Lizzie Borden is on Fire

The Born in Flames filmmaker loves a chaotic collective project — her new book about sex work is no exception

By Sarah Wang

Photos By Simone Niamani Thompson

Portrait of a woman smiling and sitting on a white bench in a garden

No one had any money. Apartments were $60 a month. Artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and filmmakers were technically the first gentrifiers downtown — but the city was a wasteland. Hardly anyone wanted to live downtown except for them. “It was a time when the federal government told New York to drop dead,” Lizzie Borden remembers. “At one point there was no garbage pickup. It was dystopia in reverse. Everything was bombed out.”

Borden had an editing machine in her SoHo loft that Debbie Harry would use. Jack Smith did a performance at the loft. Borden hung out with people like Nan Goldin, Yvonne Rainer, Ana Mendieta, Adele Bertei, Sol LeWitt, Rosalind Krauss, and Carolee Schneemann. Christo and Jeanne-Claude lived down the street. If people needed help with their projects, they would trade and share services. Borden had an old car that she parked in front of her loft with a fake film permit in the window. People would use the car to get around the city. It appeared in a lot of artists’ films, including Kathryn Bigelow’s first short. Ron Vawter, a founding member of the Wooster Group who later died of AIDS, was in everyone’s films; he loved to be a part of what was going on. 

In the seventies, the downtown New York art crowd would drink beer and watch Cookie Mueller go-go dance at strip joints like the Baby Doll and the Pussycat Lounges. Borden had just made her first film, Regrouping, about a feminist collective of white, middle-class artists that had begun as a collaborative project but ended up with the group protesting the film’s 1976 opening at Anthology Film Archives. The film is a collage of sorts, showing women talking, dancing, having sexual encounters, and bickering. When I asked Borden, in an interview that took place at Anthology in February, what the collective’s purpose was, she said, “To be honest, I never understood what they were about.” The group was comprised of women who gathered to talk about issues that were important to them; beyond that, they did not feel the need to define what they were doing or delineate how they were going to do it. The group strained under ambivalent political lesbianism and disputes over the meaning of feminist art. But as the group itself dissolved into bitterness, the delineations of filmmaker and subject began to transgress. At an agreed-upon meeting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, Borden waited for the group to arrive. No one showed up. Later, she found out that the group had been across the street filming her. 

The film had originally been a documentary, but when the collective became hostile, refusing to respond to her calls, Borden tired of their unwillingness to collaborate and took over. Otherwise the film would have ended there. The way forward, she found, was to reconsider what collaboration meant when the group was no longer cooperative. A title card in the restored print of Regrouping reads, “… more and more, it became my film; I was using them as raw material; they were no longer active participants; I brought in others, I shifted plot, I introduced characters. They are, in effect, pushed out of the film. The film ended, then, as a manipulation, a subjective statement. It was, I suppose, what I had wanted all along.” This experience would prove to be an important lesson in collective authorship. Not all collaborators are good bedfellows. Polyphony, in this first film, was a shifting proposition where the terms became perverse; the dialogue a fracas of chaos and dispute. The issue with Regrouping, perhaps, is that the film is not quite polyphonic enough, creating an incestual dialogue that ran in circles. She knew that her second film could not become afflicted with the same anemia. Borden realized that what her work demanded was more collaboration and more collectivity. More diverse communities and more diverse voices. This demand would persist and continue to develop in all of Borden’s works. 

Borden wanted to be a painter but Wellesley College didn’t have a studio art major, so she studied art history instead. She’d hitchhike from Massachusetts to New York City whenever she could. After undergrad, she moved to the city and began writing art reviews when her professor, the art critic and historian Robert Pincus-Witten, put her in touch with the editor of Artforum. She decided she was a terrible painter and spent her first two years in the city writing about women artists like Agnes Martin, Nancy Holt, Simone Forti, Hannah Wilke, Trisha Brown, and Pat Steir — names that are now inscribed in the cannon of female artists, but at the time, their work was neither valued nor supported. “Barbara Kruger and Joan Jonas only became successful later. It took them 30 or 40 years for their careers to become what the men’s were,” Borden said. As a young art critic, she spent nights at Max’s Kansas City with Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, and Donald Judd and listened to them arguing about entropy. Female artists weren’t being given shows or opportunities in the same ways that their male counterparts were. Museums were acquiring the male artists’ work. Men had the capital to hire people, and Borden began editing films for Serra while she was working on her own film projects.

