Critical Writing Index

Performing Essentialism: Reassessing Barbara Hammer's Films of the 1970s

by Greg Youmans

Camera Obscura, 2012, v. 27, no. 3, pp. 101-135

Since 2005, a number of video artists have mined the essentialist iconography and practices associated with 1970s lesbian feminism, such as central-core imagery, rural separatism, and Goddess rites. These artists have produced work that is pointedly queer in sensibility and that brings together a wide range of genders and bodies on-screen, all the while showing profound love and respect for the 1970s feminist legacy. The article takes this new queer work as an invitation and a provocation to reassess Barbara Hammer's short experimental films of the 1970s and the larger cultural-feminist project of which they were a part. The article develops a notion of performing essentialism through which to understand the work of the films. Performativity and essentialism are critical terms that, within the fields of queer and feminist studies, are often understood as oppositional to each other. Yet, a return to Austinian speech-act theory reminds us that the performative act strives to make real what is not yet real, to conjure forth and to confirm a new reality. In other words, the performative seeks to essentialize, to assert new truths at the level of the self and make them stick. In Hammer's films of the 1970s, both the filmmaker and the women on-screen perform essentialism in the sense that, through ritual actions performed for celluloid, they conjure forth new queer worlds and try to make them endure — and, in some cases, they did.

ITEM 2012.053 – available for viewing in the Research Centre

Videos, Artworks and Artists Cited

Dyketactics (1974)Barbara Hammer

Moon Goddess (1976)Barbara Hammer

The Great Goddess (1977)Barbara Hammer

Multiple Orgasm (1976)Barbara Hammer

Women I Love (1976)Barbara Hammer

Double Strength (1978)Barbara Hammer

Pools (1981)Barbara Hammer

Pond and Waterfall (1982)Barbara Hammer