Rebel Dykes: Removing the gag of Thatcherite policy through BDSM subculture

‘Rebel Dykes’ is a 2021 documentary following a group of friends who meet at Greenham Common peace camp in the mid-80s, who go on to become influential figures in the London lesbian S&M community. The story of this radical, subversive scene is told through a mix of animation, rare archival footage, photographs and recent interviews, expanding on the original short film that screened to rave reviews at the 2016 BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. From unabashed sexuality to bold protest action, Rebel Dykes bares it all, painting a vibrant picture of lesbian post-punk London in the 1980s.


Rebel Dykes is in cinemas and online on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from 26 November. The opening night screening at BFI Southbank will be followed by a Q&A with the directors.

Credit- Harri Shanahan, Sian Williams, Siana Williams


The film opens with an introduction of how each person featured came to become involved with the eponymous ‘Dykes’ : we see how they originally united at Greenham Common to protest against nuclear weapons, but also to find a community where they felt welcome. Almost immediately the diversity of this community in race, politics and age is made clear (subcultures within subculture, if you will). This theme of diversity prevails throughout the film, as directors Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams highlight just what it is that made this underground scene unique. In an especially memorable segment on lesbian punk music, one interviewee recalls how they didn’t fit what labels considered ‘likely to succeed’: they couldn’t be a band, they couldn’t all be women, and they couldn’t all be lesbians! The ‘Dykes’ were brave enough to be openly lesbian in a conservative time, daring to subvert contemporary gender norms despite the risk of gay bashing. Rebel Dykes doesn’t shy away from discussing this, as several interviewees recount their own experiences with homophobia and how they were forced to hide who they were to protect themselves, at times.


The dual issues of identity and acceptance are also explored with sensitivity. Although a lesbian S&M community sounds intimidating to be part of, the interviewees testify that it helped them accept that it was normal to like other women, to like sex, and to like S&M when all of those things were considered taboo in mainstream society. In the case of the latter, the ‘Dykes’ were criticised by radical feminists who felt that it promoted violence against women, and the film clearly shows that this wasn’t the case by framing it as empowerment. Particularly topical will be the issue of trans acceptance: interviewees make a point of saying that trans women were welcomed at the ‘Dykes’ club night, 'Chain Reaction'.


This intersectionality forms the basis of the film’s second half, as the community deals with the emergence of the ‘ACT UP’ movement in response to the AIDS crisis and political trouble in the form of oppressive laws introduced by the Thatcher government. Despite this, the spirit of rebellion in the community prevailed, with amusing anecdotes about sex toys, Ian McKellen and a dental dam. Archival news footage shows the ‘Dykes’ at the front lines of the protests against Section 28, demonstrating their opposition to censorship by invading Parliament and padlocking themselves to news desks on live television. These stories are told with levity, injecting humour (“Beeb Man Sits on Lesbian”) into what was a difficult time to be openly gay.



Credit- Harri Shanahan, Sian Williams, Siana Williams


However, not all of these issues are given the same level of attention by the filmmakers. The impact of the AIDS epidemic on the lesbian community is fairly glossed over, somewhat disappointingly so, particularly as one woman explains how she struggled to get others to recognise that AIDS was not just a problem for gay men and that they were affected too. It’s framed more as something that inspired women to discuss in plain language what they were doing - and while admirable, the comparative lack of discussion around this particular issue unbalances the film, especially given the amount of coverage given to prosecution, censorship and other issues affecting everyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.


In the final moments of the film, one interviewee succinctly sums up the Rebel Dykes’ main message: “You should be yourself.” Behind the mud wrestling, newsroom invading and military base trespassing, that’s what they were about: encouraging people to love themselves for who they were. The story of this community is especially important to document and as the LGBTQ+ community becomes more widely accepted, the groundwork laid by the Rebel Dykes cannot be omitted. While they fought for serious issues, their anecdotes about the time are humorous and lighthearted, and their determination to smile in the face of oppression is astounding. As Olly Alexander’s character in ‘It’s a Sin’ puts it, “That’s what people forget - that it was so much fun.”


Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film Editor



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