‘Up Your Ass’: Solanas @ PS 122 — No Factory Retread from Warhol shooter

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 9, 2001. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Freespace Dance.

NEW YORK — The woman who shot Andy Warhol fired another shot from the grave last night on the stage of P.S. 122, with the New York premiere, 36 years after she wrote it, of “Up Your Ass.” Valerie Solanas’s protean agit-prop treatise, which received its world premiere only last year from San Francisco’s George Coates Performance Works, would have heralded the arrival of a major political satirist in 1965 had it not been lost by Warhol and posterity for so long. Presented in 2001, however, and surprisingly, it is more than contemporary: Where much proto-feminist theater and dance these days, by artists young enough to be Solanas’s daughter or even granddaughter, is just so much screaming, Solanas delivers her punches with constant hits to the funny-bone as well, making any sexist accusations of “man-hater” secondary. “Up Your Ass,” while it doesn’t hold back, holds up first and foremost as powerful artistic expression. While much has been made about how this play predates Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto,” a seminal feminist work, “Up Your Ass” stands on its own as a piece of sharp theater and a model, perhaps, for, not a kinder, gentler feminist didacticism, but one with artistic teeth to match its political bite.

The background, briefly: Solanas submitted her manuscript, one of only two copies, to Warhol in 1965, hoping he would produce it. Instead, he lost it and, so the legend goes, it was her rage over this treatment of her script that prompted her to shoot him. Warhol’s copy was discovered after both protagonists had died, in a box under some film lighting equipment, by Billy Name. “Up Your Ass” premiered January 12 of last year in San Francisco, a few blocks from the Tenderloin hotel where Solanas spent her last hours in 1988, dying of pneumonia.

“Up Your Ass,” which might be subtitled Bongi’s adventures in hetero-macho land, is the best kind of romp — one with bite; and the best kind of screed — one with satiric chops. Coates, a performance art institution in the City by the Bay, has certainly highlighted the humor by setting much of the script to karioki (with such rock & soul standards as “Let’s Get it On,” “Because the Night,” “Fever,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “White Rabbit” getting new lyrics. This last becomes the score for a belly dance, “Celebration Dance: A Dance for a Turd,” the turd being on the maenu of a dinner party not for a husband to eat, but for his supplicating wife, because, she explains, “everyone knows men have so much more respect for women who are good at eating up shit.”)

Did I say men? There’s only one male actor in Coates’s production, which is not to say there’s only one male character. A chameleon cast of eight women essay a variety of men, women, and everything in between. Two actresses, Tina Marie Murray and Annie Larson, even portray men who then get dressed up in drag as women, the ensuing hilarity including a mind-fucking moment in which Larson chides Murray for sitting down with her/his/her legs spread and all but revealing the family jewels. Their hilarious banter also offers this line from Larson: “I despise men. You know, what I’d like to be is a lesbian — than I could be the cake and eat it too.”

At the serious heart of “Up Your Ass” is Bongi Perez, a “queer” — in quotes because, as another reviewer has pointed out, Solanas was using this term proudly before it became the vogue among queers to do so, and when much of the Queer Nation was still in the closet — and a prostitute. Perez, some reviewers have said, is Solanas’s stand-in. “I’m so female, I’m subversive,” Sara Moore’s Bongi tells Mantra Plonsey’s Russell, a smooth hubby who brandishes a whole raw squid before singing “I don’t fuck, I make love,” to the tune of “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.” But when Russell agrees to make an exception in Bongi’s case and have a quickie after she tempts him by opening her fly, she turns the tables on the man and fucks him in the butt.

Did you catch that? Note that I said, “after she tempts him.” I thought I was just describing what I saw, but really, all I saw was Moore open her fly. “Tempt” implies a motivation — and the motivation a man WOULD see after a woman opens her fly. A woman might see the motivation differently — perhaps, for instance, she was opening her fly to challenge him. I’m thinking of this — of the question of how open, even in supposedly post-feminist 2001, a male critic can truly be to receiving this work on its own terms, as opposed to through a defensive lens — after reading a review from the late San Francisco Examiner which was included in the press kit.

In his January 14, 2000 review, Robert Hurwitt described Bongi as “a dyspeptic lesbian hooker who delights in degrading her male johns and coming on to any woman who crosses her path. An androgynous figure in black leather jacket and trousers, she spends most of the evening casually injecting man-hating quips — many of them very funny — into the dialogue.”

