Seized Lives Seizing Lives in The Fits

By Johanna Isaacson

Towards the end of the film The Fits (2015) we see the protagonist, Toni (Royalty Hightower) walking slowly down the stark hallway of a gym, able to peer into one room where young men practice boxing and another where young women dance, but seemingly unable to enter either space. Instead of solving this binary problem of gender, the androgynous African American adolescent is transported to the center of a drained outdoor swimming pool which seems to symbolize the bleakness of ghetto life. This emptiness is countered, however, by Hightower’s expressive face and body that convey ecstasy. This transcendence will later be explored in the form of a “dancing disease” or possession, spasmatic “fits”or dance-like seizures that overtake members of her dance team, the Lionesses (played by Cincinnati dance team Q-Kidz). This sudden jolt from inside to outside, from clear binary questions of gender to nebulous entangled questions of gender, race, and place takes the film beyond its surface as a traditional possession-themed horror film that addresses female repression and consequent hysteria. The lens of this film widens and blurs the line between bodily expression (dance) and bodily possession (“the fits”) offering a way to see what Marx called “sensuous activity” as a hint or trace of potential human life and labor beyond the racialized, gendered violence of daily capitalist life.

On the surface, The Fits is a simple allegory of the traumatic transition into female adulthood and the anxiety of figuring out one’s sexual and gender expression. Much of the film takes place in a recreation center where Toni, a “tomboy” on the cusp of puberty, becomes enamored of a girls’ dance team and abandons the masculine sport of boxing for this feminine form of physical expression. She struggles to fit in and to understand the mysteries of female sociality and embodiment, but gradually finds her groove as a dancer who doesn’t fit neatly into stereotypes of femininity or masculinity. In the meantime, older members of the dance team are beset with a mysterious illness which causes them to suddenly fall into paroxysms.

This temporary state is frightening but doesn’t permanently hurt the girls. Rather, it becomes a source of fascination and ritual bonding. Social divisions begin to form between girls who are pre-“fits” or post-“fits” There are vague rumors by adults that the fits are the result of tainted water in the gym, conjuring visions of Flint, Michigan’s infamous water scandal that dramatized the disposability of poor people of color, but the viewer is led to conclude that the fits exceed this causality (if it is even a factor). Rather, the fits, which only affect girls, are meant to refer to the terror and fascination of puberty’s transformations.

Insofar as it serves as an allegory of this coming of age experience, the film is an evocative tone poem that charts a non-normative route taken into adulthood by Toni, whose resistance to conventional femininity is not seen as pathological but rather a brave course toward individuation. In the end, we are left (literally) up in the air about what her experience of adult life will be but we feel assured that she will not be contained by a one-size-fits all feminization. Rather, it is implied she will be allowed to continue her exploration of non-normative gender identity and sexuality while still building community with other girls, as the lyrics to the final song suggest exploratively: “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?” The song is presented as uplifting, but the coupling of “slave” with “choice” already implies the limits of this transcendence and the problems with considering this a story of gender rather than racialized, gendered class consciousness.

The dimension of The Fits that addresses gender assimilation and refusal is sensitive to the inexpressible duality of fear and desire that accompanies the pressures of sexual awakening and embodiment. In a previous scene that also takes place in the gym’s drained swimming pool, which seems to signify both feminine abundance and its absence, Toni encounters her friend Maia, who is slightly older and more mature. Maia expresses the wish to contract the seemingly terrifying fits as she believes it’s an inevitability. Her entranced expectancy, though, makes it clear that she desires more from the fits than simply getting them over with. For Maia, the fits are a kind of eros. Toni, on the other hand, fears the fits and wants to avoid them, although it is not clear if she is avoiding adulthood, assimilation, conformity, irrationality, seduction or some other nebulous dread.

On the surface, this means that Maia is ready for adulthood whereas Toni is holding back. However, the scene’s setting suggests that this coming of age story cannot be considered apart from the environment of the racialized, post-industrial city. Rather than sensationalized ruin porn, we see the girls set against a stark denuded backdrop that refuses any kind of excess or generative connotation, even that of filth and decay. As director/writer Anna Rose Holmer notes, the idea behind the sense of place in the film was to limit it to a single location (the actual recreation center where the Q-Kidz rehearse), and to keep the setting “very claustrophobic, very lean,” with even outdoor spaces seeming to be contained: “In our mind, the overpass is like her bedroom, the laundry room is like their living room, and we really wanted to focus on those few hours after school in the community center and keep the entire story in that space.” [1]

fits2

The focus on claustrophobia as an analogic link between personal and public spaces points to an inescapable bleakness in the contemporary city, where domestic space provides no refuge from austere exteriors– and by extension personal self expression cannot exist autonomously from repressive social life. With this insular focus, it seems the ecstasy of the fits cannot symbolize a bridge into the freedom of adult sexuality or even to a plausible future. Rather, the fits is an event for its own sake, to be revisited and excitedly discussed but without any tangible social rewards on the other side. In this way, the fits can be seen as a negative indicator of a utopian future blocked by intractable social forces.

