Hollywood Kills Feminism: the work of Lizzie Borden

by Johanna Isaacson

In what follows I try to make sense of the life and work of Lizzie Borden, director of perhaps the greatest feminist film ever made: Born in Flames (1983), a unique, gritty, experimental, collaborative work of science fiction realism featuring a “women’s army” that revolts against a political imaginary blinkered by patriarchy and incrementalism. While this film still has a small but dedicated following, the director is rarely mentioned. What did she do before and after? Why isn’t she a household name? How do we make sense of the disparate and few films she did get to make? These are questions that still need answers. Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames is a feminist materpiece. So who or what killed her career? And how can we advance an alternative history in which visionary voices like Borden’s prevail?


Lizzie Borden was born in fifties Detroit but was distant from the racialized working class struggle we see in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, Grace Lee Boggs and other radical associations with the city.  Rather, her family was upper middle class. She was born Linda Elizabeth Borden but at age eleven became fascinated with Lizzie Borden, and, as a form of rebellion, legally took on the name of the legendary axe wielding parent whacker: “At the time,” she said, “my name was the best rebellion I could make.” [1] 

Although she wanted to go to NYU for college, her protective parents sent her to Wellesley, where she majored in art history and wrote art criticism for Artforum and other venues. After encountering a retrospective of the films of experimental New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who created a film for for the “children of Marx and Coca-cola,” she began experimenting with cinema as a means, among other things, to encourage political discussion. She financed her first short film about abortion by working as an editor for Richard Serra, the minimalist sculptor known for creating large-scale assemblies of sheet metal. Her transition from painter to filmmaker was in part due to her overly self-critical and overly-trained approach to art. In her life as a filmmaker, therefore, she preferred an autodidactic, intentionally naïve approach.

She found the New York creative scene extremely exciting and collaborative, fulfilling her youthful bohemian dreams. Not much has been written about her overlap with the late seventies New York No Wave scene but her collaboration with people like Adele Bertei, Nan Goldin, and Red Krayola links her to this experimental, punk creative milieu that thrived in the late seventies, suggesting she has a place in a kind of post-punk pre-riot grrrl lineage of feminism that has yet to be thoroughly researched. She felt remote from the cinema that came out of No Wave, which she saw as putting aesthetics over politics, but the energies of the larger music and art scene infuse her work. [2] At the same time I imagine that her feminist consciousness was partly sparked by the sexism of the art world at that time. In an interview with Greg Baise she says:

The art world was very patriarchal. A lot of the artists I was interested in, like Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, a lot of the dancers, Carolee Schneemann, their work was seen and valued as second-rate. I thought, wait a second, something is wrong here. [3]

And in another interview with Christoph Huber she notes: 

I was aware of the corruption in the art world: so much was about money and power, which I was rebelling against. I just wanted to be done with it. [4]

She also mentions that the scene was completely white and middle class. Before many feminists were discussing intersectionality, she would seek to move beyond this homogenous and somewhat self-satisfied language of supposed “radicalism” and “feminism” that characterized the pages of Ms. Magazine.


In 1976 Borden made an experimental documentary called Regrouping. The film follows four women artists who formed a fractious and fracturing feminist collective/consciousness-raising group. It began as a documentation of the group, but as the collective disintegrated Regrouping became more of a personal statement and an experiment in representation, formed as much in the editing room as in the filming, relying on experimental film techniques that draw attention to the role of film itself in the group’s dynamics. And, like all of this bisexual director’s films, it experiments with depicting female sexuality from a feminist point of view.

Borden taught herself to make films and developed her own idiosyncratic style. Regrouping equally concerns itself with a positive theme–the struggle for feminist solidarity–and with a negative impulse to depart from a narrative cinema that, as Laura Mulvey argues, relies on a phallocentric point of view.

