Review of 'Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture'
By Christina Schultz
If I’m being honest, Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a long while. It certainly has its merits, and I can see why it has created a stir among the film festival circuit (most notably Cannes and Slamdance), but it is certainly not for the prude or faint of heart.
The disclaimer at the end of the film states:
“Even though this film accurately depicts the actual, crazy shit that people do to women, the characters in this film, including those based on real persons, are fiction.”
Reality, however, is stranger than fiction, and unfortunately the scandalous, outlandish, misogynistic occurrences similar to the ones in Dollhouse have actually happened.
Nicole Brending’s film makes it painfully clear that women have no subjectivity, especially in the pop celebrity world of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and the fictional Junie Spoons (voiced by Nicole Brending). I remember consuming the tabloids, perhaps not as avidly as some, in the 90s and early 00s, unable to believe what I was reading. Female celebrities were particularly demonized and I was made to believe they deserved the “crazy shit” that happened to them. Rather than defend the women for being exploited or question the shady managers and insiders trying to earn a quick buck, I scoffed at them.
What the hell is wrong with society? We have systematically tolerated and even financed the eradication of female subjectivity from American popular culture. Even as a young woman, I had unwillingly aligned myself with the dominant male perspective. The literally frightening puppet show Brending uses as a vehicle for her brutal feminist takedown of the pop (prison) industrial complex jars its viewers to arrive at this realization. We are a large part of the problem.
There are certainly some that still might find Dollhouse hilarious and reminiscent of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police (2004), even in this woke, intersectional feminist, Instagram activism culture, despite the fact the film shows how every point in a womxn’s life is scrutinized to the point of hysteria (another problematic historical term linked to women). The supposed adoration of teen pop stars reveals a scarier obsession and downright hatred, where a woman cannot own her own body, cannot make her own choices, cannot simply be.
Junie Spoons winds up fading away - she literally becomes a sidebar in her own mockumentary - to be replaced by “Trans Junie Spoons” (previously a man named Larry) who undergoes multiple surgeries to become the pop star she felt she was all along. Trans Junie Spoons, however, finds more public support, and literally pushes the real Junie Spoons out of the public eye, because everyone is afraid of appearing transphobic. It is a strange end to this pop puppet porngraphic mockumentary, but it again drives home the sad truth that we might come inside the dollhouse, but certainly without consent.
Rock Salt Releasing will release Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture onto various digital platforms August 11th (Amazon, inDemand, FlixFling, Fandango, Vimeo on Demand).
So be sure to check it out and let us know what you think of the film!
Ella Bergmann-Michel’s Short Documentary Films
By Guest Contributor Sabrina Vetter
For the majority of her career, Ella Bergmann-Michel (1895-1971) was known as a collage artist, a photographer and a pioneer of modern art. For a brief period she added filmmaking to her list of talents. Between 1931-1933, Bergmann-Michel shot five documentary films until the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany eventually forced her to retire from filmmaking because of their avant-garde, even experimental nature. By looking at everyday aspects of society (with particular focus on poverty and unemployment), she observed how individuals live and interact with each other and in what ways they are influenced by their surroundings. In this article, we take a look at Bergman-Michel’s unique film work and how her short films documented realities that shaped public spaces.
New in Frankfurt
Bergmann-Michel’s work in film is undeniably interconnected with Frankfurt, Germany and especially the public housing program called “Neues Frankfurt” – which seems to have started it all for Bergmann-Michel as a film director. “Neues Frankfurt” (“New Frankfurt”), which lasted from 1925 until 1930, was supposed to shape the landscape of housing in Frankfurt, as well as solve the city's housing shortage. It was therefore as much an urban development project as it was a social one. The architectural and interior design concepts developed at that time were decidedly marked by a modern aesthetic, breaking with traditional conventions and focusing on comfort, functionality and homogeneity for standardized housing. All in all, “Neues Frankfurt” was interested in exploring new ways of looking at and creating things. A piece of trivia about this era: the implementation of the architectural designs of “Neues Frankfurt” also marked the birth of the famous Frankfurt kitchen.
In order to get scientists, artists, designers, economists and others on board with the innovative public housing program, the network “Das Neue Frankfurt” was founded within “Neues Frankfurt.” As part of “Das Neue Frankfurt,” a special section focusing on film (also known as the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft für unabhängigen Film”) was founded under the guidance of Bergmann-Michel in 1931. This project aimed to create modern, candid films that were critical as well as informative.
At that time, photographer Ilse Bling, a member of one of Frankfurt’s wealthy Jewish merchant families, introduced Bergmann-Michel to the Dutch architect Mart Stam. Stam, alongside architects Werner Max Moser, Ferdinand Kramer and Erika Habermann, was responsible for planning the construction of the “Henry und Emma Budge Altenheim” as part of Frankfurt’s housing program. It was Stam who proposed that Bergmann-Michel should shoot a film about the nursing home. The final product, the short film “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ (“Where do old people live?”), was supposed to be an instructional film on how to build better nursing homes, while also addressing the ever-growing housing shortage – the heart of “Neues Frankfurt”.
Interestingly, for this first film, Bergmann-Michel wasn’t even equipped to shoot properly. She didn’t own a camera when Stam approached her about the documentary project. A fellow photographer luckily did and handed his camera over to Bergmann-Michel so shooting could begin.
