Girl Monster Vs. Fembot
by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
The girl monster obviously lives in a cave, a drippy, slimy, dank place modelled after the Alien planet's womb cave, stacked with rows upon rows of fertilised eggs, waiting to hatch their spawn in some unsuspecting crewman's tummy. As feminist writer Barbara Creed explains in her book about The Monstrous Feminine , it's in places like this that we find the abject, that too fluid, over-determined representation of the female body, always morphing, going through the icky sticky transformations that make up the subject matter of so many horror films. Stuck in the cave, the girl monster grows boobs, blobby, bulbous protrusions made of all the failed plastic surgery procedures in the world. Meanwhile outside, the sun shines and refracts when it meets the metallic surfaces of the smooth fembots, the clean, sharp leftovers assembled when the girl monster was banished.
Pop music never really allowed the girl monster to take centre stage. Casting the female vocalist, the frontwoman, as a puppet on a string, it neatly cut out any potential for messy hysterics. Listening to the fantastically alien early sixties recording of British producer Joe Meek, it is hard not to feel sorry for the young female singers who spent their days at his legendary studio on Holloway Road in North London. Almost invariably, their eager voices are so distorted with deep echoes, feedbacks and other analogue gimmicks that it sounds like they are singing from with a gigantic IBM computer, the kind you often see in old cold war paranoia films, situated on, almost crushing their lungs. The history of pop music is full of instances of women in a robot's disguise. Male producers from Phil Spector, who drowned the church choir ecstasy of his girl groups in his heavily mechanized 'wall of sound', to Gorgio Morodor, who turned a song about sexual climax into the cold, robotic staccato of 'I Feel Love', to William Orbit making Madonna's Kabala-cosmic love in the shape of a four on four vocoder-led club hit. And this is before we even get to Kylie, immortalised by Paul Morley in encounters like this, with Merzbow: "Kylie is colder than he imagined, which he likes. As he reluctantly pulls away his hand he notices the sharp metal glint of her fingernails, which matches the metal and shine of the tools he has given her". A list of the make up products that make this dronette precedes this description, confirming the idea of the fembot as consumer package, pre-assembled by a vast and inevitably masculine industry machine that she can never hope to transcend. All this while the girl monster bides its time, waiting for the right moments, watching for the fissures in the metal walls and glass ceilings that will allow it to rear it's ugly head.
As the fembot gained prominence in pop culture and films, from Metropolis to the gang of robot dolls which attack Barbarella to Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner, she started to break free. In the seventies, cult B movies like the trashtastic Invasion of the Bee Girls cast women, newly liberated by the sexual revolution, as a hive of superfit killer insects with about as much emotion as the new household appliances that had supposedly freed them from their chores. From the early eighties and throughout the post punk era, women used this model to subvert traditional gender roles: Crash Course in Science's Mallory Yago sang love songs to Kitchen Motors and the Flying Lizards' Deborah Stickland recited fifties rock songs in a monotonous, dispassionate voice as if memorizing safety regulations. In 1982's Liquid Sky the personality cult of the new wave diva is expressed in the form of a song about "Me and My Rhythm Box", a machine which "eats and sleeps and shits" - an unholy matrimony of a club queen and a piece of machinery. At the same time that male musicians were turning themselves into robots as eulogies on the death of individualism in a suburban society on the one hand and the end of the machine age (and the rise of the information age) on the other, women were using, or made to use, the language of robotics to say something quite different, to engage in a discourse about control that was like an electronic brain misfiring signals caught up in a loop. Britney is a slave for you, but not for the record company, or is she? And when she loses control, will that take the form of an elaborately choreographed dance routine too?
In a sense this loop was inevitable. Feminist theory commonly talks about resistance in relation to subversive consumerism, an internal snag in the machine that allows for brief snatches of independence. Even if the role traditionally assigned to women is that of the reader / consumer / fan of a mass culture produced mainly by males, which reflects and re-asserts this division of power, women form private, autonomous cells of resistance through acts of consumption. Women's magazines and romantic paperbacks are not merely passively consumed by women but are used to form the basis of an independent social network or subculture. Since for girls subculture doesn't happen on street corners, as Angela McRobbie rightly pointed out, private bedroom activities such as reading can form the basis of another kind of subculture. The corpus of pop music since its early days a hundred years ago is in a sense just such a masculine oriented text, and by taking it on and turning it in on itself, the fembot can at least attain a temporary short circuit. Pop music today promotes repetition and interpretation as a form of art on its own - the same ancient chords played again and again and again until we all reach a state of nirvana. The fembot was there before everyone else: the data stream that the architects of pop culture fed their women throughout the decades, is now mechanically repeated to signify nothing and perhaps this is what Kylie is trying to tell us when she sings that she can't get it out of her head. The fembot is a subversive figure because she stands for a post-modern nightmare, repeating her master's voice ad infinitum until such (macho) notions of authenticity, emotion, creativity or originality are shaken off like excess fat from metal hips. At the same time, the android ice queen of pop can never truly destabilise the dichotomy of masculine and feminine, and if she is feared it is largely because of the qualities so blatantly absent from her configuration.
