The opening shot of The Runaways is of a drop of menstrual blood hitting the pavement. The message is plain: this is a movie about girls, told from a girl's point of view. Throughout the film, which chronicles the rise and implosion of the 1970s all-girl rock band, director Floria Sigismondi reinforces the female sensibility with a studied, matter-of-fact presentation of masturbation, lesbianism, and bodily functions. Men, when they appear at all, are disappointing, like singer Cherie Currie's (Dakota Fanning) alcoholic father; creepy and controlling, like the band's manager, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon); or expendable, like the band's roadie and Cherie's occasional sex partner, who disappears after a handful of scenes.
You can't tell the story of the Runaways without acknowledging the way Fowley, a lecherous self-promoter, traded on the girls' jailbait appeal to sell records. But in depicting the degradations and objectifications the girls submit to on the way to their 15 minutes of top-40 fame, Sigismondi raises the question: how do you make a film about female exploitation that is not itself exploitational?
In a scene that marks the beginning of the end for the Runaways, Fowley dispatches a photographer to shoot Currie at home. Wearing a short black vest and bikini bottom, she cavorts on her lawn, the photographer happily snapping away, until Currie's grandmother comes out and shoos him off the property. When the rest of the band sees the photo spread, they are disgusted, especially guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), who says she thought they were selling music, not cheesecake. Currie shrugs it off—the photos will bring attention to their music, she says. The audience is meant to relate to Jett's indignation—the band's success should hinge on their sound, not their looks—but it feels like a bogus position, since we, in watching the scene on the lawn, have been made complicit in Cherie's objectification.
Sigismondi might have filmed the photo-shoot scene differently—from Currie's point of view, perhaps, or even the grandmother's. Or she might have kept it off-screen altogether. But how, then, to present Currie's decision to perform in a bustier and garter belt, brandishing a whip? The director might argue that scenes like these—and bands like the Runaways, for that matter—represent female empowerment; that by using their sexuality to get what they want, the women are turning the tables on the men who seek to exploit them. This is the argument writer Diablo Cody and director Karen Kusama used to justify dangling a nearly naked Megan Fox to lure male audiences to last year's Jennifer's Body.
But power dynamics often have to do less with sexuality and more with economics; at the end of the day, the one paying the bills is the one with the control. This is a lesson Melissa Febos learned during the several years she worked as a dominatrix in a Manhattan dungeon. As she writes in her new memoir, Whip Smart, at first she thrilled to the apparent power she wielded over her "slaves." As she explained to her mom (yes, her parents knew), "It's not like I'm a prostitute or something. I'm in control of everything that happens. It's empowering." Eventually, though, Febos comes to see that the dynamic between dominatrix and slave is more complicated than it seems, and that she is, in a fundamental sense, subservient to her clients: "It was their fantasy, after all."
In The Runaways, you have to ask whose fantasy is being played out on the screen, and who is paying to see it there, and then decide for yourself how empowering the movie really is.