In Laura Mulvey’s famous 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the feminist film scholar develops a psychoanalytic theory of the male gaze in conventional narrative cinema, looking at the ways it captures male fetishization of women and the phallocentrism at the heart of seeing and meaning-making. Whereas in conventional narrative cinema the camera gaze frames women as phantasmal objects of lack and plentitude, that is, as “bearer[s] of meaning, not maker of meaning,” in experimental cinema, there are possibilities for counternarratives. [5]

In Regrouping and later in Born in Flames Borden develops a repertoire of filmic techniques to deconstruct the masculine gaze and refute feminine passivity that go deeper than just depicting female desire in a positive way. Many of the critics of Mulvey’s theory of the gaze, including Borden herself, refute her claims about female passivity with examples of feminist desire and agency in cinema. However, that would seem to ignore the wider critique Mulvey is making: meaning itself is structured in patriarchal terms. Borden’s politicized experimentalism is formidable in tackling this problem by constructing a cinema in which the personal and political cannot be disentangled and in which positive imagery of female desire and agency cannot fully transcend representational impasses inherent to a patriarchal society. 

Borden regrouping

However, in 1976 when she made Regrouping, Borden’s frank attempts to explore voyeurism and sexuality from a feminist point of view caused controversy. The group of feminists depicted in the film ended up storming and protesting the film’s screening, calling it “sexist” and “reactionary” because of its sexual explicitness and political indeterminacy. In a 1976 review of the film for Sight and Sound Jonathan Rosenbaum expressed puzzlement about who the film would appeal to and was silent on the frank lesbian sex. After seeing a retrospective screening of the film in 2016, the critic So Mayer said “it asks to be loved, but first it had to create an audience able to love it.” Mayer speculates that the film may have now found its moment. She notes:

as feminism has shifted away from essentialism to the potent idea of the unstable, ‘ungraspable subject, so too has documentary… Regrouping feels closer to cutting-edge real-time online documentation, a rolling and multi-layered Periscope live-feed from the heart of the nascent radical feminist movement. [6]

Borden’s work (most of which is buried and hard to access) always has to be seen against the backdrop of second wave feminism which was forming fault lines around representation and sexuality that we are still grappling with in this moment of the TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) and SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist), as Sophie Lewis outlines in an article for Salvage. [7] Borden’s films seem to leap over the impasses of mainstreamed second wave feminism, offering filmic devices to shatter the idea of one feminism, one identity, one sexuality. She accomplishes this most thoroughly in Born In Flames.

Borden’s films seem to leap over the impasses of mainstreamed second wave feminism, offering filmic devices to shatter the idea of one feminism, one identity, one sexuality.

Born In Flames

I’ve now seen Born In Flames many times and yet it never ceases to shock me with its brilliant insights into questions that the history of cinema would have you think were beyond representation. The film was made over a number of years, finished in 1983. Borden filmed it in short spurts when she could gather enough money from her odd editing jobs to afford it. The film eventually ended up costing $30,000.

Set in the near future New York, ten years after a peaceful social democratic revolution, the film offers an array of gritty documentary styles, including those from the perspective of male surveillance footage. Through this lens we see the radicalization and coordination of disparate, grassroots multiracial feminist groups, who communicate with each other in the streets, in meetings, and through pirate radio. The groups are disaffected by the so-called revolution’s failure to give them meaningful work, to lift them out of poverty, to abolish gender inequality and gendered violence, but they disagree on tactics to deal with these problems, and are especially stuck on the question of militancy and direct action. The groups debate and discuss tactics of resistance and when one of their most prominent allies, Adelaide Norris (played Jean Satterfield), is assassinated on a return trip from networking with and buying weapons from militant women in Algeria, the women escalate their tactics and expand their network. Adelaide’s assassination causes even the moderate feminist group of party-affiliated journalists comprised of white middle class women (which includes a character played by Katherine Bigelow) to break ranks and join the escalating campaign of sabotage. Eventually, after their pirate radio station is blown up, the coalition decides to militantly take hold of the media, spreading their message by taking over a TV station, interrupting a broadcast by the president of the US, who was in the process of announcing a “wages for housework” program, which would perhaps go some way to alleviate dire poverty but trap women in unequal and dependent roles. In the final prescient moment of the film, the women blow up the antennae on top of the phallic World Trade Center, in order to begin broadcasting a new message from their decentralized, peripatetic pirate radio system.

