D.E.B.S.: How did it happen this way?

I first heard about D.E.B.S. in a post by lizzard on the Feminist SF blog. It had been too long since I saw a good lesbian romance, and this one had spies and supervillains, so I stuck it in my Netflix queue. The basic plot is as follows. High school girls are recruited through a secret test hidden in the S.A.T. to attend a secret school for spies. Amy, who got the highest score on the test in history, is part of a D.E.B.S. team assigned to spy on famous supervillain Lucy Diamond. Unfortunately for Amy’s career, she falls for Lucy and must make a choice between the D.E.B.S. and her heart.

After reading the post where I saw it mentioned, my next source of information about the film was the DVD itself when it arrived. I’m glad I didn’t look at the movie poster. The tag line “Crime fighting hotties with killer bodies” would probably have put me off, since I hadn’t yet realized how much parody and camp was involved. I did frown a little bit at the poses struck by the leads in the photo on the DVD. The combination of schoolgirl outfit and come-hither body language spooked me.

These feelings were complicated by the fact that I didn’t get a clear sense of how old these girls were supposed to be from the first few minutes of the movie. I’ll admit that I probably have more of a “put some clothes on!” reaction to women I perceive as teenagers in movies than I do to women I perceive as adults. The D.E.B.S. are recruited through the S.A.T., which most folks take as juniors or seniors. The team in this film has been at school for a while, and they live in a building that looks like a sorority house. But if they’re supposed to be (basically) college students, what’s with the revealing plaid schoolgirl uniforms?

I finally settled with myself that it was part of the camp. But it highlighted how difficult it can be to untangle what’s going on with sex and sexuality in movies. Who is this marketed to? Who made the decision to present the characters this way? Was it necessary for the plot, theme, or meaning of the film? Did the actors think it was a good idea? A necessary evil? Is this how they would choose to portray themselves and/or these characters if they could choose freely? If so, why would they choose that? What so they think it says? Or do they just like it because they like it, not because of how they feel others will react? And how does the audience perceive all of this?

As an audience member, how is my opinion shaped by what I know about the people who wrote and directed the movie, in addition to what I can see on the screen? Angela Robinson, who wrote and directed D.E.B.S., is African-American and a lesbian. How does that make the images different? In this case, it made me feel safer. I felt more confident that these images were not meant to hurt or degrade women, or made with disregard for the effect they would have on women. But that’s a big assumption on my part, since I don’t know Ms. Robinson personally, nor do I know how decisions about the film were made at the major studio that funded and released it.

Women in this movie occupy most of the important roles, including roles usually reserved for men. The head of the school, Mrs. Petrie, is a stern, competitive boss. The D.E.B.S. don’t love her and look to her as a mother, nor does she act as such. She’s a respected (and feared) authority figure. (So unlike Charlie’s Angels.) The supervillain, Lucy Diamond, robs banks, blows stuff up, and generally acts like any other villain. She gets the same trappings as any supervillain – secret hideout, real weapons – and the same respect. Plus, she’s a well-rounded character, not just a one-dimensional baddie. There’s never a big deal made about the fact that Mrs. Petrie, Lucy, or the school full of D.E.B.S. are female. It’s just normal that they would be doing what they do. That was quite refreshing.

The development of Amy’s attraction to Lucy is also not that big of a deal, except for the ramifications it has for being part of the D.E.B.S. Amy’s ex-boyfriend makes some lame comments about lesbianism, and Amy just rolls her eyes. She doesn’t have to engage with it, it’s not accorded any legitimacy. She doesn’t go through an agony of identity confusion around her sexual orientation. Also refreshing. The world is not perfect and many people do have to struggle with these issues when they fall for someone of the same gender, but it’s nice to see coming out stories that aren’t about intense pain and social rejection.

Two of the four girls on the team are women of color. Max is played by Meagan Good, who was nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role at the Black Movie Awards in 2005 for her performance. She is tough, motivated, and a good friend. Dominique is played by Devon Aoki, who is of Japanese, German, and English background. She doesn’t have much of a personality, she just gets assigned characteristics: chain-smoking, sexually active, French. This role was a disappointment, since the other three girls on the team get enough space to develop and express some personality. Finding out more about Angela Robinson did make me wonder why the two romantic leads in this movie were both white. Did she feel constrained from having women of color play one or both of those roles? Or did it just happen that way?

Who knew a movie this silly (and I mean that in a good way) would provide so much food for thought?

Overall, I enjoyed it. Not one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but far from the worst, and I would recommend it. I give it 3 stars.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.