As Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel prepares for her first outing as Laura Jane Grace, the onus is on the punk community to treat her with respect. But how well has it treated women in the past?
For all its 1950s echoes of rebellion, rock ‘n’ roll got stale pretty quick. Just three decades after white youth co-opted rock from rhythm and blues (or simply stole it from black music, depending on who you ask), much of it had become a lethargic pig, wallowing in shit and fed from the hand of corporate farmers. Punk rock was the exploding revolution to the sedated, consumer-driven society for which ‘arena rock’ had become the official soundtrack. Developing most notably in London, New York and LA in the 1970s, punk challenged every notion of government and corporate interests.
And a big part of that was tearing down accepted gender roles. One civilisation after the next upheld the tradition of the female as subservient to the fantasies and desires of men, not to mention homosexuality as a plague. Despite the Industrial Revolution and women’s suffrage, rock became a theatrical pissing contest to guitar solos. The 1960s saw progress, but there’s a reason that a 1978 article by Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie referred to popular music driven by gyrating white men as ‘Cock Rock’. Rock stars assumed the roll of tuneful deities as women shook asses in the background to remind everyone to be heterosexual.
Punk would challenge every rule and institution – from teachers to Ronald Reagan, the Queen of England to accepted sex symbols. In different forms, in different attire, and to different degrees of effectiveness, feminism helped propel that fight. But for all its system-bashing protest cries, has this stage-diving, skateboard-riding, fanzine-making, sing-along society actually brought down the establishment in any meaningful way? When 7 Seconds sang Not Just Boys Fun in 1984, did they help push sexism out of punk? Or is it naive to think that this micro-society could extricate itself from the prejudice’s poisonous grip?
In the early 1970s, when Manhattan’s Lower East Side was an incubator of protopunk bands, a wild transsexual performer Jayne County created a dent in. Her role in punk history was relatively small, but she helped create a place where it was okay to have an identity that veered off to the left. In May of this year, Tom Gabel, the hoarse-voiced frontman of Gainesville Florida’s Against Me!,came out via Rolling Stone as transgender. By the time he heads out on tour with The Cult in June, Gabel will have started transition procedures to live as a woman and changed his name to Laura Jane Grace. Married with a two-year-old daughter and boasting a thriving fanbase, he is not merely a footnote in punk studies. The news tested punk’s acceptance level like never before.
As a music umbrella, punk makes for a wild spectrum – taking in everything from sludgy noise and ska, to metal, pop, Oi!, rockabilly and hardcore with elements of country, reggae and folk. Because of its long history, range of influences, politics and regionalism, it would be nearly impossible to identify a list of shared norms and beliefs. But let’s give it a shot.
“In a highly alienated, corporate-dominated society where the lives of workers are highly regulated and externally controlled, beginning with religion and schools, the appeal of punk to those who depend on a wage – the working and middle classes – is its rejection of the symbols of authority that represent the inherently exploitative and oppressive nature of the capitalist ruling class,” offers Dr Curry Malott.
Malott’s feelings of alienation growing up in Ohio and Oregon pushed him toward punk rock. He’s now a professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. In 2004, he co-wrote Punk Rockers Revolution: A Pedagogy of Race, Class, and Gender. Though progressive movements have tried to re-invent punk, Malott sees the rejection of homophobic, racist, pro-capitalist and least not sexist ideas and practices as a common thread.
British born Dick Hebdige is a professor of film and media studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. For all his titles, it was his observations in London and Birmingham in the mid-1970s that make him a true authority on subcultural shifts. “If you bracket everything that was going on elsewhere and just concentrate on UK punk, and I don’t deny there was plenty going on in US and European punk in the ’70s, punk begins to look like a popular insurgency against authority in general, the corporate capitalist hegemony we’re all living with right now and what 2012′s gender-savvy academics call ‘heteronormativity,’” he explains. “Regarding gender and punk, the contribution or intervention of women was absolutely crucial, prophetic, and to my knowledge I don’t think it’s been adequately understood or recognised since.”