Borden future

The film is nominally science fiction but this label works only insofar to prove the Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson’s assertion that depictions of utopia are always about the horizons of the present. And in the case of Born in Flames this presentism is even more thinly veiled than most political science fiction. This dystopia is, as Stephen Dillon claims, “one marked by surveillance, assassination, incarceration, state racism and heterosexism, and sexual violence – [and] is the truth of our past and present.” [8] 

As Borden herself claims: “the only science fiction element of it is one premise: that it took place ten years after a democratic cultural revolution in the United States.” [9] Other than that, the documentary style conveys the social realities of Ed Koch’s Reagan-era New York, and the nonprofessional actors further the realistic texture of the film. Borden found her actors through hanging out at places like women’s meetings, the YMCA, and gay bars. The film is unscripted and Borden developed innovative ways of allowing women to process the ideas she wanted to get across in their own words. As she notes: 

It wasn’t a documentary, because I wasn’t documenting a story. I wanted each woman to have her own unique voice. We would work in an improvisatory way. For a scene, I would give general direction, but the actors would use their language in their own specific way. [10] 

Borden created this polyphony both as a reaction to white, middle class hegemony seen in the pages of Ms. Magazine, and to develop different styles that would appeal to different viewers. The film is arguably a musical, with punk, reggae and other forms of music pulsing throughout. As she says: “… even if you didn’t want to listen to the voices, you could get a sense from the pulse of the music that this film is about resistance, this is a film about fighting the powers that be.” [11] 

Borden Honey2

Her process was as follows (as told to Greg Baise of the Metro Times):

I would gather people and we would shoot a scene, I would edit it, and from that scene I would write a fictional scene based on some of the material we had. Or we would go to a demonstration, for example, and I would ask my characters, to go and I would act as if they were there, my characters in a real demonstration. Other times we might stage a false demonstration with the characters, and real people would join in. I wanted everything to grow out of this material, which is the opposite of the way films are actually shot.

The style she aimed for was “a corral” allowing simultaneous voices to coexist. One of the implied “thesis statements” of the film is voiced by real-life radical lawyer and activist Flo Kennedy who plays the political leader Zella Wylie in the film, when she says: “What would you rather see come through the door: one lion or five hundred mice?”

The film’s brilliance is that it enters the eighties by neither rejecting nor being placated by the revolutionary accomplishments of the sixties and seventies. Rather, it assumes that the viewer wants full feminism and full communism and then sets out to map the contradictions and impediments to reaching this. Like Kristin Ross in her work on the aftermath and afterlife of the 1968 French uprisings, the implied message of Born in Flames is not to deride or dismiss the spontaneity, militancy, and revolutionary energy that came with a moment where the prospects of freedom seemed imminent. Rather, the film is one of the many forms of representation that preserves these energies so that future revolutionaries can draw strength from them. As Stephen Dillon argues, drawing off Franz Fanon, the Combahee River Collective, Walter Benjamin and others, the film is antithetical to the rationalization of progress where “Progress is central to the discourses produced by the revolutionary state and is the liberal conception of time that the Women’s Army attempts to undo.”

The film appeals because it asks open ended questions. How do we create equality in the face of scarcity? How do we achieve feminism, while acknowledging the differences between women, especially differences of race and class? 

Through imagining moments of revolutionary urgency, where there is no denying that it is “our time” rather than the time of false progress, the film captures revolutionary hope in dark times, an important lesson for our own moment. And as Lucas Hilderbrand notes, it is especially attuned to the third worldism and women-of-color feminism of the time. [12]  For these reasons, Born in Flames, Brent Bellamy asserts, “does not fit easily into liberal politics. Rather than polemically presenting violence or pacifism as viable solutions, Borden outlines a number of rhetorical, activist, and political positions, and allows their antagonisms to play out in the representational space of the film.” [13] Third wave feminists like Kathleen Hanna have seen the film as a bridge to these revolutionary politics. She calls the film “a potential blueprint for feminist change.” [14] 

The film appeals because it asks open ended questions. How do we create equality in the face of scarcity? How do we achieve feminism, while acknowledging the differences between women, especially differences of race and class? The film never shuts the conversation down by giving answers, it simply allows these questions to play out through the airing of concerns, debates around tactics, and depictions of unconventional and experimental intimacy. Formally, Born in Flames accommodates this polyphony by jettisoning nearly all the traditions of narrative cinema, advancing instead a grainy, collaged, documentary feel and never settling on a single perspective or character.