The theme of women’s labor forms the landscape of all of Borden’s work. Her second film, Born in Flames (1983), is set in a reality in which a social-democratic War of Liberation had been won a decade ago. But all is not necessarily well post-failed revolution. Sex, race, and class divisions are still emergent. The female characters plan a revolution against the revolution, take up arms, and hijack the news broadcast in the middle of a presidential announcement to declare, “Now the president wants to pacify us with wages for housework,” all while a song written by Mayo Thompson of The Red Krayola plays, “We are born in flaaaames.” (Flo Kennedy — a militant Black feminist lawyer who represented the Black Panthers — played Zella Wylie in the film, ad-libbing her lines to lampoon wages for housework, thereby angering Silvia Federici, who hated Born in Flames for what Flo did.) 

Centering Blackness and queerness, Borden set out to make a work that shared some of her first film’s concerns — groups of women, collaboration, polyphonic voices coalescing into a collective — but that moved away from whiteness and the middle-class feminist concerns of Regrouping, whose subjects were so identical that each could stand in for the other, producing an undifferentiated echo. “My introduction to feminism was already happening through Regrouping, which was a lot of mirrors reflecting mirrors. But then my introduction to intersectional thinking happened with Born in Flames. I wanted to be someone who could listen to other voices and have different voices in the same frame as opposed to a linear narrative.” Her insistence on non-hierarchical multiplicity as praxis models social change as reclaimed feminist futures.

A striking scene in the film depicts a woman who is attacked by two men next to a subway stop. Whistles shrill through the street. From all around, female vigilantes on bikes blow whistles like a city-wide alarm, rushing to the scene of the assault. As the bikers descend, encircling the men, the attackers disperse. Vigilantes accompany the survivor as she steadies herself, the other women putting their arms around her, surrounding her with their bodies in a protective shield. Isn’t this the mutual aid we all should have in our lives, since cops and the carceral system will never protect us? The film is often described as a dystopia, and though gendered assault is certainly dystopic, the possibility of collective defense intimates elements of the opposite. 

Throughout my conversations with Borden, this is something she laments: “I didn’t know we’d be where we are today. I thought the world would have changed for women, that we would have succeeded in achieving some of the things that Born in Flames is about, like equal pay, equal rights, that women should be safe in the streets.” In addition to equality and bodily safety, she is referring to the fact that abortion is now banned in 14 U.S. states. Equal pay? The gender pay gap has remained steady for the past 20 years. Women make 80 cents for every man’s dollar. I feel embarrassed for my generation and the ensuing generations not only because so much of the hopeful and forward-thinking radicalism in her films has gone nowhere, but because, in many respects, our society has devolved. The country still hasn’t rid itself of a presidential serial sexual abuser making headlines, and New York City elected a cop as mayor. Instead of defunding the police, he is defunding the library while funneling taxpayer dollars to surveillance programs such as robotic cops who will patrol Times Square.  

Working Girls, Borden’s last film that she authorially claims (more on this later), was made right after Born in Flames. Again, this film shares its predecessors’ polyphonic approach to filmmaking, observing a group of women working at a brothel run by a madam in an apartment in New York City. Mostly, it’s a film about labor, the hours involved in sex work where phones need to be answered, laundry needs to be done, and bosses need to be placated. For years, Borden refused to reveal her own history of doing sex work, fearing that the film wouldn’t be taken seriously as a work of art if people knew that she had herself been a working girl. 

