This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Devotion. Subscribe today!
“Blessed be the goddess of all worlds, that has not made me a man,” intone the solemn women, sitting down to dinner. “Glory be to the mother, and to the daughter, and to the holy cunt.” Abounding with over-the-top dialogue like this, The Misandrists mainly exists to lampoon radical feminism—and celebrate it at the same time. It’s an ambitious and baffling conceit, and while Bruce LaBruce doesn’t have enough of a coherent thesis to bring it together, his attempt is strangely fascinating.
Set in Germany in 1999, The Misandrists delves into the world of the Female Liberation Army (FLA), a terrorist rad-fem cell dedicated to the extermination of men and the dawning of a new all-female world. When Volker (Til Schindler), a wounded male radical fleeing the police, stumbles across the FLA’s rural “school” for young girls, Isolde (Kita Updike) hides him in the basement. Eventually, the two become lovers while Isolde nurses Volker back to health. But as tension grows among the other girls, Isolde’s secrets—and those of her sisters—are revealed.
Isolde is a transgender woman in a cartoonishly gynocentric FLA: Each member cups their hands while praying to emulate a vagina; the initiates are taught about human parthenogenesis as a method of eliminating the need for sexual reproduction; and Big Mother insists her girls are “free to love whomever [they] want, as long as she has a vagina.” Isolde’s presence subverts the FLA’s convictions, and acts as LaBruce’s mouthpiece to dismiss prevailing notions that trans women are male in any sense or should be unwelcome in women-only spaces.
But if this is the crux of LaBruce’s valuable rad-fem critique, it’s also where his ideas flounder. For one thing, the FLA is a strange conglomeration of second- and third-wave feminist ideologies, convinced the phallus is an instrument of patriarchy while trying to reclaim pornography for the revolution. Big Mother and her collaborators are at once regressive and progressive, ludicrous, and rational. After a while, it’s difficult to ascertain who LaBruce intends to be cheered or booed, and why. What is the viewer to make of a radical movement that (tentatively) welcomes a non-op trans woman, but forces Volker to have gender reassignment surgery without anesthetic? (Ever one to push buttons, LaBruce screens graphic vaginoplasty footage while Volker screams in agony.) How much of The Misandrists is satire, and how much is earnest? It’s unclear, both to the viewer and seemingly to LaBruce himself.
That muddled quality isn’t The Misandrists’ only flaw: Most of the German cast’s English delivery is sluggish and unanimated, making interactions flat and off-putting. But the film’s problems also contribute to its campy charm, and Updike’s complex performance as a Black trans actor playing a Black trans role is notable and timely. The Misandrists is a wild and bizarre film: confusing, absurd, and—for better or worse—utterly unique.