Hebdige contends that the early punkers viewed sexuality the same way they viewed government and family. They stripped these entities down to see if there was anything worth keeping, then created new roles for power and sex. The women were as shocking as the men, if not more so, and they pogoed all over the female stereotypes of rock fantasy. Since history tends to remember the most outlandish, punk is often associated with bondage clothing and fetishism.
“In one corner of the UK punk scene you had ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’ being belted out by the late, great Poly Styrene of X Ray Spex,” recalls Hebdige, who saw her perform at the 1977 Punkfest at Barbarella’s in Birmingham. “Poly Styrene – what a wholesomely toxic corrective to neo-liberal green-speak that name is now. She was an in-your-face repudiation of sexist projections. And in the opposite corner, you have Siouxsie Sioux - of Siouxsie and the Banshees - the Marlene Dietrich siren from Bromley, which happened to be home to David Bowie, the UK’s most original suburban gender-bender. Siouxsie more or less singlehandedly invented the dominatrix/goth persona that derivative artists like Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga have since appropriated and made a corporate career of. Somewhere in between was the late Ari Up[Arianna Forster] of The Slits. Could there be a better name for an all-female punk band? They were the epitome of feminist autonomy-as-lived-performance.”
Alice Bag was a major player in the LA scene, finding it in the late 1970s as a teen. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. And while punk was largely white and male, she felt welcomed right away. “For me, punk has always been about giving the status quo a bit of the old in-and-out. Punk was inclusive, outspoken, innovative and often outrageous. The early LA punk scene, in particular, was diversely populated and reflected the many ethnicities that made up Los Angeles. It was a community where people of every class, race and gender felt at home.”
She is best known for fronting The Bags, a provocative all-female punk outfit and later Stay At Home Bomb, which satirised the role of women in society. She has also taught at inner-city schools, specifically helping children of bilingual families. “I didn’t see sexism in the punk scene until years later, when it became male dominated. I had come to expect the audiences at punk shows to be populated by extravagantly plumed creatures of all shapes, sizes, colours and genders whose very appearance cried out originality. Suddenly, there was an eerie sameness. As punk spread, it went out into different communities and took on the attributes of those communities,” she recalls. “In some places the cultural diversity deepened while in other places it was taken over by skinheads.”
Washington DC native Ian MacKaye is considered the quintessential punk idealist, with two bands that radically shaped underground music: Minor Threat helped define American hardcore, between 1980 and 1983; and Fugazi, which originated in 1987, was pivotal in expanding the sonic range of punk rock from earlier constraints. You’d be hard-pressed to find discrepancies between MacKaye’s life and work. He didn’t just ‘scream at a wall’ for a decade and then relegate himself to weekend shows while commuting in a Dodge Durango to some marketing gig across Georgetown. He’s run independent label Dischord Records for thirty-two years and been an activist and author. But for all his accomplishments, he is most often associated with straightedge, a term he coined for his personal lifestyle choices, which included eschewing drugs and alcohol as a counteraction within the subculture.
MacKaye is guarded in any comments he makes about punk because the amoeba-like culture is so difficult to define. The experience of a DC kid in 1981 was vastly different to that of a young punk growing up in LA, London, New York, or anywhere else, not to mention the evolution of the next three decades. Though sometimes mocked for being too serious, MacKaye was actually drawn to the humour of the scene, and the fact that it flew in the face of mainstream America, particularly fervent nationalism and consumerism of which it was beholden to. Sexism was a “toxic structure” of that society, he says. “At that time there were boys and girls involved in the scene. Most of the bands were made up of boys, but there were a lot of women in different roles. There was a sense that it was a wide-open community,” he explains.
In fact, two of the most prolific photographers to document the scene were Cynthia Connolly and Susie Josephson (now Suzie Horgan). Women played in bands, but a four piece with only three penises always warranted an asterisk – aka ‘a band with a girl drummer’ or whatever the case may have been. MacKaye considered this a holdover from mainstream society. His close circle didn’t see females as objects of sexual conquest, but that wasn’t universal in punk. “There was a guy in California who would hang out and travel with Minor Threat when we were out there,” he remembers. “And he was coercing women to give him blowjobs at shows. That was just something we never did. Punk girls from LA would tell me about their experiences there and it sounded insane.”
