The Banger Sisters‘ Bittersweet Legacy Is That of Second-Wave Feminism

Movies Features Susan Sarandon
The Banger Sisters‘ Bittersweet Legacy Is That of Second-Wave Feminism

“Jim Morrison is a ghost, and so are you,” a young disgruntled suit barks at Suzette (Goldie Hawn) in the back hallway of Whisky a Go Go. Once an infamous barmaid of the celebrated L.A. music club, Suzette is having trouble with this new management. He disapproves of her beatnik shades, low-cut tanks and loose approach to work. She tries to convince him that she’s the spirit of the place and the last to remember a bygone era, but this manager couldn’t care less. He has a younger, edgier clientele to cater to.

Suzette sits alone in her Boho-chic apartment, looking through old photos, without a job but with a mountain of debt. She remembers the fabulous days of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll when she and her best friend Vin, or Vinnie, were “The Banger Sisters,” wild groupies posing on a “War Is Over” billboard. Sans any other direction in her life, Suzette sets out on a road trip to Phoenix to reconnect with her old accomplice and maybe ask for a bit of money.

In his review of writer/director Bob Dolman’s debut feature, The Banger Sisters, Roger Ebert called the film “pretty thin” while adding, “but you grin while you watch it.” The grin is still there 20 years later, but time has filled out the film. The vanishing ‘70s are even more remote. The upstart management is now fully part of the establishment. Watching The Banger Sisters today, we can forgive some of the script’s shortcomings for its stellar performances and what it captures about the changing history of second-wave feminism at the turn of the new millennium.

The script is deceptively simple. It’s the classic “worlds collide” plot when Suzette finally sees Vin (Susan Sarandon), and the pair realize how opposite they’ve become. Suzette is the carefree “flower,” while Vin is an uptight mom who now goes by her full name Lavinia and dresses “the same shade as the department of motor vehicles.” And it works, because Hawn and Sarandon are just fucking killer, man.

Hawn sets the tone right off the bat. She embodies the hip chick who keeps things cool. She’s always in controlled flight, drifting, with effortless humor and gentleness, through each scene. Suzette is the film’s muse that keeps the narrative flowing and easy-going.

Then she meets the immovable earthly force of Sarandon. Her Lavinia is a tightly wound coil, kept in check by bourgeois trappings. Sarandon brilliantly finds moments for Lavinia to tighten herself up even further with a twinkle in her eye. This gives her a great starting point because Lavinia is the character who changes the most. At first, she seems complete in herself, but the veneer starts to fall away. “I’ve lost me,” she confesses to herself and her family. She’s been so busy being a wife, mom or charity volunteer that she’s forgotten who she is. To find out, she has to reconnect with who she was.

What makes The Banger Sisters interesting is its use of “the groupie.” These semi-mythical figures are from a particular moment in the 1970s when sexual liberation, free love, road culture and rock music seemed to coalesce in primarily young white women. The ideal figure of the groupie was that of a fan, muse, lover and confidant—all rolled into one. We know the lifestyle wasn’t as cheery as Suzette tells us through literal rose-colored glasses. (Rent Almost Famous and ask her daughter, Kate Hudson, about the darker side of groupiedom.)

Nevertheless, Dolman uses the image of the groupie to ground Suzette and Vin in a period of history—one which Hawn and Sarandon know intimately. (Hawn got her start in the late 1960s as a dancer at Whisky a Go Go.) No matter how many years go by, because of the groupie, The Banger Sisters will always comment on not just the American 1970s but also “how far we’ve come” since then. The Banger Sisters poignantly charts the history of this cruel optimism. In her most optimistic or naïve form, the groupie embodies many midcentury hopes. They represented a free sexual culture unburdened by old-school regulations or repressions. But the groupie also illustrates the disappointments of its age. The groupies’ disappearance from popular culture parallels the failure of those hopes to materialize. It may have been difficult to notice in 2002, but in 2022, we have the privilege of double vision. We can see where 2002 sets itself apart from the 1970s and how we, in 2022, look at the early 2000s. It’s this extra distance that reveals the film’s hidden depths.

