I confess: I didn’t know about the band The Runaways. I’d heard some of their music, but I didn’t know their story—they were finished by the time I was born. So I was grateful to be able to watch the spectacular tale of the first all-female rock band unfold on the screen in The Runaways, director Floria Sigismondi’s first feature film.
The movie focuses on lead Singer Cherie Currie, played by a grown-up Dakota Fanning, and guitarist and vocalist Joan Jett, played by a very un-Bella-like Kristen Stewart. (Stewart’s performance in this film, by the way, is fantastic.)
It’s 1975 and girls don’t play electric guitar, or, as The Runaway’s manager Kim Fowley puts it later in the movie, it’s a time when men only want to see women “on their knees or in the kitchen.” Then all of a sudden there’s a group of talented, kick-ass girls on the music scene—rebelling, experimenting, and rocking crowds.
One of the film’s most interesting focuses is the way Currie and Jett deal with the pressure to exploit their sexuality for the sake of success—an issue still very relevant in the music industry today.The movie opens with a drop of blood splattering on the sidewalk. It’s Currie’s. She’s fifteen, she’s just gotten her first period and apparently, she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Two minutes later she is in her sister’s boyfriend’s car and the boyfriend has just found out that Currie is now a “woman”; this revelation prompts the boyfriend to put a hand on Currie’s knee and make a sexual comment. Currie looks disgusted and sort of shocked but doesn’t seem to know how to react.
Cut to the first time we see Jett. She’s in the men’s section of a vintage clothing store. After the clerk points out her “mistake,” Jett points to a guy in a black leather jacket and says, “I want what he’s wearing.”
And as different as their characters begin, so do they end up.
From the very creation of the group, band manager Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon, asserts that The Runaways are selling sex: The music is just a bonus. He picks Currie out of a crowd at a bar after deciding a blonde is just what the band is missing. She is only fifteen and he is thrilled: “jail-f*&^ing-bait!” he exlaims. And it goes on from there, with Fowley teaching the entire band of teenage girls how to exploit their sexuality for the sake of the audience’s desire. This, he tells them, is the only way they’ll become successful.
Jett and Currie react to the commodification of their sexuality in very different ways. Currie buys into it, deciding that the best strategy is to use this sexual “power” to her advantage.
Jett, on the other hand, refuses. She doesn’t conform to set standards of female sexuality, does her best to focus on the music and sees Fowley for what he is–a salesman out to market his product in the most effective way possible. In the end, Jett’s story is one of empowerment and Currie’s is one of caution.
Although I doubt Jett and Currie’s realities were so black and white, I think the contrast in the film pushes the viewer to reconsider how she herself deals with the pressure to exploit her own sexuality.
It also reminds us that we haven’t come very far.
There are still more Cherrie Curries than there are Joan Jetts. And young girls, maybe now more than ever, are enthustiastically buying into the idea that sexual exploitation equals self-empowerment.
I hope at least some of them go see this movie.