I love lecture-performances. They are a great format for getting people to think about what they’re seeing in a new way. It’s like a tour bus, but you’re driving around a piece of art.
She’s Lost Control was a lecture-performance from a group called ‘Hissy Fit’. Their key idea is that hysteria is an expression of a liberating, feminist, authentic moment. Following the Ancient Greeks, Western medicine thought that the womb was a source of mental illness and caused outbursts of uncontrollable emotion. These outbursts were called ‘hysteria’. The medical exploration of hysteria occurred when photography was on the rise, thus we have a collection of photographs depicting hysterical symptoms. Given the technology of the time (slow development of the film), the hysterical symptoms had to be staged. There was no spontaneity to these photographs.
Hissy Fit sees these pictures as a kind of gendered performance, then links the expressions in the photographs to the expressions of ‘hysterical’ women in the punk music scene. Thus, the headbanging, punk rock woman is evoking the image of the hysterical woman in order to have a liberating moment that subverts gendered expectations and smashes the patriarchy and, &c., &c., &c.
There’s also a short tangent into ‘mania’ as a form of hysteria, where male commentators use snobbish, condescending, and gendered language to describe adolescent girls who really, really, really love Bieber. This tangent didn’t really go anywhere, except for Hissy Fit to declare solidarity with the Beliebers.
There are more than a few problems with the argument but, most significantly, it sails directly into denying the reality of mental illness. For Hissy Fit, the term ‘hysteria’ was used to oppress women through the medicalisation of expressing emotion. There’s no denying that it occurred to some degree but, at the same time, the term ‘hysteria’ was describing something genuine — mental illness — through gendered language. The male patient who was unable to control their emotional outbursts was described as having some kind of conversion disorder, but the female patient was described as hysterical. It’s not the case that all of the ‘hysterical’ patients were actually mentally fit and healthy, yet this is what Hissy Fit comes close to suggesting. If it weren’t for the gendered understanding of ‘hysteria’, these women wouldn’t have been patients but would have been free to explore their authentic selves. The men were suffering a disorder; the women were just oppressed.
Hissy Fit’s link between the staged photographs of hysteria symptoms and the punk rock music scene is superficially interesting, but they don’t give it enough intellectual space to explore. Apart from the superficial similarity in appearance, it’s unclear why they think one follows from the other. With a background in Classics, I thought of the descriptions of Dionysus’ worshippers in The Bacchae also seem fairly similar to the presentation of performers in the punk rock scene. I’m not entirely sure I’d be saying anything meaningful if I asserted that modern punk rockers were actually recalling a cultural memory of Bacchanals.
It’s also not clear how punk rock headbanging is a feminist moment that subverts patriarchal systems. Hissy Fit showed a reel of female musicians from the mid ’80s to the late ’90s who were all in various stages of ‘hysterical performance’. Notably, there was only one non-white performer in the entire reel. Even more notably, all of the performers were wearing the styles and fashions of their time. When musical performances from the MTV generation are huge productions, there are questions about who is actually the artist. Is the face of the band synonymous with the creative control and direction of the band?
Behind (nearly) all of the examples presented were a bunch of middle aged white guys who were carefully picking and choosing the images they thought would be the most profitable. I doubt anybody’d think that Rupert Murdoch should be the face of 1980s women’s liberation, and yet many of the examples presented were just his proxies.
This is one of the problems of trying to rail against patriarchal systems through pop culture: we’ve got you coming and going. The system fabricates authenticity and even teaches you what it means to be authentic. When the system provides you with examples of things that are ‘wild’, ‘new’, and ‘real’, it’s really selling you commodities which makes the older generation even wealthier. In the current age, look at the way LGBTI-friendly messages are being commercialised. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry in different ways marketed the same message, making the crusty old heterosexual white industry executives even more fabulously wealthy. This is no less true for punk rock music.
For what it’s worth, I love that there’s a group of artists who are interested in exploring and raising these ideas. It was just a shame that the exploration was so shallow (and weirdly narcissistic). At the same time, it drew a reasonable crowd of people making it likely that we’ll see similar sorts of lecture-performances in the future.