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Rebel Dykes

average rating is 5 out of 5


Amber Jackson


Posted on:

Sep 20, 2022

Film Reviews
Rebel Dykes
Directed by:
Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams
Written by:
Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams
Indigo Azidahaka, Karen Fisch, et al.

A thoughtful and well-constructed documentary weaving together archive footage, animation and personal testimony to capture a moment in time that shaped a radical subculture. Directed by Harri Shanahan, Rebel Dykes is the feature length version of the 2016 short film of the same name and seeks to amplify marginalised voices and perceptions of queer women in the UK.


“It was a great time and a terrible time to be young and queer in London”


What is striking about this feature film is the unseen archive footage providing insight into a radical subculture in 1980s London and how politically charged these movements were. We get to see BDSM nightclubs, examples of sex-positive feminism, post-punk female musicians and artists, squatters, activists and sex workers all seeking to shape and change a society that claims to not have space for them. The film recognises the reality of how sexual identity and expression were always politicised and the need to create community space was the start of the battle to make their voices heard.


This film is also a reminder of what queer culture was like forty years ago, particularly for young women, during a time of mass social uncertainty. These queer marginalised communities faced mass unrest and experienced events that history books and the media never told us about. ‘Rebel dykes’ themselves were so-described as ‘outlaws’, as they invented Riot Grrrls and in the process reclaimed spaces and languages not typically reserved for them. Shanahan has shined a spotlight on these stories of courage and honesty and nostalgia coming from those who paved the way for queer women today.


Beautifully balanced on screen is the isolating reality of being a small-town queer girl moving to the big city to find belonging in a country that continually rejected them. A hunger to find community is still very relatable for young LGBTQ+ individuals and so to hear these women talking about how these spaces were created was very uplifting and hopeful. Gateways and other important LGBTQ+ social landmark locations are used to highlight a growing music culture, protest through art and to encourage openness. Alongside this, testimony from the people interviewed discuss the homophobic reality of existing openly in London in the 1980s, and the documentary animation accompanies these experiences very effectively.


What is most powerful is how inclusive and warm all of the stories are. Whilst the key focus is on the poor punk working-class girls that inspired a sub-culture, Shanahan shares a wide variety of stories from women and transgender people from all walks of life from that time in an effort to tell everyone’s stories. In highlighting transgender stories from the time, and how rebel dykes accepted their transgender friends, this film shows how incredibly important it is to be an ally.


Equally insightful and sensitive, people are interviewed with all sexualities and genders to comment on issues of the time: AIDS education, Section 28, transgender inclusiveness, lack of governmental and media support, and communities protesting. This is a history and a side to queer culture that we haven’t necessarily seen in the mainstream before – a reality that seems far removed but actually doesn’t feel too distant from present day, perhaps because London is the constant.


Rebel Dykes is an incredibly moving and uplifting documentary that provides personal testimony from those who expanded the definition of what it means to be a queer woman, or queer more broadly. In going against the grain, these individuals wanted to make their own spaces and definitions in a society that sought to dictate to them. Whilst it is moving to see this history, it is powerful in that it shows how far queerness has come into the mainstream, but also that there is still always work to be done.


Entirely honest, Harri Shanahan’s film is a beautiful legacy for those who paved the way for LGBTQ+ communities and legal rights in the UK.

Watch Rebel Dykes Online.

About the Film Critic
Amber Jackson
Amber Jackson
Indie Feature Film, LGBTQ+
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