Revolutionary Feminism Among American Modernists

Revolutionary Feminism Among American Modernists


The Intersectional Definition of the “Revolutionary” 

The early twentieth century paints a complex and dynamic picture of the revolutionary woman, specifically how she interacts with the allure and force of the male gaze. Warren Beatty’s film, Reds, captures the character of Louise Bryant: a truly radical figure, persistently pushing back against social and gender norms. Louise develops her fear of losing her independence as a result of her relationship with Jack, however, comes to develop an alternative perspective: an understanding that she can exist in a world of balancing individualism and dependence. Anatole Broyard’s Kafka was the Rage portrays the character Sheri with revolutionary aspects centered around her art. The memoir illustrates a concealed hierarchy within Sheri and Broyard’s relationship, as she exhibits only certain aspects of herself to him. Through the male gaze, this power imbalance is depicted as unconventional and exciting, and further Broyard disregards his inferiority through a projection of blame on Sheri. The Cabaret Dancer from Djuna Barnes’s The Book of Repulsive Women, highlights an alternative approach, as the dancer conforms to the male gaze at the outset of the poem. When experiencing the realities of existing in a patriarchal society, she strives to add complexity to the definition of revolutionary, pushing the reader to abstractly turn inwards. Louise, Sheri and The Cabaret Dancer combat against different struggles, time periods, environments, and even relationships to men. Yet, their existence in America makes the systems and abstract barriers that are put in place against them everso similar. Louise, Sheri, and Cabaret Dancer each exhibit a sense of being unattainable to the male gaze, themselves dictating the measures of dependence on men in their lives. However, these women all feel an internal struggle with the identity of the “revolutionary” woman, constantly battling the boundaries put in place by patriarchal society. 

Louise Bryant denotes a truly revolutionary and outwardly radical figure during this time, moving to New York by herself and becoming fully immersed in a culture that, although progressive, still favors the intelligent white man. She makes it apparent from the beginning the importance of equality within her relationship with Jack, presenting a desire for independence within the world they share. Louise refuses to be classified as an extension of Jack and his accomplishments. Both characters exhibit passion regarding US politics and the Civil War and revolution in Russia. When Jack is presented with an opportunity to go to Petrograd, he wants Louise to join him as a supporter of the Communist labor movement. She is hesitant at first but accepts if her certain needs are met. She illustrates:

I want to sign my own name to my own stories…I want to be responsible for my own time and my own actions. I want to be referred to as Miss Bryant, and not Mrs. Reed, and I want to keep an account of every cent we spend so that I can pay you back. Now, I assume you know that I’m not going to sleep with you, so just don’t confuse the issue by bringing it up.1

Louise boldly addresses the preconceived notions society and the male gaze has against women like herself, while also employing strong and distinct language to clearly advocate for her needs. The male gaze assumes obedience and submission as an exchange for this opportunity, and Louise strives to challenge this very stigma. It assumes Louise would appreciate being named Mrs. Reed, a mere object of her partner, and would value this opportunity, even if it entails sexual favors. Existing in a world where every decision presented is already assumed and decided for her pushes Louise into a defensive position, always ready to challenge this norm to be taken seriously and respected. Further in the film, Louise not only has to prove her detachment from Jack but attachment to mere human capabilities. She is required to go before Congress in order to prove Jack’s and her own innocence in a political dilemma. She is initially questioned about the disappearance of her husband and his commitment to the Communist Party, while simultaneously facing sexist mockery regarding her intellect. Frustrated, Louise pushes back with witty and thought-provoking remarks. A member of Congress replies to this by saying, “We’ve tried to treat you as a lady.” Louise indicates, “I don’t want to be treated as a lady. I want to be treated as a human being.”2 She goes on to prove her intelligence and indicates her support of the Russian Revolution by ridiculing the treatment women face in the US Louise powerfully argues:

On women: There is equal suffrage in Russia which is more than you can say for this country…on the subject of decency: the Bolsheviks took power with the slogan: An end to the war. Within six months they made good their promise to the Russian people. The present president of the United States went to the country in 1916 on a no-war ticket. Within six months he had taken us into the war and 115,000 young Americans didn’t come back. If that’s how decent, God-fearing Christians behave, give me Atheists any time.3

The men who question Louise demand naiveness and compliance to their investigation, expecting to acquire submissive answers that meet their standards. Not only must Louise fight against this vulgar questioning, but must also prove her knowledge regarding this challenge with clear and grounded evidence. She must be diligent and precise at every moment, never allowing the male gaze to break her, and further defy this ignorance and derogatory nature to be simply considered a capable human being. 