As with all her documentary projects, “Wo wohnen alte Leute?” was about observing everyday events, revealing new as well as previously unseen aspects of public life – and thereby opening up spaces that had remained invisible up to that point. Therefore, this work was not just about simply depicting a building and its individual rooms, walls or corridors; rather, Bergmann-Michel depicted the home as a living organism, in which social interactions between residents show the necessity of space for people to thrive, which is why a building’s architecture is so important. After “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ was finalized, Bergmann-Michel was responsible not only for directing but also for writing, production, cinematography and editing on all further documentary projects.
"Bergmann-Michel depicted the home as a living organism, in which social interactions between residents show the necessity of space for people to thrive, which is why a building’s architecture is so important."
Avant-garde and Experimental
Her second venture „Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose“ (“Unemployed People Cook for Unemployed People”) dove even deeper into observing how individual members of society live alongside each other, by carefully examining social issues like poverty and unemployment. “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” lives in a murky area – just like „Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ – in between showing its audience how people as a collective can do better for the good of all and propaganda. In its final shot, “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” directly addresses its audience in bold letters by stating that “Alle!” ("All!") have to help.
Still, it was with this second film that Bergmann-Michel could truly manifest herself as an avant-garde, even experimental filmmaker. With a 35 mm Kinamo camera in hand – after large film companies denied their interest in shooting a film focused on “Erwerbsküchen” and claimed the money for such a project wasn’t worth it – Bergmann-Michel made the film on her own and against all odds with minimal resources. The director recalls how she put the negative in the Kinamo in dark cellars or in photo shops – if there even was film stock to shoot with in the first place. However, with all required material shot in the end, Bergmann-Michel was able to fulfill the initial task: to shoot a promotional film at the request of the “Verein der Frankfurter Erwerbslosen-Küchen” including images of the everyday events happening in 28 kitchens, where unemployed people handed out 10,000 liters of food to other unemployed people. The goal was to convincingly show that people should donate to support the initiative. Despite no support from larger film companies, Bergmann-Michel finished her short film and it was a success. The film was screened outdoors at Frankfurt’s Hauptwache under the then-Schiller monument, with each showing during the evening generating over 600 Reichsmark.
Incited by this success, Bergmann-Michel went into her 3rd and 4th short features all the more hopeful. This time around, she created films based on her own ideas, not on commissioned works.
During the shooting of “Fliegende Händler in Frankfurt am Main“ (“Peddlers in Frankfurt am Main”), the director relied even more on experimental – even guerrilla – filmmaking techniques. Equipped with a 35mm hand camera, Bergmann-Michel shot material of “Fliegender Händler” – unemployed tradespeople who sold a variety of goods in the streets of Frankfurt to make some money, often without official permits, therefore always hiding or on the run from the police. On the final day of shooting, Bergmann-Michel shot “carnies” performing at the fairground of the central market hangar. Having caught the eye of the police, she counted herself lucky to get the finished material home where she was able to edit the film stock and finish the documentary.
“Fliegende Händler” is especially interesting in terms of space-taking. A woman secretly filming a group of people that is also in hiding, both unlawfully present in the cityscape, was a singular if not unique means of entering public life, especially in 1932, the year of the film’s release. This setup allows for an examination of how women claim their space in the public sphere even when they are prohibited to do so by social, legal or historical limitations. Bergmann-Michel and her guerrilla-style filmmaking used for a documentary about tradespeople illegally selling their goods thereby also tells a larger story about how women filmmakers have for most of film history operated at the margins, if not at times completely invisible. In the end, the director is able to talk about the invisibility of women filmmakers by relating the stories of hiding tradesmen to marginalized female directors.
Her next undertaking was “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” (“Fishing in the Rhön Mountains (by the Sinn)”). This project proved to be less adventurous than its predecessor but even more so calming. Inspired by fishing, Bergmann-Michel made use of a walk along the river Rhön to shoot jumping trout in the water. Not much planning went into this project except for a basic idea gestating in the director’s head; no script, no larger concept, just filming nature and light and shadow and people meeting alongside the shore – shots of moments in time. “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” is therefore documentary filmmaking at its most basic and also at its most essential: pure observation and storytelling frame-by-frame.
Bergmann-Michel’s last filmic venture was cut short. “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” (“Election campaign 1932 (Last Election)”) was shot on the eve of the rise of the Nazi party. Due to the NSDAP’s rejection of “degenerate art” (art that did not support Nazi ideals), this documentary remains a fragment. Bergmann-Michel shot images of Frankfurt during election time - bustling streets and alleys, campaign posters and pamphlets, and lively political debates between voters. Similar to “Fliegende Händler”, Bergmann-Michel looked at the seemingly everyday happenings in Frankfurt’s streets – only this time during a time of election campaigning. However, it was the year 1932 that Swastika banners were most prominent in the streets. The director even was shortly arrested for recording a fist fight in front of an NSDAP election office, a precursor of the looming limitations and bans waiting for all kinds of artists once the Nazi Party won the election of 1932.
Bergmann-Michel abandoned her work on the film in January 1933, the same month that Hitler was named Reich Chancellor. What remains today is 13-minute of cuts between images from the streets of Frankfurt with people going on about their everyday tasks and engaging in political discussions, and posters, signs, flags, party emblems, banners in the weeks leading up to the German federal election in July 1932. There is no dialogue, the shots are only accompanied by music.
