Grrrls-Eye View of The Runaways

Twilight stars representing an influential all-woman rock band? I hate Hollywood.That was my initial response to learning of the new feature film about the famed band The Runaways, written/directed by Floria Sigismondi and starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie.

The film follows a group of young women who defy social standards and start a band under the “guidance” of a 35-year-old man, record producer Kim Fowley. Drugs, alcohol and manipulation by the sexist, power-hungry Fowley lead to the band’s early demise. Currie retreats to a comfortable cookie-cutter lifestyle while Jett goes on to become a rock legend.

My initial concern was that the film’s Hollywood status and teenybopper cast would delegitimize the era, the scene and the women it sought to portray. But The Runaways could have been a lot worse. I am a Kristen Stewart fan (gasp) and thought her performance as an awkward, shy, incredibly cool tomboy was convincing and relatable. Fanning breaks out of her child-star box in this role, but her performance lacks the effortless confidence that Stewart exudes.

In my perfect world, the film would have been The Joan Jett Story, providing an intimate portrait of the androgynous musical backbone of The Runaways. I would rather have followed one well-developed character than several minor ones, as Sigismondi did. Nonetheless, there are moments of triumph.

Righteous scenes where grrrls (yeah, that’s right) say ‘FUCK YOU’ to society include one in which Jett browses in the men’s section of a thrift store and is told by a rockabilly saleswoman that she is in the wrong place. Jett approaches the counter, dumps out a bag of coins, motions to the saleswoman’s boyfriend and says, “I want what he’s wearing.”

In another scene, Currie lip syncs to David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” at her high school talent show and is barraged by boos and leftover lunch. Rather than slinking away, she lifts her fists and turns both middle fingers up toward the crowd. And lastly, Jett receives guitar lessons from an older male folk singer and asks to play something fast with bar chords. He replies, “Girls don’t play electric guitar.” She defiantly turns up her amp and starts wailing.

Maybe the film will provide a new generation of grrrls with inspiration to think for themselves or to embrace any career, hobby or fashion despite its gendered connotation. Unfortunately, the popularization of hipster culture and the notion that quirky is cool makes “being different” more of the same. I hope young viewers do not see these women as vehicles for conformity, but as social outcasts who endured painful and lonely lives simply for the freedom of being themselves.

Grrrls should also learn about women musicians who have succeeded on their own, without a Fowley-type manager, have resisted drug and alcohol addiction and do not rely solely on  sex to promote themselves. These less-dramatic accounts have to be sought out by individuals rather than handed to the masses on a silver screen; Hollywood is more likely to cash in on a Stewart/Fanning drunken make-out scene. Artfully done, by the way. 

The Runaways hits select theaters March 19th.

Read more Ms. coverage on arts and entertainment here


Erica Shultz is the digital production artist at RVCA in Costa Mesa, California. She spends her free time reading, making zines & comics, and playing drums. Follow her comics on Instagram or check out her website.