It was a spring day just after Easter Sunday in Northern Louisiana, just outside the town of Sailes in Bienville Parish, when a young couple, each in their mid-20s, was ambushed and killed in a hail of bullets. Hundreds of rounds were fired. Seventeen entrance wounds inflicted on the male and 26 on the female. It was that day, May 23, 1934, that put an end to the marauding of the infamous outlaw couple known as Bonnie and Clyde.
In the coming months the law would hunt and eventually kill other notorious gangsters. John Dillinger, perhaps the most infamous, was gunned down by law enforcement officers as he left the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. Pretty Boy Floyd, immortalized as the “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills” by fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie, was killed in October, 1934. Baby Face Nelson got his a month later in November, thus putting an end to what has since become known as the “Public Enemy Era.”
And while the sensational and provocative images of a gun-toting, cigar-chomping Bonnie Parker certainly put the Barrow Gang in the spotlight, the women of the other gangs – namely, those who rode with Dillinger – have largely been ignored or portrayed as hapless victims or hangers-on. But as one woman sees it, there’s another story to be told, and she’s telling it in photos.
Brielle King got started in photography before she began high school. At age 13 she was shooting on film with a Nikon 35mm. Just before she became a senior in high school she traveled to Chicago from her home in Oklahoma to shoot. She never stopped taking photos, but by her 21st birthday she was on the other side of the camera as a model – holding a “Chicago Typewriter” Thompson submachine gun.
“I was always intrigued by those famous photos of Bonnie and also inspired by the stark black and white portraits of Hollywood stars from the old crime movies – James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and noir,” says King. “There’s nothing patronizing about it. They’re tough but elegant.”
In 2014, King read about the 80th anniversary of the killing of Bonnie Parker and, as she tells it, “…felt like there had to be more dangerous women out there – not just ‘damsels in distress.’” It didn’t take much research before King found the facts to back up her hunch. “I found this book written by a historian named Ellen Poulson called Don’t Call Us Molls. It tells the real history of those women from the Public Enemy Era – that, in reality, they were integral parts of the gangs.”
When asked how she came to decide to create her “Don’t Call Us Molls” series, she explains: “I had done a little photography – with film – in high school and was interested in drama but never really felt like a ‘theatre kid.’ Then I did a boudoir shoot with a local photographer, and it was just a lot of fun, so I started doing my own boudoir shoots. Later I thought, What if I combine boudoir with film noir and try to imagine what those women back then would look like if they did a boudoir shoot?”
Being from Oklahoma, King was raised in a culture where women are often expected to play support roles – not lead. Additionally, the intensification of religious fervor in the state has, in recent years, forced her along with many other women to feel as though there are only two categories for females: wives and tramps. In her late teens King embraced a feminist ethos and tried to shake both restrictive stereotypes. She cut her hair short, stopped wearing bras and took part in feminist activism but soon found herself feeling boxed in by a different sort of repression.
“The feminists I was around just substituted male oppression for female repression. As a young, liberated woman, if I want to feel sexy, that’s my choice. If I want to shoot women in their underwear - maybe I shouldn’t say ‘shoot’ in this context – and pose in lingerie with a machine gun, I’m going to do it. That’s what it means to be empowered.”
Looking at the photos from her “Molls” series, she laughs and says, “We’re really not dangerous. I’m really a sweetie but, I mean, tell me that’s not a photo of an empowered woman. And let’s face it; danger is a turn-on.”
At age 22 King is still taking photos, modeling and pushing boundaries. After being inspired by a documentary about Russian trappers living in the Siberian Taiga, King is working to build an organization for female mountaineers with hopes of teaching other women the skills they need to survive off the land.
J.D. Thompson is an Oklahoma-born musician, video journalist and contributing writer for SouthernGothicMagazine.com.