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Music Movie Mondays: “Feminists, we’re calling you” to watch Itty Bitty Titty Committee

June 28, 2010

I meant to watch Itty Bitty Titty Committee for some time. Focusing on the members of a Los Angeles-based radical feminist organization called Clits in Action peopled by queer women, it was obviously on my radar. I was especially interested in the protagonist, a young Latina named Anna who works as an admin at a plastic surgery clinic who is awakened by her involvement with the organization. It was directed by Jamie Babbitt, who helmed the delightful But I’m a Cheerleader for her first feature. She also directed episodes of Gilmore Girls, The L-Word, and Popular, which may explain the casting of Carly Pope and Leslie Grossman. Since I like Babbitt, I’ll overlook her work on “You Wreck Me” for Cougar Town.

I was frustrated that, despite its clout at film festivals, Itty Bitty Titty Committee was barely in theaters following its 2007 release. It raked in under $20,000 in domestic gross revenue. But when I’d heard that her sophomore release The Quiet was a disappointing predecessor and that Itty Bitty Titty Committee was itself a letdown for many Babbitt fans, I had my reservations.

Much of the criticism I heard about the movie was that it seemed to be making fun of the third wave feminist politics riot grrrl helped develop, which it intended to champion. Indeed, the movie is inconsistent in its tone. Sometimes, the use of grainy stock footage of members committing politically motivated crimes like vandalism seem to suggest the historical significance of their work. However, this tends to be undermined by the employment of the montage, which can make their activities look like slumber party prankery. Other times, characters like Shulamith (Pope) are stereotypically combative, defensively spouting statistical evidence of female oppression and dismissing Anna’s participation as a chance to hook up with Sadie (Nicole Vicius), who recruited Anna and has a habit of seducing her charges while remaining with her partner Courtney (Melanie Mayron). It doesn’t help matters that the movie ends in a conventional fashion, with Anna coming into her own as an organizer and activist and getting the girl. With a partner as passive-aggressive, indecisive, and entitled as Sadie, that’s hardly a victory to me.

I’d see these criticisms and point out how obvious and two-dimensional it can be its depictions. Furthermore, the movie has some serious problems with its views on generationalism and establishmentarian second wave feminism, best established by Sadie’s and Courtney’s mutually destructive relationship. Sadie believes Courtney, the founder of successful fictional non-profit Women For Change who is considerably older than her partner, to be too dependent on systemic restructuring and her bougie lifestyle. Her partner counters that Sadie is too pre-occupied with ineffective political theater and post-modern feminist theory to truly effect change. Sadie’s comrades call bullshit on both, though are especially critical of Sadie’s hypocrisy. It’s easy to form a radical group when you’re shacked up in your rich girlfriend’s bungalow. Admittedly, these are real feminist issues. However, none of this is given much development beyond the couple’s waning sex life and the problematic implication that Courtney is psychologically abusive to Sadie.

I also find the overall lack of context for how the members got involved with the C(i)A troubling. There’s mention of school and Shulamith being named after Ms. Firestone. But we don’t get much on how the organization formed or what’s at stake for its members. Trans member Aggie’s (Lauren Mollica) passing reference to being kicked out of his parents’ house suggests at least one member’s personal livelihood is bolstered by involvement in the group. But as he’s configured as little more than Anna’s rebound from Sadie, I find this inclusion tokenistic and woefully underdeveloped.

That said, I liked Itty Bitty Titty Committee more than I anticipated. Despite its problems, I appreciated how the movie focused on the challenges and possibilities for personal growth evident in being involved with groups like the C(i)A. Though I can’t claim a Latina or a lesbian identity as a white woman in a relationship with a man, I could relate to Anna’s development as a young feminist. When I was in college, I got involved with a feminist organization on campus. While we never installed Angela Davis statues or spray-painted polemical statements on buildings, we did tape up statistical information and fliers in bathroom stalls. We also held fundraisers to attend the March for Women’s Lives, put on community events, went to rallies, and built sisterhood through various dance parties and bonding sessions. During this time, I learned a bit about feminist theory, political organizing, and message dissemination, as well as the political implications of veganism and queer identity politics. I also acquired a wonderful group of friends who enriched my feminist development. Thus I appreciated how Anna evolved, and thought it was interesting that she ultimately decides to forgo higher education for a few years to attend community college and continue her involvement with the C(i)A and off-shoot organization, the Itty Bitty Titty Committee, which reaches out to women and girls with poor body image.

