By Guest Contributor Alyx Vesey
Warning: this post contains spoilers
Like a lot of cult classics, Walter Hill’s The Warriors has gained new audiences over the years, while maintaining a firm base of die-hard fans. Given the title, it is clear that the focus is on one particular. But for me, it’s a real shame that the film isn’t called The Lizzies. I’d much rather see that film.
The other gangs in The Warriors, vying for turf in downtown New York City, are peopled by boys and men, with their concerns privileged. But it’s the Lizzies – the only all-female gang in the movie – who truly kick ass on camera, making their brief time on screen especially frustrating. Warriors Vermin, Cochise, and Rembrandt barely escape their run-in with the fearsome group, who work together to deftly outsmart them. Of the gangs the Warriors encounter during the film, the Lizzies are their most formidable adversary.
Their resourcefulness and physical prowess as a group is in marked contrast to D.J. who, apart from her languid speaking voice and fluency in street lingo, is fairly inconsequential to the plot. Another woman, Mercy, selflessly commits herself to the Warriors’ cause. The only other woman who comes close to sharing the Lizzies’ commitment to stomping out oppressive nonsense is an undercover police officer who arrests Warrior Ajax after he attempts to rape her. Think how much more powerful these individual characters would be if they followed the Lizzies’ example and worked together.
The film, based on Sol Yorick’s 1965 novel, embeds commentary about the civic blight brought on by urban decay and provides something of a counter to often-romanticized historical accounts of New York City during a period of near-total economic collapse. It also showcases Bobbie Mannix and Mary Ellen Winston’s impressive costume design, as each gang uses a uniform to establish (and, in many cases, stereotype) group identities. Its’ stylistic indebtedness to comic books is prescient, as well as indicative of American film’s ongoing relationship with comic and radio serialization. Film franchises continue to be built on the folklore of properties owned by Marvel and DC Comics. Directors like Zac Snyder incorporate comic book storytelling devices into their films. And people still dress up as Furies for Halloween.
But plenty of folks dress up as Lizzies too. What I find especially unfortunate about the Lizzies’ truncated appearance is that they are a multiracial all-female gang. Roughly a decade after The Warriors, it became increasingly commonplace to include at least one woman or girl of color in films and television programs in groups of girlfriends. Much of this could be attributed to attention toward multiculturalism and political correctness in the 1990s. Coinciding with the decade’s commitment to inclusivity, groups like the Spice Girls were notable for their inclusion of women of color, even though Mel B. was labeled as “Scary Spice.” But for the most part, musical girl groups remain segregated, particularly as they align with certain generic conventions. 60s-era girl groups like the Shangri-Las had a direct influence on rock music, and punk in particular. Their delinquent image also helped shape the identities of bands like the Runaways, the Go-Gos, and the Donnas. Peer groups like the Supremes emphasized glamour, wealth, and elegance.
Rather than dialog the Lizzies with girl groups, it may be more useful to think of the gang in New York’s musical context. By 1979, hip hop was reaching beyond the block parties and graffiti culture of the outer boroughs and beginning to intermingle with punk. It’s easy to obscure female involvement in East Coast American punk by overemphasizing contributions from Patti Smith, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, as well as ignore some of punk’s problems with racial appropriation and fetishization that they inherited from the Beats. However, hip hop, Afro-pop, and reggae’s influence helped prioritize musical inclusivity and eclecticism, both in generic applications and instrumental collaborations.
Furthermore, a sister act from the South Bronx formed a year before The Warriors made its debut at the multiplex. Renee, Marie, and Valerie Scroggins performed under the name ESG. The first two letters stood for their birthstones, emerald and sapphire. The last initial represented their commercial aspirations to make gold records. What resulted was an inventive combination of expressive funk polyrhythms, eerie punk minimalism, and cavernous disco breaks that left such an impression on punk and hip hop artists while offering little in the way of financial compensation that the group released an EP in 1992 pointedly titled Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills.
As it remains something of a rarity to see girls establish homosocial bonds with their female peers in television and film, it is even less likely that media texts include girl friendships across racial categories. While I’m not here to bury the Spice Girls, I do believe the seeming inability to fully integrate mediated representations of girl groups speak to the racial politics of self-selecting friend groups. Feminism, at least in western countries, continues to practice racial segregation and tends to privilege the concerns of straight, able-bodied, middle-class, cisgender white women. This was a problem at the dawning of the American women’s rights movement when suffragists lobbied for white women’s right to vote while many within the ranks feared giving black people those same rights would weaken their efforts.
Feminism’s unwillingness to see its own white female privilege continues to play out in a variety of ways, whether in popular media, professional arenas, and even political activism. How else can we explain the presence of a protest sign at New York’s SlutWalk that featured both a racial slur against the African American community? How could something like this happen in a city of such racial and ethnic diversity as New York City?
Extrapolating further, how can a group representing diverse identity categories who gathered as part of an international movement to eradicate the subjugation and brutalization of women and girls be a fringe interest? As I wish that the Lizzies were central characters in The Warriors and hope that more media texts prioritize nuanced representations of multiracial homosocial bonding, I also encourage future films, television shows, and musical groups to take up and improve upon this challenge. One example I can think of is 1996’s Girls Town. A film about three New York City high school girls who become radicalized as a group after their friend commits suicide after being raped by her boss, Girls Town suggests the possibility that girls can establish bonds across racial and ethnic categories. If we continue to insist on more nuanced representations and form coalitions in our daily lives with these goals in mind, we may live in a world where the Lizzies get their own movie and that the girl gang members of color offer more than superficial concessions toward diversity.