Valerie Solanas Wants to be Seen in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL
Mary Harron’s 1996 narrative directorial debut I Shot Andy Warhol is a film built on compassion. Harron’s ability to create empathy with controversial historical figure Valerie Solanas creates a special bond between the character presented as Valerie (Lili Taylor) and the audience, many of whom may not agree with the real Solanas’s trans-exclusionary, sex-based politics or her use of violence. In her struggle for notoriety we see the reflection of many struggles that people with marginalized identities face. We see a fight to be recognized by society as worthy of being listen to. We see a fight to be seen by both the groups we want to accept us and the groups who deny us full freedom. We see the fight to have our struggles and our words remembered.
The contrast between Warhol (Jared Harris) and Valerie is striking. Warhol speaks slowly and softly, almost softly enough to be considered a whisper. Valerie speaks loud and fast. Warhol is not forceful or demanding. Even when in a commanding position, as the director of his films, he whispers his directions to his cameraman who then directs the actors. Valerie is belligerent. She harasses people on the street for money and demands access to places she’s not suppose to be. Despite making films with nudity, Warhol comes across as sterile and sexless. He is removed from the vulgarity around him. Valerie’s job is to be involved in vulgarities. She sells dirty words to strangers on the street and is a sex worker. Valerie comes across as masculine in both appearance and mannerisms. While Warhol does not necessarily conform strictly to the rules of his gender, he is not shown as an example of extreme gender nonconforming. Trans actress, Candy Darling (Stephen Dorff), and her effeminate male friend, Danny (Victor Browne), are closer to being gender nonconforming equals with Valerie than Warhol is.
Valerie’s first connection to Warhol comes after she finishes having sex with a man for money. She leaves the hotel room and walks down the hall to see a set for one of Warhol’s films. The place where she does a job that society looks down on her for, is the same place where Warhol does a job he is praised for. Later Valerie goes to his studio, The Factory, to deliver her script. It is a loft covered in tinfoil. The fake foil walls cover any dirt or blemish the building had. Warhol surrounds himself with this overly-clean, fake industrious environment while using the rough environment Valerie is forced to stay in, as a backdrop for his art.
We see the contrast between Warhol and Valerie still at play in our society. The people who are more palatable to the dominant culture are seen as worthy enough to have their ideas seen and praised. We see it today when rich, celebrity men are praised as boundary breaking for wearing floral patterns on their menswear, while poor, transgender and gender non-conforming people struggle for recognition. Warhol is strange, but he is not subversive enough to be a threat, so the culture accepts him, and praises him as revolutionary. Valerie is dangerous. She has too many characteristics that the dominant culture hates. Compared to Warhol, she is not even human by this culture’s standards. This is even said in the film. She is called monstrous by Warhol’s artistic troupe for her gender nonconformity. When she goes on a talk show the host says she is like a creature from the zoo. The dominant culture can not let her be noticed, so she is kept hidden in poverty. Warhol achieves the leisure class Valerie writes about in an early scene, while she never does even after she has fame.
Warhol may seem like an innocent, if not clueless, figure in the film, however, his use of Valerie is barely different from the way the johns who pay for her sex work use her. While at his party, Warhol sits next to Valerie with a tape recorder. He asks her to say something for him to record. She replies that she needs to have conversation; she can’t just talk on her own. Warhol pushes her to talk about sex. He states, “Come on, Valerie, say something dirty, it’s so easy for you.” This scene reveals a lot about how Warhol views Valerie and his relationship with her. Valerie asks for an equal exchange. She wants a conversation, something that requires an actual engagement with her ideas and an acknowledgement of her as a person. Warhol only wants the part of her he finds interesting as entertainment or art. He does not care if she doesn’t want to talk about sex, just as the johns don’t care whether Valerie actually enjoys having sex with them. He does not want to acknowledge her as a human he has a relationship with; she is only a character he can direct. Just like with men who hate women while also admiring, and lusting after, their bodies, his fascination with the way she looks and talks does not equal a respect for her. Warhol’s lack of respect for Valerie can be seen when he invalidates her identity throughout the film. He tells Valerie that she should let Candy do her makeup before her meeting with a publisher, because Valerie is pale. When Valerie walks into Warhol’s office to shoot him, he tells everyone to look at how beautiful Valerie is because she is wearing makeup. He does not see her butch identity as real. He sees it as a novelty. He thinks it is something she can give up whenever she wants, like an actor who is finished playing a role.
While Valerie sits watching the Miss America pageant in Candy Darling’s apartment, protests of the the pageant appear on screen. Women parade around sheep dressed as the pageant’s contestants. They burn their bras in front of news cameras. Valerie jumps up exclaiming that these women got their ideas from her, she should be there with them. While Valerie’s assertion that the entire woman’s movement came from her own ideas could foster the narrative that Valerie suffers from delusions of grandeur, they also reveal something more. There are two ways Valerie’s spiral into madness can be interpreted. The more straightforward narrative is that Valerie has a false belief in her own superiority and influence that reaches a mentally unhealthy level. This belief causes her to become paranoid that others, like Warhol and her publisher, Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau), are trying to steal these grand, influential ideas from her. However, there is something deeper happening in the intersection of her identity and her delusions. Valerie’s excitement upon seeing the women protesting on television, reveal a loneliness: a desire to be seen, a desire to belong. She is watching these women who are described by Candy as “too hard” gather together, while she is stuck in a room with someone who thinks the hardness Valerie has is a flaw. “I should be there,” she says. She wants to be with a group where she feels a belonging. After this incident, she goes on television in attempt to spread her message. Perhaps she does this because she believes her superiority means she has the right to be heard on television, or perhaps this is her desperate plea to be seen by those she feels are her kind. Being on TV is her way to say I am out here, I exist, I am waiting, please find me.
Valerie’s distrust of Warhol and Girodias also have an explanation rooted in her deeper social context. Valerie’s quest for fame is a seeking of validation. If her ideas are spread and accepted, her identity can be too. However, her attempted journey to fame is put entirely into the hands of men. Girodias is her only hope at spreading her words through a published book. Warhol is her only hope at spreading her play. When she goes on television to spread her word she is set up with the show by Danny. The show’s host is also a man. Men have taken things from Valerie her whole life from her father’s molestation to the johns who sleep with her. Warhol, Girodias, and the talk show host are no different, they use her for their own entertainment and an increase in their own notoriety. During one scene of Valerie’s spiral into paranoia, she mutters “I will never be free, never be free, never be free.” Valerie’s belief in a conspiracy between Girodias and Warhol may be a delusion, but her realization and fear of restricted freedom is real. Her life is still in the control of men. As much as Valerie wants to act like she doesn’t care about men’s opinions, she feels on some level that impressing these men, being what they want her to be, is her only shot at being recognized. That is why she wears makeup to the meeting with Girodias and to her final confrontation with Warhol. She is relying on them to free her through a validation of her ideas, but they will never understand her words, or her identity, enough to respect her.
Vincent Bec is a writer whose sentences are often too long. They hope to one day have a doctorate to back up their ramblings on the representations of gender and sexuality in horror films. They regularly contribute to Anatomy of a Scream and Grim Magazine. Their writing has also appeared on the websites Screen Queens and Scriptophobics. You can follow them on twitter @slasherdaysaint.