Alright, I’m trying something new. I have been swimming in film culture since before I could walk. My mother actually has a PhD in film theory, so I had a steady diet of film history and critique my whole life. If you had asked me at age 16 what I was going to be when I grew up I would have said, “The next Spielberg.” Eh, that didn’t quite work out, but I still worship at the cinema every weekend. I don’t just like to go to the movies, I love to TALK about movies. I can talk your ear off about a good movie. If I could find a way to earn a living going to the movies… well, screw education! Anyway, I’ve always wanted to have my own review show on the radio a’ la Siskel and Ebert. It was just pointed out to me that I do have a platform to talk about movies.
From now on, I’m going to post an essay about a movie every Monday, since I typically go to the movies at least once every weekend. This weekend I went twice! It will discipline me to keep up my writing and it’s a rockin’ excuse to go to the movies! So without further ado… may I present my thoughts on the feminist manifesto that is The Runaways.
Where are we at with feminism these days? I gotta say that most of what passes as female empowerment makes me laugh or puke. Sandra Bullock makes a killing playing an executive who is a man-eating bitch (that’s the only way women can be successful in business, right?) until she meets the right guy to soften her and bring her real happiness through a relationship. Ick. Feminism in Hollywood has hardly made any steps forward in the last 30 years. If anything, especially in the romantic-comedy genre, I think we’ve taken a few steps back.
The Runaways is a wholly different beast. This is a film about 5 young girls who are loud and angry. They are not concerned with being soft and pretty; nor are they concerned with making boys feel good about themselves. Their lives suck. They are surrounded by rejection from their parents, from society. They want to make something good that they can call their own. Rock and roll is their vehicle of expression. It gives them a screaming presence in the world where they can be anything and everything they want to be. Their music is raw and aggressive and quintessentially rock. The only problem? Success means becoming a commodity.
Teenage Joan Jett finds a manager and sells him on the idea of an all-girl rock band. It’s 1975 and this is unheard of. He buys it and starts to mold the girls into rock baby-goddesses. There are several moments in the film where you’re not sure if he is taking advantage of the girls unnecessarily or if exploitation is just the price of fame. They are given their dream of being international stars; however, they are not getting rich, nor gaining any control over their lives. The central feminist lesson here is that real power is not being the product but being the producer. Women need to control their own bodies for true empowerment.
Dakota Fanning is ostensibly the star of the film. Her character is the lead protagonist at least. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have the acting chops to make us believe that she’s a girl filled with any passion. Cherie’s life sucks. He dad is a drunk. He mom leaves. She spends her 15-year-old nights wandering the Sunset Strip trying to find some escape. Through Cherie’s discovery, rocket to fame, and inevitable drug abuse, Dakota can’t manage more than one blank expression. I’m not sure if it was intentional or just lack of range, but her Cherie comes across as a stoned puppet, with no presence in the action. From what I’ve read about the real Cherie, I strongly doubt this was the case.
Kristen Stewart is the real star of the film. Her body is crackling with energy throughout. Without even needing the dialogue she conveys Joan’s central purpose through sheer physicality. She needs this music as a means to express all of the force and fervor bottled up inside of her. She has to get it out. There is this great scene where the manager stops the band’s rehearsal to give Cherie a tirade about what rock and roll is all about. In the background, barely in focus and with no dialogue, Joan is jumping, twitching, and popping. He body is screaming, “C’mon! Let’s go!” I gotta say, I had my doubts that the Twilight girl could do Joan Jett any justice. I was happy to be wrong.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to watch a movie about young girls with something to say besides, “Oh, why doesn’t Billy like me?” There was no romantic relationship anywhere to be seen. No, I take that back. The central relationship is between Joan and Cherie. Joan needs this pretty girl to front her band to sell the records. Cherie needs Joan’s talent to help her be legit. They are bound together as each other’s ticket out of one hell and into another. There is a lot of sexual energy between the girls. The film does not shy away from the reality that sex is a part of identity. But the girls are not fucking their way through the journey. Sex is as unremarkable and yet powerful as any other part of their personalities. It’s just not hidden in this film. It’s as much on the surface as their ambitions, fears, and dreams. This is what I call feminism, the celebration of women as unique, powerful, and fully-realized beings.
And speaking of women being the producers not the products, The Runaways is a true story, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, based on the memoir Neon Angel by lead singer Cherie Currie.