The photographer finding strength in being an ‘unlikeable’ woman
Too outspoken! Too fun! Too naked! Millicent Hailes is turning the trope of the acceptable woman on its head
Millicent Hailes is an unlikeable woman. “I don’t quite fit into small, quiet, sometimes invisible spaces anymore. I go beyond where a likeable woman should go,” she says. A creative director based between LA and London, Hailes has spent the last decade cleaving at the edges of contemporary womanhood – borders that, she believes, are less permeable than culture might let on. Since graduating from LCF in 2012, Hailes has turned her hand to photography and filmmaking, collaborating with some of pop’s most recognisable protagonists – Billie Eilish, Dorian Electra, Migos, and Young Thug – while her personal work supplants staid notions of desire and acceptability via strip clubs and female bodybuilders.
Last year, Hailes funnelled these ideas into yves.2c, a biannual magazine positioned to “lift up artists who are speaking out against, and working to dismantle, patriarchal oppression”. In its pages, a ragtag crew of photographers, designers, and artists speak on the realities of squeezing themselves into a pecking order that was never built to accommodate marginalised genders, with Hailes reflecting on the ways in which a male-dominated entertainment industry has shaped (and suppressed) her own sense of self. “A lot of my old interviews and work were just chaotic. I was so focused on pleasing the people I was working with that I lost sight of what I even wanted to say. I was trying my best to be as likeable as possible.”
Though she first began to unravel that experience in a collection of essays and poetry – “exploring questions like, ‘Am I too much? Too outspoken? Not outspoken enough? Am I being true to myself if I become likeable to others?’” – Hailes is today debuting a new fashion film, Unlikeable, based on the universality of those feelings. “It’s extremely difficult to be vulnerable and work through trauma whilst trying to create a completely authentic body of work,” she explains. “It delves into the challenges of becoming a ‘better’ feminist, reflecting on the pressure to conform and what it means when feminism is co-opted as a trend, especially in the entertainment industry.” On a cast of cis, trans, and nonbinary women, styled by Nazanin Shahnavaz, clothing volleys between some of culture’s most gendered archetypes – the suit and tie, the handmaid’s cap, pleaser heels, and armour.
Though this feels like a closing of a chapter more so than it does an opening of a new one, Hailes’ voice repeats truisms: “Being liked means someone will see you / And protect you in the dark / That you deserve to get home safely / Believable / Worth saving / You don’t deserve it if you’re likeable / You weren’t dressed for it / Asking for it / If you are likeable.” Throughout the film, a camera pans over languid frames of fleshy bodies pooling from corsets, pubes bristle from miniscule g-strings, and Joan of Arc swipes the screen with her sword – all of which are interrupted with bloodied, shrieking faces, and gloopy tears. Images mined, presumably, from Hail’s past. “In my body is the desire to learn and speak out / In my body is the desire to be heard / To have myself be spoken clearly and rightly.”
While being an “outspoken woman”, who has often been told to speak “in a sweet way”, may have once rendered Hailes mute, she now feels more confident in the kind of stories she wants to tell. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be there, though. I’m still navigating who I am and who I represent within my work. We are all learning and unlearning but women are still so far removed from being equal.” With this film, at least, Hailes seems to be finding her voice. “I’d like people to find strength in being unlikeable, to feel comfortable not conforming.”