The frontiers of feminism
The situation of feminist rebellion on the nostalgic terrain of 'virgin land' by Hollywood had begun to take on more overtly lesbianised codings by the 1990s which (in an uncanny reprise of strategies of 1970s New Women's Cinema) were carefully controlled in the heterosexual feminist film The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) and gleefully exploited in the male-directed Bad Girls (1994). In the more queer-friendly 1990s, the adolescent tomboy was transformed to a more adult female protagonism which did not seem so carefully hedged about with disavowals or denials of lesbianism. The new westerns have been readier to engage with the 'problem' of 'post-feminist' female sexuality. This is, perhaps, enabled by the positioning of the western scenario at the 'frontier' of nature and culture — a space which nostalgically opens out relatively plastic boundaries of sex and gender. By the 1980s, Thelma and Louise had generated a nostalgic imaginary through which women could play out fantasies of (phallic) proactivity whose female-homoerotic implications were barely controlled by the narrative closure at the destination of 'impossible signs'. In the 1990s, the tendency has been towards a self-reflexive exploration of the implications of female proactivity for the hierarchical organisation of hetero-sex. That is, how to re-negotiate a feminine sexuality which remains in contradiction with the figure of the pro-active woman.
It is interesting to note that the feminist-directed film The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), a fictionalised biography of a woman living as a man, apparently had little impact in lesbian sub-culture and was strongly criticised by lesbian reviewers (Modleski, 1995/6). What apparently disappointed lesbians was the repression of the lesbian implications of its heroine's crossdressing (Modleski, 1995/6). This might seem rather unexpected given the traditional lesbian enthusiasm for cross-dressing western tomboys, the ecstatic lesbian reception of Thelma and Louise, and the relatively warm reception of Bad Girls. This lack of enthusiasm would not seem to be reductively explicable in terms of the film's negative representation of male homosexuality — which was barely mentioned in bad reviews by lesbians.
The stylisation of Ballad's crossdressed protagonist, Little Jo, differs markedly from that of the more traditional tomboy. Jo's character shuffles apologetically and looks at the ground in order to avoid direct, and potentially confrontational, eye-contact. This actually references a heterosexual-feminine production of self-in-space. It disrupts the alignment of the spectatorial gaze with heroic protagonism which offers spectators a fantasy of controlling mastery of the classical film-text and into which female protagonism is customarily substituted. Despite acquiring a degree of physical competence and economic independence as the narrative progresses, Jo nevertheless appears to remain enclosed in the feminine 'bubble' of self-restraint. On the whole, lesbians might feel that, even in the 19th Century, a woman would be very lucky to 'pass' at such a low level of what 'The Children' might have called 'realness'. Furthermore, any inference of female homoeroticism which might potentially open out in the destabilisation of the gendered relay by crossdressing in Ballad has been carefully avoided. In particular, by strategically positioning an Asian male character as (thus feminised) object of Jo's desire in the film's visual spatial organisation of desire.
The 1990s saw a modest wave of mainstream, girl-buddy action films which, given the 'knowing' deconstruction of the gendered scopic relay which they effect, can be assumed to be conscious of marketing to female or feminist audiences if not actually being female-addressed. Bad Girls and Set It Off were, on the other hand, very clearly formulaically stitched together from diverse elements of previously successful 'female-buddy' movies and other modes of female protagonism. The main plot elements are taken from Thelma and Louise: first equilibrium in economic, domestic, and/or sexual exploitation; violent trauma; escape to second equilibrium on the road; second trauma, usually theft of escape money and/or capture of a character; women 'explode' into violence; final equilibrium = death of some or all female characters and/or successful re-heterosexualising of those remaining. Both Thelma and Louise and Bad Girls self-reflexively disrupt the gendering of the relay with the result that, as with 1970s and 1980s feminist buddy films, a subtextual lesbianism is invoked. Traditionally, such subtextual possibilities are foreclosed. Thelma and Louise's homoeroticism ends at the destination of impossible signs (death). Bad Girls, however, whilst it still effaces any sexualised lesbian expression, does actually permit two women and a tomboy to go off into the sunset à trois.
