In the streets of Los Angeles and Tehran, in black-and-white and sepia-tinged footage and in Technicolor, in the Wild West and the woods of Japan, you’ll find women wreaking all sorts of havoc. They’re the troublemakers of the world captured on 35mm or 16mm film or VHS, and they’re making their way to the big screen at Yale.
The Yale Film Colloquium, curated by graduate students in Yale’s Film and Media Studies program, will showcase these characters over the course of the semester in a series titled “Bad Girls.” The screenings are tied together by the theme of — you guessed it — bad girls, or what the event flyer describes as “witches, bitches and bad-ass dames.” Many of the films, unearthed from collections at the Yale Film Archive and Sterling Memorial Library, are being screened for the first time on campus. They’ll be complemented by the “Groundbreaking Lesbian Filmmakers” series, also running this semester.
As Kirsty Dootson, doctoral candidate in History of Art, Film, and Media Studies and head of programming for the colloquium, explained to me, “The Bad Girls in the series aren’t just bad because they misbehave, but because they flout conventions of femininity, whatever they may be in a given time and place.” As such, the lineup features female characters in an unlikely but incredible range of contexts, representing both distinctly radical and radically distinct approaches to feminism.
“We’ve had films [sent in] from Australia, Ireland and Pakistan, as well as a lot of films from the U.K. and U.S.A.,” Dootson said, describing the female short-filmmaker showcase that will round off the series. “They range from short documentaries about transgender rights to fiction films about girls fighting at school. We’re still whittling down the submissions, but it’s going to be an incredible program.”
Evidently, there are a lot of ways to be a “bad girl,” wherever you might be in the world. The series kicked off on Sept. 1 with “Suspiria,” Dario Argento’s 1977 Italian horror film set in a German dance academy. Its American protagonist, played by Jessica Harper, finds herself entangled in a candy-colored, M.C. Escher-esque visual delirium as she evades the sinister dealings of a coven of witches.
Other offerings include Rita Hayworth’s classic femme fatale character in “Gilda,” a 1946 American film noir, and Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 crime thriller “Jackie Brown.” Also on the docket are old-school kung-fu film “Challenge of the Lady Ninja” and “Persepolis,” based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel about growing up during the Iranian Revolution.
“PUNK IS NOT DED (sic),” reads the back of Satrapi’s teenaged self’s jacket. Indeed, punk — or at least a certain impetus to rebel against societal norms, to make noise — lives on.
Bad Is Better
A series as political and activist in its nature as this one prompts certain questions: How do these images of the “bad girl” translate to life at Yale? What can we learn from a magazine-editor-turned-serial-killer (“Office Killer”) or a saloon-keeper in Arizona (“Johnny Guitar”)?
Dootson makes an important distinction between women simply “being bad” and those “doing things that they as women are not expected to” — though, of course, there can be considerable overlap depending on contextual definitions of “badness.” Likewise, Broad Recognition Editor-in-Chief Fiona Lowenstein ’16 questioned whether the terms “bad” and “radical” are necessarily interchangeable, although she pointed out that those who try to enact radical change are often labeled “bad,” particularly feminine-identifying people.
At Yale, it’s hard to miss the more colorfully radical manifestations of feminism. Last week, I listened to a neon-clad student discuss metaphors of penetration in the relaxed antebellum ambience of the Pierson Common Room. Though her female peers nodded as she spoke, her words prompted incredulous — almost disapproving — glances from three other students playing chess a few feet away.
There exists a variety — a collage, really — of ways whereby the images of the “bad girl” considered by the film series can translate to academia, to the classroom and the seminar table. Some of the baddest girls on campus, Dootson believes, are those who question the gender-based assumptions of their peers and teachers. She cited one example: Male colleagues who believe women are particularly well-suited to administrative roles, as opposed to intellectual labor.
“If Kathleen Hanna can say ‘girls to the front’ at a show, then we should be able to do it in the classroom at Yale,” Dootson said, referring to one of riot grrl’s main proponents.
Likewise, Isis Davis-Marks ’19 has noticed that, although women do talk in class, the predominant voices tend to be male. She said she hoped we can deconstruct the paradigm that the people who are most willing to talk aren’t always women.
“One of the ways you can be a ‘bad girl,’” she believes, “is to combine discourse with activism.” Asserting that there are more radical forms of activism than simply talking and writing, she plans to contribute to campus publications on issues like elitism and sexism while also engaging in community outreach and the Black Women’s Coalition, among other endeavors.
Sometimes, moreover, a personal feminism may not fit within established spaces on campus. As a black student, for instance, Davis-Marks expressed her concerns that feminism at Yale may be too narrow and hopes to build a stronger culture of activism.
Crystal Liu ’16, who identifies as a queer woman of color, has sought for answers beyond the walls of the Yale Women’s Center or the Asian American Cultural Center. Though she applauds the work undertaken by both organizations, there seemed to be something missing.
