with her to know that Virginia is her partner. When Virginia eventually dies as well, Kevin is the sole witness to their relationship.
As in the previous three works in Queer Feast, narration accompanies images that do not directly depict their subjects. Photographs of Norma and Virginia when they were younger serve as visual witnesses to their relationship, testifying to its existence and allowing their memories to survive. An interesting inclusion is the paint-by-number drawings that gradually fill in as the story progresses, mimicking Kevin and Citron’s slow uncovering of Norma and Virginia’s hidden history together.
The invisible speaks:
queer lives in Leftovers
“One configuration remains in latency, in abeyance: that of love among women. A configuration that constitutes a substrate that is sometimes mute, sometimes a disturbing force in our culture. A very live substrate whose outlines, shapes, are yet blurred, chaotic, or confused.”
(Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference 102-3)
Although feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray wrote the above words in 1984, in many respects queer subjects continue to disturb our cultural norms prescribing appropriate and inappropriate identity configurations and sexual behavior. The films of Queer Feast meditate on the invisibility of queers in the wider heteronormative society, providing numerous examples of their exclusion from dominant social discourses on love, sexuality and the expression of desire.
The story of Norma and Virginia in Leftovers provides the most striking example of this invisibility. This lesbian couple is indeed invisible to the world, save for their friendship with Kevin, a gay male friend who is out of the closet. Kevin muses that perhaps their reticence to admit to their relationship stems from their being born and coming of age in the pre-Stonewall era, a time when being gay was not as accepted as it is today. Kevin tries to get Norma to talk about her sexuality, but she won’t discuss it other than to say that “I think it’s right that people have their rights” to express it any way they like.
Leftovers provides explicit evidence of the invisibility and silence surrounding Norma and Virginia’s queer identities when Kevin cleans their house after Norma dies and mounting health problems force Virginia to move into a nursing home. Having never actually set foot in their house before, Kevin learns that the women were pack rats who collected, saved, and hoarded almost everything they could get their hands on. Over the years, they slowly built up a barrier of “stuff” to prevent the outside world from encroaching on their private territory.
Kevin uncovers various hidden objects, such as photographs of Norma and Virginia together as young women in the early days of their relationship, buried under mountains of baseballs cards and towering stacks of old National Geographic magazines. These unearthed objects furnish proof of their relationship, while the fact that they have literally been “buried” reflects the reclusive relationship dynamics between the two women: Virginia remained secluded in the house for years, while Norma “brought the outside world home” for her. In fourteen years they never interacted with their neighbors or went out together. Their life together was one in which, as Citron’s narration notes, “Day in and day out they hunkered down and became a world of two…finding a space of privacy in the silence.” Their relationship remained just as invisible to the outside world as the old photographs gathering dust in their home.
Norma and Virginia’s reclusive habits should not suggest that the two lived lives completely devoid of social contacts. Citron notes that what she found most fascinating about delving into the artifacts of their relationship was the evidence of a “vibrant community” of queer women from the over two thousand photographs of the couple and their friends taken by Norma from the 1930s to the 1950s (Citron interview). Even in the pre-Stonewall era, the photos depict Norma and Virginia displaying affection in public spaces. Citron speculates that these public displays of affection were more acceptable in an earlier, more socially conservative time period precisely because people could not imagine or think desire between women as a possibility; people assumed they were just witnessing sisterly embraces and nonsexual displays of affection (Citron interview).
In addition to eliciting questions as to how Norma and Virginia were able to display their desire for on another in public, the affection evident in the photographs also points towards another issue related to the invisibility of queer identities: the disappearance of the couple’s queer community and social network. The central question that Leftovers poses to viewers is, as Citron phrases it, “How did they get from a vibrant community to being totally isolated?” (Citron interview) Truthful to Citron’s belief that interactive narratives should create a space for the emergence of independent thought in viewers rather than furnishing them with transparent and easily consumable storylines (Citron interview), Leftovers provides no answers to this question. Instead, viewers are left to fill in the gaps of their incomplete knowledge of Norma and Virginia’s life together and can only speculate as to what could have led to their increasing isolation.
In addition to the vibrant social network of their youth evidenced in the photographs, the narrative crux of Leftovers hinges on the fact that Kevin becomes the support network that the two women lack in their old age. He becomes a surrogate son who fulfills the roles of caretaker and friend as the women grow older and their health declines. Norma even gives Kevin an allowance like a child, putting five dollars into a vacation fund for every errand he runs for her. And when Norma eventually dies in the hospital, Kevin is the only one left to break the news to Virginia, as he is the only person aware of her relationship with Norma.
