Last night, I successfully introduced my collaborator Minh-Ha to my #1 fave film of all time, The Legend of Billie Jean (with Times Square and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains running a close second and third). After countless viewings, I am still mesmerized by the scene of her transformation — the beautiful but unassuming girl from the trailer park, after one too many violations of her sense of dignity, cuts off her hair (and her sleeves) and otherwise embraces her outlaw status. That the film also deals with the outlaw figure as fashionable commodity –inspired, girls from all over shear their heads, though Billie Jean is troubled by her own iconicity– is also absolute genius.
(There are, of course, great clothes: Billie Jean in her wide-belted, paperbag-waisted shorts, striped tank top and rolled handkerchief, before; Billie Jean in men’s trousers tucked into calf-length boots, a jaggedly tailored wetsuit, fringed fingerless gloves, and dangling earrings doubled up in one ear, after; her brother Binx in his zebra-striped painter’s cap, or his ’50s gray short-sleeve button-up with black detailing worn with highwater pants, dress shoes and no socks. I also love the fact that every jacket she comes across in the movie quickly loses its sleeves!)
The following love letter to Billie Jean is a reprint of one of my old columns (from 2001, I believe) from the now-defunct Chicago-based punk culture magazine Punk Planet. (More of my old columns can be found here, at my old stomping grounds Worse Than Queer. I actually have no idea what company hosts the site anymore, and have changed my e-mail address several times in the last few years, so read them quick before they disappear forever!)
This bloody road remains a mystery / This sudden darkness fills the air /What are we waiting for? / Won’t anybody help us? / What are we waiting for? / We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation / We will be invincible!
Whether princess or pauper, Molly Ringwald in all her incarnations meant nothing to me. The sum of her girlish charms left me unmoved. Neither pouting lips nor thrift-store femininity could persuade me. I remained unimpressed with her seemingly eternal pursuit of heterosexual romance — a pursuit which was translated on film as “spunk” or “personality.” As an ominous sign she favored feathered blonde boys in white linen suits and my god, they were in high school. Bad taste by way of Simon LeBon was continental maybe, but unfailingly bland. Or she slummed it for an afternoon with the broken boy from a broken home, whatever — she got her kicks by crossing the tracks just far enough to fake the danger.
When feeling especially vicious, I imagined her twenty years later, her pale mauves and hot pinks turned to suburban corals, a sickly salmon hue. From Pretty in Pink to Some Kind of Wonderful to Say Anything, The John Hughes oeuvre was unfailingly conservative – either you learned your place in the social-class continuum, the value of upward mobility, or both — Reagan-era cultural politics for teenagers. And the dangerous girls, the ones with potential –the baby dykes and raccoon-eyed freaks– were inevitably tamed by the promise of romantic heterosexual love, that old sleight of (empty) hand. Like anyone really believed Watts with her red-fringed gloves and drumsticks in back jean pocket would fall for a chump boy like sensitive-yet-superficial Keith. We all knew in our heart of hearts that she was destined for girls like us, girls who wanted to rock (and make) out with other girls. I envisioned her in Greyhound buses and truck cabs, blonde head pressed against the rain-spattered window, trekking to the Pacific Northwest after a last-gasp graduation to join an all-girl rock band. And I cheered when The Basketcase in her black shadow and black mood uttered, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” That felt real and prophetic, even. But when Ally resurfaced from high school bathroom in white lace and distastefully muted eyeliner, I recognized the set-up and cursed Molly (and Hughes) for her awkward, awful transformation and looked away.
But Billie Jean — now she was a girl who could bruise your heart.
This shattered dream you cannot justify /We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied /What are we running for? / We’ve got the right to be angry / What are we running for? / When there’s nowhere we can run to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!
I love The Legend of Billie Jean. I first saw it when I was fourteen, three years after it was released. I was an alternateen looking for punk rock and I found Billie Jean. Not instead, but simultaneously. It had everything a girl like me could ask for in a “whirlwind story about a group of kids who challenge the adult world:” a girl outlaw in fingerless gloves and a righteous sense of justice. Isn’t this every girl’s teenage fantasy?
In The Legend, it’s summer in Texas, and the heat is sweltering. Billie Jean is an attractive working-class white teenager who lives in a trailer park with her divorced mother and bleached blonde younger brother Binx. Because she is “from the trailers,” the local boys believe she must be cheap, and led by ringleader Hubie, the boys trash Binx’s scooter (and later Binx) when Billie Jean proves otherwise.
