Besides both being movies I saw this weekend, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010) have in common that they both open with scenes of a teen girl getting her first period. Carrie is from 1976. That first scene in The Runaways — which actually opens with a shot of blood falling on pavement — is set in 1975. Both of them are about different ways the power of womanhood runs away with the main characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sigismondi chose to start The Runaways with that image, also.
In Carrie, and this has I’m sure been discussed ad nauseum by all the people who’ve seen it in the past 35 years, Carrie’s telekinetic powers first start to manifest when she gets her period. In the beginning, this seems like a good thing. Carrie asserts her own power, telling her mom it’s not the devil, it’s her, and decides to make a cute dress and go to the prom and be happy for a minute without worrying about sin. But of course — this totally backfires. When Carrie gets upset by a cruel high school prank, she loses control and burns down her school gym with everyone in it. Then she kills John Travolta by crashing his car and crucifies her own mom. (Granted, her mom had already stabbed her, but Carrie’s “fling every pointed object in the kitchen into her mom’s torso” method seems excessive.) The takeaway is that menstruation and therefore the female body are scary and monstrous.
Things are different in The Runaways: it’s not a horror movie, it’s a rock n’ roll biopic. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it starts with De Palma’s image of female grotesque-ness. In the hands of a lady filmmaker making a movie about lady culture, the period is no longer a source of supernatural horror. It’s just a pain in the ass. But it sets the scene for the story that follows, which is about Cherie Currie having her own form of power – the ability to make herself, to perform, to be fierce, to be Bardot and Bowie – packaged and sold as something she can’t really control. It’s not a coincidence that Cherie’s song is “Cherry Bomb”: “Hello Daddy, hello mom/ I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb/ Hello world, I’m your wild girl/ I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb.” She’s offering herself up to you in all her jailbait sexiness, but it is clear that she will blow right up in your face. In the movie, a lot is made of the way Kim Fowley tries to commodify her self-made image and claim it as his own. This is the main source of conflict between her and the other heroine, Joan Jett. Selling yourself like Cherie does is (as countless contemporary female celebrities can tell you) a hard road to walk: it doesn’t take much for things to blow up in Cherie’s face, and she’s left alone, working a menial job in a store.
Cherie’s story is not that much of a different message about teen female sexuality from Carrie’s. But the difference is that The Runaways has two girls in it. Joan Jett’s going through the ups and downs of fame right along with Cherie — but for her it’s never about anything but the music. It’s not a simple good girl/bad girl story: Joan’s complicity in turning Cherie into a Cherry Bomb is pretty clear. She’s seen contributing to the song (and the narrative); her relationship with Cherie is also complicated by lust. Where Cherie (at least in the movie, I know things were different in real life) gets lost, Joan’s able to symbolically cleanse herself through songwriting and emerge with a badass solo album (that she released herself after every label ever turned her down, though we don’t learn that until the end credits). I didn’t love everything about the movie — the bathtub scene where New Joan emerges cleansed of her corporate past was lame, and I wish the rest of the band got more to do since they also seemed interesting — but the core story about Joan and Cherie was really well-done and kind of amazing for a mainstream film.
That said, I’ve been reading Adorno lately, and I think it’s worth pointing out that the “power” that Cherie and even Joan have are limited to their abilities to enter into a male-dominated and corporate-owned milieu. This isn’t women’s lib, it’s selling some records. It’s women being powerful, but they are getting power by imitating culturally provided ways of being powerful and masculine.
That’s a pretty standard “pop culture makes us all zombies” argument — which doesn’t make it not kind of true — but at the same time, what else are girls supposed to do? If we’re stuck in the system, the least we can do is win on its own terms. And maybe blow things up a little.