How To Start a Girl Gang

foxfireIt was a decade ago that Lauren and I got matching tattoos, three-inch flames on the inside of our right biceps. The guy who did them was stocky, cranky and wearing a leather vest. In the next chair, a girl no older than us was wincing tearfully as she got her boyfriend’s name inked onto her hip inside a fat red heart. I’d be lying if I said the contrast didn’t make us feel a little smug, even though we knew better. It was just so hard to live up to our ideal of unconditional support for women, especially when they made such obviously crappy choices.

Lauren and I had known each other for just about a year at that point. We met in college and fell in the kind of hard, all-consuming love that’s as clichéd as it is elusive—the kind that leads to epic late nights and aimless drives and as many cigarettes as half-baked, half-brilliant ideas about how to blow the world’s mind. The tattoos were copied from Foxfire, a movie I’d first seen in a suburban strip mall theater half a dozen years before. It had been my girl-power guidepost ever since, its power solemnized by the fact that I’d only met three other people who had ever heard of it. Lauren wasn’t even one of them.

In 1996, Foxfire had seemed to explode out of nowhere. Its plot was basically engineered to dig its fingers into the minds of restless young women and repel anyone too far away from our experience. The movie follows a group of high school girls who are drawn together by Legs, a roguish, magnetic stranger who shows up suddenly in their biology class. She quickly schools her new friends-cum-proteges in the unfair realities of life as a young woman and teaches them to fight back. At first, this leads to small and satisfying victories—beating up an abusive teacher, breaking into school to reclaim confiscated property, standing up against a group of jocks—and binds them together in a furious sisterhood. Over time, the situations and their consequences become more dangerous, and things spin out of control in predictable ways.

The four high school girls represent a pretty typical range of types. Maddy, the narrator, is the stand-in for the audience: an artist who Rollerblades through the school hallways, has a cute boyfriend and just wants to coast through her senior year. Violet is the “slutty” one, wearing short skirts with knee socks and ruby-red Airwalks. Rita, in her oversized sweatshirts, is an outcast with low self-esteem. Goldie (played by Jenny Shimizu, who went on to date Angelina in real life) is a bit of a loose cannon, with a stash of pills and troubles at home.

Legs, though, is a revelation. Played by Angelina Jolie just before she got super famous, her pillowy lips complicated by a choppy, androgynous haircut, Legs wears a leather jacket and motorcycle boots and is pretty clearly gay. She was thrown out of school, she tells Maddy, “for thinking for myself.” Her independence is a revelation to her new friends, as is her sense of justice.

And so the girls get expelled from school together. They claim an abandoned house in the woods as their home base and vow to become each other’s family, with all the love and shelter and suspicion of outsiders that implies. In the movie’s central (and best) scene, the five of them arrive back at their squatted homestead, giddy from a night of righteous breaking and entering. They light a big cluster of candles on the floor and arrange themselves around it, quieting down when Legs sets out a small wooden box. She silently takes out its mysterious contents, strips off her shirt, and thrusts a needle into the flame of one of the candles. “This is so I’ll always remember tonight,” she says, looking around the room and making burning eye contact with one girl at a time. Calmly, carefully, she stabs the outline of a flame onto her right breast, explaining that fire is fuel, “but it also destroys if you don’t respect it.”

Thanks to Legs’s improbable skill with a needle, the girls soon have matching tattoos of flames on their breastbones. Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust” plays in the background.

The girls spend the movie chafing against limits made more unbearable by the knowledge that they’re temporary, imposed by teachers and parents and gender at a time when a new set of possibilities is almost within reach. When I first saw Foxfire (that’s the name of their loosely defined gang) I was a few years away from that point of departure myself, but I was desperate to get there and the movie gave me something to chase.

That was less because I wanted to get in trouble—though I did—than because I craved a gang of fiercely loyal girlfriends who found freedom by writing their own rules and trusting nothing above their guts and each other.

By the time I got the tattoo I was finding that gang, brought and bound together by a less-sexy variation on the movie’s female supremacy. College-style feminism was its own culture, with an exclusive language and set of customs, fraught metaphors, varied targets and not a few of its own indulgences. We fought back by picking things apart, our battles unfolding in early morning seminars, illegible marginalia and sprawling conversations about intersectionality and essentialism. Lauren and I were loud and self-righteous and having a blast, certain we were always the smartest people in a room.

