The furious comedy of Valerie Solanas
UP YOUR ASS. BY VALERIE SOLANAS. Sternberg/Montana, 2022. 104 pages.
“MY ONLY CONSOLATION’S that I’m me—vivacious, dynamic, single, and a queer,” quips Bongi Perez, the intrepid antiheroine of Valerie Solanas’s Up Your Ass. Written between 1962 and 1965, the play features a wisecracking masc lesbian panhandler and sex worker who sounds a lot like the writer herself. Notorious for shooting Andy Warhol and his associate Mario Amaya in 1968, Solanas’s best-known text is her SCUM Manifesto (1967), outlining a program of male elimination. But it was Up Your Ass, a lesser-known dramatic work, that lay at the heart of her conflict with Warhol. Until now, the bawdy and rollicking play has never been published by a major press. This month, it appears via Sternberg’s sub-imprint Montana.
It’s an apt time for the release of Up Your Ass, an absurdist one-act poking fun at post-Pill, pre-Roe 1960s sexual politics from all directions. Although SCUM Manifesto became a fringe classic, many feminists have debated its value as a humorous work vs. a deadly serious homicidal screed. A contrarian who alienated major figures from the women’s liberation movement, Solanas’s famous combativeness led critics to distance themselves from her work. But interest in Solanas has intensified over the last decade, due in part to new scholarship. (In 2014, for instance, Breanne Fahs published an excellently researched biography of the writer through the Feminist Press.) The US’s extreme rightward shift has also cast rageful radicals like Solanas in a more sympathetic light. As the rights of queer and trans people, sex workers, and people capable of pregnancy become further endangered, Solanas’s ribald play fascinates as a relic of taboo-busting sexual content, if not always the most cogent attack on the patriarchal status quo.
Up Your Ass has arguably enjoyed its widest pop-cultural visibility via Mary Harron’s 1996 biopic I Shot Andy Warhol. Starring a young Lili Taylor, the film follows the aspiring writer as she infiltrates the Pop artist’s social circle in the hopes that he will produce her play. Between first sending her script to Warhol in 1965 and shooting him three years later, Solanas wandered in and out of the Factory scene. When she was particularly hard up for cash, Warhol paid her a measly $25 to play a lesbian character in his 1967 film I, a Man. In an improvised scene in a stairwell, Solanas shifts between light flirting and sparring with Tom Baker before turning down his advances. The tension in I Shot Andy Warhol escalates as Solanas, after signing a dubious contract with publisher Maurice Girodias, enters a psychosis fueled by public humiliation and paranoia over the ownership of her works. She attempts to assassinate Warhol and his studio staff after claiming that he lost the “only” copy of her play. In the ensuing decades, there’s been a mistaken conflation between Solanas’s life and art: Up Your Ass as a forgotten dry run of the SCUM Manifesto, SCUM as a manual for deadly violence against men, and Solanas’s attack on Warhol. Like all events involving Valerie Solanas, the reality is more complicated.
Warhol did lose his copy of Solanas’s manuscript, which was later recovered in a silver-painted trunk belonging to Billy Name. It is untrue, however, that it was Solanas’s only copy. The writer had high ambitions for the play, filing multiple copyrights for the manuscript, staging small readings, and producing mimeographs of it for sale. As the radical feminist activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recalled, Solanas spoke unceasingly about the play during her psychiatric holds and incarceration following the shooting. In the early 1970s, she performed a one-woman version of it while imprisoned for first-degree assault at Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Despite Solanas’s insistence on its artistic significance, the play was eclipsed by her strident SCUM Manifesto, published by Girodias’s Olympia Press immediately after her arrest. In fact, Up Your Ass has only been staged once by a professional company. In 2000, George Coates Performance Works mounted a version with an all-female cast in San Francisco, just blocks from the SRO where Solanas died alone, a dozen years earlier, at the age of fifty-two. In 2001, the production saw a short run at New York’s P.S. 122. “Far from being a museum piece, ‘Up Your Ass’ is a clarion call,” wrote one reviewer. The show was heralded at the time for its forward-thinking take on genderbending and homicidal frustration with male chauvinism. Today, it stands out as much for its punkish irreverence—Solanas spares no one from her main character’s acid tongue.
