This is my final installment of "Tuning In" for Bitch. I had a blast writing the series, enjoyed the discussions these entries generated, and appreciated the support the staff gave in putting this series together. While I'm sad to see it end, I look forward to reading current and future guest contributors' blog series. And for those who want to continue "tuning in," I encourage you to follow my blog, Feminist Music Geek. You can also follow me on Twitter.
First, there is the matter of the source material. I'm With the Band is still in print and considered vital documentation of rock's free love era. The book catapulted Des Barres into a successful writing career as well. Yet it also incited contention amongst many feminist critics. Des Barres, who herself identifies her actions as feminist, was surprised by this response. Having just read the memoir in anticipation of this entry, I understand the fuss.
Apart from finding the author's writing and storytelling unremarkable despite the book's supposedly lurid content, I had difficulty conceptualizing groupies as empowered, autonomous beings. I don't want to slut-shame or pathologize the author, though I cringed every time she described her absentee father as her "big, gorgeous daddy." If Des Barres wanted to travel, attend concerts, and have sex with a bunch of male rock stars, I don't begrudge her those good times.
I admit that it is hard for me to see how these actions were revolutionary. I came of age during the third wave's emphasis on sexual agency following the sex wars. These values were compromised by the noxious label of "do me feminism" before mass culture folded them into postfeminism. But as several literary and critical works note, the decision many white girls and women made to drop out of conventional society was quite radical for its time, as well as an indication of how few options were available to them. Of course, we can't overlook how identity markers like class, race, and sexual orientation made it easier for some to drop out while many had to stay at home, in the closet, or on their side of the city.
Yet to claim that occupying the role of groupie is feminist on the basis of choice seems to enervate the political muscle of the word and obscure the reality that Des Barres and many of her friends relied on successful male professionals to define their self-worth and dictate their personal trajectories. Furthermore, while these women perceived themselves as free agents–Cynthia Plaster Caster turned her fandom into a form of artistic expression -- they were not always treated this way by the men with whom they were involved. In I'm With the Band, Des Barres is dumped by Jimmy Page for a pubescent fan, mistreated by a possessive Don Johnson, and ignored by guitarist Chris Hillman. She does step out with Mick Jagger and a few others, but I'd hardly call that a victory. Empowerment through cheap sex doesn't make up for all the self-doubt she evinces throughout her memoir in response to her lovers' actions.
But this story could make for interesting television if executive producer Deschanel gets good people involved. I'd especially like to see attention paid to the era's changing gender, sexual, and racial politics. I hope these issues would be rendered in a complex, sensitive manner, as Mad Men at times evinces with bracing candor.
Playing Des Barres could be smart preservation of Deschanel's musically savvy image. She's long associated herself with projects that position her as boutique indie cinema's hipster darling and manic pixie dream girl, aligning herself with actresses like Natalie Portman, Ellen Page, Kat Dennings, Olivia Thirlby, and Kristen Stewart. Demonstrating knowledge about music has been central to her persona, most notably in (500) Days of Summer and Almost Famous, both of which I've written about at length on my blog. BUST's cover girl is also the vocalist for She & Him, her indie pop outfit with M. Ward. And not that we should foreground celebrities romantic lives in our readings of them, but she is married to Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. In short, apart from Chloë Sevigny, few actresses are better positioned as indie's cultural ambassadors than Deschanel.
It's also interesting that the medium Deschanel is looking to work with is television, as she is a film actress apart from appearances as a guest judge on Top Chef or Bones, the Fox procedural on which her sister stars. So were Sevigny and Page. However, Sevigny changed the emphasis placed on film with her breakthrough performance on Big Love. Page hosted Saturday Night Live, appeared as tween pop sensation Alaska Nebraska in a recent Simpsons episode, delivered PSAs against Burma's military dictatorship, and is a spokesperson for Cisco. Preceding the announcement of Deschanel's HBO deal, buzz gathered around a project Page was doing with Alia Shawkat for the network about two twenty-something girlfriends who stitch 'n bitch. Given television's cultural renaissance in the past decade, it seems foolish for niche actors not to explore the medium's possibilities.
I'm curious what Deschanel will bring to the role, as she's playing Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in Almost Famous instead of the cool older sister with the bitchin' record collection. Frankly, before reading the memoir, I thought Deschanel was miscast. I imagined Des Barres possessing the wise swagger, crackling wit, and menacing sensuality of Fairuza Balk's Sapphire character. But if the author's depiction of herself is any indication, Deschanel's performance as dream girl Summer Finn may have prepared her for the role. Both characters are fetishized as excessively feminine, often to the point of infantilization by their male suitors, who treat them less like people and more like vessels through which to funnel their one-sided desires. Both share a love for vintage attire, especially granny dresses and baby doll shifts. Deschanel could probably leverage her deal with Cotton for the production's wardrobe department.
Yet I hope the show digs past the chintz and lace of life on the road to delve into Des Barres's attempts to break into show business. She struggled to become an actress, mainly securing cameo performances in skin flicks where she wore padded bras or was relegated to the background to obscure her small breasts. This seems like an area that would offer rich commentary on the film industry's sexist and misogynistic practices.
In addition, Des Barres sang back-up on some male artists' recordings. She was also a member of the Girls Together Outrageously, a vocal ensemble comprised of groupies. Admittedly, the GTOs were assembled by Frank Zappa and accompanied by his band, the Mothers of Invention. Also, some of their songs are unfortunate relics of the era, with upsetting references to hypersexualized black men and predatory lesbians. But seeing Des Barres attempt to create something artistic may be worth exploring. At the very least, we know Deschanel has the pipes.