Winter 2008, Volume 24.2
Not the Usual Suspects: Revising the Code of the Male Heist in Sugar & Spice
When not watching heist movies, Madonne Miner works as Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at Weber State University. Her research interests include American Literature, Popular Culture, and Women/Gender Studies; she has published on best-selling novels, popular television shows, and films. Currently, she is pursuing questions about male group dynamics in contemporary heist films, and reading academic memoirs with the goal of better understanding stages in academicians’ lives.
"These are the best days of your life—so far."
For many white, middle-class, teen-age girls, marriage and motherhood constitute major components in dreams for the future. Diane Weston (Marley Shelton), heroine of Francine McDougall’s 2001 film, Sugar & Spice, captain of the A-squad cheerleaders and "a poster child for high school," agrees, but gets the components out of order; not long into the film we learn that Diane intends to marry her boyfriend Jack Bartlett (James Marsden), quarterback for the Lincoln high football team and homecoming king, but not until after she bears their baby. Interestingly, it is the "taking" or heist of Diane’s body by pregnancy (Diane cannot control her morning sickness, mood swings, expanding waistline and gas outbursts) that prompts a more conventional heist narrative in Sugar & Spice. Recognizing that love alone is not going to provide a future for her family, Diane determines that to realize her version of the American Dream she needs far more money than she can make working part-time at a branch bank located in the local supermarket. Taking a cue from Point Break, a heist film in which Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his surfing friends rob banks while wearing masks of ex-Presidents, Diane proposes that the A-squad cheerleaders engage in a heist; they can rob the bank where she works. Disguised as pregnant Betty Dolls, the girls perpetrate a heist that revises genre conventions. Most dramatically, this female heist/teen pregnancy film operates on principles of expansion and inclusion; the squad grows, taking in new members, accepting addition as positive. In contrast, conventional male heist films almost always work to exclude, getting rid of team members, disrupting or destroying family bonds, attempting to enact control over uncontrollable situations through elimination of characters. Produced by New Line, an independent studio that "hopes to counterprogram its way to success, zigging when other studies zag," Sugar & Spice appears decidedly revolutionary when compared to male heist films (BrodesserA6); unlike films coming out of major Hollywood studios, Sugar & Spice asks viewers to consider the gendered dynamics of conventional heist films and offers viewers positive representations of female teamwork. In the pages that follow, I briefly review characteristics of conventional male heist films, then consider how McDougall’s film appropriates and revises those conventions to make them applicable to a narrative about adolescent female bodies, female communities, and motherhood.
"In school they tell us dreams can come true, but they don’t tell us how."
Film critic Chris Vognar describes the heist film as follows: "A heist film focuses on the elaborate planning and execution of a robbery, and often on the assembly of a team that collaborates on said planning and execution" (G6). Scholar Nicole Rafter, who prefers the term "caper" to describe this genre, elaborates: "the caper follows a criminal or group of criminals as they plan a long con: the complicated, audacious heist that will set them up for life. The first part of a caper movie is usually consumed by planning; the leader rounds up the gang and targets the bank, racetrack, rich Texan, or train that is to be robbed, after which everyone practices with stopwatches and getaway cars. The remainder is devoted to the execution of the crime and, in most cases, the last-minute failure of the criminals" (143). The appeal of the caper or heist film may lie in an audience’s identification with gang members against the bank, racetrack, rich Texan, and so on, but then, also, in the audience’s later identification with forces of the law. Critic George Grella, for example, argues that the heist works on its audience because "[w]e live in the modern age, and we like to see a mechanism at work. Heist movies are about a mechanism. They’re about people forming a mechanism and foiling machinery" (quoted in Vognar, G6). Generally, too, the people who form such "mechanisms" (teams/plans) come from positions of powerlessness relative to the far more powerful "machinery" (banks/corporations/insurance companies) they attempt to foil. And, although Rafter, Vognar and Grella do not call attention to the fact, traditional heist films feature characters we are accustomed to seeing on center stage: white men. While we might go as far back as 1903, to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery for an early example of the male heist at work, it is after World War II and a relaxation in the Motion Picture Production Code’s prohibition against the presentation of "methods of crime" that the male heist flourishes.1 To outwit security forces in charge of banks, casinos, race-tracks, and jewelry stores, mechanisms of men function together in films from the 1950s and 60s such as Criss Cross, Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Killing, and Ocean’s Eleven. Recently, we’ve experienced a resurgence of representations of the male team and its attendant tensions as seen in Heat, The Usual Suspects, Reindeer Games, Heist, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), The Score, Three Thousand Miles to Graceland, The Italian Job, and The Ladykillers. These films complicate dynamics among team members by diversifying elements of race, class, or ethnicity, but like their forebears, do little with female characters. When women are present, they tend to disrupt or disturb the all-male team. But women need not be present for the male mechanism to fail. In almost all of the films noted above, the team finds that after it escapes from the casino or bank with bags of loot, members cannot sustain bonds of brotherhood; they squabble over who will get larger shares, who is in charge, or what their next job will be. Bullets fly. Corpses abound. The dream goes sour.
