The Hairy Bird (1998)

strike-original

Plot Summary: 1963. At Miss Godard’s, an upscale Connecticut girls’ academy, five ambitious and rebellious girls have formed a secret society, where they work to realise their most cherished dreams of what they want to be. But their group is split in two when they discover that Miss Godard’s will be merging with St Ambrose Academy, a boys’ school.

Trigger/content warnings: This blog post contains discussions of bulimia/eating disorders, racism, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I have never met a woman or girl who didn’t enjoy The Hairy Bird (also known as Strike! in Canada and All I Wanna Do in the USA). My twenty-eight year-old sister loves it, my sixteen-year-old sister loves it (and has done since she was about six), my toddler nieces … will be booted out of the family if they don’t succumb to The Hairy Bird’s siren song as soon as they’re old enough to sit through a movie which includes the phrase, “Go snarf the big kielbasa, Mr Dewey!” (The content under the cut contains spoilers.)

At the film’s opening, dry-witted and precocious sixteen-year-old Odette “Odie” Sinclair (Gaby Hoffmann) is being taken to Miss Godard’s by her parents, who discovered her plans to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Dennis. Faced with the prospect of single-sex education, she laments, “This is the end of the world. One look tells you: this place eats the hairy bird.”

Odie Sinclair (Gaby Hoffmann)
Odie Sinclair (Gaby Hoffmann)

Odie is deeply unimpressed by Abby Sawyer, the brown-nosing monitor tasked with showing her around the school (whose nine “stars” pinned to her blazer mark her as an overachiever). She is irritated by Tinka Parker and Verena Von Stefan, her new roommates. Verena and Tinka are snobbishly scandalised when they find out that Odie is from Detroit, go through her luggage without permission, nickname her “Odious,” and guess, correctly, that Odie has been sent to Miss Godard’s because “things were getting too hot and heavy with Dennis the Penis.”

Abby Sawyer (Rachael Leigh Cook)
Abby Sawyer (Rachael Leigh Cook)
Tinka Parker (Monica Keena)
Tinka Parker (Monica Keena)
Verena Von Stefan (Kirsten Dunst)
Verena Von Stefan (Kirsten Dunst)

Slender blondes to Odie’s moody brunette, Verena and Tinka might have been the “mean girls” if this had been a different sort of film. However, audience expectations are subverted as it is revealed that these girls have hidden depths. They approve of Odie’s creative slang (particularly the phrase “Up your ziggy with a wah-wah brush!”), and her record collection (featuring mostly African-American artists). Tinka, who hopes to act professionally, readily plays unglamorous male roles, wearing a fake paunch and her hair sprayed grey. Verena provides much of the film’s humour, firing devastating burns at sanctimonious monitors and coolly disdaining Mr Dewey, the Social Studies teacher, because of his lechery. At dinner, Tinka and Verena introduce Odie to their friends: Theresa “Tweety” Goldberg (an insecure, bulimic girl who is ostensibly Jewish, and therefore in the minority at Miss Godard’s) and Maureen “Momo” Haines (who is taller and heavier than the others, and aspires to be a biologist). Abby, too, might have been situated as the villain, but is gradually revealed to struggle with the authority she has been given. She despairs at being hated by the other girls at Miss Godard’s, secretly wishing to “tear off all my stars and be just like everyone else.”

Theresa
Tweety Goldberg (Heather Matarazzo)
Maureen
Momo Haines (Merritt Wever)

Odie finds the girls of Miss Godard’s juvenile and silly, and considers her roommates in particular to be “demented.” Girls such as Odie, who use feminised insults against other girls, react from anger or disappointment at a culture which denigrates the feminine. Odie shrinks from her roommates, and femininity in general, because adopting a more masculine persona allows her intellectual freedom as an exception, rather than engaging with a society which disregards femininity as a rule.

Despite Odie’s standoffishness, the girls help her forge a parental request for a weekend pass. Their friendship is cemented when Odie colourfully insults a monitor. Impressed, Verena says, “You really have a fantastic way with words. You should be a speechwriter or a demagogue or something.” When Odie admits an interest in politics, the girls invite her to join their secret society, the Daughters of the American Ravioli (or D.A.R.). Over cold, canned ravioli, Verena explains, “In the D.A.R., we share our most secret dreams of what we wanna be. Most of the girls here at Miss Godard’s, they’ve got all the opportunities to become something; a good upbringing, a great education, and they’re loaded. But in ten years, they’ll be married with three kids, and two cars, a Colonial, a collie. They’re finished. That’s why it’s called a finishing school. But we, the D.A.R., have other plans for ourselves.” For Verena, Momo, Tweety and Tinka, these plans are to become a magazine editor, biologist, psychiatrist and “famous actress-folk singer-slut” respectively.

