Maud Lavin, Push Comes to Shove

Review by Elisabeth Woronzoff-Dashkoff
Bowling Green State University

Maud Lavin, Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2010. 300pp. $27.95 (hardcover) (978-0-262-12309-9).

[1] What is aggression? Who is allowed to be aggressive? Is aggression acceptable for both men and women? Can aggression be socially or politically constructive? Maud Lavin's text, Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women, examines contemporary representations of aggression and women in sports and action movies, television series, literature, political movements and art. She considers the affective interplay between social, political, individual aggression as it underpins positive and empowered images of women. Lavin pinpoints a contemporary cultural turn that celebrates feminine aggression rather than conventional social currents that "frowned upon [aggression] as inappropriate behavior or represented as a punishable offense" (3). She argues that the current availability of images of aggressive women complicates and expands contemporary gender politics and psychoanalytic theory, thus creating an empowering space for feminine aggression.

[2] Lavin informs us that she does not interpret aggression as a mechanism to harm or as a means to create pain. Rather, she defines aggression as the "use of force to create change – fruitful, destructive, or a mix of the two" (3). The crux of Lavin's argument centralizes cultural change vis-à-vis an inextricable link between aggression and women. She emphasizes an optimistic rethinking of the contemporary discourses situating aggressive women as abject or non-normative. She locates aggression as a means to "widening the range of women's ability to express, articulate, and represent their own aggression, [which] would mean an expansion in the identity 'woman'" (5). Expanding the definition of women's identity situates Push Comes to Shove as an exemplar of hope: it incorporates female power and aggression into the larger gender matrix. Lavin reminds readers throughout that aggression, like gender, must be considered a fluid category, and that one definition is not applicable across a larger continuum. Cultural production must open a space that is mutable and contributes to discursive "signs of hope" (247).

[3] In order to shed new light on women's aggression, Lavin employs a connective theoretical trope throughout her text: the notion of play as embodied in a sibling model. She relies on psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell's work to emphasize the importance of aggressive play "in learning how to relate to oneself and others and to navigate the intense, attendant emotions" (22). Beginning with sports movies such as Blue Crush, Stick It, and Bring it On, Lavin contextualizes the identification of aggressive sibling play to "accomplish the realization that self-preservation is interdependent with preserving others as well" (114). As such, Lavin uses these sports movies, and later a deconstruction of Beatrix Kiddo from the Kill Bill series, as examples of women who enable aggression by balancing friendship and antagonism. She emphasizes that the female athletes and Kiddo negotiate a space of power that encourages viewers to express and utilize their own corporeal expression. She includes an analysis of Marlene McCarty's Murder Girls drawing series and also the works of Zane and Kara Walker, leading readers through an analysis of aggression and love as symbolized and represented by play. For Lavin, play is a foundational element for shifting cultural representations of feminine aggression.

[4] Lavin swiftly moves the reader through the annals of race, normative and non-normative sexual orientation and display, ageism, violence, psychoanalysis, activism, and art in order to demonstrate the paradigms of feminine aggression across different subsets and intersecting identities. Lavin's deconstruction of Helen Mirren's character in the TV series Prime Suspect in the chapter "Aging and Aggression," is the strongest portion of her text. Lavin aptly associates both Mirren and her character with "the need for [an] environmental space; the urgency of sticking up for oneself in a culture of ageism and sexism; and the need for intimacy with others are strong imperatives for older women to express their aggression" (87).

[5] In fact, this chapter demonstrates Lavin's expert capacity to interpret and convey psychoanalytic theory without weighing down her argument or losing the reader in complicated jargon. Lavin calls upon the work of Freud, Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott, Lacan and Kathleen Woodward, to name just a few, to extrapolate her notion that "managing aggression and using it effectively is not only about owning, focusing, articulating, and controlling. It is also about fighting, that is, responding to others' aggression and/or striking out aggressively, all the while persevering in complex interpersonal ways" (241). Lavin also utilizes the analysis of female social critics and theorists, thereby demonstrating the depth and significant contribution of female aggression that is not only physical but also intellectual.

[6] A question that arises when reading Push Comes to Shove is that of method: what method did Lavin employ to select her examples? Many of her examples do not circulate within the mainstream cultural industry, thus requiring a significant amount of description in order to securely position the readers' trajectory. Kill Bill and the work of Zane are arguably the most popular examples. However, one key benefit of these examples is that they do demonstrate the fluidity between public and private spaces. The private sibling-like dynamics between teammates who compete for public recognition, the identity of the Bride as Samurai prodigy, or Kara Walker's panoramas, are all "episodic visual scenes, communicating intimacy in small rooms...[while displaying a] riveting but discomfiting mix of fantasy images spread narratively across large public spaces in museums and galleries" (179). These are the spaces where women utilize aggression to occupy, command and negotiate.

[7] Lavin's investigation into positive and empowered cultural representations of female aggression gives conventional notions of feminine identity a big shove. Push Comes to Shove explores the manifestation of aggression in contemporary culture as a means "to open a space for an empowered, representative, and agonistic democracy" (250). Utilizing a kaleidoscopic array of examples from popular culture, this text invites the reader to acknowledge and consider displays of feminine aggression in a new light. As such, Lavin expertly articulates the space between aggression, power, subjectivity, democratic potential and female identity as a catalyst for social change.