Call Me Jezebel: The Electrified, Unholy, and Wicked Women of Punk

Images of women depicted on punk posters are often dominated by fantasy (often not designed by women at all) that reveal them as unstable and voracious creatures, detestable in some cases, purring sex kittens in others, or demure geek chicks in still others. They are hellions, sirens, vixens, and Medusas. They are Betty Page pin-ups, Playboy girls gone bad, and Cometbus emo queens. They are tattooed temptresses with perfectly manicured hair, or Mohican dominatrixes, sultry and fierce. Often, they are buxom bombshells and voluptuous victims, or graven and sinister. In all, the array forms clustered libidinal fantasies played out by the fine-fingered, tight coil of boy hands projecting bodies of women seemingly born from the cinders of girlie mags, all ages punk clubs, and ragtag zine piles.

To poach and adapt the work of Carmen-Veronica Bobérly in her article “Monstrous Genealogies:…,” punk art depictions of grotesque females, or monstrous females, may reflect the “ ‘metaphorics of uncontrollability’ that conflates monstrosity and femininity, and are intent on re-valorising the ‘cavernous,’ ‘visceral,’ ‘secreting’ and ‘protruding’ female body as a fluid site of potentiality” that is both transformative and liminal (2006). Additionally, punk art may also fulfill some key assumptions suggested by Barbara Creed: “The female body is frequently depicted within patriarchal discourses as fluid, unstable, chameleon-like… insofar as woman’s body signifies the human potential to return to a more primitive state of being, her image is accordingly manipulated, shaped, altered, stereotyped to point to the dangers that threaten civilizations from all sides” (1995: 87). What remains unclear is the danger signified in the subtext of the posters — perhaps the sorcery or cryptic nature of enigmatic women, the very pronounced “unnatural” and levelling angst and aggression, or the sudden unfettered claim of power and potential?

In summary, many writers imagine the punkified female body as uncontrollable, thus it provokes male fear and desire. To illustrate, if one is to imagine Creed’s ideas made manifest in the gear of punk, one might picture the “flagrant fashion ” of the early 1976 era, when the workers at Sex, the shop owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren, would “use sex not to entice but to horrify…” including infamous Jordan Hook (a prominent actress in the Derek Jarman punk apocalypse film Jubilee) who “wore cutaway-buttock plastic leotards with [a] black suspender belt and thigh high boots” while striving to make her “face and body as puke-promoting repulsive as possible (Burchill and Parsons 1978: 30). Jean Hearthfield-Linder has also proposed that Westwood’s designs playfully made the vocabulary of porn explicit,” luring and seducing “people into revolt,” while shying “away from making links to porn’s female exploitatin” (qtd. in O’brien 1999: 189). In this light, Jordan might be considered the punk rebel avatar of the grotesque body promulgated by Peter Jones in his essay concerning punk as Bakhtinian carnival.

Yet, if some of these images are envisioned, produced, or authored by the hands of women, or by girl bands, one could argue that they employ a unique anti-patriarchal strategy. Such recalcitrant bodies do not acquiesce or comply with the norms engendered by the “system,” even one devised by the punk subculture, thus they remain explosive bellwethers of a political critique fraught with ricocheting gender issues, not just spectacles easily dispelled as performances for profit.

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Therefore, one should not simply view these flyers as mere male libinal projections but also as potential sites of feminist discourse too — of cultural codes dismantled and re-imagined. Though male figures may be absent in a picture, their invisible presence on the page sits astride strutting Oi girls, virulent vixens, gutter punkettes, guerilla grrls, scrawny fashionistas, bikini-clad hot rod bimbos, or mod primadonnas. The girls are clad in white belts, spiked dog collars, and tight T-shirts, or gear that mimics Siouxsie Sioux, Joan Jett, and Sleater Kinney. Together, the male and female presences, both visible and invisible, text and subtext, engage history, aesthetics, and subcultural mores and worldviews — the gestalt rendered by the punk eye.

