More Than Two White Stripes: For Poly Styrene and Ari Up

 

       When I heard that Poly Styrene died yesterday, I thought it was another cruel internet joke. See, apparently the internet and celebrity deaths have become the best “joke” companions, as I have heard rumors of, quite literally, at least 4-5 other famous people dying within the last few months and they have been untrue.

But this was Poly fucking Styrene. I suppose the language use there should cause me to put a parental advisory on my blog now, eh? In any case, Poly Styrene. She was 53. And (plug your ears/cover your eyes again) she was fucking cool. I’m too young to have experienced her fully. I admit this. I was introduced to punk as a teen by a bunch of extremely nerdy and overly intelligent guys who (amazingly) are still my friends. They liked good literature, ska and punk rock. I met them at Rocky Horror. This was over 15 years ago. And when I heard the first few strains of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” it changed my life.

In fact, the first thing I did was put it on my answering machine. Yeah, ok, so I had my own phone line at home. But it was much easier. Just trust me. For years, my outgoing answering machine message was the opening of that song. It struck me because a) she was a girl like me and b) she was young like me. She was a little awkward looking, but she was OH MY GOD SO DAMN COOL.

Poly Styrene

There was something inspirational in the pure existence of that song. Alongside listening to my Descendents, Agent Orange and Bad Religion and whatever other bands we were rocking out to at the time, I knew she existed and that was pretty…cool. Because at the time I couldn’t admit to my friends that I liked other kinds of music because I thought they would disown me. Until I found some tapes on the floor of one of my friend’s apartments that were decidedly not punk. Then I knew that we were all on the same page, more or less. But that’s another story for another time.

There are so many problems that I see with Poly passing so young. First of all, it comes RIGHT on the heels of Ari Up’s death back in October, 2010. That was only A FEW MONTHS AGO. and the two women were only a few years apart. Not only that but…they both died of cancer. No offense again to those who can’t deal with a bit of swearing (you may want to skip to my film discussion a few paragraphs down) but…fuck that shit. This just plain sucks.

Ari Up, 1962-2010

I can’t help but try to think of the “punk rock women” we have in music now and notice the glaring space that is there. EmptyEmptyEmpty. The cancer that has taken these women has removed this very thing from our lives and it is of such importance. At least it is to me. And if you even attempt to give me Alanis Morrissette or something like that, I…can’t be held responsible for what I’ll quote at you through various academic sources.

We have Patti Smith. And the remaining Riot Grrls/Riot Grrl culture…who don’t seem to be up to that much these days and should be making more of an impact on things. We need women like Poly Styrene and Ari Up. And we need people to know who they are and to remember  them. These things are crucial. When our little girls are wearing pounds of make-up by 8 years old (and it’s not war paint) and the outfits are insanely small in order to betray themselves not in order to give themselves some steam, we have problems. And we’ve had problems for a while. Don’t get me wrong. I work out at the gym to Brittany Spears’ song “Toxic” and I love the video. But I’m an adult.

I was raised on X-ray Spex and The Selector and Bikini Kill and shit like that. Oooooh boy. And now I sound like the “when I was your age” person. But fuck it.

PUNK ROCK IS GOOD FOR YOU!! AND PUNK ROCK MUSIC BY WOMEN IS HEALTHY AS HELL!!

In conclusion, what I want to say about Poly and about Ari is that while cancer may have removed their bodies, it will NEVER EVER remove their indelible mark upon me or upon hundreds of thousands of others across the globe. I don’t care that Hot Topic sells X-Ray Spex shit (if it does), at this point. I just want her voice to be heard. I know that she went on to become a Hare Krishna and incredibly religious and that that is what she would like to be remembered for. And perhaps if folks are REALLY awesome, they will go and do the research, listen to those albums, and have that as part of the collection. Similarly, they will include Ari Up’s reggae stuff with her Slits records.

To Ari and to Poly- two women who rocked the stage harder than they know. As a female who never made it as a musician or as an artist, i have to work within the rhetoric of academia. I use you two as idols anyway, I hope you don’t mind. As you said so succinctly, Poly, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I say Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”

THE FOLLOWING IS A PIECE THAT I WROTE ABOUT A FILM CALLED “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS.” IT’S A FILM THAT FOLLOWS GIRLS IN PUNK ROCK MUSIC, AND I WROTE IT A VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME AGO SO PLEASE BE KIND. BUT I FELT THAT NOW WOULD BE THE APPROPRIATE TIME TO PUBLISH IT SINCE IT HAD NEVER SEEN THE LIGHT OF DAY. I DEDICATE IT TO ARI UP AND POLY STYRENE: THANK YOU FOR  EVERYTHING.