In the absence of a normative family structure, in which the biological children of a heterosexual couple care for their parents in their final years, Leftovers illustrates the fact that alternatives do exist for those couples that do not fit this norm. When Norma dies, and the nurse assumes that Kevin is her son, he tells the nurse, “She wasn’t really my mother,” although for all intents and purposes she was. Kevin becomes the family that the women lack, highlighting the important role communal bonds play in supporting those from whom heteronormativity demands silence and invisibility.
Despite the fact that Norma, Virginia, and Kevin form a queer family unit (or queer the notion of the “family unit”), Leftovers also makes the harsh realities of their invisibility clear with Norma’s death. After Norma succumbs to an illness brought on by years of alcoholism, Virginia informs Kevin that she does not want to claim Norma’s body; Norma is gone, and Virginia just wants her remains to be taken away. Kevin does as Virginia asks, and Citron’s voice-over informs us that Norma’s body lay in Cook County Morgue for months before the state government finally paid around $250.00 for a pine box coffin and a funeral. They then placed Norma in a mass grave with 31 other unclaimed bodies, most of them homeless people. Citron notes with irony in her narration that the authorities spent months trying to locate a next-of-kin, but they never came close to discovering Virginia.
In contrast to the public’s non-recognition of their relationship, Leftovers reinstates Norma and Virginia in one another’s lives by bearing witness to a private relationship that the authorities never even considered possible. Citron’s work thus becomes political in testifying to their queer relationship when it would have otherwise disappeared with their deaths, their forty-five years together unacknowledged and uncelebrated. The narrative serves as an act of remembrance that allows Norma and Virginia’s history to survive. As Citron sums it up at the end of the film, “Virginia, in death, finally came out.”
Invisibility and visual evidence
“I think photographs can be very powerful…how you look makes a statement that can’t be ignored.”
Citron conveys this historical silencing of the queer couple affectively, through the aesthetic forms in which she expresses the narrative. Her use of photographs, paint-by-number illustrated photographs and a voice-over narration all serve to inform us of Norma and Virginia’s life together without completely exposing this very private couple to our gaze. A few examples indicate the plethora of creative techniques on offer: illustrated magnifying lenses hover over old black and white photographs of Norma and Virginia as Citron narrates their relationship with Kevin. Moving photographs depict the women in earlier years. Strips of still photographs taken by Norma unravel across the screen.
Leftovers itself functions as a magnifying glass over the lives of Norma and Virginia, serving as a visual witness of their history when their voices have been silenced. Citron also respects the couple’s need for privacy through using these indirect means of depiction to tell their story. Norma and Virginia are simultaneously hidden and unhidden in the photographs; we are only given the images, with no first-hand accounts of their context, meaning or significance. A sense of mystery inheres in the story we are told of their relationship. They tell Kevin nothing about their life together, and we too are left to wonder about their history after having been granted access to only very small pieces of it.
Citron’s use of Norma’s photograph archive recalls Citron’s investigation of the role that home movies play in identity formation in her book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions (1999). In relating the story of the impact of her family’s home movies on her own identity, Citron argues that we construct the autobiographies of our lives through home images such as those presented in Leftovers. Photographs serve both a historical and psychic function in these instances, documenting our history while also allowing us to psychologically construct a narrative of our lives.
The photographs in Leftovers serve as the limited foundations for the imagination of biography. They provide visual evidence of Norma and Virginia’s life together, but taken out of context and without the details provided through Citron’s narration, they actually tell us very little concrete information about their subjects. Kevin, Citron and viewers engage in mutual acts of narrative production by teasing out a hidden history behind Norma and Virginia’s latter-day hermetic existence.
The paint-by-numbers also serve as apt metaphors for the film’s gradual uncovering of the women’s relationship. Paintbrushes slowly fill in various illustrated photographs of Norma and Virginia as we learn more and more about their clandestine relationship. As with the use of the magnifying glass over the photographs, the paintbrushes visually enact what Citron attempts to accomplish her film: engaging viewers in the process of creating narrative by filling in the missing pieces of Norma and Virginia’s life together. To look closer and discover what the outside world had ignored and would have forgotten, and preserve a queer history for posterity.
