As the Bird’s Eye View Film Festival reminds us every year, there is still only a ridiculously small proportion of female directors working in the film industry. But while filmmaking remains a male-dominated world, there have been numerous opportunities within the movies themselves for women to get even. In a list where exploitation meets feminism, we look at ten of the sassiest, sexiest, baddest girls in the history of cinema.
1- Irma Vep (Les Vampires, 1915)
Played by Mademoiselle Musidora, Irma Vep was the first film villainess to don a catsuit to commit her dastardly deeds. Part of a gang of thieves and murderers called Les Vampires (her name is an anagram), she is indeed one of the original vampy heroines of cinema in more ways than one. Her carnal curves molded by an almost indecent, slightly see-through black fabric (latex was still decades away from being invented), a mask hiding all but her eyes adding to the kinkiness of the whole outfit, she prowls the rooftops of Paris like the repressed desires of the corseted middle-class incarnated. She is the bourgeoisie’s most scandalous and delicious nightmare, both the temptress that no man can resist, and the low-class criminal who threatens the social order.
2- Lulu (Pandora’s Box, 1929)
What makes Pandora’s Box truly exceptional is the union of Louise Brooks’ unique beauty, fiercely independent spirit and devil-may-care attitude with the character of Lulu, the childlike femme fatale, the guileless siren who causes ruin and death around her simply for following her desires. In Georg W. Pabst’s brilliantly ambiguous film, Lulu’s free spirit is punished at the end in a remarkable encounter with the ultimate woman-hater, Jack the Ripper. She remains, however, the subversive primitive force that cannot be controlled by social rules, and whose ability to live in absolute freedom can only cause chaos and disorder.
3- Gilda (Gilda, 1946)
The femme fatale of film noir is a feverish, paranoid creation that sprang up from post-WWII male unease. Beautiful but treacherous, calculating and selfish, she irresistibly drives men to self-destruction, using her charms to get what she wants. Too threatening for the male ego, she is brutally punished – often by death – for her provocative freedom and confident manner. But while male anxiety demanded the destruction of the femme fatale, it also magnified her power, creating some magnificent, unforgettable female characters. In Gilda, the ex-lover Johnny Farrell and the new husband Ballin Mundson do all they can to reign in Gilda’s devastating sensuality. Both uncomfortable about her dangerous allure and her free ways, they take refuge in what can only be described as a homoerotic friendship. But no matter how controlling Mundson is or how much Johnny denigrates her as sluttish, Gilda, played by a sublime Rita Hayworth, remains irrepressible, and the famous scene of the glove strip-tease only shows off the two men’s impotence. Treated as the ultimate object of desire, the femme fatale‘s only weapon is sex, and she doesn’t hesitate to wield it for power, doing what she must to survive in a man’s world.
4- Varla (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965)
‘Russ Meyer’s ode to the violence in women’, proclaims the subtitle, and never before had audiences seen a female character beat the crap out of preppy idiots and dodgy cowboys with such spunk and vigour. Tura Satana cuts a formidable figure as the spectacularly bosomed, raven-haired, black-clad and thoroughly evil-looking vixen who can kill with her bare hands. The film may be labelled ‘exploitation’, but this is as much about female fantasies as male ones. Satana’s spectacular cleavage is no sign of availability and she is more likely to use brute force than charm to get what she wants. There had been dangerous females in cinema before but until this women had never been able to compete with a man in hand-to-hand combat (although Attack of the 50 Foot Woman introduced the idea, the ‘attack’ only takes up a short section of the movie and is explained as the result of a freak accident involving aliens). That’s why the fact that Satana is so physically powerful is insanely exhilarating to female audiences, used to seeing women depicted as weak, as well as encumbered by dresses, long nails and high heels for so long. Some may see this as a simplistic reversal of roles, but as the mainstream cinema of the time favoured frail, painfully thin actresses (Mia Farrow being the most glaring example) who looked ready to be slapped around and victimised at the first opportunity, and as this trend would only get worse in the following decade (see almost any film by Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, etc), the kind of primitive retribution that Satana metes out to men is all the more satisfying.
5- Otsuya (Irezumi, 1966))
Although there is an undeniable ambivalence on the part of Yasuzo Masumura towards his female characters, they are always the most individualistic, unconstrained and alive figures in his films. They are the ones most likely to rebel against society and challenge its oppressive rules and traditions. Otsuya, the young girl sold into prostitution who becomes a fearsome geisha after an artist tattoes a spider on her back, is one of Masumura’s most stunning creations. A complex, captivating character, she is a cruel, selfish, manipulative, murderous man-eater as well as a strong, independent woman who lives by her own rules.
