Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Stacia Yeapanis as our latest guest with her post, “My Feminism is 80s Teen Movie Favored”. Stacia is a Chicago based interdisciplinary artist who’s first monograph was recently published as part of The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s Midwest Photographers Publication Project this past spring.
My Feminism is 80s Teen Movie Flavored
Not many people remember the teen movie The Legend of Billie Jean. Expected to be a box office hit in the summer of 1985, it disappointed producers, earning a measly $3.5 million, and has yet to be released on DVD. This movie is why I still own a VCR.
The plot is simple: Billie Jean Davy is a teenage girl from a trailer park, who becomes an outlaw after being involved in an accidental shooting. She goes on the run with her friends and cuts her hair and becomes a celebrity hero seeking justice. The tagline, according to IMDB, is “When you’re seventeen, people think they can do anything to you. Billie Jean is about to prove them wrong.”
I was 7, not 17, when it was first released. I can’t remember exactly when or where I watched it for the first time. I remember that I believed the main conflict was between kids and adults. There’s no doubt the movie was marketed to the MTV generation. The theme song, Invincible by Pat Benatar, had already made it to #10 before the movie was released. I probably related to the movie because I was a kid and because life constantly feels unfair when you’re a kid.
But when I re-watched The Legend of Billie Jean at age 31, it was obvious to me that this overlooked teen movie is about more than a rebellious teen’s sense that her parents aren’t fair because they make her clean her room or get off the phone and do her homework. For me, it’s one of my earliest feminist texts (and a scathing critique of capitalism, but that’s another post). Watching it was like having myself and my experience of the world mirrored back to me. I don’t mean that I’ve ever cut my hair short or been an outlaw or slept at an abandoned mini golf course. I just mean that I must have learned something watching this movie over and over again. And it’s something I value.
The opening sequence is common in many 80s teen movies: a group of carefree teens rides down the highway in a convertible, whooping and hollering. But this is different. The convertible teens are not our protagonists. They are bullies: our first representation of Patriarchy. Billie Jean and her brother are positioned as the disadvantaged. They live in a trailer park, a fact that is emphasized repeatedly. They ride a scooter instead of driving a car. They are poor, while the convertible bullies are probably middle class. One of the boys is taking pictures of Billie Jean. She seems to be enjoying it, or at least, she doesn’t mind it. The use of the camera represents the constant presence of the Male Gaze. The gaze is emphasized in the way Hubie Pyatt, a local bully, harasses them further. He sexualizes Billie Jean by leaning in really close and licking the straw from her milkshake. He feminizes Binx in the way all homophobic jocks from 80s teen movies do: by calling him a faggot. Later, Hubie and his friends continue this harassment by stealing Binx’s Honda Elite and trashing it. This is just the first of many examples how the dominance of Patriarchy can lead to an unethical use of power.
Repairing the scooter will cost $608. Billie Jean goes to the shop owned by Hubie’s father to get the money that is owed to them. The class-based power relations are emphasized once again when Hubie denies his culpability. ”Don’t believe her, dad. She’s from the trailers… She’ll say anything.”
For a moment, it seems Mr. Pyatt will right Hubie’s wrong. He sends his son away and tells Billie Jean the money is upstairs in the safe. Mr. Pyatt’s idle conversation quickly escalates into dangerous territory when he offers to give her the money in exchange for sexual favors.
Luckily Billie Jean manages to escape. This is not a movie about rape. But the possibility of it does emphasize the power discrepancy between Billie Jean and Mr. Pyatt. He is an older, male business owner. She is an impoverished teenaged girl. Billie Jean’s femaleness is equated with her poorness. Both are qualities that the despicable Mr. Pyatt can take advantage of. When he doesn’t succeed in actually raping her, he later does so metaphorically by selling unauthorized merchandise bearing her image for his own profit (reiteration of the male gaze). Although I don’t think that the experience of rape is at all like the experience of have one’s image exploited, both emphasize ways in which our bodies are often the sites of the struggle against Patriarchy.
So when Billie Jean cuts off her long blonde hair, it is a symbolic gesture. It signals a shift in self-identity. Billie Jean has a new way of seeing herself so she changes the way she presents herself to the world. She throws off the trappings of femininity, subverting the Male Gaze that she welcomed in the opening sequence. This gesture brings to mind the image of women throwing their bras and corsets into trashcans in 1968. She gets rid of the clothes that Mr. Pyatt had fingered lecherously saying, “This looks real good on you. Bet you drive them boys crazy, don’t you?” She dons fingerless gloves and parachute pants instead. According to tropes of 1980s teen movies this attire states emphatically I’m not the nice girl you think I am and I’m not gonna let you push me around anymore!
