PRINT November 1990


Yvonne Rainer's Privilege

SINCE ITS RELEASE FIVE YEARS AGO, Yvonne Rainer’s film The Man Who Envied Women has stood as an important challenge to the white, middle-class values of most academic theoretical feminism. The film’s narrative centers on Jack Deller (Bill Raymond and Larry Loonin)—a white college professor, “feminist,” and lover of women—and his estranged wife (not seen but narrated by Trisha Brown), whose words serve as a kind of Marxian-feminist counterpoint to Deller’s more hermetic appropriations from Foucault and Lacan. Deller is indeed complicated, as becomes clear when we see him doing what he presumably does best: lecturing to his students. His rehearsal of male master texts that speak at rather than with women represents a kind of frightening primal scene of academia—the place where we are often taught to discount our bodies, our emotions, and our contradictions in the service of an all-consuming and numbing theory.

Toward the end of the film, Brown remarks provocatively: “If a girl takes her eyes off Lacan and Derrida long enough to look she may discover she is the invisible man.”1 Perhaps it is the first part of her sentence that is the most important. If we look beyond such texts, these words suggest, we might be able to see another dynamic more clearly: the interrelations of power, both public and private, that establish our relationship to each other as men and women.

Ultimately, Rainer’s deconstruction of the language of academic feminism, post-Structuralism, and psychoanalytic theory never underestimates the insights such discourses offer into the linguistic and psychological formation of our sexuality; instead, she merges the experiential, the political, and the theoretical into a significant metanarrative on power.

Rainer’s newest film, Privilege, 1990, pushes this ideological inquiry even further through a subversive fracturing of the traditional alliances of the various feminisms of white women: the white-identification and Marxian/psychoanalytic dialectic of The Man Who Envied Women now gives way to questions about the relationship of gender to racism and economic class, and about the legal, scientific, and medical discourses that define, and ultimately oppress, our bodies. Some of these problems were, of course, also addressed in the earlier film, but in Privilege Rainer refuses the rhetorical indirectness and theoretical density of the previous work, spelling out these problems with uncompromising frankness and wit. She constructs a remarkably coherent pastiche, juxtaposing a fictional narrative about a menopausal heterosexual woman recounting an experience she has kept secret for 30 years with excerpts from vintage educational films on menopause and contemporary interviews with women who in real life are coping with the often painful and lonely passage into “change of life.”

At the film’s outset, antinuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott (Rainer) is seen making a public farewell address. “One of the reasons that I’m stopping,” she remarks in a kind of political call to arms, “is that I have to go away and work out how we do it, because we’ve done nothing yet. . . . We talk all this equal rights, and we beg men for equal rights and we’ve achieved nothing.” While she speaks, a black woman interprets her words in American Sign Language. In voice-over, Yvonne Washington (Novella Nelson)—Caldicott’s (and Rainer’s) African-American alter ego—begins to extrapolate on a project that might contribute to the battle for women’s rights. After years of activism on behalf of deaf people, Yvonne has decided to make a documentary film on menopause and “the dominant medical attitudes . . . that tell us we are ‘deficient’ and ‘diseased’” —a situation she sees as analogous to the hearing establishment’s pathologizing of the deaf community. As part of her preparation, she interviews women for the film, especially her old friend Jenny (Alice Spivak), a menopausal white woman with whom she had danced years before. It is through their dialogue—and Jenny’s “hot flashbacks” that interrupt it—that the film’s central narrative emerges.

The interview is at first difficult for Jenny: “When you’re young they whistle at you, when you’re middle-aged they treat you like a bunch of symptoms, and when you’re old they ignore you,” she observes with a sense of resignation. Jenny soon brings the conversation around to her days as a young aspiring dancer living on the tumultuous and racially tense Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s. She then reveals her long-held secret: an act of perjury committed during a trial for the attempted rape of her lesbian neighbor, Brenda (Blaire Baron), in which she implied that she had seen the defendant in Brenda’s apartment. Through flashbacks—in which the middle-aged Jenny plays herself as a young woman—we become witness to the complex issues surrounding this pivotal event in her life. We are introduced to the segregated building she lives in. We meet the young, upper-middle-class Robert (Dan Berkey), the prosecutor in the rape case, with whom Jenny eventually starts a romance. And, perhaps most important to the film’s ideological point of view, we meet Carlos (Rico Elias) and Digna (Gabriella Farrar), the Puerto Rican couple who live in the racially mixed building next door. Carlos goes to jail for Brenda’s attempted rape; Digna, suffering from bouts of anger and depression, is committed to a mental hospital.

Rainer’s characters serve as conduits for a range of provocative political critiques; their contrasting words—which are often taken directly from texts by Piri Thomas, Lenny Bruce, Joan Nestle, Ntozake Shange, Eldridge Cleaver, Nicholasa Mohr, and Frantz Fanon, among others—contribute to the narrative fracturing. The cinematic structure of the film, in which various subtexts freely interrupt the central narrative, further emphasizes its complex textuality. The black and white clips of a drug promotional film from the early ’70s, while often hilarious in their naïveté or outright stupidity, frighteningly demonstrate the devastating vulnerability of women’s bodies and minds in the space of medicine and science. Throughout the film, in a provocative internal commentary on the narrative, Rainer generates passages of text on a Macintosh computer screen. At one point we read: “There is a popular saying among gynecologists that there is no ovary so healthy that it is not better removed, and no testes so diseased that they should not be left intact.” Jenny’s hot flashbacks are themselves interrupted by the various characters who, speaking directly into the camera, extemporate on issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class. In one particularly poignant monologue, Digna, dressed in a hospital robe and speaking in Spanish (with English subtitles) asks, “¿Dime por qué la mujer puertoriqueña en este país es mas susceptible a la enfermedad mental que el resto de la población?” And “¿Por qué es que no florecemos aquí?” (Why is the Puerto Rican woman in this country more vulnerable to mental illness than the general population? Why do we not flourish here?)