I also found it interesting that Anna’s family, though preoccupied with older sister Ellen’s (Marissa Ramirez) wedding, supported of Anna’s lesbianism. However, I find it troublesome that this is primarily depicted by Anna’s mother Kate (Ana Mercedes) is especially welcome toward her younger daughter’s girlfriends, suggesting that her family is happy so long as Anna is in a relationship. It should also be noted that Anna’s family is decidedly upper-middle class and the movie suggests that her mother’s permissive attitude stems from interning at Ms. Magazine in the 70s. Furthermore, while Los Angeles has a considerable Latino population and the inclusion of Anna’s family is important — particularly since Anna was originally written as a Jewish girl named Hannah — little commentary is provided on the city’s racial and class politics.

Furthermore, I have some admiration for the C(i)A. I’ve never believed in a cause so much as to sacrifice my personal well-being for it. I’ve never been arrested for defending my beliefs. It’s one thing to write a missive or attend a conference. It’s quite another to slip a papier mache penis head on top of the Washington Monument and blow it up on live television, as the C(i)A does at the end of the movie. Though the execution of all this is clumsy and obvious, the potential motivation behind it is far more complex when applied to real-life situations.

I also liked how explicitly queer the movie is. Most of the characters are lesbians. Even Shulamith, who at first seems to enjoy male sexuality on purely carnal terms, is open in her sexuality and eventually becomes involved with Calvin (Danielle Sea), a butch military servicewoman. Lest you think the C(i)A is solely peopled by femmes, there’s Aggie and butch artist Meat (Deak Evgenikos). I also enjoyed the acknowledgment of a larger queer community outside the organization. Some C(i)A members live with Laurel (Jenny Shimizu), who is gainfully employed and not interested in participating in the C(i)A.

While it may not be clear in its tone how the movie feels about riot grrrl’s influence, one area where Itty Bitty Titty Committee makes its love for riot grrrl clear is in its soundtrack. While riot grrrl is never mentioned by name, bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy score most of the action, along with post-riot grrrl acts like Peaches and Le Tigre. Other practices associated with the musical movement, particularly ‘zine making, are featured.

As a document of riot grrrl’s influence on feminism, Itty Bitty Titty Committee is far from satisfactory. However, I value its efforts and hope more filmmakers address the subject with the nuance it deserves.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. berdawn permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:19 am

    I happened to see this on Logo and thought it was fab (but you make an excellent point that the “actions” can seem like pranks, but civil disobedience can be fun). and the sound track RAWKS.

  2. June 28, 2010 11:02 am

    It sounds like an update of Go Fish, which was so unintentionally hilarious, it was hard to watch.

  3. June 28, 2010 12:39 pm

    This is an excellent review! You’ve articulated a lot that troubled me about this film (particularly the Sadie/Courtney relationship) as well as providing new points to consider. As a major fan of “Popular” and “But I’m a Cheerleader,” I suppose I had high hopes that the picture, while fun, didn’t fulfill. I was especially irritated by Sadie’s character and the fact that Anna’s attraction to her clearly inspired her feminist awakening. Stories where a male love interest inspires a female to revamp her identity (eg. “Pygmalion” and its thousand wayward children) are rightfully recognized as problematic, but I don’t know that this was positioned any better. In particular, how about the implicit siding with Anna when the oh-so-meeeaaaan other members criticize her for becoming a feminist to chase a crush? I would have liked more of an emphasis on what feminism might have actually meant to Anna, apart from Sadie.
    Like you, though, I still had a good time. I guess I just love me some eye candy and Sleater-Kinney (and Pope and Evgenikos.)
    One question: “Sadie believes Courtney, the founder of successful fictional non-profit Women For Change who is several years her junior [...]” Courtney is several years her *senior,* no?

  4. June 28, 2010 11:07 pm

    I have yet to see this, but I had the soundtrack for a while. I do love “But I’m a Cheerleader” so I may check this out one of these days.

  5. Alyx Vesey permalink
    June 29, 2010 10:27 am

    @TheBadAssMuppet – Yes, you’re right. I’ll correct it. I always confuse those two. Also, I second your Pygmalian comparison.

  6. June 30, 2010 2:17 pm

    I remember seeing the publicity and trailers for the film as it first circulated, and thinking “how are they going to advertise the film on television?” And maybe that was a part of the issue for why it wasn’t more widely noticed: our puritan FCC rules forbade it?

    Life is organic and a mish-mash of a lot of stuff, and we don’t want our movies to be like that, especially if they purport to represent “important issues.” That’s especially true when there aren’t a lot of movies stating the stuff that a film like this does. Perhaps it’ll serve as an inspiration for future filmmakers to handle the material better!

    But I too am a huge fan of “But I’m A Cheerleader,” most especially the casting of RuPaul and Cathy Moriarty in those pivotal roles, so I will have to seek this one out.

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  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Itty Bitty Titty Committee « Feminist Music Geek

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