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Frankie Thorn in Bad Lieutenant
Frankie Thorn in Bad Lieutenant

The Ship with Eight Sails
(and Fifty Black Cannons)

By Zoë Lund

This essay, written in July 1993, was first published in the January 2001 issue of New York Waste with an introduction by Robert Lund.
By noontime the dock is all swarming with men,
Coming up off that ghostly freighter,
And they're walking in the shadows, where no one can see,
And they're piling up bodies, and bringing them to me,
Asking me, kill them now, or later?

...And in that quiet of death,
I say, "Right now."

And with every head that falls, I say, "That'll learn ya."
...And then you see me, walking out into the morning,
Looking nice, with a ribbon in my hair.

...And the ship, the black freighter,
With a skull on its masthead,
Disappears out to sea,
And on it is me.

- "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (translation Marc Blitzstein) (1)

It was 4:00 AM. Deep Central Park in the rain. I emerged from the dark, stone tunnel. Saw the fountain, dead ahead. My dark blue dress was slit to the hip. I felt wet wind on my thighs.

The men, six of them, came from the night. Looking for me. But I had found them. They formed a ring around Thana, me, in the dark blue dress with the high, high slit. And they laughed their last laughs. "Bitch", one said. I thought I heard another say, "Pussy".

The .45 was in my pocketbook. Ladies have pocketbooks. I drew, spun round, aiming, and cut them down. One by one. Six. For a six-shooter. Me. Automatic.

So went a cool scene from Ms .45, the first film in which I starred. My character, Thana, became a double rape victim, and then a violent avenger, speaking with her gun. Journalists often say, "Oh, what a feminist film! Ms .45 presents a terrific metaphor for women's empowerment. Tell us all about it."

I used to explain. Now I groan. Quietly. And then explain. "No, Ms .45 is not about women's liberation, any more than it is about mutes' liberation, or garment workers' liberation (the character was a presser), or your liberation, or my own. Notice that her climactic victim is not a rapist in the clinical sense. He is her boss. The real rapist. Our real rapist." I usually add something about the fact that I, myself, was raped. In that very clinical sense. But, more about that later.

And so, Ms .45 presents a humble, yet well-crafted metaphor for rebellion of the any-sexed oppressed. But the gun was put in a woman's hand. A woman carried that universal message, and so it was all the more powerful. It made us shiver. Male and female. Different timbres and temperatures of shiver, but shiver all round.

Throughout much of history, women have been treated as inferiors. Most gave in to the climate of their times, and allowed themselves truly to become inferior. As such, they avenged their plight with craven weapons. Backbiting, talking behind backs, knifing in the back. Their opponent, man, had the luxury of honourable war. Meanwhile, women led men on, and then threw sand in their eyes. Or most did.

There were exceptions. And whether they were Ulrike Meinhof, Ms .45, Joan of Arc, Jenny Diver, or everyman's dream of a dominatrix, they gave us a thrill. That special shiver. For in the end, inferior woman was comfortable, but not sexy. Cowardice never is.

Women who fear becoming truly woman, a thing which would be equal to man, try to sink all females to their level of abnegation. The present furore over rape is the work of woman's enemy, woman. They strive to turn all women into victims. Not fighters. Not creators. Not sources. These women want their sisters relegated to the ranks of the done-to. They fear the challenge of doing.

A woman recently raped is told she has been penetrated to the core. Her very being, violated. Her soul defiled. This makes her a victim - and truly a sex object. For it says that her soul, her very essence, is in her cunt. A penis entered the organ called vagina – it did not penetrate and scourge her soul. When I make love, I do endow my vagina with soul. But if I do not define my vagina as a sex organ, a love organ, a soul organ, then it is no such thing. It is merely an aperture, not unlike my ear. My soul is not in my cunt unless I put it there. While I was being raped, my soul was elsewhere. That man got nowhere near me. He was stuck in a hole. I was far away.