Borden Women

In a sense this multidimensionality solves a key problem in feminism which feminist film critic Teresa de Lauretis names as “a two-fold pressure, a simultaneous pull in opposite directions, a tension toward the positivity of politics, or affirmative action on behalf of women as social subjects, on one front, and the negativity inherent in the radical critique of patriarchal, bourgeois culture on the other.” [15]  By avoiding conventional narrative, de Lauretis argues, the film “addresses the spectator as female,” but allows that femaleness to connote diversity rather than homogeny. “In short,” she says, “what Born in Flames does for me, a woman spectator, is exactly to allow me ‘to see difference differently,’ to look at women with eyes I’ve never had before and yet my own…” [16] 

In the film there are many scenes where women are seen with their lovers. In some they are partially nude. Usually these moments are captured by surveillance cameras and are overlain with narration by a male agent who drily suggests that their overblown militancy is linked to their lesbian sexuality. A side benefit of these pictures is that they can show female intimacy captured while the women are unaware. The male viewers are clearly not titillated by these shots, but the photos are, de Lauretis notes, beautiful to a certain female gaze. De Lauretis admires this strategy of what she calls deaestheticization to the point of saying that the film may have answered the call for “a new language of desire” and met the demand for the “destruction of visual pleasure,” defined as “the traditional, classical and modernist, canons of aesthetic representation.” [17]

borden eros

Two other key themes in the film are violence against women and women’s labor. We see that under this supposedly socialist government men still sexually assault women, and no protections are in place. In response, the women organize their own self defense. In one scene we see men harassing a woman as she walks down the street, and an escalation of this harassment to assault. As the woman screams, a well coordinated response team of women on bicycles come to her rescue. The effectiveness of this response contrasts a narration by the male-dominated media which calls it vigilantism.

Borden bike 

The government goes on to suggest the women are terrorists. In response, the authorities intend to “put some pressure on them at their jobs.” This, in combination with the fact that the government does not have adequate “meaningful jobs” for eligible men, leads to a policy which takes jobs away from women, including Adelaide, who is fired from her construction job. 

The film tackles the problem of women’s work in a complex way. As we see from Adelaide’s situation, women are the first to get laid off from traditional blue collar jobs in this supposedly socialist society, but the film doesn’t stop with a critique of unfair hiring practices or unequal pay. Following this chain of events there is a magnificent dialogless collage under the driving pulse of the song “Born in Flames” where we see women’s hands laboring: bottle feeding a baby, taking notes next to a calculator, Wrapping packages of raw chicken in saran wrap, putting a condom on a penis, washing dishes, laying out dental instruments, packing coffee for takeaway, and cutting hair. This collage shows the continuity of women’s work from factory labor, to socially reproductive labor including sex work and child rearing.

Borden constructio

In these montage scenes, form meets politics: Born in Flames makes social reproduction legible as work done outside the bounds of a so-called socialist state and unpaid for by capital. Thus, as the members of the Women’s Army care, feed, clothe, house, and educate one another, they begin to generate a powerful counter-logic to the gendered division of social reproduction by embodying anti- or post-capitalist social relations in the present—a starting point for radical politics.

A quick scene where we see women lounging, talking, and dancing in a lush romantic atmosphere provides a counterpoint to this harsh montage of work. In this, I think Borden’s analysis of women’s social reproduction converges with the feminist theorist Kathi Weeks’ discussion of “the problem with work.” Weeks argues that the political struggle for domestic work to be waged should not end with fair work, or full employment, but rather, the ultimate goal should be liberation from work. But we must fight for this with the knowledge that reproductive labor (which is often naturalized and trivialized) is work. In Born in Flames, the stagnant social democratic party is a step behind. When the women’s agitation starts to mount, the government makes a placative gesture of offering “wages for housework.” The women aren’t falling for it. That would simply trap them in traditional feminine roles, and wouldn’t adequately cover their needs for time and resources. Instead, they decide to blow shit up.

…as the members of the Women’s Army care, feed, clothe, house, and educate one another, they begin to generate a powerful counter-logic to the gendered division of social reproduction by embodying anti- or post-capitalist social relations in the present—a starting point for radical politics.

