This is how I imagine a traditional biopic about film director Mary Harron would go down: her movie career would only be introduced late in the second act. The first hour would be dedicated to her birth in Ontario to actor father Don Harron, and her education at Oxford where she dated Tony Blair. It would document her role in New York’s punk scene and early career as a music journalist, interviewing new bands like the Sex Pistols and co-founding Punk magazine. After a lot of exposition, and maybe a few montages, we would get to the part where she transitions into filmmaking, first with documentaries, and then releasing her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, in 1996 at the age of forty-three.
Harron knows a thing or two about trying to fit a stranger’s life into a narrative. Out of the five feature films she’s directed, three were biopics. One is an Anna Nicole Smith movie she made for Lifetime. The other two are I Shot Andy Warhol, the story of feminist and attempted murderess Valerie Solanas, and 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page, about the iconic 1950s pinup queen.
I have an aversion to biopics, which are mostly bloated, boring, unsubtle Oscar-bait. I see a movie that features a Very Serious Actor in a wig and an accent ready to affect their impression of a Very Important Cultural Figure’s rise to success then fall from grace then meeting some happy, placid medium, I feel as if a chunk of my own life story has fallen into a black hole. I expect and dread certain narratives, particularly in biopics, but really in any story about achievement, oppression, preference, or creation. It’s with these expectations in mind that I approach the works of Mary Harron.
* * *
I first watched American Psycho, Harron’s most famous movie, in high school. Based on Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, the movie follows Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a twenty-seven-year-old Wall Street exec completely indistinguishable from his Armani-clad peers with the noted exception that, in his spare time, he enjoys torturing and murdering prostitutes. It is a gory and dark movie filled with references to Reagan-era culture that I didn’t understand, but I was sure had to be smart. I had heard that people wanted it to be banned, and that delighted me. It corresponded to the identity I was trying to inhabit, that of a young girl wise beyond her years who saw what the grownups could not. Clearly, society couldn’t handle a satire when they saw one. I knew it was a satire, because cooler kids told me it was.
Like many teenagers before me, I was learning to challenge the preconceived notions I had of good and bad. My newer, radical system just replaced the old dichotomy with a fresh one: authority was bad, and subversion was good. The system, the status quo, the man? All bad. Throw them out the window. And this was before I came into my feminism. I watched American Psycho with this belief that those criticizing probably just hated that the movie was too REAL for them.
When I did learn about feminism a little bit later in my teens, I revisited American Psycho. I had read statistics on violence against women, and I read somewhere that one of the movie’s loudest critics was second-waver Gloria Steinem. I then decided that the movie was pretty gratuitous, and the young men who revered the film were actually part of something called patriarchy and they were the real enemy. You wanna ban American Psycho? You just don’t get it. You hold up American Psycho as a triumph of filmmaking, store it right on the shelf beside Fight Club in your family’s suburban rec room? Fuck you and your woman-hating movie.
These aggressions were formed before I knew anything about the person who had directed the film. I just assumed it was a man.
* * *
Valerie Solanas hated men. Shooting Andy Warhol was an act years in the making — and, while it might be what Solanas is best known for, it is hardly her whole story. Not if you’ve read her writing.
I Shot Andy Warhol is an intimate project. Harron was not so far removed from the Factory scene in its heyday. She partied with the Velvet Underground at CBGB’s and interviewed Andy Warhol for work. Later, while working on a documentary about Warhol, and peripherally aware of Valerie Solanas, Harron found a copy of Solanas’s book in a shop, and decided to change the entire focus of her film. Harron was in the process of creating an archive for what was widely considered to be a very important artist and very important band when she came across Solanas, and decided that story was far more important to tell, to the point that she ventured into a whole new artistic medium to do so.
Solanas’s book, The SCUM Manifesto, rationalized and reified the anger that came from living on the margins of a male dominated society — SCUM being an acronym for “Society for Cutting Up Men.” It’s polemic and scathing and at times flat out ridiculous, but it’s so important, oh god is it important. Reading it is like letting out a slow exhale after holding in your breath for an extended period of time. “‘Great Art’ proves that men are superior to women,” she writes, “We know that ‘Great Art’ is great because male authorities have told us so.”
Solanas was sexually abused by her father as a child and was living on her own by the age of fifteen. I Shot Andy Warhol doesn’t get into her childhood. Her abuse is referenced in dialogue only, and never by the main character herself. The movie uses the shooting of Warhol as a frame for Solanas’s adult life in New York City. In the year leading up to the shooting, Solanas makes a living by prostituting herself to masochistic men, and attempts to have her work recognized by Warhol himself. Interspersed with these are scenes of Solanas (played with conviction by Lili Taylor) on a stage, filmed in black and white, reciting key passages from The SCUM Manifesto.
