A new age of government gaslighting, corporate feminism and manic male terrorism calls for a new language—and a writer with guts. Enter Amanda Duarte, the #pussygrabsback founder and downtown luminary here to make sense of the bullshit, at great personal risk. With her new Joe's Pub show Staying Alive, she calls on the music of the Bee Gees (from a truly bizarre Saturday Night Fever sequel) to reconcile with her divorce and the aftermath of #metoo. We spoke with Duarte about the creation of her harrowing, heartbreaking and hilarious new show.
What is your connection to the movie Staying Alive?
When my whole life fell apart—when my husband and I separated, my dog died and I was in the darkest of darkness, I just wanted to check out and watch the worst movies that I possibly could, because you’re really not capable of doing anything else. I was looking around on HBO on demand and I saw Staying Alive. I love a good ’80s New York City movie, but I really love a bad one. So I watched it when I was in this horrible darkness, and it is a terrible movie, and what really struck me was: I’m looking at 1983 New York City, and everything about New York City has visually changed, all the businesses have changed, the streets have changed so much. But this horrible misogynist story at the heart of this movie is still happening to me and everyone I know. So how is it that there’s been so much change in this city and this country since then, and yet the garbage that men do to women is still the same. The soundtrack to that movie is fucking boss, and I started listening to it a lot, and I was like: These songs are good. These songs and I are both buried in a bad misogynist story, so I thought I’d put us in a good feminist one.
Photograph: Courtesy Bridget Badore
Maybe it's because they were still sorting out the PG-13 system, but a lot of movies set in NYC from that era are unusually lurid, sexual and violent.
Yes! This city was pretty fucked up in the ’70s. It was a really rough, fucking dirty, dark place to live. Basically pre-Giuliani, this city was difficult, fucked up—I mean, it’s difficult now for different reasons. The crime that we’re all trying to avoid has become a bit more white-collar than the crime people were trying to avoid back then. But I think those movies really reflect that. You could rent a loft in Soho for $5 a month, but you were going to die on your way home to it. It’s always difficult and impossible to live here, but I find myself romanticizing a more affordable varietal of difficulty in living here. And also I just think that the clothes and the hair were better back then.
I feel like a lot of your work is about: Take off your blinders! Things aren’t as pretty as you all think! We live in a sinking hellscape!
Especially in this city right now...It’s like the city is a cavity that’s been capped. There’s a veneer that’s been spread over everything. All the businesses have changed, and everything is slick and very clean, and there are these big glass buildings going up and they’re filled with these glass people. It’s all very sanitized on the surface, but there’s this horrible ugliness at the bottom of it. There are all of these people that have been displaced and evicted, and there are so many people I know who have to leave the city because they can’t afford it anymore. So many artists have been pushed out, and even to be able to live and survive here at this point, you have to have some measure of privilege and connection. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. To me, that’s really ugly and horrible. And we should all make sure we don’t lose sight of that, you know?
The way you described the city seemed like an apt description for the current sexual discourse. For relationships between the sexes.
Yeah, totally! Just recently, finally, a cap got pulled off the tooth of college admissions. This time we’re living in, we’re starting to see the cracks in everything. Those of us who are attuned to this kind of thing are trying to unearth and pull out the roots of the ugliness that is at the root of our society. And in the face of the election, nationally, we’ve had to take a closer look at that. And with #metoo and the utter grotesque embodiment of capitalist patriarchy and toxic masculinity that is the president of the United States, we’re being forced to examine just how fucked up from the root our country really is, and people are choosing either to really look at that or to just put their blinders on and look away.
Photograph: Courtesy Basil Rodericks
Post #metoo, we’re seeing a kind of corporatized, standardized narrative of feminism. You have always strayed away from that. What are some uncharted grounds you’ve had to explore in the making of this show, outside of the hashtag-defined Twitter discourses?
What I’m attempting to uncover with my show is how the national and global conversation is really relevant in our homes and in our personal relationships. Especially for heterosexual women—that’s what I am, despite my best efforts. We’ve all been farmed in this factory of patriarchy, and even the wokest among us are still in our personal relationships finding that we’re struggling with the effects of this poison. Even the wokest guys out there, still, are obsessed with sexualizing or infantilizing women in their lives, in macro and micro ways. They’ve been socialized to expect us to take care of them and be this thing that is so impossible and poisonous for us to be. Specifically in the wake of the election, I know so many women, so many feminist women, who are splitting up with their supposedly woke ass male partners because of this shit. The darkness in their own personal lives is being revealed. A lot of the men in their lives are running away—they just can’t deal with it on a personal level. They can tweet all day about it, they can write books about it, they can bag pussy on Tinder by identifying as a feminist and talking about how awful Louis C.K. is, but then when it comes down to it, they still want to come on your face while you call them daddy. What is this?