        

  

Just Two White Stripes, Ain’t Ya?

The Bizarre True Story Of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

So I went to go see a friend’s band play. I got there a bit before they went on, took one look at the band before them, and, unimpressed, headed to the bar and got a beer. I chatted for a bit with my brother and a few other friends, and then went in, just in time for the band to start. My friend Alex turned to me and said, “Have you ever seen them before?” I shook my head, no. Her eyes got wide, and she said, “You’re going to love them.” I turned my eyes to the stage, and watched, as the music began. She was right. I did love them. But what truly hypnotized me was the way that my friend Cooper held the stage. Her presence was hypnotic. As she played her guitar, and sang into the microphone, I was engulfed in my thoughts about what it is to watch a female musician playing rock’n’roll, and why it is exactly that I get such a thrill from taking part in that process. I watched her play, and I watched her scream/sing, and realized the politicalness of her performance and the almost primal elements that are brought forth, when a woman gets up in front of people and participates in the rock’n’roll world. Her screams resonated of a silence that we have been forced to live with for too long, and her obvious pleasure in her instrument, and her glowing sweat and smiles spoke of the rejection of the standard methods of rock communication that have been codified within the music world. A woman, grabbing a guitar, getting up on stage, and pronouncing herself a part of rock’n’roll, is a woman who has had enough of her limitations as a female. The screams/utterances that she makes, the riffs she lets loose, the beats that she hits, are all a part of an anarchic statement against the rock’n’roll hegemony that has existed for so long. Yeah, watching Cooper was something else. She was transformed from my friend, to the kind of example of fighting patriarchal dominance that I feel lucky to be audience to. God, I had fun at that show.

In a piece that Bell Hooks wrote about the pop-star Madonna, she states that

Her image…evoked a sense of promise and possibility, a vision of freedom; feminist in that she was daring to transgress sexist boundaries; Bohemian in that she was an adventurer, a risk taker; daring in that she presented a complex, non-static ever-changing subjectivity…She was the embodiment of that radical risk-taking part of my/our female self that had to be repressed daily for us to make it in the institutionalized world of the mainstream.[1]

The excitement that Hooks releases in the descriptions of Madonna’s earlier image presentation is the same kind of excitement that I felt upon the viewing of a film from the early 80’s, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Not unlike Madonna, the main characters of this film asks viewers to imagine a different world, a world in which a young rock’n’roll girl can takes risks, can be transgressive, and can fight against sexist boundaries. However, like Hooks’ later commentary in this essay, where she discusses how the evolution of Madonna’s image has “engender[ed] in diverse feminist admirers feelings of betrayal and loss,”[2] this film also recounts a tale of defeat, primarily by the hands of the patriarchal male-dominated system that seeks the removal of power and control from young women who have tried their best to steal it away. Now the question here is, does it make this film any less powerful because the women are defeated? Is Madonna’s early image any less seminal as a result of what Hooks sees as Madonna’s later reification of patriarchal sexual exploitation? In my opinion, these issues should not be ignored; they certainly problematize things, but they do not remove the incredible force and strength of the initial presentation. Within the Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, I think it is fair to say that the sum of the film is far greater than its parts.

            All Washed Up

After Nancy Dowd had received such high praise for her work with the film Slap Shot (1977), she was commissioned by Paramount Pictures to write two more films. Initially titled All Washed Up, the film was made in 1981. As a result of Dowd’s legal battles with Paramount in regards to her sexual harassment on the set and her desire to have her name stricken from the credits, it was stalled for another year. At this point, they showed a test screening during which the audience reacted poorly to the “downer” ending, and feelings towards any future for the film were not very high. Paramount, however, did release the film in 1982, but only to an extremely limited amount of “art-house” cinemas, and just so that they could fulfill their contractual obligations. The film sat on the shelves of Paramount for three years before the USA channel sought it out for their popular late-night program, “Night Flight.”

USA's Night Flight

At this point, a studio executive thought it would be better if they went back and shot a happier ending. So, three years after the initial release, they re-shot a few “MTV Style” scenes, even though a few of the young stars had grown a great deal taller, and looked quite a bit different from they had in 1981, and let Night Flight have the film, where it was shown enough times to develop a small but dedicated cult following.

