Giving ‘Switchblade Sisters’ the Feminist Review I Wanted to Read

I’m not much of a moviegoer/downloader. I’d rather read quick articles, and even watching Game of Thrones/Sherlock is a drag for me because I keep thinking of how much time I will waste. But I do love reading feminist reviews of movies, particularly at The Ladies Finger, because there is something about stories that helps us understand ideologies and the like so much better. So when I finished watching Switchblade Sisters purely by accident, I was so excited I trawled the internet for a feminist review of it. Needless to say, nothing satisfying came up, so I thought I would do my own.

Fair warning: spoilers. But they wouldn’t hamper your enjoyment of the movie, I promise, because there are story elements that I am leaving out.

The film deals with a girl gang, the Dagger Debs, seen as a subservient to the male-dominated Silver Daggers because the leaders are dating, and the arrival of a new girl in town, Maggie (played by Joanne Nail). Through an unfortunate series of occurrences, she ends up in the juvenile centre along with the Dagger Debs, and has to deal with a “lesbian warden” (I know) trying to sexually abuse her. Lace (Robin Lee), the leader of the Dagger Debs, is impressed by the way she fights her off, and befriends her. As their friendship deepens, she tries to secure membership for Maggie into the gang(s), unwittingly setting off a power struggle that would affect *cue dramatic music* everything as they knew it.

While I certainly expected the film to pass the Bechdel test very easily (I did, after all, find the link on the Ladies Finger), I didn’t anticipate the characters having the depth that they did. Of course, the film did have its cliches befitting the seventies – the fat girl Donut is a fickle coward and is always eating, the lesbian warden is lecherous and abusive (and clearly the villain), the ringleader of the black women’s gang, Muff, quotes freakin’ Chairman Mao at people (I actually love this particular depiction, but I suspect it is politically incorrect).

But Lace, Maggie and Patch – the three leads – are complicated, fucked up women. Lace, the baby-faced gang leader, tries to hide her long hair (symbolizing her femininity?) under a black cap, and is one of the most dangerous women you can counter. But she does dream of having a family and a baby with her partner Dominic, even though she denounces it when he is dead and she has miscarried. Maggie is sexy and adept at using it, but she values her friendship with Lace above all else, and, right up to the moment Lace is holding a switchblade to her throat, everything she does is for the sake of the girl she cares for. Patch is cunning and manipulative, and uses deceit to get Lace to distrust Maggie. But all her actions stem from her insecurity at not being valued enough, even though she loyally lost an eye for the sake of the gang. (Although it could also be because at their first acquaintance, Maggie royally creamed her in front of the entire gang using her trusty silver belt.)

The story itself could also be read as one of empowerment – the Dagger Debs break away from the shadow of the Silver Daggers to become The Jezebels, taking ownership of ‘immorality’ and ‘being loud’. The transition happens under the leadership of Maggie, who, in sharp contrast to Lace, rises to her position on account of mutual respect between her and the other members of the gang.  “We ain’t nobody’s Debs,” she declares, and I mentally cheer in agreement. Maggie teaming up with Muff only adds to the plot: the members of the unnamed black female gang are a delight to watch. I laugh joyfully when Muff calls Crabb’s gang “those capitalist bastards” (or something to that effect) and when I see the Little Red Book nestled in their breast pockets. My only complaint is that they get too little screentime for us to get to know them, and though I am certainly no expert in understanding race (racism?), even I can see that they are used to prop up the main white characters.

But the movie isn’t really about a girl gang, or feminism, or badass women kicking ass. At its core (or rather, what I see as its core), it’s a film about a female friendship turned sour. We watch how Lace comes to trust Maggie almost blindly when she proves her spunk. To be fair, Maggie does nothing to break her trust, going so far as to confront her boyfriend for reading aloud the secret mushy note that she had sent in her incarceration. She also rebuffs the attempts of said boyfriend to ask her out, even though she expresses a twisted interest in him (he raped her and justified it because she orgasmed), because Lace is her friend and she doesn’t want to double-cross her. It’s a delight to watch them hang out together, and the absolute faith Lace has in Maggie – until it all begins to unravel because of Patch.

What was once a mutual friendship devolves into one-sided loyalty as Maggie continues to take ownership of the gang for the sake of avenging Lace, while she in hospital confesses to double-crossing her and wrecking her plans. Lace then tries to kill her mid-fight on the urging of Patch (“it needs to look like an accident”), but she appears to be reluctant, for she restrains herself. It is not until Donut expresses a preference for Maggie – and who wouldn’t, if the other option is a girl who calls you a pig and publicly humiliates you? – that Lace finally pulls out the switchblade. She is jealous of the loyalty that Maggie inspires in the Jezebels, unaware that she could have commanded it had she been a little more respectful of her gang and a little less boy-crazy about Nicky (Dominic).

The fact that female friendship is so prominent in the film, and isn’t confined to the happy-buzzed-tour-the-world-and-get-a-dream-guy trope, is important for us feminists. It tells a story that exists in the real world and rarely makes it to celluloid: that female friendships can be both as strong and as fucked up as male friendships. That we are as human as the men who alternately oppress and worship us, and no different. That though our individual friendships may fail, and yes, sometimes because of other women and because we compete over men, it is possible, in the end, to build a female solidarity that lasts even in the face of the threat of jail for murder.

And that is the real reason you should go watch the movie. Though Quentin Tarantino could probably help convince you as well.

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