What is blown up is a radio tower. And this is emblematic of how the film is fixated on the media as a terrain of struggle. The radical women’s groups are connected to the pirate stations Radio Ragazza and Phoenix Radio, while the more bourgeois women are editors of the newspaper, Socialist Youth Review. Many of the women’s debates and conversations center around strategies of representation and the film’s plot is often conveyed through radio, TV, and newspaper headlines. This adds even more layers to the questions about revolutionary strategy the film explores. It asks, can decentralized media create a revolutionary language or will it fall into the trap of spectacle? This comes up when Adelaide is martyred after her return from Algeria and there is urgency to informing and inflaming the public. The women debate the ethics of broadcasting images of Adelaide’s dead body. There is here a blurring between documentary style and surveillance showing the thin line between self expression and self-exposure.

With this focus on media, the film acknowledges “the society of the spectacle” as the conditions of struggle and also its own role in this impasse. At one point when Adelaide is murdered, the now radicalized women of the Young Socialist Review must wrestle with the question of whether to print pictures of her ashen, murdered body or whether this would be contributing to exploitation and spectacle. No correct answer to this question is offered. Although some have called the film dated, in the end I feel the film has and will live on because of this open endedness and reflexivity. Born in Flames does not pretend to know what feminist ongoing revolution would or should look like. It only knows that it wants that revolution and it’s going to scrappily continue to explore and question how it can be made possible. 

Working Girls

While encountering diverse women and working with them on Born in Flames, Borden met and befriended many sex workers, some of whom acted in the film. It was their stories that inspired her next movie, the 1986 Working Girls. This film was much smaller scale and more intimate than Born in Flames, but also had a higher budget to work with. Like Born in Flames, the film blurs fiction and documentary, although here the style is consistent and subdued.

The film encompasses a day in the life of a brothel worker, with an emphasis on sex work as work. The central character is Molly, a highly educated lesbian photographer who earns her keep by working as a prostitute. In order to make the film, Borden did extensive research and most of the characters are based on real people she met. Her goal in this film was to de-exoticize sex work and show it in continuity with other kinds of waged and emotional labor. Throughout the day we see that sex workers dress and comport themselves in a business-like fashion. We especially witness, in near real-time, the tedium, minutae and the annoyances of the job, rather than the sensationalized transgressiveness and violence that characterize most depictions of sex work in film. The biggest villain in the film is not a customer but the boss/madame who pressures her workers for more time and does not adequately protect them. At the same time, we see the camaraderie between the women workers, which, as with most jobs, makes work more tolerable.

Borden Working

This film was made at a moment when a primary fissure in the feminist movement was between women who were trying to work out a sex-positive feminism and those who were focused on building a case against pornography and sex work as patriarchal oppression. While certainly against the latter stance, Lizzie Borden’s approach to framing sex as work provides an implicitly Marxist intervention in a debate which often essentialized and dehistoricized sex and pornography. In an interview with the anarcha-feminist Kio collective Borden refutes the moralizing of the anti-pornography movement, as well as their reduction of sex workers to victims of exploitation. Nor does she see prostitution as stemming from psychological abuse. However, she doesn’t see the choices sex workers make as liberating; they are mostly undesireable economic choices in a system that offers an array of undesirable work. To be a sex worker is liberating insofar as it buys the worker some time. She notes, “To choose to work two to three shifts a week as a prostitute and make the same money or more as working a forty or fifty hour work week, where the work is demeaning, exhausting, not necessarily in somebody’s field of passion so that it’s morally dispiriting, is a real choice.” [18]

This sense of sex work as a non-dramatically unpleasant choice permeates the film. With some exceptions the customers are not monsters, just “difficult” or “easy” as would be the case with any other job. Most of what we see of the sex workers is communal lounging in the common room while waiting for customers. Far from a red-lit lounge as in the popular imaginary, the room looks like a bland suburban living room and the women wear conservative attire. As Karen Jaehne puts it, they are not just women of affairs; they are women of “business” affairs.” [19] 

borden working2

It’s an odd experience watching this movie, which Christina Lane calls “unglamorous and unerotic.” [20] The film has a lot of nudity and sex that leaves the viewer cold and untitilated. The film is shot documentary style and the whole thing takes place in one day, begging the viewer to be bored even while watching what would otherwise be lurid scenes. As Borden puts it, “I always say that anybody who gets turned on by this film really has a problem.” [21] 

One thing that was particularly strange to me were the gestures that the prostitutes make to ready themselves for sex. They seemingly have to indicate that the men undress without saying it out loud and the gestures they make to convey this come across as both ritualistic and unerotic, reminding one that every job has its own strange rituals and gestures. 