Hmmm. Let’s break-down that paragraph, shall we?

In just about every line, Hurwitt describes Bongi not on her own terms, but in how her identity leaves her relating to males. She is a LESBIAN (unavailable to men for sex), a HOOKER (well, sort of available), who delights in degrading MALES WHO WANT TO PAY HER FOR SEX, and who COMES ON TO ANY WOMAN (not coming on to MEN.). To hear Hurwitt tell it, her dialogue consists almost entirely of MAN-HATING words.

Well, I beg to differ. Longtime DI readers will know that my man-hater radar is as sensitive as any Joe’s. And yet when I look at Bongi, at least as Moore’s portrayed her, I see a woman — yes, a woman, not an androgen — who, despite views she has acquired after what has obviously been some bitter experience, is still out there engaging with the world. She does accept a square woman’s invitation for dinner; she banters jocularly with an Ed Nortonesque typical hubba-hubba male; and she answers the square woman (Leanne Borghesi)’s belly dance with her own “dance of the seven towels,” plus her “modernistic fan dance. I use an electric fan.”

Indeed, if we look at the author for whom Bongi is a stand in, even as the work itself stands as a proof of her subversion, still, to try to get it out in the world, she was left relying on a man, Warhol.

Warhol is dead now, and so is Solanas. A man, Coates, certainly has brought her work back to life — enabled, of course, by a fine female cast! — but, based on the Examiner review, it seems to me that the male critical hegemony will still try to dismiss it. Hurwitt lead his article by dismissing “Up Your Ass” as “far from a masterpiece,” and saying it is “scarcely well written enough to be an interesting artifact of mid-’60s proto-feminism, let alone a work of art worth a man’s life.” He also said that “The Fuss is more than a little overdone.”

Again, I beg to differ.

I’m sure that male critics like Hurwitt would like nothing more than for “Up Your Ass” to have stayed under the nice glass case in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where Coates first saw it. Male critics, hell; the alumni magazine of Princeton University (edited by a woman) which arrived in my mailbox this week has, as its cover story, a fawning tribute to an alum who’s gone on to edit Maxim magazine, where a woman’s greatest value is her breasts.

Point? You may have come a long way, baby, but we as a society still have a long way to go before Eve is fully defined beyond being one form or another of Adam’s rib. Far from being a museum piece, Valerie Solanas’s “Up Your Ass” is a clarion call. NOT a clarion call for how to hate men and make it funny, but a call for how woman artists who want to continue Solanas’s fight — and folks, it ain’t over yet! — can do so with a form of high art that, because of the very humor which gives it mass appeal, has the power to truly subvert our male-centric system and move it closer to equality.

Solanas, finally, has come a long way, even if it took too long. Linda Moran, her sister, told last night’s audience after the curtain, “Valerie never had a memorial service. I think this is the most appropriate place to have the memorial. I consider this a memorial.”

“Up Your Ass” continues at P.S. 122 through February 25. The all-killer, no-filler cast also includes veteran comic Karen Ripley (in a hilarious Home-Ec send-up which concludes with a lesson in how-to-fuck-your-man), Chantel Lucier, Allison Hennessy, Sharon Boggs, and Eddy Falconer. For more info, please visit P.S. 122’s web site.

Special thanks to Rosa Mei for her valuable input on this article.

The body feminine: A summons to appear

By and copyright 2018, 2019 Fatima Khemilat
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Editor / Translator’s Note: With the recent umpteenth resurgence – instigated by a member of a far right political party who excoriated a Muslim parent accompanying a school field trip to a public meeting for wearing a head scarf, entirely legal in France – of the tired national (media) debate over the Muslim veil, instead of jumping into the melee by regurgitating our own tired point of view, we decided it was time to translate a scholarly essay, based on sound scholarly research, which goes beyond this particular polemic to explore larger (and largely unresolved) societal issues relating to the presence of women – and the female body – in the public commons in France which this and other recent debates reflects. A doctor in political sciences from the  Institut d’études  politiques in Aix-en-Provence (CHERPA), Fatima Khemilat is a lecturer at the university Paris-Est Créteil specializing in relations between the Muslim religion and public authorities. Numbered footnotes are the author’s. Lettered footnotes – and any opinions expressed therein —  and bracketed comments, with a couple of exceptions intended to illuminate several references whose meaning might not be apparent to readers outside France, are the translator’s. Because of latent confusion (on the part of the public and the translator, not the author) over the meaning of ‘voile integral’ – literally, veil entire or veil complete – sometimes called the niqab, which generally speaking covers the lower face but not necessarily the eyes, and should not be confounded with either the burka or the hijab (head-scarf) – in certain instances below we’ve kept the original French terminology in order to respect the integrity of the author’s intended meaning. The following essay was originally published in  les Cahiers du Développement Social Urbain,  no. 68, second semester 2018, and is translated and published with the permission of the author. After several attempts to do justice in the translation to the wordplay in the original title without sacrificing its intended meaning, we gave up. That title:  Le corps des femmes : une assignation à (par)être. Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation today by designating your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check. Don’t read English? Drop us a note and, to the extent that the author permits, we’ll drop you the French original. Today’s translation and publication of this article sponsored by Freespace Dance.

