They shattered taboos, traditions and sexual stereotypes: meet the cult icons who courted their own kind of controversy
The film industry is a bit of a joke. We all know that. With only 12% of last year's protagonists being female – a 3% decrease from the year before – and only 7% of Hollywood's biggest hits being helmed by women, it can be easy to forget that we're actually living in 2015. Stories that should be explored openly, like female sexuality and identity, are rarely told at all – or if they are, it's through the rigid and limiting lens of a male director. However, there are still a sacred few who have beaten the odds and helped break down some of these boundaries. Courting controversy with their bold and brutal take on sex's dark side, we meet the outsiders who squeezed through the narrow gap to tell their own stories – in their own way.
Probably the first transgender black woman to break into the movie business, Ajita Wilson was a true trailblazer for her time – though much of her life still remains shrouded in mystery. With whispers swirling that she worked as both an illusionist and a red light entertainer before turning to film, the Brooklyn-born icon took up the starring role in Cesare Canevari's The Nude Princess in the late 70s. She went on to appear in both underground adult and mainstream movies, transfixing 80's audiences with her exotic and earthy sensuality, sealing her cult status in the process. And, although her status as a transgender woman was not properly acknowledged until after her death in 1987, she remains one of the first pioneers of trans visibility. “She was charming, beautiful and very professional,” claimed director Carlos Aured. “The rest is not important.”
French filmmaker Catherine Breillat's frank and fierce treatment of sex, gender and intimacy has opened up a new world for female storytellers. Approaching taboo topics with a bold and brutal lens, her 1976 debut, A Real Young Girl, was considered so explicit that it ended up not getting a general release date until 2000 – something that was unheard of for a woman at the time. “I never know exactly what it is I want to do,” she told Filmcomment.com last year. “But I know it would be violent for everybody, toward everybody. That’s what I like, violent and brutal and emotional at the same time.”
Musician, model, actress, author, producer and political activist – Zoë Tamerlis Lund was never one to limit herself. In fact, it was probably the New York born actress's staunch sense of self that helped catch director Abel Ferrara's eye when she was just 17 years old. Cast as the lead in his vigilante cult classic Ms. 45 (1981), Lund played a mute rape victim striking back against exploitation and male oppression. It was a controversial first role – and not her last. She also appeared as herself in candid sex documentary Heavy Petting (1989), and co-wrote and co-directed Ferrara's drug-fuelled crime drama Bad Lieutenant (1992).
Virginie Despentes has never been afraid of exploring the murkiest parts of the sexual underworld. The French extremist worked as a maid, prostitute, record store assistant, journalist and pornographic film critic before turning to writing and directing: and those experiences all feed in directly to her work. Her first film, Baise-moi (2000) – which translates nicely to “Fuck Me” – dealt explicitly with rape and revenge, and shocked the world with its graphic depictions of sex and violence. And, although undoubtedly a difficult watch, its partial basis in fact made it all the more alarming.
Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo – daughter of Oscar-winning Luis Puenzo – tackled stories rarely told with last decade's LBGTQ love stories The Fish Child and XXY. The latter, which was her directorial debut, told the story of a 15-year-old intersex person battling to understand their true gender identity, and coming to terms with their sexual urges and desires. Despite intersexuality being an unexplored world then – and, admittedly, even now – it picked up the Cannes Critic's Week grand prize in 2007 for its original and sensitive approach.