Bad Girls (1994) is a contemporary, self-conscious, attempt to reproduce the narcissistic homosocial wilderness band as (post)feminist 'civitas' (Rosenthal, 1978: 19), complete with hints of a lesbian relationship between two of the central characters. It may be that, in contrast to the female buddy-duo, whose pleasures for the lesbian spectator seem bound up in the homoeroticisation of the women, Bad Girls, in the tradition of the female convent, school and prison genres, feminises an institutionally — or in this case symbolically — male space. Bad Girls crosses generic boundaries combining (as did Thelma and Louise) codes of rape-revenge, buddy, and road movies (all sub-genres of the basic Western format). Relationships within the diegesis are coded in many of the ways described in Rosenthal's (1978) discussion of the subtextual homoeroticism produced in the male buddy movie. Crossdressing and role-playing are also hinted at in the relationship between Drew Barrymore's wild tomboy and the Andi MacDowell's ultra-femme.
Although it has a (somewhat rambling and highly ironised) realist narrative, Bad Girls is mainstream camp both in its 'knowing excess' of the discursive limits of gender and in its foregrounding of its own scenarios as fantastic. Only Eileen's personal narrative is closed off when she returns to the 'reality' of marriage and a farm. The remaining members of the band separate but do not develop a heterosexualising resolution to their personal narratives. Besides aligning the women with the phallic freedom of the male hero/outlaw, this open-endedness avoids the total re-subordination of women's freedom in the 'wilderness' to heterosexualising 'civilisation'.
Bad Girls nevertheless had a poor mainstream critical reception. Its narrative structure and pacing is rambling and eventually falls apart with narrative strands left hanging. Its thematic also shifts arbitrarily from an antinomy between libertine-outlawry and temperance/town (slyly citing libertarian versus feminist sexuality debates as well as genre classics) to inversion of generic gender expectations. The narrative only takes on any kind of coherence when read as a discourse about feminism, gender and the western — which helps explain why (male) critics often found it so completely incoherent.
The disorderliness of the narrative is usually critically attributed to its troubled production history. Originally written by Tamra Davis (known for her feminist independent film Guncrazy), Bad Girls was picked up by 20th Century Fox who fired the 'arty' Davis and replaced her with a more mainstream (that is, male) pro-feminist rape-revenge director, Jonathan Kaplan (known for The Accused). He allegedly had much of Davis' feminism expunged from the script which he saw as "The Wild Bunch with women" and as "cowboy-camp". The result was described by Time Out (June 1-8, 1994: 22) as "a high-concept, low-intellect movie." Kaplan also insisted that Davis had scripted "no action" and that "[w]omen should get to do action stuff" (Pearce, 1994: 76). Accordingly, the actors allegedly did many of the stunts themselves. The resultant "feminismo" (Pearce, 1994: 76), along with its self-reflexive disruption of the gendered relay and generic narrative codes, probably goes some way to establishing the film's lesbian appeal. However, the film also effects at least a partial inversion of both the gendered narrative coding and visual order of the classical Western.
The settings are mostly exterior, in line with western generic iconography and thematic. Even The Kid's bedroom is actually outside, accentuating his generic exteriority to civilisation. The generic narrative association of women with the domestic, civilising/repressive role and the oscillation of a male hero between nostalgia and responsibility is inverted. In the opening scenes, the women are expelled from the closed space of the town brothel into the open wilderness. Rather than representing "civilisation," the town-society is both repressive and exploitative towards our heroines' sexuality. Cody shoots a townsman who has assaulted Anita, setting the narrative in motion. Cody's refusal to be sexually abused sets off the Kid's involvement in the narrative. The Kid's reference to the sexual assault of McCoy's mother will set off McCoy's involvement in the narrative. Mike's reference to his near-rape of Lily sets off the final bloodbath. All narrative actions are driven by refusals of male sexual abuse — doing-to-death the 'rape revenge' motivation which also motors Thelma and Louise's narrative. Eileen is the only female character who is never faced with the threat of sexual assault — and she is also the character who knowingly uses heterosexual feminine 'masquerade' as a means of control and manipulation.