Citron’s use of photographs as visual witnesses to unrecognized queer histories recalls director Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), which also depicted the discovery of queer sexuality through visual material after the subject had died. Dunye’s film follows the efforts of a video store clerk (played by Dunye herself) to ascertain the history of an African-American Hollywood actress credited only as “The Watermelon Woman” in her films. This Watermelon Woman, despite her obvious talent, was relegated to “mammy” roles during the 1930s and 1940s. Dunye sets out to discover the identity of this actress by poring over archives of old, forgotten films collecting dust and interviewing the Watermelon Woman’s now elderly colleagues and friends.
Through painstaking effort, Dunye is eventually able to reconstruct the Watermelon Woman’s history and discover her name and identity. Dunye also finds out that the Watermelon Woman was a lesbian who lived happily with her partner for decades. In this regard Leftovers bears a striking resemblance to Dunye’s film, as both emphasize the importance of visual memory and oral testimony in preserving the identities of those whose queerness was forced underground by dominant social norms demanding either heterosexuality or invisibility.
Invisibility and the queer community
Jan: “I’m not sure I belong here.”
Peg: “You don’t belong out there, either.”
Out of the four narratives of Queer Feast, Leftovers deals most explicitly with the topic of invisibility. However, it is by no means the only narrative to do so. Many of the stories in Mixed Greens highlight their queer subjects’ feelings of invisibility in the wider community. This feeling of non-belonging motivates them to form strong networks among themselves.
One particular story in Mixed Greens clearly illustrates the necessity for a queer community. This story is set in the backyard barbeque of a lesbian couple and their friends. We hear Peg, an older butch lesbian, speaking to Jan, a young woman who displays suicidal behavior due to her insecurities about her queer sexuality and her family’s disapproval of it. Jan feels disconnected from her previous social network, while also feeling isolated from the queer community. However, Peg’s partner Betty informs Jan that she needs to seek out the support of those to whom her desires are not invisible, telling her that although “The world is a helluva place for our kind,” she should not despair: “You’ve got us now, and we take care of each other. No one else will.” Although this visibility to each other does not directly address the problem of wider societal non-recognition of queer sexuality, it nevertheless constitutes a step in generating the communal support system that could eventually combat it.
All of the narratives in Queer Feast convey the invisibility of their subjects in an affective register, through the video’s aesthetic features. As I discussed previously, Leftovers creatively renders visual documentation of Norma and Virginia’s invisible relationship. As American as Apple Pie, Cocktails & Appetizers and Mixed Greens all employ the device of aural/visual mismatches to avoid direct visual depictions of their subjects while still allowing their stories to be told through photographic evidence, voice-overs and off-screen action. The lack of clarity provided by the narratives stylistically conveys the historical invisibility of their subjects in a wider society that stigmatizes and rejects their queer sexuality.
Visibility and the gaze
Citron’s concern with queer invisibility also encompasses an exploration of voyeurism, both as a tool of gendered violence and as a source of pleasure. Cocktails & Appetizers and As American as Apple Pie in particular seek to rehabilitate the gaze as a means through which queer subjects can become empowered and express desire. The gaze is no longer the exclusive tool of a masculine sadism that objectifies and fetishizes the female body, as described by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The narratives of Queer Feast effectively queer the male gaze, appropriating it for gazes of desire between women that do not dehumanize or objectify their recipients.
Cocktails & Appetizers features a narrative in which the right to look and desire queerly plays a central role. The longest segment, which plays automatically after all of the others have been viewed, depicts the beginning of the relationship between Max, a photographer, and Jesse, a younger femme (described by an unseen character as “one hot woman”) who poses for her. The camera becomes a tool of mutual seduction that blurs the unequal power dynamics of Mulvey’s clearly defined subject/object relations.
The erotic charge of the segment becomes palpable when Jesse, the model, teasingly takes the camera from photographer Max, and, in response to Max’s protests, flirtatiously tells her, “I know how to use it.” This provocation arouses Max, and she leans in to kiss Jesse. But Jesses backs away and tells Max to lie on the bed on her stomach, before leaning over Max and kissing her.
