Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More Questions About Sex and Punk

Requests for interviews seem to come in waves. Here's an excerpt from another one I just completed. The interviewer's questions are in boldface type.

1. What did you feel the attitude toward women in general and you in particular was in the punk scene during your involvement?

In general, women in society were and still are discriminated against in all kinds of insidious and subtle ways. If you’re asking me what people thought of women in punk bands, I’d have to say that I didn’t and still don’t know what the attitude was. I never bothered to stop and ponder that question because I didn’t care. I wasn’t looking for external validation. I had been brought up to believe that I could do or be anything I wanted and the punk scene provided a setting where I could do just that. So there were no limits for me.

2. One of the things women have always had to deal with (in rock) is the sex/attraction factor of being a woman in a band... Punk women have taken a whole variety of different approaches to the sexuality factor – some openly scorning it, some embracing it, some playing with it in a mocking way (the shredded fishnet sort of thing). What was your attitude toward it?

Both men and women in bands are often seen as sex symbols. I suppose some people cultivate that image and as you say, others reject it. I wore many a shredded fishnet in my day, but I was a 17 year old girl in a band and I felt tremendously sexy and powerful. I was not about to suppress or tone down my sexuality. I have always broken with traditional feminism on this subject. If I was ever compelled to burn my bra, I might replace it with a corset. I could never embrace a brand of feminism that tries to make a woman deny part of who she is. So when I say I’m a feminist these days, it’s because I’ve claimed the word and created a definition of feminism that suits me - not because I’ve decided to conform.

I have not always considered myself a feminist. In the early punk scene, most of us rejected any labels. I liked to think that I was Alice, a human being free to be sexy or not, free to act aggressive or sweet without even considering what gender roles might dictate. The very early punk scene operated almost completely outside of mainstream society so we felt no need to rebel against or conform to expectations. I would never censor myself. Maybe that was naive and idealistic.

3. How much awareness do you have of later generations of punk women?

I still listen to new music but I haven’t closely followed the evolution of punk. If I know that there are women in a band, I will usually go out of my way to catch a show, buy a CD or be supportive in some way. Some of my younger female friends would make me tapes and CDs of their favorite bands, and that’s probably how I first heard Bikini Kill, Cub, Le Tigre and The Gossip. I still find new bands that I like on MySpace and via CDs that friends send to me but I don’t go out to see shows as often I used to, so it’s hard to keep up.

I guess the answer to your question is that I don’t think of women playing what sounds like punk (or punk inspired) to me as “later generations” because it is all one continuum and I either like what a musician is doing or I don’t. The only thing I’ve noted before is that female musicians seem to be much more comfortable onstage and are more willing to challenge audience expectations than the females I grew up seeing twenty or thirty years ago. Take, for example PJ Harvey and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. They have fun with their sexuality but it’s not central to what they do as artists.

Amanda Palmer of Dresden Dolls.

4. Why do you think it was that women seemed to mix so much more naturally in the early scene but all-women bands seemed to be treated as novelties and tagged with media labels like foxcore and riot grrrl (albeit, their own label) later on?

Treating all-woman bands as a novelty is a way to trivialize their contributions. Let’s talk about the Go-Gos. I think the Go-Gos are a really important band. They are the first all-woman band to compose and play their own songs and sell millions of records. Sure, there were a few other all-female bands before the Go-Gos, but those girls really took it to the next level. They were trivialized because they were young, cute and female as opposed to young, cute and male which is the gold standard. They were talented, hardworking trailblazers. So what if they were writing mostly love songs instead of wrestling with their dark demons. Do we put such demands on our male pop stars? I don’t think so! Those girls opened doors and inspired countless young girls.

In the early punk scene, most of us rejected any labels. In a series of interviews I’ve conducted with women in the Los Angeles punk scene, one of the questions I ask is “What was the role of women in the early punk scene?” and a recurring answer is that the women involved were too busy creating and doing, being active participants, to think about what their role as a woman should or could be. They just didn’t even stop to think about it. So, gender roles ceased to exist for us. We didn’t think of ourselves as boys and girls, each of us thought of ourselves and treated each other as individuals.

I’m much more willing to accept and embrace the Feminist and Chicana labels now because I know we’re not all on the same page and allowing myself to be categorized this way helps people who don’t know me to have a clue of where I’m coming from. After all, we define the universe by labeling and classifying its contents. I accept that some labels are handy for giving people a general idea of what something may be about, but we have to be careful not to be overly simplistic. Guidelines can turn into stereotypes and trying to get to know someone as an individual when you have preconceived notions about what he/she stands for can sometimes get in the way.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great peek into your perspective of punk and female identity, you express yourself so clearly. Thanks also for giving the Go-Go's the recognition they deserve. They did open alot of doors and certainly paid the price for being the most successful female rock band of all time.

l.a. geo said...

Hey Alice,

Thanks for another great post! It was great to read your perspective on women in the punk movement...It brought to mind Siouxie Sioux, Sue Catwoman, Poly Styrene, the Slits and other women that are icons of the British punk movement..Of course in LA, there was you, the Go-Go's, Exene, Pat Morrison, the Castration Squad, and others who were women at the forefront or innovators of LA's punk scene. There was this woman named Kat, one of the most soulful punk singers, if there can be such a thing, who played in Legal Weapon (Pat Morrison played with them in the late 70's & early 80's, but quit after they released their first EP. Shortly thereafter, I think she went to Gun club).

Anyway, the women of LA punk were never seen as contributing more or less, there never seemed to be a differentiation. Their contributions were seen on an equal level as that of the boys.

The only differentiation I noticed, and this might have come later, was the distinction between the true, "hardcore" punks and the more fashionable, "trendy" new wavers. In those days, to be called a "trendy" was about as offensive as you could get to a hardcore punk. The difference was that the hardcore punk truly adhered to the anarchy of punk and dressed in a permanent reminder of this, 24 hours a day. Piercings (anything with a safety pin was acceptable), sometimes tatoos, wearing primarily black and semi-permanent alterations to hair (like shaving it all off) were considered signs of committment to the punk philosophy.

And certainly, amongst the hardcore, women, like some of those mentioned earlier, were not only the leaders but set examples for us to follow.

Thanks again for the post, I look forward to reading more.

l.a. geo

roxy said...

i think a reason that younger women are so curious about the answer to this question: "“What was the role of women in the early punk scene?”" is that, like it or not, almost all of the histories passed down about punk in popular culture are written by males or contain interviews with (largely) men, and the women involved are all portrayed as groupies, sluts, harpies, or eye candy. with the exception of you, patti smith, exene, and maybe a few others. i think it's great that there was a time when women didn't have to think about things because they were participating, but if that time existed, it has come and gone now, and women struggle to participate in the punk scene as writers, photographers, musicians, activists, etc. against a largely male audience who simply doesn't like or doesn't care about them.