When I watched the opening minutes of Cathryne Czubek’s documentary — the credit fall over close-ups of red-polished fingernails loading, cocking, and shooting all manner of guns, jacked up with music that sounds appropriate for a spaghetti western of of the 1960s — I fretted that this film would turn out lite. Unserious. Uninformative. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a film is a girl and a gun.” This is not a quote that reassures me that I’m about to see an important doc on women and gun culture.

But my mood shifted during the course of this film. I’m still not convinced that Czubek displayed the best editorial choices in selecting her subjects and her material. Yet what I’ve found is that A Girl and a Gun amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and that the subjects it raises still rattle around in my head during our current debates on guns. In the end I feel that even though it’s far from perfect, this doc gets at something crucial about American gun culture.

a-girl-and-a-gun-documentary-film-Cathryne-Czubek-movie-review-2-noscaleLet me just speak from my own perspective here — as a politically progressive advocate of gun-control who is also a feminist and film lover. Because seeing this film forced me to wrangle with the many conflicting and contradictory views I have regarding women and guns.

Just take the spate of women interviewed for this film who bought guns after being abused or stalked. Each of them spoke about what we know: that there’s very little comfort in a restraining order if your ex is willing to ignore it, and that there’s very little help from the police until he’s already gotten caught ignoring it. Lots of women live in terror in their own homes.

We all know this. We all know that women are caught in a big gap between the law and actual security. And, I think, we probably all agree that it’s kind of great that women in this situation arm themselves.

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Certainly the wider culture has taught us to appreciate this figure of the woman who, wronged by men, finds her own ways of protecting herself. My god, I enjoy this narrative so much that I have an entire category on this site entitled “women with guns.” Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is the only inherently feminist theme permitted in mainstream pop culture.

You see? I rationalize my appreciation for Women With Guns in film by calling it feminist. But having had this pointed out to be so baldly, I’m not sure I’m willing to stick with that characterization. Moreover, A Girl and a Gun shows that this is not the only reason actual women wield guns, nor is it a new or uncomplicated issue.

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There are plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable with female gun culture, starting with how it’s marketed to women. The pink guns — lots of pink guns. The long & fascinating history of selling guns to women during the 20th century, as unfolded by the historian Laura Browder (who might be the most camera-ready and beautiful historian I’ve ever seen, although perhaps that’s not saying a lot). The consistently condescending tone industry leaders use for addressing female customers. The way the customers buy into that condescension.

“In many ways the history of women and guns is the history of American women,” Browder offers persuasively over a raft of early 20th-c. images of women with guns — a forgotten history indeed. 

If anything, Czubek could have done more to clarify the ways that gun consumer culture is eager to pigeonhole women as a group. This, and the documentary’s rambling and anecdotal style, draw away from its effectiveness as a film.

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Perhaps the most illustrative moment emerges in the dynamic between a Stephanie Alexander and her daughter Aishia, who was permanently disabled by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting in New Jersey. Aishia speaks openly about feeling vulnerable in her wheelchair, and her reasons for purchasing a handgun to protect herself. Her mother, however, has gone a different route: her avenue to healing after her daughter’s trauma has led her to become a victims’ rights activist, speaking eloquently at public meetings for gun control and community activism.

But Stephanie also has a more complicated history with guns herself as a drug dealer and addict back in the 70s who owned a gun — par for the course for dealers. The filmmaker asks her whether she had a gun when her daughter was shot. “No,” she says — and explains that if she had, she would have sought out the shooter’s mother and “shot her in the face” because “that mother had to feel my pain.” It’s one of the most chilling moments in the film.

I finished this film with two thoughts in mind: that my own thoughts and feelings about guns ranged all over the map (almost as much as Stephanie Alexander’s) and that I wish Czubek had done more to clarify the problems raised by these topics. My recommendation of the film is based on the sense that it evokes the right questions — and that more work needs to be done to articulate the morass of conflicting positions on women and guns.

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