Cinema’s First Nasty Women


What makes a nasty woman? Is it her unwillingness to break to the stringent standards of patriarchy, her gameness to get rough, even abject? Or is it the way she reminds polite society that the sweet, gentle screen martyr (the nasty woman’s counterpart) is a fiction too, as much a trick and a dupe as an exploding housemaid on celluloid?

And what a surprise—and what a treat—to discover cinema’s earliest days are among their nastiest. Coming from Kino Lorber this December, “this four-disc set showcase more than fourteen hours of rarely seen silent films about feminist protest, slapstick rebellion, and suggestive gender play. These women organize labor strikes, bake (and weaponize) inedible desserts, explode out of chimneys, electrocute the police force, and assume a range of identities that gleefully dismantle traditional gender norms and sexual constraints. The films span a variety of genres including slapstick comedy, genteel farce, the trick film, cowboy melodrama, and adventure thriller. Cinema’s First Nasty Women includes 99 European and American silent films, produced from 1898 to 1926, sourced from thirteen international film archives and libraries, with all-new musical scores, video introductions, commentary tracks, and a lavishly illustrated booklet.”

Host Annie Berke sits down with the curators of this set, Drs. Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak, and Ms. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, to discuss how this project came to be, the steps they took to ensure an anti-racist program, and if the “nasty woman” spirit lives on in the mediascape of the present.

Maggie Hennefeld is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and McKnight Presidential Fellow at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia UP, 2018), co-editor of the journal Cultural Critique (UMN Press), co-editor of two volumes: Unwatchable (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (Duke UP, 2020).

Laura Horak is an Associate Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University and director of the Transgender Media Lab. She is author of Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressing Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema (Rutgers UP, 2016) and co-editor of Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (Indiana UP, 2014), Unwatchable (Rutgers UP, 2019), a special issue of Somatechnics on trans/cinematic/bodies and an In Focus section of the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies on “Transing Cinema and Media Studies.”

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi is the Curator of Silent film at Eye Filmmuseum, the national film archive of the Netherlands. Graduated from University of Amsterdam, Film&TV Studies in 1997 and employed since 1999 at Eye, she has worked on the discovery, restoration and presentation of many presumed lost films. She is responsible for the preservation and presentation of Eye's silent film holdings, including among others the Desmet Collection (1907-1916) and the Mutoscope & Biograph Collection (1896-1902).

Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022). Her scholarship and criticism have been published in Literary Hub, Feminist Media Histories, Public Books, Jacobin, and the Washington Post.

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Annie Berke

Annie Berke is the Film Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022). Her scholarship and criticism has been published in Feminist Media Histories, Public Books, Literary Hub, and Ms.

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