These lie waiting in the cave. The girl monster, the fembot's abject double, considers rejecting gender as difference altogether, until it looks in the mirror and sees it is still there. It tries to embrace the monstrous feminine, in Cosy Fani Tutti's COUM era performances, maggots and pussy completing a circle of birth and decay. It rrriots with the riot grrrls, screams from the top of Yoko Ono's lungs, picks up a guitar only to smash it and rejoices in the broken glass beats of Mu. If the fembot is an image of sublimated horror, adopted and incorporated into mainstream pop culture, the girl monster is far more dangerous. She tears apart the body of pop by mixing birth and death, ritual and madness, sex and decay. And while she does occasionally show her face - or faces, so hard to tell what goes on there in the dark - She will never be allowed to emerge from that hole: This is why the album cover of girl monster Kevin Blechdom, naked, holding a vein-y bleeding heart, was too much for the censors' palates. The girl monster is hysterical, neurotic, satanic and hers is the kind of hysteria that cannot be maintained and suppressed with consumerism or idol-worship.
At the heart of Feminism, the one KevyB is squeezing when she can, there has always been a tension between total democracy - a total equality of the sexes - and liberalism - the importance of keeping a separate feminine identity. This tension produces alternating cultural waves and movements. In the last decade we had radical feminism, the re-discovery of the suburban house-wife, sex and the city and girl power, nu-crafts revivals, the Donnas' with a 'boy in every town', porn actresses as feminist icons and republican chastity. But underneath it all, the girl monster still haunts the darker corners of the post modern psyche: it is the crunchy-bone walk of Sadako, crawling out of the TV in "The Ring", the cancerous boob monster of Chicks on Speed. We might like to focus feminism on the political battles that remain to be fought, but as consumers of pop culture we can't ignore the way the female voice is gendered and coded as subhuman, superhuman or posthuman. Postmodernism tried to reclaim difference as a kind of benevolent binary, feminine representing fluidity and freedom in opposition to masculine notions of contraining logic and rationality. But the monstrous feminine is never defined in relation to manhood and there is no need to oppose it to some idea of masculine culture. It's in relation to what we think it is to be human that we define our girl monsters and try to control them, setting up separations that conflict with the equal roles we want women to play in society.
The most iconic women have always been imagined and invented by men and for men, from Nico to Marilyn, so it's no surprise the ultimate female singer is a work of ficiton: In Bill Drummond's biographical short story collection, 45, he details his friend Z and his working relationship with Finnish legend Katrina Bruuk, under whose name he recorded an album of fourteen songs. Being non-existent, she finds it easy to conform to Drummond's fantasy of an ex-Warhol starlet, a silent, ravaged, still ravishing, recovering junky with a fragile voice. Yet, neither monster nor robot, Katrina personifies both the powerful self-determination of the artist and a clearly gendered broken beauty. More importantly, she is the feminine phrased in universal terms, divorced from any physical reality of womanhood. As Drummond explains, "We fell head over heals in love with her failings, her vanities, her pride, her lost looks, her childlike belief that one day justice will prevail and the world will recognise her genius. Of course it took Z to recognise that what we had done was fall in love with the female anima inside ourselves...The history of pop is littered with male backroom dictators trying to turn the raw talents and unfocused good looks of innocent, eager young women into their very own femme fatale divas, a whose feet the world will fall and worship, making their creators very rich in the process. The bit that Z and I seem to have got wrong is that we want our female creation to be an eternally bitter and fucked-up outsider, to be adored only by the most discerning". But maybe that's where they got it right: if gender is indeed a culturally determined scale on which we are all precariously positioned, the girl monster can only ever be released inwards. If oppression is merely a means of dealing with that which escapes repression, as suggested by Robin Wood, then surely the road to dealing with the former lies in letting loose the latter. The final showdown between the erotic robotic and that thing we thought we'd locked away won't be a mud wresting match but a cold fusion, an explosive meeting of matter and anti-matter when the monsters of the world unite and take over.