Remembering Cinema’s First “Nasty” Women

· Updated on October 13, 2023

Janet Jackson should have been the final word on ‘nasty,’ but then came the 2016 Presidential Debates.

Though the initial tidal wave has since died down, the ripples of this moment have reached the shores of film history and preservation. Kino Lorber’s recently released box set Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a collection of 99 silent films centering around characters and performances of rowdy women. And while the set is a brilliant showcase of gendered subversion existing in cinema from the beginning, it’s also a reminder of the limitations found within “Nasty Women” feminism.

Spanning from 1896-1926, these films capture a period in American history when politicians and suffragettes alike were beginning to undo the work of the Reconstruction era. With the growing political power of newly enfranchised Black men and increased immigration from Europe, there was a concerted effort to ensure white people retained control of The United States and its empire. 

Although the set’s accompanying booklet includes an interesting conversation about anti-racist approaches to curating silent cinema, it doesn’t discuss how the set’s inclusion of racist imagery conflicts with the term “nasty woman” as a political lens. As such, this set is a bold and unintentional reminder that the only group not considered to be inherently “nasty” is white women. Black women have historically been characterized on film as “angry,” Latina women as “firey,” Native women as “savage,” and Asian women as “dragons” and “tigers.” Because of their supposed innocence, fragility, and selflessness, only white women can benefit from embracing the word ‘nasty’ as a reclaimed descriptor.

It’s difficult to find genuinely queer examples in the set. Sure there may be some same-sex teehee-ing, but only a few selections offer a genuinely queer look at the world. For all the flirting the set does with queer desire, the characters, performances, and films selected here rarely imagine a different world. “Nasty,” as a word, accepts the social order as it is and refuses to play by its rules. Queerness, if it’s to be useful at all, must offer something wholly different.

This isn’t to say that sets like this shouldn’t exist, but rather to caution against anthologizing with such a tepid political theme as a guide. It’s disappointing that the political patina of this project stunts the queer potential—personally, I find tremendous similarities between being queer and watching silent films. Each requires a way of seeing and experiencing radically different from the norm. They each have their barriers to access and their lost histories.

Below is a list of 11 films from the Cinema’s First Nasty Women collection that offer a particularly queer perspective.

Leontine’s Battery (1910)

The set opens with a group of films dedicated to the character actress Leontine. Internationally known for the mischievous tomboy character she created, we don’t know her true identity, and she’s known by different names depending on where the film is being translated. In that, she is most certainly a queer figure herself.

The first film on our list sees Leontine steal a car battery and use it to shock anyone who would try to control her. She zaps the older generation and their genteel dancing; she even gets a suitable plug from the police. What’s remarkable about Leontine’s Battery is how the action speeds up when it’s electrocuted, yet Leontine remains fixed. Leontine is somewhat of a queer ghost, outside of all time yet also bound by history. She becomes the maker of modernity, speeding up time and society till exhaustion.

Laughing Gas (1907)

This Edison short is the first example of the set’s politics getting in the way of its vision. In this film, celebrated Black comedienne Bertha Regustus has an infectious laugh after her dentist gives her laughing gas. As Kyla Wazana Tompkins elegantly illustrates in her introduction to the film, the original joke is that Bertha’s laughter is uncivilized, reducing rationality: Laughing Gas is a cautionary tale for a racist. Yet calling Bertha a “nasty woman” doesn’t do her any favors. She is assumed to be disruptive by the white supremacist society. Her laughter—indeed any expressions of Black joy—were criminalized during slavery, which had ended less than fifty years before. She cannot wear “nasty” in the same way as her white counterparts, because to do so would reaffirm a binary of civility that seeks to subjugate her. Yet there’s no denying that Bertha’s laughter transforms the world for the better. It’s a world where strangers feel more connected, and the justice system is fair. If we root for her, society will become anew. Today there’s nothing “nasty” about Laughing Gas, only a renewed optimism in laughter as the best social medicine.

