I’ve been living life as a Runaway. I saw the movie three times, I read the books Neon Angel and Joan Jett, watched Foxes, and cut my hair. This narrative has a pull over me, a grown lady who should be done with slouching and greasy hair. The Runaways, the books, and the interviews, especially of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, are texts that clarify and complicate the meaning of child actors and musicians growing into adulthood.
Kristen Stewart is amazing. In interviews she’s not coy and cute, she’s weird and rude and awkward, defying the script of normal behavior. Her Internet lovers and haters seem obsessed with her nervousness and stuttering. Nothing seems to be a pose and that seems to piss people off, as if she should posture, stand straight and smile. The truth is in the YouTube commentariat, mean, gracious, and otherwise. One detractor says, “Kristen looks more like a hobo than a star.” That’s a good thing! Girl, meet me in the desert and we can be friends.
As Joan Jett and as herself, she’s sarcastic and tomboyish in hoodies and leathers, unselfconsciously saying “pussy to the wood!” Her Joan is sexy with an almost predatory TV eye. Male interviewers seem uncomfortable and excited to be talking about sex and drugs with teenage girls. And yet they always ask the actors about their responsibility to their fans, as if they constructed the text. Fanning always says enthusiastically that she loved wearing the outfits, especially the corset. She cannily focuses on the difference between herself and her character; her delight is in the freedom of opposites. The interviewer leeringly asks these questions about sexy wardrobe and lesbian kissing and they laugh it off, knowingly. And they are young people in this gross machine and they are fumblingly discovering music and power.
These are child actors transitioning to womanhood portraying girls being exploited on film, transforming themselves. Kristen resists the exploitation narrative. When she is pressured into slut shaming in one interview, she refuses. When she is supposed to evince horror at doing coke in an airplane bathroom, she basically says it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before. She’s no coquette. She resists when an interviewer wants her to say The Runaways were corrupted. Instead she says they were all crazy and abusive, because really, aren’t people drawn to glamour and fame fucked up and selfish—“I always wanted to be somebody and here I am.” Of course we Americans know that a teenage girl-kiss is of more consequence than the systemic gender oppression shown in the movie, or the refreshingly casual huffing and coke.
The policing of child actors is interesting to me and it can be seen in the paparazzi photos of the actors, the publicity materials, and the film itself. When bloggers compare photos of Lohan, (now an elderly 23) Taylor Momsen, Stewart, and Fanning, they express mumsy concern for the girls who wear torn tights and dishevelment and fear that virginal princesses will be “sullen and sleep-deprived and blurry and greasy and braless and develop trouble getting out of cars while keeping your crotch hidden.” Because the real enemy is sartorial choice and experimentation, not patriarchy!
Talking about kid blogger Tavi Gevinson, Zeitgeist Footpath says, “I feel it’s sinister to welcome children prematurely into the adult world, and I think that attitudes of ‘we shouldn’t patronise the genuinely gifted, they want to do this’ are the worst kind of relativism. We view these children as novelties to be our own images.” Reading Neon Angel, you can’t help but agree. The reality of being a child star is so weird that I don’t understand the distinction between dressing conservatively or punk. The exploitation of individual actors is more concerning than the cultural influence of images. Fanning (16) and Stewart (20) express two different modes of being a child actor and their characters stand in for two opposing views of womanhood, failed and successful. The end of the film shows Cherie folding towels and smiling into the distance (fondly remembering Joan? Is she happy for her? Is she reminiscing about her unhappy career?) while Joan seems to be planning her rock domination. This ending is ambiguous. To me it’s significant that Cherie is still working for a man at the wedding shop. She has traded one boss for another. She is victimized womanhood.
For the first ladies of rock, freedom is in bypassing altruism and self-sacrifice, traditional feminine traits, and wresting gratification NOW. However, freeing yourself from the feminine often means throwing yourself into capitalist domination, into what is male and what is destruction. There’s millions of ways to be, but I tend to think of three, the feminine, the masculine, and the third that says to hell with them all. Punk kept saying fuck ‘em all, but I thought that meant fuck those who oppress and marginalize. Really, it was more nihilist than anarchist, saying fuck you and you and you. Can a non-objectifying feminist spirit be applied to this dangerous world? The film is built on the narrative of female empowerment through the performative arts and while there are glimmers, only the androgynous Joan seems to have power. As Peggy Phelan says, “If representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture.” A young blonde in a corset does not a confident empowered girl necessarily make. I do find it transgressive that the star of a huge teen hetero romance franchise plays a sexy-tough girl/girl kiss that normalizes lesbian attraction.
The movie is a feminist piece that adhers to the Bechdel rule—at least two girls have conversations about something other than men. Girls express their nascent power, love each other, and forge family apart from their natal one. And Joan expresses my favorite dictum: Stop fucking around. Get off your ass and make art. She has preternatural confidence and unwavering stamina in black leather and studs, shaggy hair and jumpsuits, not frilly dresses.
After I read Neon Angel I struggled not to see the film as fraudulent. Cherie Currie’s book, while poorly written and edited, vividly portrays the horrors of her life, and in one scene, repulses the reader with a description of Kim Fowley, who should be in jail right now. Joan was pissed at Cherie for leaving the band, Cherie was pissed at Jackie for leaving the band, and everyone seems to have brutalized each other unsurprised in a culture of fear-discipline and excess, the culture of too many drugs and rape. The girls were victims and the adults were at fault, but it’s disappointing that The Runaways couldn’t have acted differently, with more sister solidarity than girls against girls, ditched Fowley and played local shows until they were able to tour. In Joan Jett, a book of beautiful photos and elusive colloquial text by Jett, the rock experience is reason for being, “raw power…raw pent-up coil,” and she was in control of it. There are at least three truths here (four if you count Edgeplay, one-time bassist Vicki Blue’s documentary.)
It’s very strange to think of Joan and Fowley being friends and one wonders how Currie could be friends with her after the shit Fowley pulled. In Neon Angel Currie is not very nice—she does not like Lita Ford and will call her fat if she wants to— but doesn’t really have reason to be. The seductive glitter world took her out of a miserable life into something much worse. Cherie says that women tell her they were inspired by The Runaways and she’s sorry to shatter their illusions but it was not a good experience. At the end of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains we see this too, the idea of a failed band whose primary importance is in its influence and the history, its subversion of the heterosexual intimacy fantasy of a man singing to women. So rarely do I see girls on film acting wild that this movie felt like a revolution.
Fowley is a proxy for a perverted audience (“death cats and masturbators” he says) and an industry that abuses for capitalist gain and packages in the most convenient and salable way. For all Fowley’s control, The Runaways look like greasy tomboys with homemade shags. “Guys don’t like girls who are tough. Guys like girls who are soft and flirty.” These girls were flinty, not flirty. Joan wanted to look like Suzi Quatro and Cherie wanted to look like Bowie and I cut bangs and put on some dirty kicks and corduroys when I got home from the movie. The body is a project in the image of your idols. The false promise a rock show has, that it is your home away from hostility of school and family, is such a tease, that even I at my advanced age wished for wasted glory.
When asked “How will library school change your life?” Kati Nolfi responded “Well, I’ll be a librarian.” Five years later her wit still sparkles in Washington, D.C. She writes for Bookslut and can be found at katiismagic.blogspot.com