This is underscored by the lack of a vision of adult women, or of any adults at all in the film. At times we hear the voices of mothers, dance instructors, or administrators but they appear only as blurs (echoing the adultless world of It Follows, a coming of age horror film set in post-industrial Detroit). In The Fits, there is no lushness or plenitude beyond the girls’ dance and bodies. It is not just fear of gender assimilation that Toni feels when we see her hesitating in her maturation — painting her nails and then peeling the polish off, piercing her ears and then letting the piercings close up — it is a refusal of the uncertain and stark future of a black woman in a post-industrial city where neither the Fordist assurances of jobs and family, nor the post-Fordist fantasy projections of a post-work/post-sexist/post-racist world are on offer. It is fear of what Justin Hogg defines as:

“not just the bodily death done by the hands of the police, but the slow and civil death enacted through housing discrimination, gentrification, incarceration, all the way down to the daily microaggressions suffered in our everyday relations with people who do not and never will understand what it is like being black, whose goal is to blot out black lives entirely.” [2]

With social liberation or mobility blocked for the foreseeable future, the fits represent the persistent life force of youth made manifest in the body and in dance. Although they are frightening, the fits galvanize the girls into a sense of plenitude and collectivity. Toni’s late-arrival to the fits seems intentional and leads to her temporary ostracism, excluding her from the young women’s veiled intimacy. However, the fits do not correspond to her fears of conformity and assimilation. Rather, they represent diversity within a collective. Each description and performance of the fits is unique:

“Mine was peaceful.”
“Mine was like pop rocks.”
“Mine was terrifying.”

This individuation of experience was cultivated deliberately by the filmmakers who had each actor train separately and develop a unique version of the fits. Says Holmer:

“The girls all designed their fits in isolation with [choreographer] Celia Rowlson-Hall, but they had no visual reference for what a fit was or should be. That was something we really wanted to protect and provide them with a safe space to explore. They only performed the fits for each other on the day that we were shooting, so eventually we saw a kind of a group dialogue about the fits, and what they meant, and if they were real. We never capped that discussion or made a really complete statement, because I think it’s important that each performer was identifying that allegory or that real moment for themselves.” [3]

fits3

In the private expression of the fits there is a utopian dimension that allowed each young woman to interpret her own condition while still participating in the collective. Still, this sensuous, social activity is uniformly classed as an illness or even demonic possession and most of the girls’ interpretations make the event look painful and frightening. This negative representation of utopian energies avoids the bootstrapsism of the typical dance movie in which it is implied that with enough hard work and grit, structural social forces can be overcome. The fits do not transcend capitalist constraints, but rather dialectically point to the human potential that they devour.

This depiction of the fits as both a form of expression and a lack of agency has a complicated relationship to the traditional understanding of female possession in horror film. Historically, possession has been figured as the return of the repressed for women whose sexuality was denied expression by authoritarian, rationalist, patriarchal forces, something the recent film The Babadook plays with as we see the main character Amelia, a beaten down, sexually repressed single mom, transform into a violent, obscene monster when possessed. Toni’s androgyny and her relation to possession can be seen as resistance to patriarchal control of adult female sexuality. But the forces that beset her are diffused rather than personified in a father figure or even a demon. The only families that are referred to in the film are single mothers or foster families. The authoritarian rationality of the father is displaced onto the city’s anonymous and repressive built spaces that do little to encourage the emergent sexual or generative expression in the young women.

Throughout the film, the fits maintain their mystery. There is no moment where they are revealed or traced to some primal source as in the conventional plot-driven horror film. Rather, the imagery that surrounds the fits adds layers without clarifying their meaning. In a sense, the fits are a form of dance which cannot be separated from the other gestures and forms of movement that lead to Toni’s increasing confidence and joy, and yet the fits maintain their insidious and even life-threatening undertones.

