At the risk of sounding like a dril tweet, you gotta hand it to Valerie Solanas. She saw a problem and did everything in her power to fix it. Of all the feminist theorists scribbling about society’s war on women, Solanas was one of the few who truly meant it. She’s in a class with Elliot Rodger, Fred Phelps, and Pol Pot: true believers who make you feel as small as an insect because they bled for their beliefs as you’d never do for yours. Reading SCUM Manifesto is like “reading” the shattering wall of light from a plutonium bomb explosion at ground zero: it’s hard not be blinded by the intensity of Solanas’s faith.
“To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.”
The disease: men. The cure: no men. In SCUM Manifesto (which is not titled The SCUM Manifesto, the Scum Manifesto, or any of the internet’s misspellings) Valerie Solanas outlines the failings of male-governed society and proposes radical action: Eve needs to take her stolen rib and plunge it back into Adam’s chest, sharp end first.
You may have heard that SCUM stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”, but Solanas doesn’t want to cut up men, precisely. She feels that men can be rationally convinced of their uselessness, at which point they’ll “go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”
Is the book meant as satire? It could be read that way. The rest of Solanas’s life is a compelling argument that it isn’t. Much of the book is clearly an inversion of Freudian psychoanalysis (it proposes that men suffer from “pussy envy”, and so on). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Solanas is insincere: serious ideas are often formulated in the shadow of their opposites (Hegelian antithesis, etc.), and it’s likely that SCUM Manifesto contains an extreme or distorted version of Solanas’s true feelings.
As an academic and one-time actress, she would have known of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” method: exaggeration; cranking up the volume; overloading the senses; shoving actors and audience alike past their comfort zone. SCUM Manifesto might be a Book of Cruelty, intended to shift the Overton window so that milder versions of SCUM would be politically viable. Or she may have been crazy. Or crazy like a fox. To be a chauvinist pig, she wasn’t a fox in any other sense.
What’s often overlooked about this book is Solanas’s utopian visions of the future. SCUM Manifesto is nearly a misclassified science fiction novel: Solanas foresees a world containing ATMs, electronic ballots, automation, UBI, luxury communism, the end of death itself, and…Tiktok?
“[FOOTNOTE: It will be electronically possible for [a male in the future] to tune into any specific female he wants to and follow in detail her every movement. The females will kindly, obligingly consent to this, as it won’t hurt them in the slightest and it is a marvelously kind and humane way to treat their unfortunate, handicapped fellow beings.]”
That’s no way to talk about Belle Delphine’s subs. Solanas stresses that we (meaning her 1970s readers) would be enjoying all these things already if it wasn’t for men ruining everything. It reminds me of those dubious graphs on atheist message boards, where humanity’s rising progress gets bodyslammed from the top rope by the CHRISTIAN DARK AGES. We’d be colonizing the galaxy by now, if Constantine I hadn’t gotten baptised. Although we are, when you think about it. A one-planet-sized portion of the galaxy.
SCUM Manifesto can also be read as comedy. I’m not joking: Solanas is hilarious. Her prose is a mixture of histrionic sincerity, phrasing as odd as an Achewood comic, and 1960s “groovy, man” lingo that’s impossible to imitate and impossible not to laugh at. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this funny?
“SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes. Why should the swinging females continue to plod dismally along with the dull male ones? Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined?”
“The sick, irrational men, those who attempt to defend themselves against their disgustingness, when they see SCUM barrelling down on them, will cling in terror to Big Mama with her Big Bouncy Boobies, but Boobies won’t protect them against SCUM; Big Mama will be clinging to Big Daddy, who will be in the corner shitting in his forceful, dynamic pants.”
Surely Solanas wasn’t totally serious. Nobody could write “forceful, dynamic pants” and actually mean it.
Or could they? This is the most fascinating thing about the SCUM Manifesto: it’s as forceful as an anvil to the face…and nobody’s sure what it means. To anti-feminists, it’s a stick to beat feminists with. To feminists, it’s variously a reactionary horror from the 60s; a brilliant satire like A Modest Proposal; or a work to be approached with sympathy and compassion, containing the howl of a woman pushed to the edge and then far, far, over it.
It’s a radical document. It’s a foundational text of Second-Wave Feminism. Some want to burn it, others want to teach it. Few works mean so many things to so many people.
Solanas’s legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled dreams. SCUM Manifesto will soon be fifty years old: its promised utopia has yet to arrive: men still exist, the fates of the groovy and the creepy remain intertwined, etc. Solanas’s faith could move mountains, but the mountains all moved back. SCUM Manifesto might never have achieved notoriety at all if had hadn’t come wrapped around a metaphoric and literal bullet. It’s a final irony that her name will go down in history so indelibly linked to that of a male that she might as well have married him.
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“Paul, a folk-influenced singer-songwriter with ear-length black hair, forms a writing partnership with another man. They are wildly successful in the early 1970s, although sometimes controversial due to their socially transgressive lyrics. Paul’s ego and micromanaging ways drive a rift between the two, causing a breakup. The guitarist is arrested. However, they reconcile before death.”