A big part of the show is about your recent experience as a domme. You take a big risk by saying: This is fabulous and sexy, but it’s complicated. And it’s not always so generous to me as a woman.
It’s still a kink that largely caters to male desire. And even if that male desire is for a woman to dominate, it’s still a male desire that’s being catered to. And I found myself very intrigued by the idea of it, and the more I started to get into it, the more I realized: This is actually really disempowering. This is not to shit on Kink, so to speak, as there are people who in their own relationships and with their own sexual peccadilloes are very able to use kinks to explore parts of themselves. It can be very empowering and very feminist, but that was not my experience. When I tried to make it actually feminist and actually about my exploration of having sexual power, the entire relationship just fell apart.
Photograph: Courtesy Bridget Badore
Where are you on the journey now? Have you seen a shift in your perspective from doing this show?
It’s a different show every time I do it. I rewrite before every show, because doing the show is changing me. Writing about this stuff is changing me. It’s basically a live therapy session that people are invited to. I’m just trying to figure this stuff out. I’m trying to figure out how to be a sexually, personally and politically empowered woman in this time in America and this time of my life, and I’m working through some pretty difficult shit. I learn something from the audience every time I do the show. I learn something new from myself, in my own reaction to what I’m talking about. I do the show, I go back, I sit with it, I talk to some people that I trust, and I find myself coming to different conclusions. I’m able to share different insights. I started doing the show last September, and it feels like that was a million years ago. My life has changed so much since then.
I feel like we’re entering this new age, beyond the overly reductive Twitter screaming. We can start parsing through our real feelings. You have this sense of: I’m trying to figure this out as I go. It can be ambiguous.
It’s not a TED Talk. I don’t claim to have any answers. It’s literally just my thought process as I’m working through this stuff myself. I even say this in the show: It’s very easy and cathartic for women to fall back on that sort of “Kill all men, drink male tears, men are trash” feminism, but I find that to be a punt. I don’t believe those things and I know that the women that are saying those things largely do not believe it either. A lot of the women I know who are wearing T-shirts that say "Kill All Men" or whatever have husbands that they go home to every night. I know that there are layers of irony intended by those statements that I’m not addressing, but even so, I feel like that sort of Etsy-shop brand of “feminism” is not solving anything. It’s a pressure release valve, but it’s not really getting at what the problem is. Just as half of all human beings are not inherently inferior or stupid, the other half are not inherently crass or evil. We’re all just human beings that have been socialized under this system that is not working. The easy thing to do is to demonize the half that we are struggling to connect with and failing. But the more difficult thing to do is to really look at the roots of our behaviors and our beliefs and try to tease them out and find the humanity that’s inside of all of us, because we are all struggling to connect. I’ve dated a lot of straight men in the wake of my separation. I married a man who is a good man. He is a good person, and yet his wiring was just laid down in this culture that taught him that women are supposed to take care of him and solve all his problems and provide all the meaning in his life. And so many men are raised this way, and it makes the expectations for the women in their lives just impossible.
And there are expectations that women have for men that are not being met. So it’s very easy for us to be like: “All women are crazy! All men are trash! Fuck ‘em all!” But obviously that is not getting any of us anywhere. It’s making things worse. It’s like what you said about Twitter. There’s this ceiling for that kind of hyperbolic stick-rattling, which we’ve all hit on a personal and political level. There are some people who are out there still just screaming, screaming, screaming into the void. And there are people who have found great commercial success by screaming into the void that way. But I don’t find that productive. I think it’s just kind of making things worse. And I don’t mean this in the “we need to listen to Trump voters" kind of way. We get it. I get where they’re coming from, I don’t know that they get where I’m coming from, and that’s fine. I’m not saying let’s go sit down and have a cup of coffee with @lockherup45 on Twitter and find out what makes him tick. You don’t have to go listen to the screaming white man in Wisconsin, per se, but you do need to listen to the crying white man in your house. And they need to listen to us, which is, in a lot of ways, harder.
Photograph: Courtesy Bridget Badore