2018 Film Essays

In the Shadow of ‘The Hairy Bird’

Sarah Kernochan’s feature directorial debut about 1960s boarding school girls discovering their sexualities and voices celebrated its 20th anniversary last month. Sold as Strike! in the U.K. and Canada, where it was filmed, and distributed by Miramax as the uninspired All I Wanna Do in the U.S., the film’s theme of women and girl’s agency being quashed in favour of men and boys is soberingly relevant today, especially in light of Harvey Weinstein’s involvement.

Kernochan originally titled the film The Hairy Bird (which remained in my native Australia), a slang term for male genitalia, but was pressured by the studio to change it. “The picture is about the incursion of the penis in young girls’ lives,” Kernochan said, and that’s reflected in the films animated opening credits.

The central group of young girls at Miss Godard’s Prep School who collectively identify as the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Ravioli) are completely preoccupied by the gender they’ve been segregated from, whether in their pursuit of or disdain for them.

Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Momo (the recently Emmy-winning Merritt Wever) shun boys to the point of obsession, while Tweety (Heather Matarazzo) and Tinka (Monica Keena) manipulate their bodies and sexualities to fit the feminine ideal.

Protagonist Odie (Gaby Hoffman) is relegated to Miss Godard’s control when her parents find the diaphragm she was intending to use during sex with her boyfriend, Dennis (Matthew Lawrence). “All I wanna do is what I was about to before I got caught,” Odie tells her fellow Daughters, inspiring the U.S. version of the film’s title.

But the film is set in the 1960s — before modern contraception, cell phones and dating apps — so sex isn’t as easily grasped by teens as it perhaps would be today (though studies show that rates of sex for young people are decreasing). So when Dennis brings spermicide to their clandestine hookup instead of the condoms Odie specifically requested, she’s visibly exasperated. “It’s new: the girl puts it in,” he exclaims, pleased at his discovery which speaks to the literally age-old excuse of penis-having people that sex just doesn’t feel as good with a condom. Never mind that vagina-having people have consistently been the ones responsible for preventing pregnancy and disease, which doesn’t feel so good, either. Odie resigns herself to the spermicide as Dennis struggles with it, ultimately releasing it all over him in a metaphor not only for premature ejaculation but for the male orgasm being the ultimate goal of heterosexual penetrative sex, as Odie’s goal of getting off, or at least ticking off sex from her agenda, evaporates.

Meanwhile, tensions between the D.A.R. grow as news reaches them that Miss Godard’s is set to merge with an all-boys school, St. Ambrose. While the aforementioned boy-crazy portion of the D.A.R. are excited for fresh meat, Verena and Momo are distraught at having to worry about what they look like and how they are to comport themselves while fighting for recognition in the classroom.

It’s ironic, then, that Verena is the one who wants more — the most — and leaves (expelled) the school with the least. When the film’s main plotline — humiliating the St. Ambrose boys at a joint-school mixer — doesn’t result in Miss Godard’s school remaining single-sex, Verena leaves the school she worked so hard to protect for a co-ed one. “Perhaps [men are] like dogs,” she tells Odie, echoing not only the downfall of Weinstein, but the excuses we’re hearing for Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanagh’s alleged teenage conduct. “If we don’t take them in, they run wild and are a danger to society.” For a film with such strong feminist themes, it falls flat on the rare occasion that it makes women the gatekeepers of the hairy bird.

Though Verena ends up editing her own magazine, Moi, like she wanted, it’s some of her fellow Daughters of the American Ravioli who manifest the disregard for their thoughts and desires into real change for women, and for themselves.

Perhaps inspired by Odie’s experience, Momo grows up to invent the male contraceptive, signaling a fictional new frontier in women’s pleasure that unfortunately remains out of reach decades later. Plus, the hypersexualization of lesbian subtext foreshadows Tina coming out as gay.

And though Odie expresses an interest in politics throughout the film, it’s her instigation of the strike — inspiring the movie’s third title — that really cements her flair for affecting change. (She later becomes a congresswoman fighting against the tobacco industry.) “Did they ever ask us what we want?” she asks her fellow students, doubling as a catch-cry for all the men who have tried to do what they want with women, both within the film and outside of it.

Mr. Dewey (Robert Bockstael), the lone male teacher the school clamours to keep despite his well-known lecherousness, certainly didn’t ask Odie what she wanted when he happened upon her ill begotten tryst with Dennis. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of private arrangement [for your punishment],” Dewey tells Odie as he sends Dennis on his way. “It’s clear that she lured you here, put you in a state of desire. You’re not to blame for answering your impulses.”

In an interview with Australian author and literary agent Danielle Binks, Kernochan says that Weinstein fought her creative process every step of the way, from the title to the subject matter, wanting to “turn this all-girls for a girl audience film into a female Porky’s.

Given what we now know about Weinstein’s welding of harassment, assault and power to control the women in his professional orbit, it’s uncanny that a seemingly frivolous film about a girls boarding school could share such parallels with the #MeToo movement. Five decades after the film is set and two decades after it was made, we’re still living in the shadow of the hairy bird.

Scarlett Harris (@ScarlettEHarris) is a Melbourne culture critic. Read her published work at The Scarlett Woman.