In addition to seeing the brothel as work, Borden sees it in continuity with other heteronormative institutions such as singles bars and relationships, with its own legible and banalized codes and rituals. As Arlie Hochschild has argued, many professions dictate emotional states, requiring acting as labor. In that, sex work is not so different from being a waitress or stewardess. In Working Girls, Molly and her coworkers are shown fixing clients drinks and chatting them up with the same forced emotion that characterizes sex work itself.  

Like all other jobs, sex work constrains the worker but also allows for a certain amount of choice. As Borden says of her protagonist, Molly, “She has a commodity so she can choose the conditions, the framework, who she sees, who she doesn’t see, the amount of involvement – all of that.” [22]  That small degree of choice doesn’t erase the fact that sex work, like most work under capitalism, is generally soulless. Borden puts it this way:

It flattens you out, there is no spirit. You give time for so little return that it’s horrifying. That diminishment of spirit is something which I was concerned about. That’s a point that I wanted to make in Working Girls. [23]

When Molly finally quits her job in the end, we feel the same pleasure we would take in someone quitting any shit job. And her primary complaint is not about the work or the customers but the boss. As Borden puts it an interview with Cinema Scope magazine “Actually, the greatest compliment I ever got for Working Girls was when some guy said to me afterwards, “I had a boss just like that.” It really is about capitalism.” 

“Actually, the greatest compliment I ever got for Working Girls was when some guy said to me afterwards, “I had a boss just like that.” It really is about capitalism.” 

In all, Borden’s Marxist take on sex work as work was ahead of its time. It reflects the current feminist view that sex workers deserve legal protections rather than moral sanction. And it’s not surprising that such an innovative and complexly politicized filmmaker had trouble getting funding for her next feature film. 

Love Crimes

In fact, uncompromising feminist film is nearly impossible to get funded in Hollywood and this was the downfall of Borden’s first Hollywood feature, Love Crimes, an interesting and puzzling failure. A feminist reading of this film can’t limit itself to what we see on the screen but has to extend to the film industry itself, which was responsible for cutting and marketing the film until it became illegible. What sustains in the film is Borden’s commitment to women’s sexual agency and all the complexity that entails. Hollywood and its funders, however, can’t handle that narrative. 

The film centers around Assistant District attorney Dana Greenway who is pursuing David Hanover, a sexual predator who charms his victims before assaulting them but who cannot be prosecuted in a conventional way because his victims become confused about what happened during the assault and don’t want to testify. To entrap Hanover, Greenway poses as a schoolteacher who wants to be photographed. She goes on to consensually sleep with him and develops a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Through a series of flashbacks we are led to believe that Greenway was abused as a child, and this is what led her to become infatuated with the monstrous Hanover. With the help of her female partner, she eventually defeats him but loses her job in the process.  

In some respects, Love Crimes continues the themes at the core of Borden’s work. The film centers on women, not only Greenway but also her African American partner, Marla Johnson. Rather than romanticize her job as a detective, the film shows it as lonely labor and depicts her workplace as ambiantly sexist. Cutting a lone figure, we see that Greenway’s success in her career has led to an asexual, repressed existence. Late in the movie this is partially attributed to childhood abuse, but in interviews Borden has said that this plotline was tacked on without her full consent. Again her anti-capitalist feminism comes through. For her, being a detective is another deadening job. Having achieved the goal set forth in Betty Friedan’s famous second wave feminist book The Feminine Mystique, Greenway is freed from becoming a housewife. However, this is only to enter a new sexist regime of work, where she is forced to be better and more stoic than her male colleagues, proving herself by neutering herself. 

The plot, which hints that the protagonist can have consensual enjoyable sex with a man she knows to be a sexual abuser, is problematic at best. Perhaps if Borden had been able to present the film as a woman’s art film as she wanted to, rather than as a thriller with an implicit male gaze, then the complexities of this sexuality could have been made coherent, if not palatable. But, as she often complains in interviews, the film was wrested from her hands, turned into a psychothriller, tamed and altered. Christina Lane notes that Borden thought the film would be “a small art film aimed at women over thirty” while the film’s production company, Miramax, thought it would be “a mainstream erotic thriller targeted at males between eighteen and thirty.” [24] Many of the scenes that focused on female desire and perversity were censored and Borden’s plan for the end of the film, that Greenway would get revenge on her violator by raping him, was not even shot. Her casting, too, was affected by the now notorious Harvey Weinstein who insisted she use Sean Young. As Borden puts it “by now we know why.” When Borden wanted to take her name off of the film, she notes, “Harvey basically said, ‘If you do that I will destroy your career.’” [25] He also prevented her from having the final cut of the film and threatened her in other ways. If anyone wants to see the way patriarchy erases female voices and creativity in film, this scenario where the notorious rapist Harvey Weinstein helped destroy the career of one our most innovative feminist filmmakers is more than instructive. 