Further, Louise internally struggles with the notion of balancing independence and a desire for a secure partnership, compelled to trust that accomplishing her goals suggests a certain isolation from Jack. She questions her purpose in his life throughout the film, uncertain whether people see her as an independent figure or simply living in Jack’s shadow. Louise has grown accustomed to resisting the male gaze, yet develops an inability to see her position in Jack’s life. In an argument with Jack, she questions his motives for going to Russia, depicting “What life? You mean your life, Jack? This has nothing to do with our life…If you leave, I’m living my life. With my friends, and my choices, and my work and my decisions…You walk out of that door, Jack, and from now on I’m none of your business.”4 To embody the role of a revolutionary woman entails constant rebellion and individualism. Therefore, in Louise’s relationship with Jack, she internally battles the opposing social ideologies that each claim a sense of truth, which causes her to lose touch with what she truly desires. Through this skewed perspective, fully detaching herself from Jack seems like the surest way to embody this feminist narrative. Furthermore Louise’s isolation from him provokes a deep reflection, and she discovers Jack’s necessary place in her life. She spontaneously travels to Russia in order to find him and bring him back to New York. She explains this to Emma, indicating that: 

I thought Jack’s lover was the revolution, too. So I thought my work could give me what I needed…What I thought I needed was to overcome his passion for his work and maybe rise above…the revolution. But now I know my need is something so much…All I’ve done for seven months is try to come to terms with what I need. I need to see him.5

Louise deeply recognizes Jack is an individual she truly cares for outside the excitement of the revolution, and the confusion she faced was merely a result of existing in a society that demands so much from her. As the male gaze attains a sense of entitlement to define her pleasures and motives, it is inevitable that she too fell into a state of self-doubt and uncertainty. Even if her relationship with Jack presents a sense of conformity to a traditional norm, this challenge of breaking past uncomfort is worth more than jeopardizing pure happiness. 

Sheri from Kafka was The Rage, has an extremely complicated and unconventional relationship with Broyard, further indicated by the complete control she has over this partnership. Sheri embodies a revolutionary nature through the independence of her art, a separate entity from Broyard and herself. Through this separation, Sheri dictates the parts of herself he sees and experiences. From his perspective, he can only see: 

just enough of [Sheri] to keep in touch. She was only physically evident-visible, palpable, audible. I could smell and taste her, although she hardly had any animal effusions…I chased her, like a man chasing his hat in a high wind, and she kept blowing away. It wasn’t love or desire I felt most clearly with her, but anxiety.6

Broyard paints this image of Sheri’s unbound nature, a freeing figure he admires and is excited by. She has this element of influence over him, keeping him in a chase with promises of having all of her, keeping him attentive and curious. Similarly to Louise, Sheri forbids objectification and submission to him, yet the only way Broyard can describe this is through projection: a catalization of anxiety. Broyard expands upon this, illustrating that, “Living with Sheri was a process of continual adjustment. It was like living in a foreign city…you try to feel like a native, not a foreigner…attempt to talk as if you belonged. Still, you never succeed in feeling at home. You remain a visitor, perhaps only a tourist. There was always something else, something more, another even larger adjustment to be made.”7 Broyard attempts to justify the distorting attachment he has to her, through the mystical diction of being a visitor in her world, romanticizing this power imbalance. His take on a tourist narrative in order to cope with feelings of resentment towards her, for she possesses a lively and substantial life outside of him. Broyard’s failure to admit this dependence on Sheri only grows deeper and deeper and eventually manifests itself into a projection of his insecurities onto her.

How Broyard describes his intimate relationship with Sheri stipulates a sense of manipulation, as he is evidently insecure about this power imbalance, and further gauges this as an account of Sheri’s inadequacy and imperfections. He analyzes this aspect of their relationship by writing “Most people would say that lovemaking is a defense against loneliness, but with Sheri, it was an investigation of loneliness, a safari into its furthest reaches. She had a trick of suspending me at a high point of solitariness…hold her there, freeze me there, as if to say, See how alone you are! And then I would float above her.”8 The male gaze is displayed here by the constant yearning to assert dominance, a power imbalance over women, through Broyards insistence of her coldness and therefore weakness. It is even further apparent in relationships as unconventional and unconfined as Sheri and Broyard’s. Sheri presents him with something so raw as an image of his own loneliness, and he brazenly diminishes this reality to further reclaim a sense of superiority in this relationship. Broyard feels inclined to project this symbol of force over her because of his deep-rooted insecurities and her ever-present effect on him. Furthermore, after they fall asleep, Broyard wakes up to find Sheri missing from their bed. He eventually discovers her sitting in a chair, with the stove gas turned on. He examines this by writing: 

I felt a sudden wash or swoosh of sadness as if our love was a stove and she was letting all our gas run out. She didn’t care about the waste; it didn’t touch her…I remembered that she loved to talk about death; she was always comparing things to it, saying that this or that was like death…Yet I felt lonely to the point of madness.9

Underneath this scrutinization of Sheri’s character, it is evident that Sheri’s sadness is overwhelmingly apparent, silently screaming for comfort. There is something deeper here, demonstrated through the meager signs of Sheri’s internal and mental struggles. Yet, from the male gaze, Broyard projects a sense of blame, for her attempt of suicide could only possibly indicate a lack of effort within their relationship. He understands this as an imbalance on her end, as he seems to question her prioritization of him, and if she even cares about all they have cultivated together. This distorted perspective all roots in the power she ultimately has over him, even in times of anguish and despair.  

