The photography of Marianne Breslauer is striking for both its intimacy and its subjects—women, usually of the sleek, chic and gender-bending variety, posed to optimum androgynous elegance. A bohemian Berliner by birth, Breslauer studied under Man Ray for a time in Paris and achieved some commercial success before returning home to an increasingly volatile Germany. As a Jewish artist working in an obviously queer milieu, Breslauer eventually fled to Switzerland and retired from photography early, eventually marrying a man and becoming an art dealer.
Among the many beautiful faces captured by Breslauer was her dear friend, Swiss writer, journalist and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who she described as “neither a man nor a woman, but an angel, an archangel.” A libertine and rebel, Schwarzenbach defied her wealthy, Nazi-sympathizing family, funding anti-fascist publications and later supporting American unions at the height of the Depression—this is not to mention her adventures hitchhiking across India and Turkey, or the many lesbian affairs. Surviving addiction issues and a suicide attempt, Schwarzenbach nonetheless died at the young age of 34 after a fall from a bicycle, leaving behind a prolific body of work, 170 articles and 50 photo-reports.
Despite exaggerations to the contrary, very few video gamesactually portray sexual assault. Sure, there’s a ton of murder, and definitely lots of gendered violence, but games that write in actual sexual violence are quite rare, which is actually sort of surprising when you learn about Custer’s Revenge.
The game, which came in in 1982 for the Atari 2600 and cost a whopping $49.95 (making it the priciest of Atari games then on the market), had a very simple premise: you are a naked, erection-wielding General Custer and you must avoid a volley of arrows in order to to rape a Native American who is—as indicated by the cover art—tied to a pole. Yeah, that’s it.
Custer’s Revenge was an early attempt to create and market “adult” video games, but promotion was difficult, especially since Mystique, the publishers and developers of the game, made it very clear that the game was “NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS.” In order to drum up publicity, Mystique actually showed the game to women’s and Native American groups, who were quick to give them free press with outraged protests. Feminist Andrea Dworkin even argued that Custer’s Revenge “generated many gang rapes of Native American women,” a claim that is difficult to prove, to say the least. Compared to say Pac-Man, the best-selling Atari 2600 game of all time, which sold 7 million, Custer’s Revenge was small potatoes, only selling 80,000 total. Regardless, the backlash most certainly helped move copies that might have otherwise simply collected dust on the shelf.
So how does Custer’s Revenge hold up nowadays? Despite the stomach-turning “plot,” the game actually manages to be so very comically low-rent that it falls very short of anything that is actually visually lurid. I mean you really have to use your imagination to connect those abrupt little pixels to the historic atrocities of the sexual violence and genocide exacted against Native Americans. They just didn’t quite have the technology to really depict any detail at the time, a fact which allowed game designer Joel Miller to maintain plausible deniability, claiming that the woman was a “willing participant” (this despite the game’s title and cover art). Nonetheless, Mystique later released a companion game, General Retreat, featuring the Native American woman attempting to rape Custer under cannonball fire, which, I guess, was an attempt at equality?
Ah, such innocent times! When the libidinal horrors of entertainment were technologically limited to blocky little boners and booties!
It’s possible that protests eventually staved off sales of the game, but what’s more likely is that no one really wanted to play it. PC World magazine named it the third worst game of all time, adding to the obvious objections that it was extremely difficult to play and it just looked terrible. The underground infamy of of Custer’s Revenge outlasted the game itself, inspiring a much more graphic remake in 2008, which was notably protested by a indigenous activists, including a female game designer and a video game journalist. Eventually pressure from activists got the game removed from the internet in 2014 (though I doubt too many people felt its loss).
I was recently on vacation in Vancouver, BC and was lucky enough to take in a massive pop culture retrospective called “MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture” at the gorgeous Vancouver Art Gallery. The show, which took approximately four years to curate, featured a huge array of works from pop culture heroes like filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and many, many others.
One of the many delights the show had to offer fans of pop culture was an almost six-minute video by American video and installation artist Dara Birnbaum, a woman at the forefront of the feminist art movement in the mid-1970s. The video, “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” was made in 1978 and 1979 and features Lynda Carter as her television super-hero alter ego Wonder Woman; explosions, imagery, and audio tracks taken from from her show, which ran from 1975 to 1979; and Carter’s trademark “Wonder Woman” spin—all scored to the show’s own cheese-tastic soundtrack as well as a few added disco fillips. According to Birnbaum, her use of repetition in the video is meant to expose the illusion of “fixed female identities in media” and attempts to show the emergence of a “new woman” through use of technology.