Billie Jean arrives at Hubie’s father’s seaside shop to demand the exact amount for the scooter repairs after appealing to a sympathetic but dismissive police lieutenant. The senior Pyatt invites her upstairs to the office, ostensibly to withdraw money from the safe. Once there, he suggests a “play as you pay” plan – and he makes himself plain, sliding his hand against her arm and suddenly lunging. No wilting Texas rose, she knees him in the groin and flies down the stairs into the shop, where Binx has discovered the gun in the register. Seeing his sister threatened, he waves the gun at Pyatt, and the gun accidentally goes off. Thus begins their headlong flight from the law, taking their best friends Ophelia and Putter with them in a battered station wagon.
After a failed attempt to negotiate with the police at a mall -Pyatt brings a gang of teenage thugs for an ambush- the kids break into a mansion for food and shelter, and discover an ally in the son of the District Attorney. He suggests they make a video to present their demands and Billie Jean, earlier mesmerized by Jean Seberg’s portrayal of Joan of Arc (the film is playing during a group discussion), prepares herself for inadvertent pop stardom. Making sense of her situation through an image of Jean/Joan burning at the stake, she shears her locks and shreds her clothes, making herself over into a modern Joan of Arc or a more righteous (rather than merely art-damaged) Penelope Houston. It is through a commodity image that Billie Jean realizes her political strategy — manipulating a cinematic sensibility, she presents a striking figure on video. Her friends are awed – and soon, so is everyone else within reach of radios, newspapers and television sets.
The video of Billie Jean with her fist in the air, shouting, “Fair is fair,” is played everywhere. Inspired by her message she becomes a touchstone for teenage rebellion, a fugitive aided and abetted by legions of youth. They slip her past police roadblocks, offer her shelter in underground clubs, nourish her on their fathers’ credit cards. Young white girls get the “Billie Jean cut” and even Putter (no stranger to the “real” Billie Jean) invests in Billie Jean’s celebrity and defiantly cuts her hair before a rapt audience of wannabe Billie Jeans, cops, and her abusive mother.
Beneath the layered guitar wanking and arbitrary (but temporary) love interest lies not only a critique of misogyny and classism, but also a meditation on commodity culture, pop presence, and fantasies of identification. This is not limited to Billie Jean’s identification with the cinematic image of Jean/Joan. In the course of her criminalization Billie Jean becomes iconic as a sexualized body in ways which she cannot control. Ever the businessman, Pyatt not only displays the bloody shirt he’d been wearing when shot, but shills photographs of Billie Jean taken by Hubie’s pals, emerging enraged from a local swimming hole in a clinging top and bikini. He pawns pastel-hued t-shirts emblazoned with her “mug shot,” the red concentric circles of a target framing her head. There are visors (oh so ’80s) and posters and bumper stickers and frisbees and beach towels, some of them ironically emblazoned with the slogan “Fair is fair.”
Her gender and class status as “white trash,” those markers that contain and constrain her mobility through the world, are coded as dangerous and criminal. As such her status as a “white trash” teenage girl makes her hyper-visible to the disciplinary state, but also to commodity culture, even while her ascent to cult figure in some ways depends upon ignoring the historicity of those social conditions; so that even as she is pursued by the mustered strength of Texas law enforcement, her image reaps profit and (pop) pleasure for others.
The Marxist model of commodity fetishism describes an affective process, a substitution of meanings – the social relations of labor are disguised by the commodity form. But commodities and images do not simply veil “real” conditions, but constitute them. Images are also social relations, and this becomes clear for Billie Jean as the line between state surveillance and her supposed celebrity is blurred. This is a different order of fetishism – a fetishism of figures, in which the iconic persona of “Billie Jean” is invested with a life of her own. People relate not to Billie Jean per se but her image, and in a way that obscures the histories of its determination as image — including Billie Jean’s own meditation upon Jean Seberg’s cinematic portrayal. Like all pop icons, she (both Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc and Billie Jean) becomes the screen upon which an audience of thousands projects their fears and fantasies. In the latter case, the adults are afraid of her, the kids adore her. They make meaning of their own lives, whether seemingly threatened or otherwise encouraged, in relation to her image.
A group of preteens rally to her, hoping that she’ll save a neighborhood boy from the physical abuse of his father; a man spies her adolescent “gang” and vows to bring her to justice, and like a Old West vigilante (complete with cowboy hat and rifle) he guns his pick-up truck at the gathered children. And as a pop figure the social relations that conditioned Billie Jean’s outlaw status are obscured – the girl who offers Billie Jean a ride in her Ferrari might not have done so if she were not a celebrity, and the throngs of teenagers who sport her image may very well have been her torturers only days earlier. The girls who turn themselves in to the police, all claiming to be Billie Jean, participate in a projective fantasy of being “bad” like Billie Jean in ways that elide uneven class relations and hierarchy and also manifest a desire for “authenticity.” It is a fantasy with material force – while the sense of solidarity forged between the girls is mediated by commodity culture (and punk rock is no exception), it is still a meaningful relation, enough to inspire the contradictory impulse to both appropriate and inhabit Billie Jean’s notoriety. Their gesture is not simply part disrespect and part homage, part consumption and part conviction, but a mixture of all these things at once.
