On Fictional Female Rock Stars, and Why Cassandra from Wayne’s World is my Favorite

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If I had to pick a female role model in rock n’ roll, it wouldn’t be any of the recognizable and famous ones that I’m about to list here. It would be my own mom, who played the keyboards and sang in a rock band throughout my childhood – oh, and my dad was in the band, too. You can’t really ask for a better set of role models than that, so it came as no surprise to anybody in my family when I joined a rock band at age 13. It’s also no surprise that I’m still fronting a rock band, going on age 30.

But my mom wasn’t the only person who inspired me to pursue my music. Even as a kid, I could tell my mom was an outlier. Women being in rock bands wasn’t “normal” – it was cool and special, but it was the exception, and it posed unique challenges. She was the only woman in a band full of guys, and even when I was very young, I could tell that was tough and that she had to push to be taken seriously by her peers.

What’s more, there weren’t many other lady rockers like my mom represented in the rest of the world, when it came to bands both fictional and real. The radio played plenty of great grunge in the ’90s, but most of those bands were made up of men. Before I scarcely knew who Courtney Love was, I knew I was supposed to hate her. Riot Grrl existed, but I was too much of an internalized misogynist back then to seek it out, and none of my “cool” guy friends were about to encourage me to give it a shot.

Fictional female musicians have always been few and far between, especially in the rock n’ roll genre. I loved Spice World, but that was pop music, and pop music wasn’t “cool” because, well, it’s popular. Jem and the Holograms and Josie and the Pussycats weren’t exactly “hardcore,” either, but I listened to the Josie movie soundtrack over and over in high school anyway. It featured Letters to Cleo front-woman Kay Hanley, who also appeared as the fictional rock star in 10 Things I Hate About You – yet another favorite of mine at the time.

10-Things-Letters-to-Cleo(image via MTV)

I wasn’t proud of listening to woman-fronted bands, though. When I tried to assure my male friends from time to time that these bands were “actually pretty good,” they’d tell me they just didn’t like listening to a woman’s singing voice. Women just can’t sing rock n’ roll, they would tell me. Sure, they can sing pop music, but not rock n’ roll. Add in the fact that I was singing lead in a band myself at the time, and you can understand why I felt so hurt and so much like I had something to prove.

So where was a rocker gal like me to turn? Where could I look when it came to positive female role models in the fictional music business? Who would be the character that would reassure me that it was possible to be a woman in a band and get taken seriously and become successful? The character that I thought about over and over back then, and the character that I still love the best now, is Cassandra in Wayne’s World.

My feminist mom kept a pretty tight lid on what media I was allowed to watch growing up. For whatever reason, Wayne’s World was on the list of movies that she let me watch as often as I wanted, even when I was very young and even though it was actually PG-13. Why? Well, first of all, it’s hilarious. And second of all, Cassandra Wong – played by Tia Carrere – is an amazing rock star female character.

cassandra wayne's world

Wayne’s World is not about Cassandra Wong. She’s Wayne’s girlfriend, and she’s a side character in a movie that I’m pretty sure doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. But the plot of the movie nonetheless hinges on Cassandra’s career ambitions just as much as it hinges on Wayne and Garth’s career decisions. The climax doesn’t have anything to do with the success of Wayne’s TV show; Wayne ultimately decides that’s secondary in comparison to helping out the love of his life with making her band as successful and well-known as they deserve to be. At the end of the movie, Wayne gives up everything for Cassandra. Specifically, he gives up everything for Cassandra’s band, a project that he’s not even involved in. It’s made clear to us that although Wayne’s TV show is pretty fun and cool, Cassandra’s the one who’s really going places, and Wayne couldn’t be more proud of her.