What happens when the team is comprised of women—or, more accurately, of white, middle-class, high school girls? And when these girls determine to engage in a heist not because each dreams in dollar signs, but rather, because one of them is pregnant, soon to be the mother of twins? Addressing these questions, McDougall’s Sugar & Spice refers parodically to male heist films that precede it2 and contrasts teams of male and female characters. The references and contrasts encourage viewers first, to recognize precisely how different the female dynamics of Sugar & Spice are from those of its male predecessors and second, to consider how processes associated with control of the female body during a pregnancy and childbirth present curious parallels to processes associated with the planning and execution of a heist.
"Look you guys, I just want to provide a future for my baby."
Sugar & Spice opens in a police station. A police officer and a group of spectators watch as suspects, unseen by us, line up single-file behind a one-way mirror. When the officer directs the suspects to prepare for a camera shot, we see these objects of attention: six teen-age girls in blue cheerleading uniforms, posed as if for a publicity still, the girl to the far left obviously pregnant. After titles introducing each cheerleader, we move to an interrogation area where we meet the narrator of Sugar & Spice, Lisa (Marla Sokoloff). A member of the B-squad team who desperately wants to move up to the A-squad, Lisa’s story to Detective Sibowitz shapes everything we see in Sugar & Spice. A narrator motivated to address a police investigator by her desire to be ‘one of the gang,’ Lisa reprises the role of Verbal Kindt (Kevin Spacey) in Mark Singer’s The Usual Suspects, a male heist film released in 1995. After an opening scene on the wharf, Suspects moves to Detective Dave Kuhan’s (Chaz Palmintieri) office where Verbal tells the story of robberies committed by a team of five thieves. Like Verbal, Lisa introduces each of the suspected cheerleaders, imagines how each is drawn into the heist, conjures up their planning and practice sessions, and conveys her own desire to be part of this team. Unlike Verbal’s representation of team-building in The Usual Suspects, however, where five previously-unrelated thieves come together to take vengeance on the New York Police Department,3 Lisa claims the initial A-squad (sans Fern) is tighter than "Carolina cousins," and images on screen support her claim. During Lisa’s description of each suspect to Detective Sibowitz, our eyes follow a box of tampons passed from one girl to the next under the stall walls of a high school lavatory. So closely bound, so physically in synch with one another, these girls get their periods at the same time. Thus, although opening shots and dialogue of Sugar & Spice make reference to The Usual Suspects, the reference also alerts us to ways McDougall’s heist film will differ from Singer’s. She attends to bonds already established among her characters and represents those bonds in the female body.
The importance of female bodies to McDougall’s film and to the possibility of forming a successful heist team is highlighted again when, a few shots later, we return to the pink-tiled lavatory; it’s homecoming night and once more the tampon box is handed from one stall to the next, but this time Diane, occupant of the fifth stall, pushes the box away. Exiting their individual stalls, team members gather around their captain. Before Diane can offer an explanation, each girl reacts:
Lucy: Holy shit. You just became a statistic.
Kansas: Oh my god. I’m not the first.
Hannah: But you’re not married.
Cleo: Wait. Did you say you are pregnant or were pregnant? You had it, threw it out, and now you’re going to go out and dance all night?
Lucy, "the brain," speaks from the position of a disapproving adult culture, aware of generally unhappy data associated with teenage pregnancy; Kansas, "the rebel," is amazed she has avoided the dubious distinction of being the first of their group to become pregnant; Hannah, described by Lisa as "an über-Christian," cannot comprehend pregnancy before marriage; and Cleo, a Conan O’Brian groupee, wants clarification on how, exactly, the team should read Diane’s rejection of the tampon box. While this initial round of responses certainly does not appear particularly supportive, it indicates more concern for Diane and her future than we see exhibited in the boys’ lavatory on that same night. We cut to a scene of blue-tiled walls and five boys in a row at urinals. Jack, team-captain and father of Diane’s baby, comments:
Jack: Hey guys: I got Diane Weston pregnant.
Team-mate: What? Well, alright!
Team-mate: You nailed Diane Weston? I’d never wash my johnson again.
The image of these five individual males, facing away from us and from each other, giving each other high-five’s, supports claims by sociologists and psychologists about differing relational dynamics in groups of boys and girls. The former tend to operate more autonomously; the latter, more affiliatively. In its representation of boy and girl teams, Sugar & Spice portrays males as generally independent of one another, connected only loosely when required by rules of the game, whereas females form a much tighter relational network.4 The relative autonomy of the males on the football team parallels the autonomy we see so often in male heist films, where individual thieves come together as team members reluctantly and temporarily. They are willing to work together to accomplish a goal, but once that goal is achieved, the team dissolves.
