This week, someone hipped me to this amazing YouTube video, which I wanted to share with you all. It’s an 18-minute film made in 1996 about a group of ostracized 8th grade girls who were known in their school as the “Dirty Girls.” As the LA Weekly reports, the film was screened at a few festivals and then pretty much disappeared, until the man who made it, Michael Lucid, uploaded it to YouTube a few weeks ago. From there it became an internet sensation and as of today has generated upwards of 300,000 hits.

It’s easy to see why — it’s a haunting and compelling work. The “dirty girls” group centered around two charismatic sisters, Amber and Harper. They eschewed the trappings of conventional femininity, openly identified as feminists and riot grrrls, and denounced the patriarchal treatment of women. They’re so remarkably fierce that it plainly threatened their classmates. A crazy, and obviously false, urban legend grew up around them: that they never bathed, and that one of them, in fact, had never bathed since Kurt Cobain committed suicide. They were scorned but they soldiered on, creating art, publishing a zine, speaking out against sexual violence.

The film can painful to watch, as the girls’ more conventional classmates cruelly dismiss, laugh at, and belittle them. But the girls are fantastic camera subjects, and so thrillingly self-possessed and articulate that it ends up being more inspiring than anything else. Among other things, it provides a vivid example of why riot grrrl was so powerful for a generation of women. For the first time, there was a feminism ready-made for teenage girls — how awesome was that? It spoke to them through pop culture and encouraged them to discover and own their power, and to create. I’m from a slightly older generation so riot grrrl didn’t have that kind of electrifying impact on me, but I can see how revolutionary it could have been, if it hit you at just the right age.

Where are the dirty girls now, and where is the filmmaker? Judging by this interview, the girls-turned-women are doing fine. Harper, the more outspoken of the two, is a photographer and videographer, and Amber works for the family business. The filmmaker, Michael Lucid, was a teenager at the time he made the film. Today he works for one of my favorite TV shows, RuPaul’s Drag Race (he’s a writer for the program and also appears as an interviewer in online videos via his drag persona, Damiana Garcia). Lucid is working on a new video with the sisters that will update the story, which he says he will upload to his YouTube channel. I’d love to see him do more documentary work — even at that age, he was exceptionally gifted.

The original Dirty Girls video is below. The accompanying music, which perfectly sets the mood, is Liz Phair’s “Batmobile.” A warning: the f-bomb is liberally dropped throughout, so this is NSFW (albeit for the language only). Enjoy!

YouTube video

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Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee