By Patricija Fašalek
About two years ago I met an American who told me I bear a resemblance to Miranda July. At that time I did not know who she was so I asked him about her, thinking her label would be something like: a writer, a filmmaker, a politician etc. He seemed quite surprised by my lack of knowledge about the woman in question, and he quickly went on: “She’s a feminist artist”.
I started to wonder, what does it mean to be a “feminist artist” in our age? Does this imply that they have to call out gender issues in their work? Does not mentioning gender issues make other female (or male) authors non-feminist? Do they have to be some kind of a spokespeople for women’s rights in the media? Is it about the female representation in their work? What the guy probably meant was “she’s a feminist and an artist”. But usually people would just say “she’s an artist”, unless a person is known for their activism. So who is Miranda July?
July seems to be a lot of things. She writes short stories and novels, she makes films, she does live performance art, and digital media art. If you google her, it takes no more than scrolling past Wikipedia and IMDb to reach an article about her with the title: “What’s so infuriating about Miranda July?”. The more I read about her, the more I think her work provokes either the feeling of love or resentment in the audience, as if there was no other possible reaction to it but the two extremes. She has a huge fan base and words like “subtle, sweet, endearing,” or “strange” would accompany their explanation for their devotion to her. However, sometimes her presence provokes much more than just a description of the sentiment, such as that reported in The New Yorker: “After a screening of The Future at the San Francisco Film Festival, a small crowd surrounded July, pinning her against the back wall of the movie theatre, wanting to tell her, with palpable urgency, how much her work mattered to them. Her office has an entire room filled top to bottom with boxes of letters and objects from fans around the world. One man printed every e-mail he ever wrote and sent them all to July, because only she would understand”. And then, on the other hand, there are indeed haters, still so infatuated by her that they took time to create an “I Hate Miranda July” blog. One blogger in particular wanted to beat her with a shoe.
It seems to be rather difficult to pinpoint exactly what was the starting point of her career, for she seems to be all over the place. In her interviews, she recalls writing a play in high school, based on her written correspondence with a prisoner. She states: “I was very existential. It was the first time I had a feeling like: I can’t bear this. I have to do something to understand these feelings. That we could be friends at all and know each other and be living such different lives and that he might die in there — it shook me”. She also stated that she did not have to have a “terrible” day job ever since she was 23 years old – her performances brought her enough money, something extremely rare for such a young artist.
While still in high school, learning about inequality, July heard about Riot Grrrl, an international underground feminist movement. Dropping out of college also meant losing ties with family, and as she explained in the interview: “the self-importance that came from being a feminist was a sorely needed framework, almost as religion might be to a different kind of person. And then gradually my own ideas and values grew beyond any collective sense of feminism”. July drew the inspiration for her first big project, Joanie 4 Jackie, from a group of girls in Portland who, influenced by Riot Grrrl, played music, recorded music, lived together, dated each other, taught each other self-defence, and made fanzines and bombs.
The introduction to Joanie 4 Jackie reads as follows: “In 1995 Miranda July dropped out of college, moved to Portland, Oregon, and typed up a pamphlet that she imagined would be the start of a revolution of girls and women making movies and sharing them with each other. The pamphlet said: ‘A challenge and a promise: Lady, you send me your movie and I’ll send you the latest Big Miss Moviola Chainletter Tape.’” Chainletter Tapes, later renamed Joanie 4 Jackie, comprised of nineteen tapes, each of them containing ten movies made by women and girls who decided to mail their work to July. Not a single movie was rejected. In 1998, July came up with a second series of compilations, The Co-Star Tapes. This time she focused on the work of young feminist curators with the aim to “point a finger at what was missing from the world, to create a hunger for movies made by women” . Once the project was put in the spotlight by magazines like “Seventeen” and “Sassy”, July received several demands from girls who wanted to take a look at the movies. She got invited to present her project by schools, and travelled around the country, performing and screening the movies at colleges, high schools, and local art centres. She donated the collection of more than 200 titles and other material she gained during the project to the Getty Research Institute in 2017.
In 2002, she launched a project called Learning to Love You More, where she challenged people to participate in creating something new based on her and Harrell Fletcher’s instructions. Participants submitted their work such as recipes, meditation practice, or familiar songs. In seven years, 8000 people participated in the project.
And then there was Somebody, an app through which you sent a message to another person, but the message didn’t appear on the recipient’s phone; instead, it got delivered to the person nearby who was recruited to deliver it to its intended recipient in person. “The walls that divide us are torn asunder. A stranger gets to be somebody,” says the app which died in 2015 .
And now we have finally arrived at the main focus of July’s work: she wants the walls that divide us be torn asunder.