Harron’s decision to skim the surface of Solanas’s abuse while trying to keep her as a sympathetic lead — to acknowledge it, but not treat it as a plot point — is definitely noteworthy. She eschews a traditional victim narrative in favor of focusing on Solanas as an artist; instead of saying, “This is a terrible, awful thing that happened to a girl, and look how it messed her up!” I Shot Andy Warhol posits, “This is the story of a woman who lived in a world of men, and this is how she reacted. Let’s try to understand why.”
As Solanas sinks further into what will later be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, she is laughed at or outright dismissed by the in-crowd of the art society. She gives Warhol a copy of a play she’s written that she is trying to get produced; Warhol replies with condescension, offering her a job as a typist. Later, he claims to have lost her only spare copy when she tries to get it back. He gives her bit roles in various projects, but eventually gets bored of her antics and moves on to his latest obsession du jour. Warhol remains detached, a bemused spectator presiding over scenes he’s created in which everybody, himself included, is just a character. Warhol has been depicted often on screen, usually as a delightful eccentric, but seeing his shtick from the point of view of somebody trying to break into the world he dominates becomes unbearably frustrating.
This is not to justify Solanas’s actions, or even the more extreme of her politics: she was a gender essentialist to a fault, at times nauseatingly awful to her friend, trans woman Candy Darling. Her anti-male stance was not just rhetoric to make a point, but resulted in the near death of another person. Valerie Solanas was a complicated figure, and Harron believed that trying to understand her was as worthy a pursuit as trying to decipher Andy Warhol.
* * *
One of the questions feminist theory likes to ask is, “Whose narratives are getting left out?” We remember the men but not the women, Andy Warhol but not Valerie Solanas. And so feminist theorists set about uncovering these narratives, a retroactive attempt to give a voice to who would otherwise go unheard. But of course, real life is not a film. It’s always a whole lot more complicated. A person can elicit sympathy one moment and betray you the next; a victim of abuse can later pull the trigger. Figuring out how to process these narratives is a whole new game.
My own early feminism came from an honest place, I think. I learned that there was inequality between the genders, one that was structured so that men (specifically white men) could succeed at the expense of others. I learned that “feminist” was the term given to any person who believed gender inequality was bullshit, and so labeling myself was the only obvious choice. Part of it was that I wanted to be a good person, but just as much I wanted to be right, which was pretty much the same thing. I knew how the stories went. The good people were always on the right side of history. More or less.
There’s a game I got really good at playing while armpit deep in theory called “How is this problematic?” This is how you play: you approach a piece of pop culture with your feminist theory at the forefront of your mind. You scan said piece until something dings out at you as a reinforcement of the patriarchy. Don’t worry too much about nuance. Once something is deemed problematic, you toss it aside; any further engagement with it can be read as an endorsement. The game is only won once a completely subversive, 100% feminist narrative is discovered. Nobody has ever won.
Stripping everything down to its elements and deciding only to engage with what perfectly reinforces your politics is, of course, a terrible way to interact with the world. It’s terribly easy to do, though, once you start conflating subversiveness with morality. I became anxious that should I endorse the “wrong” movie — like American Psycho — I would be a bad person, on the wrong side of history. I don’t even know what I would have done with someone like Valerie Solanas had I discovered her as a teen.
* * *
Compared to Solanas, Bettie Page is much easier to parse as the heroine of a story. Page’s main flaw, according to The Notorious Bettie Page, is that she’s a little naïve. Gretchen Mol plays the role with perpetually wide eyes, delivering each line with an overwhelming earnestness amplified by her southern lilt.
Page’s early life in Nashville is covered within the first fifteen minutes, but its brevity does not dismiss its heaviness. There’s her upbringing in a strict Christian household, with allusions to sexual abuse from her father; a bleak, short marriage that is covered in one brief montage; a gang rape that happens on the outskirts of town. As with Solanas, Harron doesn’t posit Page’s abuse at the hands of men as a motivator for misdeeds. Instead, it is a catalyst for her need to get out of Nashville and live her life on her own terms. The bondage and fetish scene in New York City is depicted as much more wholesome than her apple-pie, all American upbringing.
Page is demonstrated to be immensely likeable and open-minded, perhaps unrealistically so. When posing on a beach for a black photographer, she acts perplexed by the stares the duo gets from strangers: “Well they’re just prejudiced. I used to be when I was younger, but I grew up and I learned better!” She doesn’t judge anyone for their fetishes regardless of how alien they might seem to her, and accepts an immediate explanation on a shoot that “It takes all types to make the world.”