This chattering of multiple voices serves art extremely important ideological function: it contributes to the film’s remarkable intellectual clarity as it recreates the complexity of social and cultural difference. What Rainer is fighting for—and her struggle is indeed risky—is a multivalent feminism that acknowledges the vicissitudes of race and class long ignored by much white-identified feminist discourse. Privilege categorically refuses to essentialize feminism, women, or people in general, as it acknowledges alliances that rest entirely outside the complacent expectations of most middle-class white people.

It is indeed in the area of race that Rainer takes her greatest risk. For one, the attempted rapist is Puerto Rican and his actions are not clearly innocent. While the device of playing Carlos as both victim and “villain” (the latter in the juridical sense at least) is problematic, his actions provoke some of the film’s most significant monologues on race and racism. Through these statements, crucial questions emerge: If the vast majority of women are raped or sexually abused by men from their own racial group, why do white women so deeply fear men of color? Is the sexism of African-American and Hispanic men—people who are often made to feel powerless under the tyranny of the white male hegemony—rooted in psychological and economic causes that make it different from the sexism of their white counterparts? To what extent is the American legal system classist and racist? Why is it so easy for women to be used as pawns in the macho power plays of men? And, as Yvonne Washington asks, to what degree do “white women . . . manage to use their own victim status as a way of pleading innocent to the charge of racism”?

Rainer’s racial gambit goes beyond giving voice to the “other”; the white people here engage in frank and painful acts of self-interrogation. In one brilliant example, an argument between Jenny and Yvonne Washington on the relative merits of psychoanalytic versus Marxian understandings of the root causes of racism is followed by a series of computer-generated first-person confessions, headed by the title “Who Speaks? Quotidian Fragments: Race.” One person admits resenting a black cleaning woman because she persisted in “putting on airs,” as if she were an upper-crust lady. Another remembers questioning the competence of a nurse simply because she was Puerto Rican. While someone remarks: “Roy Wilkins said somewhere that the most he could ever hope to be was a permanent recovering sexist. Is ‘permanent recovering racist’ the most we can ever hope to be?”

But Rainer is calling for empathy, something even more difficult than self-inquiry. Just as we must know ourselves in order to understand why we hate, we must also begin to understand how it feels to be oppressed. Only then might we begin to acknowledge the pain and frustration that our own bigotry and indifference causes. If white women and women of color have a different relationship to power in this country, Rainer appears to be asking, then what points of convergence can help women understand each other?

Indeed, merely allowing the “other” to speak, or engaging in acts of self-analysis, while important, does not address the whole problem of how we can begin to unlearn our racism, sexism, classism, and by extension homophobia. As Privilege eloquently suggests, the social, cultural,and emotional status of being different must be examined—especially by those who have power. Such an enterprise openly acknowledges the need for cross-cultural and cross-emotional examinations, for empathetically comparing our conditions to theirs. The idea that only members of one particular racial, economic, or sexual group can interpret or understand that group might therefore be replaced by the more open view that sees the real sociological benefits of intercultural studies. Gayatri Spivak writes:

Can men theorize feminism, can whites theorize racism, can the bourgeois theorize revolution. . . . It is when only the former groups theorize that the situation is politically intolerable. Therefore it is crucial that members of these groups are kept vigilant about their assigned subject-positions. . . . The position that only the subaltern can know the subaltern, only women can know women and so on, cannot be held as a theoretical presupposition either, for it predicates the possibility of knowledge on identity. Whatever the political necessity for holding the position, and whatever the advisability of attempting to “identify” (with) the other as subject in order to know her, knowledge is made possible and is sustained by irreducible difference, not identity.2

Rainer employs these identifications with difference as powerful political tools. Privilege charts a radical course for feminism. But rather than cynically pleading her own victimization, Rainer, like Caldicott at the film’s outset, calls her fellow feminists to arms—to a battle of sustained self-interrogation and empathic analysis that might lead to a brilliant and powerful coalition of the disenfranchised: “Utopia,” Rainer flashes on the screen near the end of the film. “The more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes.”

Maurice Berger is visiting assistant professor of contemporary art and critical theory at Hunter College, New York.



1. Typical of the film’s emphasis on multivalent voices and textual strategies, Brown is, in fact, reiterating and completing o line first spoken by Jackie Raynal. Raynal’s “monologue” in the film is, in turn, lifted directly from an essay by the Australian theoretical feminist Meaghan Morris. See Morris, “The Pirate’s Fiancée,” in Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy, ed. Morris and Paul Patton, Sydney: Feral Publications, 1979.
2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “A Literary Representation of the Subaltern: A Woman’s Text from the Third World,” in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, New York and London: Routledge, 1988, pp. 253–54.