Since I first saw Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman video, I have not be able to get it out of my mind—it’s a strangely compelling and hypnotic piece of work. The video wraps up with an on-screen transcription of The Wonderland Disco Band’s homage to Wonder Woman, “Wonder Woman Disco” which is nearly as fantastic as the video itself. If you’re planning on visiting Vancouver, BC, I highly recommend that you check out “MashUp,” which runs through June 12.
“Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman” by Dara Birnbaum:
Pauline Boty was an artist, activist, actress and model. She was one of the leading figures of the British Pop art movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her contemporaries were Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and David Hockney. But when Boty tragically died at the height of her fame in 1966, her work mysteriously disappeared. Not one of her paintings was exhibited again until 1993.
Boty was all but forgotten by the time a cache of her paintings was rediscovered on a farm in the English countryside in the early 1990s. The paintings had been stored in an old barn for safe-keeping by her brother. Their rediscovery placed Boty firmly back into the center of the Pop art boy’s club.
Throughout her life, Boty kicked against the men who tried to hold her back. Born into a Catholic family in 1938, her father (a by-the-book accountant) wanted his daughter to marry someone respectable and raise a family. Instead she chose to study art to her father’s great displeasure. In 1954, Boty won a scholarship to Wimbledon School of Art.
At college, Boty was dubbed the “Wimbledon Bridget Bardot” because of her blonde hair and film star looks. She went onto study lithography and stained glass design. However, her desire was to study painting. When she applied to the Royal College of Art in 1958, it was suggested by the male tutors that she would be more suited studying stained glass design as there were so few women painters. Though Boty enrolled in the design course she continued with her ambitions to paint.
Encouraged by the original Pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, Boty began painting at her apartment. Her makeshift studio soon became a meeting point for her friends (Derek Marlowe, Celia Birtwell) and contemporaries (Blake, Boshier, Hockney and co) to meet, talk and work. Boty started exhibiting her collages and paintings alongside these artists and her career as a painter commenced.
In 1962, Boty was featured in a documentary about young British pop artists Pop Goes the Easel alongside Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips. The film was directed by Ken Russell who created an incredibly imaginative and memorable portrait of the four artists. Each was given the opportunity to discuss their work—only Boty did not. Instead she collaborated with Russell on a very prescient dream sequence.
It opens with Boty laying out her paintings and drawings on the floor of a long circular corridor—actually the old BBC TV Center. As she examines her work a group of young women appear behind her. These women walk all over her artwork. Then from out of an office door, a nightmarish figure in a wheelchair appears and chases Boty along the seemingly endless twisting corridors. Boty eventually escapes into an elevator—only to find the ominous figure waiting inside.
Her performance in Russell’s film led to further acting roles—in Alfie with Michael Caine, with James Fox on the stage, Stanley Baxter on television and again with Russell in a small role opposite Oliver Reed in Dante’s Inferno. Boty was photographed by David Bailey, modeled for Vogue, regularly appeared as an audience dancer on Ready, Steady, Go!, and held legendary parties at her studio to which everyone who was anyone attended—from the Stones to Bob Dylan. Boty was the bright flame to whom everyone was attracted.
She was a feminist icon—living her life, doing what she wanted to do, and not letting men from hold her back. But the sixties were not always the liberated decade many Boomers would have us believe. Boty’s critics nastily dismissed her as the Pop art pin-up girl. The left-wing party girl. A dumb blonde. Of course, they were wrong—but shit unfortunately sticks.
Boty’s work became more politically nuanced. She criticised America’s foreign policy in Vietnam; dissected the unacknowledged sexism of everyday life; and celebrated female sexuality. She had a long affair with the director Philip Saville—which allegedly inspired Joseph Losey’s film Darling with Dirk Bogarde and Julie Christie. Then after a ten day “whirlwind romance” Boty married Clive Goodwin—a literary agent and activist. She claimed he was the only man who was interested in her mind.
