The films of Jan Oxenberg
Comic critique

by Michelle Citron

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 31-32
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

He: Have you heard the women's movement has no sense of humor?

She: No. How does it go?

Jan Oxenberg makes politically important, humorous films. They are important not only because they are part of a small group of films that describe the lesbian experience in the United States, but also because they have a lot to say about the ideology of film and about feminist filmmakers' expanding search for appropriate film aesthetics.

Oxenberg's films have always been controversial. Depending on the biases of who's doing the judging, they are usually accused of being apolitical, sentimental, or technically unrefined. Suffering from the negative criticism leveled at many feminist films, Oxenberg's films are additionally ghettoized by people who cannot relate to the films' lesbian subject matter.

In spite of such criticism, Oxenberg's films have had an enthusiastic reception by lesbian and feminist audiences. The films have been programmed over and over again and have achieved a feminist and lesbian cult reputation. In turn critics have dismissed this phenomenon, saying that lesbian audiences are myopic in their acceptance of these films, misguided by their enthusiasm for the subject matter into ignoring other, and by implication, more important filmic qualities. Frequently feminist films, independently made on very low budgets, are accused by critics of poor technical or "cinematic" quality.

Admittedly sections of Oxenberg's films do suffer from technical problems arising from the economics of independent filmmaking, especially serious for the openly lesbian filmmaker. But technical roughness is rarely a barrier for sympathetic audiences' understanding of the films. People who want to sidestep the real issues often use this as the excuse to dismiss a film.(1) There are those who find films too threatening that critique our heterosexist culture, including film's function in perpetuating that ideology. This especially happens when the films simultaneously take the lesbian experience seriously and validate it. Rather than argue about politics, it is much easier to attack the form.

A less obvious explanation, and one that I'd like to explore further in this article, is that Oxenberg's films are using a cinematic aesthetic not perceived by most critics.(2) A lot of political analysis in these films, especially in COMEDY IN SIX UNNATURAL ACTS, occurs through manipulating the form. It is lesbians and feminists who have no need to evade the politics of COMEDY's formal analysis and jokes and who are receptive to its lessons. Oxenberg's films present, celebrate, and validate the lesbian experience. They provide a way of looking at what images do to us as well as at our own attitudes. The films use humor to begin to analyze politically and critique homosexual and heterosexual cultural stereotypes as well as to explore the complex relations between film and ideology. At the same time they confront the audience with its own prejudices.

HOME MOVIE (1972, 12 minutes) intercuts old home movie images — of a small girl dancing and later playing with a doll and still later performing as a cheerleader at a football game — with footage of a gay rights march and women playing tackle football.

The home movie images are evocative. The first set of images consists of a small girl (perhaps age four) dressed like a doll and dancing. Her dance is extraordinary. Arms waving frenetically, the child is trying to keep her balance. Then, trying to negotiate a graceful turn, she falls on her ass. It is simultaneously funny and painful to watch. Here is Shirley Temple as performed not by a precocious child star but by a real child. The girl is trying to imitate what she thinks should be cute and feminine, but since she is real, not a male-manufactured icon, she fails at this attempt. Her dance is not graceful or coy. Rather, it's the desperate running around in a circle of a kid who doesn't quite catch on. The image resonates with our memories of trying to fit in, struggling to be those images of "true femininity" presented in films, magazines and television commercials. This image symbolizes growing up female. On the sound track the woman's voice intones, "I never felt like a girl. They let me be crazy." Few of us could measure up to the ideal, unreal images, always feeling somehow crazy.

The image on the screen changes to show a mother holding an infant while the daughter looks on, holding a doll, and trying to imitate the mother. Once again, the girl cannot do it right. The mother holds the baby gently and with assurance. The daughter, not quite sure what to do with her doll, holds it upside down by its legs and shakes it. It's an image of basic socialization into the female role. The mother is training her daughter into their own mutual oppression, and the daughter has a need to try and please the mother despite having very different feelings and desires. It is an image of imitative behavior.

The last home movie image is of the same girl, now a young woman, still trying to fit in and still denying her own reality. Now she is a cheerleader. We see her perform with other young women. On the sound track the same woman years later talks retrospectively of her love for women. She had dated boys while really wanting to be with women. At one point she remarks,

"What if I had held hands with the other cheerleaders? That would have really blown their minds How would they react? They wouldn't even let us chew gum."

The audience members invariably laughs as they recognize the absurdity of such restrictions on behavior. The film shows that a subversion of the socialization process, though rarely acknowledged, often occurs.