Not only did that film become a fragment, Bergmann-Michel was forced to end her work as a filmmaker and indefinitely stop production on all projects. She worked as a graphic designer in London for some years during WWII and was able to return to her work as an artist – even giving lectures on modern painting and filmmaking – producing paintings and collages after the war ended in 1945. “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” remained her last film.
Sabrina Vetter is freelance writer based near Frankfurt, Germany. She received her M.A. in American and English Studies from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, where she focused on film, gender, literature and post-colonial studies. Her previous jobs include editorial assistant at a publishing company and Social Media manager. Besides her freelance work, Sabrina is busy finishing her PhD on marginalized bodies in media, including film and TV. She has also created the Instagram Challenge #365Plus6Films, which will look at 371 films directed by women. Each Monday for the next year, Sabrina will post a list of seven different films directed by women on a specific theme. One film for each day of the week. So be sure to follow her on Instagram!
Edition Filmmuseum, Ella Bergmann-Michel: Dokumentarische Filme 1931-1933
Tagesspiegel, Die Chronistin der arbeitenden Bevölkerung
Remake Film Festival, Alle Filme von Ella Bergman-Michel und das Filmporträt Mein Herz schlägt blau
Body Positive Pinups: A Review of Bombshells and Dollies
featuring cinematographer Marie Ilene
By Christina Schultz
When I hear “Viva Las Vegas”, I think of the 1964 Elvis Presley film and song of the same name. But thanks to the documentary Bombshells and Dollies (Dan Halperin, 2019), I learned that “Viva Las Vegas” now also refers to the world’s largest Rockabilly Festival, for those in the know. Now in its 23rd year (although it was canceled this year due to the coronavirus), the Rockabilly Festival includes music, dancing, a car show, tiki pool parties, jiving classes, a tattoo lounge, burlesque shows, on-site weddings and - the highlight of Bombshells and Dollies - a pinup contest.
Sounds like a typical weekend in Vegas, right? Yes and no. While the 20,000 plus attendees celebrate the music, style and panache of the 1950s, Viva Las Vegas is a modern, liberal update of those turbulent post-war times. While women à la Rosie the Riveter were gaining respect as a valued part of the workforce and filling in the shoes of the damaged and fallen soldiers, women’s rights, including the body, period, and sex positive movements, equal pay and workplace equality, the right to abortions and birth control, trans rights, and so much more, were simply left out of the narrative. Pinups, in particular, looked fairly similar in terms of body type back then; they generally were long, leggy, Barbie Doll shapes.
According to Marie Ilene, cinematographer for Bombshells and Dollies, filmmaker, burlesque dancer and Rockabilly enthusiast, the modern day Rockabilly pinup community is completely different, which the documentary makes clear. Marie explains how the women in the community are incredibly supportive of one another, welcoming of all bodies and allowing an overall atmosphere of empowerment to thrive. Rather than lamenting the supposed shortcomings of the body and discussing what “needs” to be changed, women discuss their bodies openly and share tips for where to find clothes that actually fit them, no matter what their shape or size. The vintage clothing the women don, Marie states, is actually made to celebrate curves. This is what makes the pinup contest so different from other beauty contests out there.
The winner of VLV ‘18 (2015), the contest featured in the film, is Miss Victory Violet, and she definitely (at least at the time of filming) has curves. The other contestants range from petite dollies to big babes and everything in between. Over the course of the film, we become acquainted with the 12 contestants: Angie Honeyburst, Brittany Jean, Dixie Delight, HellCath, Jayne Dean, Ivy Fox, Marilia Skraba, Miss Lulu Devine, Miss Victory Violet, Pinup Little Bit, Ruby Red and The Blue Haired Betty and see such a range of styles, colors and bodies - no beauty standard BS going on here! We also learn that each woman has her own unique reason for joining the pinup scene: to support veterans, to feel empowered, to promote body positivity, to reclaim their bodies from society, bullies and damaging beauty standards, but also because they love it!
Women should always feel comfortable in their own skin and VLV shows us that the Rockabilly pinup scene is another way to achieve this. If a woman wants to walk down the street sporting blue Victory rolls, wear a skin tight top and poodle skirt with a set of killer vintage heels and cover herself in tattoos, that is her choice. She should not feel ashamed or afraid to show off her badass style or her beautiful body, regardless of what is supposedly trendy or “in” right now. So in choosing to be a member of this community, I would argue that the women are also fighting for women’s rights (whether they actively do so or not). The right to live their lives as they see fit; the right to reject commercial beauty standards; the right to embrace their bodies and love themselves; the right to let their voices be heard and to stand up for what they believe in. So while Bombshells and Dollies might seem like a documentary about “just another beauty contest”, you better think twice! These women are truly beautiful, inside and out.
The "pinup camera chick," Marie Ilene in action. We love her style!
Our full interview with Marie Ilene will be up on FemFilmFans soon!
*All images have been graciously provided by TriCoast Entertainment (thanks, Jenna!) and Marie Ilene.
