Before Wonder Woman: a surprising history of women-only film screenings

From Mae West to Gal Gadot.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Alamo Drafthouse, a trendy US cinema, decided to show a woman-only screening of a much-anticipated, blockbuster, woman-fronted superhero movie, and was met with unprecedented controversy and coverage. But what if I told you this had all happened before, in mid-Eighties London, only this time, no-one batted an eyelid.

On Tuesday 21 August 1984, Brixton’s Ritzy cinema held a special screening of Supergirl in association with Blissters – a women’s dance night at nearby club The Fridge (now Electric Brixton). It included a performance from the all-women a capella group, the Mint Juleps, who are credited with one of the first uses of the phrase “girl power”. Supergirl had already been showing across London for weeks, but, as debates ignited in feminist circles over whether the movie had any real feminist credentials, women flocked to the showing.

The academic Charlotte Brunsdon, in her book Films for Women, describes women crowding the aisles, enthusiastically cheering and booing along with the film. “The evening couldn’t have happened ten years earlier,” Brunsdon writes, marvelling at this “women-only screening of a Hollywood film at which the power of the collectivity could accept, reject and transform the product which had obviously been made with half an eye on us”.

Sometimes it feels as if the evening couldn’t happen now, over thirty years later. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the 1984 screening is how unremarkable and uncontroversial it was. After the first women-centric film events began in 1972 (the New York International Women's Film Festival and the Women’s Event at the Edinburgh Film Festival), feminist film distributors flourished and many cinemas began holding women-only screenings. Flicking through old issues of Spare Rib, it becomes apparent that independent London cinemas were frequently holding women-only film screenings without issue. (In fact, cinema listings in Spare Rib are “presumed to be WOMEN ONLY, unless otherwise stated.”)

Take, for example, the women-only science fiction screenings held at Four Corners Cinema in Bethnal Green in November 1988, women-only showings of the first “lesbian soap opera” Two in Twenty (Because One in Ten Sounds Lonely) at the Rio in Dalston in June the same year, or the black women only screenings of Black Girl (1966) and Emitaï (1971) in Islington in 1983. Of course, none of these films were as mainstream as Supergirl – but it’s clear that the all-female spaces that flourished in the 1970s encouraged a culture of making feminist films available to women-only audiences, something that struggles to exist now. While an all-women screening of Gift of Fire at a Jewish community centre in north west London was cancelled after it was found to be illegal in 2015, the Jewish Women’s Media Group happily hosted women-only screenings of three films “that address the questions of Jewish identity for women in the post-Holocaust culture of today” at the Rio in Dalston in October 1988.


Spare Rib clippings.

Of course, women-only cinema screenings have a long history before the Seventies and Eighties, particularly in non-Western countries. In Hong Kong, the Shaw Brothers commercialised this by offering women-only screenings that incorporated other “feminine” activities – 1957 showings of Baby Doll included a lingerie fashion show, while screenings of The Most Beautiful Woman in the World included a Max Factor make-up artist giving complimentary make-overs to audience members.

But examples of women-only screenings of Hollywood pictures in US and UK with prominent women leads, but a presumed male audience, are thinner on the ground. In 1933, producers were shocked to discover that Mae West – an archetypal pin-up whose sexual suggestiveness meant she was presumed to appeal only to virile men – had a huge female fanbase. Her film I’m No Angel drew women to theatres in such large quantities that an Omaha cinema began holding women-only screenings of the film. Marybeth Hamilton, in her book When I’m Bad, I’m Better, describes how these showings came with complimentary coffee and rolls, and invited women to enjoy West’s screen persona without uncomfortable male ogling.

What the screenings of I’m No Angel, Supergirl and Wonder Woman all have in common is their radical re-contextualising of a sexualised Hollywood female lead (and, in the case of the two superhero films, a genre historically hostile to its female audiences) within a space deliberately isolated from the male gaze. While, in 2017, there are any number of movies made for majority female audiences, and many film collectives (like London’s Bechdel Test Fest) interested in showing films to majority female audiences, they do not tend to be explicitly women-only.

While some of the best film viewing experiences of my life have been majority women audiences (thank you Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL double-bill at the Prince Charles), there is a key difference between these, and film screenings that seek to specifically only include people who identify as women. As Charlotte Brunsdon notes, “This is not the same experience as watching with an audience which is conscious of itself as having come together, on the basis of gender, as a new political collectivity to consider the way in which we are/were constructed and represented in the cinema.”

Even if strict women-only cinema screenings are, in reality, unenforceable (it’s very difficult to actually stop cis men buying tickets and attending), this kind of self-conscious audience can change the way we consider the film itself altogether. “Suddenly you can get an intimation of the power and pleasure boys feel as they guffaw their way through horror films,” Brunsdon writes. “There are circumstances in which the audience can be ‘stronger’ than the text.” Wonder Woman is a particularly interesting case for this – how does a character that so often walks a delicate tightrope between being an archetype of feminist female strength and a fetishized object of male fantasy fare in a space specifically isolated from any straight male sexualisation? What do her challenges look like when re-contextualised in this way? There is no women-only screening happening in London as of yet, so perhaps I won’t get to explore that for myself. But I’m glad that the opportunity exists for some.

***

Now listen to a discussion of Wonder Woman on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.