by Caroline Golum
Dir. Paul Morrissey, 1971
NB: This piece was originally published by Screen Slate on December 21, 2018. It has been updated and edited by the author.
Women in Revolt is the kind of glorious filth they just don’t — or is it can’t? — make any more. Sprinkled with ample shots of flopping balls and wrinkled taints, the film more than earns its X rating, but don’t let that downtown trade distract you! Andy Warhol produced and shot what is, essentially, the Hollywood Canteen of drag pictures; it’s the largely improvised and ungapatchka performances of three shining stars — arch-comedienne Jackie Curtis, soigne débutante Candy Darling, and the uncompromisingly antic Holly Woodlawn — that carry off what could have easily been another boring New York indie.
With weepy music cues by John Cale, an abundance of ferns and potted palms, and bolts of satin strewn hither and yon, director Paul Morrissey deliberately evokes the golden age of women’s pictures while his gleeful ensemble tramples freely over any shred of classicism or decorum. From Jackie and Holly’s harebrained scheme to beef up their movement with a beautiful WASP heiress, to Candy Darling’s blatant ploy for seriousness by way of political activism, to the sheer number of totally pointless meetings, Women pokes holes in the worst aspects of “women’s lib” without necessarily deflating it.
The “creative” “team” behind the 2018 destined-to-fail Heathers TV show reboot probably imagined something like Women in Revolt when they pitched the network heads: a decidedly queer, side-eye’d glance at the stranglehold of performative wokeness? What could possibly go wrong? To decry our current media climate as “too sensitive” is a sloppy stroke: every well-deserved takedown of attention-grabbing faux-cialists or nakedly commercial “clicktivism” has its own hostile equivalent in state violence and policy. But when a ring light-haloed TED-talker pulls down six-figures by teaching a roomful of millionaires the phrase “making space,” when a conference table of suits tries their hand at satirizing identity politics in a blatant grab for Twitter takes, it’s time to call upon the elders and show the kids how its done.
Lampooning any aspect of activism and struggle increasingly resembles the hairier scenes in Wages of Fear — if you haven’t got the touch for handling dynamite, stay back at the camp. In lieu of an outright hit job on second wave feminism (the subsequent third wave earned that distinction), each Superstar exposes the naked superficiality of white women who’ve gone “radical chic.” It’s a blessing, truly, that the giddy henhouse in Morrissey’s acid satire hatched a brood of their own. As an early, precious example of incendiary “woke is a joke” satire, Revolt is the primordial quaalude-with-a-beer-and-shot-chaser from which subsequent masterpieces — Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, (the original, perfect) Heathers, City of Lost Souls — have sprung, fully-formed, like Chronos’ children.
Dressing down an increasingly exclusionary women’s liberation movement may have already been in poor taste by 1971, but the jokers on screen tend to draw it mild: the cultural moment in their crosshairs is close enough to parody on its own. Reviewed again from our vantage, some 50 years hence, the real hit job isn’t on mid-century progressives, but on the taffy-pulling bastardization of what passes for leftist thought. Try releasing a film today, two decades into the 21st century, with three trans women as the female leads: odds are good that the first to raise hue and cry on social media would be blue-checked, foam-mouthed versions of the caricatures on screen. Will our era of misspent “radical chic” yield its own trio of incisive Fates, ready to throw a dialectical pie in the face of TERF-and-SWERF-dom? Pray to the Holy Trinity of Darling, Woodlawn, and Curtis, and we may get our wish.
As an extra tribute to Candy Darling, we present here a sound collage by the sound artist Ernst Deficit:
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