From the Desk of Witney Seibold:
On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I reviewed the most recent Park Chan-Wook film Stoker, which was all about a teenage girl coming into her own as a proper adult homicidal maniac, thanks partly to the murderous nurturing by her psychotic uncle. In my eye, the film doesn't quite work, but I can admire the small amounts of feminist energy that the flick exuded ever so gently through its Goth set design and rococo aesthetic.
Much more powerfully feminist was the adult feature that we reviewed, Code of Honor, which co-starred our lovely and conversational special guest Kayden Kross. As adult features go, Code of Honor actually had a big budget, some nifty special effects, real guns, real fatigues, and a pretty serious (if somewhat simple) plot about reassembling a team of once-mercenaries to rescue a kidnapped colleague. As Ms. Kross so eruditely pointed out, the film's made by Digital Playground (Code of Honor's production house), so the sex scenes, while intended for men, typically show the women in positions of power and could be seen as female empowerment fantasies just as much as they are male sexual fantasies. The men in Digital Playground films are rarely the assertive instigators of sex, and they are not the kind to humiliate a woman or trick/extort her into coitus. The women are the ones in charge of their own sexual destinies.
Feminism in the 21st century has, according to some sociologists, reached an odd ambivalent state. Looking around at popular culture, you get the idea that girls are being fed a mixed message. On the one hand, girls are encouraged to be smart, strong, creative, and athletic. Perusing the aisles of a Toys “Я” Us reveals scads of toys for girls featuring women in positions of authority or expertise; Marine Biologist Barbie, Veterinarian Barbie, Pediatrician Barbie. We're not far away from Stunt Woman Barbie. But during that same trip to Toys “Я” Us, you'll find just as many – if not more – girls' toys that encourage shallow and materialistic behavior. How many toys, do you think, are devoted to catty, bitchy fashionistas?
The catty toys, however, seem to be encouraging a kind of behavior that was, in the mid-1990s, dubbed Girl Power (or perhaps Grrrl Power). That is to say: It's perhaps possible to be a strong, independent woman, but still snipe friends about their clothing, wear slutty outfits, and dress in a really objectifiable manner. It's not quite classic feminism, but at least there is an independent streak at the core of it.
Of course, in addition to the toys, there have been dozens – if not hundreds – of feature films on the topic of Grrrl Power. Spice World, the 1995 feature film surrounding British pop tarts The Spice Girls, pretty much epitomized this generation's strong/slutty Grrrl Power movement, and I know women in their 20s who grew up with The Spice Girls as role models. Girls of a new generation were empowered, even though it was from shallow, sexy, doll-like women. Of course, sexy women delivering a message of strength to women (even though it was written by men) is hardly a new thing; I'm very fond of the works of Russ Meyer, and especially of his exploitation classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. Those women had enormous breasts, and would still break men's spines on a whim. I could write a whole essay on Faster, Pussycat! and probably will someday. Know that it could top this list.
The film versions of Charlie's Angels don't count. Ever. For anything, really.
But in the spirit of Grrrl Power feminism, Bibbs and I have decided to come up with a list of notable Grrrl Power movies. If there are any women reading, you should watch these movies. A note: all the films on this list will pass The Bechdel Test, a gender bias test conceived of by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (“Dykes to Watch Out For”). The three rules are simple: 1) It has to have at least two [named] women in it, 2) They have to talk to each other, and 3) They have to talk about something besides a man.
Supergirl (dir. Jeannot Szwarc, 1984)
This gloriously clunky, often hated, and notoriously campy 1984 spinoff to the Superman films was sold as a mere female distaff counterpoint to the male-centric superhero ethos that has infected comic books, well, up to this very day (The Avengers has so little female energy, a few critics noticed). And while much of the film's central drama revolves around Kara/Supergirl (Helen Slater) bickering with the evil Selena (Faye Dunaway) over who will be able to boink the local brainless studmuffin first (not to mention a strange preoccupation with fashion-based superpowers), I found that the film is peppered liberally with many, many sweet inter-female moments of candid emotional connection. Well, it's hardly profound, but there are many scenes of Kara, disguised as a human, living in a girls' boarding school with her schoolchum Lucy (Maureen Teefy), and you get a sort of loving, warm slumber-party vibe. These girls care about boys, but when we see them, they're usually just hanging out. Plus it has a woman who beats up rapists, and can lift cars over her head, and certainly that's worth something.
