"Digging into "The Dirt" : The Sexual Politics of Netflix's Mötley Crüe Biopic" by Siân Griffiths

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t always been conflicted about Mötley Crüe. On the one hand, they rocked. Play a Crüe song at a party and the party came to life. They pushed back against Reagan-era conservatism and the rise of the morality-bound, Christian right with tunes that promoted sex positivity and good times. On the other hand, they were wantonly destructive—to hotel rooms, to women, to themselves. “Girls, Girls, Girls,” they sang, chanting the old siren call from every roadside strip club. I hadn’t read their book—had not, in fact, even known there was a book to read—but in the late eighties and early nineties, I was as steeped in MTV culture as any good Xer. Debauchery was the Crüe’s brand, and even then, I knew that the freedom they embodied might as well have been labeled “men only”.

This is to say, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I decided to watch Netflix’s biopic The Dirt. One friend of mine had tweeted about how fun it was, how well it captured the spirit of the hair metal ’80s. Another friend had watched it three times already. Mötley Crüe was her band, she’d told me. The movie brought back the thrill of her exuberant youth. The Dirt promised a joyful if mindless way to wind down after a long day, an escape from the constant stress of climate change, nuclear threats, trade wars, triggering tweets—not to mention work and family.

Knowing the band’s history, I was only mildly surprised when the film’s opening party showed Tommy Lee opening a girl’s legs to perform oral sex, Nikki Sixx lighting the sleeve of his leather jacket on fire, and Vince Neil bending a nameless girl over the bathroom counter as he stares at himself in a concert poster. “He’s not thinking about her,” the movie tells us, as if we hadn’t noticed that her purpose is to be a bouncing set of boobs and underscore Neil’s sexuality. Even so, I sat up when the film snapped me back to Tommy, now jumping away and calling to the crowded room “holy shit guys, here it comes” as the girl squirts either cum or urine across the room. I would later read that this was the scene the band was most looking forward to seeing when the film was released, though even they couldn’t agree to what fluid[1] was supposed to be spouting from the woman’s vagina.

The moment caps off a rough first two minutes, and it sets the film’s trajectory. It alerts us to its stance on women and its troubled, perhaps Trumpian relationship with fact. Borrowed from pornography, the scene is fantasy rather than reality, a romanticized version of one of the many parties that the band members will repeatedly tell us they can’t remember. And from there, they only double down on their misogyny. The film jumps back in time to Sixx’s abusive childhood and the mother who fails and fails him. We see the band’s origin—and how it is nearly derailed by Vince Neil’s girlfriend. (“Muzzle that,” Nikki says.) We see Tommy, the self-proclaimed romantic, propose to a girl who will hit him, stab him with a pen, and repeatedly call his mother a cunt until Tommy lashes out and punches her—another woman overcome.

Heather Locklear appears and vanishes, not important enough to be granted characterization. Sixx’s mother reappears and is cast aside, another obstacle cleared. Even his heroin addiction, which prevents Sixx from reaching out to Neil after his car wreck, is cast as female: “I’d fallen head over heels in love. And she was the sweetest thing I’d ever known. She made me feel all the warmth and happiness I never knew as a child. Her name was heroin.” The message is clear: Women exist to give pleasure or to cause problems. In either case, Mötley Crüe’s response is the same: Fuck ’em.

Every feminist bone of my body should have been triggered, and yet, my friends were right. The film is entertaining. Fun. The sarcastic and sardonic Mick Mars provides a necessary balance to the band’s immaturity. He offers the sole defense of women, saying “I happen to have respect for myself and for the females of the species”, though this respect itself is never shown since Mars is notably abstinent through the film. Lee bounces through scenes with warm sincerity. We’re there when they name the group. We’re there for the first show. We’re on tour with Mötley Crüe—a privileged position. The film throws an arm around us and pulls us along. How could we judge a group who has so generously allowed us in?

With them, we get to meet Ozzy Osbourne, witnessing as he snorts ants, pees poolside, and then laps up his own urine. The scene is appallingly absurd and should read as a tragic warning story of what can happen, but the film asks us to see Ozzy as the band does: a mystical figure who lives a life beyond what mere humans can achieve. “I gotta hand it to you, Oz,” Sixx says, “All these years and you’re still keeping up with us kids.” Ozzy replies, “Keeping up with them? I fucking lapped you, mate!”

Around them, the squarest of 1980s yuppies reel back, appalled, and Doc McGhee laments, “I have managed the Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, KISS. I have been dragged through the deepest shit with all kinds of mentally ill people. But I have never been through what Mötley Crüe put me through.” Yet if the point of the film is fun, then we’re not to worry about lame morality or ethics. We are on the other side, Mötley Crüe’s side.

Sure, The Dirt dips into darker moments: Sixx’s descent into heroin addiction and his legendary escape from death, and (a tempered version of[2]) the accident in which Neil’s drunk driving costs the life of Hanoi Rock’s front man Razzle. Late in the film, Neil rejects the band’s hard-won sobriety in favor of the alcohol and drugs that will get them through the tour, and the moment has a feeling of a kind of inevitability. The tour has worn on them, and they dive back into a (perhaps?) modified version of their old addictive behaviors. Drugs and women provide the reprieve that turns to triumph: the tour is saved, the party goes on.

