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Where are all the Riot Grrrls?: Sexism and Punk Rock

I started out wanting to write about how I don’t think the punk world is really sexist. After all, I’ve been going to shows since I was 16 and haven’t personally experienced overt hostility, assault, or discrimination. But once I really sat down to think about it, I realized, much to my own dismay, the scene is almost as bad as anywhere else.

Almost. I still hold the opinion that it could be worse. I think there’s a more accepting ideology involved ““ for starters, there are several bands who outwardly express that they are anti-sexist in addition to being anti-racist and anti-homophobic ““ but it’s still a scene that’s part of this society, and part of music in general. Punk is not immune.

One major problem is a lack of female artists, at least in prominent groups. You can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of current well-known punk bands with at least one female member. The Creepshow, Star Fucking Hipsters, The Measure (SA), HorrorPops and Civet come to mind. If you loosen the definition of “punk” you could include a few more, like Hey Monday, Paramore and VersaEmerge. There are others, but it’s still a pretty barren wasteland compared to the hundreds of all-male bands that are out there. Barren in numbers, of course, not in talent.

I went to a show last weekend ““ Against Me! played a last-minute gig at NYC’s Mercury Lounge ““ and the opener was a female duo called Trophy Wife. I was taken slightly aback by their very existence. They were really good, far better than many other opening acts I’ve seen before, and yet I’d never heard of them. I don’t know if that’s because they’re women or due to some other factor, of course, but it got me thinking about how rare and refreshing it is to see an all-female band. It shouldn’t be. To the audience’s credit, no one shouted for them to take their clothes off and I didn’t overhear any conversations about how they were OK for a couple of chicks.

Lauren Denitzio from The Measure (SA) recently wrote a piece about her experiences being a woman in a punk band. She mentioned several things that probably won’t surprise anyone, like being asked if she’s in the band or with the band, being told she plays well for a girl and being on the receiving end of lewd jokes and comments. In those instances, the punk scene isn’t any better than any other musical subculture, but at least there are things that redeem it.

“One benefit of being in the punk scene for me, even where these things still happen, is having people around who also don’t think these things are okay,” she wrote. It’s been my experience as well that most people don’t think sexism and intimidation are acceptable, and that it’s a few losers who manage to ruin it for everyone else. Unfortunately, if you’re a young woman looking for a place to fit in, it only takes one rude comment or one guy to grope you in a mosh pit to completely sour the scene.

In Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, Sara Marcus writes a passage about the way young women were treated in the late 1980s and early 1990s punk scene. At best they were coat racks, relegated to the back and sides of crowds while their boyfriends rampaged through the mosh pits. I think this is one place where progress has actually happened. Maybe it’s because I didn’t start going to shows until 1999, or because my show-going friends at the time were mostly girls, but that didn’t happen to me. I never held anyone’s coat, and as an indestructible teen of questionable common sense, I was rarely afraid of mosh pits, though I can see how they could be terrifying for someone significantly smaller than I am. In my old age, I don’t go into pits much anymore, but I have noticed there are more and more women in them.

I remember being at a Warped Tour, probably in 1999 or 2000, and during Rancid’s set they created a separate circle pit just for girls. I’m pretty sure this was a maneuver borrowed from The Distillers (this was while Tim Armstrong and Brody Dalle were still married), but wherever it came from, it was fun. While completely separating women from men isn’t a long-term solution, it’s nice to have a safe space sometimes.

Denitzio mentioned safe spaces in her post, as well. She pointed out that male privilege leads to people questioning why women-only spaces and all-female shows are necessary. And while, in my experience, most punk guys aren’t overtly sexist, the fact that some still are, or that we don’t see a relatively equal number of male and female musicians or fans, means there’s still work to be done.

I think we need another Riot Grrrl movement. We need to take the musical patriarchy by its man-parts and put it in its place. I was too young to know about the first one, yet when I read Girls to the Front, I managed to feel nostalgic for something I hadn’t even been a part of. Maybe it was longing and jealousy for a revolution that passed me by. Maybe I was living vicariously and mourning its end. Maybe it was the realization that, while we have made a little progress, things could still be better, not just in the punk scene, and women still need to stand up and fight.