This complexity is expressed in a turning point midway through the film where we see Toni navigating the shoals of gender identity and environment. We first see her from behind as an anonymous, androgynous hooded figure mounting the stairs of  a freeway overpass and looking across a stark lawn at a grouping of low income housing buildings. She proceeds to run up and down the stairs and do jumping jacks with focused discipline. Once warmed up, she bursts into a dance routine. She had previously botched the routine badly when she performed it with the team, unable to conform her body to the fluidity of dance and only coming to life in moments that allowed her to exhibit her masculine-coded strength and boxing prowess. Here, though, she begins to form a hybrid style, in which she is able to perform the dance moves with a kind of androgynous grace, a mixture of curvature and angularity. She switches back and forth from fluid dance moves to powerful punching exercises, and they somehow merge, coming into their own. Her own movements set into motion the soundtrack, a percussive clapping. Then another strain of music builds, a lone clarinet that is ecstatic and menacing at once, foreshadowing the eeriness of the fits as a phenomenon beyond clear morality or comprehension.

Neither the paroxysms of the fits nor of the disciplined, ecstatic choreographed drill dance, then, are figured as uncomplicated, uplifting forms of expression. As Rachel Elizabeth Jones argues, The Fits radically diverges from the conventions of the inspirational dance movie through its adherence (albeit loose) to the horror genre. Rather than following the “improvement montage” to “a grande finale pay-off” we have a literalization and puncturing of “uplift” in the final scene as Toni hovers above the ground in an ecstatic limbo. As Jones notes, the generic dance film represents the way oppression registers in the body, but also provides a kind of bootstrapism, where hard work always pays off.  The Fits, as Jones states, disrupts this trajectory as the dance film conventions give way to horror.

This can be seen in the final scene where Toni finally experiences the fits herself. A typical dance movie would end triumphantly, with the troupe winning some sort of contest or giving a performance that allows Toni to find her groove and place within the team. The Fits, instead, effectively gives us two endings. In one, the costumed team performs a spectacular dance and Toni perfectly syncs her gestures to those of the group. In the second, the dance team experience ritualized terror as they watch Toni seized by the involuntary, dance-like spasms of the fits. This duality both points to and unravels the conventional dance movie, implying that the creativity and expressiveness experienced in dance does not eclipse the involuntary subjection of the black female body to social forces beyond her control.

Even the “inspirational” version of the ending diverges from conventions, as the Lionesses do not perform their final triumphant dance in a contest or on a stage with an audience but rather in varied lived spaces that we have seen previously in the movie: a freeway overpass, a boxing ring, the drained swimming pool, indicating that the dance ties in with the social and the everyday, rather than transcending it. In an interview, Holmer claims the dance moves of drill underscore this everydayness as they incorporate “mundane movements: Hair flips, blowing your nails, blowing a kiss, punches, pointing, and laughing…” [4]. The dance moves don’t seem to be so much for the gaze of an audience as a call and response between members of the team as bodies mirror each other and perform movements that are both elevated and mundane. In this unique representation the film meets the need for intersectional representation as recently called for by actress Thandie Newton:

“As important as diversity in storytelling is, there is a deeper concern than representation. There are stories that must be told but that are all too often erased, even within narratives about race, or about gender… Because narrative erasures happen not only on the screen, but in public discourse as well. And the consequences have been devastating, as racial justice, feminism and other social justice discourses have been needlessly divided and set at odds with each other.” [5]

fits4

The focus on representation through dance and physical seizures provokes an idea of the experience of intersectional oppressions as a kind of activity or labor where labor comprises “the activities and attitudes, behaviors and emotions, responsibilities and relationships directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis, and intergenerationally” [6]. Toni’s life is not depicted as an additive set of intersecting oppressions or as a positive, fixed identity, but as grounded in gendered, racialized, historically specific movement and activity. The poetics of emergent African American dance styles, as Commune Editions argues, are wrapped up with the experience of post-industrial bodies in a moment where African Americans are treated as surplus populations, excluded from employment and vulnerable to violence. [7] Here, dance operates as “invention for its own sake, amazing and defeated,” a poetics of liminality where bodies “have neither an obvious way out nor a persuasive way back in” to the “good life” once seemingly on offer. In The Fits, the dance/possession illustrates this surplus status by operating contiguously with but outside of official sites of production or waged labor. On the margins of the film’s narrative, we get blurred glimpses of an endlessly working single mother, institutionally sanctioned foster parents, and social workers striving to “cure” the fits, but in the film itself all we see is the isolated emotional lives of the youth who inhabit the recreation center as if it were an island. The youth in this film have no access to an external source of hope or what Marx called “sensuous human activity.” The body itself must stand in as an index of untapped potential for unalienated creativity and collectivity in social life.