The unequal access of women to public spaces has been the object of a major body of scientific and activist literature. This inequality relies on an anthropologically gendered division of territories and of the functions relegated to them: private spaces with their domestic and reproductive tasks have been allotted to women, and public spaces structured by and for men, who see themselves awarded the tasks considered as the most noble and complex. This sexualized apportioning of jurisdictions is still the rule today because if women now have access to public spaces, it’s an access that is conditional. Women are seen as available objects whose essential purpose is to attract.  Their principle capital, to employ Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, thus relies on their physical attributes, their desirability. So that masculine domination “constitutes women as symbolic objects in which the being (esse) is a being perceived (percepi) (A), which has the effect of placing them in a state of permanent bodily insecurity or, at best, of symbolic dependence: they exist first and foremost by and for the regard of others, that is to say as welcoming, attractive, and available objects.” (1)

The female body, permanently onstage

This symbolic violence perpetrated on women is incarnated — literally becomes flesh and blood — in their bodies, notably by the injunction to be thin, or what the Moroccan Muslim feminist Fatema Mernissi refers to as “the 36-24-36 harem.” If women residing in conservative countries are circumscribed to living in a physical harem, between four walls, for women in Western societies this containment (B) is their own bodies. It’s as if the body becomes the continuation of the harem, extended as a space of confinement, in the sense that like the harem, it limits their movements and circumscribes their possibilities for emancipation. There is thus a metonymy between the female body and the intimate space. Taking our cue from Naomi Wolf (C) and Pierre Bourdieu in their respective work on masculine domination, these “’body codes’” insidiously paralyze women’s aptitude to enter the corridors of power. The resources of women who do manage to enter into the competition are so dependent on their physical aspects that there’s no question of equal opportunity.”  (2) (C2)

Women are, so to speak, eclipsed by their bodies, which thus transformed into objects are availed of like objects. They’re thus reduced to the materiality of their being, or rather appearance, by recurrent reminders in public spaces, as much immaterial as material.  In its immaterial, or if you prefer virtual, dimensions, the public space refers to the public stage: the media, social networks, Internet, advertising. The female body is over-represented in these domains, reduced to the status of an object to be exhibited, at one’s disposition and up for sale. This hyper-sexualization is never synonymous with power, whereas the representation of the male body in advertising, its eroticization, is associated with the ideal of power, of strength, and of virility. In material public spaces (streets, thoroughfares, other spaces open to the public) women see themselves reminded of their rank as objects by blatant harassment, or what’s known as the “male gaze.” (3) Thus it is that men, by a sort of magic social spell, not only see themselves as authorized — and self-authorized —  to judge, gage, and scrutinize women’s bodies but also to share with them the verdicts of their judgments. The whistles, hoots, and other “flirting techniques” are even presented as flattering, because the objective is attained: Please men, no matter which men, no matter what the price. Women’s bodies are thus not only seen as inherently sexual and therefore desirable (passive) but never desiring (active.)

Public spaces, conditional presence

The hyper-sexualization of the female body has two possible consequences when it comes to spatial segregation. In societies where sexuality is forbidden in certain enclosed spaces, notably for religious reasons, women (objects of temptation) are sent home or directed to female-only spaces: hammam, landry-room, “female-only” sections in places of worship, etcetera. They are allowed to access public spaces under certain conditions: that they demarcate the spatial barrier by covering / dissimulating their hair / bodies, being accompanied by a man, or being accompanied by other women. Women thus don’t occupy the public space, they simply traverse it, in transit. Cafés, restaurants, streets, cybercafés are thus seen as inherently masculine spaces of socialization. On the other hand, in secular societies where sexuality is presented as a depoliticized and/or pacified object, when in reality it never is (cf. the interdiction for women to expose their nude torsos in public, which does not apply to men), women can access public space to a limited degree.