When we cut back to the girls’ bathroom, visuals are far different from those we have just left. The four members of the A-squad, facing the camera and Diane, form a unit of support, and, after Diane declares that she is keeping her baby, they embrace in a five-person hug. Diane explains that she’s always planned on getting married and having kids ("I just got a little out of order"), and then compares her situation to that of "another young lady who found herself with child, unmarried, on a long, long road with no place to sleep." While some of us initially may assume Diane refers to the Virgin Mary, her team-mates know that she’s quoting from a somewhat more contemporary Madonna, whose song "Papa Don’t Preach" tells the story of a girl, "in trouble deep," who makes up her mind to continue her pregnancy. This communal understanding of Diane’s reference underlines what the film shows us repeatedly: these girls are a team, caring for one another, thinking along the same lines as one another. Hugging their pregnant captain, the team declares, "We’re here for you Diane," and Diane responds, "I love you guys."
Interestingly, Diane’s decision to follow the model articulated in Madonna’s song ("I’m gonna keep my baby") goes against prevailing patterns for her class, race, and socioeconomic status. In Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy, Kristin Luker notes: "The more successful a young woman is—and, more important, expects to be—the more likely she is to obtain an abortion. Women from affluent, white, and two-parent homes are far more likely to end their pregnancies than are women from poor, minority, and single-parent homes" (154).5 Decidedly successful (she’s not only head of the A-squad cheerleaders, but also homecoming queen), Diane anticipates further success: she envisions herself at Jack’s side as he becomes a senator, or perhaps, President. We know too, that Diane comes from a middle-class, two-parent family, as does Jack. One might expect Diane to elect abortion, but she does not. Aside from the practical reason that the film needs Diane’s pregnancy as a motive for its heist, the continuation of the pregnancy makes sense in at least three ways: first, the film’s representation of Diane’s choice serves as an example of an adolescent girl’s fantasized control over her body in the face of her parents’ desire that she be ‘not pregnant’; second, the pregnancy allows Diane’s surrogate family, her cheerleading team, to come together and provide her with the affection adults withhold; and third, the pregnancy aligns itself with the film’s overall orientation toward inclusion and incorporation in contrast to exclusion.
Luker suggests that "[t]he short answer to why teenagers get pregnant and especially to why they continue those pregnancies is that a fairly substantial number of them just don’t believe what adults tell them, be it about sex, contraception, marriage, or babies" (11). Diane falls into this camp. No matter what adults may say, she determines she will make her own decision about this pregnancy; she will be in control.6 Were she alive in an earlier era, were she of a different class or ethnic group, Diane might assert herself against adult expectations by electing to have an abortion. But in this 2001 film, Diane surprises her parents with her decision to carry her baby to term and only then get married. Paradoxically, deciding to continue the pregnancy means surrendering control of her body to fluctuations wrought upon it by pregnancy. This paradox dovetails with the decision structure that appears in most heist films: characters elect to engage in heists so as to control their futures, but once they make their first move, they lose control—the heist itself takes over. At the heart of any heist—as at the heart of any pregnancy—is the unpredictable. Past prescriptions against the public presence of pregnant women, even married pregnant women (pregnancy, of course, being a sign of sexual activity) indicate the culture’s general unease with the power and potential rebelliousness of this body.7
After telling their parents about the pregnancy, Jack and Diane are banished from their middle-class homes.8 Expressing disapproval of the pregnant, unmarried, adolescent female, adults in the film play into genre conventions for teen and romance films; that is, adults/parents become obstructions to be dismissed, derided, or overcome. Interestingly, part of the fantasy of Sugar & Spice arises from the film’s reassurance to viewers that even without the support of adults, pregnant teens will fare well.9 Jack and Diane find an apartment, part-time jobs, and seem to be ecstatic about upcoming parenthood. Diane lets out the waist on her cheerleading skirt (we see a green "V" of material added to accommodate extra inches), indulges in her taste for Ben & Jerry’s, and apparently attracts no censure from high school peers. Her cheerleading squad lines up in her support: Luz passes along information from a book she reads about what to expect during pregnancy ("Diane, it says here you’re going to have mood swings, uncontrollable gas… and sex dreams where you actually have an orgasm"); other squad members pull Diane away from an ice-cream vendor at the football game and rescue her from on-the-job orgasmic dreams of Wayne Gretzky. Even Lisa, decidedly not one of Diane’s fans, tells Detective Sibowitz: "To the kids at school, Jack and Diane had it all. I mean, come on, their own apartment, staying up late, eating whatever they wanted, plus Jack was getting a discount on R-rated movies at the video store." At least in early sections of Sugar & Spice the consequences of teenage pregnancy appear generally positive, especially with respect to teenage peers. And with respect to adults? They barely seem to matter. After the annunciation scene, we do not see Jack’s or Diane’s parents again; for that matter, parents are notably absent in this film, decidedly marginalized. With the exception of Kansas’s mother, imprisoned for murder, and Fern’s father, a "bug-zapper" and trader in illegal guns, Sugar & Spice offers few talking roles to adults. This movie uses adult absence to affirm, on the one hand, that teens can make it on their own and, on the other, that even when present, adults have little to offer.
