One of Roger Corman’s first films, Swamp Women, was a 1955 crime story revolving around a gang of female convicts. There has hardly ever been a lack of female gangs in films — in particular, teenage girl gang movies became increasingly popular starting in the 50s, which led to numerous movies on the subject that span different generations. If there is a genre in which teenage girls have never been lacking representation, it’s gang movies.
Yet, that representation has varied and changed throughout the decades, ranging from high school delinquents to outlaw bikers. While most teen movies revolve around coming-of-age stories, gang movies reveal the extreme side to adolescence — the misfit, criminal, and violent side. Gang movies are rather simple, either focusing on episodes of gang debauchery, or revolving around rivalry and jealousy. Usually the viewpoint is that of the ring leader, or the “new girl,” who is initiated into the gang but is still an outsider. Yet, among the plethora of girl gang movies, every decade has produced stories involving specific issues and specific types of teenage girls.
The 50s and the Rebellious Years
An abundance of films and B-movies related to gangs and juvenile delinquency was released in the 1950s. The films produced at that time reveal a growing anxiety about teen rebellion. While Reefer Madness was a propaganda film about the dangers of marijuana, movies such as The Violent Years and Girl Gang were propaganda films about the threat and danger of rebellious teenage girls, and the dramatic consequences of being part of a female posse. The girls were portrayed as violent criminals, on par with their male counterparts — driven by teen angst and restlessness. Gang movies in the ‘50s were heavily moralistic: films such as The Violent Years and High School Hellcats blamed juvenile delinquency on parental neglect and dysfunctional families, while teenage gang members usually suffered a tragic fate. The Violent Years (written by Ed Wood) was particularly exaggerated in its tragic ending: Paula, leader of the gang, becomes pregnant, is jailed for murder, and finally dies in childbirth — yet, still has the insolence to look at the screen and ask, “So what?”
The 60s and Biker Gangs
Girl gang movies of the ‘50s were particularly judgmental, until the 1960s rolled in with the biker film craze. Three all-female motorcycle gang movies were released in the same year: The Mini-Skirt Mob, She-Devils on Wheels, and The Hellcats in 1968. Compared to ‘50s gang movies, female biker movies of the ‘60s indulged in the gang fantasy rather than pressing moral lessons on the viewer. There are no schools or parents in biker movies—the gang is the family. The girls in biker gangs are a tight-knit posse, led by an Alpha female who bosses and uses men to her liking; the idea of assertive and domineering girls has carried on from the ‘50s, but without judgment. Despite the popularity of the biker genre, the depiction of adolescence in biker films was essentially unrealistic, and indulged in a fantasy rather than a truthful portrayal of teenage girls.
70s and Switchblades
In the 1970s, gangs ditched their motorcycles and stocked up on switchblade knives, moving back into an urban setting instead of the open road. Probably one of the most iconic gang movies, Switchblade Sisters, is about the Dagger Debs, an all-female city gang led by Lace. The story revolves around the arrival of new girl Maggie, who joins the Dagger Debs and slowly begins to take over leadership. For a gang movie, Switchblade Sisters has a complex storyline, filled with power struggles between characters — Lace becomes increasingly jealous of Maggie, Patch is a sly manipulator, and Maggie goes from a quiet girl to a cold-hearted leader. Although the world of Switchblade Sisters is also unrealistic, the political turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s is strongly evident in the darker tone of the story and the characters’ actions. At one point, we are introduced to a Black Panther-inspired gang, which we also see in another popular gang movie, The Warriors.
Although The Warriors focuses mainly on male gangs, there is one female gang in the movie known as the Lizzies. They are also armed with switchblades and knives, and they lure gang members by seducing them. Again, female gang members retain the exaggerated image of the Alpha female that they have been given since the ‘50s.
From the 1980s on, “gangs” become high school “cliques” led by the popular girls. We first see high school girl cliques in the Pink Ladies from Grease, which was a throwback to ‘50s teen gang movies. In 1988, Heathers presents us with yet another elite girl clique (the Heathers) who are the most popular and envied girls in school. Although Heathers is a humorous take on teen movies, Veronica (Winona Ryder) is the closest depiction to an “actual” teenage girl since the biker and switchblade girls: she vents her hate for the Heathers on her diary, and has a teen romance with the typical bad boy. Jawbreaker and Mean Girls are both told through the point of view of the new girl. They begins as a socially awkward outsiders but slowly (like Maggie from Switchblade Sisters) take over the spotlight of the original queen bee.
While previous gang movies were driven by gang rivalry and dominance for territory, the modern high school girl gangs are at war for social status. Teen angst is present, but rather than expressing it through vandalism and crime, it’s expressed through different means — they ditch the switchblades, and their weapons are gossip, manipulation, and backstabbing.
After a long period of “teenage royalty” girl gangs, in the 2010s, two movies tackled girl gangs in a different light: Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring. The stories still revolve around beautiful and privileged girls, but instead of fighting for high school popularity, they gravitate toward a criminal lifestyle. The girls in Spring Breakers commit armed robbery, while the members of the Bling Ring steal expensive goods from celebrities’ homes. Modern girl gang movies are not indulgent fantasies or exaggerated portrayals of high school life — the new girl gangs embody a sentiment among many teenage girls: the desire for material things, and most of all, notoriety. The girls in Spring Breakers feel entitled to wealth, while The Bling Ring girls follow their desperate obsession for celebrity status.
Emanuela Betti is a part-time writer, occasional astrologer, neurotic pessimist by day and ball-breaking feminist by night. She miraculously graduated with a BA in English and Creative Writing, and writes about music and movies on her blog.