Bettie Page, according to Harron, is never explicitly empowered or exploited during her pinup career; she is just a woman doing her job. Her story is radical in its simplicity: She is a nice lady. She’s traditionally beautiful, curvy yet slim, dark haired and wide-eyed and lily white. She stars in sexy videos and photos, sometimes wearing very little to no clothes, for the benefit of men. She enjoys modeling, but gets no sexual thrill from it herself. She would one day like to make it as an actress. Sometimes, she is judged by others for her work, and would like it if those people would leave her alone and let her do her job. Eventually, she leaves the business because to dedicate her life to God, but insists she is not ashamed of her modeling past.
Were I to judge The Notorious Bettie Page using solely the subversive/problematic grading curve of my early feminism, it probably wouldn’t pass the test. Page would get points for normalizing female sexuality and sex-positivity, but she would be branded problematic for reinforcing traditional beauty standards and ultimately not doing enough to challenge heterosexism: men loved Bettie Page because she indulged in their kinks without threatening their authority.
Did that last paragraph annoy you? Because just typing it out drove me crazy. Of course it is important to engage critically with the dominant culture, but for a time I could not do so without completely invalidating individual women’s choices, left and right. In other words, how dare Bettie Page not live every moment of her life living some perfectly subversive narrative? How dare she pose for sexy pictures without constantly asking, “But what does this mean for all of women and feminism and society?” How dare a woman contain multitudes, and contradictions, and not conform her entire lived experience to theory? And more importantly, how dare another woman, fifty years later, try to capture that on camera without offering some explicit feminist commentary?
This, right here, is exactly why Harron’s work is so important. It’s not just that she believes that these women are worth being acknowledged or remembered — though that’s part of it, as always. It’s more that she’s willing to recognize the humanity of these women rather than just the political utility of their stories; that just as important as the subversive/problematic dichotomy is exploring admirable and flawed and uncomfortable and ambiguously radical biographical realities. It’s that she can make a biopic about a burlesque dancer and not add some overarching moral of either “Posing nude is a degrading sellout to the patriarchy,” or “Posing nude is a liberating, empowering act of reclamation,” but instead tell it like this: “Here is the story of a woman who posed nude. She did some other things too, but let’s just focus on her posing nude career and what it meant for her as a person.”
* * *
Let’s go back to American Psycho. I rewatched it for the first time since I was a teenager. I am still entrenched in my original feminism — I don’t know how not to be — but I’m also a few years older and have a few more years experience of recognizing just how hard it is to try live by a perfect narrative.
American Psycho is a great movie. I say this on my own, without the influence of whatever raves I heard as a teenager. It is stomach churning and at times very hard to watch, but one that maintains corporate masculinity as the butt of its sick joke. It’s both a genuine satire and a genuine horror movie, the real terror coming from the way that female bodies are viewed as disposable. I can’t imagine its satire being handled as intelligently had a different filmmaker adapted it.
American Psycho, obviously, isn’t a biopic, but it is integral to understanding two other lived narratives: Mary Harron’s and my own. My need to embrace and subsequently reject it in my teens came not from engaging with the movie as a film, but rather a cultural artifact, relative to which I needed to position myself with the right type of audience. I believed that being a person who likes American Psycho or a person who dislikes American Psycho was way more telling than anything actually depicted in American Psycho.
Then there is Mary Harron’s decision to adapt the movie in the first place. She read Ellis’s book and recognized its satirical elements, and saw its potential to be both funny and horrifying. And so she made a movie that included some of the goriest depictions of violence against women seen in fiction, one in which their absences are ignored or downplayed in favor of upholding the status quo of rich white male corporate America, wherein the people in power can literally get away with murder. That such subject matter could provide ground for one of the most hardboiled critiques of capitalist patriarchy and simultaneously would be embraced by, yes, the Fight Club watching dudes I went to high school with, is a testament to Harron’s skill as a filmmaker and a cultural archivist.
In a recent interview with The Believer, Harron was asked how she felt about being labeled as a feminist filmmaker. Harron acknowledges the debt she owes to feminism, but states that she finds the label “marginalizing.” It’s an answer I completely understand: call yourself a feminist, and immediately get held to a much more rigid standard, in which the bulk of your work is scrutinized through only one lens. I’ve been on both sides of that coin. But the validity of her work doesn’t come from the elusive identity politics with which she aligns herself; it comes from the stories she chooses to tell, and the nuance with which she tells them.
Anna Fitzpatrick writes words, sells books, and watches TV in Toronto, Canada. Find her at @bananafitz.