The film follows Molly, a queer photographer, as she rides her bike to another day at work. Her day shift is tedious. Men come and go, her coworkers gossip and smoke, do bookkeeping, order lunch, complain about their clients, and endure various other common workplace banalities. The film is remarkable for desensationalizing sex work. When her shift ends, she is bullied by her boss Lucy into working a double shift. The film ends with Molly quitting after an emotionally and physically exhausting day. She returns home on her bike, stopping at a bodega to buy some tulips before she gets into bed with her girlfriend.

The ability to make films is dependent on funding. Borden raised the money for all three of her films herself. DIY filmmaking maintains its unique freedoms as well as its limiting drawbacks. Money is hard to come by. Raising funding for filmmaking is a hustle that one can only maintain for so long. The next film, which she would be hired to make in Hollywood’s studio system, was hijacked from her. 

Borden moved to Los Angeles in 1990. She was hired to make a film for Miramax, Love Crimes, starring Sean Young, who had played the replicant Rachael in Blade Runner a decade earlier. The film was a disaster, yet another casualty of the most triggering name to women in Hollywood: Harvey Weinstein. The serial-convicted rapist would only make the film if Sean Young starred in it, a choice that Borden did not understand at the time when there were other actresses who were better suited for the part. Young has since revealed that during filming, Weinstein exposed himself to her. She rejected him, and never had a chance to audition for another Miramax film.

Weinstein took control of the film, reshot the ending, and refused to take Borden’s name off the credits as director. She remembers him throwing chairs at the wall. The resultant film was not hers; in fact, she wants nothing to do with it. She hopes every copy will burn. Weinstein said that he was going to destroy her career and told everyone that she was difficult to work with. Difficult women — another misogynist trope for the ages. She worked instead as a script doctor and lost the apartment that she kept in New York when it was discovered that she was illegally subletting. 

From all around, female vigilantes on bikes blow whistles like a city-wide alarm, rushing to the  scene of the assault.

I asked Borden, whose films have been hailed as radical feminist works of art and whose work is so thoroughly concerned with women’s rights, women’s labor, and women’s control over their own bodies, how she reconciles Weinstein’s intrusion in her life and her life’s work. She acknowledged that it was horrible, then demurred, saying that she has just had to remain strong enough to continue making the work she wants to make. Other women had physical violence enacted against them, which was much worse than what she suffered. She stressed the importance of collectively bonding as a way forward. I didn’t belabor the topic. Weinstein is in prison. Some survivors choose to speak about what’s happened to them. Some, surely, choose to maintain their privacy. Others who have had their personal business unwittingly thrust into the public eye shouldn’t have to spend the rest of their lives explaining anything to anyone if they don’t feel like it. The work of feminist political action has a future, whereas the ways of Weinstein do not. 

The work of the female collective persists in Whorephobia: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, an anthology of nonfiction and interviews written by strippers that Borden has spent the last 21 years assembling. Published in December of last year by Seven Stories Press, the book is yet another project where the proliferation of women’s voices functions as a powerful megaphone for radical feminist issues. A continuation of the conversation Borden staged in Working Girls, Whorephobia gives collective voice to those who have walked and danced in their own stripper shoes, as opposed to “civilian” feminist scholars who have never done sex work. 

Some stories were written for the anthology. Others were collected for the book. Kathy Acker has a story called “Stripper Disintegration” that was culled from an unfinished manuscript comprising loose, unnumbered, and out-of-order pages in her archives by her literary executor, Matias Viegener. The work deals with “a classic sex work question: How much of your real desire and inner life are you going to externalize for your work?” Viegener suggests. 

AM Davies, the secretary for Strippers United — a sex workers’ labor movement that protests wage theft and rallies for its decriminalization — and a retired stripper, writes about resisting questions from strangers online about the origin story of her amputated leg after a motorcycle accident. “As if I owe them an explanation,” she writes, “or the opportunity to jerk off to imagined scenarios of my trauma.” She chooses to speak about her disability as a sex worker on her own terms in the anthology, tracing the trajectory of going from winning Entertainer of the Year to maintaining an entrepreneurial business model making online videos for “devotees,” those devoted to amputees.