Djuna Barnes’s The Book of Repulsive Women uses the Cabaret Dancer to illustrate an alternative take on a revolutionary woman, for she develops an approach to navigating the male gaze based on her tragic experience that contrasts with Sheri and Louise. She initially desires a connection with the men she works for. Barnes writes that, “She came with laughter wide and calm, And splendid grace, And looked between the lights and wine, For one fine face.”10 There is a distinct difference between the last two women and the dancer, for the dancer represents submission, desiring to be swept away, similar to the ideal relationship between Louise and Jack. Yet, she experiences a dawning realization: these men desire nothing more than an object for their desires, depicted through the lines “We saw the crimson leave her cheeks, Flame in her eyes; For when a woman lives in awful haste, A woman dies.”11 This loss of innocence fermented by abuse and implied violence presents the dancer with a choice; to defy this norm or remain within this sullen cage. The Dancer comes to utilize her sexuality to her advantage within this cruel world, for “Until her songless soul admits / Time comes to kill: you pay her price and wonder why / You still need her.”12 This tragic story instigates a sense of reflection, as Barnes cultivates a narrative so clearly based on the realities of the horrors lower-class women face. The power of her poetry forces the reader to turn inwards and question their own biases and views of what it truly means for a woman, flawed and imperfect, to exist in a male-dominated society. Barnes utilizes second person tense to illustrate a certain dependence our patriarchal society has on the industry of prostitution, socially and economically. Even further, she sheds light on the unconsidered issue of inclusion, for within feminist culture certain acts of survival such as this have been socially disbarred and shunned from the overall space of a revolutionary woman. Overall, Barnes strives to attach a complexity to the idea of feminism with hopes of shifting deep rooted cultural norms in American society.

Louise from Warren Beatty’s Reds, encompasses a truly radical woman, constantly fighting against the social norm in order to be merely seen and heard. Through this battle between her pride and the pressures of male gaze, she undergoes a period of confusion, in which she traps herself into the box of choosing the path of a revolutionary or a partnership with Jack. Louise ultimately realizes she can create this life with Jack as well as continue her own endeavors. Comparatively, Sheri from Kafka was The Rage, is a character seen through the eyes of Broyard, written as a radical and independent woman. From the beginning of their relationship, she establishes a wall between Broyard and herself, attaining her complete control of herself and him as well. As this power imbalance becomes more apparent, the male gaze misconstrues the narrative:Broyard’s insecurities manifest into acts of blaming Sheri’s motives. Hidden behind their progressive relationship, Sheri undergoes oppression through Broyard’s investigation of her, in order to justify his inferiority. Lastly, the Cabaret Dancer from Djuna Barnes’s The Book of Repulsive Women, contrasts the periodic development of the revolutionary women, as the dancer primarily indicates a sense of assimilation to social norms. She desires love and affection, yet under the violence faced within the patriarchy, she comes to the understanding of the naiveness in that desire. This tragic tale exhibits a truly raw story, compelling the reader to question their skewed perspective regarding the world of prostitution in order to further develop a more complex and intellectual definition of what it means to be a revolutionary woman. Louise, Sheri and The Cabaret Dancer face the constant minimization of the men around them, regardless of its magnitude of intentionality, yet all eloquently, abstractly, and physically rise above this systematic barrier to present and embody the definition of revolutionary.

  1. Reds, Directed by Warren Beatty, performances by Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Edward Herrmann, Paramount Pictures, 1981, 73.
  2. Reds, dir. Warren Beatty, 91.
  3. Reds, dir. Warren Beatty, 92.
  4. Reds, dir. Warren Beatty, 118.
  5. Reds, dir. Warren Beatty, 140.
  6. Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (C. Southern Books, 1993), 64.
  7. Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage, 40.
  8. Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage, 63.
  9. Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage, 67.
  10. Djuna Barnes, Greenwich Village as It Is, (Phoenix Bookshop, 1978), 31.
  11. Broyard, Greenwich Village, 32.
  12. Barnes, Greenwich Village, 31-33.
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