The film tells the story of Corinne “Third Degree” Burns, and her sister Tracy (aka Dee Pleated) and cousin Jessica (aka Dizzy Heights). Their lived existence within their steel-mill town is depressing at best. Corinne decides to start a band with the other girls called The Stains, and, as a result of the drug-related death of one of the members of a heavy-metal/hard rock band that comes through their town called the Metal Corpses, they get the chance to go on tour alongside a British punk act called the Looters. Although their musical knowledge is practically non-existent, The Stains develop a large following due to the combined efforts of Corinne’s revolutionary self-presentation and an interested newswoman who supports their efforts through her show. However, after being suckered into a deal with a “big time” promoter who co-opts their image into money-making schemes and exploits their popularity with young teenage girls, The Stains become victims to the Industry Machine, and are “outed” to their fans who promptly reject their former heroines, and leave the three teens to deal with the consequences.

Be A Professional

This film has a multiplicity of “real life” rock’n’roll connections, just within the cast and crew. The members of the Looters boasted such names as Paul Cook and Steve Jones (members of the Sex Pistols) and Paul Simonon (member of the Clash), while the director of the film, Lou Adler, well-known for directing the film Up In Smoke(1978), was even better known for his work in the music industry, producing such bands as Jan & Dean, the Mamas and the Papas, and Carole King, not to mention playing a significant role in the planning of the first Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967. One of the most significant “rock crossovers” as far as the film’s content was concerned, however, was creative consultant Caroline Coon.

Caroline Coon

Coon had not only lived through punk in the UK, but had managed the Clash, been a staff writer with the music magazine Melody Maker, and written the seminal work on punk, 1988: The Punk Rock Explosion. Her input on The Stains was immeasurable. Coon describes her work with writer Dowd and the preparation for the making of the script, and states,

I took her [Dowd] around the punk scene in London and up North. She had this

idea of young women in a steel town in America which was full of unemployment, empowering themselves through rock’n’roll to escape…I was showing her where it happened, but also where the Damned, the Sex Pistols and the Clash lived, the kind of environment where it first took place. So Nancy went back to Hollywood and wrote the script. Then I was hired by Paramount as creative consultant and dress designer.[3]

Coon’s lived punk experience, along with those of the various members of different musical outfits, all combined to form an authenticity within the presentation on the screen. As well, Coon’s own experience as a woman in a male-dominated subculture was particularly essential to the film’s development, as she was able, along with Dowd, to construct that experience both visually and textually throughout the film. In fact, in all probability, Coon’s experience might not have been that dissimilar to that which was portrayed on screen, as she has been quoted as saying, “Whatever I did was sabotaged by the fact that I had tits.”[4]

Dowd’s desire to represent a picture of the punk rock ethos and the female experience within it was underscored by the remarkable presence of so many very real rock’n’roll legends. However, during production of the film, that very same presence and the problems within the hyper-masculine world of rock became as explosive as the climax of the film itself, causing Dowd to demand that her name be taken off the film entirely.

They Have Such Big Plans for the World, But They Don’t Include You

Punk musician Lene Lovich noted that the advent of punk rock was great, because “the whole idea of it in the first place was to do your own thing, which was really exciting, and people who couldn’t play were getting up and and playing because they really wanted to play.”[5] But, as Gillian Garr recounts, Lovich realized that no matter how “subversive” the music was, or how “alternative” the punk world announced itself to be, it stayed fairly close to strict gender norms- “attitudes towards women frequently remained steadfastly the same.”[6] What is interesting in Garr’s discussion of Lovich, is Lovich’s own take on why it was that women were treated as mere “novelty acts,” or disregarded as serious musicians. Lovich opens the sealed space of the music world to encompass society in general, and deconstructs her experience as being more than reflective of the male-dominated music business, but as indicative of those societal norms.

I was aware that women can be noticed because they are a novelty. But to be taken seriously, to be given some sort of credibility, is much more difficult. I think it’s because music is part of society, and you have to wait for society to catch up for things to change. I think many women would have liked to have done music, but you had to be willing to be completely manipulated, you know,  “Wear this dress…you can move as long as you shake your titties”- it was very confining…I think the stereotypes are fairly strongly stamped in people’s brains, especially people who run record companies.[7]

Lene Lovich, new wave/punk rock musician of the late '70's/'80s and beyond

While Lovich’s ideas about “waiting for society to catch up” are problematic, they also highlight the importance of the women, like Lovich herself, who did not wait for the world to catch up, and the intense strength of women like Nancy Dowd and Caroline Coon who fought the Rock’n’Roll Boys’ Club at every turn of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Lovich’s revelation of the manipulative and misogynist nature of many of the “big wigs” in the recording/music industry only evidences further the problems that ran rampant on the set of this film, not to mention the filmic text itself.

