Ladies We Love: Penny Arcade

4.4.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

"The gay world always used to know who was good, and they would elevate them from the underground to the mainstream," she says. 'It was driven by a certain meritocracy rather than who was the most famous, or who got the most exposure.' She thinks the gay men she grew up with in the '70s and '80s -- when wit was still a currency in that world -- would be mortified by what has come since. "Now we're in this monoculture with this pathetic need of some gay people to have the approbation of heterosexual celebrities. When I look at people who are stars in the gay world -- Margaret Cho or Kathy Griffin or even my most beloved Joan Rivers, who I adore -- all these people are always talking about their gays. And gay people accept that? When Kathy Griffin says "my gays" I want to kick in the television. When Margaret Cho says "my gays" I want to take an ax and smash the TV set. When someone positions herself alongside, and not with, I don't understand that. Nina Simone was with. Judy Garland was with. Barbra Streisand was not saying 'my gays.' "

Of course, one could argue that Nina Simone and Judy Garland probably didn't think much about gays at all, but Arcade's point is that gays are part of, not separate from, everyone else. It's why she says there is no such thing as gay rights, only human rights. "Being gay is not special -- we need to cut that shit out."

Susana Carmen Ventura was born in 1950 in New Britain, Conn., a manufacturing town and birthplace of the wire coat hanger. It was not a happy childhood. Her working class Italian mother was abusive; her father was committed to a mental institution when she was four, and died there a quarter century later. For much of her life she believed her father was criminally insane; her mother told Arcade he had plotted to drive her to California and drown her. It's only since her mother's death seven years ago that she has figured out that this was probably a lie. Such things have a tendency to weigh on one. "Every time I say the word daddy, I feel like a liar; every time I say the word mommy, it has a question mark," Arcade says. "My mother was the Marlon Brando of Italian mothers. My charisma reminded her of my father, so she sought to suppress it."

As a child, Arcade says, she was the kind of girl who was talked about in town. "I was perceived to be this girl that everyone had slept with when I was 12 -- no one anyone knew, but they had heard," she recalls. At 13, she was sent to Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls, where she met a girl who had actually posed as her "and went out and used to have all these things with groups of guys and stuff." A lot of this would be explored later in her "all-girl revenge show" Bad Reputation (also the title of an anthology of her work published by Semiotext(e) in 2009) in which she eviscerates the men who abused her, and those who stood by and let it happen. It took her six years to write.

"The definition of sanity is how you deal with terrible things that happen to you," Arcade says. Her solution has been to write about those things, and share them. Like her old friend Crisp, her life has become her own great subject, but one that resonates with her audience. In her shows there's a camaraderie between performer and audience, an old-fashioned sense of communion that is increasingly absent in our impatient culture. "That was the thing that was so incredible about the 1960s, about that whole gay world," says Arcade. "We were all together and we'd all suffered, and we all recognized the beauty of each other. We didn't need middle class approbation. I don't want anyone of the cultural level of Sarah Palin to approve of me."

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