Inspiration. It’s that bolt of blue that hits every living creature, from when we’re learning to crawl until we are leaning towards the grave. What or who inspires us is varied, which is fantastic! After all, what’s more visually striking—a vivid rainbow after a heavy rainstorm or a row of beige trousers flanked by yogurt? Exactly, though if the latter inspires you? That’s great too! All of this is part of evolving and growing, both individually and as a human collective. We are living in a culture that is trying, part and parcel, to be better, more evolved, and less discriminating. You can’t have change without some growing pains and maybe, if it was painless, then we would be in even more danger of taking wisdom and kindness for granted.
That said, there is one particular pain that needs to be confronted. It’s nothing new but the tendency to blindly attack others in the name of being a bad liberal/conservative/feminist/etc has got to stop. It’s a trend that has existed in various forms since the dawn of civilization, which makes it all the more vexing. Wanting to evolve past ingrained bigotry is awesome and more than vital, but when it goes from positive ideas and actions to blindly gnashing, gnawing, and attacking, then the movement is instantly cut off at the knees. Joe Strummer once said “know your rights” and Sun Tzu was quoted as saying, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Now, if we can combine both of these sentiments together, then maybe, just maybe, the portal to true enlightenment is a little more possible. I’m a realist but I would rather fight for a sliver of hope then settle for a bucketload of horseshit.
With gender issues and feminism especially, the waters get really murky. Battling things like the gender wage gap, body agency, and even just being treated like a regular human being is hard enough, but when you’re coupling that with people who should know better condescending to you about what kind of person you should be, it’s enough to drive a lass to drinking Gem Clear while shouting the words to “Oh Bondage Up Yours.” Again, any complaint you and I have about our species is aged like a wine-that-is-actually-piss. Whether it was “feminists” like Andrea Dworkin or Gloria Steinheim attacking women in the adult film industry or any number of garden variety politically correct types shaming one for loving Russ Meyer or “exploitation” films in general, the real problem is still not addressed.
The most offensive film, song, or nudie magazine is still not your country’s political representative, dayjob boss, religious leader, or even your parents. (For some of us, you can even ignore those last two mentioned!) They have zero authority. I personally find women’s magazines infinitely more offensive, both as a feminist and a human with some semblance of taste, than Hustler magazine. Classic Hustler featured some of my all-time art heroes, including Gerard Damiano, Charles Bukowski, Frank Zappa, and of course, Stephen Sayadian. Can Cosmopolitan claim that? Nope, because it is too busy trying to give me all the tips to make myself more attractive to snag a man since that is my only value as a human, apparently. Fuck that noise. Give me anti-authoritarian, giving the middle-finger to the hypocrisy of our society, and centerfolds who look like beautiful and earthy women, not some lovely who has been airbrushed to the extent that her epidermis might as well have a Made in China stamp on it, any day.
Even with that, I would never dream of wanting to censor Cosmo or anything else and here are probably readers that glean something fun or rewarding from it. If so, good for them. Life is too short to worry about someone judging what you love, even if that person is my ever well-hearted and stoically opinionated self.
Now, when it comes to feminist heroes, growing up, I found little to no inspiration in traditional female roles or role models. The world of Betties, Beckies, and Barbie was and still is thoroughly alien to me. A lot of the female characters that I would see both in children’s movies and overall mainstream entertainment were bland. These were not actually people with their own innate drives and minds, but just hollow caricatures. I was more drawn to a medley of women from silent and horror cinema. As I skidded towards puberty, I would soon discover even more striking women in the cult, exploitation, and sexploitation worlds.