This teen fantasy receives a slight check as Diane’s pregnancy starts taking more of a toll. Accustomed to being in control of her life/her body, this unmarried soon-to-be-a-mother finds it difficult to orchestrate school, cheerleading practice, Lamaze class, and her part-time job at the bank. Although her squad helps her, they also fall prey to Diane’s unpredictable gas attacks and mood swings. When Hannah, for example, offers to clean Jack and Diane’s dumpy apartment, Diane barks: "Don’t Martha-freaking-Stewart me. You don’t like it, you try being a pregnant teen," and then lets out a decidedly audible fart. In tiny bits, Sugar & Spice suggests that being a pregnant teen is not so easy—especially when you are paying rent, grocery bills, doctor bills, and anticipate more of the same. Bright, responsible, hard-working and well-organized, Diane tells her team she has learned the Beatles had it wrong: Love isn’t all you need. But quickly, so as not to spoil the fantasy, Sugar & Spice offers an out to Diane with another fantasy: to provide for her family, Diane takes a cue from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 heist film, Point Break, suggesting that she—and the squad—rob the grocery store bank branch where she works part-time. Luz responds by hypothesizing that Di’s pregnancy has affected her mind: "Oh my god, I’ve read about this. It’s called pregnancy insanity." But Di insists she’s perfectly sane and proves as much by arguing that although school tells them to follow their dreams, school doesn’t tell them how; they have to look to movies for a method: "Thanks to Keanu, I’ve figured it out. Money makes your dreams come true." Di’s newfound knowledge solidifies her motive. From this point on in the film, planning for the birth of Di’s baby and planning for the heist occur absolutely in tandem; the two activities parallel each other as the girls move from scenes in which they practice Lamaze to scenes in which they practice robbing the lunch lady.
Traditional male heist films generally employ opening shots to introduce gang members and offer some sense of each member’s motivation for engaging in communal thievery.10 Sugar & Spice acknowledges this convention, but simultaneously subverts it. Instead of representing each character’s desire as an individual desire, Sugar & Spice privileges Diane’s needs. Although Diane takes note of the ways each girl might spend her share of the loot (Kansas can appeal her mother’s prison conviction; Lucy can go to Harvard; Hannah can support a starving child advertised by Sally Struthers; and Cleo can furnish an apartment in leather), these individual desires take a backseat to the girls’ overarching desire to provide a future for Diane’s growing family. As a matter of fact, as the squad considers whether to join Di in her plan, they refer to themselves as a family. When Kansas declares that she is "in," she adds: "This is the closest thing to a goddamn family I’ve ever had. If one of us needs something, we all do." Cleo too elects to join: "We’re like sisters. We’re closer than sisters and you don’t turn your back on your family." Although male gangs sometimes work on the idea of brotherhood (Point Break is a good example) or on father/son models (The Score, Three Thousand Miles to Graceland), it is a very rare male heist film in which the sustenance of family serves as a motive for crime.11 Instead, male heist films repeatedly declare that families must give way in order for male teams to realize their larger monetary motives.12 Families repeatedly cause problems in male heist films; they complicate and endanger all-male bonds. But in Sugar & Spice conservation of Diane’s family motivates a crime, the execution of which, interestingly, makes these female criminals more aware of how much they value the familial ties they have established with one another.
It’s not just the sororial squad ties the girls have established with one another: as they consider how they might rob the grocery-store branch bank, they also come to appreciate mother-daughter ties. Initially, the girls look to the movies for instructions on how to pull off this caper:
Di: People do it in the movies all the time.
Luz: And they get caught.
Di: That’s right. So all we have to do is watch a bunch of movies and learn from their mistakes.
