Sugar & Spice

The Sweet Girls pretend to be bad and try to be good, but Houston's newest social club fails at both

The phone call snubs weren't the only negative reactions they've gotten. Strangely enough, another gang was forming around the same time as the Sweet Girls. The Shitbirds, as they called themselves, started by pulling pranks on each other and committing random acts of vandalism. Shitbird Jana Hunter, of the band Matty and Mossy, describes them as "fun when drinking" activities. They dressed up in silly outfits and cruised downtown, putting honey on the door handles of expensive cars, presumably parked by yuppies on their way to velvet-roped clubs like Prague and Spy. But before long, the Shitbirds expanded their mission to include protesting what they considered bad art. According to visual artist Heath Flagtvedt, they wanted to up the ante, provoke a more creative reaction, make local artists and bands work a little harder. The Sweet Girls were a prime target.

"It was the whole gang-committed-to-good-deeds that I think first kind of riled our feathers," says Jana. "Not that good deeds are bad…but they were having slumber parties. It just didn't seem like they were willing to do anything that we considered artistic. There was nothing groundbreaking or innovative or even really interesting to us about what they were doing." In short, the Shitbirds thought the Sweet Girls were lame.

Last fall a DiverseWorks show featured some of Holly's 'zine work, which Heath calls a rehash of old riot grrrl culture. At the opening, the Shitbirds staged an "art attack" with water guns and pornographic confetti. Pleased to have found similarly juvenile rivals for their gang, the Sweet Girls staged a retaliatory raid of the Shitbirds' New Year's Eve party. Wearing custom silk-screened black Sweet Girls sweatshirts, they crashed the party and lit smoke bombs. Through pink megaphones they shouted an oddly violent cheer: "Eat shit and die! Shitbirds can't fly! Sweet Girls suck out your eye!" As their toughness degenerated into giggles, they ran away.

Gallery owner Doug Lawing gave the Sweet Girls their big break.
Deron Neblett
Gallery owner Doug Lawing gave the Sweet Girls their big break.

Tipped off about the Sweet Girls' raid, the Shitbirds had gathered supplies -- eggs, flour, water guns, duct tape and a shower curtain -- for a counterattack. But the Sweet Girls arrived earlier than expected and the Shitbirds were caught off guard. It looked like the Sweet Girls had bested their rivals until Holly came back to the party in street clothes as if nothing had happened, like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime to marvel at her own handiwork. A few of the very inebriated Shitbirds, angered at having to stand outside while the smoke cleared from their party, were going to have none of that smugness. They tackled Holly, rubbed flour and eggs in her face and duct-taped her hands and feet together, all the while screaming, "Die, bitch, die!"

The game had gone too far, and Holly was upset. Sure, the Sweet Girls talked tough and told people they were a gang, but they didn't want to get into an actual physical fight. "We did feel bad," says Jana. "But the other side of it is we felt like they didn't want to play." The Shitbirds disbanded shortly after the incident.

"You have to be careful throwing the word 'gang' around," says Holly.

"We're really nice people," says Lisa.

Lisa and Holly sip chardonnay on the lush patio at a coffee shop called Brasil. "It tastes like flowers," giggles Lisa. They are well put together, with crossed legs, well-groomed fingernails, curled eyelashes, natural-looking makeup and nice handbags. They talk about how the feminist movement made great advances but in the process it left behind feminine institutions like sewing, culture and charity clubs -- the invisible threads that held the tapestry of society together. Why can't they be career women who crochet? Why can't they connect rather than compete?

The Sweet Girls may all enjoy crafting, but competition is something that seems difficult to squelch. Holly offers up Michelle as the archetypal Sweet Girl because she "embodies toughness and sweetness in a very elegant way." Lisa nods along with the compliment momentarily but soon can't stand it. "We're archetypal too," she whines. "I'm girlier than Michelle."

The situation is almost exactly reversed when Lisa mentions that genome-girl Liz has a more impressive career than the rest of them. "I'm going to be a doctor," counters Holly. They even put down the original Sweet Girls in New Orleans, agreeing that the Houston chapter is more educated and intellectual. But the competition within the group really blew up while they were preparing for the installation at Lawing Gallery.

Although Lisa is an aspiring artist, she says that the Sweet Girls hadn't planned to put on an art show. The opportunity just sort of fell in their laps. There is little doubt that the coveted showing was in part precipitated by the fact that Sweet Girl Mary works at Lawing. If not for Mary, gallery owner Doug Lawing might not have even known of the Sweet Girls' existence.

Lawing says he agreed to show the Sweet Girls because he has long been interested in the inner workings of the garden and Rotary clubs that dominated the social life of the small Southern town of his youth. "While their goals were benevolent," he says, "they seemed to be a stage for all forms of social interaction, including betrayal, adultery and greed, and could sometimes be subversive." It also didn't hurt that the Sweet Girls can be charming. "The Sweet Girls are actually not so sweet," Lawing says. "But [by] telling us that they are sweet and fitting into a stereotype of what we normally think of as sweet (i.e., pretty young women with soft voices), they are able to exert influence…" Even on him.

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