What if the citizen is a girl?
by Aaron Kunin
I take this question from a poem by Erin Moure: "And if O Cidadán is a girl (but grammar abrades here, vacates the girl cidadán already provided by grammar as a cidadá, removing her from the generic capacity to 'stand for'), a girl's arduous invitation to a girl, to inhabit/intersect her spaces."
One place to start looking for answers, at least in a U.S. American context,* would be Lauren Berlant's book The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Berlant identifies a few different models for citizenship in the wake of the reorganization of public and private worlds under Reagan, such as "fetal citizenship" (because civic life begins at conception) and "infantile citizenship." One of her examples of the latter is Lisa Simpson in the Simpsons episode "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington." Lisa is an ideal citizen both in the sense that politicians only say what they think it would be appropriate for a little girl to hear, and in the sense that only a little girl would be naïve enough to think that she has a voice in politics. Berlant writes, ". . . this putative little girl who might come into contact with unsafe sexual knowledge . . . has been central to defining minor and full citizenship in the United States. She has come to represent the standard from which the privileged 'adult' culture of the nation has fallen." Behind Lisa is James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, described in the film in which he appears as "a drooling infant," "an infant with flags in his fist." Behind him is an incident from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:
One woman begged me to get a newspaper and read it over. She said her husband told her that the black people had sent word to the queen of 'Merica that they were all slaves; that she didn't believe it, and went to Washington city to see the president about it. They quarreled; she drew her sword upon him, and swore that he should help her to make them all free.
By channeling Lisa Simpson, James Stewart, Anita Hill, and a vast, "hateful" archive of political and popular culture into the figure of the Queen of America, Berlant finally arrives at a model that she prefers to infantile and fetal citizenship, which she calls Diva Citizenship. Thus girlhood overlaps with political theology in at least two places: infant and diva. Both figures are ambivalent: they are characterized by innocence (such as Lisa's belief that "the system works!", or the Queen of America's ignorance of the fact that race slavery is an institution in the land she rules), and the helplessness of the infant and the "failed pedagogy" of the diva are unappealing tools for political action. Still, both represent valuable opportunities, such as "intimacy with the president's body," political optimism, and speech addressed to the nation.
Following Berlant's experiment in political theology, I want to suggest that part of the power of the frilliest, most princessy images of girls is their association with forms of government that may be undemocratic or suprademocratic. Although the title "princess" is often used to infantilize, a princess is a form of government. She's a governor, like the Queen of America who is somehow behind or above the president (it almost makes sense, since a democracy that tolerates slavery might as well include a monarch).
I want to add this concept--call it The Girl's Two Bodies--to gurlesque because it is clearly already there in the poems being discussed. Think of Catherine Wagner's book Miss America--the title of which suggests an idealization of the girl as the nation--where the speaker relives the scandals of the Clinton administration by imagining herself not as the intern but as the president: "If I was president,/ NONSTOP LICKY/ I'm afraid I can't think without licky." Or think of Wagner's chapbook Everyone in the Room Is a Representative of the World at Large. The running title could be a slogan for a completely egalitarian society, one in which everyone speaks on behalf of a common world. But the poems consistently thwart this ideal by inserting a vertical parent-child relationship that appears to be uniquely resistant to democratic reform. Motherhood in Wagner's poems is a condition that masks tyranny as service:
and I'll direct him polite before he interferes:
"Dear other nations: your servant, USA Catherine Anne,
I'll tidy up your house to look like mine;
you're free now to be me."
What if the sovereign is a mother? In addressing her son, the speaker also speaks on behalf of a monstrous collective subject called "USA Catherine Anne." Her name for this condition is "oppression." The words "oppressor," "tyrant," and "mighty" recur in many of Wagner's poems, often, unsurprisingly, as terms of endearment.
The alliance of the speaker with a sovereign nation is hardly unique to Wagner. Why do you think Brenda Coultas keeps writing poems about Abraham Lincoln? It could be that she shares with Lincoln a concern for intelligibility. (Lincoln, although not a very angry person, was outraged by unnecessarily complicated statements in law and politics, and could relax only when he had translated them into language that an eleven-year-old would be able to understand.) But mainly it's because she wants to be America. "Can you see my dairy maids? Can you see my groomsmen? Wait here while I remove my corn belt." As you are invited to "see" in these lines from "Third Farming Poem," where the speaker's body is made of farming communities and clothed and accessorized in regions of the U.S., Coultas doesn't conceal this ambition. She sometimes gives it a different emphasis by attributing to the rest of America a desire to be her. In "A Summer Newsreel," the mundane activities of the speaker, whose name is helpfully "Brenda Coultas," are invested with the aspirations of an undifferentiated mass of other people:
So many would like to be Brenda Coultas . . . So many people would like to be her, making taffy all summer and living near Holiday World where every day is a holiday. . . . So many would love to be her at the drive-in with six screens and her own car. So many of you would like to be me with your own car.
When I reviewed Coultas's book A Handmade Museum a few years ago, I said something to the effect that "A Summer Newsreel" was the most beautiful example of weak closure in American poetry since "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." I still think so, but at the time I thought this had to do with the instruction to "open your vessel and keep reading." Now I think it has more to do with the history of being a girl. "What day is it Brenda? It's a holiday, I reply. Alternate parking rules apply." What are these rules that would alter the conditions of mobility, with the result that "a car floats down the white river" and "breaks all the rules by swimming alone"? What other timeline replaces the progress of American history? "My niece gets her first period. Could that be in a poem or piece of writing? That is an easy thing to write. Can she visit Holiday World on the first day? Is having a period like a holiday every day?" The niece's first period is not recorded in most textbooks of American history, but in this poem it appears without effort, "an easy thing to write." (Coultas's easy style is an aspect of the intelligibility she shares with Lincoln.) A personal history could use the niece's first period to mark her development from child to adult, her coming of age; instead this poem uses it to periodize a "world" in which "every day is a holiday." The history of this world is neither recursive (which is what holidays usually are) nor progressive. If every day is a holiday, then every day is every holiday: the news of "A Summer Newsreel" dates Christmas, Presidents Day, the Fourth of July, the Flood, and Armageddon, along with ordinary activities such as gardening, reading, and breathing, to the same summer at the end of the twentieth century.
In an essay on Ashbery's poem Girls on the Run, John Vincent asks whether one can "become an adult without having killed a child." Growing up is often a process of self-betrayal, becoming the opposite of what you thought you wanted and killing the child you used to be. Coultas acknowledges this way of growing up--her question about having a holiday every day is tentative, after all--in which being a girl does not connote advantage, and the things of summer in Indiana are not so precious, although they might be better than what "so many" people have in other places. But she isn't satisfied with it. That is exactly the rule to which she posits an alternative. She would replace this normal, traumatic ("so broken inside," she says with inscrutable tone) life-narrative with the Rule of Coultas, and usher in the Age of Coultas. That's a way of being a girl that she might survive.
*The question of the sovereignty of girls is obviously not limited to the U.S. Remember about ten years ago when it seemed as though all the European filmmakers were responding to European unification by embodying the aspirations of national cultures as young women, such as Franka Potente in Run Lola Run and Audrey Tautou in Amélie? Kieslowski alone made three or four such movies. The example of Amélie is particularly instructive for its investigation of the power of cuteness, which it depicts as action at a distance. "She has a stratagem," Amélie says of herself. Like a god, she moves in a mysterious way, always taking the least direct route to her destination.
image by David Scher