Cleo watches Reservoir Dogs; Kansas watches Dog Day Afternoon; Luz reports on Heat; and Hannah on The Apple Dumpling Gang. Kansas, dumbfounded that Hannah would have elected to watch Disney’s Apple Dumpling Gang, berates her, but Hannah retorts that her parents let her watch only G-rated movies: "Those of us who have parents know they have rules because they care." The insult to Kansas provokes a hair-pulling fight in the waiting room of Di’s ob/gyn office as Kansas and Hannah go at it. Significant about this fight is: 1) it assumes that possession of parents (and a family) is a good thing; 2) it occurs in an ob/gyn waiting room where other clients are accompanied by husbands or male partners, but Diane is surrounded by her surrogate, sororial family; 3) it threatens, but then strengthens, the familial bonds among the girls. Diane, in tears over "the fighting, the backstabbing, the open hostility," calls off the heist and declares "it was silly to think we could learn how to rob a bank from movies." Willing to abandon her plan, Diane follows a pattern Carol Gilligan sees frequently among girls, who value the maintenance of relationships over the continuation of a game or play.13 But at the moment Diane expresses her willingness to throw in the towel, Cleo moves a sonogram over Di’s extended belly and the "movie screen" at Diane’s side shows not one fetus but two. Armed with this new information, Kansas asserts: "OK: we ain’t done with this. Those babies are going to have a good start in life…. We’re going to learn how to rob a bank from people who really know how to do it: criminals. I’m going to visit my mom."
For the most part, this meeting between mother and daughter proceeds happily. Having expected rejection from the daughter she hasn’t seen since birth, Kansas’s mother is delighted when Kansas says she has come because she needs her mother’s help. Kansas explains that she wants to get some money for a pregnant friend by robbing a bank:
Mother: Shitfire, Kansas. That’s the sweetest thing I ever heard.
Kansas: But we can’t quite figure out, you know, how to do it.
Mother: So you need my help? Oh my god, this is like you asking me for help with your homework.
Kansas’s request provides her mother with the role/position of mother. Like a good mother, this inmate readily acquiesces to her daughter’s request, calling upon "Mink," and other women in her ward, to answer her daughter’s questions. As mentioned earlier, Sugar & Spice operates according to a principle of inclusion. The "taking in" of Kansas’s criminal mother and her friends is the first prominent example of this principle. In a subsequent scene, all five cheerleaders meet with prison inmates, learning about the appropriate time for a heist and how to procure guns. While the film contrasts older female inmates, dressed in work shirts and pants to fresh-faced teen-age girls in their cheerleading outfits, it also brings these two groups of women together as they conspire on behalf of Diane.
Following the inmates’ advice, the girls approach a local bug exterminator to request guns. Here too they are confronted with a question of inclusion/exclusion. The Terminator will provide them with rifles taken from South American rebels if they agree to make his daughter Fern a cheerleader: "I got a daughter. She’s always dreamt of being a cheerleader…. If you put her on your squad—and I mean put her on the squad; don’t make her haul around your pom-poms—you give her something to do, then I’ll give you the guns." When Fern appears on screen, we see the challenge she poses to the squad; stoop-shouldered, greasy-haired, and smelling of cyanide, Fern is this film’s nightmarish representation of white trash. Rather than embrace Fern, the squad stages a robbery of the lunch ladies at school, hoping thereby not only to "practice" heist techniques, but also to procure sufficient funds to pay for guns. The practice robbery proceeds in ballet-like fashion, with each girl performing her assigned role perfectly, but the squad nets only $200. They return to the Terminator, accepting both his guns and his daughter. Interestingly, when the squad opens the wooden box supposedly filled with rifles, they find bits and pieces, analogous to the "broken part" that is Fern. Squad members express dismay, but Diane turns the situation around: "Excuse me, do you guys know what I don’t see here? I don’t see a problem. I see a great big craft project sitting right in front of me." With glue, tape, and a nail file, the team puts together reasonable semblances of rifles; and with a few practice sessions, they turn Fern into an acceptable member of the squad.
