There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Lifetime Guarantee’

For this past Pride Month, the Criterion Channel released a collection of nineteen films under the title “Masc” – a celebration of trans men, butch lesbians, and transmasculine people through film. Buried within the collection was a short little documentary that stands out amongst the others. Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic focuses on SoCal’s sole butch Tupperware saleswoman. The documentary was nearly forgotten until Criterion restored and released it on their service in June. Compared to other films within the collection, an hour-long journey through the ins and outs of Tupperware selling seems like an out-of-place addition. However, Phranc Gottlieb, its subject, is an important piece of the alternative LGBT scene in the latter third of the twentieth century.

Though the film focuses much more on Gottlieb’s career as a Jewish lesbian, folk-singing Tupperware peddler, her previous career as an underground punk icon adds shades to the documentary. However, the transition in Phranc’s career path is incredibly interesting, especially in the much less tolerant 1990s and 2000s. Her choice to switch from an arguably more progressive industry to a multi-level marketing scheme targeting trapped housewives is confusing, especially when examining her earlier music career. The documentary engages with this rift between Phranc’s societal niche and her job on a surface level, but for a twenty-year-old piece of media, it’s interesting to explore.

(COURTESY: Criterion Collection)

Gottlieb’s early musical career started in the 1970s concurrent to the rise of the underground queer punk scene in Los Angeles. By the time she entered the scene at seventeen, she was centered on her butch lesbian identity. She founded the band Nervous Gender, an early progenitor of electropunk, and dazzled audiences with her androgynous look and infectious energy. Throughout the ‘70s she bounced around various punk bands like Catholic Discipline and Castration Squad, the latter of which included other large female figures in the Los Angeles punk scene like Dinah Cancer and Alice Bag. She was also an avowed member of the lesbian separatist movement– a splinter of second-wave feminism– which eventually informed her decision to abandon punk for folk at the turn of the 1980s. She eschewed her birth name Suzy and began going by Phranc (or Phranque) and began a new phase of her career. Marketing herself as the “Jewish lesbian folk singer”, a radically underfilled niche in American folk music, Gottlieb toured as an opener for huge acts like Violent Femmes and The Smiths. While Phranc never quite reached a mass-market appeal, her proclivities for lesbian activism and unapologetic dedication to the early punk community left a massive impact on popular Riot Grrl bands of the 1990s. This apparent lack of care for the heterosexual masses makes Phranc’s career change all the more baffling.

After the murder of her brother, a pause on her touring career, and the critical failure of her self-produced albums Phranc joined the legion of Tupperware as a secondary source of income. Despite touring with mainstream artists, her musical career never quite reached the same heights. Tupperware sales became a way to stay near her partner and child and supplement her income. At the turn of the millennium, Phranc joined her local branch of Tupperware sales and used her folk-singing background to boost her clientele count and sales.

Lifetime Guarantee follows her through her highly successful first year in the Tupperware game. The film shows her unwavering dedication to the company and her unbridled love for co-founder Brownie Wise. Her successes and missteps throughout her first year are documented with precise detail, but her previous career and family life are noticeably absent. Apart from a quick appearance on a local morning show, Phranc dodges any mention of her more countercultural career highlights. Her sole focus is her Tupperware sales and making the deceased Brownie Wise proud. 

Phranc Gottlieb in Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic (COURTESY: Criterion Collection)

Phranc’s dedication to Tupperware, as shown in the documentary, borders on obsession. She overspends on her product backstock and she spends more time organizing parties and selling than seeing her wife and child. It seems like all she can talk about is the history of Tupperware or how much she loves the products and the business; the only diversions in the film are a trip to the barber for her signature flat-top haircut and a few snippets of her personal life. Her dedication seems to pay off as she climbs the ranks of SoCal’s Tupperware sellers. Phranc’s able to reach national acclaim and visit the Tupperware headquarters in Orlando, Florida where she nearly sacrifices the documentary crew to the mosquitos looking for Brownie Wise’s favorite statue on the premises.

However, despite her rapid rise to success, Phranc’s butch identity is at odds with the Tupperware modus operandi. Her fellow salespeople and higher-ups are all traditionally feminine heterosexual women since the multi-level marketing model of the business targets the unfulfilled housewife. As both a successful businesswoman and a dedicated proponent of lesbian separatism, Phranc’s choice to join Tupperware is fundamentally at odds with the company’s target demographics. She’s a novelty, and thus won’t be respected as her housewife peers. W

hile the other SoCal Tupperware ladies treat her cordially, nearly everyone else from customers to other salespeople treat Phranc as an oddity or freak– especially when they harass her about using the women’s restroom or wearing a suit. No matter how much she succeeds, her butch identity will always keep her at arm’s length. Phranc seems oddly fine with this separation– so long as she’s successful– until the last five minutes of the documentary where she breaks down. Despite Phranc’s own admission that her sexuality and gender presentation kept her from the recognition she deserved, she stayed with Tupperware until 2013.

Phranc Gottlieb in Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic (COURTESY: Criterion Collection)

Phranc’s life and career, as outlined in Lifetime Guarantee, is a tale of how assimilation and the stresses of capitalism come for us all. Phranc essentially eschewed all her previous revolutionary views to participate in an industry that alienates people like her. She claims that she chose Tupperware for its co-founder’s tenacity and the pros of being close to home but at the expense of constantly being treated as an outsider despite being a high performer. Her previous career credentials and fame mean nothing to the heterosexual masses.

Despite her willingness to leave her punk fame and her over-exuberance to market Tupperware for over an hour, it’s obvious that she realizes and is trying to make peace with her alienation. No matter her talents or her willingness to play Tupperware’s exploitative game, her butchness means she was never a viable nor profitable face for the company. She left a lifestyle and subculture that allowed her to flounder in the capitalist rat race. For a two-decade-old documentary about a nearly forgotten queercore figure and her assimilation into one of the most heterosexual occupations possible, the film is an interesting study on the niche butch lesbians occupy in society.

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