If anyone wants to see the way patriarchy erases female voices and creativity in film, this scenario where the notorious rapist Harvey Weinstein helped destroy the career of one our most innovative feminist filmmakers is more than instructive. 


Love Crimes was Borden’s last feature film. She directed a few erotic films for Playboy TV, directed some local theater, and has been working as a script doctor in Los Angeles. As she said in an interview with Flavorwire, Love Crimes sent her to “movie jail.” [26]

In a moment where some degree of independent filmmaking was possible, Lizzie Borden, along with the fertile feminist and artistic scene of late seventies/early eighties New York brought us a revolutionary, feminist, experimental film that implies a whole alternative history of what film could have been. Although some on the left might see all film as what Guy Debord calls “spectacle,” or Adorno calls “the culture industry,” the left should not be reduced to renunciation of the pleasures of cinema. We on the left deserve our own canon, our own visions, our own dreams, whether it be through creating our own alternate diy culture or through reclaiming and reinterpreting all culture on offer. As part of this reclamation, we can ask cinema, which side are you on? Most films will answer us with equivocation and will need to be reinterpreted according to our own needs. However, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is, was, and will always be on our side.  

Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. Her book Stepford Daughters: Tools for Feminists in Contemporary Horror is forthcoming in 2022 from Common Notions Press. She is the author of The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books, has published widely in academic and popular journals, and runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films. More info can be found here: https://mjc.academia.edu/JoIsaacson

[1] Lane, Christina. Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break, Wayne State University Press, 2000. 127. 

[2] Huber, Christoph. “Whatever Happened to Lizzie Borden?” cinema scope. iss. 74, Spring, 2018.

[3] Baise, Greg. “Lizzie Borden talks about her scrappy, feminist magnum opus, Born in Flames.” Detroit Metro Times, 16 June 2010. 

[4] Huber.

[5] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, Indiana University Press, 1991. 58.

[6] Mayer, So. “Regrouping again: Lizzie Borden’s ‘diabolical hour’ comes around.” Sight & Sound, 22 July 2016.

[7] Lewis, Sophie. “Serf ‘n’ Terf: Notes on Some Bad Materialisms.” Salvage, 6 Feb 2017. 

[8] Dillon, Stephen. “‘It’s here, it’s that time:’ Race, queer futurity, and the temporality of violence in Born in Flames.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory.” vol. 23 iss. 1, 2013 

[9] Baise.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hilderbrand, Lucas. “In the heat of the moment: Notes on the past, present, and future of Born in Flames.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory.” Vol. 23 issue 1 2013 

[13] Bellamy, Brent. “We Still Need the Women’s Army: Form and Politics in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames.” cleo: a journal of film and feminism, vol. 1 iss. 3, Fall 2013.

[14]  Adams, Sam. “Kathleen Hanna on the film  that’s inspired her for decades.” The Dissolve, 02 Dec. 2013.

[15] de Lauretis, Teresa. “Aesthetic and Feminist Theory: Rethinking Women’s Cinema.” New German Critique, No. 34, Winter 1995. 154.

[16] Ibid. 165.

[17] Ibid. 175

[18]  Devon, Alexandra and Catehrina Tammaro. Kick it Over, #18, Spring 1987. 

[19] Jaehne, Karen. “Review: Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 37 No. 4, Summer 1984. 25. 

[20] Lane. 134.

[21] Huber.

[22] Devon and Tammaro.

[23] Ibid.  

[24] Lane. 138.

[25] Huber

[26] Nastasi, Alison. “‘Choice is Paramount to Everything’: Filmmaker Lizzie Borden on the Radical Feminism of ‘Born in Flames.’” Flavorwire, Feb 18 2016.


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