Kurt Cobain's shirt on display at the EMP

I hate being a One-Note Nancy, but Seattle’s Experience Music Project is a real sausage-fest. In fact, that’s exactly what one of its employees admitted to my partner when he complained about the lack of women represented in the museum and the gift shop. So, for example, when I entered that flashy gift shop I was prepared to buy (retail!) any one of the following books:

Turns out you cannot buy anything having to do with any female rocker — not even a refrigerator magnet — nor will you see much about them in the museum overall. So what’s new? And why am I bothering to work up a lather about it?

Here’s what I decided after watching (and writing about) all those cult movies about female rockers last winter: rock is still liberatory. For women, making music rather than just admiring the snarling, strutting, misunderstood dudes who’ve been celebrated for their art ad nauseum can be downright incendiary. It’s because women have been painted as the admirers of male rockers — a dynamic that portrays women as sexual rewards for worthy men rather than aggressive sexual figures themselves — that reversing roles seems so fantastic, so revolutionary.

Thus, how great was it to leave the extensive exhibits of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and the evolution of the electric guitar and turn instead to the Hands-On Lab upstairs, where piles of children and adults were going inside little studios to do computer-led lessons in playing instruments, singing, and mixing songs. And here they were — girls getting the hang of the drum set, the guitar, or screeching along to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” (Oh wait — that was me.) Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but after finding none of those great women rockers I grew up with represented in the museum downstairs — Blondie, Lydia Lunch, Joan Jett, Tina Turner, the early Liz Phair, Chrissie Hynde, Queen Latifah, Courtney Love — it was in the Hands-On Project that I started to see that gleam in girls’ eyes as they got over feeling self-conscious and instead focused on getting the beat right.

Which brings us back to feminism, doesn’t it? Is it just me, or does feminism have to fight the same fights over & over again, such that women rockers still have to fight for a place at the table? The only upside, as I see it, is that when women do get onstage, they still have the capacity to blow your mind.

 

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I’d hoped this early film about the fictional all-female band The Carrie Nations would prove the point I’m trying to make in my Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers: that these films can’t help but have a feminist message. But Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has proven me wrong. This film is what might result if a crazy person decided to merge together a pre-1962 Playboy bunny party, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Austin Powers (1997) — making me set aside my feminist expectations. Should you watch this film? The short answer is no. But we all know that Feminéma is not given to short answers. Here’s the worst part: this movie has more in common with 2010 than the far more radical films of the early 80s.

The Carrie Nations (from L-R: Pet, Kelly, and Casey) can play a great rock song, but ultimately they’re all big hair, big eyes, and big breasts — and big on hopping into bed with whoever’s available. Created by the notorious breast-oriented director Russ Meyer — you know, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — using the wordiest, weirdest script ever by Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a soft-core feature with a whole lot of women who just happen to like to taking their clothes off. (What, are you objecting? are you some kinda square?) I thought at first this would be one of those Small Town Girls Go To The Big City tale (Texas to L.A., to be precise); but the film’s too chaotic for that. On its 10th anniversary Ebert wrote that Meyer wanted it to “simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose.” I’m not sure I understand the satire, nor did I see those things going on simultaneously, but I certainly see that it moves from one to the next in nonsensical progression right to the abruptly moralizing conclusion.

Remember the scene from Austin Powers in which Vanessa Kensington tries to bring him up to speed after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years? “You know, a lot’s changed since 1967,” she tells him. He responds, for a big laugh line:

“Well, as long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment, I’ll be sound as a pound!”

No one could have captured more accurately the world of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: it gleefully and subversively shows a Southern California that welcomes all manner of (interracial, gay, BDSM) sexual unions with no AIDS, no herpes, no worries. Except that sometimes there are dire consequences indeed: spurned lovers try to kill themselves or others, take too many pills, or spiral to madness. The movie’s schizophrenic view of sex — “everything’s okay, until it’s not!” — seems far too familiar in 2010, an era in which one can see anything, all the time on the internet and the same time schools adopt abstinence-only sex education. So what am I to do with this great song, “Find It,” which begins almost as soon as the film opens?

The disconnect between that singer’s angry voice and her low register (was this inspired by Janis?) and the obvious fact that it’s not really being sung be that Kewpie-doll, baby-voiced Kelly (Dolly Read) continues to leave me baffled. This song is the film’s one gesture to feminist power — and even this is undermined by the overly cutie-pie actors who mouthed the lyrics but can’t muster any of the urgency or the fury of the real thing.

Apologies, readers: the campy pleasure of this film was mostly lost on me. Its anxious undermining of female sexual power was far too familiar to our 2010 world than seems funny; its eagerness to kill off the lesbians, transform the tranny into a demon, and celebrate the Carrie Nations’ ridiculous manager, Harris — himself an unholy mix of Greg Brady and Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC’s new Sherlock) — all of this didn’t seem funny anymore. I realize I’d feel different if I were in a raucous theater full of howling viewers rather than in my own living room, waiting for my sweetie to get home from work. All of this is a reminder that The Runaways (2010)’s lack of feminist ire shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me when I saw it last year. For that, dear readers, you’ll have to go back to Times Square (1980).