Without intending to, these characters represent different trajectories of second-wave feminism. Suzette clung to the central ideas of personal liberty, bodily autonomy and sexual self-ownership, which got her laid but in debt. Suzette’s life and debt arise because of the social dismissal of these sexually free women as they mature, especially if they were lower class. The spirit of feminism she believed in failed to provide for her materially.

On the other hand, Lavinia sacrificed these ideas so that she could “have it all.” She may have a pool, a “kid’s wing” and a banana hammock, but all the material comforts have left her spiritually vacant. Lavinia had to give up so much to fit in with the politics and business around her that she abandoned her sense of rebellion. She follows the reformist path of feminism that took to capitalism, hoping to change it from the inside only to find herself the one changed.

Both sides need each other. Over the course of a night out, Lavinia learns to let go. When she and Suzette end up stoned in the basement, looking at photos of penises past, the pair realizes the fun and importance of youthful freedom and how much they mean to each other. The film’s lesson comes to us through the valedictorian speech given by Lavinia’s eldest daughter, Hannah (Erika Christensen). She and her sister Ginger (Eva Amurri, Sarandon’s actual daughter) have struggled to find footing under the mom’s iron heel. After learning from Suzette’s presence and her mother’s experiences, Hannah gives us a resoundingly early 2000s bit of advice: “Don’t be fake.”

This message not only heals Lavinia, but changes the men. Ebert remarks that the men in The Banger Sisters are underwritten, but it’s because the men are more metaphors than meaningful. Both are caricatures of the masculinities that prevent the dreams of second-wave feminism from fully blooming. Harry (Geoffrey Rush), the agoraphobic, fastidious writer with a death wish that Suzette picks up in the desert, needs to exert control and dominance over every space. He disrupts all of Suzette’s attempts to relax. Lavinia’s husband Raymond (Robin Thomas) is the controlling conservative “head of the family” behind whom all others must fall in line. Even he realizes that he hasn’t been seeing the “real” Lavinia or living a picture-perfect life.

At the beginning of this century, with the Y2K bug in the air and simulacrums simulating all over, “the authentic” became the stand-in word for truthful reality. The groupie, and her music, become a quaint link to an outmoded analog world. For the early 2000s, the authentic was that place out of the reach of the digital. It was the thing that could not be captured and commodified. In The Banger Sisters, embracing one’s true unregulated self is also the key to the acceptance of others. For white progressives of the time, feminist history ends once the gendered self is reintegrated and accepted within society.

But this only works for Lavinia. She has her family, her money and her identity. But as Suzette heads out on the open road with Harry, the resolution is incomplete. The anti-war sentiment of “War is Over” has been replaced with an advertisement. And we think back to when the sisterhood of The Banger Sisters came full circle, and the pair climbed another billboard to prove they still had a rebellious streak. The sign comes into full view as the camera glides back from Hawn and Sarandon perched on edge.

“Got Milk?” it reads in the iconic black-on-white campaign. At first, it seems to be a comment about pre-menopausal women, or perhaps on women and commercialism. Still, the longer the camera holds, the slogan turns back into a grammatical question. Now that we’ve seemingly closed up loose ends, it asks, “Is there more?”

The solution seems to be in a third, unknown way forward. One that takes the ideological lessons learned and gives them material praxis. In 2002, Suzette driving off with Harry into the sunset had a corny sense of a happy ending, one that Ebert rightly points out isn’t earned. But now, 20 years on, The Banger Sisters has a salty bittersweetness. As the credits roll, we’re left to wonder: Who will take care of the wild ones like Suzette, the free spirits with bad credit? The road becomes open-ended, a prescient suggestion that there’s more to the journey, more to herstory.

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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