Cassandra is the only woman in a band full of guys, but there’s absolutely no question that she’s in charge. Although Wayne’s World 2 engages in a forgettable copy-of-the-first-movie plot in which Cassandra considers a solo career, let’s put that silly sequel aside from the moment and instead focus on how she’s portrayed in the first movie (the better of the two – fight me!). She’s extremely talented, she’s in charge of her career and her image, she’s funny and smart, and her ambition with regard to her music is never painted as a bad quality.

Now, as I’ve said, I love the Josie and the Pussycats movie, and I’ve already said I love Spice World and Jem and the Holograms. But all of those pieces of media present a pretty rose-colored version of female rock stardom. All of the female rock stars in those movies are in all-female groups, which is amazing – but in reality, a lot of women end up being “the only girl” in band-related scenarios. Even if you’re in an all-female band, a lot of the music industry is made up of men, and most of those men are not going to take you or any of your female bandmates seriously. You’ll start out with something to prove. That isn’t even a problem that is acknowledged by a lot of other media, but it definitely comes up in Wayne’s World. What’s more, Cassandra is one of the only bandleader heroines who isn’t white; she has to deal with the set of assumptions that come with that, too. Usually, in movies about fictional female bands, the only non-white woman is in the background; in Wayne’s World, she’s the bandleader, and her unquestioned authority isn’t a bad thing.

Cassandra’s struggles in Wayne’s World revolve around trying to convince male record executives to take a chance on her band and to respect her as a musician rather than as someone they want to screw and/or screw over financially. Wayne worries about “selling out” his TV show – and Cassandra has to worry about “selling out”, too, but she also has to navigate the fact that industry higher-ups want to sleep with her. She has to figure out what decision to make with regard to that , and it presents a set of problems for her that would never arise for Wayne.

That particular problem doesn’t seem to arise for any of the women in the other media I’ve seen, either. Admittedly, that’s because Wayne’s World is PG-13 and so it’s more possible for them to talk about sex than would ever happen in a kids’ movie or show. But it’s undeniable that media like Josie and the Pussycats and Jem and the Holograms present a very feel-good image of what it’s like to be a woman in a band.

For example, in the Pussycats movie, the wedge that ends up driving the band into conflict is Josie’s own ambition for a potential solo career. Of course, Josie was only pursuing that because of sci-fi brainwashing (watch the movie, seriously). But unlike Wayne’s World, which presents Cassandra’s ambition with her band as a positive trait, Josie ends up recognizing the importance of friendship. That’s cool, and all, but why not have both? Pussycats still lets the record executives be the villains in the end – but it’s Josie who also ends up apologizing for letting down her friends. In Wayne’s World, it’s Wayne who has to apologize to Cassandra for his mismatched priorities; he realizes that her band is what’s important to her, and that’s actually a good thing and something he wants to support.

Cassandra’s band isn’t necessarily made up of her friends – they’re her business partners. There’s nothing wrong at all with making a piece of media that’s entirely about the importance of friendship, of course. Jem and the Holograms and Spice World have similar messages to Josie when it comes to that theme. Like I said, I love all of those pieces of media, and I’ll eat up just about any piece of media in which a woman holds a musical instrument, let alone plays it. But when I think about which character I respect and admire the most, Cassandra is still at the top of the list, because she cares about both her career and the rest of her life … and, again, that’s ultimately presented as something that’s great about her, rather than an egotism problem or a sign that her priorities in life are out of alignment.

We get to see Cassandra through Wayne’s eyes, and rather than be intimidated by her, he’s completely smitten with her. I mean, sure, there’s the physical attraction (it’s Tia Carrere, for crying out loud). But also, when Wayne first sees her, she’s performing on stage with her band and completely owning the show. Not every guy is interested in dating a woman who’s that much cooler than he is!

I’m just kidding. Wayne’s a pretty great partner, actually, and his arc with Cassandra in the movie is figuring out how to be a supportive boyfriend. Although Wayne jokingly presents himself as a washed-up loser, he’s ultimately a good person, and that’s why it doesn’t seem strange at all that a character like Cassandra would choose to be with him rather than date somebody “better”.

