Lizzie Borden: Born Woman
Amanda Schaub

You see a preview for a movie coming out this weekend. It is a romantic-comedy, and from just the previews, you can recite how the leads will know each other, have a conflict, and then get together in a happy ending that just might leave you feeling nauseous. Where is the creativity in this Hollywood movie? What kind of message is the audience receiving? Women are no doubt receiving “information” in how to act around men they are interested in romantically, and men are being told how the perfect woman is beautiful, yet quirky. Where can you go to get away from Hollywood hype and see some cinema that is thought provoking? Independent films usually offer a more colorful look at situations and remind us that cinema can be artistic. Betsy McLane, a contributor to the book Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition, reminds us that “American independent features have been widely heralded as our cinema’s best hope for personal artistic expression” (265). Taking this further, women in Hollywood cinema are often represented as men see women or how women ought to be. Anne Kaplan, author of Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, says, “Women have been forced to develop semiotics of the cinema that would include theory of reference, since our oppression in the social formation impinges on us daily” (86). Kaplan means cinema, and many forms of media, portray the image of how women should or should not be, and we deal with these ideas everyday of our life. Independent women filmmakers try to change this. Kaplan expands by saying, “For many women, therefore, experimental cinema meant a liberation from illusionist representations that were oppressive and artificial in Hollywood films” (88). Christina Lane, author of Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break, agrees and explains further: “…feminist counter cinema appropriates dominant codes in order to attend to female subjectivities and modes of seeing—female spectacle becomes female point of view” (24). Women filmmakers can do this using a variety of techniques, but avant-garde techniques seem to be the most popular.

Many films from independent women directors borrow components from various artistic film movements. Some of the movements which directors will borrow components are cinema verite, as well as the three divisions into which Kaplan has broken avant-garde. The divisions are as follows: formalist, experimental with roots in French surrealism, German expressionism, and Russian formalism; realist political and sociological documentary with roots in American and British documentaries from the 1930s; and “avant-garde theory (political) film” with roots in Brecht and Russian directors like Eisenstein and Pudovkin (87). Generally, films will be a mixture of these, but some may be pure in that they are experimental or political. The decision on which style would be used is directly dependent on the subject of the film and the tone the director would like to portray.

Independent filmmaker, Lizzie Borden, uses avant-garde techniques in her first two independent releases, Born in Flames (1983) and Working Girls (1986), to help convey feminist or alternative messages to her audience in a serious manner. Born in Flames uses what Kaplan calls a “realist political sociological documentary” approach to relay a feminist message to the audience. Working Girls, on the other hand, uses a mixture of documentary and “avant-garde theory” to show and tell audiences her theme of women’s economic concern. It is the use of this mixture that helps to link the two films together as Lizzie Borden works. Each film displays sequences that act as a signature for Borden while serving a purpose in relaying theme.

Kaplan asserts, “Women attracted to the experimental film were often searching for an outlet for their inner experiences, sensations, feelings, [and] thoughts” (88-89). Borden uses this film for this purpose. She uses film to convey feminist ideas and to use the lesser-used gaze of women. Borden has released works both independently and commercially. Commercially-release Love Crimes (1992) felt the restrictions of studio influence, and is not one of Borden’s better works. Ideally, Borden would like to work in the film industry somewhere between commercial and independent so that issues could still be addressed while still being widely distributed (Lane 147). All three of Borden’s films focus on women and issues they face with society and with themselves. Born in Flames addresses female oppression, Working Girls looks at concerns women have with their employers as well as concerns with their economic status, and Love Crimes focuses on women’s sexuality. The main intent behind all these films is to change how audience sees women in film. Borden says, “I try to shift the point of reference so an audience has to identify with female subjects through stories told from a woman’s point of view” (qtd. Lucia 7). Borden realizes that many of the themes she takes on are serious ones and, unlike some directors, she does not intend to draw in young audiences to her films. Borden usually intends to have women over thirty years-old relate to her films (Lucia 7). Even with middle-aged women as the target, the themes and ideas Borden explores are important in establishing the woman point of view as a valid gaze to use in films.

Looking at Borden’s independent releases, we can see the strongest messages relayed. Born in Flames and Working Girls are completely different in style, but the themes are similar. Born in Flames is done in a documentary style complete with a news-like stand-up by a narrator (Lane 135). Working Girls, on the other hand, is done in the style of 1970s counter cinema (135). The differences in styles were intentional to fit each film’s theme. Born in Flames was intended to be seen as a scenario of what could happen if women and men achieve true equality, and was intended to lift the spirits of those worried about negative feelings that had arisen against feminism (Lane 126). Born in Flames took five years to make on a $40, 000 budget, and employed non-actors and real feminists playing themselves (127-128). The effect of the use of non-professional actors lent a true documentary feel to the film and was reminiscent of neo-realism. The generous amount of time used to complete the film allowed Borden to put the film together precisely as she wanted so that her exact idea could be relayed.

