[21 January 2009]
Maria Raha’s Hellions is a fascinating book, not because it presents its subject matter with particular deft, but because it begins to manifest the very same issues it addresses. In the book’s conclusion Raha writes, “Whether [women] have found positive images of our rebellion has depended upon whether it was trendy or marketable for women at the time, and on the media’s fickle coverage of our movements.” This passage serves as not only the book’s target problematic, but, also, expresses the phenomenon which compromises Raha’s objective. In seeking to present a history of women’s rebellion in pop culture, Raha is bound to the popular and the successful—after all, how much can an underground artist, of whom ten people have heard, affect the female cultural trajectory. However, it is precisely the women who didn’t succeed, who didn’t sell millions of records or appear on national television who were the true rebels and not the token representatives of rebellion admitted by the male arbiters of celebrity.
Raha’s book spans two hundred and eighty pages without a single reference to Judith Butler, Valerie Solanas, Laura Mulvey, Monique Wittig, Valie Export, and countless other incredible cornerstones of womens’ rebellion. Of course, Raha could not include every forward-thinking woman, but how radical really are Pam Grier and Buffy compared to someone like Export who once went into a porn theatre with crotch-less pants and an automatic weapon, demanding that patrons enact their porn fantasies on her. Perhaps, the media sieve was too fine for Export to make it on I Love the ‘60s but Hellions could be the perfect forum for a new generation of readers to learn about these fascinating women.
What Raha gives readers is incredibly useful, and, perhaps, my criticism is out of the scope of her book. Raha simply intends to show how the women’s rebellion filtered into culture at large and she does this very well, with impressive rigor and an engaging writing style. However, consider, if you will, the audience of this book. Quite plainly, Hellions is not for the gender studies crowd as much it is an excellent primer for the uninitiated. Young adult readers, newcomers to feminism, pop culture enthusiasts—these demographics are all well-served by Raha’s contribution. Had I a daughter, I would love for her to be introduced to all the ass-kicking women of pop-culture by Raha’s book.
It is precisely this audience, though, who needs to hear about some of the lesser-known, but just as influential, women’s cultural forces. Anyone who goes to college will learn all about Janis Joplin from some macramé-clad co-ed in a smoky haze, and every prurient teen will try to convince their dad that Foxy Brown is a Hanna-Barbera offering about a sly forest creature and, therefore, he should let them rent it. But where will the younger generations find SCUM Manifesto, Gender Trouble, and Action Pants: Genital Panic if authors such as Raha do not admit them to the pop-culture canon. Even such undeniably successful arch-rebel women such as Kathleen Hanna, only get a one sentence reference; Ten Things I Hate About You pushes this envelope further.
Admittedly, Raha did write another book, Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground which treats Bikini Kill and Hanna’s other projects at length. However, by allowing such figures to only be part of the “underground” and not “pop culture” writ large, Raha reinforces the notion that celebrity is something objective and not something largely determined by its chroniclers. The more impact historians allege some figure has had, the more impact that figure will have in generations to come, whether or not they went platinum.
Ultimately, Raha’s Hellions is not a bad book. It is well-crafted and is a well-needed reminder of women’s contributions to our rich history in pop culture. Perhaps, my concerns about its depth are unfair ones as Raha’s focus is much more on unveiling how well-known female icons were actually revolutionary rather than unveiling unknown female revolutionaries. At this task, she performs admirably. However, I can’t help but wish the cover featured Mulvey’s gaze rather than Joplin’s.