“What’s her problem?”
September 10–November 5, 2016
Curated by Jamillah James, Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
“What’s Her Problem?: On Fourteen Years and Three Works by Michele O’Marah”
What’s Her Problem? is the first solo presentation of Los Angeles-based artist Michele O’Marah‘s work in Canada. The exhibition includes three works, spanning fourteen years: Valley Girl (2002), her remake of the 1983 Martha Coolidge film; A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do (2010), a three-channel re-imagining of the box office bomb, Barb Wire (1996), starring Pamela Anderson (a former Vancouver resident); and production stills and site-specific scenic painting from O’Marah’s new work-in-progress, It’s Just Me (2015-ongoing).
O’Marah stages her videos in her studio, just east of Hollywood and south of Burbank where a number of films and television programs are produced in Los Angeles. She produces props and sets out of cardboard, construction paper, and found materials, and casts both friends and professional actors in her projects. O’Marah is part of a continuum of artists, such as Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, and Cindy Sherman who have embraced appropriation and masquerade as strategies to critique and lampoon power relations and social structures, though she does not appear in her own work. She has primarily centered women in her work, deconstructing various cinematic and televisual tropes that often affirm one-dimensional representations of women. Both Valley Girl and Barb Wire traffic in stereotypes of femininity, though in O’Marah’s hands, they receive a feminist rescripting which relies on atemporality, artifice, and mutable subjectivity. Similarly, in It’s Just Me, O’Marah utilizes the familiar sitcom and soap opera televisual formats as the platform to foreground decidedly serious topics such abortion, aging, divorce, and violence. Nikki, the put-upon the main character of It’s Just Me is reminiscent of Bea Arthur’s Maude Findlay, Louise Lasser’s Mary Hartman, or Roseanne Barr’s pseudonymous blue-collar housewife, who were considered radical for their time, at least on television. In depicting these serious social issues that impact the lives and bodies of women in real life and on screen with a comedic touch, O’Marah subverts the melodramatic, a device in film where high-key emotionality is symptomatic of a woman’s body and life being out of her control.
Retroactively, the term “valley girl” occupies a paradoxical space in the public imagination—the title recalls the satirical 1982 Frank Zappa song, sung by his daughter Moon Unit in “valleyspeak,” a colloquial, regional dialect allegedly spoken by teenagers living in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. The song toes the line of absurdist parody and comedic misogyny. Its lyrics feature a quasi call and response between Zappa and Zappa, the younger Zappa’s retorts increasingly dismissive and sharp (i.e. “gag me with a spoon,” “barf out,” “grody to the max,” etc.). The present-day usage of the term is also less than celebratory, a means of dismissing a certain type of person, thought of as vapid, perhaps less intelligent. The term is specific in its gendering, and laid the groundwork for a particularly virulent stereotype of femininity focused on consumerism, boys, and “fun” that re-emerged in the mid-2000s, embodied by the likes of socialites Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
However, the film itself pushes back against this formulation; it was directed by a woman, and working independently of the Hollywood studio system. Coolidge hired friends as actors and on-set assistants, and exercised creative freedom over its production. Julie, the titular “valley girl,” is actually quite smart and confident, even when making decisions that prove controversial, like her involvement with Randy, a punk rocker outside of her socioeconomic class. The film is largely considered a positive representation of girls and women; the year of its release was also an unusually woman-positive year for films. Other films released in the same year as Valley Girl include the sci-fi new wave classic Liquid Sky about a fashion model visited by aliens that derive energy from her orgasms; Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep as a laborer who exposes the wrongdoings of her powerful employer; John Sayles’ Lianna, about a woman who comes out as lesbian and ends an oppressive marriage; Mr. Mom, a film that introduced working mothers and stay-at-home dads to a wider audience; and Lizzie Borden’s radical queer feminist epic Born in Flames, among others. Still, Hollywood prefers the stability of familiarity, and 1983 was no different, as affirmed by the release of sexploitation films such as Porky’s II and Screwballs, ultraviolent films like the Charles Bronson revenge flick 10 to Midnight and Scarface, and a number of Tom Cruise vehicles, such as Risky Business, The Outsiders, and All the Right Moves.
What makes Valley Girl a perfect source for an artist like O’Marah is the contradictions it presents when viewed retrospectively, which allows her ample space in which to play. Her conscious decision to stay true to the original source, only allowing the things she could control—aesthetic differences and means of production—to separate her version and Coolidge’s, recuperates a reference that has since become another pejorative way of describing women and their ways of being in the world. The highly constructed anachronism of O’Marah’s Valley Girl, a video made nearly 20 years after the original, also invites an element of chance and failure—as do all remakes—and with it, freedom that offers another layer of détournement and feminist inscription:
The cinema, refracted through the new technology, not only provides the raw material for re-forging links across the great divide of the 1980s but also suggests a metaphor for reflecting on the difficulty of understanding time and history. From this perspective, feminist alternative histories, the reconfiguring of storytelling, and the questioning of given patterns of temporality provide an invaluable point of departure.