To sum up his stance, MacKaye wrote the song ‘Suggestion’ for Fugazi’s 1988 EP from the point of view of a female dealing with harassment. It became a crux of the gender debate and was later covered by Pearl Jam.
And yet, as the scene grew, the media ran with the stereotype of punks as violent outcasts. MacKaye can see where the outsider image stems from. He counted many of his friends as “nerdy or artistic” and he admits that’s what brought them together. They weren’t violent people, but they were a target for the rest of society, and not afraid to stand their ground. And yet the media’s ability to make every hardcore gathering sound like a bloodbath made vicious people think that this was a place to brawl. And the escalating violence of 1983 and 1984 may have driven women away. “Violence is an effective form of communication, but it’s an incredibly stupid one,” says MacKaye. “And people who are not interested move away from it. Women weren’t really into it and less socialised to fight. It starts when people back away from the stage and eventually it drives them right out of the room.”
MacKaye vividly recalls confronting a bunch of skinheads about the battlefield they were creating. They explained that they were just protecting their scene the way he had when he was getting bullied for wearing children’s sunglasses. By the mid 1980s, people were being sent to the hospital and the philosophy of ‘bruising egos, not bodies’ was crushed. MacKaye decided to pull back. Others followed.
Despite what anyone says, punk was never dead. Those who were part of the punk community during its darkest hours made the most impact later. With Fugazi, Operation Ivy, Bad Religion and other seminal bands credited for turning things around in little pockets, female participation in the scene not only rebounded, but there were new conversations about gender issues, too.
One band that MacKaye produced was Olympia, Washington’sBikini Kill, fronted by Kathleen Hanna who later went on to form Le Tigre, and is credited as inciting the Riot Grrrl movement, which juxtaposed the intensity of hardcore with a feminist perspective. An original member of Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail started the label Kill Rock Stars and Jigsaw fanzine, while fem-fronted bands like Bratmobile,Sleater-Kinney, and Huggy Bear not only defined new voices in the scene, but became a part of Third Wave feminism – a reaction to earlier feminist movements that failed to incorporate the voices of young women.
Bratmobile drummer and writer Allison Wolfe moved from Olympia to DC and became a prolific voice of the movement. In a published paper by Julia Downes called The Expansion of Punk Rock: Riot Grrrl Challenges to Gender Power Relations in British Indie Music Subcultures Wolfe stated: ‘For me what Riot Grrrl meant was a way of making punk rock more feminist because really it was like this boys club, for the most part. But Riot Grrrl was also a way of making academic feminism more punk rock or more DIY.’
Over in the UK, Vique Martin started Simba fanzine and Revelation Record’s Europe distribution before moving to the US fourteen years ago to manage Revelation in Huntington Beach, California. A feminist from the age of twelve, and devotee of veganism and straightedge, she wasn’t part of the Riot Grrrl movement, but was deeply affected by its ’zines and politics. In 1989 when she started going to shows, she noticed sexism right away. “My female friends felt like they had to work twice as hard, making ’zines, shooting photos and putting out records to prove they weren’t just there to latch onto the scene. They had to show their worth,” she remembers. Spotting flaws in the system, Martin helped found XChicks Up FrontX Posse, a band of guys and girls that advocated reformation of the dance floor to be more conscious of those around it. She also noticed the sexual double standard that seeped into punk from the mainstream. A guy who got a lot of action was glorified, while a girl was labelled a slutty ‘band ho’.
1991 is cited as a critical junction in punk. Underground music was thriving as radio play reached a new level of Mariah Carey unbearableness. The commercial success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – bands that weren’t necessarily punk but could trace lineage to that branch of rock’s family tree – blew the doors open for Green Day, No Doubt and several acts from the Epitaph Records roster. Kurt Cobain, who dated Tobi Vail, actively championed female punks like The Raincoats, The Slits and The Vaselines. Although his late life, in particular his death, was the antithesis of anything positive about punk, he is said to have stated, “The future of rock belongs to women.” Both the Pixies and Sonic Youth, who paved the way for this West Coast scene, had female members without having to qualify it.