“I couldn’t find a place for my response to these issues in controlled spaces,” Liu said.
She joined the Bad Romantics of Yale, a drag, burlesque and cabaret troupe, and also writes and performs with the Sphincter Troupe, an all-feminine-identified sketch comedy group. Many of her feminist discussions take place in the context of queer activism, in which, she believes, there is more common ground.
The flyer for “Bad Girls,” designed by artist Mike Zimmerman, evokes a time and place remembered for its confrontational feminism. With a bold near-whimsicality that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chem 101 notebook of a teenage girl with a closet full of patched denim jackets, Zimmerman’s design hearkens back to the collage-y, do-it-yourself aesthetic of the ’90s riot grrrl movement.
A subculture centered around female punk artists from Bikini Kill to Sleater-Kinney, riot grrrl became known for its emphasis on political and personal expression over technical ability and its rebellious take on issues such as female empowerment and sexual violence.
In his design, Zimmerman said, he sought to pull together rich imagery from all the films in order to capture the overall spirit of the series. “This specific interplay of type, imagery, collage is characteristic of a style I do often working for bands [and] promoters on posters,” he explained, “so that would probably play up the punk feel of things.”
Though they had been around for decades, zines became a staple of the riot grrrl movement. Small, easily distributable DIY publications (think scissors, Elmer’s glue, Scotch tape and Xerox) featuring visual art and writing, they allowed the communication of explicitly activist themes outside the venues of mainstream media and were also adopted by queer activists and activists of color.
And as the “Bad Girls” poster indicates, this aesthetic persists among artists and illustrators today — something Zimmerman describes as “an ever-evolving nod to DIY and riot grrrl.” Zines thrive on the shelves of independent bookstores and on the Etsy handmade goods marketplace, and they thrive at Yale, expanding creative possibilities beyond the traditional format of campus publications.
In the spring of 2012, former Broad Recognition editor-in-chief Isabel Ortiz ’14 had an idea to start a zine; the first issue of Fatale was published on the magazine’s website the following fall. The undertaking was “a way of investigating and acquiring fluency in a feminist language (both visual and verbal) that originated in zines and is now experiencing a huge comeback online, through Tumblr and other blogs,” Ortiz said over email.
Though Ortiz and her collaborators were fans of the ’90s feminist zines created by Le Tigre and others, Fatale wasn’t simply going to be an object of nostalgia. Rather, they wanted to move forward from the medium’s history and create a new kind of zine to represent new voices in new ways. Fatale’s earliest issues cobbled together influences and iconographies from a variety of times and places: bell hooks and Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, Lillian Gish and characters from the television show “Adventure Time.”
“What always excited me about Fatale was that it served as a space for play and creative experimentation,” former Broad Recognition zine editor Andrew Wagner ’15 explained. That approach, he believes, “is in many ways very related to the politics of feminism and its insistence on breaking down social constructs, gender norms and so on.”
“FIGHT BACK!” reads the first issue of Fatale. “WE ARE STRONG. WE ARE UNAFRAID. WE ARE HERE TO STAY.”
Feminism(s) For Everyone
Manifestations of feminism at Yale vary in their artistic and political approaches, in the questions that they address and the ones they leave out, but they have a shared zeal for advocacy on campus. Yale Women’s Center Public Relations Coordinator Alexa Derman ’18 expressed her hesitation to speak in the capacity of a representative of an umbrella organization for a variety of different feminist groups and sensibilities.
“We try to encourage people to examine and discover their own feminisms rather than prescribing our own belief structures on activism and visibility,” she explained in an email.
Similarly, Lowenstein emphasized Broad Recognition’s collaborative ethos, noting that she reaches out to many campus organizations, from cultural centers to performing arts groups, in order to publish a wider range of opinions on feminist issues.
“Our board and staff are comprised of CCEs [Communication and Consent Educators], Women’s Center staffers, Sphincter Troupe performers and Coop members, among many others,” she said.
In a climate of considerable hand-wringing over the demonstrations and “political correctness” of campus leftists, there seems to be a general assumption — even among those with basically progressive beliefs — that an approach based on radicalism necessarily limits accessibility and inclusivity.
“Bad Girls” suggests, however, that we can talk about a multiplicity of ways to be radical, and that’s reinforced by the multiplicity of feminisms that exist on campus. The films present contexts that are ostensibly alien to one another, yet each with its own possibilities for transgressing boundaries of identity and behavior — and every transgression, however minor, is at least a little bit radical. In doing so, they remind us that while the “bad girl” might not appeal to a great number of girls and women out there, she has the power to resonate with a great many types.
As Dootson says, “We need to keep asking ourselves what it means to be a strong woman — what does that look like? Our series offers a lot of different answers.”
More information about the Yale Film Colloquium can be found at http://www.yalefilmcultures.com/
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firstname.lastname@example.org .Grrls Run the World