These actions emphasize the possible expression of queer desire and intimacy through the act of gazing at another. Both Max and Jesse, butch and femme, control the camera and the gaze alternatively. This sharing of the gaze avoids a sadistic subject/fetishized object imbalance of power by which Max, the butch and photographer, would gain complete ascendency over Jesse, the feminine object of the camera lens. This sliding between subject/object positions embodies the argument put forth by queer theorist Teresa de Lauretis in her work on film, in which she describes female spectatorship as a process of alteration between active and passive, masculine and feminine perspectives (1984).
The mise-en-scéne also provides a focus on the act of looking by referencing literature in which voyeurism serves as a source of queer pleasure. In addition to using the device of the camera to signal the two women’s mutual control over a queer gaze of desire, Citron composed all of the shots in Cocktails & Appetizers as replications of the covers of lesbian pulp fiction novels from the 1950s (Citron interview). Extreme close-ups of femmes undoing their pink sweaters, sipping martinis, undressing slowly under the camera’s gaze, as well as the textbook-porn fantasy of Max and Jesse’s seduction, speak to the influence of lesbian pulp fiction on the narrative’s aesthetics.
“The problem is, you can photograph desire. You can’t photograph identity.”
—Cocktails & Appetizers
In addition to providing visible evidence of queer desire, Citron’s interactive narratives also explore identity, the non-photographable part of the subjectivities of her characters. The complexity of these identities cannot be conveyed to viewers through a look or be encompassed by any one action or moment in time. Many key moments in the narratives emphasize the impossibility of fully representing identity onscreen. Rather than depicting the formation and transformation of identities visually, many of the discussions involving this topic occur off-screen, as so are only heard rather than seen.
Perhaps the most striking example of the ambiguous, never fully knowable or visible nature of identity is the history of Citron’s great-grandfather Oscar Citron in Mixed Greens. Citron includes her father Sam and aunt Thelma in talking head interviews, as well as her cousin Stewart in off-screen interviews, in which she questions them about Oscar’s upbringing in Ireland, his involvement in the IRA and his immigration to the United States in the 1920s. Photographs of Oscar and other members of his family are interspersed with films of these interviews to provide us with some visible background of his life.
We discover through Citron’s interviews that attempting to discover the specific details of Oscar’s life only leads to more unanswerable questions. Although Citron’s family knows that Oscar was a member of the IRA, no one can tell her what motivated him to join this illegal organization, which carried the risk of imprisonment or death if he were caught. As Citron herself notes, Oscar’s involvement in the IRA is especially surprising given that none of his other family members brothers joined the organization. Oscar’s reasons are lost in his history, which the photographs and interviews evoke but cannot fully retrieve.
The stories of Oscar’s life also invoke the complexities of integrating the various cultural and religious identities within one particular family. As Sam and Thelma state, Oscar’s Jewish family had to assimilate to life in majority Christian Ireland after immigrating from Russia. There were then additional identity complications when Oscar moved his family to the United States in the 1920s and had to attempt to assimilate into the local culture of Boston as Irish-Jewish immigrants. Sam notes that he never experienced any racial or religious tension growing up, that in a certain sense the various familial histories of him and his childhood friends had little effect on their relationships. However, all of these layers of familial and personal histories are inextricably linked to the formation of identity, even those of us who are far removed from the processes of assimilation undergone by our ancestors. [open endnotes in new window]
The links between Citron’s family history and the contemporary stories of queer identity suggest the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation in a variety of contexts. Mixed Greens contains both narrative strands in order to highlight the complexity of identity formation processes, especially when established social norms designated particular peoples or types of peoples as “outsiders.” When these outsiders attempt to assimilate, the narratives make us aware of what we stand to gain and lose by conforming.
Sara and Isabel, the lesbian couple who are looking to adopt a baby in Mixed Greens, serve as an illustrative example of the tension queer subjects face between the need to assert their non-normative identity and the desire to assimilate, even to a small degree, into heteronormative society. This story is set in the 90s, when queer couples could not adopt children in the United States. Sarah and Isabel effectively have to relinquish their identities as lesbians in the eyes of the authorities in order to be allowed to adopt: they must provide three references stating that the partner who will officially adopt the child is straight.
The women become angry and disagreeable with each other over the additional challenges they face to starting a family. One argues that they should persevere and “play the game” to get what they want: “It’s powerful to claim what the culture says isn’t yours.” The other says, “I hate this. This whole fucking culture.” They have discovered how much society demands the transformation or suppression of their identities in order for them to gain recognition.
