Friday, February 11, 2011

Women in the Warriors

Today a coworker got us all to watch The Warriors, a 1979 film about a New York street gang. (It seems they're doing a remake, set in Los Angeles, and he wanted us to understand why he was so pissed off about the location change.) The gang itself was all male, as were most of their enemies, but I was really struck by the main plot points that involved women in the movie. Each encounter is just such a perfect example of how women are treated by macho all-male communities.

And yeah, I'm gonna spoil the shit out of this if you haven't seen it before. Also, there's a lot of sexual assault threats in the movie and I don't get too detailed with those but if you find that triggering you should consider this a warning.

There's four major portrayals of women in the movie. The first we meet is a disc jockey who passes encoded information to street gangs during her radio show. The most powerful gang in the city, the Gramercy Riffs, have set up a network of gangs that are aligned with them. The Warriors are in that network, but they've been framed for murdering the leader of the Riffs. Through this woman, the Riffs tell their entire network that the Warriors are the perpetrators, where they are, and that they want them dead. Throughout the movie she cuts in and tells the network where they were last seen and who they fought. We only ever see her mouth, but her voice is the voice of the universe aligning against our heroes. She's a powerful, removed, anonymous celebrity.

The second is Mercy, who follows and eventually joins the Warriors. She was initially involved with another gang--the Orphans (who are not part of the network and not trying to kill them), and purposefully turns a peaceful situation into a confrontation between the Orphans and the Warriors. For this, Ajax--the biggest, strongest member of the gang--seizes her from behind and threatens to rape her. The gangleader Swan tells him to let her go, then grabs her and threatens to have the entire gang rape her. Then the Orphans show and the Warriors avoid a major fight by blowing up a car. Duly impressed by the explosion as well as her own capture and their threats, she goes with them and somehow ends up following them the entire way to Coney Island despite Swan telling her he doesn't like her or approve of her way of life. Naturally, she and Swan end up together.

Okay, I actually rather liked Mercy. She actually gets to be a person, stands up for herself, takes as many stupid risks as the boys, and ends up arming herself for the final confrontation. She's the girl who joins the male clique. And while they do have good reason not to like or trust her, they still attack and threaten her. She suffers threats and insults based on her gender, but if she's persistent, sticks around and proves she has the same values and macho toughness as the men she gets to be a fixture. (But she doesn't get a vest. That's significant to me.)

The third and fourth women are both Odyssey-style traps, our Circe and our Sirens, I suppose, even though our Circe is the dispenser of justice.

At the beginning of the movie, we see scenes of the gang on the subway spliced with them exchanging exposition in pairs. Here we meet Ajax (played by James Remar) who immediately establishes himself as a homophobic asshole. He says something about hopefully meeting and bedding strange women during their trip to Gramercy, and when the other member suggests they have more important concerns he uses a gay slur. It's his go-to insult, and it along with his attitude towards women and his challenging Swan for leadership make me figure we're suppose to hate him and hope he dies first. (He does not die first, and there is a point in the movie where I actually blurted out "You killed the wrong one.")

Ajax, however, is the best fighter of the group (barring probably Cleon at the beginning) and gets a really great line and fight scene. Thing is, he knows he's a great fighter and he thinks that as the most manly man in the group he should get leadership and wimmiz. Lots of wimmiz, whenever he wants them. He's the strongest and the fiercest but gets taken down by his own entitlement and his disregard for other people's boundaries. Passing through a park they walk by a woman on a park bench. Ajax wants to go back and pick her up, the others want to move on. He separates from the group and sits next to the woman, who flirts with him.

Flirting wasn't enough for Ajax, though, and he moves on to sexual assault. She struggles and tells him at least twice to stop, then she handcuffs him to the bench, jumps away and shows him her badge. Then she whistles for a police car. Ajax, of course, starts ranting and trying to break free and actually pulls the bench towards her when the uniformed officers arrive.

And he won't calm down, so they whack him with a nightstick.

It is immensely satisfying to watch.

Ahem... Disappointing as it was not to see further police brutality against this character (All the cops in this movie seemed to be decent hardworking people removed from the plot who didn't escalate any of the encounters themselves), I was pretty happy to see that the homophobia and misogyny were leading to this guy's downfall.

The policewoman is obviously our Circe analogue, but she's also the unknown woman. And even to Swan and Co, she's not spoken about as a person. The argument is whether Ajax can stay and claim her as a conquest, or if it's more important to move along to the next station. If Swan or the others feel rape is wrong, they are prevented from admitting it by their bullshit macho code. The unknown woman is just a piece of meat on a park bench, and that attitude takes Ajax off the board.

And last we have the all-girl gang. This was easy to see coming, because they were grouped and posed just like a gang, and all wearing a matching article of clothing just like the other gangs.