The conclusion of the film finds Billie Jean confronted with her iconic stature, literally. Her brother has just been shot by state troopers -mistaken for herself in a dress- and disappeared into the back of an ambulance at the beach where she was to turn over the “hostage” and receive a new bike. There are crowds of young and old (but mostly young) attracted to the beach by the media-frenzy over Billie Jean’s scheduled appearance. In the hours before the exchange -boy for bike- was to be made, beach-goers are treated to Billie Jean haircuts, Billie Jean contests, Billie Jean souvenirs. Radio station DJs broadcast from sandy towels and portable amps and the teenaged audience parties in anticipation.
Billie Jean only notices once her brother is taken away that everyone has her face stuck to some part of their bodies, and follows the trail of lights in the dimming dusk to the circus tent Pyatt has erected to sell his wares. Towering above the beach is a paper-mache effigy of Billie Jean, pointing a gun toward the ground, other hand on hip. Before the crowd, the cops and the cameras she confronts him about his sexual coercion, his unwillingness to otherwise pay for the damages to the bike – and seeing that she has an audience, he grins, stutters, and attempts to bribe her into silence, or submission. He reaches into the register and pushes a wad of bills into her limp hand. “A little more, a little less, does it matter?” he says. “It’s not about the money,” she replies scornfully, and throws the bills into the fire. As Pyatt scrambles on all fours to recover the cash Lloyd moves behind her to toss a poster into the growing flames. Soon the crowd is coming forward to lay their souvenirs in the fire, or lofting them through the air. Everyone watches as the fire grows to consume the posters, t-shirts, tent and effigy, perhaps participating in another, totally different kind of collective pleasure.
In film after film Molly (and others like her) triumphs when she wins the rich boy in her homemade prom dress or bride’s maid gown, proof she is worthy of heterosexual desire. Not Billie Jean. In the end she walks away from the fire, the boy, and Texas. (This is when the Pat Benetar song “Invincible” plays, and this is why I tear up like a big gooey baby every time I hear it.) Her burning effigy is not only an allusion to Joan of Arc – having led the people to a dream of freedom, she’s misunderstood and betrayed by the very same- but a potential critique of consumption as “revolutionary” activity. But at the same time it speaks to the dangers of consuming and appropriating radical stances and images, of the depoliticization of historical conditions or capitalist relations, it also points to the contradictory pleasures of fantasy identification with our pop stars and the possibility for that pleasure to become a kind of political agency, however temporary.
Is any of this coincidence? One of the screenwriters for the film was Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted writer in the 1950s who was targeted by the House on Un-American Activities Commission for his leftist political alliances. It’s entirely possible that he was versed in the kinds of intellectual debates circulating among leftist cultural workers at the time, and retained some of these threads even in penning a mainstream film marketed for the vast American teenage market.
Is it cheesy? Well, you could argue all teen flicks by necessity are idealistic and melodramatic, and this is a fantasy about a teenaged heroine who struggles against a homegrown injustice. Overt metaphors (perhaps Joan of Arc is a bit much) and the cringe-worthy menstruation scene are distracting. And clearly Billie Jean the character depends upon Helen Slater the actor being recognized as conventionally “pretty:” tall, thin, blond. But I think the demand for absolute resistance is misguided, and to demand purity in pop culture ignores contradictory and complex realities, and so maybe there’s hope for Molly after all. We know by now that no mass cultural production (especially film) is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence; we know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most “revolutionary” sorts of images or themes without threat to its survival.
But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions. The issue of how to capture the popular imagination is at the center of the struggle for hegemony. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we might probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, what moment of crisis it might represent, what (problematic) pleasures it might afford. We should neither blindly denounce nor embrace these pleasures, but instead try to understand what produces them. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of late capitalist culture or patriarchal relations; on the contrary, it might mean that we take these more seriously. And as black queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano writes, “It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics.”
And maybe I just want to be able to take seriously my own pleasures; as a queer Asian American girl reader of pop culture, I remember what it meant for me to harbor crushes on Duckie and Watts (and thus imagine her alternate endings), or to read Wonder Woman as “almost Asian” (I was seven, and it was the black hair that did it). But it’s also because when I first saw this movie at fourteen, it was like how punk rock used to feel – impossibly, hopefully idealistic. However uneven my own fantasy of identification, it fueled both my nascent desire for rebellion and my sense of its potential. And watching it however many years later, it reminds me how good it felt to believe.
I’ll always love you, Billie Jean.
And with the power of conviction /There is no sacrifice /It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible /Won’t anybody help us? / What are we running for? /When there’s nowhere we can to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent /Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!