At this point the film starts intercutting the home movies of the cheerleaders with footage of lesbians marching and playing. We see the cheerleaders intercut with shots of women in a gay rights march, arm in arm and smiling, and with shots of women playing touch football. Tight formations of women all dressed alike are juxtaposed against women running with their hair flying and all wearing different clothes and different hairstyles, with different faces. The second group of women is in the midst of the game, not cheering on the sidelines. There is a sense of women celebrating being strong and free and getting to play. Football is usually strongly associated with men and serves as an image of male strength and competitiveness. The women in HOME MOVIE are subverting the male sports mythology. In fact, this game looks like no male football game I've ever seen. Women run for a pass, catch it, tackle, and land on top of one another hugging and kissing. The game is playful, sexual, non-competitive. The image is one of celebration, especially because it is intercut with the gay rights march.(3)

A simple content analysis of HOME MOVIE will rightfully see the film as analyzing and celebrating being lesbian. Yet the form itself is significant and the title suggestive. Oxenberg uses home movies to underscore the role of the family and school as institutions that perpetuate patriarchal ideology. In the context of this film, home movies, usually a celebratory recording of family life, ironically become a condemnation of the very institutions filmed. Oxenberg celebrates not women's joining family or school but their release. Additionally, the 8mm and Super-8 footage depicting the past juxtaposed against the 16mm footage depicting the present suggests Oxenberg's historical approach to the material. The home movies' awkward child is found later playing football and marching in a political demonstration. Freed of false constraints or "false framing," this woman has expanded the parameters of her life: from mom and dad as "family" to the lesbian movement as "community," from the sideline onto the playing field. The film by its very form suggests: yes, there is socialization and, yes, there is isolation. But there is also potential for change, especially in the context of a social movement.

COMEDY IN SIX UNNATURAL ACTS (1975, 26 minutes) continues where HOME MOVIE ends both in analysis and in visual experimentation. It is divided into six separate sections: "Wallflower," "Role-Playing," "Seduction," "Non-Monogamy," "Child Molester," and "Stompin' Dyke." Each section critiques pervading myths about lesbian culture. The film works by playing in a comic way on our expectations. It presents icons and behaviors we are accustomed to seeing, seducing us into feeling comfortable about predicting each section's outcome. But then each section ends with a totally different explanation than the traditional one.

An example is "Role-Playing." Shot in soft light with diffusion filters, the sequence shows us a culturally conventionally beautiful woman preparing to go out on a date. Instead of the traditional image of her putting on make-up, we see her dressing "butch." She's knotting her tie, slapping on cologne, greasing back her hair. This last action is shown in excruciating close-up, the woman's fingers scooping up handfuls of slimy goop. At one point the gel slips out of her fingers onto her nose. The audience laughs and cringes. The image is powerful, resonating with memories of teasing, curling, spraying, plucking, and, yes, slicking back hair. The image reinforces our sense of how women twist and contort themselves to fit some cultural notion of beauty and acceptability, whether heterosexual or lesbian. It also suggests male grooming routed through female actions — a strong lesbian stereotype. The woman puts on her suit jacket, gives herself one last look in the mirror, picks up a bouquet of flowers, and walks off to meet her date. When she rings the doorbell, our expectation is that it will be answered by the "femme" counterpart to this "butch." However, a woman answers dressed in exactly the same way with suit, tie, and slicked-back hair, and she is also holding flowers. The women exchange bouquets, wink at each other, and go off holding hands.

In "Wallflower," we see a high school dance with the inevitable woman on the sidelines pathetically isolated from the dancing couples on the floor. After an excruciatingly long time, her date walks in but stays just off screen. We see the "Wallflower" turn and look up smiling. As the camera pulls back, we see not a handsome male date but a tall, blonde woman whom the Wallflower adores.

This device, though simple, is much more than just a joke with a visual punchline. It is a set-up. Oxenberg carefully codes sequences in particular ways to ensure a predictable cultural reading of the codes by the audience. For example, in "Role-Playing," she relies on our reading that the woman wearing a suit and tie is a "butch" who, we think, will of course date a "femme" in order for Oxenberg to make her joke. "Wallflower" is much more complex because the codes can be read in a number of different ways. It offers a game of fill-in-the-blanks within the context of the patriarchal ideology of dating. Here, as at the end of each sequence, we realize that we have been led to misread the signs. And these one-line jokes become political precisely because they reveal the cultural construction of the codes themselves.

The sequence leading up to the visual punch line in "Wallflower" is a textbook of teenage, heterosexual game playing. Men and women dance in bear-hug embraces, the women lost in the physical massiveness of their male partners, the male hands trying to "feel-up" their dates while the women continually push the men's hands away. In the background, visually isolated and looking very uncomfortable, is the Wallflower (a woman without a man is alone). At one point a prospective partner approaches the Wallflower. He gives her the once-over, she sneers at him, and he decides she's not worth it and walks away — to her visible relief. We adjust our reading of the sequence in keeping with our knowledge of the film as a lesbian film (a woman alone is a dyke). At this point, the record on the turntable skips. The couples turn and look expectingly at the Wallflower, who is obviously supposed to fix it. Yet she is too lost in her own world of discomfort to realize what's going on (a dyke alone is pathetic). When the sequence finally ends happily, we have been led through the complexity of our ideological assumptions, the film revealing in each twist and turn yet another level of erroneous assumptions. This woman may be without a man, but her discomfort does not come from loneliness.