“It felt like in the 1990s, hardcore was addressing all sorts of issues – immigration, race, colonialism, war and gender,” says Brian Peterson, author of the Revelation Records’ book Burning Fight: The Nineties Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit, and Sound. “It was like taking a college sociology class. With Nirvana and Green Day and other mainstream bands rising up from hardcore and punk there was a curiosity as to where this came from. It broadened political consciousness. There was talk about gender and sexism in music.”
And in those days of one-word band names, at the back of every underground club was a cadre of social activists armed with literature and stickers. MacKaye even recalls the backlash to his feminist lyrics in ‘Suggestion’ when he was accused of capitalising on women’s issues for profit.
“Politics were really important in the mid-1990s. And a lot of that was sexual politics. There were pro-choice ’zines and it became very confrontational with women screaming, writing and ripping up flyers,” Martin recalls.
One of the bands that managed to bridge the gap between straightedge hardcore and progressive politics was Endpoint from Louisville, Kentucky. Bassist Duncan Barlow, now a professor of English at the University of North Florida remembers, “By 1992, the punk scene had grown quite political. On one hand there were trends but on the other there were seemingly infinite amounts of new things to discuss. Certainly it was important to have new discussions about modes of oppression. It was didactic at times. When one examines the rhetorical situation from our current vantage point, it is amazing that any understanding was ever reached. It was a fiery time. Many of us were barely in college and hadn’t learned the sophisticated tools of an educated rhetoric. Still, we managed and learned the art of public speaking, debate and criticism organically.”
While some 1970s punks sported a look that was almost a caricature of fringe sexuality, aspects of 1990s hardcore seemed almost asexual: extremely male-dominated with little mention of anything sexual, and the few women generally dressed like boys. If there was any fetishism, it was for coloured vinyl, and not the S&M kind. “There was a significance to baggy clothes in the 1990s. It was a time of obscuring sexuality and gender. In hindsight, it might have caused problems down the line, as it seemed to infer to some that sexuality was a shameful thing,” reflects Barlow.
Now that punk has aged, knee-braces in the pit at twenty-five-year anniversary shows have become common, but there are still voices calling out sexism in the scene. Just this spring, Stockholm Straightedge cancelled the German hardcore band Fallbrawl from April’s Firestorm Fest in Sweden because of a video that depicted the band (very un-ironically) in a strip club. Conversations echo everywhere.
“I have seen women peers in bands who play to large audiences and have a real platform,” says twenty-three-year-old Katie Crutchfieldof P.S. Eliot and Waxahatchee. “They have the opportunity to really get the attention of younger people and they squander it. They don’t take the opportunity to talk about some of these sexist issues.”
Ten years ago, Katie Crutchfield and her sister Allison were well accepted in the Birmingham, Alabama, punk scene where they played, and later became intricate members of a volunteer-run, all-age, Gilman-esque venue called Cave 9. Crutchfield saw Birmingham as a respectful place. But having toured extensively from a young age, she has seen instances of sexism and addressed them – on stage and most recently through a series of essays that have circulated on punk news sites. One event that really shook her was when she was playing mandolin with Fake Problems. Bouncers in Seattle were not only convinced she was a girlfriend trying to sneak in, but continued to put their hands on her. She also heard male bands engage in woman-bashing rants on stage.
“It was like slighted ex-boyfriend locker room talk. Why bring gender into it at all?” she wonders. Crutchfield started to notice her acts being pegged as ‘girl bands’, even though twenty years earlier bands with female members were seldom classified that way. She also became aware of males slamming aggressively to her decisively non-aggressive music. “I watch a band like Ceremony [from San Francisco] and I understand it’s hard not to react. It’s a part of punk. You don’t want to keep anyone from expressing themselves, but you don’t want them ruining shows for anyone else,” she opines.
