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Feminist Catastrophe Against Disaster Patriarchy: Curating Cinema’s First Nasty Women

How many feminist scholars and archivists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? There is no punch line to this set-up. Instead, we have spent the past two years curating a four-disc DVD/Blu-ray set on “Cinema’s First Nasty Women,” a project that features 99 films from over a dozen international archives spotlighting the unrealized histories of feminist revolt and hellraising rebellion. Launched by a series of screenings at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Giornate del Cinema Muto), our set celebrates the most volatile, defiant, messy, willful, and obstreperous women of the silent screen—at least those who’ve survived the ravages of archival disappearance. Though the vast majority of relevant films are lost due to decay and neglect, others can be espied in beautiful collections such as Kino’s “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” and the Cineteca di Bologna’s “Comic Actresses and Suffragettes.” Building on this crucial work, our set will be released by Kino Lorber in spring 2022, with a potential soundtrack to follow compiling original scores by women and nonbinary musicians, produced by Dana Reason. But the joy of curating this project has also been marked by deep anxiety, sadness, grief, tedium, and the isolation endemic to daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In anticipation of future ruptures—from gleeful reunions post-vaccination to reckonings with the incommensurable loss wrought by the pandemic—we offer these musings on the volcanic affects of silent cinema’s primo nasty women. Our reflections here hover around the tense encounters between cathartic disaster and morbid instability that we have collectively (though unevenly) endured over the past seventeen-plus months. “Covid has unleashed the most severe setback to women’s liberation in my lifetime,” wrote the feminist activist and artist V (formerly Eve Ensler) in a recent piece on “Disaster Patriarchy.” Adopting Naomi Klein’s notion of “Disaster Capitalism,” whereby neoliberal regimes exploit catastrophes to implement repressive economic policies, V focuses on the recession of women’s rights during times of pandemic upheaval. The nasty women of silent cinema, we argue, flip “disaster patriarchy” on its head by weaponizing catastrophe against endemic misogyny to make way for something better: collectivity, joy, defiance, solidarity, hopeful rupture, and social uprising.[1]

Affect #1: Rage Against Housework

“To build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled.”

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life[2]

On the cusp of organized revolt, it is cathartic to destroy the objects that occupy one’s tedious labor.

Excerpt from A Nervous Kitchen Maid (Victoire à ses nerfs)

Fig. 1. Excerpt from A Nervous Kitchen Maid (Victoire à ses nerfs) (France, 1907, BFI). All films reproduced are in the public domain & use is permitted by authors’ agreements with relevant archives for the “Cinema’s First Nasty Women” DVD set.

What is the cathartic value of ordinary destruction? In A Nervous Kitchen Maid, an exploited female worker brews rancid coffee for her bourgeois employers. She is chastised for her culinary negligence, to which she responds by shattering the pile of dirty dishes she had been vigorously scrubbing. A nod to the popular Bécassine comic strip (1905–1962) depicting a Breton housemaid (which was also adapted into a dish-breaking wind-up toy), this nervous woman becomes gleefully enraged.[3] She leverages disaster toward her domestic emancipation. When the mistress of the house enters, the maid exuberantly shatters more dishes. More dishes! The family patriarch tries next, pointing in horror at the debris of broken china. But the woman continues her rampage. As we see, destroying plates is an efficient alternative to scrubbing them endlessly. How many dishes can one maid wash in an hour? And for how many days in a row does she tediously polish the same bowls and cups? As the value of her labor washes away like so much scuzzy breakfast residue, she upends the erasure of her socially necessary labor time. When volatile feelings stick to oppressive objects, heavy emotions can be unstuck from ordinary things only by the gesture of objective destruction. Each broken dish is a nervous triumph.

Affect #2: Displaced (Misplaced) Anger

“Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

—Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”

Even righteous anger often misses its mark.

Excerpt from The Anger of Mrs Plumette

Fig. 2. Excerpt from The Anger of Mrs Plumette (La Fureur de Mme Plumette) (France, 1912, EYE Filmmuseum).

Why do white women lash out against vulnerable others instead of confronting their true oppressors? Madame Plumette’s husband goes on a fishing trip every month when she menstruates. Like clockwork, he gaslights her uterus by hunting bass fish on a placid lake far away from his hysterical spouse. Hell hath no fury like Madame’s anger, which she inflicts on her maid, local shop owners, hapless male bystanders, and a pompous military soldier. The class dynamics of her fury are messy, as she initially targets those with less power than her: the maid, a janitor, the vegetable monger, and so forth, subjecting them to the scorn and resentment meant for her husband (who, as we see, is having a lovely time on his fishing trip). The gag of white female anger gains steam. Madame’s next victim transforms into a prop dummy just as her fury explodes; she picks him up, bangs him against the wall, and throws him away. Then she heaves two burglars out of her apartment window.