These sequences critique not only homophobic assumptions, but heterosexuality itself and the misappropriation of some heterosexual ideology in lesbian culture. These levels have their clearest articulation in "Seduction," where we see two women tentatively approaching each other in the initial stages of romantic acquaintance using all the ploys associated with heterosexual courting. There's, "Maybe some day you can come over and see my maps?," candlelight, a gypsy violinist, and the accidentally spilled glass of wine that gives an excuse for touching. The sequence slips into a satire of lesbian courtship (camping trips and sweetly oversupportive dyke friends helping out a "new" one). But there is an absurd edge to the women's behavior which is emphasized by the acting: we are not watching real people but actors very obviously playing roles. Beyond the fact that the behavior is "not natural," it also doesn't fit. Despite attempts, lesbians do not fit into the model of romantic love. The film emphasizes this by having the scene played not in a public restaurant as it would be with a heterosexual couple, but in the privacy of someone's living room. The lesbian as an outsider is a theme that runs throughout the film. In "Wallflower" the last shot shows the lesbian couple walking through the parted teenage crowd who throw rice at them. Such a tactic emphasizes once again their "other" status and the impossibility of such a fantasy ending.

Oxenberg is not just criticizing heterosexual romanticism. She is critical of lesbian romanticism as well. In "Non-Monogamy," we see a woman (played by Oxenberg herself) juggling fruits and balls. As the narrator leads from a political tract about the lesbian nation as an army of lovers and about the positive side of nonmonogamy, the juggler offers her own critique of that militant platform by increasingly losing control over her balancing act. Oxenberg is saying in this metaphoric act that living within patriarchal culture is difficult. Lesbians should not just imitate heterosexual behavior nor should they try to just do the reverse of the dominant norm. For Oxenberg, lesbians must always be questioning and critical of their actions. The "lesbian nation" is still learning and developing its alternatives.

Except in "Non-Monogamy," the models of romantic love seen in COMEDY are actions modeled directly on Hollywood movies. This is made explicit when the women first kiss in "Seduction." Suddenly we see a dance production number straight out of the movie musical complete with a montage sequence of women (instead of the heterosexual couple) meeting. There are such images as tilted neon signs and women folding laundry together at the laundromat; a chorus line; and the seductress. Film references are frequent in COMEDY. In "Role-Playing," the very controlled soft focus, diffuse lighting, and carefully composed close ups suggest 30s glamour style photography. The under-cranked camera, quick cutting, and piano music of another section, "Child Molester," suggests silent film comedies. Oxenberg is clearly acknowledging the power of movies to shape our attitudes and lives.

COMEDY is politically important in its concern with naming and claiming lesbianism. In "Role-Playing," Oxenberg chooses to have both women portrayed as butch not femme (femme is the much more acceptable image of lesbianism in straight society). Role playing does exist, a mimic of the oppressive heterosexist culture. To deny its existence is to tell an inaccurate and impoverished history of lesbians. In "Child Molester" Oxenberg has the courage to confront the myth of lesbians' stalking innocent children and to debunk it instead of pretending it doesn't exist. When the child molester cum Girl Scout leader tries to lure two little girls, they just wave at her and walk away together hugging and kissing each other. Oxenberg asks the reactionary question (don't they molest children?) and gives not the liberal answer (these things are not so) but the radical answer (girls love each other).

The film ends with the "Stompin' Dyke" sequence. The sequence consists of the stompin' dyke, strong, powerful and leather-jacketed, dismounting from her bike in the first shot. She walks tough down the street. A look from her and people swerve out of her way. A bicyclist stares at her and loses his balance and falls. Once again we have the image of the woman as outsider, offering a sense of both isolation and power. She walks down to the beach and disappears down an incline toward the ocean, recalling an image frequently seen in melodrama where the desolate character walks to a watery suicide (e.g., A STAR IS BORN, HUMORESOUE). But the sequence cuts to a medium shot of the dyke in front of the water.

As she steps in, the waters part and she walks through unharmed. This image is crucial. It gives the last, most powerful image in the film to the most extreme lesbian stereotype, the stereotype feared by most women, that of the bull dyke. It is easy to claim the "pretty lesbian" (seen in Playboy layouts of beautiful women making love for the titillation of men). But to claim the most feared image is both courageous and politically important. Oxenberg gives the image of most power not to a lesbian the women's movement might accept, the chic political lesbian (e.g., Rita Mae Brown), but to the bull dyke.

