FilmWeekend

Two Feminist Directors Who Exposed the Trials of Working Class Women

While the female protagonists in Barbara Loden’s Wanda and Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens may be lost — and legitimately poor — the one thing they are not is self-pitying.

Still from Smithereens, directed by Susan Seidelman (1982) (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

The opening sequence of Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda betrays a bleak and desperate beauty. Extreme long shots dwarf nameless workers under sooty mountains of coal. Rugs air-dry from Rust Belt porches, a baby squalls in droopy diapers. As we meet our titular character in her sister’s Pennsylvania home, an American flag decal pops from a partition dividing the first floor; “HOLD” is scrawled on the kitchen fridge with a Sharpie. Wanda Goronski wakes up on the couch to her brother-in-law slamming the screen door behind him.

An unapologetically negligent mom and aloofly shitty wife, Wanda shrugs off her domestic identity like the rollers that clutter her sofa cushions. In a film that has been called an “anti-Bonnie & Clyde,” our insouciant lead (played by Loden, who herself grew up in Appalachia) shows up late to divorce court, sleeps around for cash, and naps in an empty movie theatre — there, she discovers her meager funds have been stolen mid-snooze. Picked up by a rambling “Mr. Dennis” (Michael Higgins) at the dive where she mooches chips from the bar, Wanda tags along as both a means of escape and strategic survival. What she doesn’t realize is that he’s just robbed that bar. When she slowly figures that out, it hardly sways her from his passenger seat.

Still from Wanda, directed by Barbara Loden (1970). Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski (image courtesy Janus Films)

Filmed with vérité grit — and newly restored for release by the Criterion Collection — Wanda has been called “proto-feminist,” either because its release in 1970 came prior to the heyday of Women’s Lib, or perhaps because any film that does not foghorn its feminist leanings and rely on the acts of a virtuous heroine cannot wholly count for the cause. But, much more than the shallow fare dubbed “feminist” today so long as it boasts a “strong,” sufficiently fetching female lead (Wonder Woman, anyone?), Loden’s debut — and only — feature film exposes the devastating lengths that working class women have gone to to survive the realities of second-class economic citizenship and the patriarchal control upholding it.

If in an urban, punk-rock way, so too does Smithereens, Susan Seidelman’s directorial debut released a bit more than a decade later, and also recently restored from 16mm to 2k Criterion glory. Opening with a close-up of a houndstooth vinyl miniskirt, black fishnets, and sunglasses temptingly dangling in the hand of a passerby, the film introduces Wren (nailed by newbie Susan Berman), a seeming 180 to sheepish small-town Wanda: all loud-mouth scrap, angry elbows, and nimble scarlet high-tops. Over the film’s first three-plus minutes of frenetic chords from the Feelies we watch Wren spurn a flirtatious onlooker, plow through sidewalk pedestrian traffic, and plaster the city with a Xeroxed flyer of her enigmatic visage. Hustling past bouncers at the “Peppermint Lounge” to hobnob with rockers who coolly ignore her, she jumps from one “appointment” to the next, exploiting her looks when the time is right (and also, most certainly, when the time is wrong). Relying on friends and rashly chosen lovers (one played by 1970s punk Richard Hell), when she falls behind on rent, Wren is a woman defiantly on the move, with nowhere to rest her head.

Still from Smithereens, directed by Susan Seidelman (1982) (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

“I got a million and one places to go,” she rants at every rejection. Of course, there is no such place — no home, no job, no genuine friends. “I don’t think you’re a jerk,” she tells Paul, the Nice Guy artist from Montana who reluctantly lets her crash in his van. “I think you’re a nice person. Nicer than I deserve.” In Seidelman’s world, not all men are predators, but Wren’s instinctively defensive pose signals how many are. She’s described on IMDB as a “narcissistic runaway,” but given her situation she seems just as much a resourceful young woman who prides herself on refusing to take shit.

Still from Smithereens, directed by Susan Seidelman (1982) (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

In many ways, Wren and Wanda are of a piece with the “Lost Girl” gone to the city narrative that made its mark on 19th- and 20th-century women’s culture. As Jessa Crispin writes of the trope in her study The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (2015), “All those poor girls who died in factory fires, all those poor girls who turned to selling their bodies to be able to afford to heat their rooms, all those poor girls swallowed up the uncaring city.” But while Wanda and Wren may be lost — and legitimately poor — the one thing they are not is self-pitying. Gone is a “poor little white girl” sentiment, and for that we should be grateful.

Even in her Peter Pan collar and Polly Flinders dress, Wanda wears a wizened, plaintive look at the end. She is the kind of woman who could be 22 or 42, depending on her sleep or Camel intake the night before. Similarly, Wren is one one-liner away from collapsing in an alley. “If you’re ever in New Jersey and you see me there, shoot me. I mean it,” she says to Paul after an especially tortuous week. Like so many women trying to cut it in the big city, going back to wherever they came from is unthinkable. But the lengths that potential “Lost Girls” will go through — in both Wanda’s and Wren’s case, playing accomplice to a kidnapping and armed robbery — suggest a very real lack of both financial power and personal autonomy.

Still from Wanda, directed by Barbara Loden (1970). Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski (image courtesy Janus Films)

Wanda’s compliance and, indeed, complicity with her kidnapper makes her no less powerful an example. Her willingness — even eagerness — to cede control to the men in her life is at once painful and hilarious to witness: we watch her request a hair comb from the man who’s robbing a bar at gunpoint, see her strut her stuff in her new white heels before a bonafide bad guy. With a blonde ponytail erupting from her skull like uncorked Andre Brut, she snaps her gum and slurps spaghetti, sopping up the sauce with a handful of bread. Her nonchalant response to violence is so instinctive it is almost impressive. To a woman all but inured to the abuses of men, Mr. Dennis can’t be that bad, armed assailant or not; when so many have been bad, misogyny becomes relative. Because it is everywhere, it is almost never striking. Even when she is literally struck on the face.

“If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything. And if you don’t have anything, you’re as good as dead,” says Mr. Dennis to Wanda. “You’re not even a citizen of the United States.” Wanda knows better than to actively desire anything; Wren hasn’t learned that lesson yet, and so her downfall onscreen is all the more cruel. By the end of the film, she walks down the freeway, her worldly possessions reduced to two shopping bags. “Listen, I’m really a very nice guy,” calls a man from a convertible. “What are you waiting for? You have heavy packages, hop in the car. You got a better place to spend your time?”

Still from Wanda, directed by Barbara Loden (1970). Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski, Michael Higgins as Mr. Dennis (image courtesy Janus Films)

Wren may seem liberated, feisty, and autonomous, but in the end she’s no better off than Wanda was in Nowhere, Pennsylvania, 12 years earlier, running from another man, in another convertible, then into woods to sob in the dirt with her empty white purse. Both films conclude with a frozen shot of sudden, fierce debasement, ending with a striking indictment of how working class women have been forced to sell their bodies to survive. It’s honest. It’s terrifying. And we just don’t see it anymore.

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