In 1965, Boty was nearing the top of her field when she found she was pregnant. During a routine prenatal examination, doctors discovered a malignant tumor. Boty refused an abortion. She also refused chemotherapy as she did not want to damage the fetus. In February 1966, Boty gave birth to a daughter—Boty Goodwin. Five months later in July 1966, Pauline Boty died. Her last painting was a commission for Kenneth Tynan’s nude revue Oh! Calcutta! called “BUM.”
Pauline Boty in her studio holding the painting ‘Scandal’ in 1963.
‘A Big Hand’ (1960).
More of Pauline Boty’s paintings plus Ken Russell’s ‘Pop Goes the Easel,’ after the jump…
“Girls with guitars? That won’t work,” quipped John Lennon as he watched four girls take the stage of the Cavern Club, Liverpool in 1963. The band was The Liverbirds and Lennon’s attitude was the kind of dumb prejudice these four faced every time they picked up their guitars and blasted an audience with their hard rockin’ R’n'B.
The Liverbirds were formed in Liverpool 1963. The original line-up was Valerie Gell (guitar), Mary McGlory (bass), Sylvia Saunders (drums), together with Mary’s sister, Sheila McGlory (guitar) and Irene Green (vocals). The band’s name was lifted from the liver bird—the mythical bird (most probably a cormorant) that symbolises the city of Liverpool and they were all girls (“birds” in the youthful parlance of the time). The group practiced every day until they were better than most of the local boy bands who were merely copycatting local heroes The Beatles.
The Liverbirds were apparently so good (if a bit rough around the edges) they were snapped up to tour with The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Rockin’ Berries. However, it was soon apparent that the girls—unlike the boys—were were being cheated out of a big part of their fees by booking agents—a crushing disappointment that led to the loss of their lead singer and guitarist to other bands.
It was beginning to look as if Lennon was right, but the girls refused to give up and continued touring with The Kinks. Unlike their northern counterparts, London’s all male bands The Kinks and The Stones were supportive of The Liverbirds—as Mary McGlory recalled in a letter to the Liverpool Beat in 2014:
The Kinks took us down to London to meet their manager, even booked us into a hotel, and told us to come to the studio tomorrow and bring our guitars with us (maybe there might be time to play a song for their manager). When we arrived there, the roadie came in and told The Kinks that their guitars had been stolen out of the van – so this was how The Kinks played our guitars on their hit recording of “You really got me“.
Absolute nonsense- they were a cool band but this DID not happen.
On YRGM I use my Harmony meteor thru the elpico green amp and ray used his tele and pete used his blue fender bass…what a load of bollocks.
However, The Kinks did help save The Liverbirds from splitting-up by suggesting they bring Pamela Birch in as vocalist. Birch was a big blonde bee-hived singer/guitarist. She had a deep bluesy voice which harmonized beautifully with Valeri Gell’s vocals. Birch was a perfect fit for the band.
They were a hit at the Cavern Club. They were a hit across the country. They were a hit on tour. But the band hailed as the all-girl Beatles at the height of Beatlemania couldn’t even get a record deal in England. However, things soon started to shift.
First Kinks’ manager Larry Page and then Beatles manager Brian Epstein wanted to sign The Liverbirds. But the girls were off to Hamburg to play the Star Club. The band was an instant hit in Germany as Mary McGlory recalls:
We arrived in Hamburg on the 28th May, 1964 and played the same night. The crowd was great and loved us right away. The Star-Club owner Manfred Weissleder became our one and only MANAGER.
A few days later he sent us to Berlin to play at a big concert with Chuck Berry, shortly before we went on stage we were told that it was forbidden to play any Chuck Berry songs. Well that was impossible for us, so when Val went to the mike and announced “Roll over Beethoven”, Berry’s manager ran on stage and tried to stop us playing, Val pushed him away and told him to “F. Off”.(She had probably had a shandy). Back in Hamburg, Manfred called us to his office, we thought he was going to tell us off, but no such thing, Chuck Berry’s manager wanted to take us to America. Manfred said he would leave the decision up to us, but then he added – he will probably take you to Las Vegas, and there you will have to play topless! Well of course that was his way of putting us off. After all, the club was still crowded every night.