For Dowd, a patron of the same ideals of punk rock that Lene Lovich found so inviting, Fabulous Stains was an important film to make. However, the partnership with Lou Adler brought all kinds of unseen problems that dated as far back as Adler’s career in the music industry. David Clellon, who played the slimy booking agent/promoter in the film, said in an interview, “I think that the reason why Lou didn’t get Nancy Dowd’s story maybe is because he is more part of the problem than part of the solution. To me, the Mamas and The Papas was easy listening, pleasant music, catchy themes, cute lyrics. It was very easy to listen to but it wasn’t revolutionary music.”[8]

The music that the Stains played, however, WAS revolutionary music. It was punk-styled, yet it had a clear feminist edge. The first time the band performs, in the film, it is clear that they are not exactly musically competent. At the end of their set, however, as the audience is booing them mercilessly, Corinne removes the cap that she has been wearing, to reveal a shock of black hair with white skunk-like stripes going up the sides. Even her band mates are astonished at the change from her previously blond hair. Corinne stares defiantly at the unfriendly bar patrons, and states, unapologetically, with a tangible anger in her voice, “I’m perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me- because I don’t put out!” Corinne “Third Degree” Burns then storms off stage defiantly, having created far more than just a mantra for the band.

"I'm perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me because I don't put out!"

Her statement can be read a number of ways. Not only does it refer to the denial to “put out” sexually, the denial to physically lie down for someone else, it also plainly announces Corinne’s refusal to subscribe to the categorical subjugation of women. Corinne is not going to “put out” for anyone. She’s perfect. Even if no one does “get” her. She denies outside control, and she denies anyone else’s ownership of her. This kind of sentiment couldn’t have been farther from the sleepy strains of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” or the aching sadness of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Dowd’s script spoke of a rejection of the sweet, sugary “pleasant music” that David Clenon described, and of a reclaiming of power- a power that, no matter how “counter” any given counterculture was, had been denied women time and time again.

In her book, Scars of Sweet Paradise: the Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Alice Echols notes that although the “sexual revolution” of the 60’s brought about a certain level of sexual freedom for women, it also maintained conventional gender norms quite stringently. She remarks that, “the sexual revolution was a mixed blessing. Women were having more sex (and with less guilt), but they were also more sexually vulnerable. Instead of undoing the deeply rooted sexual double standard, free love only masked it in countercultural pieties.”[9] This era was the one from which Lou Adler had emerged, and prospered in, and this ideology was one that he clearly still upheld. As far as he could tell, women’s sexual liberation gave him license to uphold a “groovy” male rock’n’roll attitude (read: women were sexually free to do as they pleased, therefore so was he). Being involved in a production concerning that which he knew best (rock music and industry relations) he saw only that: a rock movie. This gave him authorization to continue the party that he’d been having for the last 20 years. It didn’t help that the rest of the musicians in the production were also male, and part of yet another hyper-masculine movement: punk. To Dowd’s dismay, the overt displays of testosterone off-camera made things more than a little bit uncomfortable.

Fee Waybill of the Tubes who played Lou Corpse, the lead singer of the Metal Corpses, recalls the “ambiance” of the set. “We had the designated ‘drug trailer,’” Waybill notes, “so that we would all go smoke pot to get into character, y’know, because we were drug addicts.”[10] David Brown, another actor in the film and the founder and head of the seminal punk rock record label, Dangerhouse, concurred with the descriptions of the drug-fuelled “party” atmosphere that Adler had created. In regards to Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains, Brown said, “We all thought it would be our ticket to success. Really what it turned out to be was a huge cocaine party for Lou Adler and his friends.”[11]  To truly back up this notion, it is not surprising that Paul Cook, one of the members of the Sex Pistols, remembered Lou and the experience fondly. He had lived rock’n’roll, as well, and this party was what he was used to. His comment on the whole situation was that Lou “was a really great guy. I have nothing but good words to say about him…Nancy and Caroline Coon thought we were bastardizing their idea. They took it too serious, you know?” [12] Excuse me, please? How could they not have taken it seriously? Had Cook not been a member of the in-group, he might’ve seen that Coon and Dowd had every right to be upset. As a male, and as one of the rock musicians, he had privileged status. He was part of the Boys’ Club. Being surrounded by the same environment that had prevailed over rock music for years, it is fairly easy to see how women like Caroline Coon and Nancy Dowd had a difficult time making a picture that was geared towards their own experiences, and not those of the majority of the population on the set.

But that wasn’t the least of it. In a film that was summarily about three young girls trying to throw off oppression, and actively pursue a future of their own choosing, it is reprehensible that the sexism that ran rampant on the set went to the extremes it did. Nancy Dowd relates the incident that finally pushed her over the edge.