A review of I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story
By Christina Schultz
Throughout the course of the film, we meet four legit fangirls, each pining away for a different boyband:
As their stories unfold, we quickly learn there is so much more to their fangirl-ness than the stereotypical hysteria and open display of female sexuality, but we will come back to this. The boybands fill a void in these women’s lives. For Elif, it was a connection to her new home country and a rejection of her parents’ Turkish traditions (“there are no boybands in Turkey,” she tells us). Sadia found that The Backstreet Boys allowed her to freely express herself and go against the grain of her conservative Pakistani-Muslim family. Dora, a lesbian and former Olympian hopeful, didn’t just love Gary Barlow, she wanted to be Gary Barlow; her love of the group coincided with the time she sustained a career-ending injury. The Beatles accompanied Susan through the early, happier years and later provided her comfort through the later, more difficult years. The boybands therefore represent so much more than what meets the eye, which is no doubt aesthetically pleasing.
Each woman tells such a complex, multi-layered story and this film acknowledges them so lovingly and non-judgmentally. The women are able to tell their stories authentically so that by the end we have learned enough about them to make us feel like we are their friends or therapists, one of the two. The feelings of hurt, shame, guilt, inadequacy, longing, but also of love, desire, euphoria, even empowerment all come across, as they arguably would in any relationship. The fact that these women have struggled shows that the boybands mean so much more than the aforementioned stereotypes we associate with the fangirls, although they too are subtly dealt with in the film.
The first of the stereotypes, hysteria, seen mostly in montages (reminiscent of 1964 Beatles romp A Hard Day’s Night), reveals itself on a deeper level as a sense of belonging, a communal ecstatic response to the “perfect boys” and their uplifting music. Women gather together to enjoy the boybands, making them feel part of something much greater. And even though the four women in the film love different groups, they too have similar bonding experiences with other fans. So the love of a boyband is in essence a great unifier. Nothing hysterical about that at all, really.
The second of the stereotypes, the open expression of female sexuality, which is unfortunately still problematic for some, is falsely demonized. As we all know deep down, the boybands are (unfortunately) unattainable. If anything, the fans are so devoted to their boys, that they avoid “real men” altogether. This is a common theme throughout the film. Sadia, for example, admits that Nick Carter & Co. were “the five most consistent men in my life.” Elif thinks “real boys are jerks.” In their pursuit of their “perfect” boys, they actually reject the cultural norms the bands’ music plays into. While this might sound contradictory, it is in this rejection that they empower themselves. The women’s families, but especially Elif’s and Sadia’s, do not understand their daughters’ unrequited love, hoping their girls will find a man and settle down, just like they did. But the girls do not want to settle. It might seem as though they are unable to form healthy, romantic relationships and are wasting their time in the pursuit of their idols, but Dora found her soulmate and Susan was married and had two children. Yet their love of the boybands never waned. Elif and Sadia are still finding themselves and do not want to go the arranged marriage route. In all cases, the women were stripped of the power to see men simply as objects of desire and to make their desires public on such a grand scale. The double standard robs women of their freedom and is harmful and downright wrong (but I’m preaching to the choir here).
In the end, the film fights these stereotypes and features women who have found themselves through their love of the boybands. And while they “used to be normal” (Elif’s words quoted in the film’s title), normal is boring and certainly does not empower us quite as well as dancing to the beat of our own favorite Beatles/One Direction/Backstreet Boys/Take That song.
TriCoast Entertainment has released I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story onto the following digital platforms: Amazon, inDemand, DirecTV, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, AT&T, FlixFing, Vudu, FANDANGO, Sling/Dish.
All materials were graciously provided to FemFilmFans by TriCoast Entertainment.
The Act of Selling Drugs
By Guest Contributor Esther Louise
If you are looking for a coming-of-age series with lots of pop culture references and fast storytelling, How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) might be your new favorite show. Another bonus: you can binge-watch it within one day. At least that’s what I did because the mixture of fun, tension and “relatable-moments” I experienced while watching as a woman in her mid 20s had me hooked.
How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) has six episodes which are between 25-35 minutes long. The series has an easy feel to it, even though it is dealing with social issues and, of course, drug culture. Throughout the series, the multiple story arcs show how drugs are circulated, consumed and what effects they (can) have.
I would like to start by pointing out the following, which serves as the basis of my critique: the series was produced mainly by men, which is abundantly clear from the way the story is told. The plot focuses on the main male characters, what they are going through, their feelings and actions.
Moritz (Maximilian Mundt) is waiting for his girlfriend Lisa (Lena Klenke) to get back from her year abroad in the U.S. While he can’t wait to give her his welcome back present, she wants a break from their relationship. She feels like something inside her has changed after being away from home for so long. Moreover, Lisa started to experiment with drugs while studying abroad. Moritz, however, portrays the “classic nerd,” as in not too popular, being socially awkward and in contrast to almost all the other characters, he is not too enthusiastic about social media. But by trying to win Lisa back he gets out of his comfort zone and does a lot of things which do not seem like him. Long story short: Moritz gets into the drug business hoping to win his girlfriend back by supplying her with ecstasy. One could argue that he changes from being a nerd to being a drug lord, also because the first episode is called, “Nerd Today, Boss Tomorrow.” But since most of his classmates and family do not know about his double life, he is still the nerd he was before.
The male viewpoint becomes even clearer when looking at the way the relationship between Lisa and Moritz is portrayed. His reaction to their break results in selling drugs through an online shop. Moritz tries everything possible to win her back. We see him sitting in his room overthinking their relationship and looking at old pictures again and again. Meanwhile Lisa is partying and trying to avoid her parents, who are going through a divorce. We do not get to know much about her, but know exactly what is going on in Moritz’ mind.