Crutchfield admits to existing in something of a bubble since she relocated to Brooklyn where a lot of the underground music movers and shakers are women. But she’s also acutely aware of the overly PC feminist-as-killjoy stereotype, and knows how to avoid pitfalls in her writings. “When it comes to these debates, men who are insecure will always turn it around to make the woman a butt of a joke. So when you confront them you have to use humour. I mean, macho attitudes, gym shorts and X watches? These guys are taking the shittiest parts of a culture and making it their lifestyle. You can only laugh at that,” she says with a chuckle. “Punk is so inclusive. It’s so easy to become a part of. There’s just this little list of things – don’t be homophobic, racist or sexist. Basically, as long as you’re not a total idiot, people accept you.”
Vique Martin recalls punk women becoming strippers in San Francisco saying they were ‘reclaiming’ their sexuality. Today, heels, skirts and makeup have made a comeback. Perhaps it’s a sign of creeping commercialisation? But beyond the fashion trends, there are also many websites, some owned by women entrepreneurs, that advertise themselves as ‘punk porn’. So is this an offshoot of sexual liberation or is it just another form of objectification, albeit with tattoos and a pierced septum?
“It’s a fine line,” says Martin. “What are you trying to express? Is what you’re singing about questioning women’s role in society or are you just objectifying yourself? Punk is a performance art. I never apologised for my sexuality in my ‘zines.”
Martin’s interest in overtly sexual ’zines evolved into writing erotic fiction for Fracture Magazine, which caused a huge uproar in hardcore. Alice Bag believes the criticism is based on a misunderstanding. “Sexuality and sexism are two different things. One is a healthy human desire; the other is a discriminatory practice. I can assure you that making less money than my male counterparts for the same work does not produce any sexual arousal in me,” she explains. “For years, feminists were wrongfully portrayed as un-feminine, male-bashing, sexless viragos – when in fact feminists can be male or female, feminine and/or masculine and most of us enjoy sex and all its accoutrements, including sexy clothing, provocative language and flirtations with the same or opposite sex.”
The ongoing debate about what constitutes ‘good’ feminism – what a liberated woman should look like, say or do – is not confined to the world of punk. Similar discussions are unfolding in the world at large. If we see punk as a mirror for society’s ills, a barometer of where the world is going wrong, it explains why it sounds even louder in societies where the walls of oppression have yet to be broken down. Cynics can say that punk is dead, but tell that to Russia’s Pussy Riot, a renegade band of feminist punks who were arrested in February for staging an impromptu gig in a Cathedral as a part of the growing protest movement against Vladimir Putin; they’re punks through and through. And so long as battle cries like theirs are finding ways to be heard, punk, like any good counterculture, is doing what it was designed to do: shake shit up.
As for how history will treat Laura Jane Grace, that’s one story that has yet to be written. Hateful trolls hibernate everywhere. It’s up to the progressive voices within the punk community to stand up and create a new set of norms. But can the good seeds overcome the bad? No discussion about sexism in punk would be valid or complete without acknowledging the wider social context in which it has to function. There’s no escaping the fact that punk, despite its historical ties with feminism, is just one tiny pocket of a fundamentally unjust, patriarchal society. As Hebdige explains: “This history plays out against a background of post-imperial, post-industrial decline and crisis – a period in which industrially derived masculinity gave way to beyond-our-means consumerism and the service, celebrity, and social networking economy we’re now living in.”
But that’s not to say that things can’t change. Scores of fans as well as bands like The Gaslight Anthem have been vocal in their support of Gabel’s decision to live as Laura Jane Grace. So there are reasons to be hopeful, it seems, provided the misfit mob that calls punk home keeps on questioning not only authority, but it’s own ideals, too.
“I think it’s kind of like driving down a highway,” opines MacKaye. “When you’re going straight it would seem like you would hold the wheel in one place, but you’re actually making hundreds of little micro-turns. Even with all of these little adjustments, the idea is that you’re heading in the right direction.”