I sat in a theater and listened to Jett speak about the blatant, rampant sexism in the music industry, and I honestly wondered if there is ever any time, any space, any way for a woman to live safely in this country.
One is a cunt, a whore, a slut.
According to rock star Joan Jett—as stated in Kevin Kerslake’s documentary, Bad Reputation—she endured these labels after her all-female rock band The Runaways broke up because she subsequently committed the crime of Playing Electric Guitar and Fronting an Otherwise-Male Band without a Penis.
The second woman is confused, coming forward at a suspicious time, eager for fame, a Democratic plant.
She is Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who, at great personal cost, is trying to save America from handing yet another male sexual predator a high seat of power.
On the night before Dr. Ford testified in Congress about the sexual assault she endured at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; on the night before America watched a female lawyer question Dr. Ford because male Republican senators lacked the courage to do it themselves and the decency to let the FBI investigate; before that panel of old, rich, white, alleged straight, allegedly Christian men tried to destroy the credibility of a woman who could not let her accuser control women’s reproductive freedom for a generation, I sat in a theater and listened to Jett speak about the blatant, rampant sexism in the music industry, and I honestly wondered if there is ever any time, any space, any way for a woman to live safely in this country.
I discovered the Runaways in reverse. I was born in 1970 and was musically aware by 1976, when my parents bought me my first album—Destroyer by Kiss. I branched out to bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, tracing them back to the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles, Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Janis was my gateway artist, showing me women could play rock and roll, not just pop or R&B, and kick as much ass as any man. Janis led me to Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, and many others.
I heard a couple of blistering, badass singles in 1980-81—“Bad Reputation” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)”—without, in those pre-Internet days, knowing who played them. I recognized the singer as an heir to Janis, only this music was harder, faster, punk-influenced. When Joan Jett and the Blackhearts released their album, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, with its face-ripping title track and its spectacular cover of “Crimson and Clover,” I finally learned her name.
I missed Jett’s old bandmate Lita Ford’s first album, but I saw the video for her second album’s single “Gotta Let Go” on this new thing called MTV, and I fell in love. While studying magazines like Rolling Stone and Metal Edge, I learned of and sought out The Runaways. It honestly never occurred to me that such a band shouldn’t have existed. I thought they were damn cool. Why would it matter that they were all girls?
Rock and Roll was a man’s world, hypermasculine even when the men adopted personas that seemed traditionally feminine. Women were groupies, old ladies, the ball and chain. They weren’t the lead guitarist. They weren’t the drummer. And they certainly didn’t lead an otherwise-all-male band.
Except that, after The Runaways, both Jett and Ford did.
Faced with sexist scorn and industry indifference—Bad Reputation details how the Blackhearts had to create their own label and sell their records from the trunk of a car, long before DIY art became de rigueur—Joan Jett and her best friend/bandmate Kenny Laguna nevertheless persisted. If you’re a longtime Jett fan, Bad Reputation might not tell you much you don’t already know, but this time, you hear it from Jett and Laguna. They speak frankly of the highs and lows Jett experienced during the Runaways era, her struggle to gain acceptance from mainstream record labels as a solo artist, the help she gave up-and-coming bands like The Gits, the rough days of playing state fairs in the 90s, and their eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As detailed in Kerslake’s film, Jett is a survivor, a breaker of chains, a smasher of barriers. She is a sister to and/or mentor for rock’s women—The Gits’ Mia Zapata, Alison Mosshart, Kathleen Hanna, and many others. When one of these young women are taken from us, she grieves, as she does when Zapata is raped and murdered while walking alone at night in Seattle. Bad Reputation shows, at one point, an introspective Jett speaking from the shores of life past 60 about how it could have been her who was violated and killed and left in the street like garbage.
Where are women safe in America?
Certainly not in the media, if what both Jett and Dr. Ford have endured is any indication. Not on cable-news shows, where their lives are dissected and displayed and analyzed in the minutest detail by people who never met them and who know only hearsay. And certainly not in the Senate, where—on September 27th, during his confirmation hearings—those conservative male senators mostly ignored Dr. Ford while Brett Kavanaugh raged and cried and bemoaned his fate, as if not getting a job is the same as being sexually assaulted. Preening balls of masculine indignation like Lindsay Graham complained about Democratic obstruction, and Chuck Grassley interrupted and mansplained, and Orrin Hatch, he of the “she’s confused” declaration regarding events he did not witness, showed what Congressional Republicans really think of women when asked about Dr. Ford’s riveting, powerful, heart-wrenching testimony.
“I don’t think she’s uncredible. I think she an attractive, good witness,” Hatch said.
There’s nothing like commenting on a woman’s appearance to punctuate a hearing in which she relives physical and emotional trauma with the world watching—this after death threats forced her and her family into hiding.
What about strong women makes men, especially white conservative men, so afraid? In 2018, how can America have made so little progress that an admitted serial sexual predator can nominate an alleged serial sexual predator for a lifetime appointment in the judiciary, there to shred women’s reproductive rights as viciously as a rapist shreds a victim’s clothes?
In 1990, I saw Joan Jett in concert for the first time. She was touring in support of her album The Hit List, a compilation of covers, including AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”
“I don’t care to see Joan Jett play ‘Dirty Deeds,’” a male friend said to me before I left for the show.
Why? Would he have said the same thing if Nirvana had covered the song on their first album?
The ending of Dr. Ford’s story is not yet written, but regardless of whether Republicans succeed in forcing Brett Kavanaugh down America’s throat, she has inspired millions of sexual-assault and rape survivors to come forward, to name their accusers, to tell their stories. I retold part of my own assault when I participated in the trending of the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag. America is much better off thanks to Dr. Ford’s bravery. Republican sexual-misconduct apologists cannot unring this bell. History will remember the testimony given on September 27th as another self-inflicted wound to the GOP’s slowly dying body.
As for Joan Jett, her story goes on, but it already has a happy ending. From young upstart in a male-dominated industry to rebel against the corporate machine to elder stateswoman to Hall of Fame legend, Jett has already won. Patriarchy could not stop her. All these years later, she still loves rock, and I would hazard a guess that she does not spend one second thinking about whether Orrin Hatch finds her attractive.
Bad Reputation tells the story so far. It reminds us there’s plenty of reason to hope, to strive, to play our own guitars harder than anyone allows, because that is how individuals, and America, evolve.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.