"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." So claimed French film director Jean-Luc Godard back in the 1960s. This quote that hit home for performance artist Louise Orwin, partly because the 29-year-old recognised the uneasy truth in it: she's long loved the smoulder of the femme fatale, and grew up on a diet of Westerns, road movies and Tarantino.
A Girl and a Gun is now the title of Louise's new play, a B-movie pastiche which asks the audience to consider what makes this combination so attractive – and so troubling. After she started seeing girls and guns everywhere, from music videos to porn, she also started to question whether a woman wielding a weapon is a symbol of power, or just a male fantasy.
Louise likes to make uncomfortable work: in her last show, Pretty/Ugly, she posed as teenage girl on YouTube and asked people to rate her attractiveness. But for A Girl and a Gun, it's a male audience member who gets dragged into murky waters: each night, a man who's never seen the script before plays the hero (or villain) of the piece. As the show tours the UK, I asked her about how to stage sex and violence, and where the limits of your own pain should be.
Hi Louise. What initially grabbed you about that Godard quote?
That combination was familiar to me in a lot of the films that I loved. I wanted to interrogate that: what does a girl and a gun do to a film? You might think, 'oh this is a powerful woman', but then you realise she's in a bikini, she's holding a gun in a way that's very phallic... who is the image created for? Probably not for women.
We enjoy this B-movie aesthetic where the girls are in bikinis, the guns are huge, the men are cool. Hollywood has taken this formula, and used it over and over again; it's just become a thing in itself, rather than a pastiche.
Did you find your own feelings were conflicted?
Absolutely. I try to be really honest about the fact that, as a woman who presents myself in quite a feminine way, I've always been really drawn to those femme fatale characters. But as my politics developed, I began to wonder a) how good it is to want to look like them and b) how much of it is a choice if we don't have any other characters that are presented to us in pop culture? If I had grown up with different types of powerful female characters on film, maybe I wouldn't have this longing to be a femme fatale.
Sometimes I can see a guy might be really struggling, and actually be quite brave in following through on the action, because in a way he's sacrificing himself for the show
It's quite a modern anxiety, worrying about being a "good" feminist and whether you're allowed to find something that's troubling also sexy.
Part of the show is about this idea: can I knowingly embrace this submissive, sexy female role and enjoy it without feeling guilty that I'm reinstating ridiculous gender roles? I wholeheartedly support the notion that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants if she's knowingly made that choice. But I also think that it's not great to carry on recreating these images without questioning them, that it supports a system that isn't good for women.
The show is rooted in that B-movie style, but did you look at more modern examples of girls-with-guns?
The research phase started looking quite broadly at these images. It was really intense, watching all the videos, all the porn, all the cinema. Look at any action movie and you see it time and time again. I keep thinking about the Beyoncé and Lady Gaga video for 'Video Phone' – they present themselves in their white leotards with their pastel-coloured guns, like it's mocking this idea, taking references from Godard or Pedro Almodovar films. But are they subverting those images, or are they using them because they know audiences like them?
You perform with a different man each night who hasn't seen the script – how's that going?
At the beginning it's a lot of fun. Mostly guys get stuck in: they get to wear a cowboy outfit, play with toy guns, be silly. Then the tone darkens. I ask them to do increasingly violent actions towards me. They can either walk away, or do it, and mostly they will do it. The audience sees all the stage directions – what they're asked to do and the decision they make. I'm not trying to damn these men, but that device asks the audience to question what they'd do.
Does it feel like a braver decision if the man follows the instructions, or says no?
Sometimes it can be brave to take a stance and say no, and fuck the show. But sometimes I can see a guy might be really struggling, and actually be quite brave in following through on the action, because in a way he's sacrificing himself for the show.
Has it ever felt scary or uncomfortable for you?
The more I do the show, the more in control I feel. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't been uncomfortable on stage sometimes. I've had a couple of times when I've been hit so hard I've started crying, just as a physical reaction. It's about intent: sometimes I can just sense that a man relishes that opportunity.
That's really dark.
If you've grown up with toy guns, watching violent cinema and video games, I think maybe you do relish the chance to play-act and take on this role. Occasionally there's a man who just thinks this is what men do, and it's quite easy for them to access that physicality or mental space.
In your last show Pretty/Ugly you created teenage personas and uploaded videos asking people to rate how attractive you were. How was that experience?
Obviously, it was horrible. I had horrific, horrific abuse, and an absolute barrage of private messages from men, really manipulative, grooming messages. This is a trend among really young girls, mostly aged eight to 13.
I feel like more and more we're asking young people to perform: there's this weird, neo-liberal idea of branding yourself, constantly editing your personality online, and that is an addictive performance.
Do you think this is one of those moral panics that parents freak out over – and that actually, teenagers are fine?
You're totally right, every generation of parents are worried about a new-fangled thing that teenagers are doing. But the flipside is that digital culture has grown faster than parents are able to get a handle on it. I'm not trying to induce a moral panic – like ban the internet! – but parents need to be educated that this is happening, and kids need to be educated about how they present themselves online.
A Girl and a Gun and Pretty/Ugly are on tour till 15th December. For more info see louiseorwin.com.
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