   The Skunks [the look-alike fans of the Stains] were saying all sorts of outrageous things I had written. One of the old camera operators    refused to operate the camera. He said it was obscene and disgusting…He didn’t like [the content of the film] at all. During the scene in Burger King, I was supposed to read lines to somebody and I had to stand right next to this same operator so the eye line would be correct. He went to turn the knob on the camera and instead he grabbed my breast…Here I was with this ultra-rebellious girl story and that is the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in a movie. I couldn’t talk about it for a long time.[13]

Because of the time period during which this film was shot in, Dowd had little way to seek legal action. Sexual harassment was just part of life. As Lauraine LeBlanc notes, public sexual harassment is “a form of ‘sexual terrorism’ that functions as one aspect of the social control of women…sexual harassment and assault restrict women’s right to full participation in the public domain…public sexual harassment relies upon and reifies…power distinctions between women and men. Clearly, then…this form of sexual harassment contributes to sex discrimination at a broad societal level.” [14] LeBlanc’s discussion of the incursion on a woman’s personal space in order to claim control and power should not be taken lightly. In Nancy Dowd’s experience, she was humiliated, on the set of her own film, in front of a cast and crew. The camera operator who was clearly threatened by Dowd’s work and its “outrageous” and “obscene” content, felt the need to reassert his male dominance by grabbing Dowd’s breast. She had won an Oscar at this point, for her script, Coming Home. And no one on the set (least of all Lou Adler) raised an eyebrow. “There was a kind of silence and nobody, including…Lou Adler, said anything. That kind of thing would never have happened in a million years on Slap Shot, never. And that was a male picture.”[15] Dowd’s commentary in regards to the action occurring specifically because of the high feminist and female-empowering content of the film is significant. Dowd’s previous film, Slap Shot, a film about a male hockey team, was in no way textually problematic. It maintained status quo. However, three women who take it upon themselves to rock the world, and change everyone’s perspective on the way a woman should be seen and treated, is chaotic and deviant, something that disturbs traditional patriarchal norms. Thus, violence was inflicted upon Dowd, because she dared to upset the “balance.” She became so enraged after this incident that she left the set, not to return, and struggled to get her name taken off the picture. She is credited, not as Nancy Dowd, but as “Rob Morton.”

These Girls Created Themselves…

To better comprehend this film’s radical status, it is important to recognize not only the production issues surrounding it which caused it to remain hidden from sight for many years, and the ironic reinscription of standard male rock’n’roll practices that infiltrated the set, but also to look at the actual film text as well. The film’s tagline, “These girls created themselves…” is a direct assault to the idea that in order for women to succeed in rock, they must first have gained permission and help from someone else, in this (and in many other) cases, from a man. It is the recognition of the historically patriarchal nature of the rock business, and it is in express defiance of that history. Recognizing that break from conventional standards was not all that this line represents, however. The “DIY” ethic that this sentence seems to reference has been a huge part of punk rock culture, as noted by many important scholars and participants in the punk movement. Thus, having real life historical punk figures in the film as well as a pronounced emphasis on The Stains being a punk-rock band led to a direct discourse about women’s agency and the expression of individualistic femininity within punk, a subculture that, like rock, was highly male-dominated. These girls sought their own formation in a climate that was highly adverse to their doing so.

In her seminal work on punk and girls’ gender resistance, Lauraine LeBlanc states, “in the male-dominated world of punk, masculinity defines the subculture’s norms, values and styles. These norms, in many cases, directly contradict those of femininity, thereby requiring that punk girls reconcile these disparate discourses in constructing feminine punk identities.”[16] Within this film, Corinne Burns overtly engages in constructing her own female punk identity through a process that scholar Henry Jenkins has called “textual poaching.” While Jenkins’ work focuses primarily on fan cultures, I believe that his interpretations of Michel DeCerteau’s ideas about “poaching” from a text are particularly relevant to this film, especially in tandem with LeBlanc’s ideas about the creation of feminine punk identity in a hyper-masculine environment.

When Corinne first meets the punk band that The Stains go on tour with, it is at a concert, and she is an instant fan. Already a disenfranchised girl in a town that has given her nothing, she has become somewhat of a local celebrity by getting fired on live television and receiving a large media response, empathizing with her situation. One night she is at the local disco, and becomes entranced with the performance of Billy Frate, the lead singer of the Looters, a British punk band that has, due to an unfortunate sequence of events, been forced to play a bunch of dive bars, in small-town America, supporting a terrible, washed-up metal act called the Metal Corpses. Beyond the actual filmic representation, I feel it is important here to quote Dowd’s actual script at some length.

Corinne stares at the stage in disbelief. In Billy she has seen for the first time

someone who has made the synthesis between rebellion, sex, beauty, violence,

rock’n’roll and meaning it.

