Everyone is sad, but it’s a strange kind of sad.
-Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) in Heathers (1988)
Elizabeth Wilson’s Gut Feminism hovers on the challenge to “cultivate capacities to harm.” In this intricate book, Wilson explores what might happen if feminist theory consumed biology differently. Feminist theory must do so by “reading” biology through the apparatus of the gut. For Wilson, the gut is a “peripheral body” (13). But however peripheral, in its grip lies the possibility for living with bitterness. You can nibble on your hobbyhorse all you like, as Wilson notes feminist theory has done in certain modes with its critique of biology. But please do dispense with the surprise when you figure out that your object is half-eaten and it’s still inside you.
This is critique based on the capacities to become familiar with the harm inside the self and the intellect. It is critique based on biology of the periphery “routed through the gut,” (171). With keen attention to the ways that guts depress us, enliven us, and mobilize us to think, Wilson is clear that any bile between feminism and biology is grounds for progress in feminist thought: “A feminist theory that tries to apprehend the harms that are native to its own conceptual and political actions is a more robust endeavor than one that tries, vainly, to make itself pure of heart. Such a theoretical stance takes up more room, it generates more possibilities (and thus more risks): it has more bite” (167).
Wilson’s reminders are constant: this stance is not easy. One must endure the indigestion that follows the bite. Casting this necessary position as an “encounter with negativity that stays negative,” Wilson takes the reader through re-ruminations on Rubin, Freud, Klein, Kristeva, and others in the book’s first section; and engagements with the pharmacopolitics of depression in the second section. Across both, the text questions what might be possible when one’s empirical, affective, and authorial mission is “gratifyingly unpleasurable” (81).
This sense of disquieting digestion, of rumbly reading, brought to my mind (my gut?) the 1988 film Heathers. In Heathers, guts rule the school. Its scenes burst with food, with eating, with puking, with fat shaming. Bulimia grips one member of the titular clique, Heather Duke (although the original clique leader, Heather Chandler, chides her to “Grow up, Heather, bulimia is so ’87”). Eating brains marks incredulity (“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” Chandler asks Duke, who dares to hope that Chandler might let her win at croquet). The third Heather, Heather McNamara, has a penchant for eating pills.
Substances squeeze through guts. The fringe member of the clique, Veronica Sawyer, vomits from too much booze at a college party. In doing so, Sawyer lets fly her barely-contained patience for Chandler’s reign as queen bee (Chandler: “What’s my thanks? I got paid in puke;” Sawyer: “Lick it up, baby, lick it up.”). But following Wilson, we are reminded: Don’t eat your desire and pay it back in puke. Let it rumble. Processing it is unlikely to be pleasant.
In the first of several murders that Veronica and her bad-boy accomplice JD stage as suicides, Heather Chandler drinks blue drain cleaner on a dare. Before collapsing face-first to shatter a glass table, she clasps her throat and wheezes the only thing she can reckon as the source of her deathly gurgle: “Corn nuts!” Here, guts set the terms of the film’s exploration of the intractable melancholy of closeness. Veronica, taking in the scene of Chandler’s body moments after the fall, realizes: “I just killed my best friend!” JD retorts, “And your worst enemy.” Veronica clarifies: “Same difference!” Same difference, indeed: This figure of the frenemy glues together the film’s sociality, across scenes of depression and suicide (staged, or otherwise) as the ingredients of desire.
The lessons of the Gut Feminism and its pipeline into forms of friendship and enmity drew me to the film. But the book also reminds me of more quotidian scenes of pedagogy in university life. These include my own attempts to teach medical anthropology, and specifically, to teach the in-betweenness of the biocultural. Wilson reminds us that when the gut grinds, it hurts. Perhaps this explains the uneasy feeling I get when my own students seem to eat up the idea that both biology and culture make the world turn. It’s felt like the right starting point, this comfort with both, but it also feels stuck somewhere in the rut of things. Do both really sit so easily close together? “In-between” always seemed like a nice story to feed, but the fantasy of reparation doesn’t stay down easily (and nor should it, Wilson’s text teaches me). I wonder what a bilious classroom lesson might look like…a space of scientific and philosophical instruction anchored in the figure of the frenemy rather than simply the friend.
For is this not, after all, about the power to edify and enervate friendship? In Heathers, bile and power pass from one body to the next. Upon the death of Heather Chandler, Heather Duke ascends as clique leader. She even begins eating again (“Watch it, Heather, you might be digesting food there,” Veronica remarks). Duke keeps up the game, scheming her way to top of the popularity pyramid. Utterly frustrated, Veronica asks her: “Heather, why can’t you just be a friend?” Veronica desires closeness with no bite. Why must Heather be a cannibal? Heather Duke has a simple answer: “Because I can be,” she says breezily. She wants to eat her way to the top, with no side effects, and with no reminders of what’s gone down the gullet.
Wilson unhinges the fantasy that arcs across Heather and Veronica in this scene. It is a fantasy of non-solitary nearness with none of the itch of the other, of insatiable sovereign power with no periphery. But digestion always entails collateral damage even as it nourishes: this is what Gut Feminism teaches us. Many have tried to anchor critique somewhere between niceness and enmity, between reparation and paranoia. But Wilson’s gut-work offers a different pedagogy. This is because digestion is a motive apparatus. The motility of relations entails sharp edges: Edges between feminism and biology, between friends, between enemies, between the self and its turn to inexplicable depression. It’s a strange kind of sad, but it keeps on moving.
Harris Solomon is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Global Health at Duke University. His research explores connections between bodies and environments in urban India. He is the author of Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. He is currently studying traffic injuries and trauma care in Mumbai.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cecil, Dawn. 2008. “From Heathers to Mean Girls: An Examination of Relational Aggression in Film.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 15(3): 262-276.
Heathers. 1988. Michael Lehmann, Director.
Shary, Timothy. 2014. Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema Since 1980. Austin: University of Texas Press.
 See, e.g., Cecil 2008 and Shary 2014 for readings of the film grounded in the problem of aggression and bullying; but this is certainly a problem of friendship, too.
 “As well as attaching to things that are damaging us (Berlant 2011), we are also trying to damage the things to which we are attached,” Wilson explains (85).