Russ Meyer, Feminists and Monstrous Feminines
In his own words, the intended audience for Russ Meyer’s films was “some guy…in the theatre with semen seeping out of his dick.” His work in the sexploitation subgenre is credited with bringing nudity and sleaze into the American cinematic mainstream and his gravestone declares him ‘King of the Nudies.’ And yet his magnum opus has been reclaimed as a work of female empowerment, a subversive text that has inspired music videos by the Spice Girls and Janet Jackson, lent its name to a New York women’s bar and even been referenced in Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite dismissing it after a first viewing in the mid-1970s as “retrograde male-objectification of women’s bodies and desires further embellished by a portrait of lesbianism as twisted and depraved”, feminist scholar and film critic B. Ruby Rich issued a diametrically revisionist reappraisal in 1995, considering it “a body blow to the idea that women are just victims.” She even went as far as to describe Meyer as “the first feminist American director”. The film in question is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.
The ‘Pussycats’ are sometimes lovers Varla (Tura Satana) and Rosie (Haji) and fellow go-go dancer colleague Billie (Lori Williams). They are each vicious and sadistic mountains of sexual rage, both their lustful appetites and voluptuous bodies forever threatening to break out and lay waste to any unfortunate bystanders. After a little desert drag racing turns nasty the three kill a wholesome all-American boy and take his girlfriend prisoner without much hesitation and no detectable remorse. On the run, they hatch a plan to swindle a wheelchair-bound perverted old man and his carved-from-stone son out of a small fortune the former received as compensation after an accident on a railway. Casted by a misogynist in order to be objectified, Satana, Haji and Williams craft deceptively sapient performances. Shot as pulp icons, they become towering comic book characters, Hellenic Gladiatrixes whose sheer physical and sexual strength are their own Lassos of Truth. But unlike Diana Price, these are no heroes. As the opening narration warns us, they are “evil creations,” and are as enthusiastic about murder as they are about their fast cars.
Meyer and co-writer Jack Moran’s script was little more than a setup that could lend itself to the maximum number of exploitation tropes possible, no subtext, just titillation. So how then was it that feminist intellectuals and the vanguard of nineties girl power came to lay claim to a film made by a man whose self-described sole incentives for directing were “lust and profit”? In part it is due to the emergence of sex-positive feminism, allowing for the re-evaluation of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! as what Rich would call “a veritable Rosetta stone of contemporary attitude; ironic, irreverent, sexually polymorphous”. This notion was part of a wider continuing trend towards revisionism, seen for example in UCLA’s recent Film & Television Archive series “No She Didn’t!: Women Exploitation Auteurs”. The program aimed to “recontextualize old films so they can be seen in a new and different way” and study how “lurid exploitation subject turned into a crafty feminist allegory”. Exclusively showing female-directed exploitation films (such as Bad Girls Go to Hell and Slumber Party Massacre) Meyer obviously wasn’t involved but the principle is applicable. The difference however is that while some of the filmmakers in the series encouraged such readings of their films, Meyer rejected any academic attempt to interpret his films and when faced with questions on the subject of gender roles in his work he dismissively quipped he’d “never met a good-looking feminist.” Evidently, whatever ‘the King of Nudies’ achieved in empowering women he did so unintentionally.
Sexploitation and Sweet Kittens
Early exploitation films typically centred around the social anxieties of their day, disingenuously posing as a warning, though truthfully tempting audiences to indulge in immorality and witness taboos being broken. The aim was to effectively ‘exploit’ the subject matter for kicks as opposed to critiquing it. Meyer’s previous work had always offered a wry, acknowledging smile to those watching. He established his reputation firstly through his ostensibly naive nudie cuties and then later with his roughies, which catered to the most repulsive fantasies of violence against women. With Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Meyer did little to keep up the public service announcement charade. Its theatrical preview promised the opportunity to “go-go for a wild ride with the Watasi-cats” before advising viewers to “beware: the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws! For your own safety, see Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”. The accompanying visuals were an assault on the seediest of senses, as the three ‘kittens’ twist and turn maniacally on the strip club stage, followed by a relentlessly edited few minutes of speeding sports cars, swift seductions and quick kills.
With this film, Meyer aimed to exploit some of mid-sixties white conservative middle-class America’s greatest fears. The Old Man represents a perverted, Southern Gothic depravity. The Pussycats, as supercharged outsiders coming to refuel and wreak havoc recall the anti-biker hysteria of the Hollister riot and subsequent Motorcycle Club films such as The Wild One. Meyer, however, went a step further, switching to the phallic symbol of the car and putting women behind the wheel. But whereas Brando’s Johnny is revealed to be a closet romantic, Varla, the de facto leader of the Pussycats, is nothing but evil. Yet the audience, being invited to indulge themselves, inevitably end up cheering for her as their homicidal heroin. This is the essence of exploitation cinema, tempting you to watch and enjoy what polite society would have you condemn.