CORINNE

(impressed)

God.

BILLY

I’ve seen the place you live in. I’ve seen what you’ve been told to put up with. You know what you’ve got? You’ve got fuck all. What have you got?

CORINNE/OTHERS

Fuck all!

He rips into another teenage anthem.

Corinne walks towards the front of the disco. Suddenly all of the tired, despairing boredom of Charlestown has disappeared for her. Onstage there is energy and fury and anger at life – a refusal to grow fat and tired – and a sexuality so unabashed that all her denials of love seem provincial and inexperienced.[17]

Corinne’s experience at the show inspires her. She goes backstage afterwards, to

talk to the band, and finds herself lumped in with the groupies, not a situation that pleases her. She approaches Billy, telling him how much he liked his performance and tells him how the bands they normally get are “really just nothing, but you’re really unusual.” [18] His response is that of the traditional punk nihilism, but she persists. The exchange that occurs next is of the utmost importance.

CORINNE

You look like you made yourself up.

BILLY

Well, that’s better than looking like somebody else made me up, in’it?

CORINNE

I want to be like you.

BILLY

Be yourself.

Henry Jenkins writes, “fans [choose certain] media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests.”[19] As Dowd wrote in the script earlier, and as is pictured on-screen, Corinne’s experience of the punk band, mirrors the struggle that she has been facing internally. Her admission to Billy, “I want to be like you,” doesn’t mean that she wants to be Billy Frate, singer for the Looters, British punk band, it means she wants to be like what he has cast forth onstage. In effect, she has “poached” the image, not the man. Not unlike writers of fan fiction, or participants in on-line communities, what Corinne succeeds in doing is taking what she has seen in Billy’s performance and using it as a vehicle to express her own “cultural interests.” Part of this entails making the traditionally masculine “punk” image into one that melds Corinne’s own burgeoning sexuality and overt femininity with her demand for personal justice. Billy’s ideologies and calls to be heard correspond with Corinne’s own, just with a very different trajectory: Corinne is ultra aware of her existence as a marginalized figure, both within the rock’n’roll world and society at large, whereas Billy’s concerns lie with the class issues surrounding his British home, as well as his own personal sense of male anger.

Corinne’s ability to take what she needs from the performance and manipulate it, make it her own, is a highly revolutionary act. Yet not as revolutionary as when she actually does lift one of the Looters’ songs. Later on in the film, as the Stains are getting more and more publicity, and their fanbase is growing larger and larger, Corinne actually steals the Looters’ main song. Diegetically, it is supposed to read as retaliation for Billy’s supposed betrayal of Corinne in his attempts to find a different support act. Yet, when we see the Stains play the song, what we are really seeing is a literal representation of Henry Jenkins’ argument regarding textual poaching.

In his discussion about fans as active readers, Jenkins points out that, many times, fans “fragment and reassemble” the texts provided, in order to participate in a form of cultural production that is wholly their own, and tailored to suit their own pleasures. He addresses the fact that, primarily, this is because they are at a disadvantage, not able to fully participate in the hierarchy of cultural production, because they are the consumers, not the producers. He writes, “like the poachers of old, fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness. Like other popular readers, fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence entertainment industry’s decisions.”[20] Truly, Jenkins’ descriptions of television fan groups could just as easily be descriptions of women in rock’n’roll.  Corinne’s reappropriation of Billy’s song, her “fragmentation and reassembling” of the Looters’ text to a Stains text, is quite simply an expression of her own experience as a marginalized person. By “poaching” their song, Corinne is able to create a whole new product, not unlike many other female musicians have by covering male artists’ songs. Sure, she stole their song, but it means something totally different now that it erupts from her mouth. Ideologically, she has basically said that she cares not for the way that she and her band have been positioned in this “Boys’ Club,” and thus she will take their work, and use it for her own ends. It is a way of fighting the forced second-class citizenship that she has been given due to her female status. Like the fan’s experience of not being able to participate fully in the production of their favorite text, Corinne’s experience has been that of a woman in the male-dominated social economy of rock’n’roll, having to take what she is given. Thus, like the fan who creates her own fan fiction to get what she wants out of a given text, Corinne reappropriates the Looters’ song, and takes what she wants, proving to the Looters’ and everyone else how instable their control over her just might be.

