Sex in the 90s: feminism on film
How did films in this decade rework, reject, radicalise or reinforce feminism and portrayals of women on screen?
Feminism on film underwent a makeover in the 1990s. The decade started with a gritty aesthetic of boots and torn tights, influenced by riot grrrls rejecting patriarchy. It ended with the illusion of “glamancipation” and candy-coloured messages about individual empowerment being sold by the Spice Girls.
This shift mirrors long-standing debates about the nature of sexual liberation and the fracturing of the women’s movement: can power be gained simply by smiling through the status quo, or does freedom require outright revolution?
There are different and competing narratives about women, femininity, sexuality, and feminism in 90s cinema. The late 1980s saw the beginning of the backlash against second-wave feminism. Deep cultural anxieties about the possibility of single, economically and sexually independent women – epitomised by the misogynist mess that is Fatal Attraction (1987) – came to the fore, as explored by the American journalist Susan Faludi in her 1991 book Backlash.
Despite this, a feminism that recognises the suffocation of patriarchal control and the promise of female rebellion continued to be articulated in films such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and, in somewhat less bleak terms, Muriel’s Wedding (1994).
The three short films embedded within this article – Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990); Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1997); and Titsiana Booberini (1996) – were produced within this context at what is now Australia’s longest-running film school, which started life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 before moving, in 1992, to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
As the official anniversary of the school on 19 June approaches, some 50 student films have been digitised and are being made available to the public for the first time. So what can be gleaned from the three in focus here?
VIRGIN, WHORE, SAINT
Niki Caro’s short film Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990) fits well within the “rejection-of-patriarchy” mould. Three versions of a woman – bride to be (virgin), dominatrix (whore), and actress playing Joan of Arc (saint) – are shown. Each is dissatisfied with her place in the world.
The (brief) male characters – a father, a lover, a sex buyer who is also a paedophile, a husband to be, a boss, and a surreal stranger at a bar – represent misogyny and patriarchal control in different ways, but we understand that they are all connected. It’s a 90s version of #yesallwomen.
We are shown that it doesn’t matter which role you inhabit – you lose out, and the most effective way to fight back is to band together, say “fuck you”, and walk out on the game completely. A more optimistic view of the ability of women and girls to succeed within male-dominated norms can be found in Caro’s most famous directorial work, Whale Rider (2002).
There are, of course, valid but less stark ways to criticise sexual inequality. Some even claim that 90s “girly films” such as Clueless (1995) or Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) constitute, in the words of Hilary Radner, a kind of “neo-feminism”, in part through presenting a parody of hyper-femininity.
Parody, though, is risky business, especially when the subject is gender stereotypes. Norms of gender are so entrenched that you can guarantee a good percentage of the audience is likely to miss the point. Ultimately, it feels as though “girly films” did more to sustain the tired narrative of women as vacuous, fashion-obsessed caricatures than undermine it.
SEXY GIRLS, SEXY APPLIANCES
Parody is more successfully taken up in Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1992), by Emma-Kate Croghan, who went on to direct the indie-cool Love and Other Catastrophes (1996).
Here, her Sexy Girls short pairs a late 1950s/early 1960s aesthetic with over-the-top erotic representations of women in domestic contexts: from fellating a vacuum cleaner, and slapping a side of beef, to the more familiar cliché of a woman getting off while sitting on a washing machine.
The sexualised commodification of women’s bodies is intertwined with the commodity fetishism of the household to create an imaginary world where women are shown loving their daily chores so much that they are literally brought to orgasm by carrying them out.
Sadly, this commentary feels almost radical in the current context of eroticised cooking shows on television and the cultural re-romanticising of the 1950s housewife, all cupcakes and sexualised subservience. The rise of “choice feminism” has moved the discussion away from structural-level, cultural critique and positioned even traditional gender roles, founded on women’s’ sexual inequality, as potentially liberating, individual choices.
Indeed, the ability to choose empowerment through conformity is the crucial message of Robert Luketic’s Titsiana Booberini (1996). This short film – to quote from Emily Rustin’s essay in Australian Cinema in the 1990s – slots quite neatly into the “glitter cycle” of Australian cinema from the 1980s-1990s, where “luminescent and colourful” flair is married with narratives of an individual’s ability to overcome circumstance.
In some ways this short is also a very Aussie take on the “girly film”, a musical about love, set in a supermarket, complete with colourful backdrops of Cottee’s cordial and Samboy chips.
Yes, there is a nod to issues of outsider status in a suburban landscape where beauty is constructed as whiteness/blondeness, but the gender narrative is completely reactionary. Our heroine is both overly visible, with prominent, dark facial hair, and yet she is invisible in terms of heteronormative, white beauty standards.
That is, until Titsiana is transformed with the help of some eyebrow reduction, moustache bleaching, and make-up. Once she conforms correctly, she is confident and rewarded with male approval. It might be tempting to put Titsiana Booberini in the category of parody, but given that Luketic went on to direct Legally Blonde (2001) and The Ugly Truth (2009), the heavy gender stereotyping is clearly an ongoing theme.
Looking back, the version of lipstick liberation offered on screen at the turn of the millennium – one that is occasionally still evident now – seems frivolous and flippant in contrast to the darker critiques of patriarchy and rebellion offered earlier in the 1990s.
But such things are often cyclical and, as early-90s fashion is returning to trend, with any luck some of the early 90s “fuck you” feminism might find its way back into pop culture as well.
Banner image: Still from Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances. 1991. Emma-Kate Croghan.
This is the fifth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
Dr Meagan Tyler is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, at RMIT University. In 2009 she completed a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, where she completed a Graduate Diploma of Education in 2004 and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in 2003.