25 years of Dirty Girls: What the 1996 cult documentary taught me about fashion, feminism and female identity

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 Around the time of my second year I happened to stumble upon Dirty Girls, a short documentary filmed by a then-L.A. high-schooler named Michael Lucid. Filmed in Lucid’s own school in 1996 and edited in 2000, the film follows a group of female eighth-graders, mocked and ostracized by their peers for their investment in riot grrl culture and their supposedly poor personal hygiene. 

Cruelly coined ‘Dirty Girls’ by their peer group, the documentary provides these girls with a platform to discuss the inspiration behind their grungy dress sense and share their experiences of social exclusion and , along with their radical feminist convictions, surprisingly well-articulated for a group of thirteen-year-olds and expressed creatively in the form of handmade zines. 

[it] would have worked wonders on my own internalised anxieties

However, despite my teenage self’s shared belief with ‘Dirty Girl’ ringleader Amber in the importance of being different, I firmly believe that watching this documentary as a thirteen-year-old would have worked wonders on my own internalised anxieties and obsessions as pertaining to normative feminine grooming and beauty routine. 

From the age of twelve, I can remember how terrified I felt at the prospect of being seen in public without makeup. I couldn’t have cared less about what anyone thought about the side-fringe that covered half my face, but god forbid anyone taunted me for having greasy or matted hair. Even now it breaks my heart to look back at how I loathed having body hair and began to shave my armpits obsessively. 

Although today I have managed to overcome these fears and feel much happier seeing increased representation of female celebrities with body hair in mainstream media outlets, I cannot turn a blind eye to the ongoing identity misconceptions and anxieties as pertaining to personal grooming, beauty and self-presentation, deeply rooted in misogyny, racism and homophobia, which no doubt continue to shape the experiences of young people growing up today. 

As sisters Harper and Amber, themselves state, contrary to their peers’ perceptions the girls are not unaccustomed to showering and are not ‘dirty’ in a hygienic sense. In fact, while the naysayers berate their unsightly appearance and comment that they look like they smell, it is never explicitly stated that the ‘Dirty Girls’ actually have poor personal hygiene. Instead, their ‘dirtiness’ stems from their refusal to follow strict grooming measures and appear outwardly feminine in a conventional sense, which is directly highlighted by a particularly cruel remark from a female peer, who accuses the group’s feminist agenda of being misguided, due to the fact that they are ‘not really women’. 

so much more than a nostalgic glimpse into mid-90s high school culture

Such mean comments from female peers not only serve to highlight the sad reality of young female internalisation of such gendered physical standards, but also demonstrate the necessity for female solidarity in deconstructing such values. While the documentary pits the groups’ male and female critics as bitchy and , the ‘Dirty Girls’ instead come across as caring and genuine, one-minute cracking jokes with one another, the next expressing their deeply-felt concerns regarding sexual violence and patriarchy. 

While the documentary’s grainy Super 8 shooting, 90s fashion and dreamy Liz Phair backing-track certainly makes it aesthetically pleasing to a modern audience, Dirty Girls is so much more than a nostalgic glimpse into mid-90s high school culture. 25 years on, this documentary stands as a landmark in riot girl feminist filmmaking, providing positive representation to social outcasts and inviting us to question why, in an environment where everyone is a critic, we bother to conform. 

Ending with footage of Amber dressed in a fluffy feather boa pretending to thank her haters for their unsolicited opinions on her own personal appearance, Michael Lucid’s film is a testament to the power of teenage rebellion, self-love and the not-so-subtle art of not giving a fuck. 

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