The spatial segregation also takes on the form of a temporal dimension. In a certain sense there are two types of public spaces: the diurnal public space and the nocturnal public space. If it’s more and more admissible that women have access to the former, the latter on the other hand remains by and large a masculine space. It’s as if there’s a curfew which applies to “respectable” women, that is to say those not suspected of being “loose” floozies. After a certain hour, the streets are essentially populated by men, and breaking the tacit curfew subjects women to familiar penalties: street harassment and rape. These last operate as vague sanctions, indicating that the public space is, and remains, above all a space belonging to men.

The injunctions are therefore at the least paradoxical. Women are at the same time expected to be desirable, attractive (make-up, high-heels, tight outfits and other aesthetic accessories which restrict their mobility) and yet not overly so, otherwise they risk being labeled with the stigma of “whore.” The [French] misdemeanor of passive solicitation put in place by the law of March 18, 2003 re-enforces the gender differentiation of the temporal and territorial occupation of public space. The simple fact of a woman finding herself in certain neighborhoods reputed as sectors of prostitution, of being there at an hour considered late, of being dressed in a certain way or, worse, having a few condoms in her purse, is sufficient to constitute the misdemeanor of passive solicitation. It’s the judicial materialization of the temporal and spatial segregation imposed on women.

Women, summoned to limit themselves to a ‘type of feminine purity’

In the same manner, at the other end of the spectrum of feminine stigmas one finds women who wear the partial or full veil. The female body being an object of desire, attempting to dissimulate it and, by so doing, essentially withdraw it from the matrimonial and/or sexual market of the dominant population constitutes an offense now punished by the law in France (Law of October 11, 2010 on non-dissimulation of the visage in public spaces). In secularized countries, the figure of the “respectable woman” or as anthropologists might put it “the symbol of pure femininity” is thus circumscribed between these two extremities by, respectively, the figures of the foil and the scarecrow, of the prostitute and the veiled woman. The two are for that matter seen as having legally limited access to the public space. Respectable women must thus take part in the matrimonial and sexual marketplace, without trying to extract themselves from it by wearing a voile integral or charging for access to it, which might suggest that they control their desire and their sexuality, a privilege reserved for men. [Emphasis added by translator.]  Pure femininity is thus a femininity which simultaneously demonstrates a certain probity and reserve while still remaining accessible.

The July 18 video-taped attack on Marie Laguerre served as the occasion to elevate to the forefront of the public agenda “the battle against sexual and sexist violence,” from which resulted the adaptation of the Law of August 3, 2018 (D). The penalization of street harassment nonetheless was not unanimously applauded by feminist organizations and figures. The latter reproached the discriminatory nature of such a measure, which to a certain extent targets racialized men of modest origins. In effect, reading between the lines, the figure of the “Arab garcon” evoked by Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Éric Macé (E) is considered to be the real target of the measure, while for their part the dominant white males continue to exercise sexist and sexual violence in the halls of power: in the artistic, political, military, and major business domains, etcetera. The economic and racial dimensions are therefore articulated both as relates to the people committing the acts of violence and those subjected to them.

Of the female body relegated to somewhere else or the altérisation of sexism

In the case of femininities labeled as impure, things are even more flagrant. Historically prostitution districts are situated close to centers of masculine sociability and mobility: train stations, ports, downtowns.  From this fact, these districts and the neighborhoods around them, reputed for being “bad neighborhoods,” are prey to depreciated real estate values. The prostitutes, often represented as being foreigners, are thus progressively turned out to the perimeters of the cities, the suburbs (F), peripheral towns and woods. In the same manner, out of fear that the erecting of a mosque will send real estate values plummeting, certain cities exercise their right of pre-emption or simply refuse to deliver construction permits to push Muslim places of worship out of the cities. Besides this, the law forbidding wearing the niqab [which, as distinct from the hijab or headscarf, covers the lower part of the face though not necessarily the eyes] in public spaces allows for two exceptions: private spaces and mosques. For this reason, and to avoid the public disturbances that the interpellation and legal fining of a woman wearing such a veil might engender, police officers demonstrate a certain indulgence vis-à-vis women [spotted wearing the voile integral] next to mosques which themselves are situated in the suburbs. This is one of the reasons that women who wear the niqab, as with prostitutes, are essentially more visible in the suburbs.

