• Femme Freedom on Film: On Daisies, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and Twinning

    Sam Cohen Considers the Dismantling of Normative Gender Roles

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the ditz: Jessica Simpson, Karen from Mean Girls. It’s because I was one. An uptalker, a hair twirler, a space queen. Partly, I wanted all the ditzes to be taken seriously, to be respected and have our voices heard, but partly I wanted to revel in the cuteness of our head tilts, to celebrate the accidental hilarious brilliance of our queries about the true nature of chickens of the sea. And maybe, too, I loved the unselfconsciousness, the innocent curiosity, the all-around noncompetitive good time of the ditz against the hard rationality and anger of the Nick Lacheys of the world, against the strict rules and calculated behavior of the Regina Georges. I wanted, maybe, to live in a world of only ditzes: of girls who liked lipstick and cleavage, girls who could communicate through a nuanced collection of giggles and scoffs, girls who inquired, who blurted out whatever observations came to mind, always with an excessive use of the word “like.”

    My teenage best friend and I wore cherry lipgloss and ponytails gathered all the way at the tops of our heads, we took photos with disposable cameras posing with kissy faces in matching purple velour panties. We ate from shared serving bowls of guacamole and mujadarra while telling her mom the high school gossip. We watched Cry Baby and Hairspray and together and we never had to be smart or serious—we could speak with endless likes and multisyllabic songs of vocally-fried vowels and understand each other deeply and completely.

    I loved girlhood but never wanted to mature into womanhood. I wanted to stay forever in the world of guacamole and John Waters and matching purple velour panties we didn’t need to show anyone else. I could see that adulthood was not just boring but exploitative, that the adults around me had stopped inquiring, were passively working in service of the perpetuation of a wildly inequitable and earth-destroying world. But eventually most ditzes grow up, trade in their slutty, pleasure-seeking sexualities for marriage and motherhood, learn to speak logically and with steady, down-turned sentences.

    But I am interested in when they don’t. Whenever someone asks my favorite movie, I’ll say either the 1997 girl classic Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion or the 1966 Czech new wave film Daisies. I love these movies for the same reason: because they portray pairs of female characters who reflect and mimic only each other, who refuse or fail to grow up into womanhood but who are so femme that they exist in another universe from the gender binary, who offer a vision of life outside of heteronormative time, outside of capitalist and patriarchal notions of maturity. Because they allow the ditz to persist into adulthood, forever and ever.

    In the queer theory classic Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes that the gender binary is perpetuated in service of heteroreproduction; it’s because of compulsory heterosexuality that two discrete genders must exist. Normally, when we think of women outside the binary, we imagine masculine-of-center women. But Romy and Michele and Marie and Marie refuse assimilation to heteroreproductivity and to normative gender with their excessive femmeness, with their refusal to come of age, with their lives of ludic possibility, pleasure, and play.

    Daisies’ Marie and Marie wear matching bikinis, pastel babydoll nighties with thigh-high socks, little mod minidresses. Their movement is doll-like, stiff, and tottering—they bounce and twirl, bunny hop and flap their arms. Their wrists are bent outward like kewpie dolls, their faces giddy or vacant. Instead of enlisting in good adulthood, helping to reproduce, machine-like, the systems that create war machines and other engines of exploitation, the Maries become a kind of living artwork, living in search of pleasure and unsettling everyone. This is intentional: They have decided on this performance-life, on this mode. The film’s opening credits feature images of war machines and industrial machines before cutting to the Maries: “Everything is spoiled,” says one Marie. “Then we’ll be spoiled, too!” declares the other. They enact their decadence purposefully, refusing to come of age if coming of age means working in service of the machine of industrial capitalism or the machine of the war, either by wifing or by working.

    They enlist their girlish charms to get men to take them on expensive dates, but always they communicate in their childish non-logic, making the logically-thinking and appropriately-behaving men feel left out and confused. On the dates, the Maries shove full slices of cake into their mouths, suck frosting off their fingers, slurp soup, guzzle wine, suck down cigarettes, and tear apart whole chickens with their hands. They blink and blink with perfect Twiggyesque eyelashes, leaving their dates stuttering and baffled and ultimately, alone.

    In a nightclub where politely attentive patrons sip wine and watch a pair of performers dancing the Charleston, the Maries bounce up and down, open-mouthed and giggling, on their booth, blowing bubbles in their beer, sipping wine from other patrons’ tables, mimicking the performers in a way that looks like a parody, or else like three-year-olds trying legitimately do complicated dance moves. They’ve upended the patron/performer dynamic: they are performing wrongly, or in the wrong location, or they are confused about what is acceptable movement within a performance versus as a patron and it is unsettling, it unsettles appropriate bourgeois social behavior. But even as they’re escorted out, they continue to dance, smile, giddily wave.

    In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam writes, “from the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success.” Ten years out of high school, Romy and Michele fail completely to grow into adult women. They have rainbow-colored manicures and an entire wardrobe they’ve designed and sewed themselves that favors faux fur, vinyl, matte lipstick, cleavage, bleach, animal print everything. All of their outfits have matching plastic accessories in the form of cherries, candy. They speak in Valley Girl scoffs, upspeak, and vowel-based nonsense syllables of joy. As perpetual girls, like the Maries, they share a bedroom. The girl bedroom is, in general, the site of identity construction and aesthetic expression, covered in posters of crushes, of dream-lives, and so to willingly share a bedroom suggests a need for only one identity, one set of dreams. Romy and Michele’s is full of animal prints, fake fur, chintz.