Cowardly womanhood wishes to disempower women, to bring them down, to make them the craven creatures they too often are already. That is a crime. That is also why Thana, in Ms .45, is finally knifed in the back, until dead – by a woman.

I wrote the script for the film Bad Lieutenant. Many people were surprised that such a 'violent' film was written by a woman. Females were foremost among the ranks of the astonished. I didn't try to be violent, or male, or indeed 'macho'. I simply wrote the truth, and relished the penetrating sharpness, the harsh beauty of reality. And people were fascinated by the inherent challenge posed by my sex.

Men try, sometimes, to play along with the reactionary 'feminism' that poses amorphism, formlessness, a total lack of telos as an ideal. I recall once, long ago, when I had sex with such a man. He lay there, inside me, and didn't move at all. For an extended time. I was positively shuddering with frustration. At last, he said with a sigh, "Oh, this is so beautiful. We're communicating ..." While he got dressed, pulling on his faded, bell-bottom jeans, he said, "I know that women are sick of all that bang, bang, piston kind of thing. There's far too little gentleness in the world. We all need to be more like women. Non-violent." You, Mr. Feminist, are truly a male chauvinist pig.

All creation is violent. When you wager blindly, and charge into the unknown, it's violent. The destruction of that which is, the creation of that which ought to be, all this is violence. Revolution is always violent. And there is violence, too, when there are no conventional weapons in sight. It is not pacifism when the revolutionary, in prison, goes on hunger strike and uses his own body as weapon, battlefield, nemesis, and hero at once. In Bad Lieutenant, a nun is raped. In confession, she says that she forgives her rapists. But also, she says that she herself has sinned. She had but one chance in her life to use her vagina. To use it for good, for God, for once, and for all. And she did nothing with it. She gave nothing to her rapists. She did not save their souls. She did not even surprise them. "They surprised me, and got no surprise at all." The Nun's process of conscience is violent. Violent against that which is unworthy in herself, in the struggle to become fully woman, fully human, divine. The hero, the Lieutenant himself, overhears the Nun's confession. He is struck by her violent contrition. And so he commits an absurd act of martyrdom, an acte gratuit, dying for our sins. The Nun and the Lieutenant are both violent action-heroes. Bad Lieutenant is a modern Christ story. It is also a Hell of a good ride. There is no contradiction.

Violent women know the ringing afterglow when the whip comes down, the ultrasound song of earned religious ecstasis, the countable heartbeats before crossing the line. The pulp vamp vixen with stiletto heels and killer curves, laughing at laws of social conduct, the disciplined revolutionary fighter, challenging laws of the land, the true Bride of Christ, her moral rigor defying laws of nature - all are surprising. For they live in the world of women and men, of human beings. They have escaped the ghetto of female cowardice, guarded by men's laziness, women's fear, and the inertia of what has always been.

Mr. 'non-violent' Feminist and the 'male chauvinist' are one and the same. And the woman who 'stays in her place' is the poltroon slow-poisoner. Yet men who truly love a challenge love a woman who loves the same. And even Mr. Feminist takes Wonder Woman into the bathroom. But he doesn't have the balls to marry her.

Woman will never free herself by tainting the tea of her oppressor, nor by shooting him in the back. She will be truly free when, like the paradigms, however ridiculous or holy, she takes hold of her own destiny, and fights for that which is larger than herself, waging that battle within the lists of the joust. This terrain has ever been the province of man - with the few exceptions that always thrill, and are the stuff of legend. From the vantage of that field of combat, face to face with the enemy, woman will see the world. And within it, she may become artist, revolutionary, or a really good lover. And man will have to gain the courage to embrace the scandalous woman in the blood red dress - and then to be her husband.

© Robert Lund 2001


  1. Editor's Note: Lund adds that the title of this essay is her own translation of the song's chorus. The original number of cannons in Brecht's German lyric is fifty-five.

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