After Billie Jean changes her appearance, she records what amounts to a video manifesto, which she mails to several local news stations.
What’s important here is that she now chooses to record and disseminate her own image. Soon girls all over Corpus Christi, TX have cut their hair off in a feminist sign of solidarity. This is emphasized later when random girls turn themselves into the police, saying they are Billie Jean, and when we see the underground railroad of punk-looking, shorthaired girls, shuttling Billie Jean around TX in their cars so that she can evade capture.
Another striking scene emphasizes the female body as a site of power. The gang has just been involved in a car chase/shoot-out. Right at the moment when I imagine the teenage boy viewers were really enjoying themselves, Putter gets her first period. Considering the menstrual taboo in most teen movies, this is an amazing occurrence. At first everyone thinks she has been shot. When they all realize the mistake, the girls are happy and Binx is grossed out. “You keep quiet, Binx,” admonishes Billie Jean. “It’s wonderful!”
This is a plot device to get Billie Jean worried enough about her friends that she turns them in to keep them safe. But this could easily have been accomplished with the shoot-out alone. The next scene is bizarrely awesome. Putter is wrapped in a huge blanket at the end of a very public pier. Her hair is wet and she appears to be naked, as if she has just bathed in the harbor. Billie Jean is helping her towel off in a very maternal way. Putter looks at her blankly and asks, ”When can I get a diaphragm?” The insertion of such distinctly female concerns, especially ones that are usually absent from mainstream movies, into an action sequence serves as a reminder of what’s really at stake: a woman’s right to do what she wishes with her body.
At the end of the movie, Billie Jean finally confronts Mr. Pyatt directly, calling him out in front of a crowd of potential customers. His attempted rape of Billie Jean is more directly equated with his unethical appropriation of her image for his own financial gain. She gazes at her own image surrounding her. Mr. Pyatt tries to pay her off, keep her quiet. She grasps a handful of bills that he shoves into her hand, staring at them, remembering the last time he tried to give her money for something she wasn’t willing to do.
Mr. Pyatt just doesn’t get it. “You’re the one to blame,” he says. “You’re the one going ‘round, thinking you’re so damn hot.” Even now, he cannot accept any responsibility for his actions, for his misuse of power.
Mr. Pyatt doesn’t get off completely free, as evidenced by the burning of his merchandise, but there’s a tragic sense that he will never really understand what he is guilty of. Patriarchy doesn’t budge easily. Billie Jean herself is different though, and so are all the people who witness the scene. They throw their branded merchandise into the fire, suddenly understanding what it means to have participated in Mr. Pyatt’s exploitation. Even Hubie seems to have learned that his father’s way is not the right way.
Our values come from everything we encounter: our parents, our friends, our teachers, and the texts we read, watch, and hear. There’s no way to prove just what came from where. I’m willing to admit that my memory of early childhood is weak. An exact copy of a movie I watched repeatedly over 20 years ago might only seem to be the origin of my current values, because I can see the circumstantial evidence right before my eyes. Who knows what I actually understood at the time or what the director, writer and actors intended. Whether I learned something about feminism from Billie Jean or whether I’m reading too much into the text, one thing is true. Whenever I witness the continued dominance of Patriarchy, I see Billie Jean in her video manifesto, shaking her clenched fists above her head:
Fair is fair. We didn’t start this. We didn’t mean it to happen. But we’re not giving up ‘til you pay. Fair is Fair.
Out of context, this might sound vengeful. But Billie Jean isn’t out to hurt anyone, and she never allows her righteous anger to steer her into vengeance territory. On a literal level she only wants what is owed to her: the $608 it will take to repair the scooter. No more, no less. But taken as a feminist battle cry, these words are a call to action, a call to stand your ground for what you deserve. Fair is fair.
About the poster:
Stacia Yeapanis is a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist and a media fan. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May 2006 and is a member of the Chicago-based artist collective Henbane.
Using strategies of accumulation, collection, appropriation and juxtaposition, Yeapanis explores the emotional, political, and philosophical significance of cultural participation. By creating hybrid works that employ the histories and languages of both popular and fine art culture, she reveals the cultural and personal spaces where these binaries overlap. Yeapanis currently uses embroidery and video to explore how individuals create meaning from mass media products.
Yeapanis’ first monograph was recently published as part of The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s Midwest Photographers Publication Project (Spring 2009). Recent exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Atlanta and Baltimore), MP3: Midwest Photographers Project (Chicago) and RE: Figure (Chicago). Please visit her website at www.staciayeapanis.com.
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