There was no way I was going to read The Hobbit. I was very clear on that. Why? Because, I said with all the hauteur my seven-year-old self could muster, it was ALL BOYS. And the last two books my dad had made me read – Moonfleet, a smuggling tale, and Oliver Twist – had been ALL BOYS too. Nancy doesn’t get much of a look-in from Dickens; she doesn’t even have a surname. I’d just acquired a second brother and had a growing sense that, in fact, the entire world was geared to the primacy of ALL BOYS.
Growing up in a conservative Jewish community didn’t help: I remember, at around the same time, that a boy in my class asked why the teacher bothered to include girls in our Bible studies classes, as girls couldn’t become rabbis or lead prayers. “Because they will be the mothers of sons,” said the teacher, “and teach them.” Despite a constant barrage of similarly ferocious ideological control from school and synagogue, I already had the sense that this destiny was not for me. Sure, it was the early 1980s and we had a freshly-minted lady prime minister on TV – but she was hardly offering “jobs for the girls.” So how, in a community where the only jobs for women were teacher or doctors’ receptionist, was I able, at five, to tell my great-grandmother that I wasn’t going to get married until I was 35 and have a career, and that I was never going to have children?
It was a question that recurred to me when I was working on my newest book, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, and showing early chapters to trusted friends. Ever incisive, generous in his honesty, my colleague Daniel Justice noticed that there was a big gap in my introduction’s narrative: it was as if I had been born aged 15, seeing Orlando and immersing myself in New Queer Cinema. But where, he asked, had that passion or awareness first come from? How had I known that cinema could, and would, offer those kinds of freedoms? I didn’t have an immediate answer, and the question haunted me – especially as I’d kick started the writing process by interviewing my five-year-old goddaughter (I’m her oddmother, my atheist twist) Asta about Frozen after she and her brother had performed the entire soundtrack for me.
I’d seen the film and despite my suspicion of the House of Mouse, Hollywood cinema in general, and all things princess-y, I had been moved to elated tears. Asta told me why: not only was this sisterly film, in her words, which I borrowed as the opening words of the book, “lovely and vigorous and brave,” it also offered an incredibly powerful therapeutic fantasy. As a childhood abuse survivor, I was troubled that the film dropped the subject of the erasure of Anna’s memories and Elsa’s repression of their childhood. But Asta saw a resolution I had missed, that when Elsa makes the public ice rink in the film’s final scene, and pulls her sister Anna onto the rink to skate, she “didn’t make it snow – she made it like she did the first time, she made it lovely.”
Elsa has overcome the repression placed on her powers and her memories, and she gives to both herself and her sister the girlhood that they lost: they play on the ice together again, in public, joyfully connected. Asta’s insight reminded me of a comment by musician and writer Lynnee Breedlove in Sini Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer. Looking back 20 years, Breedlove noted that Riot Grrrls were “reclaiming the girlhood that has been taken away from them [saying], ‘I’m actually going to be a little girl but have power now so I can redirect my whole growing up experience from point A.’ ” Frozen was part of that experience for me, a prosthetic memory that I could interject into my own childhood, by watching through my goddaughter’s eyes to see what the film meant to her.
But it also made me think about the films I had watched as a child, and why I was particularly attached to them. There are two that stood out above all – Labyrinth and Return to Oz: Two highly unusual 1980s Hollywood films that combined genre storytelling with active female leads. This was the era of The Goonies, E.T. and other male-led childhood fantasias. Even The Neverending Story, which, as a total bookworm I adored, had a disappointingly passive, and princess-y female character. Return to Oz was, among other things, a return to a classic text of classical Hollywood. An era when female viewers were paramount even if–and it’s important not to forget this–female filmmakers were side lined and female performers bullied, controlled, and (in the case of Judy Garland) even drugged. Played by Fairuza Balk, who went on to play Worst Witch Mildred Hubble in a fabulous TV movie, 1985’s Dorothy was not 1939’s Dorothy. “My” Dorothy was a dark-haired proto-Goth, initially locked up in a psychiatric institution and then transported to an apocalyptic Oz. Rewatching the film for the BFI’s Queer Oz event in 2013, I realised that Dorothy could even be read as lesbian, through her mirroring friendship with the lost princess, Ozma.