However, the videos of the couple also reveal the extent to which they have assimilated into a more mainstream, heteronormative lifestyle. Their decision to start a family serves as the clearest indicator of their assimilation, which ironically is why they confront the host of challenges to their identities in the first place. They are staging their conversations in front of the camera in order to provide a visual diary of their lives for the soon-to-be-adopted Eva. They want to be a “normal” couple with children and are devastated by dominant culture’s rejection of this desire. They don’t want to remain on the outside.
We learn from their conversations with the camera that the rest of their relationship also follows a typical heterosexual couple script: they were college sweethearts, met each other’s parents before getting engaged (the butch partner gives the femme a ring), argue about not having enough money to pay the bills, and then duly set about the business of procreating.
This is not to argue that queer couples have an obligation to remain “on the outside,” or that their desires for children or a family are always a reflection of their longing to assimilate into a heteronormative system of values. However, considering that Citron created her characters out of composites of interviews with lesbian couples (Citron interview), we can take from the story in Mixed Greens that the desire of some queer subjects to assimilate may be partially instilled by social norms that “normalize the queer” by demanding they organize their social relations according to dominant paradigms.
The process of normalization that we see the adopting couple forced to undergo to get their child encourages us to think about what they stand to lose by conforming to dominant paradigms organizing desire and social life. The status of “outsider” and previous determination to resist co-optation is the price they pay to gain the official recognition they need to start a family.
Mixed Greens also strongly conveys the complexity of individual identities that exceed any one designation, including that of “queer.” The assemblage of identities within Citron’s family serves as a case in point. Her family is a nexus of Irish, Jewish, American, and working class identities. Their cultural heritage cannot be reduced to any one of these identities, nor can we construct a coherent whole out of their different parts.
Citron suggests that our identities are not encompassed by our gender or sexual orientation. We too are internal mixes of different, sometimes contradictory, influences and identities that cannot be easily reconciled with one another. Nor do our identities remain static over time, but they are constantly transforming and adapting to the particular circumstances and contexts in which we find ourselves. Mixed Greens presents the personal histories of its various subjects as a mixture of complex and disjointed identities continually in flux. As Citron puts it,
“Each of us is made up of all these different identities that we are constantly negotiating” (Citron interview).
Interactivity and identity construction
The interactive style of Citron’s narratives mimetically enact the processes of identity formation depicted within them. Citron, who holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology, is interested in exploring the construction of personal narratives through memory and engagement with our pasts, the paradigmatic example of this being the construction of autobiographies through home movies and photographs. In her book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, Citron describes her own family’s home movies functioning as a kind of Lacanian mirror stage in which they were able to glimpse idealized versions of themselves:
“Watching home movies together…gave my family a sense of history of themselves as a unit and a way to position themselves in the past, where everyone was younger, thinner, healthier, happier, and together. We needed to believe that the visual “evidence” was honest (seeing is believing). We took the surface image as a sign for the whole lived experience” (12).
This self-construction necessarily involves what Citron characterizes as her Brechtian method of making audiences work with her films in order to create narratives themselves. In this regard the disjunctive aesthetic elements of Citron’s work are central to the processes of identity formation in her subjects and viewers. All of the narratives in Queer Feast contain different aesthetic “channels” (Feuer) such as voice-overs, dialogues, images, videos, interviews, and illustrations whose connections to one another are not immediately apparent. This is a narrative strategy that Citron employs throughout her work to explore how viewers react to the lack of easily consumable narratives.
Citron states that she is continually surprised at how strongly people strive to construct a coherent, linear story out of the fragmented narrative lines in her work (Citron interview). She sees her role as an artist as one of creating moments and scenes out of which viewers construct the narratives themselves. For Citron, these acts of constructing narrative from abstract fragments of information are inextricably linked to the formation of identity in viewers:
“In constructing a narrative, fragments are knit into a whole; what has been shattered is cohered; a sense of self is restored. Narrative construction and integration of the self, regardless of which comes first, go hand in hand” (Home Movies 44)
For this reason Citron adamantly refuses to hand straightforward narratives down to her viewers, as she is interested in exploring the processes through which viewers constitute their selves through this process. Intelligible narratives are produced through the interactions between the artist and viewers. The construction of stories does not occur solely on one side or another, but in the space between the two; As Citron writes in Home Movies, interactive narrative takes place “[w]here the audience and I meet in the emotional space shaped by the film” (70).