The maid (Ellen Lowe) laughs uproariously and winks at the spectator during each of Madame’s tantrums. She is a stand-in for us, sharing our ambivalent laughter, which is sometimes effusively defiant, other times punitively complicit. Because Madame’s anger is allegedly a joke, the human bodies in the world around her become unreal in response—no longer flesh and blood. She is nasty, her rage indiscriminate, often directed against the wrong bodies. What would it take for our archival gaze to reclaim the “information and energy” captured in Madame’s anger? In the end, the maid and her boyfriend tie up Madame and sadistically hose her down. By reviving this film, we unshackle Madame and unbind her fury, unleashing it against today’s escapist bass fishers.

Affect #3: Anti-Colonial Feints

“Historically, it has perhaps been better to be represented in some way, however problematic and contradictory, than to remain invisible, a body that did not register in any important way in the national imagination.”

—Michelle Raheja, Reservation Reelism[4]

Covetous gazes interlock between white and Indigenous characters, and result in a misrecognition that turns anti-colonial revenge into a quick-and-dirty trick.

Fig. 3. Excerpt from An Up-to-Date Squaw (United States, 1911, Library of Congress).

Fig. 3. Excerpt from An Up-to-Date Squaw (United States, 1911, Library of Congress).

Can powerful feminist affects alight from shadowy revenge or limited inclusion? A group of white tourists flocks to an Indigenous reservation. Arriving in their gas-guzzling automobiles, they gawk at the spectacle of daily life and purchase Indigenous-made crafts, but their ethnographic subjects look back, initially in envy rather than defiance. The Chief’s wife, Ko-To-Sho, “is dazzled by the elegance of the American fashions,” according to an intertitle. She longs to possess the white women’s stiff corseted dresses and frivolous parasols. She travels into town, gleefully window-shops, and acquires an ostentatious fur coat and frilly new hat. Working-class white women mock her extravagance (another target of displaced/misplaced ridicule). Ko-To-Sho ostensibly desires nothing different than the white women; but when she cloaks herself in the same adornments as them, her desire is ridiculed. Why are the white ladies not deemed extravagant for wanting these things? How similar or different are the disunited women in this film?

Joanna Hearne notes that An Up-to-Date Squaw was made by the French film company Pathé Frères “during the time that James Young Deer and [Ho-Chuck actor] Lillian St. Cyr were at the height of their influence on the company’s productions, though there is no evidence that they worked on the film.”[5] Ko-To-Sho catches the eye of an English dandy, who lustily mistakes her for a white woman. The Chief follows the pair, angrily heaves the Englishman into the lake, and then hunts and scalps him—a symbolic token of grotesque revenge, but also a sight gag for easy enjoyment (like female anger itself). As The Moving Picture World explained in 1911, “The fact that [the Englishman’s] head is covered with a wig makes the scalping painless.”[6] Also like Madame Plumette’s substitute victims, the English imperialist turns into a dummy before he can feel pain or anticipate death. Ko-To-Sho only watches the feint, which reads as a visual joke to mark the end of the film. Revenge is punctual, rather than durable. Then again, it’s also deliciously nasty.

Affect #4: Surplus Excitement

“The zany more specifically evokes the performance of affective labor—the production of affects and social relationships—as it comes to increasingly trouble the distinction between work and play.”

—Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories[7]

When surplus value becomes an object of affective sorcery, no one is safe!

Fig. 4. Excerpt from Zoé et la parapluie miraculeux (Zoe’s magic mmbrella) (France, 1913, EYE Filmmuseum).

Fig. 4. Excerpt from Zoé et la parapluie miraculeux (Zoe’s magic mmbrella) (France, 1913, EYE Filmmuseum).

The insatiable desire for gratuitous things returns in this film, but not in the way that you think. Zoé (Little Chrysia) is a hapless housemaid who steals an enchanted umbrella from a professional stage magician. She is seduced by the illusionist’s ability to conjure any desirable object at will.[8] Zoé immediately covets a bourgeois woman’s ostentatious hat. But she loses control when not one but hundreds of hats arrive! Every time she opens the umbrella, it makes surplus commodities from the depleted use value of old, sad, worn-out things. Hats rain down from the sky, broomsticks attack a handyman on the stairway, and wooden chairs deluge a family’s hectic kitchen. It is a comedy about the ridiculous and catastrophic excesses of capitalist overproduction. When an “ordinary, sensuous thing” becomes a commodity, wrote Marx in Volume 1 of Das Kapital, “it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing on its own free will.” Armed with her umbrella, Zoé clumsily breaks a chair and compensates for its loss with dozens of magic chairs. But is this compensation? To the contrary, of course; the replacement chairs only cause more destruction.