Such images do have critics, such as Gabriela Halas, who wrote a furious letter to the fanzine Heart Attack, condemning an ad for a CD called America’s Hardcore featuring an image “selling American patriotism and girls with big tits and shapely asses. This is the type of shit I thought I would leave behind when I became attracted to punk … this label is selling WOMEN to … sell their music, … they think it is OK to view our bodies as agents of the marketplace, to be manipulated and put on display…” (#35). The editor responded: “it wasn’t worth the time or energy” to remove the ad since it was …”really lightweight”…”stupid and innocuous.” What neither viewer addressed was the style of the art, which mirrored the iconic images of pin-up girls found on the wheel flaps of semi-trucks, which might have been ironically interrogated by the art, or unabashedly celebrated. The editor of Maximum Rock’n’Roll faced a similar protest when reader Rikki Sender, in the letters to the editor section, argued, “… I find it difficult to understand how MRR, which aspires to a certain scrupulousness in the type of ads it will and will not run,” ends up running ads with “photographs which exploit the image of women as victims and posit them as objects of physical abuse” (March 1986: 34). In both cases, such images were not floating free of discourse in the punk community without some resistance or critique. Even in 2002, Maximum Rock’n’Roll was criticized by Adam Wroblewski in a letter to the editors for running 124 interviews with all-male punk bands over a period of 14 straight issues compared to only one all-girl band interview. This does suggest that readerships actively monitored each magazine, attempting to draw attention to the divide between punk’s questionable feminist ideals and its everyday products — the very visual and written discourse printed in fanzines that normalizes notions of punk to thousands of people every month.

Yet, one should not suggest that all women in punk saw these issues as vexing. This approach would treat women in an essentialist, totalizing manner, seemingly re- colonizing them by putting borders around their perspective. Indeed, academics have often done that in the wake of the Riot Grrl punk subgenre, for the critiques stemming from that single faction of punk rock has often homogenized punk discussions, undermining the sense of vibrant difference and polyglossia in punk rock. This left pioneers like the Fastbacks outside the critics’ radar, or perhaps worse, “pigeonholed” them because singer/bassist Kim Warnick was a girl. She proclaimed to Ruckus zine, “I’m just a person in a band. I don’t have a huge political agenda. I have my own opinions, sure, but we don’t choose to sing about those in our songs … I actually wonder how many of those girls really ARE that angry, if they’re not just seeing this trend come up that they can jump on and say ‘Oh yeah, guess I’m angry'” (1993) . Warnick seems to posit that some Riot Grrrl bands were purely performance-savvy personas linked to shifting genre and market trends rather than a true reflection of punk’s changing identity and ideals. This remains debatable.

One needs to look no further than Margaret Doll Rod of Demolition Doll Rods, the longstanding Detroit, MI garage rock band, to understand that the images typically associated with garage rock posters, including ones that may show women half-dressed, in states of panic, velvety smooth, or bound-up in sexy gear may not signal potential cries of sexism. Writing to me in spring 2008, Margaret offered this insight:

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So for each and everyone of us depending on our own unique way of living will have different feelings, interpretations, and ideas about what we see in a poster. Does it have anything to do with the performance you may or may not attend? If it is a good poster, well, then I hope so, but the beauty is that no matter how great the poster is we all have our own glorious thoughts, ideas, perversions etc. which I believe in all honestly will grow and blossom regardless if there is a hot ass poster to ignite your spirit or blow your mind …To the artist whose posters have made my mouth water, my palms sweat, my thighs tighten and eye bulbs pop with a warm glow to my soul, to the artists who have inspired my fantasies and dared me to dream, and to the artist who have scrambled my mind into the flabbergastion of which I reply what the fuck? I thank you with all my heart and soul I thank you (2008).

These images may depict the inherent masculine/hetero domination of punk poster making, in which women are “boy toys,” but, like Lauraine Leblanc argues, women actively resist in ways more nuanced and transformative than boys. Their presence at gigs, in bands or as scenesters, underscores the instability and fluidity of female identity within punk, in which girls play, according to Leblanc, the “femininity game” by wearing the mask of being obedient, acquiescing, and shy observers while being fully aware of the ironic distance between them, the music, and the scene makers. Hence, they map their relationship to punk and hardcore in a language that slips elusively away from a boy’s cognition. Or, as Dick Hebdige underscores the phenomena in Hiding in the Light:

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in punk and post-punk…girls have begun playing with themselves in public: parodying the conventional iconography of fallen womanhood – the vamp, the tart, the slut, the waif, the sadistic maitresse, the victim-in-bondage. These girls interrupt the image-flow. They play back images of women as icons, women as the Furies of classical mythology. They make the s-m matrix strange. They skirt round the voyeurism issue, flirt with masculine curiosity but refuse to submit to the masterful gaze (28: 1985).

