‘And I’m like a tiger’: Looking Back at the Female Protagonists of the British New Wave

I don’t know whether it was something to do with growing up in a rural English hamlet without a bus service or having virtually no connection with the real world for 18 years, but, as a girl, my main points of reference for female role models were the girls and women I saw on the silver screen. It was these women who I looked to when I was sad, angry, uninspired, or, as was usually the case, having a very dramatic 2 a.m. existential crisis. (Alongside playing ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ on repeat, of course—thank you, Dusty, I owe you big time.) My problem was that I felt stuck. I was in a place I didn’t like, at a high school I didn’t like, and I didn’t know how to unstick myself.

The 1960s British New Wave in film revolves around this desire to leave behind the mundanity and provincialism of everyday life. The independent-minded, experience-seeking women in these films prove that getting away and attaining new freedoms isn’t just something reserved for swishy-haired On the Road-worshipping teenage boys (we’ve all known one).

For February’s theme of ‘freedom’, I’ve decided to share my holy trinity of female protagonists of the British New Wave for when you feel like you need some motivation, inspiration, consolation—or simply just a good film—to get you through the boredoms and frustrations which can be a defining part of the girlhood experience.

 

Polly Dean in Up the Junction

feminism
Up the Junction. Dir: Peter Collinson. 1968

Based on Nell Dunn’s short stories of life in the industrial slums of 1960s London, Up the Junction tells the story of Polly Dean (Suzy Kendall). Polly is a Chelsea girl who decides to abandon the artificiality and snobbery of life north of the river. She cuts all ties with her previous life in a bid for physical and financial independence. Determined to live on what she alone earns, Polly moves to Battersea, rents out a bedsit and gets a job in a local factory. ‘So what’s a bird like this doing up there?’, everyone asks; but this girl knows exactly what she’s doing. She values the honesty and openness of the community in Battersea. They shout when they’re angry and cry when they’re upset, they don’t conceal what they’re feeling in order to present an image of perfect domesticity like the Chelsea community do.

Polly’s resistance to being financially dependent on her family and her bravery in leaving everything she knows behind in order to develop her own, individual sense of self make her one of the most interesting and inspiring female protagonists of the 1960s British New Wave. She’s also an A* example of how to be a great friend. She is always supporting her best pals Sylv and Rube—despite her tantrum-prone boyfriend Peter’s need to be the centre of attention at all times. The above image is taken from the end scene of the film. Peter’s wound up in jail and Polly’s on her own again. But she’s okay. She is free to carve out a form of freedom which suits her sensibilities.

 

The Girl in If….

Lindsay Anderson; IF (1968)

If…. is one of the most surreal films out there, and trying to explain the plot is like trying to define nothing and everything at once. The Girl (Christine Noonan) appears about halfway through the film, when two male sixth-formers enter the roadside café she is working in. In what appears to be a male fantasy-inspired dream scene, one of the boys, Mick (Malcolm McDowell), leans across the counter and attempts to kiss The Girl against her will. She slaps him, correcting the presumptuous ‘I want, I get’ philosophy of the adolescent male mindset. ‘I’m like a tiger’, she says. She has to be in order to survive in the jungle of negative patriarchal attitudes towards female agency and consent.

The Girl just about the coolest girl in film there ever was. My dream is to be able to slide a coffee across a counter as effortlessly as she does. But The Girl is also a poignant reminder of what it’s like to be female. More specifically, a female in a society that is dominated by male desire. She is—quite simply—just ‘The Girl’ to them.

In another dream sequence right at the end of the film, she teams up with Mick & co. to stage a massacre of the teachers and military men affiliated with the nearby private boys’ school. The scene should not be interpreted literally, but rather as an attempt by The Girl to establish a world which works for girls and young women. A world in which boys are not taught that it’s acceptable to act without consent. And in which girls expect to enjoy the same freedoms and privileges as the boys and men around them.

 

Liz in Billy Liar

women
Julie Christie in Billy Liar 1963

“Sometimes I want to go away. It’s this town, it’s the people we know. I don’t like knowing everybody, I don’t like becoming a part of things, do you know what I mean?”

For me, Liz was the Bible of how to get away. I consulted her religiously. When she wanted to be somewhere else, she hopped on a train and she was off. She didn’t think of whether she had money in her pocket or clean underwear in her bag. But even more importantly than that, her mind was free. In her head, she was everywhere and no one was going to stop her. Her only master was her imagination. As impractical as Liz’s impulse get-aways are for most of us, there’s an important lesson to learn from her independence and self-sufficiency in the face of adversity.

As a woman, vision is key. It’s vision which allows us to escape from the mundane boredom and provincialism of the towns we grew up in. Even if we can’t leave them yet. Without vision, we’re aimless; and that’s a worse place than the end of the earth.

Scarlett Dennett

21 y/o literature student living in manchester, u.k.

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