Our loose group of comrades wasn’t as tidy in its types as Foxfire, not quite as intensely bound; without a Svengali like Legs the center of gravity wasn’t always clear. We shared a lot: clothes, kitchens, CDs, tattered novels and books on theory, an awareness that the world was twisted in ways most people didn’t see. It felt just as romantic to me as Foxfire, and I was just as protective of it. Of us.

***

After Foxfire was whisked from theaters soon after its release, it seemed to take forever to make it onto what was then known as home video. So while I waited impatiently for it to be available in some form I could hold in my hands and shove in my backpack and watch whenever I wanted, I read the book it was based on.

I wasn’t really familiar with Joyce Carol Oates, apart for her reputation for writing prolifically and looking haunted, both attractive traits to a book-obsessed teenager. Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, her 22nd novel, was published in 1993 and turned out to have some unexpected differences from the movie. It took place not in Portland, Oregon in the mid-90s, but in upstate New York in the 1950s. In the movie the girls spar with their parents from relative comfort; in the book they’re the products of fractured homes and near-poverty. In the novel, men are more clearly the enemy and sisterhood the only salvation. Its story unfolds over years instead of a few months, leaving room for more hotheaded escapades, more gang members and more violence. The stakes are higher, the voices clearer, more differentiated and more furious. The name “Foxfire” is invoked regularly and with pride, chanted and graffiti-ed all over town.

I was grateful for the novel because it was something I could tie to the wild feeling I got from the movie, but I didn’t love it in anything like the same way. It was Jolie and company I was stuck on—the immediacy of their adventures, their audacity and good old-fashioned rebellion, the obligatory alt-rock soundtrack that included songs by Luscious Jackson and L7 and The Cramps. Reading the book at sixteen, it was easy to breeze past the disheartening stuff and head right for the action, where the girls’ understanding of Best Friends Forever was the same as mine. Its characters were obsessed, in a vivid and familiar way, with creating their own historical record and ensuring the eternity of their bond. (“Forever was a word Legs liked. A cool liquidy sound coming off her tongue.”) They were always disavowing remorse, swearing they’d “never look back.”

In fact, the book is all about looking back—something I recognized only during a re-read some fifteen years later. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style and narrated by a more mercenary Maddy, this version an aspiring writer responsible for chronicling Foxfire’s activities. The whole thing is meant to be a document she’s pieced together as she tries to make sense of those years from the distance of middle age. What she comes up with is a chronicle of regret and loss.

Oates packs her pages with reflections on memory and the slippage that comes with the passage of time; you’re never far from a reminder that the story is a post-mortem. “The closer she comes to adulthood, bearing witness with an adult’s increased sense of ambiguity, and irony, and self-doubt, the less clear are her memories,” Oates writes of Maddy, who finds the task of reconstructing the past as painful as it is essential. Legs once told her she had a responsibility to record things as they truly were—if she didn’t, Foxfire could “slip away” from them—and the adult Maddy complies but resists drawing conclusions from it. “If there is some connection between my life now and my life as a girl I do not know what it is, and I do not want to know,” she tells us, as her accounting of that life winds to a close.

The movie is less of a downer. There’s no happy ending, but unlike the book it doesn’t close with a main character who has aged out of the action, reflecting on her disappointing life. This is partly enabled by the fact that—though it inherits from the book some cursory retrospective framing—it’s insistently present tense. We’re there as things are happening, not looking back at them in a way that encourages judgment or regret. It’s only in the last scene, just moments after the climactic violence that breaks the girls apart, that we get a glimpse of what might follow.

Maddy is left standing alone on a bridge at dawn. As she tentatively climbs to the top of the truss (mimicking an earlier, expository bit of recklessness from Legs), her disembodied voice addresses us from some unseen future. “I’ve traveled since, half the world—art museums, bus stations, airports. I’ve never seen Legs again,” Maddy says, as a Kristin Hersh song swells. “The rest of us, we’ve drifted. But we embrace when we meet, veterans of a sort. Bound together for life.” Roll credits.