The band had hits with the songs “Peanut Butter,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Loop-de-Loop,” and “Diddley Daddy.” Although in performance they played the very same Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry covers favored by the Stones and other boys, Birch also started writing original numbers, producing such favorites as “Why Do You Hang Around Me?” and “It’s Got To be You.” Though pioneering and incredibly popular, the girls (now in their late teens-early twenties) still faced the everyday sexism from record industry supremos who thought young girls should be on the scene, but not heard. Not unless they were in the audience screaming. These men wanted girls who dressed to please—not girls who played instruments better than the boys. Girls with guitars? That won’t work. Except for that, of course, it did. Splendidly!
In 1968, on the cusp of a Japanese tour the band split:
Until 1967, we played nearly all over Europe, recorded two albums and four singles for the Star-Club label and appeared on many television shows. Our drummer Sylvia married her boyfriend John Wiggins from The Bobby Patrick Big Six and left the band. Shortly after Val married her German boyfriend Stephan, who had a car accident on his way to visit her and was since paralyzed. So when we got an offer from Yamaha to do a tour of Japan at the beginning of 1968, Pam and I had to find two German girls to replace them. Japan was great, and the Japanese people really liked us, but Pam and I did not enjoy it anymore, we missed the other two, the fun had gone out of it. We thought this is the right time to finish, even though we were still only 22 and 23.
Today McGlory, Gell and Saunders continue with their post-Liverbirds lives. Sadly, Pamela Birch died in 2009. However, this all-girl guitar band should be given credit for pioneering rock and roll, R ‘n’ B and being right up there for a time with The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.
Years before the Runaways or the Go-Go’s, there was pioneering “chick rock” band, Fanny. Fanny was formed in 1969 by teenaged guitarist-singer June Millington, with her sister Jean and drummer Alice de Buhr, as “Wild Honey.” When Nickey Barclay, a keyboard player who toured with Joe Cocker’s infamous “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” group joined them, the band was renamed “Fanny.” In the UK, where the word means “vagina” and not “butt” like it does in the USA, Fanny were thought to be quite outrageous by radio programmers. More outrageous than I think they intended.
Along with Suzi Quatro’s early band, The Pleasure Seekers and before them, Genya Ravan’s girl group Goldie & the Gingerbreads, Fanny was among the very first real female rock groups signed to a major label (Reprise Records, the artists first label started by Frank Sinatra, who was the “Chairman of the Board”). They worked with famed producer Richard Perry (Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, etc) and later Todd Rundgren. They recorded at the Beatles’ Apple Studios and backed Barbra Streisand on her Barbra Joan Streisand album. They toured opening up for huge 70s acts like Slade, Jethro Tull and Humble Pie, but sadly, they are little more than a gender pioneer footnote today.
Fanny were nothing short of incredible, as you will hear, but they never made it as big as they should have. It’s unfair.
David Bowie, in a 1999 Rolling Stone interview, said of the group:
“One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest… rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary: They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done”
Disc jockey: “What do you think about President Reagan.”
“I can’t deal with that.”
“He’s full of shit.”
The Slits had driven to college radio station WORT-FM in Madison, Wisconsin directly after a gig in Chicago and were exhausted and obviously rather testy when they arrived. They immediately set about destroying the show and hilariously insulting most of the male listeners. They were slightly nicer to the female callers, even offering to put one of them on the guest list.
Resembling some sort of mythical, technologically-mediated encounter between a coven of witches and a mob of townspeople (most of them men), this “interview” is hilarious, profound, and scary all at the same time.
Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) in ‘The World Is Not Enough’
By now, a great many movie fans are familiar with the Bechdel Test, a thought exercise developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace that appeared in Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985. In its common form, a movie passes the Bechdel Test if two named characters converse about any topic other than a man. Depressingly, as we’ve all learned, many movies have a hard time meeting even that low bar.
Another common area of irritation for women in films is casting. It’s far harder for an older woman to succeed as an actor than it is for a man, because casting personnel will tend strongly to populate every female role with younger women. One of the reasons Hollywood casts younger women is that younger women are perceived as more attractive, which gets us to the topic of this post.
A producer named Ross Putman has started an amusing Twitter account designed to point some obvious inequities in the ways characters in movies are apportioned.