       Female Existence Should Not Be a Rush to the Grave…Or the Supermarket

In the book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain quote punk icon Patti Smith as saying, “Most of my poems are written to women because women are more inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women. The masculinity in me gets inspired by the female. I fall in love with men and they take me over. I ain’t no women’s lib chick. So I can’t write about a man, because I’m under his thumb, but a woman I can be male with. I can use her as my muse. I use women.”[21]

Patti Smith, the Punk Rock Godmother

While it is important to recognize Smith’s own admission of her oppression, as well as her over-extension of heterosexist fantasies as to who is being inspired by whom (what happens to the gay/lesbian artist, in Smith’s world?) it is also significant to note Smith’s ideas regarding fluid gender identification. Smith, as a performer, has always been visually coded as more than slightly androgynous, and here, she recognizes her mental processes as being just as flexible. This refusal to stick to the strictly defined categories of masculinity and femininity is a living, breathing function of the punk rock existence for a female.

The Stains’ adoption of hyper-feminine aesthetics alongside an aggressively sexual and “tough” demeanor seems to reflect the desire to stay away from strict gender categorization, and yet maintain a female identity. This was not unusual for women in the punk world, and presumably, as a result of Caroline Coon’s role as creative consultant, it is the reason why the physical appearance, attitude and conduct of The Stains brings to mind such influential female bands from the punk-rock era, such as the X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Au Pairs, and the Raincoats, amongst others. This band of young women seems to act almost as a kind of quoting gesture on the part of Coon and Dowd, of the bands that paved the way for these filmic “girls who created themselves.”

The Stains’ rebellion against gender stereotypes in the film reflects the same rebellion that had in a way created them.  The album cover of The Slits’ 1979 release, Cut, for example, showcased the women in the band, topless, wearing loincloths, their bodies mud-soaked. Contrasting their nudity with a clear affiliation to primal elements (loincloths) yet completely covered in mud, this album cover obscured any kind of “sexy” element that might have been drawn from the photo. This is the same band that Lucy O’Brien notes, “wore knickers [underwear] outside their trousers, wound reggae rhythms around a speed feminine sound and ridiculed ‘Typical Girls.’”[22]

The Slits, "Cut"

Lauraine LeBlanc’s work with punk women seems to corroborate these same ideas of gender transgressions that the Slits took part in. She states,

As I interviewed girls…I found that they navigated through conflicts between the gender norms of punk and femininity by constructing strategies of resistance to traditional gender norms…my research shows that punk girls, by positioning themselves outside of the mainstream culture, engage in active resistance to the prescriptions and proscriptions that overpower…adolescent girls. In negotiating between the norms of femininity and the masculinity of punk, these girls construct forms of resistance to gender norms in ways that permit them to retain a strong sense of self.[23]

The Stains seem to walk that fine line, and occupy that liminal space throughout the film. Their sartorial declarations seemed to parallel those of the Slits, in that their clothing, often sexually provocative, was worn in such a way as to announce their femininity while at the same time ridicule it. By strongly claiming femininity and yet actively denying conventional standards of beauty, attitude, and demeanor, the Stains, like the Slits, turned gender norms on their head. Locating themselves in the netherworld that LeBlanc discusses, between masculinity and femininity, the Stains had a kind of access to both worlds, and were able to present that and share that with their fans, like what the Slits and Patti Smith were able to do.

I’m Perfect, But Nobody Gets Me Because I Don’t Put Out

The space that Nancy Dowd opened up with her script, All Washed Up is one that has yet to close. Toby Vail, a member of the influential band Bikini Kill, and one of the original members of the Riot Grrl movement, is quoted as saying that Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is “the most realistic and profound film I have ever seen.”[24] While Vail’s compliment is at least slightly hyperbolic, there is no reason to disbelieve her sentiment. The Riot Grrl movement followed very similar lines as the Stains and the Punk Godmothers, and is, to this day, recognized as one of the most powerful, pro-female rock movements of all time.

The re-ignition of interest in this film within the last few years is reflective both of the problematic location that women still occupy within rock’n’roll and of the still-burning fire to resist that oppression and not “put out.” The strength that was detailed in this film about young women resisting gender conventions and actively engaging in revolt against traditional social expectations by being rock musicians is a strength that few films of today carry. Although there have been a few notable exceptions, such as Prey For Rock’n’Roll, and even, to a certain extent, Josie and the Pussycats, there is still the eminent notion that women cannot be part of the rock world and stand on their own two feet. We have had plenty of films about men participating in rock’n’roll (Rock Star, Almost Famous, Sid & Nancy, Purple Rain, This is Spinal Tap, School of Rock, etc), but where are the Rebel Girls?

Before Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill ever sung “Rebel Girl,” a film was made about those “rebel girls” and the unfortunate misogynistic practices of a record industry set out to keep the Boys’ Club from ever breaking up.

Part of the "tacked on" final scene...