Whip It (dir. Drew Barrymore, 2009)
Roller derby girls have always been pretty much universally cool, going all the way back to the 1970s. In the most recent decade, though, there was a fashionable punk-rock-laced resurgence of roller derby girls, and Drew Barrymore took notice enough to produce and direct a modern-day female empowerment saga all about the ultra-tough derby dolls starring Ellen Page. Page played a tomboyish teenager who, pretty sickened by the dresses and coming-out parties thrust upon her by her doting mother, found solace in a local roller derby crew, where she learned to skate, throw punches, and live happily amongst her flip, funny, violent bohemian co-athletes. The story in this film is pretty trim, but it's sure damn cool, showing any teenagers that might be watching it that you can be physically tough, bruised, and violent... and solidly female. The machisma and female camaraderie is something Barrymore nails perfectly, allowing her characters to be strong people without having to constantly note that These Are Ladies. Not a great film, but one your teenage daughter ought to see nonetheless.
A Little Princess (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 1995)
Leisel Matthews plays an orphaned young rich girl named Sara who is shipped off to a sinister 1940s orphanage in this oft-overlooked children's classic based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The message is very simple: All girls are princesses. And if you forget that you are a princess, you run the risk of turning into the cruel headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). The title immediately invokes images of dress-wearing, pink-clad wailing damsels in distress – a regular staple amongst girls toys to be sure – but director Cuarón wisely re-purposed the callow little girl Disney “princess” image as a symbol for girl power. Sara is a smart, bright, resilient little girl who is forced to live in an attic thanks to a lack of funds from her killed-in-the-war father, but who stands up to her harsh circumstances with imagination (she shares fantastical stories of India with the other orphans), and, more importantly, a refusal to be seen as anything less than a strong little girl. Not as saccharine as Pollyanna, but just as resolutely optimistic, Sara is a great role model for little girls. The film also has the ability to make grown men tear up a little.
Hairspray (dir. John Waters, 1988)
1962, Baltimore. Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is a fat highschooler who dreams of nothing more than appearing on her favorite afternoon dance program “The Corny Collins Show.” She worships the show's star stud Link, and uses a lot of the titular hair product in an effort to get her enormous 1960s hairdo even taller than her peers'; at one point Tracy is moved to special ed for having too tall a hairdo (thank you, John Waters). Something that's especially notable about Hairspray: Tracy's weight is celebrated. Tracy and her mom Edna (Divine) are both big fat women, and only the villainesses dare to make fun of their weight. Everyone else seems only to see a spunky, slightly sassy, but mostly very polite young girl who can dance really well. Well, except for the owner of the Hefty Hideaway, who seems to have a fat girl fetish. Link falls in love with Tracy, and the romance is not seen as a cheap visual comic juxtaposition. Later in the film, Tracy becomes a heroine for civil rights. Hairspray celebrates the strength of these corny, fun gals, and it may be one of the only weight-blind films in cinematic history.
The Craft (dir. Andrew Fleming, 1996)
“We are those weirdos, mister.” Again, not a very good film, but Andrew Fleming's The Craft is most certainly a notable feminist parable for the 1990s and beyond. The film follows a clique of four high school girls as they explore witchcraft as a viable lifestyle choice. The four girls discover that they all have latent magical powers, and go about conducting Wiccan rituals to become stronger, and cast spells to cure their ills. Neve Campbell uses magic to cure permanent scarring on her back. Rachael True uses magic to excel on the swim team. Robin Tunney, the film's heroine uses it to seduce a boy (natch). Fairuza Balk – the poster child for every Goth Grrrl born from 1975 to1999 – uses her magic to kick ass. Sure, there is that story about seducing a boy, but that plot actually turns out to be less about seduction, and more about learning from your mistakes (Tunney accidentally turns her crush into a near-rapist). Most importantly, this film is more about power dynamics within a female clique than it is about magic-based revenge. This is a film about female friendships, not hot, nude witches who seduce to destroy. That's what the 13-film Witchcraft series is for. By the way, if you have all 13 of the Witchcraft movies on DVD or VHS, I'd like to borrow them. It's for research.