Gender, Sexuality, and Femininity in Punk Rock
“I think I’m going to have trouble because people tend to put the sexuality first. I hope they don’t. That’s what I am trying to fight. I want to be recognized as an artist. ” – Kate Bush, March 25th, 1978 Punk rock is a unique and changing musical genre that was born in both England and the United States in the late 1970s.
A largely underground music scene with a reliance on a rejection of societies norms, dismissal of capitalism and consumption, heavy reliance on community, and a strong attitude of do-it-yourself and self-empowerment, punk continues to have a large influence on the contemporary music scene. Punk rock, however, has faced issues when dealing with concepts of sex and gender. Bands within the scene are usually composed of males, women are objectified in song lyrics, and masculine values like aggressiveness and violence are often glamorized, especially in sub-genres of punk such as hardcore punk.
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But women have managed, especially through the Riot Grrrl movement, to stake out their own patch of punk rock territory. They have used punk rock to redefine concepts of gender and sexuality in such a way that empowers them and gives them choices in life, rather than having values being forced upon them. To situate concepts of gender in punk rock, a brief look must be given at the history and foundations of the punk genre. In the late 1970s, this new phenomenon began to emerge in Great Britain. Prior to this new era, women were almost exclusively vocalists in rock bands.
As the genre flourished and swept the nation and eventually the rest of world, women began popping up more and more frequently as members of punk bands. Women also began to stray from their traditional roles of vocalists, and many female drummers, bassists, guitarists, and keyboardists started to play in bands and emerge into the punk scene. The enabling ethic in punk rock, the free-spirited and unrestrained attitude of “anybody can do it! ” is what caused this sudden influx of female musicians in the male domain of rock music.
As time lapsed, more and more punk bands featuring women performers appeared, such as Blondie, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Patti Smith, Bikini Kill, and Vice Squad. These rising bands and countless others with female members gained momentum and popularity quickly. However, with popularity comes hardship and drama. Heavy criticism of the bands was not uncommon. In 1977, ‘The Jolt’ fanzine published an article called “Girl Bands”, which asks the question, “Well, why aren’t there any real girl punk musicians around? ” The article is a scathing attack on many of these leading ladies’ musicianship.
The author also described some of the women as sex objects, who garnered their audiences’ attention solely because they are females. While its true women use their bodies often to get things that they want, all of these punkettes were playing music because it something they genuinely loved and felt passionate about. Blatant sexism from critics was common, as was criticism and sexism from fellow (male) musicians in the punk scene. Punkettes received extensive criticism in their day and age, just for being women. We begin to see a struggle as punk women deliberated how to be a ‘correct punk’ and still retain their sex.
After being diminished and torn to shreds by critics and even their own male punk counterparts, the women had decided they had had enough. It’s common knowledge that women are highly sexualized, and punk rock women began to use that fact to their advantage. Women knowingly utilized the punk aesthetic to create a discourse on female sexualization. Female punks wanted to resist ideas of traditional femininity, and they did so in a number of ways. Choice of dress was a major one, with many punkettes adopting an almost laughably blatant, over-sexualized sense of fashion.
Another way female rockers tried to push away from their ever present girlishness was through the idea of rendering their bodies as grotesque. Many decided to make themselves seem ugly in order to counter the social norm of women being pretty, delicate, and gentle. Punk women sometimes used their bodies in performances by spitting into the audience and being vulgar on stage. Many wrote words such as “bitch” and “slut” on their bodies. The women of punk now had new ways of exploring, interacting, and celebrating their gender, their bodies, and punk culture as a whole.
However, many punkettes did not want to compromise who they were as people. This in turn affects the way they present themselves as gendered beings to the rest of the world. The central themes that come from women within the punk rock culture is that they are no longer going to accept being defined on any terms except the ones that they choose for themselves. They demand to be acknowledged as unique and valuable members of the punk rock community, as well as of society as a whole. They seek empowerment through their actions, and will no longer tolerate being treated as second class-citizens.
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