For the Love of Valerie Solanas
In many respects, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) is a pretty lousy movie. But at its centre is the fascinating figure of Valerie Solanas, whose real historical significance lies not in her paranoid shooting of Andy Warhol, but her penning of an extraordinary, seminal feminist text: the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto.
Those new to the myth of Solanas may find such a claim of her significance puzzling. I’m talking about that crazy would-be killer who lived much of her life as a bag lady and died in obscurity in 1988? The one who hung out with the nuttiest freaks, extremists and terrorists of the psychedelic ‘60s?
On his 1990 musical collaboration with John Cale, Songs for Drella, Lou Reed was content to dismiss the “idiot madness” of Solanas. But she and her Manifesto deserve a better reputation. Mary Harron, the director and co-writer of I Shot Andy Warhol, at least has her heart in the right place: her film tries to present Solanas as an ignored prophet of feminism, a visionary and activist before her time.
Yet, to me, Harron’s emphasis seems wrong. Her film imagines Solanas watching the first feminist marches in America on TV and exclaiming, “I should be there!” But Solanas was an anarchist, an individualist. More than that, she was unruly, anti-social, impossible to deal with, suspicious of everyone and everything.
And it is precisely this unnegotiable aspect of Solanas and her views – so vividly conveyed in the language of the SCUM Manifesto – that makes her glorious and important. At a moment when the media’s favourite Bad Girls are either savvy, suave, public intellectuals or glamorous lipstick lesbians, it is refreshing – and unsettling – to encounter Solanas’ remarkable writing and the fierce personality that roars there.
I first encountered the incendiary words of Solanas in “The Pirate’s Fiancée”, a 1978 essay by the great Australian writer Meaghan Morris (later collected in her 1988 book of the same title). Unidentified passages from Solanas’ manifesto – “men who are rational will ... ride the waves to their demise” – interrupted Morris’ testy analysis of current trends in academic feminism. Inspired to track it down for myself in ‘78, I realised that the SCUM Manifesto is indeed an extraordinary text.
Today, Morris recalls the SCUM Manifesto as a classic underground text of the Australian Women’s Movement of the early 1970s; she still proudly possesses her dog-eared, pirated photocopy from that time. Many radical feminists knew it verbatim – “You read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and then you read Valerie Solanas”.
In that era, a taste for Solanas tended to distinguish radical, anarchist feminists from socialist feminists. Where members of the former group strove to “live the attitude” embodied in Solanas’ text, the latter distanced themselves somewhat from its extremist, “irresponsible” sentiments.
But what about all that cutting-up-men stuff, the “male genocide” that has, down the years, made so many readers of the Manifesto so queasy and uneasy? The queer (in the old-fashioned sense) genetic theories (“the male is a biological accident”) and strident prophecies of an all-female future?
Morris stresses that, today, it is easy to make the SCUM Manifesto sound sillier than it actually is – and to underestimate its real effects within the Women’s Movement of Australia (as, no doubt, elsewhere). Those radical feminists who grooved (to use a favourite Solanas term) on the Manifesto were also the activists who began rape crisis centres and women’s refuges.
Quoting Solanas’ text in 1978 – amidst the rise of intellectual figures such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray – was already, for Morris, something of a terroristic, subversive act. She wanted to “restore it to memory” and assert that it should be “part of everyone’s heritage”.
More important than the strict, literal content of Solanas’ text is its vibe – the wild, deadpan humour, the provocation, the combustible mix of political and psychoanalytic ideas. All up, a sense that Solanas is not bogging down in the miserable tangles of the everyday but “wheel[ing] round for an extraordinary future”.
still regards the Manifesto as “a stunning piece of writing” – not necessarily
in literary or aesthetic terms, but as a kind of writing that energises people,
that gets things moving. Against all the pressures on feminism to adopt the
proper and responsible paths, Solanas’ mad, shining, fiercely individualist
rant continues to say to us that (as Morris puts it) “there is another way”.
Note: The SCUM Manifesto appears in the published screenplay of I Shot Andy Warhol by Mary Harron & Daniel Minahan (Bloomsbury). You can also read it here.
© Adrian Martin November 1996