In “Diary of a Black Heaux,” The Incredible, Edible, Akynos recalls suffering discrimination for being a dark-skinned Black stripper and preferring prostitution over pole dancing: “Who wanted to work so hard stripping and make so little when you could work less and generate more revenue sucking dick?” 

For other women, the world inside a strip club makes more sense than the one outside of it. Reese Piper, who is autistic, feels alive only when she is at work. She is aware of her confidence as a stripper; she can give much more of herself to her customers than she can to her friends. The rules in the club are defined. The outside world is the one that’s hard to understand.

Cookie Mueller writes in electric prose about dancing in New Jersey and New York as a single mother while she wrote, auditioned for films, and designed clothes in 1978 and 1979.

There are stories written by strippers of all stripes: a Korean adoptee who has always found refuge in creating characters onstage, a queer stripper who worked to unionize her workplace and organize other clubs for safer and more humane working conditions, a stripper who has “never felt so much a part of anything as [she] felt there then” when she worked in Times Square, a stripper who is (self-proclaimed) middle-aged and has worked in the sex industry for over 25 years, strippers who love their jobs, a stripper who believes that the work will always be in service to patriarchal structures because it is men who both own and attend the clubs, and a stripper who claims, “You always begin by seeing it as a means to an end, but gradually it becomes the content you’re working with.”

The publication of Whorephobia now, five years after FOSTA-SESTA became law, shutting down sites where sex workers advertised their labor, and as the strippers at Star Garden Topless Bar in North Hollywood have unionized (the Lusty Lady in San Francisco was the first and, to date, only sex business to successfully form a union, closed in 2013), is opportune as an address to another form of women’s labor. The anthology is also a coming-out for the filmmaker, who frames the anthology’s title in the context of her own biography, recalling her internalized societal whorephobia in denying her past as a sex worker. Whorephobia is intersectional, collective, polyphonic, collaborative, and an assertation of women in control over their own bodies. It is the fulfillment of what Borden has been working towards since Regrouping. Whereas her first film amplified an echo of the same white feminist voice, this book of oral history realizes Borden’s desire for more collaboration, more collectivity, more diverse communities, and more diverse voices.

“It’s really about trying to think about how something could inspire a revolt against an unfair system, against capitalism, against systems that need to be changed,” she said on the making of Born in Flames. The anthology, her latest project, is the form of activism that Borden’s work is taking these days. It proposes a form of collective ownership over narratives of sex work, women’s labor, collaboration, and organizing. 

On my bookshelf, a tattered copy of Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk rock, is a reminder of the revolutionaries I was drawn to when I was young. The book is a promise of another life that was possible. The writers and interviewers in Whorephobia similarly speak to a subcultural movement, an industry that is often overlooked and marginalized in literature. The volume represents a coexistence of intersectional dialogues by sex workers from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities rather than presenting false universalisms written by an outsider. Whorephobia is a document of labor conditions and demands workers’ rights and safety through storytelling. 

That its timely publication coincides with Star Garden’s unionization and the many recent efforts of workers across the nation to unionize and organize speaks to Borden’s decades-long efforts in proposing a future that not only demands collective ownership but is also equitable and feminist in its approaches to political action. More and more workers are organizing to form unions every day, defending themselves against exploitation in a kind of people’s microphone delivering the message of collective action to fellow comrades. 

“Every woman under attack has the right to defend herself, and in situations where we are constant victims of brutality we must take on the whole armor and defend ourselves,” the character Honey proclaims in Born in Flames. What we can learn from Borden’s oeuvre is that women and women’s work will never not be under attack. A feminist future can only work if there is resistance, agitation, and collective action. And the work of defending ourselves against attack demands taking on the whole armor.

Sarah Wang has written for the New Yorker, The Nation, and the London Review of Books. She teaches creative writing at Barnard College.

Photo assistant: Michael Delaney