Maybe it was fine, I thought as the credits began. Following the biopic cliché, they included clips from the film alongside original footage of the band itself, but in this case, these highlighted the differences rather than the similarities. The actors look innocent compared to the men they depict. In the film, Lee reads as boyish and goofy, Mars aloof, Neil befuddled, and Sixx stoically brave in the face of abuse. Yet when the images of the real men themselves roll, they appear distinctly hardened.

It threw me back, questioning what I just watched. Mars is played by Iwan Rheon, familiar to audiences as Ramsey Bolton, the convincing sadist from Game of Thrones, but here, he carried none of that threat. The film’s Tommy Lee is so far from the real man that I didn’t realize he was supposed to be the Tommy Lee, originally thinking that he was a first, false start drummer who would be replaced. The film doesn’t mention Lee’s other charges of abuse, either against Pamela Anderson or his son. The actors play their roles brilliantly, but the casting softens our understanding of the action and makes men seem harmless who were not harmless.

The film’s greatest source of joy is the music itself. The Dirt reminded me why I had always loved it—and how. I loved those songs like so many of my friends loved their cigarettes, knowing they were destructive but consuming them anyway. Singing “Dr. Feelgood” to myself that night, I was literally moved. I danced and danced. I willed myself to overlook the band’s failings for the same reason I always had—if the music was good, maybe it didn’t matter who made it. Besides, Mötley Crüe were old men, as obsolete and irrelevant now as the women they’d used and thrown aside. Surely, I could continue to give them a pass.

Yet I spent the night unable to sleep. My mind returned again and again to the movie, refusing to let it lie. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kept hearing the subtext it whispered: Look at how much fun life was before we had to care that women had feelings.

When I said this to friends, their response is almost uniform: Did you expect any different from Mötley Crüe? And no, I didn’t—but I’m not talking about the band. I’m talking about the film, the creative text made in this moment. The credits list that scores of people collaborated, all of whom must have given at least a passing thought to the questions, “Why this film? Why now?”. IMDb lists seven writers: the four band members and the ghostwriter who worked with them on the book along with two screenwriters. Netflix executives greenlit the film. People came together to compose shots, to edit them into a cohesive narrative, to cast the parts, to play the parts, to market the film.

I found myself again considering Trump’s infamous comment that it’s OK to grab women “by the pussy” because “they let you do it”. Like the president, the members of Mötley Crüe are unlikely to ever be held accountable for their assaults. For one thing, where would we even start? Perhaps more importantly, though, their acts were never a secret. They bragged about them, and when we did nothing in response, or worse, when we revered them as celebrities, it was as if the country had given its consent.

Recently, Vice uploaded video in which an interviewer talks to a group of women about why they cast the presidential votes they cast. While many of the voters fall on ethic lines, one young African American defends her vote for Trump even in the light of that comment. “Trump said groupies will literally let you. Have you all never been around groupies? Cause they do. He just told the truth.”[3]

I want to judge her. I want to see her as a stupid Trump voter who is complicit in his dehumanization of women, but her wording grants agency to the women Trump referenced that few people of either party have granted. She sees the so-called groups as autonomous beings, people with the choice to accept or reject his sexual advances. Her comments raise an interesting question of consent; however, her views still strike me as under-complicated. They are founded on the ideas that 1) groupies are a subset of women whom we can discount and therefore assault is not a problem if it is perpetrated against them, a vicious kind of othering, and 2) that celebrity power and the abuse of that power should not be weighed into questions of consent.

I can’t agree to either premise. Unfortunately, The Dirt goes further, failing to grant the humanity to any women, let alone groupies, that is necessary for agency. As we’re told, “Bottom line is, don’t leave your girlfriend alone with Mötley Crüe. Ever! Because they’ll fuck her!” The women in the movie can’t make decisions. Only men have the decisive ability to leave their women with lascivious men or to take them away.

Netflix’s biopic, however light and entertaining, participates in our national dialogue, and its message is far too familiar to women today. We hear the same vapid complaint in news commentary, on social media, in hallway conversations. Women, we’re told, have gone too far in asking for better treatment. We’ve gone too far in suggesting that we be allowed to make decisions about our sexual encounters. We’ve gone too far in asking for protection from casual assault. We’ve spoiled the fun that “everyone” was having.

Like so many of my friends, I let this slide in the eighties. I loved music that did not love me back. Now, we’re older and hopefully wiser. Sure, fun was the point, and God knows, we could all use some fun right now. The danger of nostalgia, though, is that it warps the past, shaping it into stories that allow more subtle truths to slide away. I know why my friends want to return to their youth, a time when we could ignore morality and politics and revel in a good time. Part of me wants that too. Unfortunately, The Dirt suggests that you only have the right to fun if you happen to be male. We need creative work that rethinks that premise. We need more than just a good time; we need a bigger, more welcoming party.


[1] Kory Grow’s “Motley Crue Set on ‘The Dirt’ Premier Date” Rolling Stone Dec 3, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/motley-crue-the-dirt-premiere-date-762540/

[2] Grunge’s “Lies The Motley Crue Movie Told You” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuHvN4l6amY compares the facts to the film version of the accident (see minute 6:07-7:06)

[3] video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVXWPjxbLEY 


Screen Shot 2020-02-01 at 9.57.20 AMSiân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she teaches creative writing at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, and American Short Fiction (online), among other publications. Her debut novel Borrowed Horses was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her second novel Scrapple and her short fiction chapbook The Heart Keeps Faulty Time are forthcoming in 2020. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial teams at Barrelhouse and American Short Fiction. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com