“Would you like your OS to have a male or female voice?” Becca Blackwell’s eyes grow, then hesitate. They half answer then stop, considering all the social implications of the choice, what the answer might say about their own gender identity, their desires. In Her, the 2013 Spike Jonze film, Joaquin Phoenix similarly stumbles in response to many of the computer’s questions, but the one answer he knows straightaway is which voice he’d like the OS to have. “Female, I guess.” For Phoenix, gender induces impulse. His straight male character’s intuitive hope for the mother/ingénue/sex kitten female trifecta runs so deep, it cuts through thought. But for Blackwell, gender is included in the overthinking, and to really ponder “male or female” creates choice where many believe no choice exists.
Schmer is one of three new installments in Blackwell’s ongoing series, The Schmermterion Collection, which, when viewed as a whole, adds gender hesitation to the history of cis- film, one minute at a time. The series’ unifying word, “schmerm,” is itself a performance of gender uncertainty, a muddle of she, him, them, and hrmmmm, a way Blackwell is often addressed in public. “A schmerm is a schmear of gender. It is basically the sound people make as they try to figure my gender out.” With help from filmmaker Nick Zeig-Owens and performer/writer Jess Barbagallo (and guest Erin Markey in A Schmermous Line), Blackwell schmears themself all over the mainstream.
In The Schmerming, Blackwell and Barbagallo play mother and son. In Schmerm T, they’re alien and little boy. In Schmermy Business, they’re both Tom Cruise. Blackwell has fantasized about playing Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, but knows it would become “a thing,” that the production’s “meaning” would center around the director’s choice to cast Blackwell’s body in the role, and would automatically be seen as “a comment on” gender. According to Blackwell, “I’m used [by a director] to challenge an audience,” but with Schmermterion, Blackwell authors those challenges on their own terms, creating the ideal container to both play out fantasy and embrace its absurdity. In A Schmermcar Named Desire, Blackwell calls out to the heavens, “Schmerma!” and Barbagallo appears, tattooed and sporting a tie-dye T, not quite the femme ideal.
But is it absurd? Take Schmermy Instinct. If you don’t happen to be viewing through the male gaze, and Blackwell is more your type than Sharon Stone, you wouldn’t laugh when they cross their legs, you’d get hot and bothered, as Barbagallo does. In that way, the series surpasses SNL-style parody, with many installments functioning as culturally savvy Zen kōans.
In Schmermie-the-Pooh, Barbagallo and Blackwell sit side by side on a log at sunset. “How do you spell ‘schmerm?’” a wide-eyed Barbagallo asks. Blackwell, decked out in Pooh’s signature gut-exposing t-shirt and no pants, gazes stoically into the distance and replies, “You don’t spell it, you feel it.” The only word swapped from the iconic original is “love” with “schmerm,” and Blackwell’s switcharoo posits gender as equally ambiguous and linguistically uncontainable as ‘L-O-V-E.’ A quick Google search will deliver the adorable Pooh/Piglet “love” exchange printed on mugs, posters, and embroidered pillows, demonstrating that while cisgender culture embraces love’s complexity so fully that it schmears reminders on its babies’ bedroom walls, it remains blind to the similar expansiveness of schmerm. But Blackwell gets the last laugh. The video may land its LOL moment halfway through with a zoom out revealing Blackwell’s butt cleavage, but it’s Piglet and Pooh, reframed as the two sage genderqueers they’ve always been, who linger.
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Off Brand Video is interested in pieces that trouble, queer, and speak back to mainstream cultural production. OBV provides access to non-narrative video normally reserved for private collections, gallery spaces, one-off screenings, or personal Vimeo accounts. In a gallery or on YouTube, you may watch for a minute and move on. Off Brand Video is the place to take the time. Send recommendations for artists, videos, or archives to [email protected]