(The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, KISS)
“A female singer with black hair and acute symbols in her name is born on a cold island in the 1960s. She achieves modest fame as part of a band and greater worldwide success as a solo act. She is noted for overdubbing lots of vocal tracks, often not in English. A psychotic stalker from a Latin country falls in love with her. Events culminate in a suicide attempt.”
(Björk, Enya, Sinead O’Connor, Beyoncé aside from one detail)
“A punk-influenced band with ties to New York features a blonde female bassist and a dark-haired male singer-songwriter. Their relationship fails, and the band splits acrimoniously.”
(White Zombie, the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins)
“A biracial guitar player in a platinum-selling heavy metal band from California is involved in a fatal automobile accident. Nobody involved was wearing a seatbelt. The respective bands have all released a self-titled album, as well as an album cover that’s all-black except for the image of an animal.”
(Metallica, Motley Crue, Deftones)
“A UK rock frontman named after a disciple of Jesus forgets to delete his internet search history. Legal problems ensue.”
(Pete Townshend, Ian Watkins, Gary Glitter, nearly Massive Attack, partially Jimmy Savile)
“A songwriter/producer is renowned for his innovative use of sound. His records thunder with Wagnerian pomposity, and could be likened to a solid wall. The producer is a troubled man, however, and is haunted by demons. As the years pass he is blown like a paper bag into paranoia, mania, and eventually murder.”
(Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Varg Vikernes)
[minor cheats: Art Garfunkel didn’t write songs until the 1990s, Peter Paul & Mary had their final #1 hit three months before 1970, a guitarist in KISS was arrested but he was not the same one that the rest applies to, I don’t think D’Arcy Wretzky and Billy Corgan dated, Vince Neil and Chi Cheng played guitar but not in their respective bands, Chi Cheng died years after his accident, it’s a stretch to call Varg Vikernes a producer dot dot dot or a songwriter el oh el]
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This featurette opens Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life, and is my favourite part of the film. Hail Terry Gilliam.
It’s a parody of a pirate movie, filled with swordfights and swashbuckling and people yelling “‘ard to starboard!”. But as with Brazil, it’s actually a kind of fear teabag, steeped in subtle flavors of alarm, disquiet, and anxiety, releasing those flavours upon repeat viewing. You can’t separate The Crimson Permanent Assurance from the year 1983, or from Britain.
Incredibly, people once trusted banks. Almost. The local bank was like the local butcher: probably holding a finger on the scale, but at least you thought you understood him. He was part of your community. He was yours.
In the 80s, that started to change: the globe shrank, trade deals and computerized systems enabled companies to spread their tentacles across continents and oceans, and suddenly your bank was no longer part of your community. It was a shadowy, alien thing from somewhere else. Maybe the outer dark.
Finance has always had aquatic metaphors. Cash flow. Liquid assets. Trickle down. Mutual pools. Skimmed profits. As the financial sector exploded in size and complexity, the metaphors became more pointed. Loan sharks. Corporate raiders. Headhunters. Buccaneers. The idea that finance firms had become something akin to pirates is a compelling one. Amoral entities afloat a sea of cash, with no masters, no Gods, no loyalty but to the firm, flying the flag of civilized commerce only when it suited them. Scuppering enemies with leveraged takeovers. Burying treasure in offshore tax havens. Terry Gilliam’s idea was to make the finance = piracy metaphor literal.
The featurette opens with a bunch of elderly accountants slaving at their desks, while young men with American accents boss them around. (This reflects another British anxiety from the period: that venerable and supposedly honest British institutions would be swallowed by faceless American corporations). When one man gets fired, the rest mutiny, throwing their American overseers “overboard”. They then turn to a life of crime, sailing their building through London as if it were a ship, plundering and pillaging.
It’s a great bit of absurdist comedy, and Gilliam has fun turning accountants into pirates. They wield “cutlasses” made from the blades of office fans, fire “cannons” that are actually spring-loaded desk drawers, etc. There’s little Pythonesque wordplay, and almost every joke is a visual one. It’s almost like watching a comedy sketch made for deaf people; although they’d miss out on the bombastic score.
There’s the usual artsy film touches. The Crimson Permanent Assurance building is almost comically antiquated, even older than the men inside it, but the buildings they plunder are sleek and modern, webs of glass and steel spun by giant spiders (emphasising a theme of old vs new). The opening shot of downtrodden accountants hunched over rows of desks is matched with a parallel shot of the same men pulling oars in a Roman slave galley. The amount of money spent on tiny details must have been staggering. That list of subsidiaries on the corporate boardroom of the Very Big Corporation Of America? There’s actual stuff written there.
The film ends with the narrator cheerfully describing how The Crimson Permanent Assurance took on the world with their business acumen…and we see bleak shots of the building sailing across a desolate skyline, having destroyed everything. Then it falls off the edge of the world, and the rest of the movie begins.
The Pythons each brought something special to their troupe. Cleese and Jones had their characters, Idle had his music, Palin had his writing, Chapman had his dramatic acting skills. But the visions? The dreams? Those, in large part, came care of Mr Gilliam, and here’s proof, sailing across the main.
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