Having practiced a robbery and practiced Lamaze, having watched heist films and fetal images, having consulted "experts" in banks and in babies, the girls are ready for the heist and the birth. Or: almost ready. A Christmas present from Kansas’s mother brings them Betty Doll masks, but also leads to Lucy’s confession that she has received a scholarship to Harvard and so is going to pull out of the heist. Her rejection of the team raises, once again, questions about families and allegiances. Diane protests that the team went "hands in" on this deal and that if Lucy pulls out, she breaks the National High School Cheerleaders’ Association Pledge of Allegiance and Conformity. Luz responds by saying she’ll turn in her pom-poms after Christmas. Then, like Hannah, who earlier pushed up against Kansas by taunting her about her lack of family, Luz insults Kansas’s mother and fellow inmates: "You guys are insane if you don’t think those criminals wouldn’t gladly turn you in for a pack of Luckys." Fiercely, loyally, Kansas insists that inmates don’t rat on the children of other inmates: "You don’t mess with another inmate and you don’t mess with their kid." My point, again, is that in male heist films, characters tend to fight over the division of the spoils or over whether and when to pull the next job; they do not fight over family allegiances.14
Lucy exits; Fern steps in as a substitute (becoming "white trash Betty") and the heist is on. Scenes devoted to the actual robbery pay parodic homage to numerous earlier heist films. From the get-away car (Fern’s father’s Terminator van, complete with enormous bug on the roof) that resembles an escape vehicle stolen by Kevin Kostner in Three Thousand Miles to the pliable plastic masks that mimic masks in Point Break, the long white flower boxes for holding rifles that come from Dog Day Afternoon, the western music and "the walk" from The Wild Bunch, Sugar & Spice engages with past heist films in order to send them up, to push us to see them in a new way: through the lens of female perpetrators, and pregnant female perpetrators at that. When Diane, Kansas, Hannah, Cleo, and Fern step out of the Terminator van, they wear Betty Doll masks and the swollen bellies of pregnancy. Rather than expose Diane by allowing her to be the only pregnant perpetrator, all the girls appear to be pregnant. They also all wear red-white-and-blue tops over black slacks; just as their cheerleading uniforms emphasize similarity and unity, so do their American Dream bank-robbery outfits. After affirming their readiness ("We’re ready, we’re prepared, and this is going to be the best bank robbery ever"), the Bettys move toward the front entrance of the grocery store, but are interrupted by the arrival of Richard Nixon—or, rather, of Lucy in a Richard Nixon mask. This prodigal sister proclaims "I’m part of this squad," and, after a short lecture from Hannah about sisterhood, the freshly reinforced squad walks, in profile, across the screen toward the store’s entrance. This walk, made famous by members of the Wild Bunch who stride into M’pache’s fort, has been quoted in countless westerns and heist films. We see the original Ocean’s Eleven crew walk out of a funeral home at the end of that film, and the crew of Reservoir Dogs walk toward their mission at that film’s start. But no film that I know of has ever cast pregnant girls in "the walk."
Once inside the store, the squad has to deal with a few unexpected problems but on the whole, the heist proceeds as planned. Unfortunately, leaving the store, Diane passes a display of fresh fish, the smell of which causes her to vomit into one of the money-filled grocery bags. Further, Lisa happens to be at the bank during the robbery; she notices the "illegal dismount" used by Diane and finds an A-squad pom-pom tie. Immediately after the robbery, however, all seems to have gone well. The girls gather in Kansas’s grandparents’ basement to celebrate and to "launder" the money in Diane’s vomit bag. Instead of taking their stolen loot to a fence for laundering (which often poses a major challenge for male heist perpetrators15), Diane literally washes the bills and hangs them to dry. Kansas enters, announcing that she has incinerated their costumes and presents Diane with a double-wide cradle from her team-mates. The team may be surrounded by bills; the presence of the baby cradle ensures that they don’t forget why they pulled this job. It also serves as a pledge of the girls’ future support of their friend.
In conventional male heist movies, the moment of celebration following a successful heist all too often turns into a moment of competition. As team-mates touch the dollars they have stolen, they get greedy. The Killers, Criss Cross, Asphalt Jungle, Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, Blue Collar, City of Industry, The Underneath, A Simple Plan, Reindeer Games, Heist, The Score, Three Thousand Miles to Graceland and The Ladykillers all portray males selling out, shooting, or otherwise betraying a partner after the heist has been completed. Sugar & Spice gestures toward this plot component after police follow up on clues Lisa has given them and news reporters conjecture that the robbery was committed by five high school girls. Diane takes calls from Kansas, who believes Luz has "ratted us out," and then from Luz, who cannot understand why Kansas thinks Luz may have talked to the police. Allegiances among the team appear somewhat frayed; but they do not break. For that matter, we see how strongly the girls believe in each other as all six of them, in cheerleading uniforms, enter Lincoln High School. Once again, they engage in "the walk," facing front, never looking to the side or behind. Following the lead of their captain, the team enters the school cafeteria, and is confronted with accusations—first from Lisa, who has reported the team to the National High School Cheerleaders Association for using "cradle dismounts from double-based partner stunts that are over shoulder-stance level without using three catchers," and then by a swarm of armed police. The next scene locates all six members of the A-squad in a jail cell.
At this point, we return to the opening "line-up shot" of Sugar & Spice, reminding us that we have been watching Lisa’s narrative of the heist. After seeing the line-up once more, we shift to Lisa with Detective Sibowitz. She notes: "Even the kids on the short list can see that all the evidence points to Diane and the A-squad." But when Sibowitz comments that Lisa’s testimony will be invaluable in putting the squad behind bars, Lisa responds: "Unfortunately it wasn’t them. They were all waiting in my Suburban that day when I ran into the supermarket for some cash…. We were on our way to practice." Diane, enacting a strategy that reflects the overall orientation of Sugar & Spice, has used her one phone call from jail to invite Lisa onto the A-squad in exchange for an alibi. As she says to her team-members: "A failure to plan is a plan for failure. We needed an alibi." So Lisa, portrayed throughout the film as arrogant, conceited, self-absorbed, and not particularly talented as a cheerleader, makes the team. As with Kansas’s mother and Fern, the team expands, taking in others instead of eliminating or excluding them. Granted, every inclusion works to the benefit of the team; and yet, the team could have made other choices. They don’t. They operate by adapting themselves to situations and taking in characters represented as ‘other.’