Following the murder, Cody is arrested and a lynching set up. The other three load bags into a wagon and gallop into the lynching, and all escape in traditional outlaw style. On the road, a rattlesnake bolts the wagon horses and, extremely unusually, the women are shown engaged in the hard physical work of replacing the wheel. Lily heads off the bolting horses, jumping from horse into wagon with tomboy derring-do. This tomboy activity is here uncharacteristically framed in a female centred world. She is not "saving" helpless women, but contributing her particular skills to the female community's collectivised effort. The women stop off to pitch camp and are shown bathing, initially positioned through the classical relay as heterosexual erotic spectacle for the implicitly male spectator. But this is immediately undercut by repeated exchanges of looks between the women. Anita and Cody exchange particularly intimate looks, building on the lesbian implications of Cody having protected Anita from rape in the opening scenes. When Cody climbs out of the water lash scars appear on her back, foregrounding not only a type of 'castration' signifier (scarring), but also the disturbing inference of sadism underlying the voyeuristic effect of the heterosexual relay. She is positioned by the relay as sexual spectacle but she is actually established by the editing as diegetically in Anita's visual point of view, further foregrounding and disrupting the gendered relay.
As Cody faces McCoy, she is momentarily edited into his diegetic gaze, naked except for the gun she is pointing at him. Instead of re-establishing the male visual order, the diegetic male spectator of the eroticised-feminine appears in the sights of Cody's phallicising handgun. She lets him go, although she doesn't entirely trust him (and nor do we!). He will, however, emerge as the nearest thing to a male hero in the narrative. The murdered man's wife has set detectives to follow and catch up with the runaways in the next town, at which simultaneously The Kid happens to be robbing the bank. He seems a sympathetic character at first, an ex-lover of Cody's who lets her have her money which she was having difficulty getting from the bank. The expectation is set up that she will be the kid's 'dark-girl'. The ultra-femme Eileen cannot get on her horse which bolts and she is captured. As in Thelma and Louise, a second equilibrium is established in which the women are now believed to be bank robbers. Eileen is imprisoned by the Sheriff's deputy, William. She starts trying to seduce him into letting her go.
Within the group, two sets of women pair off into 'butch-femme' couplings: The authoritative Cody and the nurturing Anita; and the tomboy Lily with the ultra-femme-manipulative Eileen. The 'butches' set out to protect the 'femmes'. Lily goes off to rescue Eileen who, however, has already flirted the prison guard into letting her out. They lock him in the cell to protect him from sanction (in the first narrative instance of the women protecting men reciprocally). McCoy emerges as "hero," but this phallic status is compromised by his disempowerment in his initial encounter with Cody, by his containment in this female space, and through the narrative centrality of Cody's protagonism. Furthermore, despite the male character's presence in the scene, it is Anita and not McCoy who comforts Cody after she has been beaten up by the Kid, touching her hair in a comforting but also intimate and erotic way. There is some suggestion of eroticism between Cody and McCoy but no heterosexual activity is shown.
Whilst at his holeup, Cody spies out Kid's plans to hold up a military train for gold and a Gattling gun. They decide to stage a counter-holdup for money and for revenge. McCoy's specific skills are useful to the women and he is incorporated into the feminine order on an equal basis. The gradual absorbtion of McCoy's character into the female collectivity by involving him in the same undercutting and reversals of the phallic narrative codings and positioning in the scopic relay give him a similar degree of gender indeterminacy (in terms of the institutional mode of cinematic representation at least) as the women characters. This is extremely unusual for a popular narrative. Effectively, Bad Girls' narrative development tends towards valorisation of a feminised collectivism over phallic individualism. As with Thelma and Louise, this marks a major departure from the 'fascistic' constitution of the male 'civitas' as represented in the traditional western buddy film. Whilst Hollywood had, by the 1980s, shifted somewhat in its classical tendency to represent female collectivism as evil, the non-pathologising involvement of a male character in such a collectivised, feminised space remains an extremely unusual heterosexualising technique. It was also very obviously one which did not wash with the heterosexual male spectator (that is, it failed to provide a satisfactory site for male identification).
The band successfully gets possession of the gun but Kid captures Lily with his whip around the waist (extending the castration signifier from the butch Cody to the tomboy Lily). They counter-capture Kid's father Frank, intending to swap him for Lily. Whilst in captivity, Frank goads Anita by telling her that her land-claim is worthless without her husband — typically the Kid's associates rub in women's gender disadvantage. He then winds up Cody, and McCoy. This goading is crosscut with the scenes in which the threat of rape by the Kid closes in on Lily, interconnecting Anita's economic disadvantage with the narratively ever-present threat of rape. They laugh at her that she doesn't look like much of a whore in her "pants" (trousers) and force her to put on Cody's dress. This is connectively cut with Cody's displays of phallic authority in her dealings with Frank.