I tear up every time I watch it. But on more recent viewings—equal parts comfy indulgence and fact-checking mission—I also cringe. The whole thing still sizzles, but it’s overwrought. Much of the dialogue is canned, the action cursory. The excellent soundtrack is used clumsily. Whenever Legs slinks onscreen, her entrance is signaled by a couple notes of textbook Eddie Van Halen wankery. Characters are underdeveloped. They overreact. In one of the nineties’ purest clichés, Goldie shoots heroin in a dimly lit room during a montage set to “You” by Candlebox. Legs’s DIY tattooing results in smooth lines and nice color differentiation and no blood or swelling.

Maybe not surprisingly, the movie hasn’t left much of a footprint—mostly screencaps of a topless Jolie during the pivotal tattoo scene. The rest of the cast is studded with names that are familiar for other reasons: Jenny Shimzu (Goldie), a Calvin Klein model; singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis (Rita), Peter Facinelli, who played Maddy’s sensitive boyfriend Ethan years before he married and then divorced Jennie Garth. Hedy Burress, who played Maddy with such understated longing, has worked pretty steadily in low-profile roles; weirdly, she’s done a lot of voicing for video games. IMDB reveals scant credits for the movie’s director, Annette Haywood-Carter (whose calling card before Foxfire was having directed an episode of SeaQuest), and writer, Elizabeth White, after its release.

Foxfire arrived the same year that, it would turn out, marked the end of riot grrrl. It hit theaters the year after Tank Girl, Spice World and Clueless, the same year as The Craft and Girls Town, not long before a short but sprawling list of other movies that also kill it on the Bechdel Test—from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to the scrappy, queer Itty Bitty Titty Committee, to the glossier empowerment of Whip It and the blockbuster ladyfest of Bridesmaids. These movies are all over the map when it comes to tenor and quality, but their impeccable fulfillment of Bechdel’s criteria—that a story feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man—means that their best point of comparison remains each other. As long as that’s true, Foxfire’s singularity will balance out its flaws, along with a handful of other feminist-y bits of pop culture I’d be less protective of, if they were in better company.

***

We are drawn to the same stories, over and over. In 2012, the French director Laurent Cantet (The Class) made a new version of Foxfire that returns the action to its original home in the 1950s. It premiered to mixed reviews at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, went on to open the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea and still has no U.S. release date, so I haven’t seen it. I’m kind of nervous to, anyway. Looking online at a handful of stills and a trailer was kind of unsettling, like clicking through photos of an ex’s new baby. “March 16, 1955: A true blood sisterhood came to be born. Foxfire, a true outlaw gang,” goes what I can only assume is Maddy’s voiceover. “We thought we were untouchable, invisible, invincible. But we were wrong.” Coverage of earlier screenings notes that the source material, Oates’s novel, had been made into an earlier, “forgettable” film.

I still love my tattoo, but explaining it to people is awkward. It’s uncomfortable to tell your boss or your doctor or even your bartender that your tattoo is from a movie that rocked your world when you were a teenager, and which you never got over. I don’t regret it, but I don’t really want to answer for it, either. The matching-ness of it is also a little cringe-y—a more fixed and ill-advised version of those BFF necklaces we all had at some point, two halves that were the only pieces of a perfect, almost primal whole. When you’re older, wearing friendship on your sleeve sounds cheesy and childish, the optimism of it sort of pitiable. In that light, Foxfire looks more like a cautionary tale than a call to arms.

I got the tattoo, I guess, to prove something to myself. To fulfill the promise I made when I was 15 and swore that some day I would do more than just draw it on in magic marker. To bind myself to someone I adored, even if that hadn’t been part of the original plan. To commemorate a discovery, and a feeling. To shrug in the face of the people who worry about shortsighted kids making mistakes they can’t undo. Maybe I could feel myself outgrowing so much of what came along with Foxfire, and I wanted to lay down a reminder before I wussed out or wised up.

It worked. When Lauren and I are together—not so often, these days—some guy always notices our arms and does a double take. Then he asks if we’re in a gang.

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