Odie, who cultivates a masculinised persona to gain moral authority, defines herself in terms of male approval. When the D.A.R. ask about her ambitions, Odie thinks only of the present, and her wish to be “an ex-virgin.” However, as the film progresses, Odie’s attendance at Miss Godard’s and membership in the D.A.R. leads her to value her intelligence and not derive self-esteem from male approval.

Film Highlights:

  • The cast. It’s basically a who’s who of iconic 90s girl stars: Kirsten Dunst, Gaby Hoffmann, Rachael Leigh Cook, Heather Matarazzo, Monica Keena, Merritt Wever. If they’d just managed to shoehorn Christina Ricci in somewhere, they would’ve had the full set! Lynn Redgrave is also a revelation as their headmistress, Miss McVane: stern, kind, wry, vulnerable and hilarious.
It is utterly necessary for me to include a screen cap of Miss McVane (Lynn Redgrave) and Miss Phipps (Brenda Devine) reading a Leather and Lace catalogue
It is utterly necessary for me to include a screen cap of Miss McVane (Lynn Redgrave) and Miss Phipps (Brenda Devine) reading a Leather and Lace catalogue
  • Rewatching the movie as an adult, it occurred to me inside of about three seconds that thirteen-year-old me had the hugest crush on Momo. I mean … taller and bigger than all her friends? Mischievous, wicked, unfussy and smart? Wants to be a pioneer biologist and find a cure for something? As far as tweenage Emily was concerned, this was the epitome of swoonworthy.
Momo making a frilled dressing gown look badass <3
Momo making a frilled dressing gown look badass ❤
  • After the girls discover the plans being put into motion to merge Miss Godard’s with St Ambrose Academy, Verena gives this absolutely sensational monologue: “We’ll have to wash our hair every night, we’ll have to sleep on rollers ‘til our scalp bleeds, then we’ll have to get up at six every morning for the comb-out. Your lungs’ll be lined with hairspray. Then you’ll need all this equipment to push up the tits, and blitz the zits, and spray the pits. Then you stagger into class, and you look perfect, but you’re exhausted! You’re too tired to even think! But that’s okay, because the teachers, they won’t call on you anyway! Also, you don’t wanna be smarter than the boys–they don’t like that. So, to wake up, you drink some coffee at lunch–but don’t eat the food! You’ll be on a permanent diet!”
  • The incursion of boys into Miss Godard’s brings out the worst in the D.A.R. members. As Tinka and Verena are drawn into an argument, Tinka grits, “Wake up, Von Stefan. I know you like this place the way it is, but wake up! It’s not real life. Real life is boy-girl, boy-girl!” “No,” Verena fires back, “real life is boy on top of girl! You should know that.” Verena proposes that the D.A.R. conspire to sabotage the upcoming St Ambrose dance (an obvious test to see how the two schools get along), so that the schools will have to cancel the merger. Tinka, Tweety and Odie refuse to help and quit the D.A.R. in protest, leaving Verena and Momo to plan ways to make the St Ambrose boys look appalling.
  • Momo and Verena decide that the coup de grâce of their plan will be to drug one of the boys and leave him in Abby’s bed. They select a boy called Bradley “Frosty” Frost, whose grandfather is a member of the Saint Ambrose Board of Trustees. They call him at school, with Verena pretending to be a long-lost British relative trying to locate her husband’s heirs. As soon as she’s extracted the necessary information from Frosty, she drops the façade, shouts, “Well, up your ziggy with a wah-wah brush!” and hangs up the phone, causing her and Momo to collapse into hysterical laughter. This is my second favourite “up your ziggy” in the film, because this is totally, totally what actual sixteen-year-old girls would do as they put their nefarious plan into motion.
  • Near the climax of the film, the girls run off en masse to stage a protest against coeducation. Abby’s mother turns briskly to her daughter, expecting for Abby to help her get the students back under control. Abby tears off her stars, flings them at her mother’s feet, shouts, “Mother, up your ziggy with a wah-wah brush!” and runs off after her classmates. This is by far my favourite “up your ziggy” in the whole film.
  • The “Where Are They Now?” montage at the film’s end (reminiscent of guy-centric films like Animal House) is absolutely delightful. The D.A.R. each achieve their respective dreams, and even the school itself is given an update.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 3.13.12 pm Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 3.13.22 pm

Also, because I didn’t get to squeal over this cutie in 2002:

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 3.12.56 pm
Somewhere in time, a thirteen-year-old with thick glasses and mad hair is sighing dreamily.

