Kate Millett Versus Elizabeth Wurtzel at the 10th St. Lounge

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05/24/2003

View all New York City attractions 212 E. 10th St (between 1st and 2nd Aves)

Neighborhood: East Village

On a Monday night at the Tenth Street Lounge, the Third Wave met the Second Wave. The woman I was dating told me some older feminists were having their works read and asked if I was willing to be a token boy. I’d been a lone wolf studying feminist theory in college in the mid-80s, so I figured I could handle it. The event featured several members of the original Redstockings collective whose writings were read by young feminists. Newer voices of the women’s movement were presented by veterans. On a bench paralleling the long, stainless steel bar, the readers sat in a line. Each woman rose when it was her turn, a few standing atop the bench to be better seen and heard. Coats draped over shoulder bags on the floor, the crowd squished together.

Audre Lourde’s poetry was read by performance artist Tanya Barfield. Alix Kates Shulman’s Third Wave interlocutor couldnít make it and so she read a passage–“the organizers knew I wouldn’t need much practice because they are my words”– from her own novel, Burning Questions, recapitulating the rally commemorating the 50th anniversary of womenís suffrage. Andrea Dworkin dedicated her selection from Danzi Senna’s beautifully textured, debut novel Caucasia to our “Rapist-in-Chief.” As the evening progressed, the back-and-forth between the fifty-something foremothers and the twenty-something strivers seemed to develop a comforting communalism. And in case anybody missed anything important, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls was working the video camera, presumably for the benefit of the Fourth Wave. When one of the youngsters, speaking truth to power, declaimed the oppression of academic discourse, Catherine Stimpson, the mother of Womenís Studies, objected from the back of the room.

The speaker was granted a personal dispensation.

Following a reading from Shulamith Firestoneís recently published first volume of fiction, Airless Spaces, Tanya Selvaratnum rose. Her presence made the room hum even while she self-deprecatingly introduced herself as a non-singer. Her half-rapped incantation of Nomy Lammís wicked riff on Lorena Bobbitís state of mind when she sliced her way into the American popular conscience brought down the house. From my spot behind the bar I could see three rows of people involuntarily bobbing their heads to the syncopated rhythm. The audience was still digesting the suggestion that the next time she is driven to such action Lorena will surely have the good sense to put the deracinated organ in the blender rather than toss it out the window when Elizabeth Wurtzel rose to read from Kate Millettís 1974 memoir, Flying.

Wurtzel, the author of Prozac Nation and Bitch, stood on the bench and pushed her stringy auburn hair away from her face. The glamour of the near naked Bitch cover shot didnít translate to the awkwardly girlish persona before us. She opened with a topical, passively voiced segue. “My editor assigned me, not knowing much about pornography, to interview Ron Jeremy.” Wurtzel informed us that Jeremy had directed the blue film starring John Wayne Bobbit and his surgically reattached, non-blendered member. Furthermore, Jeremy, had told her that the Bobbits were back together. A mini-dispute among the Third Wavers frothed: Hadnít John Wayne married someone else already? Isnít he on the radio? Realizing perhaps that this was not the ideal setting for such parochial disputation, the debaters stood down.

When informed that her voice could not be heard in the far recesses of the lounge, Wurtzel resumed her introduction with the uncomfortably too germane lament, “How can I make myself project?” She murmured something about how difficult it was to follow such an incredible performance. Apparently, the toxic stew comprising her nervousness and her fierce desire to please got the better of her as she finished her wind-up with the disclaimer, “It doesnít really matter if you canít hear me, this isnít one of her better books anyway.” The audience inhaled in a group cringe. Gamely–or obliviously, it was difficult to tell from my shuddering crouch behind the bar–Wurtzel pressed on with the reading itself.

When she arrived at a point in the text where Millett’s husband Fumio is revealed to be something less than a fully evolved mate, Wurtzel looked up and editorialized by way of this ever so helpful contextual clue: “I guess they have a kind of uh . . . an interesting relationship.” From stage right strode a silver-maned woman. As she approached the bench she quietly but firmly declared, “It was an abusive relationship.” Kate Millett then offered–to the audience not to Wurtzel–to take over. This was greeted with cheers of affirmation. Taking the book as if she were seizing her diary from a nosy little sister, Millett conceded that it had been a long time since sheíd written those words but they surely didnít deserve an introduction like that. Wurtzel sat down, her face an affectless death mask.

It was difficult to concentrate on the readings after that. One doesnít expect see such interpersonal pyrotechnics at a public performance, certainly not at a celebration of common purpose. Barbara Seaman, who wrote The Doctorís Case Against the Pill, attempted to stanch the gash by saying how thrilled she was to meet some of the younger feminists “like Elizabeth Wurtzel” for the first time. It was a thoughtful gesture but one that ultimately underscored the rift between the Third Waverís search for an ironic, yet still feminist, esthetics and the Second Waverís enduring commitment to the transparency of language.

As people filed out, I turned to my friend and asked if she wanted to get another drink at the Lounge. She shrugged but slid into her coat. “Let’s go get pickles at the 2nd Avenue Deli.”

2000

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