Rebel Dykes, a new documentary—directed by Harri Shanahan and Sîan Williams and produced by Siobhan Fahey—is a wild and wicked retelling of the lives of a group of feminist lesbians in 1980s London, at the forefront of socio-political progress. The documentary provides an oral history for the group: a loose collective of friends and lovers born out of the Greenham Common protest. Trendsetters in their self-expression and sexuality, the group also made a crucial impact in the protest movements of the period; in the age of ‘Silence=Death’, Rebel Dykes were amongst those making the most noise.
The film explores the Rebel Dyke subculture, with all its influence from the Punk music scene, through collage. Animation, re-enactments, home video and archive footage are woven together in the style of a fanzine, which is especially welcome given the significance of Punk aesthetics to the group. Everything, from the leather jackets worn to the dildos used, was spoken about in political terms (dildos with balls were especially controversial). The term ‘Nazi’ was thrown at the Rebel Dykes for their embrace of leather and riding motorcycles.
There is a real DIY feel to this documentary, which is appropriate because the first half of the film deals with the building of the subculture quite literally from the ground up. We get a sense of the unwelcoming nature of 1980s London, where there weren’t many spaces for those identifying as lesbians and feminists to hang out.
A crucial part of the culture became the open expression of their sexuality and we hear of the establishment of the first lesbian Fetish club within London, named Chain Reactions. The club was home to everything from mud wrestling to exhibitionist sex shows, and the openness this afforded allowed the women to fully embrace the limits of their own sexuality, and by extension their own identity.
The high point of the documentary is the retelling of when the group broke into the mainstream during the Section 28 protests. Living up to their punk aesthetics, the Rebel Dykes pulled off the most audacious acts of protest from abseiling into the House of Lords to storming the Six O’Clock News. These acts of political dissidence are rendered in frenetic re-stagings, as well as through dramatic animations which play up the folkloric qualities of such dramatic acts. But anger directed towards the group wasn’t just coming from the establishment, as the film explores the criticism it received from feminist circles.
The Rebel Dykes, who were already bearing the brunt of oppression under the patriarchy, were also outcasts within their own movement. The broader feminists looked down upon the Dykes’ use of masculine symbols and embracing of S&M, which they saw as embracing patriarchy. The film gives voice to the intelligent debates held around this and draws out the core of what made the Dykes just so influential: their adoption of patriarchal norms was a form of reclamation, and really contributed to societal change.
Perhaps for this reason, it is somewhat disappointing that the film is so firmly stuck in the past tense. Many of the issues discussed have contemporary parallels—not least the unwelcoming stance feminist circles held, and still hold toward the transgendered community. There is space given to reflect on the harm this ostracization caused amongst trans individuals, especially upon the release of Janice Raymond’s The Transexual Empire—a book which legitimised anti-trans views, and fed the flames of transphobic rhetoric for years to come. However the thread is not followed to the present day, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Near the end of Rebel Dykes, musician Debbie Smith proclaims ‘Look at lesbian society now, we did that. Be thankful.’ Whilst the line is tongue in cheek it does highlight the film’s lack of a contemporary voice, which would certainly be valued. The film presents the battles as won long ago, when in fact they are still raging.
Rebel Dykes is an evocative account of the post-punk Dyke culture, which brilliantly explores the impact of the subculture on wider society. Whilst the documentary is guilty at times of focussing on the past at the expense of the present, it is a timely rediscovery of the power of protest.
Words by Jake Abatan
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