A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do is a delirious opus to unabashed “girl power” in three parts: “Don’t Call Me Babe,” “Word Up!,” and “The Death of Barb Kopetski.” The three videos, at slightly different lengths and accompanied by different audio tracks, further disorient the viewer with the introduction of three different actresses in the role of “Barb,” originally played by Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson in 1996 at the height of her popularity. Time has not been kind to Barb Wire, which presently maintains a 28% rating on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes. Pamela Anderson herself and all she signifies in pop culture may stand as a roadblock for a more nuanced appreciation of the film. Still, for all its campy feminist aspirations, the film suffers from wooden acting and comedic misfires, and is emblematic of the hit-or-miss film sub-genre of comic book adaptations. Box office equates success with attendance, and female-centered comic book vehicles have historically suffered from poor marketing, worse scripts (Tank Girl, anyone?), and the insistence on privileging the sexiness and feminine wiles of the lead over her character’s power (not to say that these traits are mutually exclusive). Barb Kopetski is the hero throughout in Barb Wire—she is not a badass in three-quarters of the film, only to be rescued in the end by her male romantic interest, as is often the case in Hollywood films with “strong female leads”. O’Marah isolates three sequences in the film that highlight the complexities of Barb’s person: a fight sequence showing her in black leather-clad, ass-kicking action, which ends with Barb delivering the tag line “don’t call me babe”; her vulnerable side, showing her relationship with ex-boyfriend Axel Hood and a sex scene focused on her pleasure; and, of course, a Barb as bombshell sequence, with a Pamela Anderson doppelgänger, writhing and stripping in the rain. O’Marah ratchets up the camp factor with intentionally modest scene dressing and props, and over-the-top acting, while demonstrating that even a film as critically maligned as Barb Wire has potential for redemption. Though the experience of the film is compressed into roughly ten minutes of layered video, O’Marah gives the film a radical facelift that would not otherwise be possible in a film world obsessed with the physicality of women to the exclusion of all other traits that fully realize her subjectivity.
The quiet chaos of Nikki and her family in It’s Just Me unfolds episodically. Over the course of the videos, currently in development, Nikki will experience a number of life-changing incidents, such as an unwanted pregnancy, her parents’ aging (and her senior father coming out as gay), and a mass shooting at a local frozen yogurt shop that imperils her children’s safety. Yet, her constancy and stability as a character is expected throughout. O’Marah blends the narrative conventions of situation comedy and soap opera to deliver a nuanced representation of a female character habitually at her wit’s end. In the photographs on view, Nikki appears three times: a vintage image of her with her best friend and neighbor from the 1990s, as a clown at a birthday party, and a Valentine’s Day keepsake photo of her dancing with her now ex-husband. The rest of the images, highly stylized with props and costumes produced or sourced by O’Marah, are of Nikki’s children and parents during holidays and special occasions, which demonstrates the weight of these characters in her life. It also underscores the centrality of the familial unit in many American soap operas and sitcoms:
The family remains close precisely because it is perpetually in a chaotic state. The unhappiness generated by the family can only be solved in the family. Misery becomes not, as in many 19th century women’s novels, the consequence and sign of the family’s breakdown, but the very means of its functioning and perpetuation.
It’s Just Me comprises ten episodes, throughout which time operates in an elastic fashion. In her 1981 essay “Women’s Time,” French theorist Julia Kristeva suggests that the experience of temporality by women is complicated and discursive, accounting for both history and the present, while interpolated by other social factors that impact their persistence in the world. In the world of soap operas, time routinely shifts between protracted developments of narrative points and acceleration, notably in the seemingly overnight maturation of child characters. The soap is a basic unit of pop cultural melodrama, which focuses on the emotional state of its female characters as it develops or deteriorates over time. A soap opera’s main character always being mired in drama in order to advance plot structures that the viewer experiences; even if their world is falling apart onscreen, chances are, the main character’s steadfast determination to just be offers some comforting stability. Critic Tania Modleski writes that soap operas “offer the promise of immortality and eternal return—same time tomorrow.” Even though the formats O’Marah appropriates guarantee endless predicaments for female characters, she lightens the load by punctuating the work with humor, approaching parody.
Presenting O’Marah’s work in Vancouver is not an arbitrary decision. As a site, Vancouver, sometimes referred to as the “Hollywood of the North,” routinely stands in for American cities in television and film. It is also a nexus of a vein of 1980s conceptual photography, practiced by Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, and Rodney Graham, among others, that painstakingly staged its mise-en-scène, and appropriated cinema and art history. Like Vancouver, O’Marah’s home of Los Angeles has served as stage and scene of an endless procession of fantasy and simulacra both in the art world and in film, which influences her methods of production and approach to the visual. Camp, simulation, and postmodern reconstruction are the primary strategies O’Marah uses, which elevate and recuperate the original works she cites. As a whole, the three bodies of work presented in this exhibition depict a range of female representation with the desire to redress the problematic nature of genre and stereotype. By selecting source texts which are themselves reproductions of classic texts (Barb Wire is a take on Casablanca , Valley Girl a new wave update of Romeo and Juliet), and working through two time-honored staples of televisual narrative (the soap opera and sitcom) she is able to recast convention with radical and transformative potential.
1 In “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” film scholar Linda WIlliams posits the conventional similarities of horror, pornography, and melodrama (such as soap operas and the films of Douglas Sirk) in the treatment of women and their bodies, and the types of response these works seek to elicit from audiences. Film Quarterly Vol. 44, no. 4 (1991): 2-13
2 Wikipedia contributors, “Valleyspeak,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valleyspeak. Accessed September 4, 2016.
3 Laura Mulvey, “Looking at the Past from the Present: Rethinking Feminist Film Theory of the 1970s” in Signs Vol. 30, No. 1: Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms Special Issue (Autumn 2004): 1291
4 Tania Modleski, “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Operas.” Reprinted in Amelia Jones, ed., The feminism and visual culture reader. London: Routledge, 2003: 295
5 Julia Kristeva, “Women’s time,” Signs, vol. 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 13-35
6 Modleski 295