Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Rock of Ages hit shelves this week, Adam Shankman’s latest serving of perversity distilled to its most innocuous gleam. Dudes belt out power ballads and suffer the outbreak of boy bands as ladies are taught to hide their inner groupie, tongue a rock star, or empower themselves with some good, old-fashioned stripping. It’s hair-band classics filtered through a pop-music aesthetic, a place to watch old pros like Sebastian Bach and Kevin Cronin belt out “We Built This City” as Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is shriveled into the anthem of uptight mothers.
One can choose filtered nostalgia, or opt for a timely and much more kick-ass alternative on this, the first International Day of the Girl.*
Thirty years ago this Monday, the illogically charming Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains hit screens (in its terribly brief run before late-night television obscurity and cult fervor.) A 15-year-old Diane Lane stars as Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, a fledgling orphan who starts a band with her sister (Marin Kanter) and cousin (Laura Dern who turned 13 on set) to get out of their deadbeat town. After a disastrous and ill-prepared debut safe from the career-killing immediacy of smartphones and the Internet, Corinne quickly learns how to manipulate the media to her advantage and become an overnight success. The film has everything in Rock of Ages – the trials and tribulations of agents, the booze, sex and violence of life on the road, the conservative folks that threaten musical rebellion, romance – plus a kick-ass cast of women, surprisingly modern attitudes about power and media, and its own sea of real-life cameos (Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols, plus folks from the Clash and the Tubes).
Corinne lives by her own rules, even as a cherub-faced snark master getting fired from her minimum wage job (by Brent Spiner!) while participating in a local news program. Her appearance resonates with teens, who write to the station en masse until the program does a follow-up, one where Corinne disguises her innocence with red-painted eyes and becomes “Third Degree Burns.” Instead of a young and clueless puppet to a lasciviously problematic agent, Corinne is a force of immature, yet formidable, power. The older men around her try to play her and control her. They advise her; they give her a leather catsuit to be appealing to the audience, which she immediately discards for something racier and completely in her control.
Ripping off her red beret and overcoat onstage, Corinne reveals a red, see-through shirt with no bra, underwear, and tights. She sneers at the crowd heckling her before lecturing the ladies: “Be yourselves. These guys laugh at you. They’ve got such big plans for the world, but they don’t include us! So what does that make you? Just another girl lining up to die. … I’m perfect. But nobody in this sh*thole gets me because I don’t put out.”
Corinne makes an image she knows she can sell, but the difference is, it isn’t at the mercy of anyone else, and is inextricably linked with the idea that women should break out of the antiquated molds they struggle with. At first, a local newscaster Alicia Meeker (Cynthia Sikes) slut-shames her. “It doesn’t make sense to wear a see-through blouse and no bra and say, ‘I don’t put out,’” the reporter challenges. Corinne immediately qualifies, explaining: “it means I don’t get had,” but it works both ways. She is choosing her own sexy apparel, and refusing the idea that it invites or welcomes unwanted attention (an idea we struggle with to this day). Her power leads Meeker to champion her and even replicate some of Corrine’s style, and when her coanchor questions the media-crafted hero worship cast upon the Stains, she replies: “Those girls created themselves.”
“Female existence should not be a rush to the grave, or even worse, the supermarket.”
Corinne’s “Third Degree Burns” is a rock star resisting “life as we know it,” from the slightest of interactions as she lights her own cigarette rather than accept chivalrousness, to the creation of her public persona. She’d rather struggle on her own than be a glorified groupie; she’d rather find her own path than be guided by a man. As much as her mistakes detonate bombs along her path, the only true roadblocks to her trajectory are the times she gives up control.
Though the film never got a wide release, and only came to life on late-night television, it was an inspiration to, in Diane Lane’s words, “serious-ass girl bands.” Tons of future female rockers love the film, from Courtney Love to Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, who called it “the most realistic and profound film” she’d ever seen. Even Jon Bon Jovi (ex of star Diane Lane) is listed amongst the film’s famous fans.
The only thing sadder than the film’s abysmally small release is the fact that screenwriter Nancy Dowd, who won an Oscar for Coming Home and is the pen behind Slap Shot, had her name taken off the feature after fights with director Lou Adler and sexual harassment from a camera operator who groped her. This makes it all the more stunning that this film existed, a movie positioned as a rock flick rather than a feminist picture, boasting such a fiercely independent female star to scream and rock against sexism, slut-shaming, and the marginalization of women.
Who needs Stacee Jaxx when you can have Third Degree Burns?
The Making Of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains
Interview with Director Lou Adler
“After The Runaways, But Before ‘The Runaways’”
Spin revisits the film
Be a Professional (or not): The Conflicting Messages of Cult Classic
*For some diverse and inspiring film options for girls today, revisit 10 Must-See Titles to Inspire Girls with Film.