While working on Born in Flames, Borden discovered that some of the women employed also worked as prostitutes (Lane 133). This discovery inspired Borden to write and produce Working Girls. About Borden’s approach to the film’s theme of middle-class prostitution and the economics of it, Lane says, “[Borden] demystifies the myth and taboos that enshroud paid sex by routinizing the work of a middle-class prostitute” (134). Basically, the sex is taken out of paid-sex, and what is left is the economics of why this business, while morally debatable, is appealing to women (Lane 126-127). Working Girls had a working budget of $110, 000, which may have lent to a more polished look of the film.

When making Born in Flames, it seems that Borden intended to abruptly capture attention by describing it as an “in-your-face political treatise” (Lucia 6). Further, while Born in Flames sent out a feminist message, conflicts between various feminist groups broke out because of Borden’s “militant visions of women bearing arms” (6). It seems that Borden’s first attempt at film making was motivated by the objective of having people react to it, whether it be favorably or not.

Born in Flames is set in New York City after a socialist revolution which supposedly results in men and women being completely equal. Women have a new power as they are not discriminated against when looking for jobs, yet the harassment women have always endured still occurs on some street corners. Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield) is involved in an organization called the Women’s Army which is the main protector of women’s rights in the government regime. After an incident in which the Women’s Army on bike patrol stops the rape of a woman, women known to be apart of the group are fired from their jobs, including Adelaide. The film follows the thought process and actions of Adelaide to take violent action against the government for this decision. Along the way, Adelaide appeals to two under-ground disk jockeys, Honey (herself) and Isabel (Adele Bertei), who are proponents of women’s rights but differ on their thoughts about the Women’s Army. After Adelaide’s imprisonment and assassination, Honey and Isabel come together to carry out Adelaide’s plan.

Besides the openly feminist message of the film, the style of it attracts attention. It has a very news/documentary feel to it, and the film opens with a reporter who appears on camera. This opening of the film immediately sets up the mood that what is about to happen is serious and, to someone, it is truth. Along with this, at times it sounds as though the natural sound of the set is being used. The use of natural sound is common in many newscasts and documentaries, and the content deals with social issues that directly affect women. An overall sense of authority or truthfulness seems to surround the film, but it also feels like political propaganda with its blatant feminist statements. While being educated in a different point of view, audiences may feel they are being attacked by feminist thoughts that they must accept as right.

Adding to the documentary-style is how the tale of peace to violence is not glamorized. When the decision is made that the Women’s Army must be armed, there is no montage depicting cartons and cases full of weapons and ammunition arriving. Instead, the painstaking decision of whether or not violence is necessary is drawn out and the details of using and buying weapons are shown. The women must be taught how to use the guns they are given. In a Hollywood film, the decision to use violence would be compressed into two sequences and the arrival and knowledge of the weapons would be almost instant. This film also lacks shot-reverse shot in some dialogue scenes. Instead of using this common technique, both characters are left in the frame facing the camera. Instead of only being able to observe the facial expressions of each character one at a time, the audience is able to see the characters’ body reactions to statements and questions. It looks more real and the audience is given the choice whom to look at, not forced to concentrate on one character’s reaction because of a close-up.

While the documentary style is intriguing, what calls attention to itself is the progression of several close-ups of women’s hands doing traditional women “jobs”. Most of the rest of the film focuses on women doing traditionally male jobs, such as construction work. The insertion of this sequence of hands doing familiar tasks related to women calls for consideration. The sequence involves the following: giving a bottle to a baby, filing work, wrapping chicken in a factory, putting a condom on a penis, washing dishes, preparing surgical instruments, cutting hair, and handing out political fliers. These are all jobs that women commonly do today, but seems like it may not be as common as it once was in the film. While we accept them as typical female tasks, Borden uses the sequence to call attention to how the society in the film is different than the one we live in. The sequence is around the middle of the film, and by that time, the viewer has knowledge of how the film society works and is familiar with some of its characters’ ideals. To see this sequence, you realize how odd it is to have these jobs associated with females exclusively. You watch the sequence and think, “A man could do this. Why don’t they?” The sequence highlights the trivial tasks women are made to think they have to do on a daily basis because they are female. It is in direct opposition to the rest of the film and makes the feminist message clearer.

Another interesting point of Born in Flames is the use of the opposite. In the attempted rape scene, instead of watching the men attack the woman, the audience is put in the middle of it and experiences it through a series of close-ups that are shaky and confusing; much like how a real rape victim feels. Further, it is mentioned at one point in the film that women and minorities would be given preferences in jobs. It is an unspoken knowledge that white males almost always are preferenced for jobs. The reversal is surprising at first because of its complete opposition to the normal expectation of white males being favored for most jobs. Yet after hearing it, the thought is why is that not always the case, or why does anyone have to be in favor.

Borden’s second independent film release was Working Girls. Inspired by some of the women she worked with in Born in Flames, Borden set out to explore the experiences of a middle-class prostitute. Paul Jude Beauvais, author of the article “Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls: Interpretations and the Limits of Ideology,” succinctly describes Working Girls as “…her attempt to take [prostitution] from the realm of sex to the realm of work…” (51). This is Borden’s attempt and the techniques she uses portrays prostitution in a completely different way.

