“I’ll tell you what I want. I want something now.”

“The Warriors” was filmed in 1979 and is about feuding gangs; I went to see it expecting that it would be fun but utterly misogynistic, possibly with a side of gay-bashing. Instead, it pulled off a difficult feat: it showed misogynistic characters, but demonstrated that they were in the wrong, and did so without feeling the least bit preachy.

I didn’t realize this at first. When the movie opens, one character cheerfully talks about finding a woman to for “a lay”; when another demurs, he’s accused of being a faggot. And in the first crowd scene, not a single woman is visible – although the gangs in the movie follow no color barriers; the leader of the Warriors, Cleon, is a black man and his second-in-command, Swan, white; almost every gang we see is of mixed ethnicity, and nobody ever comments on this or finds it odd. It fit the setting that the gangs were all-male, but the racial mixing made me raise my eyebrows. It could have been the director’s trying to be progressive, or it could have been lazy extra casting.

There are two points in the film when male characters underestimate women, who promptly turn the tables on them. In the first, one of the gang members, Ajax, pulls away from the gang when he decides to go score with a woman he sees sitting alone in the park. The other members obviously think he’s an idiot, and tell him they don’t have time, and go off. Shortly afterwards two of them go back – to “look out for him”. They think he’s more in danger from the woman than she is from him, even though his comments implied that he meant to score whether or not she was willing.

They’re right; he can’t take care of himself. He made a pass at the woman; when she told him to go slower he tried to grope her anyway, and she promptly handcuffed him to a park bench and pulled out a whistle. By the time his comrades return, it is just in time to see him getting stuffed into a police car. Ajax was the guy who kept using the word “faggot” when his comrades refused to see getting laid as a worthwhile pursuit; it was hardly surprising that he was the one who got busted for it.

The second is when some of the guys, stuck waiting at Union Square Station for their friends to show up, decamp to go back to a party with some girls they see making eyes at them. There are two women dancing quite sexily at the party, and the guys are entranced. Some of the other women invite the guys to make out with them, and they’re utterly lulled. When the girls pull out guns and start shooting at them, they barely escape with their lives. The audience could see it coming from miles away, but the men were so testosterone-blinded – in the way that anyone would expect young men who hadn’t thought about it to be – that they didn’t think about the existence of female gangs who might reasonably be after them for the same reason the male gangs were.

“Chicks like you always got dudes,” one the Warriors said at first, when they were invited up. I don’t think the idea they might be lesbian had occurred to him, of course, however heavily-hinted it was from the audience. The idea was amusing and enticing; in a film where ‘faggot’ was used as an insult so much, a bunch of dykes nearly offing the leads would have been a pleasant symmetry.

But the main reason I liked the film was for the character of Mercy. She came in looking like a shallow, sex-obsessed bimbo – taunting both sides of a gang fight about who was more manly, then following the manlier ones and abandoning the loser, with whom she apparently had been involved.

She sticks with them, though, and although she is separated from the group during a fight she shows up later (having casually stolen a jacket to disguise herself from the cops) and offers to show Swan the way into Union Square Station. They make their way down the subway together, and have an argument. Mercy is surprised that Swan hasn’t made a play for her yet. He says that he “doesn’t like the way she lives”. “You ain’t any better than me,” she says, and argues that at least her life is enjoyable in the present, and better than the alternative. She may sleep around, but so what? Not sleeping around wouldn’t get her a better life.

Her characterization of the alternative as “five kids and cockroaches in the cupboard” is harsh, but I liked how straightforward she was. This is her life, she’s getting what she wants from it, end of story. And for the rest of the film, nothing is ever done to change her mind. Instead, it’s Swan who changes his mind. He later obliquely apologizes, and invites her to join the Warriors in a standoff against a rival gang. She fights about as well as they do, even in heels.

Finally, before the last fight, Swan anxiously tells Mercy to get away, and how best to do it. She insists on staying and fighting. “I can take care of myself,” she tells him. Swan doesn’t even try to argue. She’s there for the rest of the final scene – just standing there with the Warriors, obviously One Of Them. When the film ends she and Swan are walking off hand-in-hand.

Mercy got more development and more change than any other character in the film. She was the only woman with more than a few lines, but she packed more thought-provoking ideas into them that all the men put together, without even trying. I don’t know how such an unexpected gem of a character showed up, but Mercy manages to demonstrate, subtly, how wrong some of the characters were to be dismissive of women – and manages to change Swan’s mind and make him respect her and like her. This was a man who made a (hollow, considering he’d just ordered Ajax to stop touching her) threat of gang-rape to her earlier in the evening, who by the end is happy to have her fighting beside him. She did all this without having to be preachy or apologetic.

Which was perhaps the thing I liked most: she never apologized. She was what she was, and she did what she did because she wanted to, not because she was desperate for a man or just wanted to be loved. She didn’t change his mind by the power of love or her pure virtue; she just had a reasonable point.

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