Up Your Ass follows Bongi Perez, Solanas’s stand-in, on an average day hustling in the streets of “a large American city.” (Solanas wrote an early draft while living in Berkeley, California, and revised it in New York.) Full of clapbacks and one-liners, the script celebrates the fine art of gutter-talk while offering a parodic send-up of misogyny during the swinging ’60s. Over the course of Bongi’s wanderings, she catcalls women (“You got a twat by Dior?”); shoots the breeze with two single men (Black Cat and White Cat) about pickup strategies; hustles a john for dinner before giving him a quick hand job in an alley; and engages in banter with two drag queens (“Do you know what I’d like more than anything in the world to be?” one muses. “A Lesbian. Then I could be the cake and eat it too”). Bongi then meets Ginger, a demented Helen Gurley Brown type who brings her own turd to a dinner party (“Everybody knows that men have much more respect for women who’re good at lapping up shit,” Ginger says), and her faux-intellectual colleague Russell, whom Bongi cajoles into screwing behind a bush just minutes after he declares her a “desexed monstrosity.” As an absurdist palate cleanser, Solanas shifts the scene to a Creative Homemaking class. There, an instructor advises aspiring wives to integrate fucking into domestic chores—by ramming a soaped-up bottle brush up one’s husband’s ass, recalling the play’s titular expletive. In Bongi’s final encounter, our protagonist befriends a bicurious housewife who murders her penis-obsessed toddler. The grand finale shows the pair walking off into the proverbial sunset, aggressively propositioning women together.
The manuscript’s épater la bourgeoisie sensibility, shot through with clichés about race and sexuality, places it squarely in the twentieth century. But the text also outlines a space of genderqueer possibility that wouldn’t be theorized for years, advocates for sex workers’ rights, and sketches the dark future of reproductive technology through allusions to biological determinism. A line can be traced directly from Bongi’s offhanded political musings—“Maybe being president wouldn’t be such a bad idea . . . I could eliminate the money system, and let the machines do all the work”—to SCUM’s opening sentence, which urges “civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females” to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” Just as importantly, Bongi expresses a desire that Solanas, who claimed to be asexual, often hid in her public life. The fictional character longs for “real lowdown, funky broads, nasty, bitchy hotshots, the kind that when she enters a room it’s like a blinding flash.” Such heated, desperate attempts at communicating want—in tonally mischievous dialogue that slides between screwball comedy and apocalyptic tirade—crackle throughout Solanas’s script.
Up Your Ass is fascinating, but is it feminist? In Andrea Long Chu’s Females, (2019) her gender-transition-memoir-cum-theoretical-provocation, the same question is posed, but turned inside out. Chu writes that “one could be forgiven for wondering if Solanas’s art, not unlike that of the male artists she despises (and occasionally shot), might have represented its own kind of attempt to repress the very femaleness she hoped to unleash, like a biological weapon, upon the world.” The “always selfish, always cool” vision of femaleness that Solanas laid out in SCUM simply reversed the traditional poles of misogyny. Chu, for her part, embraces Solanas as an avatar of the self-negation she argues is intrinsic to the female condition. “Everyone is female,” Chu declares, “and everyone hates it.”
Up Your Ass reveals Solanas as an equal-opportunity roaster, a role that places her outside of contemporary feminism’s tendency toward self-examination. Rather than shared vulnerability, this sexual comedy is shot through with a tart flavor of camp able to deflect earnest political criticisms directed at the author. Solanas takes aim at the sexual expectations of placed on “groovy,” liberated-but-docile chicks. (In SCUM, she would later damningly term these women “Daddy’s Girls.”) The reader can sense a tension in the play, Solanas knotting her rage into a tightly coiled spring, ready to release at any target that gets in her way—as it did, appallingly, at a fellow queer artist that she once viewed as her potential producer. But we also glimpse traces of Solanas that are more complex and contradictory than her manifesto, or her attempted murders, might suggest. As the old saying goes, women’s greatest fear is that men will kill them, while men’s greatest fear is that women will laugh at them. Rather than programmatic gendercide, her play offers the chance to laugh with her at the grotesqueries of a patriarchy that enmeshes and implicates us all.