A Bad (K)night (1899)

If queerness can be seen as a straddling of time and standards, there is perhaps no more vibrant example than A Bad (K)night. Made before there was a standard frame rate, the film runs at 36 frames per second, which is faster than today’s standard 24 but slightly slower than the 42 frames in The Hobbit and Avatar. The simple film about a wife who clobbers her hungover husband runs first at our current frame rate, and the action feels like it’s taking place on the moon or in some Lynchian dreamscape. Then the film runs again at its original speed, which requires frames to be removed for our technology to run the movie properly. Though the movement is more “natural,” there are glimpses of the gaps. Watching A Bad (K)night is a queer experience because it requires us to enter a fantastic reality outside what people consider “natural.”

The Rembrandt in Rue Lepic (1911)

We’ve finally come to the first genderqueer performance on our list. In this entrancing film, a painter sells a rich man a Rembrandt. When an unsuspecting woman, played by someone in drag, sits on the painting and transfers it to her skirt, a chase ensues, leading from one pile up to another, each seeming to defy more physics as they go on. Not only is the film queer in the simple way of having a cross-dressing performance, but it also queers art in exciting ways. Here gender and art are both parts of an endless series of reproductions, both fabricated or forged. She is as convincing as a woman like the painting is a convincing Rembrandt. Both pass, as it were. But the film isn’t long enough to have a moral resolution; we’re thrown out into the dark on a chuckle, left to wonder if anything is ever authentic.

Zoe and the Miraculous Umbrella (1913)

This little feature is just so camp. After stealing a magician’s umbrella, which conjures whatever the opener desires, Zoe makes it rain absurdities. At first, it’s simple things like a new hat to wear. But then the objects get outrageous, escalating from chapeaus to chairs. And it all leads to a torrential climax and a wryly ironic ending. It’s a simple enchanted tale about a magic reality that’s as funny as it is fantastical. 

Rosalie and her Faithful Furniture (1911)

Any time furniture comes alive, you’re in a queer world, whether it’s Pee Wee’s Playhouse or The Beast’s Castle. As cinema first discovered its potential, it frequently sought to bring inanimate things to life. This next film is a charming example. Rosalie and Her Faithful Furniture follows Rosalie and the furniture she lost after she was evicted. It’s another camp comedy like Zoe and the Miraculous Umbrella, though instead of the magic raining down, it wobbles across the street. The simplicity and attention to detail in this under-six-minute feature are breathtaking, especially as the furniture finds its rightful place at the end.

A Range Romance (1911)

The third of the collection’s four discs is the most politically charged. It also features the clearest examples of how being a “nasty woman” only works for white feminism. In its first group of films, “The Girl Spy” is a spy for the Confederacy. In “Gender Frontiers,” the movie centers on gender play during the colonial westward expansion. Both categories require bracketing of colonial violence for their rebelliousness to be perceived. If we take as an example, A Range Romance, the “Brokeback Mountain of the silent era,” according to Laura Horak in her introduction, we see how queerness and empire building are not mutually exclusive. She can dress like a man because of the drive to expand. The need for labor in The West facilitates Mary’s queer play. In this unregulated and wild space, new identities could be taken on and played within. Just as imperialism will always resolve at the feet of the patriarchy, so does the film. A Range Romance may be a bittersweet tale about how cinema forestalls queerness to appease the censors. Still, it’s also a cautionary reminder that this so-called wild age of gender variance is backed and supported by horrific violence. 

Dollars and Sense (1916)

Many of the themes and ideas that we’ve discussed already show up in the remarkable Dollars and Sense. Actress Ora Carew plays Hetty Hobbs and her mischievous twin brother, who live at their parents’ hotel. When the landowner and his son arrive, the Hobbs is presented with an ultimatum — either Hetty marries the heir, or the Hobbs lose everything. The trouble is, Hatty already loves her cornfed beau and despises the gnawing east coaster. She and her brother devise a diabolical plan to crisscross-dress their way out of their double bind. Dollars and Sense is absolutely ruckus from start to finish, queerly playing with tones and modes with abandon. In its mere 30-minute runtime, the film is a pastoral romance, a surreal stop-motion nightmare, a gender comedy, and a circus act.

