Thursday, February 12, 2015

Desperately Seeking Red Sonja

by Annabeth Leong

Women I half want to be and half want to be with... I've been running into them my whole life, but there are two 80s movies that tower archetypally in my memory: Desperately Seeking Susan and Red Sonja (oddly, both are from 1985). I still watch them both, and I still melt with envy, admiration, and desire.



First, let's talk Susan. This is Madonna at her finest. Since the 80s have come back around style-wise, I get to see her outfits in this movie with new eyes. I feel none of the slight embarrassment that comes to me when I watch old music videos. In Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna is unbearably hot—she rocks mesh shirts and men's button-ups alike, mismatched earrings, and sexy, sexy hair. When Rosanna Arquette's character accidentally winds up with Susan's suitcase, it's basically wish fulfillment. How much would I love to have those clothes!

More than clothes, though, the movie puts women front and center. Sure, Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) and Susan (Madonna) both get the guys, but those aren't the really interesting relationships. What matters most is the moment when the two women save each other. A guy walks in a moment later, and Roberta and Susan basically share a wink and a smile. It still feels good to me to see that.

The movie is basically about wanting to be a different, cooler woman. Roberta longs to know about Susan's life and to be close to her however she can (at one point she buys a used jacket of hers from a store). Over the course of the story, she becomes her own version of that woman.


While straight on the surface, I read a lot of queer subtext into the movie, too. There are moments when it feels like it's actually a romance between Roberta and Susan. I don't think I'm the only one who sees it that way. Rosanna Arquette was cast in The L Word as a love interest for Shane (Kate Moennig), and I sort of feel like that was to satisfy what I'd guess is a large population of people who really, really wanted to see her kiss Madonna.

Then there's Red Sonja. There are a lot of problems with that movie when viewed from modern eyes (aside from the fact that it was a B movie to begin with). It opens with a rape scene—and I don't think I have to explain how tired the "rape as character development" trope is today. The villain is an evil lesbian, and part of how you know she's evil is that she's a lesbian (she targets Sonja for cruelty because Sonja refuses to succumb to her "perverted desires"). The Asian people in the movie are either magical kung fu masters (apparently put on earth to teach the white woman their ways) or the butt of jokes about being clueless around women and being fat and clumsy. I also have no idea what eldritch magic allows Sonja to swing that giant sword she's supposed to be wielding with her thin, underdeveloped arms.


But I love the movie anyway because it was one of the first times I got to see a woman really kicking ass. This is her story. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in it, but he is the sidekick and love interest. That's just fucking wonderful. I can't overemphasize how depressing it is to always be expected to identify with the girlfriend character.

I also like the way the love story is handled. Sonja has taken a vow that she will never be with a man who can't defeat her in battle. Arnold's character, Kalidor, has taken a symmetrical vow. All movie long, they duel, expressing their sexual tension through battle, but neither can best the other. In the end, they go off to duel again, and the last shot is of them intertwined, swords still crossed, kissing each other. I think it's a powerful vision of equality that still means a lot to me to this day.

The 80s were a strange decade as many people have described, but there was also an atmosphere of emergent feminism that I'm glad to have been shaped by. And I still love the clothes.

(By the way, apologies for my late post. I'm a bit overloaded recently...)

14 comments:

  1. I LOVED Red Sonja! Please don't tell but I loved the Conan movies too. Arnold should have kept doing them. Speaking of women kicking ass in the 80's what about Sigorney Weaver? Women playing dark murderous characters, Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat" and Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction"-two very scary women. And the fearless courage of an ordinary woman, JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist. Yes the 80's were good to women in film at least.

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    1. Great additions, Spencer! Sigourney Weaver! We'll just sit here for a moment and silently meditate on the glory of Ripley in Alien.

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  2. Loved DSS back in the day, but not seen "Red Sonja". Those barbarian heroes never floated my boat. I suppose you had to be there. :>) But Spencer mentions some great films with strong female characters. Brrrr. Glen Close!

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    1. Daddy:
      I can't decide which character is scarier, The Alien or the bunny boiler Glenn Close

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    2. I recently said, only half kidding, that I think I could watch Desperately Seeking Susan every day.

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    3. One time, Momma and I rented "True Stories" by David Byrne of Talking Heads. I went to return it next day and rent something else. I wound up renting True Stories again because there wasn't anything else I'd rather watch. Byrne's "Stop Making Sense is perhaps the best performance movie I've seen. Besides, of course "Gimme Shelter" and "Calle 54".

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  3. "Desperately Seeking Susan" is one of my all time favorite movies! (It's even listed on my website on the "Favorites" page, which I haven't updated in a decade.) I definitely agree with you about the sexual tension. Even more, the film is about freedom. I totally identified with Rosanna Arquette's character. I was always the good girl, the obedient, sensible, sane young woman. When Roberta acquires Susan's suitcase, it allows her to experiment with her outlaw side.

    Now I want to see it again....

    I haven't seen Red Sonja. Sounds pretty silly. Still, I might like it. I've been known to make exceptions for beautiful redheads!

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    1. ::Virtual high five::

      And you're totally right about the suitcase. I fixated on the clothes in what I wrote here, but really that suitcase is permission for Roberta to experiment with sides of herself that she normally suppresses.

      In the movie, Red Sonja is definitely a beautiful redhead. It's also definitely a silly movie. I think one has to go into it with the proper B movie watching mindset.

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  4. Loved Red Sonja - the forerunner for Xena Warrior Princess. I'm glad Spencer like it too, I was beginning to think it was a gay thing! LOL

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  5. Desperately Seeking Susan! How could I forget? My daughter was only 8 when it came out, but she wanted to see it, so I promised I would take her to the movie theatre if she was allowed in, and she was. I was impressed by how well my kid behaved -- it was a mother-daughter bonding experience.

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    1. Aw, that is sweet. I actually watched it with my mom, too.

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  6. I missed Red Sonja, but I kind of liked Conan, maybe because of the Carmina Burana musical score. I did love Desperately Seeking Susan. At the time, I read that the movie was meant as a starring vehicle for Rosanna Arquette, and that Madonna was wasn't all that well-known yet, but she pretty nearly stole the show. (I don't know how true that was; I hadn't heard of Madonna before that, but I was culturally challenged.)

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    1. Wow, I guess I find it plausible that Madonna wasn't too well known at the time. It seemed like she had real underground cred in the club scenes.

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