Cody and Lily have already been phallically coded: Cody by her capable authority and Lily by her athletic skill, her drinking prowess, and her trousers. Both masculinised women are paired to a feminised woman. However, this inversionist coding of the women is also undercut as they are all subjected to feminising forms of sadistic control by men at some point. Both of the 'butches' are captured and sexually assaulted by the Kid. Nevertheless, Lily and Cody maintain defiance throughout their ordeals. Lily kicks and spits at the Kid. Frank goads Cody but she doesn't 'rise'. He then goads McCoy boasting of raping his mother and McCoy shoots him. Cody is angry that he can't "keep himself reigned in" so that now they can't trade Frank for Lily. That is, he lacks Cody's feminine self-control, which is thus valorised over his phallic activity. Cody then expels McCoy from the feminine 'civitas'. The further implication is that she values Lily, woman-to-woman loyalty, and self-control, above any heterosexual interest in McCoy.
The women set off to try to free Lily anyway by trading her for the Gattling gun. McCoy arrives, blasts into the holeup, and Lily is able to escape. McCoy's and Lily's phallic activity is set up in the 'Indiana Jones' mode of fantasy heroics. McCoy's single-handed heroism is both exciting and comic in its incredibility. McCoy's brief reign as action hero is immediately undercut again by his capture in place of Lily, however. The women ride to the camp to trade the Gattling gun for McCoy instead of Lily, again emphasising the feminisation of McCoy. McCoy has been beaten by Kid, as were the 'butch' women, further identifying McCoy with the women. Cody hands over the Gattling gun, but the Kid shoots McCoy in the back as he walks towards Cody. This disposes of the only remaining candidate for romantic hero. His demise produces an estranging frustration of the expectation of a heterosexualising closure. One of Lily's former rapists goads her in much the same way as Frank had goaded McCoy and (completing the circle of gender-inversions of the women's with McCoy's positions) she shoots her tormentor. This begins a general shootout.
The women regain control of the situation through spectacular displays of feminismo-action. Out fire-powered by the (phallic) Gattling gun, they nevertheless manage to gain control of it. Finally, Kid hides indoors and Cody follows him. As she faces him, he says: "You don't think I'd shoot you in the back do you darling?" It turns out, however, that he actually cannot as he has no bullets. The inversion of the Kid's character is completed. He displays the "feminising" traits of deceitfulness, dishonour, and perverse sexuality. Cody now embodies the masculine values of honour and courage. She gives the Kid a bullet telling him to "die like a man." His reply: "You're a dumb whore" implies that his skill is superior and she should have adopted the 'feminine' course of shooting him unarmed. However, in the event, she draws faster, completing the sequence of gender-inversions and confirming herself as romantic anti-hero. Cody will go off into the wilderness sunset with another woman, thus doubly inverting the western's normalising narrative closures. But Eileen will stay with William, effecting a (marketing) 'window' onto a heterosexual closure, but displacing it by the decision of the other three to remain together in the wilderness. A deep intimacy between Cody and Anita is confirmed in a final exchange of looks.
None of the characters is offered an unqualified 'phallic' mastery. Although McCoy gets somewhat under the lesbian spectator's feet (as it were) in Bad Girls, the shifting positionalities of the characters, which lesbians characteristically associate with a mobile and plastic lesbian subjectivity, seems actually more denaturalising of heterosexuality in this pro-feminist film than in the feminist Ballad. The lesbian implications of the women's appropriation of the power of the gaze, their proactivity and authoritativeness, are interchanged and undercut but not foreclosed. Disruption of scopic regime and narrative expectation disrupts male domination of 'the look' or interpretative control. Voyeurism is constantly frustrated. Intra-female bonding is prioritised in the closure and there are frequent exchanges of looks between female characters, who are also frequently intimately framed together. In spite of featuring all these elements of a lesbian 'subtextual hit', however, Bad Girls does not entirely seem to work for lesbian spectators. Nevertheless, it clearly evidences Hollywood's ability to incorporate a 'window' onto female homoeroticism without alienating heterosexual viewers.