Dowd’s writing and message are just as strong today as they were years ago. Looking back on the whole thing, it’s really a small miracle that Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains could have made it as intactly feminist as it did, considering the production circumstances, and Dowd’s own disgust and abandoning of the project. Yet, it seems that this is the spirit of Punk Rock. Making it, even though no one thinks you will. Doing it, even though no one thinks you can. Reworking the situation, so that you can make it, and you can do it, no matter how unorthodox. Dowd and Coon’s battles against Adler and his Boys’ Club continue to pay off with each and every viewing of this film. Regardless of the issues that were had, or the somewhat ridiculous tacked-on ending (each Stain has “miraculously” aged a few years, and grown remarkably taller), the spirit of “not putting out” still shines through.

Now, whether that is just my subjective “textual poaching” or not might be debatable, but what holds through all, without debate, is that this film presents an extremely provocative and powerful example of punk rock women in all media, fiction and non-fiction, and the consequences that come alongside that, within the world of rock’n’roll. Whether it should be a film that is considered in parts, as bell hooks saw Madonna’s latter image betraying her former, or in the whole, by seeing that no matter what, the image of girls rockin’ out to the beat of their own drum matters most, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a film that truly is required viewing. Corinne “Third Degree” Burns said that she believed that every citizen should be given an electric guitar for her sixteenth birthday. Well, the economy is a little tight right now. Maybe folks can’t quite work out a guitar. So…what about the DVD?


[1] Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge, 1994.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacobson, Sarah. “Why They Didn’t Put Out…Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: The Expose of a Cult Phenomenon.” Grand Royal 6. 1997.

[4] Garr, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle: Seal Press, 1992.

[5] Garr, ibid.

[6] Garr, ibid.

[7] Lovich, quoted in Garr, ibid.

[8] Jacobson, ibid.

[9] Echols, Alice. Scars of Sweet Paradise: the Life and Times of Janis Joplin. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

[10] Jacobson, Sarah and Sam Green.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains: Behind the Movie. Documentary. First Aired on “Split Screen” episode #38. May 24th, 1999.

[11] Jacobson, Sarah. “Why They Didn’t Put Out…Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: The Expose of a Cult Phenomenon.” Grand Royal 6. 1997.

[12] Jacobson, ibid.

[13] Jacobson, ibid.

[14] LeBlanc, Lauraine. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

[15]Jacobson, ibid.

[16] LeBlanc, ibid

[17] Dowd, Nancy. All Washed Up. Original Script- Fourth Draft- revised. Paramount Pictures. January 30, 1980.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[20] Jenkins, ibid.

[21] McNeill, Legs and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

[22] O’Brien, Lucy. She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop & Soul. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

[23] LeBlanc, Ibid.

[24] Jacobson, ibid.

[25] Jacobson, Ibid.

6 Comments

  1. Glad to see your essay in a public setting after all these years: now people who really need to read and learn from it will be able to.

    One small correction, which ought to be footnoted: the “happy” ending reshoot took place before the commercial release of the film, so aside from a test screening or two with the original ending, the happy ending version is what was released to the public; the reshoot was not done just for the cable TV sale. In the original trailer for the film (long unseen until the DVD release), clips from the happy ending appear, clearly indicating this was the locked cut. There are also some tantalizing snippets of deleted scenes and alternate takes, none of which unfortunately could be located for the DVD:

    Another detail is that at the time, USA Network was a three-way venture between Paramount, Universal, and Viacom (Viacom did not yet own Paramount as they do today), so “NIGHT FLIGHT” often ran films from those entities since it cost next to nothing to acquire them. Besides STAINS, other films from the owner triumverate that aired on the show were Brian Gibson’s BREAKING GLASS, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian’s ON THE AIR LIVE WITH CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, MISTER ROCK’N’ROLL with Alan Freed, and, in ironic compliment to your essay, the documentary JANIS.

  2. To be fair, you’re the expert on this film, not I. And upon rereading it and mildly attempting to edit it…I am not very happy with it. I could write a much better piece now. That was written in 2004. I just thought it was the best time to put it up and I probably won’t have the time or energy in the near future to write a whole brand new venture, so…there’s my old one!

  3. Oh, I agree that it should be left as it was in 2004. Hence only footnoting, no large-scale changes.

  4. Well, i had to make some fairly large-scale changes…as in the fact that in 2004 we were still fighting to get the DAMN thing ON DVD. I had a great last line that I had to rephrase but…ah well!

  5. Great article. I saw this film a dozen times through the 80′s and I had never seen the happy ending until I rented the DVD, so the down beat ending did get a lot of airplay for years. Thanks for doing all the research!

  6. Thanks for the lovely words! I appreciate the fact that you liked this. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite films.


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