Moritz wouldn't be able to do any of those things without his best friend Lenny (Danilo Kamperidis). They are both into computer science and wanted to start a business since they were kids. With “my Drugs”, their online shop through which Lenny and Moritz sell their goods, they finally seem to have found a successful enterprise.
A pivotal part of this success is their supplier Buba (Bjarne Mädel, of Der Tatortreiniger fame). The three men have a bizarre codependent vibe. Every conversation between them ping-pongs between laugh-out-loud jokes and the violence and seriousness of being involved in the drug business. For example, Buba hurls death threats at Moritz and Lenny right before giving them health advice on diabetes after he took a sip from Moritz’ energy drink. This unsettling way of communication confuses the viewer about what’s going to happen next.
This all-male threesome, which is one of the fundamental bases for the story, is definitely an important point of critique and also one of the reasons why I was not surprised by an almost all-male film crew. We get a lot of male perspectives and just a few female voices that are not as present compared to their male colleagues. Proof of this is shown especially at the moment when Moritz and Daniel (Damian Hardung), who both vie for Lisa’s attention, join forces to bring down their common enemy Buba. Meanwhile Lisa has no idea what’s going on and is expected to stay at home and leave it to the men.
Even though the series would fail the Bechdel Test, there is one positive: I would argue that Lisa portrays a young woman some teenagers might be able to relate and/or look up to. She takes some time figuring out who she is, without having a boyfriend and explaining or defending every decision that she makes. While choosing herself first, she is very mature about their breakup as well. Lisa still gets along with Moritz and treats him like a friend with respect and kindness - an equality with which her parents seem to struggle. Her parents are constantly fighting and finally decide to get divorced because of their poor communication skills. Lisa also shows that a woman can have casual intimate relationships without directly falling for the other person or being slutshamed for having those casual relationships. One could argue that her experimentation with drugs liberates her from adhering to cliché gender roles. Rather than reassuming the role of the good, loyal girlfriend, she follows her own path and breaks from the constraints of heteronormative, monogamous relationships.
Apart from the storyline, the special effects department came up with creative ways to outline the show’s intentions, namely to reveal the entanglement of violence and criminality that accompanies dealing drugs. Even though Moritz and Lenny might not be ready to use violence themselves and they are not aware of their own contribution to it, they are part of the issue. Furthermore one of Lisa’s best friends, Fritzi (Leonie Wesselow), argues that nothing they do really has an impact or consequences. That mindset combined with the consumption of drugs, but also other relevant life decisions, like where to go after high school, show another misconception concerning the power their decisions (can) actually have, which might not be too far away from teenagers’ realities.
Another bonus is Moritz breaking through the fourth wall and explaining to the audience how he got into selling drugs in the first place (FYI: the story is based on a true event). In addition, the series provides definitions and explanations of drugs and their consumption within its storytelling. What caught my attention as well were very briefly discussed social issues such as working conditions for letter carriers and responsible usage of social media platforms.
Since the first season ended with a cliffhanger I am crossing fingers to see more social issues discussed embedded in a comedy-series that will serve us a variety of complex female characters in the second season.
By Christina Schultz
Warning: This review contains spoilers of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
“Netflix and chill” has long become routine for folks who shell out the dough for a monthly subscription. And with the vast array of shows and movies available on the VOD giant, you can binge-watch to your heart’s content.
And binge-watch I did when I first heard about Riverdale (The CW, 2017-)* and later on about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix, 2018). There’s something about sexy, angsty teenagers we just can’t resist. Add a feminist, LGBTQ+ discourse to the mix, and you’ve upgraded those old-fashioned Archie Comics to the 21st century.
That’s what makes these shows, loosely based on the comics, so refreshing: pleasantly “different” characters. Yet the shows are not without their flaws, although I have a clear feminist favorite. By that I mean one of the two shows features a more diverse cast of strong, independent female characters who have multiple scenes or plotlines not revolving around their lovelife and who are not overt sexual objects of lust (although they might use their womanly charms to get what they want on occasion). Here’s a FemFilmFans breakdown of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS).
In the original Archie Comics, Betty and Veronica were frenemies par excellence, pettily and pathetically vying for Archie’s affections. Riverdale quickly overcomes the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle - after Betty reveals her feelings for Archie and he firmly places her in the friend zone - by pairing off Betty and Jughead (#bugheadforever), although this represents a totally disappointing departure from the asexual Jughead in the comics. A positive departure is that Betty does not pine away for Archie, plotting ways to get him back from Veronica. Boy problems solved. However, it seems as if the be all and end all of the show is to have an s.o. Can’t anyone be single for two seconds? Asexual, questioning, or just plain single viewers don’t have much to identify with. In any case, B and V become inseparable, sticking up for one another and for just about anyone needing help (they mercilessly took on Riverdale High’s slut-shaming jocks, for example). This is a positive, empowering female friendship much needed in today’s media landscape.
