‘We do as we damn well please’ - revolt, feminism, and the long history of St Trinian's

The St Trinian’s series was based off a series of cartoons by Ronald Searle, who sought to show an alternative to the pristine, snobbish image of private school girls in the UK. His cartoons depict a delightfully dark side to the girls that attend the school, as they correctly identify the poisoning of a fellow student as Deadly Nightshade, get patted down for weapons, or inject their sports competitors with a mysterious syringe. These girls aren’t just riotous and wild - they are truly criminal in their rejection of the prim and proper girls that the real St Trinian’s girls would have been.

If we take a look at what the cartoons have to say about education, it is interesting to begin with the teachers. The cartoons are in keeping with the films, as Miss Fritton jovially allows the girls to continue with their menacing ways, even cheerfully praising them as she goes along. The other teachers, however, are subject to the girls’ evil tricks. Importantly, the teachers seem to offer no sort of moral education whatsoever, something which definitely is the most unique trait about the school. Again and again, this lack of moral education is what brings the school into the public eye as the rather bleak and faceless image of the Ministry of Education tries to shut it down. St Trinian’s is denounced as a bad influence.

Yet even the real St Trinian’s, housed in what is now St Leonards Hall, at the front of Pollock Halls of Residence, held some ideas about moving education beyond the curriculum. Miss Lee, the headmistress there, focused on a development of self, instead of school-imposed discipline. St Trinian’s has never been an institution of hierarchical power.

The school’s rejection of all elements of power can be likened to an anarchic way of thinking. Ms Fritton is only held up as a leader in any sort of hierarchical manner due to the fact that she spreads chaos further and further - aside from that, the school lacks any real hierarchy due to the lack of authority that the teachers hold. More importantly, St Trinian’s is not only an anarchy, but a feminist anarchy. The school’s interaction with the outside world is mainly with men - be it the Minister of Education that runs throughout all of the St Trinian’s narrative, or the dodgy drug dealer who the girls sell their homemade vodka to, or the Annabelle’s father. All these men try to control them in some way, try to make them fit into their notion of what a woman should be. In many ways, these men are trying to offer some sort of dated moral education that the school refuses to impose.

Yet the school does not create evil women, despite their criminal undertakings. In the 2007 film, what struck me the most was that the girls were all a family - a family of very successful women. They made profit through their scientific findings, were clearly skilled enough at chemistry to master explosives (queue the epic, ‘you were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!’ line), and were able to rob an art gallery - skills which see the strong willed head girl Kelly Jones go on to work for the Secret Service after she graduates. And despite the intense clique-ing of the school girls, they are supportive of each other. They have friends across cliques. And they can work together - especially when it comes to protecting the one space they have that lets them be free in their identities: St Trinian’s.

It is of note that the identities expressed in St Trinian’s are often ones that women are mocked and belittled for - Geeks, Emos, even the ‘Posh Totties’ would undoubtedly come under fire for embracing their sexuality in a modern day school. Yet these women support each other in their different expressions of womanhood. It most definitely echoes the words of anarcha- feminist Emma Goldman, ‘I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.’ All types of women are accepted, and the only criticism of such acceptance comes from the outside word, the world run by men.

So why does it matter that the girls of St Trinian’s fit to the ideals of the anarcha-feminist movement? Well, alongside the fact that it was one of the highest-grossing British films in recent years, the tradition of St Trinian’s continues to show young girls that there is a way to exist successfully outside of society’s expectations. Even though the 2007 film came under a lot of criticism, the dismissal of it as a ‘chick flick’ failed to recognise that it was teaching young girls to stand up to authority, to support each other despite differences. In the 1960 film Miss Fritton explains that ‘In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into the merciless world.’ Thank goodness we have St Trinian’s to remind us that ‘when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be unprepared’.

*Original St. Trinian's Illustration by Ronald Searle*

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