The Hairy Bird is set in 1963, during the period between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Kennedy assassination. An argument can be made that by setting films about girls dealing with sexism predominantly in the past, we imply that sexism has been dealt with and feminism is now irrelevant. However, an interesting facet of the film’s setting is that the characters often don’t have the language to describe the problems they deal with. For example, the girls have very little recourse for dealing with predatory male teachers. This – and continues to be – a very real phenomenon, with girls who report sexual harassment being routinely disbelieved and shamed. Furthermore, Tweety’s bulimia is never referred to as such, since the girls are unaware of the existence of eating disorders and simply view it as a “problem with food.”

The film is extremely White, and to its credit, calls attention to it in one scene. At the beginning of the St Ambrose dance, girls from Miss Godard’s are each assigned a date and told to escort them around the school. Purvis, the only Black student at St Ambrose, and Wang, a Japanese girl who is the only student of colour at Miss Godard’s, are paired together. Miss Phipps claims that the students have been matched by height. The significant height difference between Purvis and Wang serves to underscore the fact that they have been paired with each other so that none of the White students will have to escort them, which would be considered improper. Personally, I would love to see the St Ambrose dance from Wang and Purvis’ point of view, and implore fan fiction writers to take up that challenge.

Unapologetically feminist Verena appears sexually ambiguous, due to her disinterest in boys and her vehement opposition to co-education. Verena’s parents have recently divorced (apparently due to her father’s fondness for “whips and stuff”). The film’s script makes it clear that Mr Von Stefan actually left Mrs Von Stefan for her sister Eleanor. Verena views Miss Godard’s as a refuge from the ugliness and scandal of her home life. Verena also sees heterosexual coupling as comically animalistic, likening it to “hog wrestling” and “[laying] on your back with your legs in the air, like a bug.” Her unsentimental view of coitus stands out in comparison with, for example, Tweety, who asks if it was “beautiful” when Dennis “spent himself inside” Odie. Her denigration of coitus makes Verena ripe for lesbian appropriation.

Verena bemoans Odie channelling her energies into becoming sexually active: “I’d rather be planning your political career… You shouldn’t be thinking about sex.” When Odie asks her about crushes, Verena claims to, “lust for no-one.” After a beat, she specifies, “Not even you.”

Well, I'm convinced.
Well, I’m convinced.

This “no homo” moment is something we see a lot of in films with female bonding. Two girls have become close, so close that the film feels the need to have them turn to the camera and assure the audience that they are not, in fact, interested in each other. Speaking from the perspective of someone who actually is a gay woman and did find herself denying it a lot once upon a time, I can tell Hollywood that “no homo”-ing the girl characters just makes them look even gayer, especially if the male love interests you assign them are super beige and boring.

Again, to the film’s credit, Frosty (who winds up being Verena’s love interest) is shown to also dread “marching off the same cliff” as the rest of the St Ambrose boys by desiring nothing more than “the seat on Stock Exchange, the wife, the 3.2 children.” Frosty has tried to get himself expelled from St Ambrose numerous times because he “doesn’t fit in.” He is also supremely easygoing, barely reacting to the revelation that Verena plans to use him as a pawn to prevent the merger of the two schools. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a story about a girl who has recently been traumatised by her parents’ scandalous divorce learning that boys are not necessarily the enemy. However, in light of the film feeling the need to specify that Verena is not queer, I find it necessary to unpick exactly why it is that Verena needs to discover that boys are actually okay.