But all that female empowerment sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Cue Cheryl Blossom (played by Madelaine Petsch): rich, beautiful, egocentric, domineering, and hell, let’s call a spade a spade, bitchy to the core. Even though she winds up dating Toni Topaz later on in the show, a (generally) positive development for her character, she initially stirs things up with everyone. Let’s put it this way, you wouldn’t want to be on her bad side, because she could make your life hell. We have nothing against strong female characters who speak their mind and get what they want, but not only does her combative cattiness make her problematic, it’s her overall presentation, too. Call me old-fashioned, but Cheryl always looks as if she’s about to head to work at the strip club. Betty and Veronica dress more conservatively, but you see a lot of toned midriffs and cleavage in the show. Where are the nerdy kids, the average, chunky or even plus size characters, the kids with disabilities, even kids with glasses? There’s Ethel Muggs (played by Shannon Purser), but that’s about it. Even though we have gay, lesbian and bi characters, and Veronica, Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats) and their mothers Hermione and Sierra respectively as women of color, we’d still like to see more diversity, especially for people of all shapes and sizes.
Equally problematic is Riverdale’s very own cult “The Farm” with its male leader Edgar Evernever (played by Chad Michael Murray). The fact that mostly women, like Betty’s mom Alice Cooper, her sister Penny - and eventually Cheryl and Toni - join and offer themselves up body and soul to this man chills me to my feminist core. Betty is the only one who truly sees through The Farm (or does she?) but in the end she learns that her mother needs to heal and can only do so with her new family (and, with Betty’s suspicions confirmed, through some sort of “marriage” to Edgar). What happened to smashing the patriarchy? Or is the show trying to low-key undermine religious or cultish groups by showing how backwards they can be? I would need to do some more digging to get to bottom of this (or just keep watching), but The Farm plotline leaves me cold. We also have the return of the Black Hood, The Gargoyle King and Hiram Lodge on the loose, three more male figures wreaking havoc on and thus controlling the town, albeit in completely different ways.
Yet Riverdale gets kudos for directly referencing the Bechdel Test, featuring the musical number “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” (Season Two, Episode 16 - “Chapter Twenty-Nine: Primary Colors”), subverting the male gaze as Betty, and thus the viewers, watch Archie through her bedroom window and having Jughead’s mom, Gladys Jones (played by Gina Gershon), show up to town only to reveal she wore the pants in Riverdale’s criminal underworld all along. Shocker!
Riverdale thus receives a score of 2/3 Fs (Finely Feminist)
*Special thanks to Ji Strangeway for tipping me off to the show!
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS)
At first I was skeptical when I saw the ads for the Sabrina reboot. Even our FemFilmFam voted for Melissa Joan Hart as their favorite Sabrina in our Insta Story, so I know I’m not the only one pining away for our favorite witch of the 90s.
While Sabrina is an attractive petite blonde, sticking to the norms of “Western” beauty standards - the rest of the cast makes up for this lack of diversity - she is a modern feminist hero we can get behind. Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka), half-mortal, half-witch, has an uncanny knack for witchcraft, although she is not a full-time student at The Academy of Unseen Arts. She comes from a powerful Satan-worshipping family, headed by her Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda. Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) is cold, ambitious, strong-willed and clever. For example, she marries Father Blackwood not for love, but for the power and privilege with which such an alliance comes. Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) at first appears to be the exact opposite of her sister: meek, kind, motherly. However, Hilda reveals her true colors in Season Two - she is not to be trifled with. She also keeps Sabrina grounded and reminds her that the mortal world isn’t all so bad. Sabrina’s aunties thus provide the basis of one of the most badass witch matriarchies around and are great role models for Sabrina (and for female viewers).
Sabrina also receives (mis)guidance from someone whom she thinks to be her favorite teacher Ms. Wardwell. It turns out that she is actually Lilith, Madame Satan herself, the first wife of Adam (yes, that Adam from the Bible). Lilith is the ultimate OG Biblical, or rather Satanic feminist, having refused to submit to Adam, which led God to banish her from the Garden of Eden. Eventually Lilith meets Lucifer Morningstar, aka The Dark Lord, who was an archangel banished from Heaven by God. Lucifer gave Lilith power in return for her help, making her the first witch. But everything comes with a price: she was bound to him as his handmaiden. Throughout Season Two, we see two sides to Lilith/Ms. Wardwell. First, her vulnerability during her struggles to outsmart The Dark Lord and second, her lust for power as she uses Sabrina as a pawn to become Queen of Hell. Despite her life of servitude, the fact that she was finally able to beat The Dark Lord (at least for now) makes her a true feminist warrior. She simply would not accept her fate and bend to His will (and talk about long game).
Other strong (albeit problematic) female characters include The Weird Sisters, and especially Prudence, although they are more malicious than weird and are often at odds with Sabrina until the latter proves herself at The Academy. Prudence has some serious Daddy Issues, but it is a welcome change to see a strong, black, pansexual witch. But we can’t leave out the mortals when talking about strong female characters. Sabrina’s bespectacled black gal pal with beautiful natural hair, Ros(alind) Walker, finds out she has powers of her own (“the cunning”). Having inherited this gift from her grandmother, Ros has psychic visions, which helps Sabrina on numerous occasions. She is also outspoken about issues that matter to her and I was pleased when she founded a feminist book club at Baxter High.
It is important to mention that CAOS also includes a trans character. Susie in Season One becomes Theo in Season Two, played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, and the character has been a cause for debate among some viewers. Whether or not you like Theo, it is still important to see trans characters included in mainstream media. The show is creating space for characters like Theo and the ones mentioned above. In my book that’s a definite plus.