Here, the capaciousness of the horror form to depict both ecstatic expressiveness and refusal allows for a depiction of survival and resilience without resorting to the fantasy of pat solutions or the logic of individualistic, entrepreneurial success. The paroxysms of the fits do not lend themselves to the construction of a simplified standpoint from which to resist. Rather, we see the complex forms of historical and contemporary suffering enacted through the body as dancers express a historical lineage of pain and ecstasy in both “the fits” and in their dance routines. In Toni’s final experience of the fits she hurls her shoulders forward over and over as if in a ritual trance or a vomitous purging that seems to express a lineage of physical, cultural, and emotional pain and loss. This gesture is a window into racialized, gendered capitalism beyond the here and now, and instead registering “an ongoing but disavowed moment of expropriation” [8]. Here, “prior histories of enslavement… affect current forms of the wage contract, creating segmented castes of workers” and leading to “an ongoing confiscatory process essential for sustaining accumulation in a crisis-prone system” [ibid]. In this context of ongoing and constantly transforming expropriation of the most vulnerable sectors of society, the idea of an individual coming-of-age must always be counterbalanced by an attention to the extreme, historically sedimented barriers to self-expression.

The plague-like and yet miraculous expressivity of the fits occurs not in spite of but because of the girls’ status as those who are unevenly expropriated by capital, who bear the brunt of reproducing bare life for themselves and indirectly for a more privileged, waged, white, caste of workers. The continual references to the tainted water in Flint Michigan are not accidental, as they indicate Cincinnati, like Flint, is a locus of a neo-imperialist geography that coordinates  “regions and races relegated to exploitation or expropriation” [ibid]. The drained pool, anonymous housing projects, and unadorned apartments that form the girls’ lived space point to a general habitus that is consistently being stripped to maintain abundance elsewhere.

The contestation of racialized expropriation is not always served well in representations that focus on nothing but violence, in the name of a gritty realism. This is the complaint of Maquicia Jones-Woods, the tireless supporter of the real dance team, Q-kidz, who play The Lionesses in the film. She has been toiling away at creating constructive, social spaces for youth in Cincinnati and yet has gone unnoticed and appreciated. As Jones-Woods puts it:

“For 30 years I’ve been working out of the rec center with these kids, trying to show them that there’s life outside of the inner city, and we’ve just been invisible… 30 years is a long time for people not to know that you’re here, but you know as soon as there’s a shootout—boom, there’s your community with a spotlight on it.” [9]

This media concentration on urban violence perpetuates the idea of the city as hopeless except as a site of incarceral expropriation, whereas The Fits’ opacity demands a more critical, inventive lens. The utopian magic realism that does not negate the horror in The Fits can be seen as a means to avoid both affirmative simplifications and apocalyptic erasure of insurgent energy. Even well intended representations that focus solely on violence in the black community can contribute to the problem Michael Dawson maps out in his discussion of the ways that capitalism creates an:

“ontological distinction between superior and inferior humans—codified as race—that was necessary for slavery, colonialism, the theft of lands in the Americas, and genocide. This racial separation is manifested in the division between full humans who possess the right to sell their labor and compete within markets, and those that are disposable, discriminated against, and ultimately either eliminated or superexploited. These are the background conditions that produced and continue to produce the boundary struggles against expropriation.” [10]

Flattened depictions of the slums as lifeless expanses of bleakness can contribute to this ongoing dehumanization. This one-dimensionality reifies the binaries that characterize oppression as “human/subhuman,” “full citizens/second class citizens,” categorical distinctions which distinguish a particular group as an object of expropriation, exploitation, and violation [ibid]. Further, the fashion for ruin porn art can contribute to this dehumanization. For instance, artist Ryan Mendoza’s project in which an empty house was shipped from Detroit to the Rotterdam Art Fair, contributes, as Brian Doucet and Drew Philp argue, to the idea that “Detroit is an empty city.” [11]

As Aviva Briefel and Sianne Ngai note, in horror cinema anxiety and fear are often restricted to white, suburban, middle class victims who are in the act of “moving to a single family home, celebrating holidays, or going on vacation.” [12] Thus “being frightened is paradoxically a sign of empowerment.” [ibid] On some level horror is often coded as belonging to the white, “human,” “full citizens” of Dawson’s binaries. The terror of white people is often a thinly disguised fear of racial diversification. Films like The Fits and Get Out reclaim the entitlement to anxiety from that dominant discourse and firmly anchor the film as an expression of what Eve Mitchell calls “the horror of the everyday.” [13]