Of course our heroes follow them home, hoping to get laid. That's where things get weird. The camera lingers on a female character dressed in blue overalls (rather than the tye-dyed T-shirt so I think that meant she had a leadership position) and smoking. It travels around the room and points out images of women posed in masculine poses, moving in masculine ways. As time passes, two of the women start to dance together very suggestively. When asked what the girls call themselves, one of them answers "the Lizzies."

I think at this point we can abandon the sub and safely call it text.

Either way, all of the lesbian implications and masculine posture are framed as warning signs. You get the intense feeling (and only one of the Warriors, Rembrandt, seems to get this) that something is wrong, that these guys are not going to have a relaxing night of sex, smoking and sandwich service. In fact, you get the feeling that the "dudes" they said were up in the Bronx don't really exist, and that someone's going to do something OH GOD SHE LOCKED THE DOOR AND THERE'S THE KNIFE. Yeah, that's a lesbian gang that wants to kill you RUN! RUN!

Lucky for our heroes, the girl with the gun is a shitty shot and they escape with their lives. I will give the Lizzies this, though. Out of all the casualties in the movie? The cops were the biggest danger to the Warriors. The Gramercy Riffs, who are super-intensely-tough-and-scary took out their leader Cleon, but after that no gang touches them with the exception of the Lizzies managing to cut poor Rembrandt. This makes them the most effective antagonistic gang after the Riffs.

But out of all the women in the movie, I found the Lizzies scene the most intense reveal about how a group of men might view women. Because here is a group of very like-minded women that have formed a community of their own, and it is portrayed as very suspicious and very dangerous. There are lesbian overtones all over the place, and the atmosphere is a dreamy haze of welcome that just stands to be ripped away when the women surround and destroy the men.

And that was when I looked back at the movie and saw Fandom, the military, the technical communities wrapped into one hypercompressed macho unit called the Warriors, acting out my life and the lives of my peers on the screen with gangland violence. But I like stuff like that, so it made the movie instantly much cooler to me.

Well, that and a cop smacking Ajax with a nightstick. Man, he deserved that.


  1. When the anniversary edition of the movie came out on dvd someone did a videogame for it. Which means you could probably use it to just have Ajax wander around getting beat up by, well, everyone...

  2. Because women in the universe are so contemned, the only way for them to play some significant part place is to manipulate men with sex, but I don’t think women are very effective in these roles. The only character that attempts to break the cycle of violence is Mercy. It’s true that Mercy is treated very poorly by the other members of the gand, but I don’t think she gives a damn. She tries to stand for herself with all the tool avaible. She is manipulative, aggressive, promiscuous, loud and clingy, which is basically all features that avarege men hate in women. At first she’s just “looking for real action”, but as the movie progress, the viewer can see that she simply picks up Swan as the best stud avaible and tries to win him over with “proving herself” to the group. But I don’t think it is what makes her gain her goal. Brought up in the violence word, Swan hides appears to have the same sexist attitude towards women as the rest of the group and she treats Mercy very poorly. Still, he is the only one who who sees Mercy as a strong person but he views her as a part of the world he is tired of. During the subway scene, he states that she is “the part of everything that was going on that night and it’s all bad”. This doesn’t justify the way he treats her, but still there’s always one person who needs to act smarter than the other one and Mercy that person who drops her aggressive approach and reveals herself during the scene in the subway. Therefore, she is able to find a brief connection with Swan and starts to win his heart with her so feminine, but not very effective attemps to help him (she keeps saying that she can take care of herself but for Swan she becomes another person he has to worry about, like the other members of the gang).

    It is quite obvious that her sacrifice is something I wouldn’t recommend to any young girl in RL, but the movie turns into some (cheesy) romanticism as it ends with the cheesy presumption that the two of them are going to abandom the violent life and start something new together. Even Deborah Van Valkenburgh stated, that Swan is the first man who accepts Mercy the way she is. I personally don’t know what was the key factor that makes him fall for her, the combination of having big dreams, determination, feminine loyalty and vurnelability? I guess one should be a man to explain this properly and that’s, to quote Conchise, one of the movie’s “magic”.

    Yes, I am definitely overthinking it.

    Secondly, as Rob Ager observed, in one of the scenes there is a sign that states “shop for women”. At first I found that statement sexist and irritating, but on the other hand the movie is also about shopping for men. The whole characters are so scetchy and ridiculous, that they can easily pose for female sexual fantazies. I talked to many of my female friends and none of them viewed the park bench scene as an realistic attempt of rape (talking about I spit on your grave type of rape, not talking about the 90% of rapes in which the victim knows the rapist, which is a serious rape issue). It’s more a rape fantazy, I remember watching the scene as a very young girl, wishing he would actually “rape” the policewoman on that parkbench. To be politically correct I agree that he payid for his attitude and stupidity, but still don’t we all feel a little bit sorry about him ;-)?