Grinning and Baring It

The Crimes of Courtney Love


Thank God, for Courtney's sake, that she is white. She can play the wild woman without frightening the horses. What's more, she chose to grin and bare it at an hour when all good children are asleep, having whacked off in their beds. The mic-stand mayhem that followed was the ideal addendum to this piece of performance art, and the climax came when she emerged from jail to the timeless glare of the cameras. It was a perfect tabloid moment.

If you step back a bit from this vaudeville, it's hard to ignore the evidence that Courtney is a woman in crisis. She faces drug possession charges. Her daughter has been removed from her custody. The 10th anniversary of her husband's suicide is coming up. Sure she markets her madness, but the primal currents that course through her act are real. That's what makes her a hunger artist. And she doesn't just put her personal pain in your face. In the tradition of Joplin and Finley, her art answers Sojourner Truth's fearsome, if rhetorical, question: Ain't I a woman?

But Courtney's 'tude also evokes a much less salutary tradition. Entertainers like her are often rewarded for being out of control, and the reinforcement accelerates their downward spiral. That's what happened to Janis, and for that matter, Judy Garland. Baring the breast can represent a rebellion against this sacrificial rite. It's a gesture of agency. Check out the manual of psychological disorders and you'll see that exhibitionism is regarded as a quintessentially male pathology. When women do it, they lay claim to the phallus.

There's something about a rampageous woman flashing men that resonates with power. You expect guys to rear back in horror, as they did before Sojourner Truth, or to throw lit matches, as they did at Finley. That was then and this is now. David Letterman was anything but fazed by Courtney's desk dance. In his insouciance, you can glimpse the liberal man's defense against the phallic potential of women. Don't try to repress it—that's for Republicans.Just sit back and enjoy the show.

If I have to choose between The Stepford Wives and MTV Spring Break,I'll definitely opt for the latter. But at least conservatives take sexual transgression seriously. The liberal solution is to tame it by trivializing it. That way, male distance is maintained. The classic gesture of female incursion is neutralized. And ultimately the joke is on desire.

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