Why are punk rock girls always disasters in movies?
Last month Her Smell hit theaters. And with women empowerment on the rise, you’d think a 2019 film punk-centric film wouldn’t portray the same old female punk stereotype of the “self-destructive” musician struggling with their sobriety and their sanity.
‘Her Smell’ trailer
Hollywood has always struggled to capture the truth of punk rock. The music’s philosophy is about being an individual, embracing diversity and not conforming to norms, which is the opposite of Hollywood. The multimillion-dollar film industry might appear to celebrate nonconformity, but it’s rich white guy owners and award winners beg to differ. It’s no surprise that Hollywood doesn’t understand punk—and for some reason, it’s even harder to capture punk’s essence when it’s about a girl.
As a female punk, it’s hard to relate to any of the punk characters in movies. When I was discovering punk as a teen I thought I had to say “fuck you” to everyone and get my hands on drugs in order to be punk—which is messed up. The only girl punks I’d see on screen were narcissistic junkies or second string to the male punks. Look at Chloe Webb playing a doped up and neurotic Nancy Spungen in Sid and Nancy; or Dakota Fanning as a helpless and also doped up Cherie Currie in The Runaways. And don’t even get me started on the 1983 film Suburbia—all the guy punks forcibly strip a girl naked in the mosh pit. Seriously, where are the tough ‘80s girl punks? They definitely existed and were flourishing in real life at that time with Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex and the all-girl trio The Slits, to name a few.
‘Sid & Nancy’ trailer
And now Elisabeth Moss stars in Her Smell as an egocentric and doped up Becky Something (with suspiciously similar characteristics to Courtney Love). She may be the main character, but she’s still a troubled musician who can’t handle the punk rock lifestyle.
All of these characters are over-the-top, comedic versions of punk rock with bleeding mascara, grungy hair and overflowing self-entitlement. Sid and Nancy and The Runaways were based off real-life characters, but that doesn’t explain why they’re portrayed oddly similar. Especially when Nancy Spungen and Cherie Currie were wildly different people. Just because they both did drugs and were famed punks, doesn’t mean they’re the same.
There are some secondary female punk characters in these films that seem like they could be somewhat relatable, like Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett in The Runaways or Cara Delevingne as bandmate Crassie Cassie in Her Smell. But these less-doped up characters of the story are kept secondary. (Joan Jett as a supporting character to The Runaways, can you believe it?)
In SLC Punk!, another beloved punk-themed film, there are no main female characters and the females in it aren’t even portrayed as especially punk. They’re almost just there to be arm candy to the “real” punk rock men. Take Brandy, the girl that the main character Stevo (Matthew Lillard) falls in love with—she criticizes him for using punk as an act of rebellion, and all Stevo hears is that she likes him. Then when things don’t work out his best friend, Bob (Michael A. Goorjan) tells him he should “punch that bitch.” And look at Bob’s girlfriend. She’s dating a punk, hangs with punks and talks like a punk, but she isn’t considered punk at all—in fact, Stevo calls Bob a poser for falling in love with her.
‘Green Room’ Trailer
Indie films, like A24’s Green Room from 2015, get a little closer to capturing more realistic punk women, but even then the females are still only supporting characters (hey, at least they’re not doped up narcissists!). Alia Shawkat’s Sam felt like someone I’d know from a show at Alphaville but she’s not the star of the story.
The cult-favorite Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains also does a good job at depicting punk rock for females. Made in the ‘80s, but largely unknown until its 2008 wide release, the movie follows the rise and fall of the fictional all-girl punk band The Stains. The film not only shows relatable female characters and their transition into the chaos of punk and fame, but also the immense amounts of sexism and pressures they had to deal with on the way.
“Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains’ trailer
The film has been an obvious inspiration to many contemporary female musicians. Donna A. of The Donnas told Spin Magazine the movie is one of her favorites and one of the only films she’s seen that depicts the truths of an all-girl band. “The way they’re getting their butts pinched on the bus and all that shit—we had to [deal with] that,” she said. “The message I got was that you’re allowed to dress however you want and not be asking for it.”
Its influence is alive in contemporary DIY punk bands like NYC’s Surfbort. Frontwoman Dani Miller sports similar dramatic eye makeup of bold colors going off the upper eyelids like lightning bolts.
Even with these cult-classics and independent films slowly mirroring real punk rock women, Hollywood doesn’t seem to be getting near it at all. But maybe we’re too punk rock for Hollywood anyway.