Dollars and Sense is one of the most fascinating and hilarious films in this set. It’s a genuinely queer entry with a palpably playful reality in which nothing, not even the film’s tone, behaves as it should.

Pranks (1909)

As Laura Horak says in her commentary on the film, Pranks is particularly queer not just in its representation of cross-dressing and queer coupling but also in how it presents public parks as a “free space for expression.” In this film about a couple whose clothes get switched at a swimming hole, we get a trinity of pairs – man/woman, woman/woman, man/man. Each is experiencing their gender and sexuality in the open. As Horak points out, the men lying in the park together in pastoral repose are coded as pansies, sure, but there’s no hiding or fear of them being queer in the park. Pranks archived a moment in queer history when public spaces belonged to them, too, before being kept inside and policed.

Love and Science (1912)

Few films in this collection queer the camera itself quite like Amour et Science. Max is a brilliant inventor with little time for anything else, particularly his wife, Daisy. He’s spending so much time working on his video telephone that Daisy feels neglected. With her best friend Maude, she plans to teach Max a lesson. They dress Maude in men’s clothes and have her act like a suitor while Daisy is on a video call with Max. Fooled by the trick, Max shoots his invention and collapses in nervous shock. To cure him, Daisy and Maude will need to film a reveal so that he knows it was all in good fun. It’s a film with a tremendous amount of layered looking. In one fantastic shot, Daisy and Max are on a split screen with a mirrored projection of Daisy happening on the videophone. Thanks to Katharina Loew’s insightful commentary on all the film processes that went into this remarkable film, we can see the myriad technical ways the film’s unknown director creates highly imaginative ways of seeing. Combining queer gender play and camera play, Amour et Science is an unforgettable film that troubles the certainty and objectivity of the camera.

What’s The World Coming To? (1926)

What better way to end our survey of queer cinema from the past than a film that looks queerly into the future? What’s The World Coming To? may be a title that suggests we take what follows as ridiculous, yet the film is nothing short of marvelous. One hundred years in the future (2026), “men become more like women and women more like men.” Amongst the airships and flying pie delivery trucks, a young couple wants to get married. The “blushing groom” in an oversized hat and his wife in her finest suit are ready at the altar. But when a jealous butch lieutenant interrupts the ceremony, the erotic triangle begins to spin hysterically out of control. This raunchy comedy with an insolent bird and cartoon mouse feels otherworldly and queer. Yet for this allowed queerness, whiteness becomes the most critical matter in the marriage. So long as it doesn’t violate the “interstate eugenics commission,” their marriage is considered good and valid. While the heterosexual family structure is reaffirmed by the appearance of the puppet stork, not once does it try to correct the queer world it depicts. For all their cliches and gender stereotypes, these people are allowed to exist as they are. 

When we watch queer silent films, we have to be vigilant of how that queerness is allowed. Just like the marriage in What’s The World Coming To, most of the queer expressions we’ve examined here are the result of colonial capitalism and shouldn’t be so easily bracketed to the side in order to praise the sexual and gender variances. It’s all too easy to think of these sentiments as “past,” locked away in anthologies and silent. But the reality is, a lot of the nastiness from racism and colonialism is still with us today. It’s not enough to become nasty ourselves: Queer films, like all the ones we’ve considered here, offer glimpses into new ways of seeing our world.

Experiencing both queerness and silent films, as Kyla Wazana Tompkins says in her Laughing Gas introduction, provides a “sense of intimacy we have with worlds and ways of being that are no longer our own.” If we are to create an anti-racist world in which everyone’s basic needs are met, we have to imagine a world wholly different from our own. And with the help of a camera, we can practice dreaming and thinking queerly together.♦

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