And who might be a “better” fit for a multi-talented knock-out like Cassandra? Wayne and Cassandra meet a rich entertainment mogul who epitomizes the “sell-out” attitude: Benjamin Oliver, played by Rob Lowe. This was back when Rob Lowe was still playing “super-hot bad boy” roles, although it’s hard to imagine that now that we live in a post-West Wing and post-Parks & Rec world. Anyway, Benjamin turns the charm on Cassandra by showing her how worldly he is; he shows off that he can speak Cantonese, then he correctly guesses where she was born based on her accent. (He also refers to Asia as “the Orient,” because … well, because Benjamin is horrible, but also because it was 1992, I guess? I don’t know. I’m not going to lie to you, this movie makes some mistakes.)

When Wayne sees how cool Benjamin is, he starts to fret that Cassandra will realize that she could “do better” than someone like him. He buys cassette tapes and teaches himself Cantonese in an effort to show her that she’s important to him. He soon abandons the “some young guy” joke he makes in the video above, in favor of actually carrying on a conversation with Cassandra later in the movie. (The irony is that although Tia Carrere is supposed to be playing a character who grew up in Kowloon Bay, she’s mixed race and has Filipino, Chinese and Spanish ancestry; according to the entire internet, her Cantonese isn’t that much better than Mike Myers’ in the scene where they speak to one another.)

As far as Asian representation goes, this isn’t exactly a winning example. Still, her race is also actually acknowledged by the movie, rather than just being an afterthought or “colorblind” casting. Also, it’s undeniable that Cassandra is the heroine of her own story, and she’s not just a stereotype of a “cool girl” who doesn’t have anything else going on in her life other than swooning over the main character. Her choice about whether she wants to end up with Benjamin or continue to date Wayne is presented as a completely legitimate one, and since the movie has multiple endings, we see one where Cassandra chooses to be with Benjamin instead. We also aren’t invited to judge Casandra for doing this, either; in that ending, she breaks up with Wayne by saying this: “You screwed my career!!” She then ends up with Benjamin, who turns to the audience and says, “You didn’t really think she was going to end up with Wayne, did you?”

Ultimately, the audience is encouraged to see what Wayne sees in Cassandra: she’s gorgeous and cool, sure, but she’s also a person with her own life and her own goals, and if Wayne isn’t willing to work with that, it’s not going to work out between them. Arguably, in Wayne’s World 2, Cassandra becomes an object in service of the plot – but, hey, that’s why I said we were disregarding that sequel. In the first Wayne’s World, she’s her own person, and that’s what we like about her.

More importantly for me as a kid, though, was the fact that Cassandra was in a band. Period. She undeniably played rock n’ roll, and her voice ruled. She did it all while wearing incredible outfits, like this blue lace bodysuit. She didn’t just sing, either (not that there’s anything wrong with “just” singing). All of this, and she appeared in a movie that was universally beloved by all my guy friends growing up. As far as girlfriend characters go in bro-y movies, Cassandra was about as cool as you can possibly get.

Wayne’s World asserted that it was okay to date a woman who was cooler and more successful than you, and to encourage her to be as successful as she could possibly be. Cassandra also proved that it was possible for a woman to be in charge of a band, and to be the real front-woman, without getting sidelined into a manic pixie dream girl whose entire purpose in life is to make some guy happy. She makes it clear that if Wayne doesn’t want to support her dreams in life, she can just go … and we in the audience are meant to judge Wayne for falling short, not Cassandra.

Although as a kid, I think I mostly absorbed the fact that Cassandra had a killer voice and played an instrument, I’d like to think I also absorbed the fact that she owned her life and knew what she wanted. As far as female bandleaders go, Cassandra really had it all. Now, if only this portrayal of women in bands weren’t so incredibly rare.

(Images via ScreenCrush, Wikipedia and Tumblr)

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Image of Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).