The magic of freewheeling exchange value—whose surplus profit tightens into a noose around the worker’s neck—is a bludgeon for indiscriminate disaster in Zoé’s unwieldy hands. Similarly, in Zoé a la main malheureuse (Zoe Has an Unhappy Hand, 1913), she recklessly loses all her employer’s new purchases by depositing them into a bottomless shopping basket (an old trick that Amazon has newly catastrophized with very different ends). The system destroys itself when overzealous desire makes the world uninhabitable. Astonishingly, Zoé opens her umbrella and capitalism eats its own tail.

Affect #5: Hysterical Exhaustion

“24/7 markets and a global infrastructure for continuous work and consumption have been in place for some time, but now a human subject is in the making to coincide with these more intensively.”

—Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep[9]

When all else fails, sleep is a resource for refusal.

Fig. 5. Excerpt from Rosalie a la maladie du sommeil (Rosalie has sleeping sickness) (France, 1911, EYE Filmmuseum).

Fig. 5. Excerpt from Rosalie a la maladie du sommeil (Rosalie has sleeping sickness) (France, 1911, EYE Filmmuseum).

What if we simply refused to keep working? Long before the “somnolent turn” in global art cinema, exemplified by I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2005) and Cemetery of Splendor (2015), hysterical sleeping sickness posed an irresistible sight gag for early silent filmmakers. Somnambulism and incurable fatigue were common symptoms of neurasthenia and hysteria: disruptive afflictions that converted impossible longings into mysterious bodily ailments. Today we feel them in the guise of bone-weariness, thick exhaustion, and fitful insomnia. In this film, Rosalie is a housemaid who cannot stop yawning. After she nods off while carrying a plate of hot food and drops it all over the floor, she is sent to bed for a quick nap to recharge for her next prolonged workday. What follows is a downward spiral of escalating mayhem and unending sleep—a rat race to the limits of sheer human exhaustion. Her employers, anxious of “time theft,” are unable to rouse her. They enter her maid’s quarters, enlisting a makeshift marching band armed with pots and pans, a loud drum, buckets of water, and a garden hose. They rock her bed violently, assault her with noise, and douse her in cold water. But her sleep overpowers their failed commotion.

The maid’s fatigue is performed in larger-than-life gestures by the great Sarah Duhamel, who was famous for her comic characters Rosalie and Pétronille. Another wonderful French comedienne, Léontine—the anarchic tomboy whose identity is still unknown—also makes a thundering appearance with a metal pan and sharp kitchen implement. As we see here, inescapable exhaustion can be weaponized against the rule of constant productivity. The maid is always on call and therefore chronically overtired. From the capitalists’ point of view, letting her take a quick nap will only make her condition worse, because her backlog of exhaustion cannot be slept off in one tidy snooze. But workers have to rest at some point or else they will die. Damned if they don’t, but unproductive if they sleep: a nasty contradiction laid bare by early film comedy.

Affect #6: Cinematic Longing and Corporeal Projection

“I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.”

—Emma Goldman, Living My Life

If we could embody the screen, there’d be no need for absence or distance.

Fig. 6. Excerpt from Mannekängen (The Mannequin) (Sweden, 1913, Swedish Film Institute).

Fig. 6. Excerpt from Mannekängen (The Mannequin) (Sweden, 1913, Swedish Film Institute).

Too beautiful and anarchic for our world, this unfinished film comedy survives only in fragments. Directed by queer Finnish-Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller, Mannekängen celebrates the uproarious nuisance of women’s bodies in crowded public space. Lili, played by Lili Ziedner, stabs a man in the eye with her hatpin on a moving tram, sneezes on an old woman, and then uses her nasty handkerchief to dust off the man’s eye. The film’s title refers to a missing scene in which Lili brazenly steals a life-size male mannequin from an elegant shop. In the other surviving fragment, she attends a movie screening of an André Deed comedy, projecting herself into the image to knock the beloved clown off his feet. (Lili would make Edison’s Uncle Josh (1902) eat his heart out.) Then she tramples the other film spectators as she makes her way back to her seat. Steamrolling the crowd, she embodies the screen image, inhabiting dual fantasies of effortless proximity and magical metamorphosis.