Viewers of Queer Feast are given opportune chances to engage in mutual acts of narrative constructions with the films through their interactive presentation. By picking and choosing which pieces to watch, and the order in which we watch them, we are given a high degree of freedom to construct our own narratives out of the pieces Citron provides. Just as the content of the narratives often involves the construction of personal identities through memory, so we as viewers mimic these processes by forming our own conclusions about the characters’ identities through the scattered pieces of information provided.
Cocktails & Appetizers provides a prime example of the links between identity, memory and interactivity. The first nine segments feature dialogues about a couple with whom we are not previously acquainted, as well as images of women that do not seem to relate directly to these voice-over conversations. Only in the final segment depicting the beginnings of Max and Jesse’s relationship are we able to retroactively tie all of the pieces of the story together, necessarily employing memory to reconstruct a linear narrative out of the fragments we are given.
The aesthetic form of As American as Apple Pie gives us even less visual information than Cocktails & Appetizers on which to base a coherent narrative. In fact, we only see extreme close-ups of a pair of hands preparing an apple pie while the lesbian couple speaks in dialogues; no photographs, no home videos, no talking head interviews. Despite the fact that we only hear the story without ever actually seeing its characters, we still manage to construct a narrative out of the snippets of conversation that we hear, indicating as Citron would have it our psychological need to construct intelligible narratives out of insufficient information (Citron interview).
Citron also employs her strategy of encouraging viewers to aid in the construction of narrative in Mixed Greens and Leftovers, although in these works she uses actual home videos and photographs to establish parallels between the identity formation processes of her subjects and those of viewers. In Mixed Greens, Citron purposefully centers each of the eight stories around one character experiencing young adulthood, what Citron describes as “the place of identity formation” (Citron interview). These characters use a variety of different visual media, such as Super 8 and 16mm home videos, video cameras, black and white photographs and Polaroids to make sense of their pasts and construct their identities.
The narrative pieces provided allow us as viewers to engage in a similar process in constructing the characters’ identities, as well as provides a space to think about how our own identities have been shaped by home media. In this regard, the aesthetics of Citron’s narratives mimetically enact the identity issues they seek to address, confirming Citron’s belief that “new media is a perfect way to continue my exploration of these ideas” regarding the construction of identity through narrative (Citron interview).
Exploring the boundary between documentary and fiction
The mixture of documentary and fictionalized elements in Queer Feast demonstrates how we as viewers employ visual representations to both reconfigure our pasts and create new identities. Citron employs a wide array of techniques that blur the boundary between documentary and fiction, including interviews, re-enactments and improvisations based on personal experiences, family photographs and home movies. For example, Citron uses the thousands of photographs taken by Norma to flesh out the story of her and Virgina’s hidden history together in Leftovers. The work provides a semi-fictionalized account of their lives by re-constructing their relationship out of the documents they left behind.
Documentary also meets fiction in the Sara/Isabel portions of Mixed Greens. Citron based these fictional characters on an actual couple whom she interviewed for the film, which adds an element of reality to this fictionalized portrayal. The narrative and formal structure of the film also blend documentary with fiction. The film is shot through the point of view of the camera that Sara and Isabel have set up in order to provide a record of their lives for their soon-to-be-adopted daughter. They speak directly to the camera as in a talking head interview, creating a fiction that is also meant to be taken as a documentary.
Citron writes of home movies in a similar manner in Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, as narrative fragments that become semi-fictionalized as we use them to construct coherent identities and histories of our selves and our pasts. Citron argues that home-made visual representations constitute both documentations of our pasts as well as foundations for future fictions:
“In constructing a narrative, fragments are knit into a whole; what has been shattered is cohered; a sense of self is restored. Narrative construction and integration of the self…go hand in hand” (Home Movies 44).
The visual documentations of our lives engender what Citron terms “necessary fictions” that serve as key elements in the formation of our identities and the construction of the narratives of our lives. This “necessary fiction” is exactly what is provided by the documentary elements in the narratives of Queer Feast.
Performativity and gender
This ambiguous treatment of reality and fiction connects to an issue that is distinct, but nevertheless related to the role of visual representations in forming our identities. With the exception of the segments exploring Citron’s family heritage in Mixed Greens, the interactive narratives in Queer Feast are concerned for the most part with the construction of the queer identities of their lesbian subjects. The performance of gender plays a central role in the formation and transformation of these queer identities.
