[For the next week and half, we will be covering DOC NYC 2012, New York City's premier documentary film festival. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the DOC NYC 2012 slate. You can read all of our DOC NYC coverage here.]
Like them or not, guns are an essential part of the American character, whether it's reflected in the romance of the cowboy and the outlaw, the self-sufficiency or conquest of the hunter, or in the tragedy of mass shootings. Our relationship with guns in this country is long and multifaceted and complicated.
Gun culture has always been something that's interested me. Thing is, I've never fired an actual gun. That's not because I'm some wussy city liberal who's against guns, and it's not because I'm afraid of handling them. The opportunity just never came up. There's a gun range in New York City, so maybe, one day, I'll finally do it. Maybe I'll feel more like a man, or at least like the women in Cathryne Czubek's documentary A Girl and a Gun.
In the film, Czubek explores the relationship between women and all kinds of firearms. What do guns mean to individual women and what do they say about society at large? It's a massive topic to tackle in under 80 minutes, but by looking at the issue from different angles, Czubek covers a lot of interesting ground in a short amount of time.
A Girl and a Gun
There's an odd set of mental associations when women wield guns. Guns are usually linked to men and masculine power, and there's some obvious anatomical significance in that. (Like Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket taught us: This is my rifle, this is my gun / This is for fighting, this is for fun.) So when women are packing heat, there's a simultaneous subversion of gender roles and an erosion of gender separation. It's also dangerous and sexy at the same time -- it underlines the allure of the femme fatale or gun moll, making both more feminine for holding something so masculine. A Girl and a Gun even mentions that classic pose of the damsel with her pistol up by her face. They do it all the time in movies and TV and pulp magazine covers. The pose is called a "Sabrina," named after Kate Jackson's character on Charlie's Angels.
One of the people in A Girl and a Gun points out that there's no practical reason for the gun to be held up that high, but it looks good. Oddly -- and I've brought her up a lot in the last few weeks with other documentaries about women (e.g., The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar and Bettie Page Reveals All) -- it's like some armed variation on Rosie the Riveter. The difference is important, though. Apparently a full-Sabrina (the gun pointed straight up) or a half-Sabrina (gun pointed at 45 degrees) could hurt the girl with the gun if the gun accidentally goes off. Rosie the Riveter could hurt you if you gave her any lip -- just look at the guns on her. The gun, the bicep extension, the display -- it all becomes that power symbol for women, and it's fascinating how they've made it their own.
Czubek looks at the historical and cultural images of women with guns. There's Annie Oakley and her superb trick shooting; Bonnie Parker as the outlaw who was everything wrong at the time and then a kind of bandit hero after her death; Patty Hearst, briefly, as a militant menace. There are flashes of women in films shooting away, looking sexy and dangerous at the same time -- Pam Grier, Angelina Jolie, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie-Anne Moss, Linda Hamilton, and then VHS bimbos (who flunked gun safety) firing automatics in the desert. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers have made weapons with pink handles and stocks, and clothing and accessories by women and for women.
These broad looks at female gun culture are interesting on their own, but they're just one part of the documentary. When we get away from the macro-scale issues, we wind up with stories about women from all over the country using guns for their own reasons. Some do it for self-defense. There's a Tai Chi instructor who's afraid of what an ex-boyfriend might do. There's writer Violet Blue in San Francisco talking about about guns as practical self-defense and as a form of empowerment. She keeps a gun loaded in case she needs it. By contrast, in New York, there's a woman too concerned about the safety of her sons in adjacent rooms to risk keeping a gun in her apartment.
There are guns for recreation, guns for hunting, and even, sometimes, guns as collector's items. These gun-positive segments are a counterpoint to the negative side of gun use. We get to see a mother and daughter in New Jersey affected by gun violence in their neighborhood. There's a woman in America's heartland whose son wants a hunting rifle, and yet guns have been the source of some pain in her past. There's also a single mother in the film who was forced to shoot a man trying to break into her home. She did it to protect herself and her baby. She's still jittery from the experience when we meet her, but she's alive. It's because of the gun, not the police who would have arrived too late. There's no telling how long she'll be shaken from taking another person's life, and yet who could blame her for doing it?
I feel that there's an interesting implicit idea in how some of these women relate to guns, and it's linked to the larger social ideas in the film. A lot of women get guns in order to defend themselves against men. It's a symbol of masculine power wielded by a woman in order to suppress acts of male violence and male dominance. There's a complication of guns as a gender signifier. Maybe it's not guns as an extension of Rosie's bicep. Guns can be made girly, but are guns feminine in the way other objects can be considered feminine? At a few points in A Girl and a Gun, there's a suggestion that the gun is some totem for a man or a male figure in the lives of these women -- protective in some cases, sexual in others, reassuring in both in their own ways.
An area that A Girl and a Gun didn't explore too much was the political/legal side of guns and women. It's mentioned a bit here and there. One of the women says it's illegal in her area to own a stun gun or tazer but an actual gun is fine. In other words, incapacitating someone with a jolt of electricity is illegal, but it's a-okay to shoot them dead. A police officer tells her it doesn't make sense to him either. Given how some gun laws in the United States can lead to extended wait times for firearms or restrictions on carrying them, I wondered how these laws affect women who feel an immediate need to get guns. There's no exploration of the illegal gun market, for instance, and if a lot of women who feel threatened go that route to protect themselves.
In a sense the film is more sociological than political, and chronicling the politics of gun ownership and gun use can get messy. I guess I appreciate this film as an exploration rather than a polemic. But then again, it made me wonder something else that could have been explored: why are mass shooters all men? I can't think of one female mass shooter off the top of my head. Is it something about the genders -- some essential separation in murderous mindset? Surely there are sociopaths and psychopaths who are women, but mass killings with guns are male crimes. (I wonder if it's phallocentric of me to wonder about women and guns in terms of men with guns.)
These are all things I thought after seeing A Girl and a Gun. Maybe the seeds of these ideas were present in my head already, but the film really brought them to the forefront simply by framing guns and women in the same piece. This is definitely one of the better films about guns I've seen in a while. Czubek's even hand and wide scope has led to a fascinating conversation starter rather than something to argue over.
[A Girl and a Gun will screen at the IFC Center on Wednesday, November 14th.]