But I never felt that I was Dorothy, perhaps because of her storied career in novels and films, or perhaps because the “Return to Oz Experience” (housed in a trailer that was conveniently parked outside the cinema where I’d seen the film) included the roomful of severed, shrieking women’s heads stolen by Princess Mombi. It was a chilling touch that may also explain why Walter Murch was never again asked to direct a children’s film. My heart truly lay with Sarah, whose name means princess in Hebrew but who bursts the bubble of the princess fantasy in the scene at the heart of Labyrinth. Equally adept at using her lipstick as a cunning tool or fighting off goblin soldiers, Sarah was adept and affective, neither hyper-feminine nor forced into a masculinised version of heroism. She was selfish, bitter, headstrong, clever, and above all, wanted things to be fair. Not a princess but a proto-Notorious RBG justice.
At the start of the film, Sarah lives with her father and stepmother. The novelisation of the film implies that Sarah’s mother has left to pursue her dream of being an actress, famous for a play called Labyrinth, which Sarah is seen rehearsing alone in the pre-credit scene. The rehearsal makes her late for babysitting duties (something I was very familiar with as the oldest of four, in a community that prizes maternality in girls – I started working as a paid babysitter when I was eleven), and she curses her stepbrother so that the terrifying, compelling Goblin King takes him. I had only the faintest idea who David Bowie was on the film’s release in 1986 – the more gender-fluid realms of pop and rock were anathema in our house, as I learned when I had my mouth soaped for singing along to the Kinks’ song “Lola,” about a trans performer – but I was as frightened and curious as Sarah was when she follows the Goblin King into his kingdom to find her brother.
At the midpoint of the film, the Goblin King realises he can’t defeat Sarah’s determination, so he decides to seduce her into forgetting her mission by sending her a poisoned fruit with obvious Biblical resonances. Eating it, Sarah falls into a dream where her jeans and New Romantic-style white shirt (an item of clothing that remains a platonic ideal for me) are transmuted into a vast meringue dress not dissimilar to Princess Diana’s wedding attire: the ultimate 1980s fantasy of femininity, wealth, and social mobility. But Sarah sees through the façade of the Goblin King’s ball so that the masked figures whirling around her become grotesques, echoing the scene in the 1984 film adaptation of Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves (which I didn’t see until I was much older) where the guests at a wedding banquet are turned into animals by a witch.
Sarah rejects the Goblin King’s seduction, the romance of heteronormativity and of class, throwing a chair that smashes the distorting bubble of the drugged dream. She finds herself back in her childhood bedroom, reunited with her teddy bear, her lipstick, her music box, and the playscript. She’s offered the bear and music box by a kindly yet wheedling creature made of discarded materials, a version of Marjorie the Trash Heap from Henson’s Fraggle Rock. She’s the only prominent female character in the Labyrinth, and this is the only scene where the film passes the Bechdel Test. She causes Sarah to revalue the materials of her girlhood, and to realise that the bedroom is an illusion from which she has to escape.
It’s through this reconnection to the headstrong, selfish, loving, creative adolescent she was outside the Labyrinth that she is reminded of her quest. She redoes her girlhood, erasing the creepy, dead-end fantasia of being romanced by the Goblin King and leaving the shining figure of the lovely (and loving), vigorous and brave heroine embodied by her mother, whose words she wields to defeat the Goblin King and return home with her brother. I can’t imagine that there’s a single Anglophone, Eurowestern young woman of my generation who can’t quote the speech in which Sarah (let’s be frank) takes down patriarchy, ending when she remembers the line that she always forgets: “You have no power over me.” The line we all forget and endlessly have to remember.
