See You Together/See You Later: Manson Girls On Film
Thanks to the coolest publication of his last free years, Charles Manson is back in the news with a new Manson girl. Her name is Star and she looks like Susanna Longoria if Cole Mohr was a serial killer, not a serial monogamist(1). Not only is she yung Charlie’s physical type, she seems fully in the Susan Atkins tradition of shitting in your stairwell if you don’t happen to be home. Immediately parodied by Vice Is Hip, the reports that they’re getting married also leave us with the most uncomfortable scenario of all: Charlie Manson, one woman man.
If you prefer the fiction that Charlie Manson never actually killed anyone, then I don’t know what he is to you, or what purpose he serves in your life. Image-wise, neither the maverick whose ego wrote checks his body couldn’t cash nor the messiah slandered by the state would have much suction with any but the most dire wingnuts. Charlie’s hippie reputation acquires a comic 2013 context when you realize he claimed to hate hippies and refused the label; if he hadn’t insisted on being called ‘Charlie’ not ‘Charles’(2) he’d be a hipster, leering out of listicles. As it was: jailbait, not linkbait, was more Charlie’s thing. It wasn’t that he had power over women; that they’re known as Manson girls is a critical distinction. He abused that power accordingly, and that makes him just as much a monster, killings aside.
More than anything, Manson was the director of the murders that bear his name. He chose the locations, cast the players, gave them notes(3, and even returned to one of the scenes to edit(4). His place in the culture mirrors our attraction to auteurs, with all the control freakery and systemic tantrums the model entails. To deny his insanity is to not blur that vision, at all; we like our creative leaders crazy, or didn’t you enjoy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and/or its prima facie sequel, Difficult Men? Moreover, nobody cares that Manson had his killing done, fighting words in any two-bit Western, or that he was bad at critical theory, fighting words in any two-bit university. We care about the bodies, and Manson’s self-defined role as a sort of demotic avenger on behalf of the befallen means we still take his demented work seriously, brutal and frightening as it remains.
But he’s nothing without his girls. They did his bidding as untrained assassins after a long indoctrination period filled with drugs literal and metonymic, finding in Charlie a doctor or priest or whatever they wanted. He was what they heard when they played the song backward. None of them were strong women, or women at all really; they were contradictory in both their extreme victimization and their sinister mean streaks, vibes tilting so crazily from campy little girl to dumpster-diving, head-shaving bad bitch that some otherwise hard feminists sort of give up and giggle when they’re on the subject. In overturning the layer of privilege several of them carried(5), they ended up more radical than the little man in the Daniel Boone suit who radicalized them. Besides, everybody loves women who kill. When women kill it is almost always political, which is why the mystique of the Manson girl is better than Charlie’s own. Charlie was about as political as John Wayne.
'Manson girl' is a type we still know even with most of the major associations rescinded. They populate Urban Outfitters catalogs and campus-ambient parties in midsize towns, smoking hella weed, smiling snakily thru dim lighting, looking pleasant in anything or nothing at all, for whom everything is fun and nothing is embarrassing. Unanimously thin and white, they are notable for the same creeping conservatism that overgrew the ostensibly freedom-loving original Manson girls. Charlie Manson wasn't big on birth control and he preached a perverted version of family, which the girls were happy to perpetuate. Living thru early post-internet iterations of indie culture, still the sincerest heir to that of the first hippies, it took me a while to notice that all the willowy girls with collected shitty tattoos wearing like bohemian Japanese headwraps weren't being slutty with me and my friends because they were practicing the latest form of swinging sexuality. They were husband-shopping! No matter how many gallery openings these nubile things bragged abt going to, by age 24 they were all back in the small valley towns they'd left, nothing but babies on their Instagrams. Liberation really can be just a phase.
The modern Manson girl is perhaps best personified by American Apparel models, whose makeup-free, body-confident naturalism has redefined erotic blockbuster(6). If you went looking for a cult and you weren’t too particular, American Apparel might do until the cult gets here. Brand flagellated to the brink of faith whispers thru disco pants and double u-neck dresses and velvet pencil skirts, the girls in them thick-eyebrowed and Xanned-out, or at least that’s the vibe when it’s turned all the way up, and hotter than a fucking ice cream. Sexual servility mercantilized down to a pouty perf as the credits to Ephesians 5 roll is the worst kind of nasty pandering. Unfortunately, I am into it. I once spent a whole summer intentionally conflating Ruth Radelet, the vodka-voiced Chromatic, with Jessie Andrews, the porn plasmatic who tours as a DJ(7). Girlfriend Mix? I wonder if Leslie Van Houten likes disco.
If there was a lead actress of the Manson murders, Susan Atkins was it—licking Sharon Tate’s starry blood while pronouncing herself merciless(8). Susan served as Charlie’s liaison with, and sometime wrangler of, her co-defendants Katie Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten—neither of whom were as adamantine in their loyalty to Charlie. Susan followed Charlie, and Katie and Leslie followed Susan, thru crucifixion tableaux and the carving of X’s into foreheads. In 1976, from prison, Susan gave a haunting interview that’s like something out of Picnic At Hanging Rock, recalling her crimes in a dreamy doll-voice. She profiles as a spring breaker, high on the unreality of it all. Indeed, all three of the accused girls practiced ditzy(9) indifference to the point of literal singsong. It became their trademark, a studied girl-group warp, and the rest is Haim.
Leslie, the abdicated homecoming queen, was the prettiest and was seemingly really good at the kind of wordless seduction that takes a juror right out of his zone(10). She may have lost her looks and all her parole attempts since her second trial(11) and conviction, but all the courtroom photography of her from the Tate-LaBianca period is as disarming as a really witty low-budget fashion op.
