Finally…two (count ‘em) films for women which are not just about boys and shoes

I went to see both The Runaways and Made in Dagenham the other week. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from either. Made in Dagenham has been touted as the new feel good hit and, as the Daily Mail expressed, though it “may look off-puttingly like a radical feminist tract [… ] this is a film that should lift your heart, whatever your politics.” With its cheeky, Carry On characters, it had apparently had the working title, ‘We Want Sex!’ thanks to a real event at one of the women’s demonstrations in which a WE WANT SEX EQUALITYbanner had not been properly unfurled. My mother and I went to see it, and she told me beforehand that she wasn’t sure if she even wanted to go, so worried was she it might make her angry. She had been deeply affected by the original Dagenham strikes in 1968, and was concerned that the film was simply going to make a light mockery out of it.

I had similarly mixed feelings about going to see The Runaways. Hannah and I had got tickets to see it, and since Joan Jett had been something of a role model to us as lonely, bad hair sporting, cigarette wielding sixteen-year-olds dancing around to ‘I Hate Myself For Loving You,’ we were both sceptical about how Hollywood and in particular two Twilight stars were going to pull this one off. So it was with a queasy feeling of trepidation, my heart braced for disappointment and a bag stuffed with chocolate, fizzy cola sweets and beer (even with Orange Wednesdays 2-4-1 deal the tickets still worked out around £6 each, so bringing one’s own supplies is always essential), that I entered both films…and I am surprised to say that I loved both of them.

My favourite was The Runaways, which is loosely based on Cherie Curie’s autobiography, ‘Neon Angel’. The film focuses on Joan and Cherie, and little detail is given to expanding or explaining any of the other girls in the band as characters – they simply serve as plot instigators as we watch Joan and Cherie’s relationship progress. The band is originally formed by Joan, with the openly sexist and obviously deranged svengali figure of Kim Fowley, and the girls fight tooth and nail to claw their way to recognition in the misogynistic, solely male environment that was the music industry in 1975. In no way do I claim that this film is revolutionary or even a technically great film; it’s not. The film falls into cliche on more than one occasion, with overly long and boring shots of Cherie wandering around, high on drugs, with swerving camera work that makes you nauseous when accompanied by lots of trippy lights and twanging guitars. More than once, I found myself frustrated and wanting to shout, “YES WE GET IT!” By this stage, we know by heart just what a Troubled Musician High On Drugs In The Height Of Excess & Fame™ looks like; it has been done many, many times and we do not need fifteen minutes more of it, thanks.

But where the film fell into Hollywood cliches on the issue of drugs, one of the reasons I liked it so much was that when it came to the issue of Kim Fowley’s disgusting sexism towards the girls, and making evident the (still prevailing issue) of the girls being forced to sexualise their image to ‘make it’, the film didn’t disappoint me. At the start of the film, though Fowley is obviously a bastard, he is set up as a comedic character. As he gyrates in front of Cherie at her audition, telling her what to sing and how to sing it, screaming, “This isn’t about women’s liberation – this is about women’s libido!” – I cringed, hoping against hope that his character was going to be shown up to be a complete pig by the end. I assumed that instead of this, they were going to try and portray him as a token comedy character, the ‘loveable’ misogynistic-but-it’s-okay-guys! dude who was going to ‘help’ Cherie by releasing her inner sex kitten. Or even – and this would have been worse – going full strength, unadulterated Hollywood by turning him into a paternal figure for the girls; after all, it is brought up throughout the story, that both Cherie and Joan have daddy issues (Cherie’s is an alcoholic and Joan’s has left the family).

Thankfully and surprisingly, the film did not take either of these routes, and instead painted Fowley very clearly and honestly as the mentally unstable, unedifyingly manipulative misogynist he was. One of his last scenes in the film – wherein he taunts and laughs at Joan from behind the safety glass of the control room as she, overtaken by immense frustration and anger, all but destroys the studio – is doubtlessly one of the film’s most powerful moments.

Another scene that stayed with me was one which involved the girls’ reaction to discovering that Cherie had been convinced by Fowley to do a perverse (particularly when you consider she is barely fifteen) photo shoot for a Japanese calendar, all PVC and doggy-style poses. The girls are horrified when they see the pictures, and the dialogue between them seems depressingly familiar and serves to highlight the issue of forced/expected sexualisation that girls today are still dealing with on a daily basis in the music industry, the fashion industry, the film industry and in normal everyday life. “He phoned me up and told me to do it. What was I supposed to say?” Cherie agitatedly points out to her bandmates. “…You could have said no!??” Joan exasperatedly throws back at her, “Now this is all anyone will ever remember us for…”

Made in Dagenham had scenes of its own which stayed with me – though not on quite the same sort of level as The Runaways scenes did, and I’m unsure why. It definitely received better reviews and more publicity than the latter managed to garner. Made in Dagenham primarily focusses on the life of Rita O’Grady – a loveable, sweet-natured, and unlikely leader, who finds her voice and uses it, leading her fellow workers at the Ford Factory into strike. Rita is a fictional character – she appears to be a hybrid of all the Ford strikers rolled into one, and it works. Sally Hawkins is a brilliant actress, and captures well the sense that these women were utterly unused to having a platform from which to speak, to raise their voice or to give their opinion from. Despite being rowdy and carefree when interacting and joking around with each other, they certainly weren’t expected to speak out in a room full of men, and even less were they expected to do so with a conflicting view. We observe this as Rita grows steadily bolder and braver throughout the film, starting out timid and shy, shocked by her own innate power, and triumphantly addressing a room full of Trade Union men, and speaking on national television.

