Acknowledging Oppression in an Unlikely Place: Sexism in Punk Rock

December 7, 2009
By btolmach BRONZE, Carmel, New York
btolmach BRONZE, Carmel, New York
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Nothing is more exhilarating than being packed into a small, stifling room among other adrenaline-fueled, sweaty young bodies, robotically swinging your arms to the distorted squeal of electric guitars. The often-chaotic adventure of going to a rock concert is perhaps a cliche adolescent experience, and is often over-simplified when depicted in the myriad motion pictures or television shows about angsty teenagers.

But the act of attending a punk show or other type of hard-rock concert is more complex than simply standing around and losing your hearing because of the extraordinary amount of sound that blasts out from a stack of amplifiers. Like in many other ordinary realms of the real world, the rock concert setting has its own social setup; a sort of sneaky hierarchy, which dictates such important decisions such as who can or cannot be in bands and who can or cannot stand closest to the stage during a show. Concert-goers and other participants may be blind to this carefully coordinated pyramid of power and privilege, but more often, they are just apathetic and unmoved by the subtle forms of oppression that are taking place before their eyes.

Maybe the most obvious example of unfairness in underground scenes is the exclusion of women in bands, a fact that has clearly been lingering in the heads of guilty music-magazine editors, as proven by the silly quantity of “Women In Rock” articles that have graced the pages of Rolling Stone and the like. Such articles, which are weak attempts at erasing the bitter feelings of individuals who have realized the blatant sexism that dominates the coverage of all-things rock, fail to truly enlighten readers about female contributions because of their purposeful focus on solely acoustic-acts or other non-threatening performers (think Lillith Fair). Even disregarding the view of the media, within scenes themselves, there is a history of women feeling disconnected and alienated by repeatedly being kept out of the main action. Similar to the old condescending tradition of presidents giving their first ladies a small mindless project to keep them occupied, girls and women at rock or punk shows have often been pushed to the side as the designated fan base or groupie collection, or even worse, appointed as band girlfriends whose job is to nod and smile at every power chord plucked by their lover/lead guitarist. What time after time the underground scene has lacked has been the standard that is the center of any basic feminist theory: equal rights for the sexes. And that’s where movements such as Riot Grrrl and people like Kathleen Hanna and Alison Wolfe come into the picture; entities ignored by the countless cheesy essays on the influence of women in music. Bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear were concocted not solely to play music but to ask radical questions such as, “Why can’t girls be in bands too?” And while all of the cut and paste zines, the girl-friendly concerts, and do-it-yourself principles that these women created in collaboration were revolutionary and life-changing for many, the perspective of mainstream media sources was that Riot Grrrl was a bizarre brew of women who would have been better off being quiet and cute like Fiona Apple or Tori Amos, instead of shrieking into the microphone with their loud and honest thoughts. Thus, and perhaps for the best, Riot Grrrl was an underground phenomenon, far too rebellious and subversive for conventional coverage. This itself is not particularly shocking, because any type of punk subculture, by definition, is not meant to be glorified on the cover of Spin. Rather, they are meant to be fascinating because of their authenticity and rugged originality; part of the reason why sexism in these types of scenes is so discouraging and so debilitating. The amount of creativity that could potentially exist in a community of bands and music-lovers is set back by the systematic exclusion of women, or put more simply: when girls don’t have fun, everyone loses. Riot Grrrl was helpful in the sense of opening people’s eyes to their privilege and empowering other young women to start bands, make movies, and speak up, but like any other movements based in cultural or political activism, it did not solve all the problems. The backlash of macho, misogynistic bands such as Limp Bizkit and Korn that followed the early 90’s era of riot grrrl indicated that despite the most genuine efforts to raise awareness about rock music’s bigotry, the same sexist stereotypes would and could prevail. Although Riot Grrrl’s underground status was partly the reason why mainstream music was not influenced by its anti-sexist message, it is hard not to label the trend of testosterone-fueled rock-rap as a counteraction to the progressiveness of many groups of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Despite there being several women-friendly or feminist punk groups that exist currently, one cannot deny that sexism in certain music scenes is still a big issue: not only for the girls who are repeatedly left out or estranged by the spirit of male superiority, but for the boys who miss out on the experience of sharing stage space with their female peers. Double standards can be expected (but should not be condoned) within the array of sloppily-written, Top 40 rap hits about b****es and hoes, or in the world of frivolous pop singles that speak of heartbroken women pining over their run-away boy-toys. But the fact that in the supposedly liberal-minded domain of punk music, whose platform is based on rebellion from the societal standards that promote materialism, prejudice, and other rigid ideologies, there can still be obvious sexism is disheartening, and practically tragic. Whether it is girls having no support when they are learning how to play instruments, or not being able to take part in the organization of concerts, or being harassed for simply dancing the way they want to at a show, these are issues that affect all types of people. Though they evidently harm girls most directly and most acutely, these problems and oppressions truly hurt everyone by reinforcing the stereotypes that keep repressive systems like the patriarchy afloat.

The cultural changes that are needed to lessen the burden of sexism can only be created with a revolution of attitude and a reeducation in the meaning and nature of oppression. This notion can be applied to any of the issues that feminism has tried to tackle in the past century; including the topic of discrimination against women in music. If males actively worked to promote positive attitudes about female punk-rockers and if girls and women felt free to experiment with their musical abilities, the world would be a better place. But this will only happen when consciousness is raised; when another wave of feisty females voices its outrage within their blogs and zines and art. True change is usually born from the desires of the people rather than of those in dominant positions. If enough girls speak up and speak out about their exclusion in rock music, an issue that is so often ignored by the larger media, perhaps some sort of force will form and allow a real type of progress to occur. We can at least hope; it would be a shame if tiresome hierarchies continued to tarnish punk rock’s magnitude of power and potential.

The author's comments:
My love for music and my interest in feminism inspired me to write this piece.

Similar Articles


This article has 0 comments.


MacMillan Books

Aspiring Writer? Take Our Online Course!