The cultural association of feminism with lesbianism means that characters such as Verena – bright, ambitious and indifferent toward heterosexual sex – must capitulate to compulsory heterosexuality’s demands by displaying interest in the opposite sex. It would not do to leave this unaddressed. The assumption is that confident, liberated, sexually ambiguous or ambivalent females will be read as lesbian by mainstream audiences. Establishing sexually ambiguous characters as heterosexual is intended to universalise films, yet this approach further isolates queer audiences and themes by asserting that their stories could never be seen as relatable. Xinghua Li (2007, 113-114) argues that:

If gay men claiming “we’re not gay” is the beginning of true politics, how about straight men crying “we’re not straight”? … Indeed, if everyone renounces his/her own identity, the universalizing effect of this strategy cannot be achieved… Thus, it is necessary for us to distinguish the universal identification used by minority groups to induce social change from other pseudo-universal claims used by dominant groups to preserve the status quo.

Verena’s sexual orientation cannot be left open to interpretation. A confirmed heterosexual feminist is acceptable. A feminist who is a possible lesbian destabilises the dominant order by implying that feminists see men as irrelevant. As things stand, Verena may bond with other girls, provided she is seen to learn that boys aren’t so bad. Hence, we can understand that it is not female bonding itself which provokes discomfort, but the absence of boys and heterosexuality which it seems to entail. In other words, as far as male studio executives are concerned…

Unknown

That said, in the “where are they now?” montage at the end, the flirtatious and heterosexually active Tinka is said to have “come out” in a 1997 Barbara Walters interview, at which point she would have been roughly fifty years old. Considering that Tinka is the character who ends the film in a clinch with a boy, this is intriguing. (Watching this film at age thirteen, in 2002, I had no idea what the phrase “came out” actually meant, and assumed that the film meant that Tinka came into her own by giving a really good interview.)

Finding a good trailer for the film to attach to this post was a challenge to say the least. I’ve attached both the Canadian and US trailers for the film. The US trailer in particular edits clips together out of context – for example, the line, “Miss Godard’s will admit members of the opposite sex” is followed by footage of the girls screaming and running excitedly, as though they’re running toward the St Ambrose boys, and a flurry of clips of the girl characters making out with boys. The US trailer also decontextualizes the film to an extent by putting a generic soundtrack over the trailer footage, rather than period music, to downplay the fact that the film is not set in the present day. Which is a shame, since the film has a fantastic soundtrack, made up of the kind of hits (White, upper-middle class) teenage girls would have actually been jamming to in 1963, rather than being Nothing But Hits. The Canadian trailer is guilty of playing up the sex comedy angle, but does represent the film more truthfully.

The film’s writer and director, Sarah Kernochan, has spoken about the difficulties she had in getting The Hairy Bird into wide release. Miramax had very little idea how to market it, outside of suggesting that she put more sympathetic boy characters into the film. Since she didn’t, their strategy seems to have been to get bums in cinema seats by representing The Hairy Bird as primarily a teen sex comedy. Girl-centric, humourous treatments of teen sexuality are, of course, desperately needed in a world that prioritises boys’ pleasure over girls’ safety. But for me, the film is noteworthy for being a story of a girl overcoming internalised misogyny. It is a film which, when told it isn’t like other girls, would reply indignantly, “What’s wrong with other girls?” In fact, the film flat-out says this when Miss McVane gently advises Odie on how to manage her loneliness: “Dear, I can think of no better cure for your conspicuous misery than to make some friends. Don’t reject them. They’re not just girls, they’re you. And if you get to know them, then you’ll be discovering yourself. That is, believe it or not, as great an adventure as the opposite sex.”

Further reading:

Trailers:


References:

  • Li, Xinghua. 2007. “From Nature’s Love to Natural Love: Brokeback Mountain, Universal Identification and Gay Politics.” In Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the Story and Film, edited by James Stacy, 106-117. Jefferson, North Carolina: Macfarlane.
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One thought on “The Hairy Bird (1998)

  1. omg, this is my favorite teen movie as well (i was 12 at the time), i have watched it for 3 times. it is really underrated movie. I love everything about it, the casts, songs, funny lines esp: up your ziggy with a wah-wah brush.. i bet every one who watches hairy bird, they try to say it, and indeed, the feminism idea in the story makes the movie will always be relevant to any teenage girls in any era to watch – i have just watched it again with my 13 yrs niece now. oh, and the boys.. hayden christensen, vincent kartheiser, matthew lawrence (dennis), tom guiry (frosty) were all at their cutest moments. and who thought that Noah Shebib (the short boy that supposedly to be Verena’s date, named conrad), he is a hip hop music producer (notably work with Drake).. LoL.. and Vincent Kartheiser (snake) and Rachael Leigh Cook (abby sawyer) were actually dating after they met on set of this movie…

    Like

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