Putnam’s Twitter account the parts of certain screenplays in which a major female character is introduced, pointing up how lazily, reflexively, automatically such characters are described as attractive, smoking hot, pretty, etc., whether it makes sense in the role or not. Here’s Putnam’s description of the project:
These are intros for female leads in actual scripts I read. Names changed to JANE, otherwise verbatim. Update as I go. Apologies if I quote your work.
After reading several of these tweets, one begins to wonder what’s motivating the (presumably) men who write this stuff.
James Bond movies are famous for being populated with sexy women for Bond to fuck, but in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, one of four indistinguishable James Bond movies featuring Pierce Brosnan, they went over the line, creating a character called Dr. Christmas Jones, who is a nuclear physicist played by Denise Richards.
For the record, here’s how Christmas Jones is described in the screenplay
Moving fast, off comes the helmet to reveal a BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN GIRL. CHRISTMAS JONES is mid-twenties, shortish hair, hot right now. In one movement she unzips and steps out of the suit, revealing a khaki sports bra, cut-off shorts, heavy duty boots. A nasty-looking hunting knife strapped around her hips. She has a deep tan and an incredible figure.
This character stretched credulity to the point that Canada’s National Post called her character one of the “ten worst moments in the history of James Bond on film.”
Anyway, here is a sample of some of Putnam’s JANE tweets:
JANE, with lengthy blonde hair, enters. Attractive in an effortless way, she carries an alluring and yet forward charm behind a bold smile.
Before the release of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, renowned black radical Angela Y. Davis interviewed him for Transition Magazine. It’s probably the first and last time a magazine has used a Gramsci quotation to introduce its readers to Ice Cube.
Davis, a former student of Herbert Marcuse, had been targeted by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1969 and 1970, when she was an assistant professor in UCLA’s Philosophy Department. At the governor’s urging, she was fired (twice), and Reagan vowed that she would never teach at the University of California again. Because who was better qualified to evaluate the work of philosophy professors than like Ronald Reagan? (Today, Davis is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments at UC Santa Cruz, and “Reagan” is a pair of syllables that stands for mental decay.) In ‘80, a decade after she was arrested because of her association with the Soledad Brothers, and again in ‘84, she was the vice-presidential candidate on the Communist Party USA ticket.
Ice Cube was coming from a different place. You couldn’t call his analysis Marxist, and “feminist” would have been a real stretch: he was reading The Final Call, not People’s World. This was during the period of Cube’s loudest advocacy for the Nation of Islam—before Friday, long before Are We There Yet?—when he was advocating black self-reliance (“We’ve got to start policing and patrolling our own neighborhoods,” he told Davis), endorsing an anti semitic NOI book called The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, and arguing that the Hon. Elijah Muhammad was more important than Malcolm X. He and Davis had plenty to talk about.
Angela Davis and Ice Cube in Transition #58
Hip-hop historian Jeff Chang, who thinks this meeting likely took place in July of ‘91, writes in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop that publicist Leyla Turkkan set up the interview, hoping it would position Ice Cube as “an inheritor of the Black radical tradition.” Chang continues:
The interview was a provocative idea—one that both Davis and Cube welcomed. But none of them had any idea how the conversation would turn when they got together in Cube’s Street Knowledge business offices.
To begin with, Davis only heard a few tracks from the still unfinished album [Death Certificate], including “My Summer Vacation,” “Us” and a track called “Lord Have Mercy,” which never made it to the album. She did not hear the song that would become most controversial—a rap entitled “Black Korea.” In another way, she was at a more fundamental disadvantage in the conversation.
Like Davis, Cube’s mother had grown up in the South. After moving to Watts, she had come of age as a participant in the 1965 riots. While Cube and his mother were close, they often argued about politics and his lyrics. Now it was like Cube was sitting down to talk with his mother. Davis was at a loss the way any parent is with her child at the moment he’s in the fullest agitation of his becoming.
Cube sat back behind his glass desk in a black leather chair, the walls covered with framed gold records and posters for Boyz N The Hood and his albums. Copies of URB, The Source and The Final Call were laid out in front of him. Davis asked Cube how he felt about the older generation.
“When I look at older people, I don’t think they feel that they can learn from the younger generation. I try and tell my mother things that she just doesn’t want to hear sometimes,” he answered.