Citron describes her generation as existing between the strict butch/femme dynamics of lesbian relationships in the pre-Stonewall generation of the 1960s and the neo-conservatism of the 2000s. Her generation, which came of age in the 1970s and is often associated with the countercultural movement, rejected the re-articulation of heterosexual gender roles in butch/femme dynamics. They considered “mimicking hets,” as one character in Mixed Greens puts it, to be outdated and socially regressive. However, Citron’s narratives do not condemn performances of butch/femme roles as heterosexist attempts to normalize the queer. As Citron points out, it is a question of desire more than politics: “For some, desire is very much connected to butch/femme dynamics, and for others it is not” (Citron interview).
It is also a matter of historical change. In creating the characters for Mixed Greens, Citron interviewed over 20 women of all ages in order to gain insight into generational differences in the construction of queer identities. What she found is that for the 1970s generation, the burning issue was the freedom to express queer sexual orientations rather than challenge gender norms. When queer identities were finally recognized (if not legitimized or accepted) in the 1990s and 2000s, attention shifted to challenging gender roles and the very construct of gender itself (Citron interview).
There is no doubt a liberatory element in being able to express queer desire, whatever form it takes, including that of butch/femme performance. However, we should question the assertion that our desires can ever be totally separated from the dynamics of power and social contexts that influence our modes of being and ways of living in the world; from politics, in other words. The central concern surrounding queer performances of gender in the narratives of Queer Feast is whether or not these performances conform to or disrupt the heterosexual norms that they reiterate. That is, do they reify the dominance of heteronormative values by demanding that queer subjects structure their identities and relationship dynamics according to a gender binary? Or, do their performances of heteronormativity effectively “queer the norm” and undermine its authority?
The matter at stake is whether the reenactment of masculine and feminine gender roles augment their strength and ubiquitousness, or if queer performances of these roles reach an extreme point of parody where their powers of normalization are subverted, and the supposed naturalness of masculine/feminine identities and roles is exposed as a heteronormative ideological construction.
Namely, we are looking to establish the political significance of gender performance in Queer Feast. This question of performance politics can be explored most effectively through reference to Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity. Butler follows a Foucauldian line of thought in defining norms, specifically those governing sexuality and gender, as symbolic and material demands made upon subjects. These norms function on the plane of discourse and through the actions of our bodies as we live them out in our everyday lives. Sexual orientation and gender roles are thus ideological constructs that must be performed constantly, whose historicity is hidden under a façade of naturalness. In Butler’s view, the male/female gender binary is a construct that derives its legitimacy from its presumed naturalness—the idea that it pre-exists ideology and politics.
Gender roles are thus always performed, even by those who define themselves as heterosexual. Repetition of performance is a key step in this process. Butler writes that our performances of the masculine/feminine, butch/femme paradigm
“do not index a sameness, but rather the way in which the social articulation of the term depends upon its repetition, which constitutes one dimension of the performative structure of gender. Terms of gender designation are thus never settled once and for all but are constantly in the process of being remade.”
(Undoing Gender 10)
That is, we reconfirm heteronormativity on a daily basis through our performances of its dictates. These performances constitute us as either male or female, masculine or feminine subjects—we structure our lives and identities according to this binary. Butler, again following Foucault, characterizes this conditioning of our subjectivity as a form of biopolitical production:
“If gender is a norm, it is not the same as a model that individuals seek to approximate. On the contrary, it is a form of social power that produces the intelligible field of subjects, and an apparatus by which the gender binary is instituted. As a norm that appears independent of the practices that it governs, its ideality is the reinstituted effect of those very practices.”
(Undoing Gender 48)
Butler argues that these norms mold our subjectivities, as
“to become subject to a regulation is also to become subjectivized by it, that is, to be brought into being as a subject precisely through being regulated” (Butler, Undoing Gender 41).
This binary is not restricted to heterosexual relationships, or the identities of those who define themselves as heterosexual. The narratives of Queer Feast offer examples and critiques of the reiteration of the gender binary within queer identities and relationships, illustrating what Butler calls “the transferability of the attribute[s]” (Undoing Gender 213) associated with heteronormativity.