Photo: Flickr

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

25 replies on “Where are all the Riot Grrrls?: Sexism and Punk Rock”

Also has anyone experienced the competitiveness of women in the scene? I know, there are different subcultures of punk–but it all seems the same to me, and many women can be competitive to be who will be accepted by the men the first. Let’s strip down our girliness and essentially what makes us who we are to be accepted by the bros. And there *is* a bro culture in punk rock, it’s just different from this bro culture or that bro culture.

I found myself in the spot where I was dumped on by quite a few women because they felt I was invading their territory and I felt like they were competing to be accepted by the dudes. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve been part of that, but I’ve fallen into the trap myself. It’s hard not to.

When you say ‘its all the same to me’, do you mean the treatment of women or the differences in the subcultures?

I will say that I notice the competitive aspect of it more now. I can’t say if that is an actual change in the scene (I suspect it is) or if my age/experience is just allowing me to see it more clearly.

There is a marked rise in normative beauty standards, where you might have an outlandish hair color and tattoos, but you’re still expected to look conventionally attractive underneath that. Punk used to pride itself on the rejection of these kind of ideals and I’m really dismayed to see how body conscious the mainstream punk scene has become. But I also think this is a natural extension of ‘punk’ becoming more an aesthetic choice for people — anyone who follows my tumblr might remember me flipping out about someone who wanted to disregard the music, politics, and social implications of punk, because punk was just how she dressed.

Its an interesting phenomena. I could probably spin a couple additional theories about the place of authenticity and comodification of the subculture as sources of this issue, but, you know, no one needs an essay in the comments section.

I was kind of a retroactive riot grrrl, if you will, listening to the music and reading up on feminism in my teens. I missed the actual movement (I was in elementary school), but lately, I’ve been getting the sense that there are people looking for a revival.

Being a woman in any music scene can be tough. I’ve never been huge into punk, but I also lived at rock shows in my late teens/most of my 20s, primarily garage rock and indie rock. I also worked for almost a decade as a rock critic. The number of times I’ve been accused of only being into music because I wanted to fuck the bands is staggering. I remember a local zine doing profiles of people on the scene and they wrote that I looked like an icy bitch (I was shy) but I had nice tits. And this was in the mid-’90s, the height of riot grrrl.

The thing is, I don’t think things were that much better when Riot Grrrl was in full swing. Yeah, maybe in Portland or Olympia, but unless you were specifically seeing a band that were at least tenuously involved with that scene I don’t think things were any better. Even if there was a woman in the band, it didn’t mean that their male fans weren’t a bunch of assholes. I think indie rock might be even worse than punk fan-wise because indie rock fans are a bunch of “nice guys.”

I hope you will write more music columns here? I’m the only one who currently writes regular music columns on P-Mag. But really there needs to be more female music columnists out there period. Notice the difference between the amount of men and women writing about music. I don’t think it’s because women don’t want to write about music, I think it’s because no one’s publishing them.

I’ve never had a problem with people willing to publish me as a female music writer — it’s more a general discouragement from the scene and the music industry. Many people assume that young female music critics are groupies. There are a lot of amazing women writing about music who do get good jobs, but they have to go through a lot of shit and develop a pretty thick skin to get to a point where they have the seniority to have much visibility.

I’m more into hardcore than straight up punk (I don’t know, dudes, but when it’s good it is so good).

I found that the scene had a place for me as long as I shut up and stayed out of the pit. Most girls were seen as sexual accessories to the music scene – very few were accepted. The final straw was when I started up a zine with a male friend of mine. I never got any recognition. Even though I put in most of the work, he was the one who everyone associated with it. I mean, if I was going to run myself ragged getting that shit together and still get overlooked for a white dude in a place that was supposedly progressive and equal and fuck-the-system, then I don’t even know.

I used to love going to shows. I loved punk music, hardcore music and even considered myself straightedge for a while. I found the punk scene actually more unforgiving of women than say hardcore or straightedgers. I felt that I had a place in hardcore, despite the lack of female hardcore “role models” than I did in the punk scene. I do believe this is a very subjective topic though and leans its self to a lot of person experience as opposed to really being able to prove anything.

Ages 13 – 18 going to shows was my life. I went to every show at the Fireside, Metro, Rubes, pretty much any show in Chicago every weekend until I went to college.

But I definitely noticed sexism in the “scene”

Fuck, look at the fact that suicidegirls.com is supposed to be representative at women in punk. I completely promote sex positivity, and this isn’t meant to be a slight against the women who participate in it, but THAT is my place in this scene? It looks like someone took a magic marker to a playboy? There’s nothing revolutionary about that. But, look at any warped tour and that’s the only women driven tent. It’s not a problem of content, it’s a problem of that content being the most widespread and accepted in the scene.