Here’s the aspect of genre cinema and its va-va-voom sister, the pinup, that is rarely shouted at the mountain enough and that is both are brimming with strong, vibrant, and in some cases, groundbreaking women. These are the amazons, she-vixens, heroines, and scarlet women that inspired me. I was inspired by Clara Bow just as much as I was by images of Tura Satana, the resolute image of a true amazon. Mother Earth in tight black pants and with zero fucks to give. Speaking of maneaters, what about the all-female biker gang in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She Devils on Wheels? Even better was when The Cramps covered the film’s ultra-snarl-rock-tune-theme, “Get Off the Road,” with the band’s crimson-haired-Kali-guitar-goddess Poison Ivy taking a rare vocal lead, making this THE feminist anthem. No shame to any woman who gained inspiration from folkie-tinged sirens or more classic role models, after all, I am no hero shamer, but beige tones and established parameters are not for all of us. (Unless your hero is Don Henley. Then I shall judge you.)
This is tied to the heavy misconception that any woman, ranging from cheeky but relatively tame pin-up models to nude models, actresses, dancers, and women in the adult film industry, is instantly an automaton of the “male gaze.” This is as offensive as saying that all females should be spread eagled in the kitchen shooting out children while fixing her husband a pot pie. In fact, more so since the latter scenario at least does sport some feats of dexterity and multi-tasking. Seriously speaking, that line of thinking is insulting to so many of the women in those fields. Are there victims? Sure, but yet I see no morality thrown around about how lower and middle class men and women are exploited working in food service, retail, factory, or care taking jobs.
That is a whole other kettle of fish, though.
Let’s face it, owning one’s physical presence and especially sexuality in a world that is still undeniably sexist and riddled with issues regarding both genders is brazen. A woman asserting herself in such a manner is thumbing her nose at outmoded status quo expectations, instantly making anyone shaking with insecurity and repression sweating in their knitwear. Good…make’em sweat! Some of the strongest women in the arts are ones that worked in fields that were ignored or even sneered at by “respectable” critics, which is a disrespect to directors, writers, and cinematographers like Doris Wishman, Anne Randall, Raven Touchstone, Roberta Findlay, Ann Perry, Veronika Rocket, Candida Royalle, Barbara Peeters, Kat Shea, Jackie Kong, Penny Antine, Cathy Tavel, and many more. While this is more fitting for a book than a wee article, it feels safe to say that compared to mainstream Hollywood in the post-silent era, women were able to learn and utilize their craft more successfully in the world of horror, cult, and erotica. In fact, if you’re curious about the latter, I cannot recommend highly enough Jill Nelson’s beautifully researched and written tome, Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Erotic Cinema. Jill is a heroine and so are the women she interviews.
Another woman who was a bold groundbreaker that deserves more love and critical glory is Bunny Yeager. A former beauty queen and pin-up model herself, Yeager entered the world of photography around 1954 while still in her mid-20s. Reading up on Bunny reveals a woman who was fearless in learning a multitude of skills, whether it was designing and sewing her own swimsuits or becoming, to quote Diane Arbus, “The world’s greatest pin-up photographer.” Yeager may not be a household name but her most famous model, Bettie Page, most definitely is. It is Yeager’s pictures of Bettie that are some of her most famous ones, including the iconic shots of Page in an animal print bikini posing next to a cheetah, as well as her winking in a Santa hat and not much else. Outside of Irving Klaw’s equally iconic Bettie-bondage pictures, it is Yeager’s work that has further helped Page gain immortality as everyone’s favorite raven-haired pin-up with the wholesome smile and wicked gleam.
Luckily, there is more effort to preserve Yeager’s epochal legacy, with the most recent example being the upcoming book, Women of the Sun: Bunny Yeager in Mexico, which will be released by the always ardent Cult Epics. If you love rich-toned visuals and the female form celebrated with all the pagan reverence and respect that is an eternal delight to see, then this is a great start.
The beauty of art is that even in my scattered roll call throughout, there is a multitude of women in the arts that are just waiting for more respect, conservation, and big, grande love. It is these titans that make me proud to call myself a feminist, especially because they defined it on their own terms. Overt codification of anything invites close-mindedness and having your personality and ideals boxed into an uncomfortable degree. In fact, any one, gender be damned, who is living for love, great art, no bullshit, and true individuality is my hero and that includes you.
Now, keep being an individual, do no harm, take no guff, and be utterly fearless. This ride is too bumpy and short to live for those will never truly love or try to understand you.