Linda Kasabian, star witness and Britpop II namesake, wore Elizabeth Arden perfume, solicited fashion advice from prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and sent Joan Didion to secure her actual court attire(12). Linda was the Selena Gomez, wanting only a bus home and sometimes availing herself of one. Granted immunity, Linda did not do time and eventually changed her name to Kaiser Chief.
Bugliosi’s best-selling book abt the atrocities, Helter Skelter, has been adapted for screens big and small. HELTER SKELTER  was a TV movie but shown theatrically; HELTER SKELTER  was just a TV movie. Both are artifacts from television’s lost era of second-rate production value, the latter surprisingly so amid the post-HBO creative revolution. In the former, the acting is as wooden as the replicated courtroom walls around most of the action; the exception is Steve Railsback, who gives the role of Manson everything he has. In the 2004 edit, Manson has the misfortune of being the tentacle-raping Jeremy Davies, who never met a slow burn he couldn’t empty a gas can onto. In his defense, it’s possible that Charles Manson is impossible to incarnate. Like another product of the wilderness his voice so eerily mimics(13), he doesn’t do nuance.
Again, the girls are more interesting. In the ‘76 version the on-trial trio of Susan, Katie, and Leslie were played by virtual anons with the exception of TX Chainsaw Massacre scream queen Marilyn Burns [Susan Atkins]. Cathey Paine looks nothing like Leslie Van Houten but does look a lot like a model, or at least like that windswept poster-perfect 70s Farrah Fawcett only scratched the surface of.
In 2004 Linda Kasabian was played by Clea Duvall, who I once saw shopping for shampoo and who is not, Ask.com avers, a lesbian. Duvall is good as Linda, not in the least because she actually looks middle-class enough. Looks-wise, IRL the Manson girls were aggressively average on the mean, slightly methy on the downward scale. Overreaching on attractiveness and casting them like it’s an All Hollow editorial is only profound as it speaks to our preoccupation with beauty and death as identical two-headed coins.
In 2011 an effort began to balance feature-length content on the Manson girls at Charlie’s expense. Manson Girls, by Susanna Lo, has still only gotten as far as a trailer, or ‘sizzle reel, as YouTube calls it. The trailer may reduce the principals to a lesbian lather, but that itself is not inaccurate; Charlie encouraged this type of play for the same reasons men have always encouraged it. Pennsatucky from Orange Is The New Black is a wonderful pick; OITNB’s three white leads as a group were even more wonderful but Piper and Alex pulled out of my dream at the last minute. Manson Girls now has a 2014 release date.
Mostly what all the traditional casting artificially reinforces is the Manson girl as blissed-out sub trope. Despite the caged-rat theatrics of Susan and the equally stylized violence of her co-defendants, the mystique of the Manson girl doesn’t break any patriarchal paradigms. Then again it’s only murder.
(1) Cole Mohr is a fantastic-looking boy model who has, on numerous occasions, attacked himself with a tattoo gun. He is never without a serious gf.
(2) Stuff Hipsters Hate, when relevant, include(d) nicknames and diminutives.
(3) ‘do something witchy’
(4) Charlie disputes this, but both Bugliosi and Manson’s most recent biographer, Jeff Guin, assert that Manson went back to the Tate house to, among other things, hang the American flag near Sharon’s body.
(5) With few exceptions the Manson girls had shambolic middle-class backgrounds.
(6) Dov Charney, at a purely tabloid level, is a Charlie Manson clone.
(7) One of the boys in Disclosure getting into a fight with his girlfriend over Jessie is my favorite Fader moment of the year.
(8) Susan inscribed ‘bitch I don’t have any mercy for you’ in the True Crime HOF right behind Lyle/(Erik?)Menendez feeling love for his mother as he put the shotgun in her ear.
(9) Starting when he was a kid, Charlie played the ‘insane game’ i.e. exerted psychological tactics on whatever authority figure was in the room. He may or may not have borrowed this behavior from pre-King David; the girls picked it up pretty quickly.
(10) Bugliosi backs this up.
(11) Van Houten didn’t actually kill anyone, part of which won her a new [mis]trial, which led to a second conviction and another life sentence.
(12) ‘Size 9 petite; mini but not extremely mini. In velvet if possible. Emerald green or gold. Or: A Mexican peasant-style dress, smocked or emboidered.” [from The White Album]
(13) George W. Bush
A Style Guide Toward Punctuation and Usage of Capital Letters in social media
1. it is not necessary to start a tweet or update with a capital letter, or to Capitalize the first letter of any additional sentence(s). (However, it is customary to impose a sentence cap on twitter, irrespective of character count.)
2. When invoking proper names, capitalizing the first letter of each name is no longer necessary. Exceptions apply to famous persons and the fame level applied thereto: for example ‘Jack Nicholson’ and ‘Jennifer Lawrence’ have achieved a recognition level that renders caps redundant—as transcendent figures they exist in print as: ‘jack nicholson’ and ‘jennifer lawrence’. Don’t pay any attention to what auto-correct says. Do go ahead and leave ‘Bruno Mars’ and ‘Bebe Zeva’ in their usual form(s); they remain lower-case IRL.
3. Proper thing-nouns, from television shows to paintings, are capitalized on a first-letter basis, i.e. Mad Men or (I don’t know the names of any paintings). The titles of books or novels are occasionally exempt, i.e. Fear of Flying which might look extraneous in the wrong sentence if not properly capitalized. Songs go either way; albums retain their original prescriptivism. The titles of films shd not only never not be capitalized, they shd be in ALL CAPS i.e. THE BAD SLEEP WELL or BAD GRANDPA. When referencing a film, it is helpful to parenthetically append the year it was made/released—i.e. THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960) or BAD GRANDPA (2013). This reassures the follower that you not only watch a lot of films, you also know the names of a lot of years.
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