Mixed Greens provides various examples of the ways in which gender performances reiterate heterosexual norms, the most striking of which is the young butch lesbian’s testimonies of her past relationships. She begins by stating that she is “swearing off straight girls,” whom she believes are only attracted to her because they “mimicked hets [heterosexuals]” in their relationships by adopting butch/femme roles. She confesses that she has begun to think that these roles are perhaps necessary in structuring the dynamics of queer relationships, as “There’s nothing in society that teaches you to love something like me.” She also admits being attracted to “high-femme” lesbians, and considers their exaggerated femininity to be effective queer performances of “owning” their sexuality.
However, in another interview the butch girl also speaks about the problematic aspects of adopting an ultra-butch persona. She complains about butch “dykes” that are “ten times worse than straight men” in competing to display the most masculine behavior. She describes this behavior as “exaggerated male swagger”: smoking ostentatiously, moving in packs, and hitting on women with lines such as “if I get you stoned down in the basement, do you wanna fuck?”
In addition to the butch girl’s criticisms of hyper-masculine butch performances, her ex-girlfriend Cassandra also denounces strict compliance with butch/femme dynamics from within a Polaroid. Cassandra, who is black, tells her ex and viewers that butch/femme role-playing is essentially “a white girl subculture thing” in which you must “leave your identity at the door” in order to conform to its demands.
These segments of Mixed Greens illustrate both the advantageous and disadvantageous aspects of reiterating heteronormative gender dynamics within queer relationships. Whether these dynamics fulfill lesbians’ desires or not, we see that the rules governing social relations within queer relationships can be just as confining and exclusive as those governing heterosexual relationships.
The concept of performance also extends to the act of viewing the works in Queer Feast. There is a performative element in interacting with the various segments of the works in a way that allows us to interlace their own personal histories with the narratives Citron presents. Spectators are called upon to be active participants in the production of meaning and transmission of affect that are essential elements of the spectatorship experience.
Viewing Queer Feast is also a performative act in that it involves a political choice to engage with works of art that reveal and celebrate queer identities and ways of living. Citron’s decision to put these films on the Internet for free, where any number of viewers can reach them, is important in this regard. She removes the barriers that prevent the general public gaining access to experimental art, especially important when much of her subject matter here revolves around the pain and hardship of invisibility and non-acceptance. Queer Feast allows for queer spectatorship practices that, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the viewer, engage them in a performative politics that celebrates the subversion of existing societal norms.
Performance as politics
So far, I have explored how performance both within and without the narratives of Queer Feast relates to queer identity and desire. Another related issue at stake here is the role performance plays (or can play) in a queer politics. Butler writes that performances that queer the norm
“show us how the norms that govern contemporary notions of reality can be questioned and how new modes of reality can become instituted. These practices of instituting new modes of reality take place in part through the scene of embodiment, where the body is not understood as a static and accomplished fact, but as an aging process, a mode of becoming that, in becoming otherwise, exceeds the norm, reworks the norm, and makes us see how realities to which we through we were confined are not written in stone.”
(Undoing Gender 29)
Butler describes a politics of performance enacted through queer bodies that actually challenges (rather than simply reproduces) norms. These performances demonstrate that heteronormativity does not exclusively define the parameters of possible identities, desires, lifestyles and viewing practices– the queer “outside” becomes a liveable option instead of a mere spectre haunting the borders of normalcy.
In this sense, we can view all of the stories of queer identities and desire presented in the interactive narratives of Queer Feast as ethico-political demands of the queer “others” of heteronormativity to claim visibility and recognition. Citron’s narratives affectively convey personal stories of queer desire and identity while also addressing broader issues such as the invisibility of the queer community and the complex and contradictory politics surrounding queer citations of heteronormative gender roles.
Even when subjects such as Norma and Virginia choose to remain secluded and invisible, Leftovers performs a political act in lending representation to their previously hidden identities. Cocktails & Appetizers, Mixed Greens, and As American as Apple Pie also engage in queer politics by exploring the matrices formed by the intersections of desire, the power dynamics of gender performativity, identity formation, and assimilation. The narratives’ ethical call to make the queer community visible is augmented by the increased level of responsibility and control given to viewers by the interactive structures of the narratives, which allows us, like the characters, to become performers who express queer stories and identities of our own.
Queer Feast can be found online at www.queerfeast.com. I would like to thank Michelle Citron for her assistance in preparing this article.
 Citron has addressed the complexities of her Jewish identity in other works such as Jewish Looks (2002), available online at http://sfonline.barnard.edu/cf/citron.htm. [return to essay]
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