Chris Chen argues that an analytic focus on race and class that foregrounds the category of domination in the everyday rather than abstract forms of difference “directs our attention to the entanglement of race and superfluity, as well as the racializing impact of violence, imprisonment, and warfare.” [14] The ambiguity of the final song in the film — “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?” — allows for a nuanced engagement with the simultaneity of this dominance and agency (rather than neoliberal forms of token inclusivity). Dominance is an intrinsic fact of these girls’ lives; however, ecstatic rehearsals of liberation, in the form of dance, signify the insurgent energies that may rise up against even intransigent gravity itself.

We see, then, that this low-budget film, which at first seems to be a simple tone-poem about a girl’s coming of age, cannot help but expand and explore the complexities of racialization, gender, sexuality, and urban space. Yet even though this film is not just about gender, it perhaps offers a gendered solution to some of the representational problems we confront as we try to understand the complexities of post-industrial, racialized, crisis capitalism. Too often the spectacle of “ruin porn” is offered as the key to realism in such a moment, with the representation of feminine and affective spheres seeming to detract from an understanding of the harsh realities of oppression. These masculinized “narratives of sin and blight” can turn lived spaces into stark, depopulated wastelands or vicious dystopias beyond redemption [15]. The Fits finds a register where affective life coexists with the horrors of social reality, allowing us a glimpse beyond the spectacle and into the contradictions of contemporary everyday life.

 

Thanks to Madeline Lane McKinley, Kenan Sharpe, and Justin Hogg for their help on this. Thanks to Sara Brouillette for suggesting this film as a topic!

Works Cited

[1] Saito, Stephen. “Interview: Anna Rose Holmer on Finding Her Groove on The Fits.” The Moveable Feast. 10 June, 2016, http://moveablefest.com/moveable_fest/2016/06/anna-rose-holmer-the-fits.html

[2] Hogg, Justin. “Potter’s Field: Part One.” Blind Field. 6 October, 2016

[3] Bugbee, Teo. “Holmer on Making a Movie About ‘the Dancing Disease’.” MTV.com, 02 June, 2016, http://www.mtv.com/news/2888010/qa-the-fits-director-anna-rose-holmer-on-making-a-movie-about-the-dancing-disease

[4] Felsenthal, Julia. “Anna Rose Holmer on Directing The Fits and The Power of Contagion.” Vogue. 02 June, 2016, http://www.vogue.com/article/the-fits-anna-rose-holmer-interview

[5] Newton, Thandie. “We don’t just need more black women in movies. We need intersectionality now.” The Guardian. 8 June, 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/08/thandie-newton-more-black-women-movies-need-intersectionality-feminism

[6] Ferguson, Susan, “Intersectionality and Social-Reproduction Feminisms.” Historical Materialism. Volume 24, Number 2, 2016.

[7] Commune Editions. “Elegy, or The Poetics of Surplus.” Cesura//Acceso. Issue 1, http://cesura-acceso.org/issues/elegy-or-the-poetics-of-surplus-commune-editions/

[8] Fraser, Nancy. “Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson.” Critical Historical Studies. Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2016.

[9] Schmidlin, Charlie. “Meet The Cincinnati Dance Team Behind The Fits.” Vice. 21 June, 2016, https://creators.vice.com/en_us/article/meet-the-cincinatti-dance-squad-behind-the-fits

[10] Dawson, Michael. “Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crisis and the Racial Order.” Critical Historical Studies. Volume 3, Number 1, 2016.

[11] Doucet, Brian and Drew Philp. “In Detroit ‘ruin porn’ ignores the voices of those who still call the city home.” The Guardian. 15 Feb, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2016/feb/15/ruin-porn-detroit-photography-city-homes

[12] Briefel, Aviva and Sianne Ngai. “‘How much did you pay for this place?’ Fear, Entitlement, and Urban Space in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.” Camera Obscura, Janurary, 1996.

[13] Mitchell, Eve. “Hounds of Love. Horror of the Everyday.” We’re Hir, We’re Queer. 9 June, 2017. http://www.werehirwerequeer.com/single-post/2017/06/09/Hounds-of-Love-Horror-of-the-Everyday

[14]Chen, Chris. “The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality: Notes towards an abolitionist anti-racism.” Endnotes. Issue 3, https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality

[15] Toscano, Alberto and Jeffrey Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. Zero, 2015.

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