And now back to Sabrina - what makes her feminist as f*ck is her power, confidence, persistence and yes, even her arrogant hubris at times. Rather than pandering to the “damsel in distress” stereotype often attributed to women like her, she literally can’t wait to run off and try the most difficult magic (and when she succeeds at it, she amazes everyone) - she gets shit done, no matter what anyone tells her. She also sticks to her guns in her relationships, not allowing herself to be pressured into having sex. Her virginal, good girl vibe is refreshing, especially when compared to shows like Riverdale (although there are some steamy scenes with Nicolas Scratch). She, like Lilith, also fools The Dark Lord and plans on future deceit and trickery with her eclectic bunch of family members and friends by her side. Needless to say, we cannot wait for Seasons Three and Four!
With a multitude of strong, diverse female characters, CAOS receives a score of 3/3 Fs (Fabulously Feminist)
A Young Sisterhood
Though Em is the leading character of the film, D’Alessandro Hatt has crafted the narration to be told from the perspective of her new friends, a tool which the audience admired. Beginning as a seemingly classic mini-teen-drama, consisting of sleepovers, book clubs and struts down the school hallway, the film shortly twists into a fantasy mask for the family issues occuring in Em’s life. Her new-found friends reveal the bravery within Em and the driver for her independent characteristics. Brave Little Army proudly displays the gravitas of placing yourself in other’s shoes. Em becomes a symbol for personalised freedom and self-expression.
Brave Little Army screened amidst seven other powerful short films. With an intimate audience and films with heavy, albeit important, feminist messages, Brave Little Army provided a somewhat comic relief. All films in the “Coming of Age” category addressed significant loss, women’s roles in the home (across the world) and patriarchal dominance. D’Alessandro Hatt’s direction employed the joy of friendship to not only re-divert elements of pain in Em’s life but to illustrate the importance of sisterhood from a young age.
All films demonstrated a diversity in the strength of women, even in moments of defeat. D’Alessandro Hatt displayed this beautifully by the characterisation of Em’s mother, signifying the necessity of standing up for oneself in situations of weakness. Brave Little Army reflected the same message which was present in all of the BFFW short films; women are still bravely fighting elements of oppression, feminism is active across the globe, and the conversation must begin when one is coming of age.
Brave Little Army is part one of a trilogy of short films to come. Follow Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt on Instagram @michelledhatt or follow @blacklabfilmco for updates. You can also follow Jessica Philbrick on Instragram and Facebook @jphilbrickartist or check out her website j-philbrickartist.com.
by Ana-Marija Bilandzija
There's a little blood and a lot of bitch fight in Yorgos Lanthimos’ period drama The Favourite. It's his least cryptic film yet, which earned him ten Academy Award nominations (the Oscars are tonight), and still stands out between easily-consumable movies like A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody. Here's why you should watch it.
It's the early 18th century, England is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lacks a clear strategy, but she does have a childhood friend who basically runs the business for her: Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), always in control and so irreplaceable that she can do whatever she pleases. At least until the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). A cousin of Sarah's who has fallen into poverty for family reasons, Abigail quickly succeeds in charming Sarah and in particular Anne, who soon grows extremely attached to Abigail, not only for cuddling her rabbits and telling her stories, but also as her object of desire. And here it starts getting messy – and amazingly interesting.
Women, as they are portrayed in Lanthimos' bizarre comedy, enact power very differently than men: soft in a way, with more empathy and less machismo, but also full of intrigue. Queen Anne being the weakest, but de facto most powerful woman of England, suffers gouty arthritis and terrible mood swings, if not a depression/borderline disorder. She goes from sweet and jiggling dancer to a pile of tears in just minutes, always relying on Sarah and Abigail for comfort, and obviously hating herself for it. She can't stand the choir's singing on a sunny day, screaming at them across the yard. She faints during a strategy announcement in front of her ministers and entourage. Anne is a mess. Olivia Colman offers a brilliant version of this mess. Her weepy voice, poor posture, the neediness oozing out of each of her pores. In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel, Colman said it “gives her great pleasure to bathe in feelings, if a role offers to do so.” It’s much harder for her, she continues, “to hide feelings.” She instantly fell in love with Yorgos Lanthimos' script: “It’s dirty, garish, a disrespectful approach. (...) I’d be crazy, had I rejected playing the part.” She put on some weight in order to resemble the Queen. It was worth it.
Queen Anne is hardly bearable at times, and still, both Sarah and Abigail fall for her. Or just for the power she holds? There's a lot of myth surrounding Queen Anne's love life, like having affairs with several women, as portrayed in this dreamy ménage-à-trois. What's factual, on the other hand, is her loss of 17 children. Lanthimos, who loves including animal references in his movies, placed 17 rabbits in golden cages right next to the Queen's four-poster-bed symbolizing each one of her tragic losses. In The Lobster (2015), his dark vision of love in times of expected togetherness, singles must choose which animal they will transform into if they don't find a mate in two weeks’ time. Dogtooth (2009) is a story of the horrors of family. The parents isolate their two teenage daughters from the outside world, teaching them cats are deadly creatures and that anything outside their yard is dangerous, driving emotional abuse to the extreme.
Social aberrations, mindless rituals and the loss of humanity run through all of Lanthimos' movies. He couldn't have chosen a better backdrop for this than the 18th-century-monarchy, it appears. Yet his first costume drama lacks some of the innocent pondering he dared to do in Alps or The Lobster. It's still dark, but the acting is more accessible, less Brecht and more Lynch.