I noted earlier that Lisa’s opening dialogue with Lieutenant Sibowitz resembles that of Verbal Kindt and Inspector Kuhan in The Usual Suspects. Both Lisa and Verbal confront a police officer who elicits a story from them, a story about a heist. Both characters tell their stories and in doing so, position themselves as outsiders who desire membership in the "top squad," desire an embrace from a successful "family" (of cheerleaders, of thieves). At their conclusions, both Sugar & Spice and The Usual Suspects return to this scene of dialogue between the narrating character and a police investigator. Both films suggest that their narrators have realized their desire: Lisa drives off with members of the A-squad in her Suburban; Verbal’s story shows us that the suspects have taken him in as one of their own. But: at the end of the male heist, Verbal is the only suspect alive. He walks out of Kuhan’s office alone, and as he walks out, transforms himself into Keyser Soze, mastermind of a heist that has taken the lives of all of his partners and a man who, according to reputation, has killed his own family to establish his invulnerability. In other words, Verbal/Keyser Soze never forms ties of affiliation with the other suspects; he uses the suspects to further his own agenda and, when finished with them, throws them away. In contrast, at the end of the pregnant female heist depicted in Sugar & Spice, all team-members are alive, well, and bouncing away from jail in Lisa’s Suburban. The team has increased in size as it has embraced the twin fetuses in Diane’s womb, Kansas’s imprisoned mother, and new members Fern and Lisa. This female family successfully pulls off a heist and, instead of eliminating characters, adopts new members.
"Well, Lisa was wrong about Bruce."
There’s an epilogue to Sugar & Spice in which we, through intertitles and inset photographs, learn the fate of the film’s major characters. None of their futures is particularly surprising, except that of Lisa. Her photo shows her in wedding gown, next to a character who looks vaguely familiar. The intertitle states: "Well, Lisa was wrong about Bruce." But who is Bruce? Addressed only once by name in the film, Bruce haunts the sidelines of Sugar & Spice. He appears momentarily at the A-squad cheerleading try-outs early in the film, dressed in a Tommy Hilfiger outfit and "hoping fourth year’s the charm." Diane tells him he looks cute, but he is shouldered aside by Lisa: "Out of my way, fag." Having failed to make the squad, he takes on the role of Lincoln High mascot, most often seen parading around under a huge Lincoln head. He wears his mascot costume in a scene a few moments later, when Diane cartwheels into Jack, knocking the new quarterback unconscious. Bruce, apparently as attracted to Jack as Diane is, rushes to Jack’s aid, throwing Jack over his shoulders and carrying him out of the gym. Finally, Bruce receives mention from Lisa as she accounts to Sibowitz for her poor skating performance during the Winter Sports Pep Rally: "I just want to say that normally I’m an excellent skater. Some jealous fag who will remain nameless obviously sabotaged my skates." Why does Sugar & Spice marry off Bruce, its most obvious gay character, to Lisa? Despite my claims about the ways this teen pregnancy/heist film operates to include ‘others’ within the family unit developed by the team, it seems perplexed about how to respond to gay or lesbian characters as well as to characters of color. Every reference to homosexuality in Sugar & Spice is negative; further, the film engages in what we might call malign neglect of races and ethnicities outside the majority. With respect to homosexuality: when Kansas visits her mother for the first time in prison, her mother offers to introduce Kansas to Mink, "someone special." Kansas assumes that her mother and Mink are lovers: "Jesus Christ, mom. As if my life isn’t a great big pile of shit ‘cuz you’re in here and now I have got to add ps, my mom’s a dyke too." Kansas’s mother tells her daughter to sit down and chill out: "Mink ain’t my bitch, if that’s what you think. She’s a specialist… in banks." While Kansas talks to Mink and her mother, other members of the squad sit in a waiting room where a black female inmate mops the floor, gazing lewdly, lasciviously, at the girls’ legs. Licking her lips, the inmate comments: "Them’s some sweet skirts you got there." Cheerily, Diane replies: "Actually, they’re uniforms. We’re cheerleaders." We do not see this black inmate again, nor do we see anything beyond a glimpse of students of color at Lincoln High School. We are introduced briefly to "Dim Sum Charlie" when he becomes a suspect in the bank robbery because the grocery clerk feels sure that only Chinese acrobats could have jumped up so quickly to paint the security camera. While Sugar & Spice distinguishes itself from male heist films by its apparent willingness to open the heist team to new members, the movie is not open to all; when it comes to homosexual characters and characters of color, when it comes to the epilogue’s representation of "happily-ever-after," Sugar & Spice declares its allegiance to the values of mainstream teen movies: white, middle-class, and decidedly heterosexual.
