Aggressive Femininity

Recently an artist I admire and respect described my photography and film work as “aggressive femininity,” which she meant as a compliment and I took it as such immediately. 

Not in any particular order, I’ve been called a bitch, a badass, a femme, a refugee, a gypsy, a filmmaker, an artist, a warrior, an immigrant, a producer, a photographer, a fashion director, a magazine editor, a bartender, a daughter, a cousin, a sister, a friend, an activist, a stylist, a celebrity stylist, a force, an icon, a girlfriend, a partner, a lover, a survivor, a rebel, a punk, a fighter, a whore, a wife, arrogant, humble, difficult, ambitious, brave, angry, strong, kind, fearless, a Jew, a leader, a student, a writer, a bookworm, a drinker, …and a good cook. 

As girls, as women, we are/were taught not to be proud; to sit still, be quiet, say less, do more, don’t take credit. Say, “we.”  I, without apology, wholeheartedly disagree. 

I’ve written so many bios of myself over the years; added, subtracted, lost and found, pieces of myself I never thought I would see again, parts I cling to, and people, places and things I’ve tried to forget or remember but can’t seem to. I am immensely proud of my past; I talk of it often and don’t think it negates the present or threatens the future but is a guide and reminder of who I am. I am proud to be the great-granddaughter of a Menshevik Socialist Russian revolutionary who fought against the Bolshevik Communists in the war of 1917 and the five years of civil war that followed between the two opposing sides. In 1927 my grandmother was 14 years old when the Soviets, then led by Stalin, banged on the family’s apartment door in the middle of the night in Moscow and her father, Matvey Gezentsvey, was arrested for the third and final time for his part in the revolution, taken to the prison camps in Siberia and never heard from again. I am proud to be the granddaughter of, not one but two, original “ANTIFA”: both my grandfathers were decorated veterans who fought on the ground against the fascist nazis in World War Two. I am proud to be the Moscow-born daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish mother who ran from, and survived, the nazis when she was a child and went on to became a mathematician, a scientist, a teacher, an early computer coder and a single mother all before she was 40, when we left the Soviet Union to travel as refugees for three months through Europe, prior to landing in Baltimore with two suitcases and $200. I am proud to be the granddaughter of a literature teacher in the Soviet Union, and the daughter of her Russian-born son, a professor and an engineer. I didn’t see either of them for fifteen years after we emigrated and they both died a few months apart when I was 26, just as I started working as a fashion editor in Moscow and Paris for Russian Vogue; a job I took after graduating film school and making seven short films in the process that screened at some of the country’s earliest LGBT festivals in the 90s and were written up by Amy Taubin in The Village Voice and Filmmaker Magazine. I am proud that at 14 years old I knew the impending disaster of climate change and started an environmental club at my high school that lasted two decades after I graduated and went to that film school, which I left in the middle of my sophomore year to spend working with the Dann Sisters’ Western Shoshone Defense Project, alongside the American Indian Movement, protecting their family’s ancestral land. This was 1993, the same year I married my first husband, a member of the Nez Perce and Lakota Sioux nations who I met on that year long action in the Nevada desert, where we lived in trailers without running water, did sweat lodge once a week and rode horseback into the hills to bathe in the hot springs. I am proud my mother taught me to be brave and stand up for other people and still to this day doesn’t know I was arrested in front of the White House for protesting the first Iraqi war a week after I turned 18 (misdemeanor charges dismissed!) I am proud to have been the last assistant to legendary fashion editor, Polly Mellen, before she retired from Allure Magazine and I left NYC for Europe to work as a photographer and stylist for Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and Elle. I am proud to have the privilege of making art, shooting and directing photographs and films, advertising and music videos, and making a living from that creative work for almost as many years as I’ve been alive. I am proud to have survived and gotten out from an abusive relationship with a crack cocaine heroine addict alcoholic, which is what first brought me to Los Angeles years ago. I needed to run and found an exit door on the West Coast. 

By accident, a few years ago, I came to a mountain above the clouds, which I call Upstate LA because when I first came here for a day on a whim it reminded me of the small town in Upstate NY where I went to college. I always assumed I would buy a house across the river just north of New York City, like so many city mice do, as a respite from my place on the Lower East Side, where I kept the same apartment for 26 years. Instead, I finally gave up my two bedroom home on East 4th Street and Avenue C for good, packed up my books, shoes, art and dozens of boxes of film negatives and unpacked them in an A-Frame built the same year I was born. I am proud of the lives and chapters I’ve lived and written but I’m not done yet. As much as society would like to remind us that we need to quietly disappear as we age, I, once more, disagree and am going to celebrate getting older; happy birthday to me. x

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