A guide to girl-band-movie clichés.

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April 2 2010 6:41 AM

Svengalis and Signature Looks

A guide to girl-band-movie clichés.

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Playing loud music will freak men out. "Girls don't play electric guitar," a music teacher tells Joan Jett. He wants her to play acoustic songs instead. But even pop acts face bewilderment from the opposite sex. A woman playing music is seen as threatening to men because they're taking charge of their own satisfaction: writing songs, subverting the traditional female role of muse, and playing their own instruments. "One of the goals of The Runaways was to make it normal for girls to write and play rock and roll and sweat onstage," Jett has told Billboard magazine.

At a cocktail party in the 1997 Spice Girls vehicle Spice World, Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, is talking to a guy and says, "It's not that we want to be threatening to a male's masculinity or anything, or be dominated, but the funny thing is when we do meet men, sometimes they get all nervous and don't know what to say." He responds by getting nervous and walking away.

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A signature look is essential. It goes without saying that in the girl-band minigenre, the band in question must be hot. Not only should each member be svelte and conventionally attractive, but the group must have a signature style to telegraph its unique identity. The underlying message in these movies is that just being in a band is an odd choice, so to make up for that masculine energy she might be projecting on stage, she needs to play up her feminine assets. No jeans or stained T-shirts allowed.

The Spices each had their own nickname—Sporty, Scary, Posh, Baby, and Ginger—as shorthand for their personal style. Similarly, each Runaway embodies a different female type, whether it's the blonde bombshell Cherie or bass player Lita Ford, who's compared to Sophia Loren. The members of Josie and the Pussycats—who sing, "I'm a punk rock prom queen"—wear some version of cat ears, halter tops, and platform shoes. In TheStains, the band finds fame after giving themselves makeovers that include skunk-style bleached and dyed hairdos, red transparent chiffon blouses sans bras, and red eye makeup that makes the contestants on RuPaul's Drag Race look like they use a light hand.

The band will face challenges outside of music. During the final act of Satisfaction, pill-popping guitarist Billy (played by Britta Phillips, the voice of the animated cartoon Jem and now the female half of the band Dean and Britta) ODs, bringing the feuding band together. This is, of course, also a common trope in movies about guys making music, too, but not every band movie features plot points so resembling an after-school special. Movies about men and music, such as The Doors, tend to glamorize drug use as somehow essential to the creative process. In Spice World, the girls must rally around pregnant friend Nicola whose boyfriend left her before she delivers the baby.

A brush with stardom will almost tear the band apart. Fame has its price. This is a lesson essential to all bands movies. However, in the girl-band movie, there's usually only one member—the lead singer—who can be a star, which creates an understandable amount of tension with the rest of the band. When the Pussycats first get signed, they talk about always staying true to each other, but get torn apart by feeling jealous of Josie (the band name is changed to Josie and the Pussycats) and by brainwashing Josie to think that her band mates are holding her down. In The Runaways, Cherie does a spread solo for a racy magazine, at the behest of Kim Fowley, causing a rift between her and the rest of the band. Even in the video for No Doubt's "Don't Speak," the burgeoning fame of singer and sole female member Gwen Stefani is shown as being divisive. We're only to assume this mirrored the band's real-life tensions.

Even after the Runaways are shown as disbanded and washed up before some of the members could legally drink, the film's epilogue makes a case for the key members' musical legacies, with title cards that reveal the millions of solo albums sold and the band's enduring influence. It's a plot device better than anything scripted: Even when the band is torn apart, there is always redemption in the end.