Even though it's all about female power, making The Favourite was not per se a feminist act, the Greek director said in an interview with The Guardian: “I can’t pretend that I thought we need more women represented in a certain way, it was just an instinctive thing. I was interested in that which I hadn’t seen very often.”
The Favourite thrives off its strong female cast and witty dialogue. All characters experience a development, the only constant being Anne's unstableness. Thus the viewer's sympathies shift as the story moves on. Abigail doesn't turn out to be the innocent, well-educated and well-mannered girl in a maid's dress we meet in the beginning. Lady Sarah surprises by exhibiting humanly traits and sisterly love; her first impression as a cold and dominant quasi-regent in a striking black-and-white-gown thoroughly obscures this side of her.
It's not without reason this gem is nominated for Best Cinematography, Costume Design and Set Design, just to name three of the ten categories. Sandy Powell’s costumes hilariously mock court society:en wear gigantic wigs and pink rouge, the Queen and Lady Sarah discuss whether one could fix Anne's "badger" make up. She ends up crying – again. The choice of music deserves to be mentioned, too. The Classical music Lanthimos chose unfolds a horror no drones could ever create. Luc Ferrari’s Didascalies, for example, is a haunting heartbeat through the big halls of a lonely Queen – only one of the reasons why The Favourite should be watched in the theater. The other reason is Robbie Ryan's cinematography. It gives us plenty opportunity to dive into the scenery – his use of natural light, extreme-close-ups and moving camera – just to throw us back into the seat as spectators by using fisheye lenses, making it obvious that we're observing these bizarre happenings as flies on the wall. Or rabbits in a cage.
The Favorite has been nominated in ten categories at the Academy Awards 2019:
Best Original Screenplay
Best Achievement in Production Design
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Film Editing
Special Double Review of Recha Jungmann's Renate
By Christina Schultz and Romina Leiding
It’s been a few months since the fabulous Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage and I don’t know about you, but I certainly miss attending the film screenings, listening to the inspiring talks, meeting the incredible organizers, guests and attendees and, perhaps most importantly, being included in a supportive community of film scholars, feminists and human rights activists. So I thought it only right to post a review of one of the films I saw at the festival that made a lasting impression on me; but this time, in the true spirit of the feminist movement - solidarity, empowerment, encouragement - this is not only my review, but a double review with one of the festival assistants, Romina Leiding, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during the festival.
We watched the film together in the theater, discussed it quite passionately after the screening, expressed interest in writing a double review and voilà!
Before reading our reviews, meet Romina...
Romina Leiding is a board member of Kinophil [Cinephile], an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving film culture. Her main interests are the history of film and the societal aspect of film. Since receiving her degree in Germanic Studies and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, she has been working freelance as an assistant director, for various film festivals (like Remake. Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage) and educational trips.
We would like to warmly welcome her to our FemFilmFam!
A Review of Sarah Vianney's Queens of Botswana
By Christina Schultz
When you think of Botswana, you probably wouldn’t associate the Southern African country with Heavy Metal music or rocker Kings and Queens clad in black leather. You might instead think of its independence from Britain in 1966, its vast desert landscapes (around 70% of Botswana is desert) and its peaceful stability compared to other African countries.
Yet female filmmaker Sarah Vianney took a crew to Botswana in 2017 to follow a group of such Heavy Metal rockers, known as the “Marok” in Setswana, for a week on their way to a festival in Gaborone near the border to South Africa. As we join them on their journey, we meet Queen Ludo, Queen Florah and Queen Gloria, as they call themselves in the scene, three hard working, amiable women, who happen to like the “wrong” kind of music and dress in a “non-Christian” way. It is important to note that in the mostly Christian country of Botswana, black leather is linked to Satanism.
Hearing this, you might think the Marok are a rowdy bunch of boozing, devil worshipping, trouble makers, but they are far from it. The group of young men and women tries to raise its profile in their community. They might headbang and listen to loud, unholy music but they also pick up garbage around town, they make their own creative outfits and some of them live with their parents and help out at home. So how bad can they really be? As it turns out, not at all.
In Queens of Botswana, Vianney reveals a beautiful story of women searching for freedom, liberation, excitement and even empowerment. However, it doesn’t get to their heads (as it might in the Western World, I might add). The Queens have found a tight-knit group of people who understand them and allow them an escape from their daily routines. The festival in Gaborone is the highlight of the Queens’ year and the 52-minute documentary closes with this happy occasion. We can’t help but smile as we watch the women enjoy themselves, but perhaps we also realize that we take such enjoyments for granted. It goes without saying that in a culture like the one in Botswana, women do not enjoy the same freedoms as we do, which is why Vianney telling this story is of the utmost importance. Not only could the positive exposure in Queens of Botswana potentially help the Marok’s reputation, the documentary reveals an ultimately feminist narrative. It is more than just an interesting story of heavy metal culture in an unlikely place, it is a story of women who love the music so much it becomes a driving force in their lives, which in turn empowers them to break out of their shells in a conservative culture and society.
Left: Sarah Vianney and her crew interviewing Queen Gloria. Right: Sarah Vianney talking to her crew.
I'd like to extend special thanks to Sarah Vianney for reaching out to us at Femfilmfans (we hope other filmmakers will do the same!) and for graciously sending us the images seen above.