Fifteen years ago the Spice Girls flogged the concept of Girl Power, or ‘feminism with a Wonderbra’, as they described it. Shortly before her death ten years ago Kathy Acker – the pro-sex feminist writer – interviewed the group for The Guardian. She was bewildered by their political naïveté but charmed by the positivity and bravery with which they took on the music industry without a thesis to their names.
So what would Acker think about the showcase of films either written, directed, produced or featuring women shown during the London Short Film Festival, a few miles away from the O2 Arena where the Spice Girls are playing one of their reunion shows? Certainly the films chosen by Sarah Wood and Selina Robertson of Club des Femmes would have received her thumbs up. After all, they included Fuses, the sexually incendiary film depicting Acker’s friend and ally Carolee Schneemann having graphic, loving sex with her then partner.
The amazing thing about Fuses is that it still has the power to shock, embarrass and delight. Not for any Nuts or Loaded wet dream could a woman look so content in a carnal setting. Not only that, but shots spliced into the sex scenes reveal she’s in a happy relationship which extends out of the bedroom. This woman has it all – both the feminism and the Wonderbra.
Moving forward in time, Acker’s own screenplay for Variety shows how, despite the ardent women’s movement of the previous two decades, the 1980s could still be an oppressive place for women. The female characters are forced to make a living as strippers and barmaids for lack of work, the photographer having to graft in a bar full of lecherous men while waiting for a sale, while lead character Christine is looking for a job that doesn’t list having a big bust as its main requirement.
Variety is beautifully shot as should be expected from a film starring cult photographer Nan Goldin. But while the supporting female characters are sharply drawn, in particular through their discussions of their lives and loves, the depiction of Christine remains blurred. She somnambulates through life, aimlessly smoking cigarettes in the foyer of the porn cinema in which she begins to work, having an answerphone relationship with her mother and a nonchalantly half-hearted relationship with a man who couldn’t care less about her personal development.
As she becomes more involved with her new job and the mysterious businessman who frequents the cinema, her feelings and desires become clearer but more problematic. She begins to follow him around the dark underworld of the city in which he works, watching him from afar. Stalking him as far as Staten Island, which he visits for a shady business trip, she takes the motel room next to his and goes through his things while he’s out. Rifling through his bag she finds a hardcore porn rag and is amazed by the pictures she sees.
In this way, Acker questions the male gaze of cinematic tradition: Christine is the woman looking at the man looking at the woman. In the same way, she begins to compose erotic prose which she recites to her distant boyfriend. But it isn’t until she trusses herself up in a sexy outfit and admires herself in the mirror that the gaze comes full circle and she controls both the gaze and the reflection. Or in other words, the feminism and the Wonderbra.
Go forward twenty years and the short films showcasing either female characters or females behind the camera show a drastically different world. Screened as part of Dazzle Short Film Label’s programme ‘Lipstick Cherry’, 100th of a Second depicts a front-line war photographer winning a prize for a shot showing the horrific killing of a child. It is a chilling look at the media’s representation of war zones and the conflict between the need to document and the temptation to exploit. Is it her female sensitivities that riddle her with guilt or the pure horror of the memories that haunt her? Things twenty years on are not so clear-cut.
In ‘Femmes Fantastique’ – a programme of new shorts depicting women with attitude, collected by Wood and Robertson – A Short Collection of Hilary Flamingo’s Dream Vocations shows a woman at work. She escapes the factory where she works by thinking of other jobs she would like to do. A wig designer, painter of men’s bare bottoms or showgirl are just some of the colourful ‘moving photos’ of Hilary’s imagination. Not anchored in the viewer’s mind by her marital status or sexual availability she is free to play out her fantasies without being judged as silly or childish. Hilary is a lovable, flamboyant character, proving LSFF organiser Kate Taylor’s belief that ‘interesting female characters on screen are as important as those behind the cameras’.
Similarly the character in When the Telescope Came – which won the Club des Femmes award – lets herself be taken away by her imagination in a beautifully rendered animation. Elsewhere, New Love depicts a world where beautiful women pay to court and have sex with beautiful men – a helpful set-up for the protagonist whose short memory makes it nearly impossible for her to form lasting relationships. The last couple of years have seen a growth in the number of artistic depictions of women who pay for sex and this was an interesting development of the trend as the woman in question was not fulfilling an emotional need but a practical one.
From a feminist point of view there is still more fighting to be done for and on behalf of women. It was disappointing not to see any films tackling things like sex trade trafficking, the appallingly low conviction rate for rape, and the disregard for women needing to work while bringing up children. But having said that, the overwhelming majority of films made by women shown during the festival were bold, thoughtful and entertaining. They showed that the emancipated women of today don’t have to choose between active feminism and Wonderbras. Now women can concentrate on what interests and excites them – be that astrology, sex, war or cupcakes. Acker certainly would be proud.