Monsters and Masculinity
This then begs the question of how Varla, Rosie and Billie, characters who were designed largely as an excuse for the camera to ogle at their cleavage came to become such oft-debated characters? The answer lies in them and the film’s male characters being representative of two key concepts that have informed feminist film criticism in recent decades, that of the monstrous-feminine and of masculinity in crisis.
When explaining her formulation of the first concept, Barbara Creed explains “the reasons why the monstrous-feminine horrifies her audience are quite different from the reasons why the male monster horrifies his audience… The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity.”
The Pussycats represent Meyer’s conception of female sexuality unleashed, a notion he evidently finds simultaneously arousing and monstrous. While the exact causes of this ideal might be difficult to pin down, his well-documented inability to last long in the bedroom and the affair that effectively ruined his first marriage are certainly somewhat to blame. As a young director, he became involved with Tempest Stone, who at the time was already a legend on the Burlesque circuit and would star in a few of Meyer’s earliest films. However, when they first went to consummate the relationship, Russ was overwhelmed by her anatomy and couldn’t live up to his own ideals of masculinity, later explaining:
“When I first met Tempest Storm I was so in awe of her great big cans that thoughts like performing badly or ejaculating prematurely ran through my mind –all connected to the dick bone. So when I made my move to hump the buxotic after the last show in her Figueroa Street scatter, I felt inadequate, plain and simple. Fuck, what can I say?”
Other than being an example of the degree of misogyny the man was prone to sprout, this quote is helpful in explaining the psychology of his sexuality. Storm would be the first sex symbol of his films, appearing topless in The Immoral Mr. Teas. She was one of the very few of his stars he slept with and thus from the beginning of his career, of his maturing as a filmmaker, he felt sexually insufficient and yet aroused when faced with the ‘monstrosity’ of a busty woman.
This experience would shape his future casting decisions as he made a career out of discovering Amazonian women: tall and chestily well-endowed with rugged strength. For Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, he began in typical fashion by holding auditions in a seedy LA strip joint called “The Losers’ Club”. Tura Satana immediately caught his eye and was an extraordinary find. On and off screen she was a towering figure of independent womanhood. Born in Japan with a Native American background, her family emigrated to America at precisely the wrong time and at the age of five Tura was interned during the Second World War on the basis of her birthplace. After being released her family relocated to Chicago and at the age of ten she was gang-raped and sent to reform school, while her attackers simply bribed their way out of criminal charges. Upon her release, she took up martial arts and started an all-girl gang to prevent others from suffering as she had. They reportedly carried ‘switchblades in their boots and razors in their hair.’ After the failure of her arranged marriage, armed with a fake ID she ran away to Hollywood where she first worked as a glamour model before returning home and beginning a lucrative stripping career at just 15. In his book on the film for the Cultographies series, Dean DeFino explains that five years later she ‘was earning $1,500 a week and had her own cult following.’ Her past suitors even included a certainly Elvis Presley, who obviously couldn’t keep up as she reportedly rejected a marriage proposal from the King.
Meyer wanted his Superwomen to be larger than life as if exaggerated forms of patriarchal nightmares. Satana was just what he was looking for but came to be such through her own real experiences. As a mixed-race rape survivor living in a deeply sexist society she was more than some sexploitation director’s wet dream, she was the real deal. A self-described deeply sexual person, she became enraged with Meyer when he insisted on the cast and crew not socialising and adhering to a strict policy of abstinence while filming so as to have the sexual tension saved for when the cameras were rolling. Satana however argued with him so ferociously he caved and they formed a pact in which she could enjoy clandestine rendezvous with a member of the crew. Her sexuality was all hers, and certainly not to be dictated by another.
But in her director’s mind, this was not a positive trait. As DeFino puts it, Satana’s character Varla embodies ‘a number of archaic female stereotypes – lasciviousness, fecundity, (and) wrath’. The Superwomen of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! are monstrous, the product of the director’s sexual tastes and embarrassment, the manifestation of one man’s very gendered fears. As the plot plays out it is important to note they break down misogynist authority structures and in doing so reveal the male libido to be insufficient. The film’s male characters are each representative of a different side of Meyer’s conception of hetero-masculine eroticism. There’s an earnest yet tempted do-gooder, a doltish but physically flawless stud, a straight-laced preppy and a sexually dysfunctional perverted pensioner. Almost all are easily squashed by the Pussycats with their own bare hands. They are the embodiments of a crisis in masculinity and the corrupting privileged position of men. Meyer undoubtedly revelled in the elevated position he enjoyed on an account of his gender, however by cinematically unleashing his sexual fantasies he has them tear apart the fabric of domestic patriarchal power structures, the oppressive institutions of the family and marriage.
As cultural commodities fashioned from the mind of one of a sexist society’s most sexist filmmakers, the Pussycats can hardly be seen as inspiring liberators for those opposed to misogyny. Their worth lies in their illustration of key concepts of feminist film theory. And yet when watching these monstrous murderers the only appropriate reaction is to cheer them on, to support their ritualistic slaughter of masculinity and oppression. More than fifty years on they remain there to tempt you to go-go along for the ride but remember to beware, the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws.
– Jamie Lewis
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.