Born in Flames that Continue to Burn
Lizzie Borden created the 1983 film Born in Flames after wondering if women would still need to fight for systemic discrimination even if there was some sort of social democratic revolution. Born in Flames is a documentary-style feminist propaganda film that explores topics of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism in alternative universe where the United States government acts as a socialist democracy. There is quite a bit to unpack in this film, I noted quite a few nuances that I don’t think I’ll be able to fit into this piece, but the easiest place to start is at the beginning.
The film starts out by announcing the 10-year anniversary of the Social-Democratic War of Liberation, described as “the most peaceful revolution in history.” The film follows Adelaide Norris through most of the movie until (spoiler alert!) her death about halfway through the film. Norris was a 24-year-old black lesbian who founded a local feminist group called the Women’s Army. She spends a good portion of the beginning of the film working on recruiting women and doing what little she can to support the women on the streets being harassed and attacked. One scene in particular has Norris riding with a group of women on bikes toward these two men who were assaulting a woman on the street, swarming them, and getting her safely out of there. Officials end up labeling them as vigilante’s and asks for information on the women in order to arrest them. In another scene, Norris and another woman end up stepping into a situation on a train where a man keeps moving in close to a clearly uncomfortable woman. An FBI and Chief conversation is narrated over this scene, saying that they wouldn’t refer to them as terrorists, but the problem is the vigilante sensibility that they have. However, I find it extremely interesting that while she is being so closely watched by FBI Agents (they even so much as raid the Army’s headquarters and record her conversations), there are riots happening outside of city hall where a group of men protest being given “meaningless jobs” by the workfare program, claiming that “women and other minorities receive preferential treatment in the real job market.” Throughout the whole report of this riot, there are clips of men getting violent and being beat by police while other men destroy property and attack passersby. (I noted while watching this that throughout the entire news report, these men were referred to just as “demonstrators,” while the Women’s army were being referred to as potential terrorists for defending and protecting women.) Immediately after this broadcast showing of the protest, Norris is being laid off of her job as a construction worker, and we find out later that a lot of other women received the same fate. The Women’s Army goes out to protest the stabilizing of the work force, chanting, “We want a J-O-B so we can E-A-T.” Franky, I was frustrated by this, because of course these men have a fit about working “meaningless jobs” whatever that means, and the government immediately does something about it. These men in the film start crying over women receiving what they believe to be preferential treatment when in reality they’re experiencing equality in the workplace for the first time and can’t handle it.
Of course, the Women’s Army faces a lot of resistance, sometimes even from other resistance groups. Besides the Women’s Army, there were two radio stations that also advocated for liberation of women. One being Phoenix Radio, led by a black radio personality named Honey, and the other being Radio Ragazza led by a white lesbian named Isabel. After the reports about the group of women on bicycles, there was a bit of a debate on whether or not those women were a part of the Women’s Army. Isabel felt very strongly that the Army was not capable of doing vigilante work, that they weren’t aggressive enough, and she meant it as a critique, a complaint. Isabel was a much more radical than any of the other women in the film, however the Army started to make plans to take bigger action when they realized they weren’t being heard. Norris had made plans to go to the Western Sahara to see how women were struggling there, demonstrating that this was not just a national issue but something women face everywhere, but when she returned, she was immediately arrested for being suspected of smuggling firearms. She died in that prison, and it was labeled a suicide, but many did not believe that. It was Norris’s death that had lit a fire under the asses of these resistance groups, as socialist women, and made them work together and take measures into their own hands to be heard.
Audre Lorde was a black lesbian and American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist. Amongst the many pieces she has written are “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1979) and “Learning from the 60s” (1982) in both of which she wrote about liberation. One of the main things she talks about in both pieces is this concept of unity.