1 See John McCarty’s Hollywood Gangland: The Movies’ Love Affair with the Mob for a detailed history of changes in the Code during the early 1950s.
2 F. Gary Gray’s 1996 Set It Off is the only other all-female heist film I have been able to locate. Gray’s film sympathetically represents a group of black women who come together to rob a bank once other options have been denied them. It merits extensive analysis.
3 We learn later that four of the five actually are manipulated onto the team by the fifth, a master-criminal, Keyser Soze.
4 See, for example, the work of Chodorow, Gilligan, and Tannen.
5 Luker continues: "Among well-to-do teens who get pregnant accidentally, about three-fourths seek an abortion; among poor teens, the proportion is less than one-half. Likewise, about 60 percent of white teens terminate their pregnancies, whereas the figure for blacks and Hispanics is about 50 percent" (154).
6 Luker sees contemporary discussions of teenage pregnancy as fraught with tension because teen pregnancy highlights "competing views of family and marketplace, of men and women, of rationality and morality, of rights and obligations…. Teenage mothers and their babies reflect and illuminate these cultural and social wars because they pose so pointedly the contradictions inherent in our ways of thinking about them" (11).
7 "Until the 1970s visibly pregnant married women, whether students or teachers, were formally banned from school grounds, lest their swelling bellies cross that invisible boundary separating the real world (where sex and pregnancy existed) from schools (where they did not). The idea that a pregnant unmarried woman would show herself not only in public but in schools, where the minds of innocent children could be corrupted, was more unthinkable still" (Luker 2).
8 An important intertextual reference in Sugar & Spice is John Mellencamp’s 1982 song, "Jack and Diane," about "Two American kids growin’ up in the heartland." In Mellencamp’s song, the two teens run off "behind a shady tree" and Jack asks that Diane let him do "what I please." By 2001, Francine McDougall is able to represent the sexual attraction between these teens as emanating from both of them.
9 Few adults appear in Sugar & Spice. The majority of those who do, however, are fools or buffoons. Investigating officers appear incompetent; the principal of Lincoln High, delivering opening comments to students at the beginning of the year, is shadowed by the Lincoln mascot, who caricatures what the principal says; Diane’s mother introduces herself to Jack’s parents by calling attention to her double D bra size; Fern’s father, covered in grease and smelling of cyanide, threatens to kill the girls if they report him for selling guns; and Kansas’s mother is in jail for murder. Among this limited adult cast, it is only Kansas’s mother who has a major part, and she functions in at least two ways: first, she shows what might happen when female bodies move outside the boundaries of the law (they are incarcerated); and second, she represents a mother who hopes to connect with her daughter, to provide her daughter with something of use (even if that something is instructions for robbing a bank).
10 The Killing might serve as example. Kubrick’s camera follows each member of the team to his home or place of work, showing us what each lacks and thereby what he hopes to achieve by joining with others in robbing the vault at a race track.
11 In Dog Day Afternoon, director Sidney Lumet, working from an actual story, represents Dustin Hoffman robbing a bank for funds to provide his lover with a sex change operation. In Paul Schrader’s 1978 Blue Collar, Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor rob their union’s safe in order to provide better lives for their wives and children (Keitel’s daughter needs braces for her teeth; Pryor’s family owes back taxes). And in Joel Coen’s 2000 O Brother Where Art Thou? (a fun variation on the heist formula), George Clooney convinces his prison buddies to accompany him on a treasure hunt, the real motive of which is to reunite him to his wife and family. But these truly are exceptions. Generally, male heist films represent the goal of the heist as simple acquisition of greater resources. The films rarely specify how these resources will be used; having them is what is important. See, for example, Asphalt Jungle, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Killers, The War Wagon, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Kelly’s Heroes, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, The Brink’s Job, Going in Style, Crackers, and so on into the 1990s and 2000s.
12 See Heat, for example, in which the leader of the heist team, played by Robert DeNiro, lives by the mantra, "Don’t let yourself get attached to anything that you can’t leave in thirty seconds flat" or Thief, in which James Caan banishes his wife and child, blows up his house, and sets fire to cars on his used-car lot.
13 See Gilligan: "Rather than elaborating a system of rules for resolving disputes, girls subordinated the continuation of the game to the continuation of relationships" (10).
14 See, for example, The Score, in which Robert DeNiro and Ed Norton come to blows over who will keep a valuable scepter; or Heist, in which Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito battle over gold bars; or Three Thousand Miles to Graceland, in which Kevin Kostner takes on Kurt Russell for the loot associated with a casino heist.
15 See, for example, Asphalt Jungle, or, more recently, Three Thousand Miles to Graceland.
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