As some of you may know, I am working on a book about women and punk- interviewing as many women as I can about their experiences of being female and into punk music. So far, it has been an amazing process- the generosity of people and their stories and insights has been a privilege to behold. I have probably interviewed about 60 people so far from all over the world and from all different eras- America, UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy from those active in the 1970s through to those still punking out to this day.
Everyone I have interviewed has been different and their stories have been varied and their experiences eclectic. However, now that I have oversight of so many contributions, I can certainly see some patterns and themes. Here are some of the top ones so far:
- The punk ‘look’ was important…..
Pretty much everyone I have spoken to so far, agrees that the aesthetic of the punk movement- from the streets of London in the 1970s, to the cities of America in the 1990s- was immensely important. The mechanics of the look varied from city to city and from year to year but there was a certain magpie-like thrill of hunting and gathering the components of your look. Painting your favourite album covers on the back of your jacket; trying gravity-defying tools to create a towering mohawk and ripping holes in your tights to dangle trinkets from the shreds were just some of the creative ways that punks expressed themselves. Often horrifying and baffling relatives and neighbours in the process!
…. Because it was protection.
Beyond the basic fun element of cultivating your own look, there was a wider significance to the act of dressing as a punk- community and protection. Many of the women I have spoken to, felt that their outlandish and controversial styles allowed them to identify and BE identified as part of the punk group enabling them to find allies and friends. It was easy to see other members of ‘your tribe’ when they would clearly stand out in the middle of a crowd. This took on a particularly poignant importance for women as it also ‘freed’ them from the tyranny of whatever current beauty standards were in place at the time for women, the punk look being a visual rejection of the ‘male gaze’ and a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to conventional expectations of how women are supposed to look.
2. Punk was empowering for women……
The overarching question that the book aims to answer is whether punk was empowering for women, and certainly the majority of those I have spoken to (when asked the question directly) have replied with a resounding yes. Sexism as an idea was dismissed and shunned by the punk movement that prided itself (and still does) on providing inclusive spaces to all. Punk seems to provide its empowerment in the shape of validating traditionally non-feminine emotions such as anger and aggression and many fans have felt both supported and galvanised by this energy with many saying it inspired them to get ‘involved’ – either by joining bands; taking up activism or becoming generally more politically aware.
…. Except when it wasn’t.
None of the different eras of punk have taken place within their own little vacuum- they all operate within a wider societal context. When punks leave the confines of the gig, or the bedroom, or the rehearsal space, they are then thrust back into the wider world which does not always reflect those traditional progressive punk ideals. Many of the women I spoke to have had incidents of sexism whilst going about their punk business- at the hands of other punks. This has ranged from predatory, lechy behaviour at gigs to insidiously ignoring/dismissing/ridiculing female musicians and bands. Is any space perfect in an imperfect world? No of course not, but if punk holds itself up as a beacon of empowerment and inclusivity then it should live up to that image and acknowledge the reality for women in a public space and do better
3. Punk has great representation of women and different ethnic minorities. Its strength is in diversity…..
There were some cracking role models throughout the years in terms of representation of various hitherto underrepresented groups. The contributors to this book have cited a fantastic array of individuals as inspirations and idols- from Patti Smith to Pauline Black, from Poly Styrene to Kathleen Hanna. The ska interception with punk has left a positive legacy in terms of anti-racist thought and activism and bands such as Bad Brains and Fishbone seem to be credited with a lot of consciousness raising around race issues. The diversity of look; sound and political backdrop across the punk movement offers fans a virtual smorgasbord of humanity to listen to and be inspired by.
….but it was still dominantly white and male.
There is absolutely no getting round this- whether you purely go by the anecdotes of the dozens of women interviewed for this book, or you take a more scientific approach and look at stats in terms of bands with chart success; bands on gig rosters; record label directors; promoters etc….you will see that white men are still making up the majority of the numbers. This is a fact that has not changed that much in the last 40 years. Presence matters- it matters that there are not as many female artists; managers; bosses or music journalists and the fact that the ratios are not where they ought to be should mean that the punk scene as a whole shouldn’t congratulate itself too much just yet. The ethos and rhetoric are there- the results are not.
4. Punk gave a space to women’s issues…..
Punk, by its own definition, is an agent of change. Once you get caught up in the ‘nothing needs changing or challenging’ mindset you have become the very prog-rock-listening-long-hair-having-old-conservative that you (and the rest of punk) railed against. Whilst issues around race and class were common fodder for punk lyrics, ‘women’s issues’ such as violence against women and girls; equality in relationships; the glass ceiling; unrealistic beauty standards, reproductive rights etc. also formed the basis of many punk songs throughout the years. Bands like the Lunachicks sang songs like ‘Fallopian Rhapsody’ and ‘Bitterness Barbie’ and the entirety of the Riot Grrl movement was about giving a voice to those issues that are often not represented in mainstream music. The link between punk and fundraising/community solidarity is one that has always remained strong and many of the women I have spoken to can recall attending punk gigs that raised funds and awareness for domestic abuse support services; community centres and spaces; women’s educational resources amongst others.
…. within a certain cohort of bands.
As far as I can tell, if you want punk songs about issues that are particularly significant for women, then you are only likely to find them in the output of bands that actually have women in them. Bands that are Caucasian would still sing in solidarity with anti-racism issues, but the same principle does not seem to have spilled over into gender issues. Like a lot of wider cultural and political discourse, these issues are left to ‘the women’ to promote and solve. Come on blokes, how about a little solidarity?
Undoubtedly, I have heard more positive stories than negative ones. But even at this stage of the project, we can see that there is more to do in terms of punk living up to its ideals and being able to say it is wholly liberating for women. It seems like it would be a good start to ensure that more women are around- in the audience, on the stage, at the mixing desk etc. If we want to continue with the great social legacy of punk, then we must be comfortable enough to recognise it is not perfect and be willing to listen to those trying to make a positive change. Isn’t that what Joe Strummer or Henry Rollins would want us to do?