by Jordan King
Alarm bells blare out at the beginning of Rebel Dykes, the feature-length expansion of Harri Shanahan and Sian A. Williams’ 2016 short form documentary bearing the same name. Right from the start, we are put on alert. Alarm bells ringing make my mind jump straight to fire, and in the case of this incendiary account of the rebel dyke sub-culture of lesbianism that erupted in Britain in the 1980s, Shanahan and Williams’ tell-all tale of a fiery revolution more than aptly earns its alert introduction.
‘Life in the 1980s? Well… it was exciting, it was scary, it was fun, it was poor, it was a great time and a terrible time to be young and queer in London.’ These are the words of Debbie Williams, one of the many subjects who form the beating heart of Rebel Dykes. With Thatcherism in full flow crushing the working class and endorsing the demonisation of society’s marginalised groups, and with society at large still very much subservient to an archaic patriarchy, the lesbian community found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Accounts from Williams’ fellow rebel dyke founders paint a picture of a society where lesbians could essentially choose between conformity to butch/femme partnerships that may help them pass as straight if they were lucky , or clandestine rendezvous at hush-hush dyke bars and in secretive locations under the cover of darkness. Either path bore the chance of these young women falling victim to what was then known as ‘gaybashing’, which is exactly what it despicably sounds like, but the necessitation of a choice between hiding one’s identity or exposing it as if it were a marker of some kind of sin was very much the overarching aim of a society and a government unwilling to acknowledge the existence of ways of living beyond heteronormativity.
On the one hand, this grossly inhuman treatment shows us the rampant homophobia within society barely four decades from our present, but on the other hand, the subjugation of the lesbian community fostered a formidable sense of sisterhood and togetherness amongst them that spurred them on to rebel brilliantly and passionately against a heteronormative society that needed shaking up – it gave them reason to be, and I quote, ‘really naughty’. And by being ‘really naughty’, we soon learn in glorious detail of late night missions to lob paint at government aircraft and sexual awakenings on military bases, which would years down the line evolve into genuinely revolutionary acts of rebellion such as protesting at parliament and hijacking the BBC to appeal Section 28, a law imposed to ban the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality.
What Shanahan and Williams do quite brilliantly over the course of this documentary is blend cheeky anecdotes of sexual exploration and provocative behaviour with a cause-and-effect sensibility that allows us as viewers to see how things like ‘Chain Reaction’, a club that played host to salacious cabarets, mud wrestling, spaghetti wrestling, and much more besides under the covers of bin-bag blacked out windows, actually formed the foundations of a subculture that broke boundaries within and beyond the LGBT community. Whilst we are entreated to a film that is largely celebrational and consistent of fond memories being shared of hedonistic youth, we also see the progression that the rebel dyke movement paved the way for in society’s de-stigmatisation of sexual taboos and more mainstream embrace of kinks and fetishes that were born of a reclamation of bodily autonomy by the lesbian community – ‘the right to say no and the choice to say yes’. Whilst radical feminists sought to shame a rising subculture of more sexually daring, lust-driven lesbians, the rebel dykes brandished their vegan whips and chains and refused to compromise their identities for anyone – when the doc touches on Fifty Shades of Grey’s mass mainstream appeal, it is hard not to look at the rebel dykes as simply being too far ahead of the curve waiting for society to catch up. But then again, any society that can’t handle people being who they are free of prejudice is playing catch up.
Running through this documentary, overseen wonderfully by producer Siobhan Fahey and scored with true punk-rock gutsiness by Ellyott, there is also a series of brilliant, punchy animations. Each captures the spirit, iconography, and symbolism of the era indelibly, whilst helping propel forward an overall narrative that has crazy scope given its relatively short running length. Over the course of just shy of an hour and a half, we witness the birth of a subculture, a celebration of its pioneers and their achievements, a frank and indicting account of the institutions that incited the need for rebellion in the first place, and are given a picture of Britain in the 1980s as it really was, told by the people who were really there. And that’s sort of the key really. Whilst many documentaries pull together contributions from a wide range of unconnected figures, Rebel Dykes is a story that could only be told by the women who were there, and whose love and admiration for one another radiates through their every look and line. As we hear tales of chaotic Christmas dinners and turkey fisting on acid, the memory is reflected on with equal fondness by the women who were there and who – in crazy, hard times – were a part of something both bigger than themselves and entirely in aid of and devotion to themselves also.
Rebel Dykes tells a story that, as standout interviewee and Drag King extraordinaire Karen Fisch (A.K.A. King Frankie Sinatra) rightly states, ‘deserves to finally be told’. Not only does the film succeed in telling it, but it does so with oodles of attitudinal style and in a way that is as entertaining as it is educational. Barnstorming stuff!
Rebel Dykes is playing as part of BFI Flare Festival 2021
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