    I loved girlhood but never wanted to mature into womanhood.

    Romy and Michele are unaware of the degree to which they are not in step with the world around them until filling out a where-are-you-now form for their class reunion. They had been psyched to return from LA to their Tucson hometown to flaunt their success, which they measured in how much fun they were having, how cute they were. The form, though, with its boxes of straight/male/normative gaze, prompts a crisis. They go to the reunion dressed as “business women,” but they look more like first-timers in the drag category of executive realness, their French twists and stilettos and cleavage and matte red lips exaggerated, unintentionally campy. They’re found out and, just as they were in high school, mocked cruelly by the A Group, a trio of women with baby bumps in seafoam and mauve and beige versions of the same boring evening dress, silky with tasteful beading on the bust, each with a string of pearls.

    Once rejected, Michele confesses, outside, that she never realized they were losers; she had found pleasure in failure, and convinces Romy to embrace this pleasure, too, rather than try to discipline and order herself in accordance with the norms of their classmates which are the norms of heterosexuality, of aging on a normative timeline. Halberstam writes that “failure allows us to escape the punishing norms” that create “orderly and predictable adulthoods.”

    Once rejected, Romy and Michele can see that they’ve actively refused orderly and predictable adulthoods, even if they hadn’t realized it. They let down their French twists and return to the reunion as themselves, in bright pink and blue plastic minidresses with matching purses and earrings, rhinestone chokers, bedazzled stripper heels. It is the opposite of a teen makeover romance where the weird girl gets brought into feminine normativity to get the guy. Against the bland sameness of their classmates, Romy and Michele are clearly vibrant, inventive, and alive.

    I am thinking about Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” only because I always am. Lorde writes that patriarchy diminishes and commoditizes female sexuality, that men keep women as “ants maintain colonies of aphids,” a kind of penned-in supply “at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked.” Lorde, like many other 20th-century feminists, wondered what women would be without having to understand themselves via the male gaze, without learning that logic was the way to personhood, without being a national resource. She wrote that because we understand strength only in the “context of male models of power,” women “distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.”

    I doubt that Romy and Michele, or Marie and Marie, was who Lorde was envisioning when she imagined women finding power in the non-rational, women enacting ways of being outside of patriarchal modes. But I wonder, if bouncing instead of walking, if giggling instead of speaking, if making our own fruit-covered clothes instead of selecting sedate mall-options, might be a way to move past or to the side of heteronormativity, of enlisting in a kind of adulthood that can only reproduce the same hierarchies, the same violences.

    It is clear from all the tacked-up sets of wings around her what happens to beauty he worships.

    And I wonder if it’s only through a kind of femme twinning that this is possible. In moments where they are alone, both Marie and Michele struggle. When Michele goes to apply for a job at Versace, it is suddenly apparent that her skirt is too short, her heels too slutty, her accessories too matchy, her voice too dumb. Alone and under the gaze of the Rodeo Drive employees, Michele transforms into someone pathetic, a loser, while somehow with Romy, her accessories are perfect, her matchiness genius, her vowel-only words perfectly comprehensible. In reflecting each other, every choice of language and fashion feels intentional, innovative, wildly cool.

    Similarly, on her one solo date, with a creepy-ass man who collects dead butterflies, the lone Marie is visibly nervous, fragile, for the only time. The man worships her beauty, but it is clear from all the tacked-up sets of wings around her what happens to beauty he worships. But later, on her shared bed with the other Marie, she uses scissors to cut up sausages, bananas, and eggs while messages from her obsessive date play in the background. She feeds the sliced up chunks of these campily overt reproductive symbols to the other Marie with a barbecue fork and their twin-logic is restored. They’ll cut up dicks but also eggs; they’ll use the very tools of domestic life to dismantle heteroreproductivity, ravenously and girlishly.

    My book—my first book—Sarahland, is a linked collection of stories about characters named Sarah who similarly refuse heteronormativity, who similarly fail to grow up along predetermined paths, who similarly fail, in some ways, to become women. Instead they try to become dolphins and they actually become trees, nonbinary, each other. They move through the world looking for twins as primary relationships—the Romy to their Michele, the Marie to their Marie—seeing in certain glittering others little signposts that mark paths around or under the structure of heteropatriarchy.

    The Sarahs merge with and transform via these other characters and via pop culture, the earth, future plastic. Lacking adherence to any fixed identity, and driven by desire for pleasure and intimacy, the Sarahs refuse to mirror the image of the good wife and mother or the career woman working in service of what one Sarah calls “The Grand Shitpile.” Instead, the Sarahs find new ways of being by evolving together, keeping each other safe. Oh, and they love doll dresses and lipstick and they speak only in vocal fry, freely saying “like” all over the page.



    Sarahland is available from Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2021 by Sam Cohen.

    Sam Cohen
    Sam Cohen
    Sam Cohen was born and raised in suburban Detroit. Her fiction is published in Fence, Bomb, Diagram, and Gulf Coast, among others. The recipient of a MacDowell fellowship and a PhD fellow at the University of Southern California, Cohen lives in Los Angeles.

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