It is tantalizing to watch Lili’s journey into the image after a year of alienating Zoom meetings and lonely social distancing. Though only in fragments, Lili reminds us what a difference public embodiment makes toward the future of feminism. “For a modernist, to look is to critique. To see is to see through,” observes Pardis Dabashi in her evocative call to Nella Larsen’s speculative sightlines in an earlier piece for the Visualities forum. For Lili, “seeing through” the image involves catastrophizing both sides of the screen, as you have now witnessed in this miraculous fragment.

Archival Afterlives . . .

The performances of cinema’s first nasty women model social and political alternatives to the anti-feminist exploitation of economic and public health disaster. We opened with V’s essay “Disaster Patriarchy,” which acknowledges the massive loss of women’s rights amid fiscal austerity, labor crisis, home quarantine, and collapsing healthcare. Domestic and sexual violence against women around the world has increased exponentially during the pandemic. Restrictive laws limiting abortion and trans civil rights are proliferating, along with violent hate crimes against trans people, who have been disproportionately afflicted by COVID-19. In the United States, in 2020 alone, women—primarily women of color—lost a net of 5.4 million jobs and $800 billion in global income, especially in female-dominated industries such as care work and low-wage service. The necessary reproductive labor of parenting, cooking, cleaning, and caring for relatives has largely fallen on women, forcing them out of the labor market and further confining them to potentially unsafe, abusive homes. “Men exploit a crisis to assert control and dominance,” as V says.

We like to believe that social progress has outpaced savage inequality, and that the atrocities of the twentieth century—war, influenza, genocide, apartheid—in turn have changed us. But the specters of colonialist fuckery are haunting the collective impulse for feminist solidarity. We’ve seen throughout the pandemic how white women too often side with whiteness over solidarity with Black women, trans women, Third-World women, et al. The effects of the pandemic have been much harsher—and will no doubt be more prolonged—in non-wealthy countries that are not allowed to produce their own vaccines; across the world, these effects are generally felt more intensely by BIPOC and working-class people than by white, middle-class women. In other words, it’s not simply “men” oppressing “women.” It’s people siding with the status quo to defend whatever meager privileges they hold rather than laying them on the line to make way for sustainable, equitable, and just forms of living. How comfortable would we be today living with these rebellious maids? Would our reflex not still be to shut them up, fire them, punish them, exploit them—to divide and conquer?

Yet disaster is not only weaponized by those who already commandeer social, political, and economic power: people who are white, male, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical, upper-class, and so forth. As Rosalie, Léontine, Lili, Zoé, Ko-To-Sho, Madame Plumette, and the “nervous” dish-breaking kitchen maid all reveal to us, catastrophe can also devastate capitalist misogyny, unleashing defiant joy interlaced with furious refusal onto the fault lines of the present. It is our most passionate hope that the films in this collection will help raise your own nasty feminist ghosts, with all their catastrophic, irresponsible, rebellious powers.

Fig. 7. GIF from Mary Jane’s Mishap (United Kingdom, 1903, British Film Institute).
Fig. 7. GIF from Mary Jane’s Mishap (United Kingdom, 1903, BFI).

We leave you with one final image—for us, a constant source of joyful fantasy and affective resilience through this whole soul-sucking pandemic. In Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903), the kitchen maid Mary Jane (Laura Bayley) explodes out of the chimney. Quarantine be damned. Anxious mortality comically transcended. Looming catastrophe, though still inevitable, momentarily hopeful.


[1] We include actor credits whenever possible. Many of the performers we discuss remain unidentified—though we are searching far and wide for their names and life stories.

[2] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 2.

[3] Regarding Bécassine, Leslie Page Moch explains that the character “was trademarked in 1910, and a doll about 7 ½ inches tall, in a green costume and Breton coiffe, was soon for sale. Dolls were not the only prewar product: a prize-winning toy called the ‘dish-breaker’ had a tiny Bécassine (about 5 inches tall) drop the dishes she carried.” See Moch, The Pariahs of Yesterday: Breton Migrants in Paris (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 75.

[4] Michelle H. Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), xiii.

[5] Joanna Hearne, Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2012), 61.

[6] “Licensed Film Stories: An Up-to-Date Squaw,” The Moving Picture World (September 1911): 818.

[7] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: The Zany, The Cute, and the Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 7.

[8] Little Chrysia is best known for her character Cunégonde, eight of whose films can be viewed in our set.

[9] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York and London: Verso, 2014), 3–4.