The best part of Oxenberg's films is the humor that dominates them, ranging from the quiet snicker of recognition to the vulgar comedy of slapstick. Comedy is a difficult form. Oxenberg's use of it for political ends is fairly unique in contemporary independent political films. Her films' humor is articulated in many different ways. We are shown the absurdity of stereotypes, which after all are part of our distorted history, as with the Child Molester's donning a Girl Scout uniform and trying to lure victims with cookies. We have in COMEDY the recognition of real lesbian history, even if the actions are no longer appropriate. (Women do really slick back their hair, a fact no worse than permanents, yet rarely acknowledged with such sympathy.) We see a joyous public articulation of lesbian culture. (Many lesbians' first crushes are on women culturally seen as "mannish" — their gym teachers — for what kind of women would want to play sports anyway?) COMEDY also has the vulgar humor of broad humor and slapstick, as in the "Seduction" and "Child Molester" sequences. And it provides a laugh that comes from our interpretation of the film's codes and our constant misreading of them.

Oxenberg's films, but especially COMEDY, are made for lesbian audiences or at least those familiar with lesbian culture. And much of the humor depends on an understanding of that culture. The film plays with stereotypes; it does not make fun of lesbians. At the end of one showing to a primarily heterosexual audience, COMEDY was attacked for being homophobic. One audience member stated, "I like gay people — why do you make them so awful?" James Wolcott, in his Village Voice review of COMEDY following its eventual showing on WNET, did not find the film funny at all, which meant he completely missed all the political points, for these are made solely through humor. He condemns the film:

"'Child Molester' concerns a lech who dolls herself up in a Girl Scout outfit and haunts playgrounds, lusting after little girls. When she tries to entice a pair of tots with GS cookies, the girls gigglingly kiss each other and scamper off — they don't need the Scout Leader, see, because they're already budding lezzies. (With Oxenberg's sense of humor, America doesn't need the neturon bomb.)"(4)

COMEDY is so complex in its structure, due to its many levels of critique, analysis, and satire, that it does allow for selective perception based on the audience's own experiences and biases. But there is a further division between viewers whose misunderstanding derives from homophobia and those whose misunderstanding arises out of their lack of knowledge and/or experience.

Oxenberg's use of humor, although it elicits a differential response from audiences, is not, I think, a limitation of her films. To make a political film for a particular primary audience is one of a number of alternative media strategies. Often, to make a film on lesbianism or homosexuality that is "acceptable" and has a broad appeal is to whitewash or eliminate sexuality itself — which is after all the reason why homosexuality is such a taboo. Oxenberg avoids this. Equally, she avoids the opposite problem and is able to deal with the sexual/political issues involved in a non-voyeuristic way. It is difficult to depict lesbianism in film because film is a medium that historically has used women for the visual pleasure of the male audience.

There is fine line between "naming the unnamed" and exploiting it. Oxenberg, by dealing with lesbian issues in a humorous cultural/ historical way, avoids this pitfall. In her work, lesbians are defined by much more than their lovemaking although she indirectly implies this critical aspect by having the characters prepare for dates, hold hands, and kiss. But lesbianism is more broadly political for her, having to do with ideological mechanisms of socialization, male/female gender differentiation, cultural notions of romantic love, and being an outsider. Oxenberg's films deal with all these issues and in an increasingly political and sophisticated way.


1. The most recent case of this is WNET's controversial programming of its 1980 Independent Focus series. COMEDY was one of the 28 independently made films recommended for programming by a peer review panel. Later it was one of four films refused airtime by the station. The station cited poor acting and low technical quality as its reasons. However, in the ensuing protest by the gay community, it became clear that the criterion used was the film's threatening content. Because of the pressure exerted by gay rights groups, the film was later reprogrammed. The other three films have not had similar success (see JUMP CUT, 22).

2. For an extraordinary example of this, see James Wolcott's review, "Lesbians Are Lousy Lovers," Village Voice, 2 May 1980:

"I waited for the apples to come tumbling down — for Oxenberg to acknowledge that lesbians too suffer from spite, envy, jealousy. But no: she really seems to believe that her sisters leap from petal to dewy petal in a daisy chain of sapphic delight. If lesbian life is such a kissy frolic, why did all the women in COMEDY IN SIX UNNATURAL ACTS look as if they had just discovered holes in their galoshes?"

3. This image, though strong, is ambiguous and therefore problematic for me. On the one hand, the women playing football in HOME MOVIE are subverting the image. On the other hand, I find the image so culturally laden with male norms that the analysis presented in the film needs to go further. Otherwise the image of women competing in rough sports is open to ambiguous interpretation. I am unsure of its meaning: Women can do anything men can do? Women can move their bodies? Women are like men? But what woman wants to be like a man?

4. For wonderful reading, I suggest the letters to the editors written in response to this vicious review of COMEDY: Village Voice, 26 May and 2 June 1980.