July’s most notable works of fiction are; two feature films, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), a book of short stories No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007), and a novel The First Bad Man (2015). I’ve seen her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know, and I read her short stories No One Belongs Here More Than You. And I want to see and read all the rest.
Me and You and Everyone We Know is a film within which several stories intertwine: the main focus is given to a story of a distressed and recently divorced shoe salesman Richard who one day meets Christine at his store. Christine is an unusual taxi-driver for seniors and amateur video artist trying to get her work seen by an agent. She communicates with people in a strange way. He has many unresolved issues. While adults are shown in the light of their craziness, aggression, coldness and affection, sometimes even innocence and naivety, we can also follow the story of four kids, all of them going down the road of complex encounters with sexuality: two girls are provoking their horny neighbour and trying to compete with each other, wondering which one can give a better blowjob, and two boys are, each on their own terms, getting in touch with sex in bizarre, unexpected ways.
In her collection of short stories No One Belongs Here More Than You, July focuses on sexuality too, more precisely on the complexity and bizarreness of it, and the topic comes up on various occasions: between lesbian friends or sisters, during nightmares or daydreaming, within strange periods of marriage, etc. But in all of her stories she writes about a connection between people, their encounters and their fears.
She seems to understand people, maybe even much more than that. Weird situations in which she puts the characters, unusual reactions and twisted conclusions, all show an awareness of her capacity to understand the depths of human desire, to see through all the walls we have built. To feel the invisible, like she would have a capacity to swim amid the unconscious riddles, bringing them to the surface and giving them a shape through the expression of art. Or at least that was how I felt while reading her: nothing made sense and everything made sense. Maybe one cannot understand her work if they cannot feel it. But once you feel it, you feel a lot! And it is not always pleasant. Indeed, if you let her get inside you, she will bring about a whole list of emotions, starting with loveliness and oddness, awkwardness and cuteness, but also; disgust, shame, sadness, longing, and, most of all, loneliness, the unbearable feeling of isolation.
If there is one connection I could make to give a common ground to most of her characters, it would surely be the concept of connection itself. Because they are all in a constant need of it, knowingly or unknowingly they are craving it, yet they are struggling to get it – that true feeling of compassion and belonging, being in sync with another human being. Her characters are always out of sync, within themselves and even among each other. And they are very much human no matter the gender or age. July always makes all of her characters multi-dimensional, she creates a whole inner world for them, a world filled with fantasies and yearnings no one understands, because they are not meant to be understood. They just are and they just want to be loved. And most of the time, they are all just ordinary people with some unusual quirks about them.
It seems like Miranda July’s goal is to bring people together, to make them available to each other, or at least to show that other people have their own fears too. To show their incomprehensible needs and desires which can lead them towards different states of mind or even various reactions towards others if they are emotionally involved with them. Or if they are just random encounters, being at the right place at the right time when the person is in a need of a talk to a stranger.
Throughout history, women have not been well represented as fictional characters, and since within the established literary canon we were mostly pushed to read about male heroes and their adventures while women remained one-dimensional, serving one of the pre-determinate stereotypical roles given by society, July’s writing comes as a big relief. It comes as a fantasy world where women, as well as men, are given tremendous depths in characters, something so refreshing that, at least for the time of reading, unlocks all the chains and lets the characters just be. One would think that should already be a satisfactory way of writing about women in our age but since 50 Shades of Grey, a book where all female desire is still caught within a frame of patriarchal and capitalist constrains, remains a best-seller, it might not be so self-evident.
When it comes to dividing and underrepresenting women, it is the patriarchal structure which wants to isolate women, especially in the fields of art. There are outside factors, factors arising from the society, preventing women from making a connection and making their work valuable and visible. This is why July’s projects were designed with a specific goal in mind: to create a comfortable space for women to connect with each other’s work, to make female art accessible to others, to give way to material produced by women and make sure it does not get stuck somewhere by somebody before seeing the light of the day.
July describes herself as “consciously feminist”. Born Miranda Jennifer Grossinger, she changed her surname into July as a feminist act of “self-authoring”, “re-christening herself after a character she had created with a friend in a fanzine” . And when it comes to feminism in our age, she thinks the internet makes it easier for feminism to come into shape. She states: “more than anything [women] are supporting each other and they can do that in very powerful ways because of social media… It’s kind of a wild time. I think we’re all very aware of that power. It feels really good to think: ‘Oh wow, it is actually in my control to impact on this woman’s life’… you know: I can make someone’s book of experimental poetry really sell! ”
Patricija Fašalek holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and will soon have her Master’s in Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana. She likes taking long walks with her dog while listening to jazz, 60’s rock, or Cigarettes after Sex on her very old and unpredictable mp3 player. When she gets home, she enjoys classical music in the background while reading, or watching old European movies…with chocolate in her bed…while dreaming about summer and the sea.