I loved the sense of solidarity the film conveyed and one of my favourite scenes was when Lisa Hopkins, the wife of the Ford manager goes to visit Rita. Rita is at a pivotal moment in the film – one of the striker’s husbands, disturbed by his servings in the war, has committed suicide. His wife feels desperately guilty for striking and protesting instead of looking after him and being a dutiful wife. Rita’s own husband is beginning to resent her always being away protesting, and she herself is starting to doubt the whole process, the sacrifices involved and its relative value as being worthwhile. Lisa Hopkins has met Rita once or twice outside school when they are both picking up their children, but has never told her who she is married to. Yet she comes and visits Rita, and tells her that she has a degree from Cambridge and yet her husband treats her as though she is a fool. With tears in her eyes she congratulates her, tells her she’s making history and asks of her, “Don’t let me down.” I really appreciated how smoothly and gracefully that one scene conveyed to us the hope that the strikers were giving to women of all classes.

However, the film also managed to irk my inner feminist critic more than The Runaways did. Firstly, the horrible missed opportunity as the film drew to its end, where there was no mention of the fact that there still exists today a pay gap between men and women. The film ended joyously, bathing the audience in a false sense of security, “well, aren’t we all just glad THAT’S been sorted out now!” It is the Achille’s heel of most feel-good films; wherever they are based on real life events or characters, there is the over reaching objective to sustain that fuzzy glow and soft drink fizz in the mouth, which regrettably seems to necessitate papering over of cracks and actual facts, both. It would have been leagues better if there had been just one modest title at the end, that would have informed, inspired and motivated those people (of whom there are far, far too many) who do not know about the current pay gap.

My second problem with the film was the much hyped, unnecessary and ridiculous notion of the women stripping down to their underwear in the factory. As one of the original strikers says of this scene, “That was a bit degrading – there’s no way would our boss have allowed us to show our underwear like that!” So just what was the point of this scene? Why did Nigel Cole elect to include it? It was definitely historically inaccurate and served no plot purpose whatsoever. All that it really did was give weight to the argument made by those who thought the women didn’t need to strike because they didn’t need to work; their husbands were the real breadwinners, their work was nothing much, just a fun hobby, something to keep them busy. Showing them stripping off at work merely re-enforced the view that these women didn’t really take their job seriously. I’m sure that this is not what Nigel Cole intended, so one can only assume that the stripping was just stuck in there for some cheap laughs and a little bit of titillation. Which is a shame.

This gripe brings me to my next point, which is the appearance of the women. Now I know, I know; the film industry is never going to be anxious to cast plain or slightly overweight women in films – and of course The Runaways was no exception. Both Kristin Stewart and Dakota Fanning are stereotypically gorgeous. But then…so were Joan Jett and Cherie Curie. They were meant to fit the glamorous rockstar mould. The point of Made in Dagenham, however, was supposed to be that these women were ordinary women, fighting against inequality. The youngest of the original strikers was thirty-five, and one of the most vocal women of the strikes was named Rose Boland, who was heavy set and powerful-looking. In contrast to this, the youngest striker in the film (‘Sheila’, played by Jaime Winstone) is about twenty, dreams of being the next Twiggy and wears hotpants to work. The rest of the ladies are all slim, attractive, and stylish (Rita herself is waiflike and conventionally ‘feminine’). In fact, as far as I recall there is only one remotely heavyset woman in the film, and she never gets a character name or any important lines. She purely exists, it seems, to bring more ‘comedy’ to the stripping off scenes. Because it’s obviously hilarious when a larger lady takes her clothes off. I get it, I know that that’s how the film industry works. But in a film that is supposed to be about equality, it just renders the message a bit hollow, hypocritical and…well, ridiculous. Especially when, in the same film, Bob Hoskins (himself an ordinary, short, plain-looking man) is allowed and accepted to play an ordinary, short, plain-looking man.

I could nitpick and complain more. There was more that bugged me about the film, like there were things that annoyed me about The Runaways, too. Cherie’s book ‘Neon Angel’ deals with horrific stories of abuse and rape that the girls were forced to deal with, which were only ever lightly touched on in the film, and I wish that they had gone into this on a deeper, more honest level instead of focussing for so long on the substance abuse. I know that the drugs were the main issue for Cherie, but if they had just shown the level of abuse she received while growing up, the audience may have better understood and perceived a different reason as to why she continued to abuse herself with drugs. The film definitely played down the sexual abuse and that form of glossing over and re-writing is in itself another form of silencing.

I certainly cannot fault either film too much, however. I just can’t, because both warmed my heart. With the ever present over-saturation of movies in the industry which are all about braindead women stabbing each other in the back to get: The Man/pregnant/the latest pair of designer heels, of COURSE I am going to fall in love with films about women brandishing guitars, rising up and fighting for equal pay, pissing on the all-male, arsehole headlining band’s instruments, triumphing and standing up strongly and shoulder-to-shoulder, without men. Let’s hope to god that this heralds the start of a new trend in mainstream film, because we are ready for it. We have been ready for it for a long time.

– Siobhan Knox (edited by Hannah Dunton)

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