“The Runaways” leaves no cliché untouched. It’s as if the writers went to TVtropes.org and selected the biggest chestnuts.

  • girls with daddy issues
  • girls turn to music because they don’t fit in
  • success quickly leads to substance abuse problems
  • dreamy drug-fueled sequence in soft light with lesbian sex
  • conflict within the band over big ego of lead singer

Right up to the end:  the band’s big blowout fight takes place — in the recording studio.  The one thing I can say is that at least the film moves as efficiently as possible from one trope to the next, and manages that efficiency by focusing solely on Jett and Currie at the expense of all other band members.  It’s such a disappointment.  So Floria Sigismondi, the film’s director, isn’t going to be the next female winner of a Best Director Oscar; and I’m starting to think that Kristen Stewart has only one trick in her acting bag (avoids eye contact, hunches shoulders, mumbles).

And it’s too bad, because the film could have answered a lot of questions about women in rock.  The film has a lot of obligatory scenes of screaming male and (especially) female fans — but what are they screaming for? 

There’s a great moment in Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” in which Christian Bale, as the maybe-gay teenager fan of a David Bowie-type gender-bending rock star, takes his newly-bought record into his bedroom in the crap suburban house where he lives with his family. He gently takes the sleeve out of the cover, letting us see the beautifully erotic nature of fandom. It’s a great moment — evoking the possibility he might experience by listening to it, not just for its music but for the personal liberation and transformation it promises.  “The Runaways” tells us that Bowie was also a huge influence on Cherie Currie (which is so interesting on its own).

The same possibilities were there for “The Runaways” other than to plow through all our received wisdom about how rock bands get together and break up.  The band’s officious manager, who teaches them how to growl and purr for their audiences, sees their appeal solely in sexual terms.  Rock is a man’s world, he insists; they’ve got to meet it on those terms.  “This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido,” he says.  But during concert scenes, you start to feel intuitively there’s more to it, before you’re yanked away to another cliché (Cherie is worried about her sick dad!).

Another wasted opportunity to think about women onscreen.  But let’s also pause to remember that Joan Jett, now 51, is still rocking, promoting new talent, and looking hot and mean.

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Before there was the Bitch Magazine I know and love for its rants about gender in the media, there was the Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag With Bite, the late 1980s zine that appeared on newsprint every month, clearly produced on its creator’s Apple computer and cut-and-pasted into shape. Lori Twersky denoted the page numbers by hand, and the logo was (what else?) a hand-drawn dog, often portrayed with a bone or scratching its head with a back foot.

Considering that we listened to The Bangles in the 80s, Bitch was kind of a revelation. Whether it was an article about Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth or Lydia Lunch, Bitch was full of snarky interviews, fiesty feminist rants, and a genuine appreciation for the music they made.  These rockers weren’t girlie-girls — they kicked ass (and, as one issue told us, Joan Jett inspired a cult/commune in San Francisco to hold her up as a near-deity).

So as I get ready to see “The Runaways” despite its mixed reviews, I’m thinking about my teenaged relationship to women rockers — the revelatory experience of watching Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love (no one who saw Hole’s “Live Through This” concert could doubt her ability to kick rock’s ass), Blondie, Lydia Lunch, the Breeders, and oh, Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” women who seemed to be making big feminist statements just by being so fierce in their lyrics and onstage.  Is it simply my age that makes the thought of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the roles of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie a bit distasteful?  Trying to suppress my doubts in an age of Lady Gaga, Twilight, and “post-feminism.”