When I started going to punk shows as a teen, there were just a handful of girls in a male-dominated scene. It was apparent there were two options for girls who wanted to fit in: Exploit your sexuality, or be one of the boys.
When I saw The Runaways this past week, it was déjà vu. The new movie, about the late-1970s all-girl rock band, is advertised as a biopic about “the first girls to rock,” and I’d say that’s a pretty good assessment.
The two protagonists, guitarist Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie, aim for those two tactics:
Sex or toughness. Currie, known for her corsets and fishnets, chose the former; Jett, in black and leather, chose the latter (and so did I).
The idea of an all-girl band was received poorly: Jett’s guitar teacher tries to teach her On Top Of Old Smokey, and declares that girls play acoustic — not electric — guitars. At early shows, they were pelted with garbage; one detractor sneered that “guys don’t like girls who are tough. Guys like girls who are soft and flirty.”
Yes, once upon a time, people were THAT offended by female musicians — thankfully, that contempt doesn’t exist anymore, but the idea of female rebellion still does.
Consider Currie was just 15 years old when she joined the band. On stage, she strutted with a microphone cord snaked around her fishnetted leg. Shocking! But rock ’n’ roll is built on sexuality, and so much of growing up is about taking control of one’s own body.
In one scene, the band’s manager howled: “Rock is a blood sport — it’s for men. This isn’t about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido.” In recent interviews, Jett said her “parents always told me I could do anything I wanted.” Of her image, she said: “I think it’s important that you’re able to own it. And women owning their sexuality is threatening.”
Rock music has a transformative effect — for misfits such as these girls, it’s an escape from a life you don’t fit into; it connects you with likeminded people, ideas, politics. It was for me, and I’d guess it was for The Runaways, too. All you can do is throw yourself into the rough and tumble and hope you come out the other side.