“As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation.” – Lorde in “The Master’s Tools”
The film is extremely diverse when it comes to the number of different types of women we see. The biggest contrasting characters to the Women’s Army would be the three editors of the Socialist Youth Review, who spent the beginning of the film criticizing the Women’s Army, claiming that they were being selfish and irresponsible for “immediately crying sexism” after women were being laid off. Meanwhile these women were just trying to get their jobs back, even asking the men who were still employed to stand with them, but they were alone in their cause. These editors of the paper continued to talk about how they didn’t believe the Army would expand into a movement, saying they felt like because these women were raised in a time after the previous revolution took place, they don’t see how the world has improved. However, from my perspective it seems to me that these women are just so comfortable in their job as editors that they don’t see other women are struggling. This is another thing Lorde spoke about — specifically in “The Master’s Tools,” as she had mentioned stated that the master’s tools (being the Academy, papers, conferences, academic feminism, etc) cannot dismantle the master’s house (Patriarchal society) and that women who feel threatened by the idea of dismantling the masters house are the women who still consider the masters house to be their only source of support. I think this statement is supported by the editors of the Socialist Youth Review.
They work directly with the Party and continue advocating for it even after having a conversation with Norris herself. One of the women, Pat Crosby, says to Norris, “If we support a single demonstration by one pressure group, it’s separatist. We risk splitting the Party at a time of major crisis.” Norris argues that even they are affected by this too, and she does not understand how they fail to see that, how they can call women’s grievances separatism. Another of the editors, Kathy Larson, tells her that things have improved since the revolution 10 years prior, that the change Norris is looking for is not going to happen overnight, and that the Party needs to remain strong so progress can be made. While she is right about change not happening overnight, she and the other editors are leaning way too hard on the Party and are failing to see that they can find the support they need in other women, such as the Army. Thankfully, although rather unfortunately too, after Norris’ death the editors begin putting out papers that question the Party and its credibility and they begin working with the Army, even though it ends up costing them their jobs. This is the unity I think Lorde was describing in her writing, because these women of different races cultures and background were coming together under once cause. They’ve accepted their differences as strengths by this point and end up getting their word out there for all to see and hear. They combine both of the radios to form one to report what is happening to their followers, they use the faces of people already known by the FBI to record messages that they then break into television places to broadcast. They still face resistance, but they have begun taking direct action that has put them at the forefront of the fight.
While this movie was made almost 40 years ago, I wish I could say it wasn’t still applicable today. Even as I’m writing this, a draft to overturn Roe v Wade was leaked just this week. One of the things the women in the movie were fighting for was support for victims of rape. Posters were put up with the line “destroy the rape rehabilitation center” under the photo of a rapist. Honey says in a broadcast that they’re ready to deal with every lie that holds women responsible for rape and prostitution. There’s a scene of a man excusing rapists, saying they aren’t bad, they’re just sick and have succumbed to an emotional illness. The government is funding that rehabilitation center while cutting back funds going to the places that support the actual victims of rape, while simultaneously cutting back on funding programs that help women with any mental and emotional illnesses. Situations like this is still very much real. In terms of the abortion discussion, many people who are against abortions are directing their anger to the women who are getting them. Women and girls are screamed at and attacked on the walk into any clinic, even those that don’t offer abortion services. It should not matter what anyone is choosing to do with their own body, that is nobody’s business but theirs, and yet in 2022 we are facing the possibility of our rights to our bodies being taken from us. On April 28th, 2022, Oklahoma Senator Warren Hamilton said that even aborting ectopic pregnancies is murder- an instance where the embryo will never become a viable baby and the mother will die. It is terrifying that someone with this mindset, who also does not support abortion in cases that deal with victims of rape and incest, has power over these discussions. Roe v Wade was passed in 1973, almost 50 years ago, and we are still fighting for bodily autonomy. It is just as Lorde says in “Learning from the 60s,” “We must recognize that many of our high expectations of rapid revolutionary change did not in fact occur. And many of the gains that did are even now being dismantled.” The fight is nonstop, because even when we manage to win one battle there is still the chance that an old man in office who has more opinions than necessary on things that do not affect him will try to take back control over us in the future.
“Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s differences with respect.” — Lorde in “Learning from the 60s”