Very recently I went to a Street Dogs show. We saw the lead singer at a bar after the show.

My (female) friend to him: “You guys were great!”

Him: “I don’t want to be anyone’s idol.”

My brother, the same night, to him: “I fucking love you guys! Blablalbalblabla.” (Raves about them.)

Him: “Thanks, man!”

Street Dogs sing about a lot of working class, union issues. I listened to them when I felt unmotivated to study for the LSAT. (I want to work in employment law.)

Now? I haven’t listened to their CD once since that night because it’s so fucking obvious where I stand in that scene.

Combine that with the creeps that hit on me as a teenager, the punk guy that grabbed my ass a couple weeks ago at a bar, or go to punknews.org and take a look at the comments sometime. I don’t know.

(Obviously these incidents aren’t emblematic of the scene at large. I think there’s great guys in the scene. I just get much more jaded about it as I get older.)

Ugh, that would completely sour a band for me, too.

I thought about mentioning the sexiness aspect, but there is way too much there to touch on it without delving in deep. Maybe that’s a topic for its own post. That probably ties in with why female-style band shirts are always so skimpy.

I’m a little too old have experience riot grrrl firsthand, and living in a Midwestern, working-class city where more people listened to Van Halen than Bikini Kill, I didn’t even know what it was until long after the fact. I’m glad Girls to the Front touched on that: the largely white, largely middle-class, largely coastal nature of the riot grrrl scene. I’m glad it existed, but it wasn’t without its problems, either.

The truth? Had there even been something approximating riot grrrl in my area, I would have thought I wasn’t cool enough or smart enough for it. I went to a lot of local shows where I was one of few women in the crowd, but I never experienced much sexism either — I mean, at least overtly. Granted, I stayed away from the most hardcore of punk shows.

I always feel uncool at punk shows. I’ve been going to them for 11 years, and it hasn’t failed. When I was 16 I felt young and dorky, now I feel like an old lady.

I’ve definitely been at some where I was one of only a few ladies. Actually, I went to see Bad Religion in the fall and there was a line for the men’s bathroom but not the women’s. So I guess there is one benefit to it.

Great post, Liza. I think its important to remember that our personal experiences aren’t always the truth of a movement, be it punk or feminism or what have you, and its great that you pointed that out. I’m probably older than you by give or take a decade and was a senior in high school when riot grrl hit. I’d been heavily involved in the Philly punk scene for several years by this point and could list horror stories about the treatment of women by the guys. They ranged from fairly benign coat hanger shit to outright aggression of the both physical and sexual varieties. I’ve been flat out assaulted in the pit just for being there and being a girl, and I don’t mean the usual level of bumps and bruises one gets from moshing.

I think, as well, a lot depends on location. DC was notoriously sexist, even and especially in the straight edge scene. I’ve heard Texas was better. Washington was obviously terrible.

I’d recommend for consumption if you haven’t already read/watched these: ‘Cinderella’s Big Score’ and ‘Pretty in Punk’ and the documentary ‘Decline of Western Civilization, Pt 1’ which has never been released on dvd, but you can watch in pieces on YouTube.

I definitely agree that it depends on location. I was in Buffalo in high school, so what I’m calling a “scene” wasn’t huge. Maybe that helped, you got to know each other because there were fewer people. If I’d grown up in Philly, DC, NYC or LA it might have been an entirely different thing.

And, definitely, personal experience varies. I could be at the exact same show as someone else and she could get felt up I could get left alone, and we’d leave with very different thoughts on the scene.

I was a late nineties/early millennium punker. There were a bunch of local bands with women, and I saw the Distillers a few times. Always, if there was a woman onstage, people would yell at her to take off her shirt. Always. It sucked. I never had a problem with dudes in the mosh pit (and I almost always was in the pit), but if we stood at the back / near the bar we’d get hassled, usually by dudes being gross and trying to get a rise. I dunno. There were a bunch of girls I’d see at a lot of shows, but the scene seemed really male-dominated, and there was a lot of “oh, she’s cool, like one of the dudes” going on – girls were only cool if they adopted the tough/violent attitude. For a scene that claimed to be all about equality, there was always that addendum: “as long as you’re just like us.”

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