The presence outside of cities of these women regarded (in the eyes of the patriarchy, be it religious or neo-liberal) as inherently submissive participates in the symbolic assignment of sexism to “the lost territories of the Republique” (to employ Emmanuel Brenner’s terminology). In this manner, sexism is framed as coming from an elsewhere (un ailleurs), as symbolic (foreign cultures) as it is territorial, in a spatial, temporal, and civilizational  metonymy: present/city center/European-ness [versus] past/suburb/foreign cultures. This symbolic and territorial circumscription of sexism to the other side of the tracks also enables its embodiment in the figure of the “Arab youth.” This demarcation and this altérisation of masculine domination shrewdly enables remaining silent on and invisibilizing the sexual violence perpetrated on women in the hearts of cities, amongst more privileged social categories. It also more or less enables the defining and unifying of an “us” in a strategy of civilizational differentiation in which the barometer is “the condition of women,” or what the sociologist Eric Fassin qualifies as “sexual democracy.” Certain controversies have thus come to reactivate the idea of an imbrication straddling territorial, gender, racialized, and economic dimensions. In other words, understanding the modalities of the occupation of the public commons by women necessitates realizing a genuine geography of intersectionality, in which women voilées intégra­lement  and prostitutes define, whether we like it or not, the obligatory boundaries.

1. Pierre Bourdieu, “La Domination masculine,” éditions du Seuil, 1998.
2. F. Mernissa, “Le Harem et l’Occident,” éditions Albin Michel, 2001.
3. In English in the original text.

A. Translator’s note (TN): “Esse est percipi” (To be is to be perceived.) – Berkeley

B. TN: In English and italicized in the original text.

C. See Naomi Wolf, “The Beauty Myth.” 1990, Chatto & Windus.
C2. Several years ago the Parliamentarian and president of the French Green party  Cecile Duflot was riddled by several of her male peers for the skirt she was wearing while delivering an address.

D. TN: On July 18, 2018 in Paris – as reported by the Parisian newspaper on July 29, 2018 – a 22-year-old woman named Marie Laguerre was assaulted (before witnesses and as recorded on video-tape) by a man after she refused to accept obscene remarks she said had been proffered at her. The incident – and a years-long campaign against sexual harassment on the streets of Paris and public transit – prompted the passage by the French legislature of the law of August 3, 2018, which sets out penalties for several forms of sexual aggression and harassment.

E. TN: Nacira Guénif-Souilamas is a French anthropologist and sociologist specializing in questions of gender and ethnicity, immigration and integration, and racial, cultural, and social stereotypes. Eric Macé’s work in sociology focuses on power rapports, notably in the cultural and media spheres and as relates to gender and ethnicity.

F. TN: The French term ‘banlieu’ doesn’t necessarily describe the same population, social, living, and economic conditions as found in the American equivalent suggested by the most obvious translation, ‘suburbs,’ at least in the Parisian context. While both are on the outskirts of a large city and there are certainly some well-to-do ‘banlieus’ outside of Paris, in general the banlieus are more ‘cosmopolite’ than their U.S. counterparts, home to numerous ‘cités’ or public housing projects, and economically modest to poor, with youth unemployment in some banlieus as high as 40 percent in recent years. According to some commentators – often from the Right but also including some leading feminists nominally considered on the Left – some of the cafés and bars in some of the neighborhoods of some of the banlieus are ‘no-fly’ zones for women. (My analysis here as throughout in these translator’s notes doesn’t necessarily reflect the author’s point of view.) My own – strictly anecdotal – evidence belies this reading: Living in the immediate Paris suburb of the prè-St.-Gervais earlier this year (down the street from a store-front mosque; I recognized it as a mosque by the pairs of shoes carefully deposited on the sidewalk outside on Fridays), if I remarked that the clients of the bar-café across the street were mostly men in their 20s to late 50s, many probably residents of the nearby Rabelais public housing project, I also observed that the occasional female client who entered for her morning coffee (or late-morning ‘petite blanc’) was welcome. And the male clients who lingered on the sidewalk were regularly subjected to (what sounded to my non-Arab speaking ears like) good-natured haranguing from the hijab (headscarf)-wearing babushka who lived upstairs.