Until I thought through Daniel’s question about my own training as feminist film guerrilla grrrl, I hadn’t even realised how important Sarah’s declaration of independence had been for me. Her line ran through my head while dealing with teachers, rabbis, and family members who all viewed girls as second-class citizens. But it was also a rare and lasting insight that cinema didn’t have to be ALL BOYS. In the years before I was even aware that there were filmmakers behind the camera, and that those filmmakers inhabited gendered, raced, classed, abled bodies, I took fire from Sarah rehearsing her role and determining her fate through acting: the female performer as artist-creator, (re)directing her girlhood.
I became neither a performer nor a filmmaker, although I write and perform poems that delve into cinema, turning films this way and that, like the Goblin King with his crystal balls. I’m a scholar whose work is a paean to feminist filmmakers, trying to capture the poetry of their screen work in words on a page. I can tell you that if you complete the #52FilmsbyWomen challenge, your life will change. Over the glorious two years that it took to complete Political Animals, I thought and wrote about 500 feminist films with female, trans, intersex and/or non-binary directors. I thought about the roles of screenwriters, producers, performers, cinematographers and editors – but also about curators and critics – in making a robust, bold and (I hope) sustainable feminist cinema. And as I did, I became more aware of myself as a political animal, of my responsibility in standing up to say to individuals, organisations and systems, “You have no power over me,” and of a wild joy in doing so.
I’m writing this shortly after hosting a screening of Suffragette with my Club des Femmes’ curation hat on. Over 300 high school students attended it. I was awed by their incredibly observant and confident questions about why there are so few women in technical roles in film, and whether we need new stories that include more diverse characters. After the screening, half a dozen stayed to ask how they could use film to get more of their peers on board with feminism. Within fifteen minutes, they had a fundraiser screening for an Asian women’s shelter planned: fully-fledged feminist film curators (like my students who started Reel Good Film Club), just as Asta is a fully-fledged feminist film critic. When I look back at my teenage self, ducking school to see The Piano or my childhood self protesting against ALL BOYS films and books, I see such power – a power we rarely attribute to young people. I’m a teacher in order to amplify that power.
It’s also why I’m part of the organisation Raising Films, which is campaigning to improve working conditions in film and TV for parents and carers. I’m child free by choice, but in writing Political Animals, I observed that motherhood was a major attrition point for women working across all roles in film. I looked at projects by Agnès Varda, Sophie Hyde, Arnait Video, and others that go about re-inventing filmmaking by incorporating the complexities of family life into the process. They’re generally working outside the mainstream and – as with Arnait, based in the Inuit community of Igloolik – outside EuroWestern hierarchies and norms. The testimonies and interviews we’ve received for Raising Films made us aware that the mainstream industry (and, of course, society) needs to learn and change. Because if they don’t, we’ll lose the stories that amplify the power and prescience of young people, and we’ll see another generation of young women thwarted by the system despite their desire to make change.
When an editor called me a “political animal” because I’d challenged a rape joke in a comedy, I knew it was time to become more political in my writing, not to withdraw. That meant becoming involved in campaigning and curating, in order to inform my rhetoric and shape my passions. It meant interrogating the whiteness and straightness of feminist film culture; it means listening to how to make it trans-inclusive. The more involved I become, the more I see the depth and complexity of the challenges – and the more deep pleasure there is for me in learning from filmmakers and activists and using what access to platforms I have to amplify.
Saying “you have no power over me” is a privilege: it means you’re in the room with power and can speak truth to it. More people need to come into the room to speak together; I learned that from Sarah too, when she invites the denizens of the Labyrinth into her world in the final scene. This isn’t about individual achievement, which I fear that white liberal feminism privileges (there’s that princess problem again). It’s about connection, expansion, and growth. I’m still a child navigating the twists and turns of a labyrinth created by autocratic patriarchy. But I learned from Sarah to keep learning; to be crafty and committed, grounded in friendship and wonderment, and always prepared to bring things down with a chair or a word; however seductive power’s song may be.