Working Girls is the story of a typical day of a middle-class hooker in New York City. Molly (Louise Smith) is the character who the audience gets to know. We follow her as she gets up and prepares for work just as any one else would. At the brothel, we meet some of her co-workers, Gina and Dawn, as well as some of the clients. The audience is able to follow Molly even into some of her sessions with clients. Molly’s fatigue and frustration with her job is clearly visible by the end of the film, and her decision to quit is warranted by her demanding madame and the men.

Beauvais points out how Borden is able to shift the emphasis of prostitution from sex to economics saying, “In Borden’s analysis, the real problems in prostitution exist between the madame or pimp and the prostitutes, paralleling the problems in other employer/employee relationships” (53). This is illustrated specifically in Molly’s wanting to go home, but Lucy (Ellen McElduff), the madame, asking her to stay and then refusing to let her go so that her establishment will not be short a girl. Many people experience this same sort of dilemma in their careers; they want to go home, but because of some circumstance are forced to stay later. Another ploy used by Borden to deemphasize sex is the costuming. The women are dressed like upper-class women, not in showy outfits commonly associated with hooking. Some of the women are college-educated making the story more comparable to women working in an office environment, and then adding to this, the women must interview to work in the brothel. As in Born in Flames, Borden takes widely believed ideas and reverses them. The effect of this is a new perspective equally as possible as the accepted idea, but some truths are able to be revealed, such as why the reversal cannot work outside of the film. In Working Girls, if the common idea of a prostitute or hooker was a decently dressed woman who was college-educated, it may be a more acceptable career because a low-social class status would not be associated with it. But because our culture is anti-promiscuity, prostitution will never be an acceptable career and the reversal Borden uses makes us reconsider our stance.

The most noticeable element that connects Borden’s Born in Flames and Working Girls is the use of hand close-ups. While in Working Girls, there is not a sequence of hands doing female-assigned tasks, there are recurring shots of female hands doing typically female jobs. In Working Girls, the close-ups of hands include the following tasks: making breakfast, writing, lighting birthday candles, hands grasping each other, pouring brandy, and counting money. With the exception of making breakfast, each of these tasks are jobs done in businesses, sometimes done by men. In Born in Flames, to see male hands doing the tasks in that sequence would go against our cultural aesthetic, meaning it would disturb our sense of what is normal. However, in Working Girls, to picture male hands doing the same tasks is acceptable. Borden’s use of hands doing small jobs presents an interesting decision. The hands carry out the work of the mind and pay attention to details. Sometimes these details may make a difference in the bigger picture of things, for example if a hand writes down a wrong number in a ledger, it will certainly cause problems later. But, the use of hands in these instances help to present the irony Borden sees in world as far as women are considered. The sequence in Born in Flames is put in the middle of a film where the traditional role of female is non-existent. Without the familiar female models in the film, to suddenly see hands doing the tasks of the model seems silly and degrading. With Working Girls, the close-ups indicate that women are as capable as men to play the business game complete with the details of keeping numbers, presenting gifts, and making clients feel they are the stars of the venture. The shots are subtle, but indicate so much, and are almost like Borden’s signature on her piece of artwork.

Borden’s independent films are politically and/or socially motivated, and the techniques she uses to express the themes of the films are different than those of commercial cinema. The reversal of common ideas is most effective. This technique makes the audience think differently about an idea. It also instigates analysis and criticism. The audience subconsciously tells itself why the reversal would not work as a norm, and then the possibility to discover cultural prejudices is opened. The most important reversal Borden uses in both films is the woman’s perspective. Typically, when the male gaze is engaged, women know that is how men view the situation, but with Borden’s films, women can relate because the gaze is in a woman’s mindset. More films should be done from a woman’s perspective so that the contrasts in male and female thinking are made more apparent and viewers can evaluate their perceptions and ideas on subjects.

In the future, I would hope to see Borden release more films like Born in Flames and Working Girls. To be able to further develop her use of the female gaze in more modern situations would be extremely interesting and informative as women continue to push for equality. While today is far from the reality painted in Born in Flames, I do feel that women have the control and dignity displayed in Working Girls. In future works of Borden’s, I would also like to see if she would continue to use close-ups of hands to indicate various points in her theme. I believe this could be a recognizable mark for Borden, as well as a subtle way to drive a point home.

Works Cited
Beauvais, Paul Jude. “Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls: Interpretations and the Limits of
Ideology”, Post Script: Essays in Film and Humanities, v. 10 issue 2, 1991, p. 50-63.

Born in Flames. Dir. Lizzie Borden. Icarus Video, 1983.

Kaplan, E. Anne. “The avant-gardes in Europe and the USA”, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. New York: Methuen, 1983, p. 142-170.

Lane, Christina. Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

Lucia, Cynthia. ”Reading Female Sexuality in the Cinema: An Interview with Lizzie Borden”, Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema, v. 19 issue 2-3, 1992, p. 6-10.

McLane, Betsy. “Domestic Theatrical and Semi-Theatrical Distribution and Exhibition of American Independent Feature Films: A Survey in 1983”, Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2002, p. 265-267.

Working Girls. Dir. Lizzie Borden. Miramax Films, 1986.


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