6- Bonnie Parker (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967)
Bonnie and Clyde may have been inspired by the French new wave, but while Godard & co.’s women were often whiny, silly, misogynistic creations, Arthur Penn dreamt up a true action woman capable of wielding a gun with her chic beret still perfectly in place. Bonnie is not simply Clyde’s sidekick but is a true outlaw in her own right, fully and fearlessly embracing crime. What’s more, Bonnie is an unusual female character for the period in that she is the sexually confident, experienced one in the relationship, while Clyde, bold and gutsy as the gang leader, is nervous and uneasy whenever it comes to sexual intimacy.
7- Sasori (Female Convict Scorpion, 1972-73)
In the late 60s, Japanese cinema developed a taste for vicious female yakuzas and delinquent gang leaders. The mixture of violence and nudity was meant to boost a declining audience, but as in the case of Faster Pussycat and Foxy Brown, what was meant as exploitation cinema allowed new types of subversive female characters to appear. Of all the ‘pinky violence’ anti-heroines, the laconic Sasori (Scorpion), played by Meiko Kaji, remains the most interesting. The combination of her dark beauty and Shunya Ito’s inspired direction bring mystery and charisma to the character of a female prisoner intent on revenge against the male authority figures who have wronged her. As in Masumura’s films, the central female character is the ultimate rebel, and represents absolute freedom against the male-imposed rules of society. Meiko Kaji followed the role of Sasori with Lady Snowblood, another female avenger striking down male villains in early twentieth-century Japan. The line between female exploitation and female empowerment in ‘pinky violence’ is a fine one, and while Female Convict Scorpion and Lady Snowblood work because they contain very little nudity and focus instead on conjuring up a strong central character, other films such as Female Yakuza veer too much towards sexploitation. Reiko Ike does her energetic best in the title role to create a spirited, rebellious gambler, but the film is so crammed with gratuitous scenes of naked fighting girls that, while female audiences can appreciate the deranged excess of the film, Female Yakuza can never be a leader in the bad girls’ pack.
8- Foxy Brown (Foxy Brown, 1974)
Women had a lot of avenging to do in the 70s… In this blaxploitation classic, Pam Grier plays a woman who goes after the drug pushers responsible for the deaths of her boyfriend and her brother, inflicting an eye-popping, brutal revenge on them. Drug gangs are also the villains in Grier’s earlier film Coffy and in Cleopatra Jones (starring Tamara Dobson in the title role): the women of blaxploitation not only hit back at the evil men in power but also perform a public service by ridding the black community of the criminals that have oppressed it for too long. Just like Tura Satana, Pam Grier and the 6-foot-2 Tamara Dobson are both spectacular women and can compete with men on an immediate, primitive, physical level. These films may have been part of Hollywood’s cynical attempt to cash in on black audiences’ new-found appetite for the movies, but with the rest of the blaxploitation crop peddling ultra-sexist views (see Shaft or Superfly), films such as Foxy Brown and Coffy offered a rare empowering view of African-American women.
9- Perdita Durango (Perdita Durango, 1997)
Perdita Durango snarls and spits out menacing one-liners like she’s Tura Satana’s little sister (smaller, but certainly no less fierce). A true wildcat, she is no mere sidekick to her demonic sorcerer/criminal lover Romeo (played by Javier Bardem, sporting a pre-No Country For Old Men outrageous haircut), but is the one who suggests kidnapping a couple of hapless American teenagers with the view of torturing and killing them – for fun. Perdita and Romeo are fascinating monsters, characters of excess who know no limits and are beyond the rules and morals of conventional society. For all the comic book quality of the story, Perdita is a surprisingly rounded character, made more complex by her relationship to Romeo and by the flashbacks that reveal the hard-knock life she’s been leading. In the end, while Romeo is doomed by his superstitions and his inflexible code of honour, Perdita proves she’s a tough-skinned survivor.
10- Lee Geum-Ja (Lady Vengeance, 2005)
After completing the first two films in his revenge trilogy, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, director Park Chan-wook decided to focus on a female character in the final instalment. Just out of prison, Lee Geum-ja is intent on revenge against the man who had her convicted of murder and ruined her life. But while revenge in Sympathy and Oldboy was complex and multilateral, with characters that came in all shades of grey, Lady Vengeance is a somewhat simplistic, black-and-white portrait of a half-angelic, half-evil figure. In fact, she is more white than black as we soon find out that she’s not even guilty of the crime of which she was convicted. Did Park Chan-wook have trouble imagining a woman who could be as radically amoral, angry and cruel as his male characters? Lady Vengeance should have been the direct successor to Female Convict Scorpion and Lady Snowblood but, disappointingly, she’s just not quite bad enough.