Women have always been tremendously important to the ethos, style, content, and outlook of punk on both sides of the Atlantic, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Pretenders, the Slits, Blondie, Penetration, the Avengers, the Bags, The Lewd, Buffalo Gals, and the Alley Cats. In fact, when Jon Savage penned his review of Penetration in the magazine Sounds, he declared, “The Future is Female,” while Chrissie Hynde was rumored to have said, “Remember you’re in a rock’n’roll band. It’s not “Fuck me.” It’s “Fuck you!” demonstrating that punk was fervently fomenting a new era that spelled partial disaster for old norms (Napier-Bell 168: 2001). To illustrate further, note this posting from Pat Bag’s web site section Women of Punk, in which punk veteran Theresa Kereakes argues:

I think that women in the early punk scene completely defied whatever restrictions straight, non-punk women felt bound by. We did whatever we wanted. We dressed cool and weird and the empowering thing about that is that you’re saying “I don’t have to comply with your rules. I am making my own rules.” We designed awesome flyers, took pictures non stop of our beautiful friends, we wrote great articles, stories and journalism. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t do because we refused to take No for an answer. We were the really liberated women. We took all the chances and said “fuck you” to people who tried to stop us. (April 2005)

Whereas it’s hard to imagine first and second generation punk, including all girl bands like the Dishrags, Raincoats, B-Girls, Runaways (who sat astride the glam, punk, and rock eras), and the Slits without the presence of women, women were not, unfortunately, nearly as present within the confines of the hardcore era, although there were notable exceptions, like Kira Roessler, the mid-1980’s bass player in Black Flag, the mixed sex Washington D.C. band Red C, Lynn Perko from the second line-up of the Dicks, Sado-Nation from Portland, the quasi-skate punk band Sin 34, Capitol Punishment from Sacramento, 45 Grave and Mox Nix (pre-Plain Wrap) from Los Angeles, and the Houston-based all female Mydolls, Seattle’s mostly girl Fastbacks, and Portland-based all girl Neo Boys and Sado-Nation, whose line-up has included two different female singers.

Poet rocker Patti Smith was a conduit between the era of St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project, which often had influential older beats like Allen Ginsberg on hand, and the reign of CBGBs, where mixed-sex bands like the Cramps and Talking Heads held court, while mixed gender mid-1980s line-up of the Flesheaters, Gun Club, and the Dicks captured the blues-punk imagination while the 1960’s revivalism of all-girl Pandoras were unleashed upon a new generation. Also, oft-overlooked female bands like Frightwig (see Kurt Cobain’s T-shirt during the MTV Unplugged show) held center court in the pre-Riot Grrl era while the all-girl Detroit three-piece Inside Out (with future Fabulous Disaster member Lynda Mandolin) was prominently featured in Maximum Rock’n’Roll. In the midst of the mid-1980s hardcore era, Matrax, a cassette label out of Ontario, released a woman’s compilation tape featuring 13 all woman bands, including The Raunchettes, Barely Human, and Pre Metal Syndrome.

During the heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s, women rippled throughout underground music, including no less than: the Motels, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Grrls, The Babylons, Dickbrains, The Punts, the Rentz, Castration Squad, the Black Dolls, Inflatable Boy, the Clams, the Thrills, the Varve, the Fuckettes, Beast, Shreader, VS, Lubricants, the Thrills, Pink Section, VKTMS, Repellents, Heathens, Morbid Opera, X (Australia), Standing Waves, F Systems, and the Urge, not to neglect British envoys the Partisans, Action Pact, Crass, and Vice Squad.

By the mid-late 1980s and 1990s, women had become core conceptual creators, helping to shape: the alt rock, grunge, and post-punk of L7, Gits, Babes in Toyland, Hole, Buried in 69, Nymphs, Silverfish, Calamity Jane, Sircle of Soul, Papa Wheelie, and Dickless; the political agit-prop of A.P.P.L.E., Nausea, Civilized Society, Insurgence, Godless, Spitboy, Karma Sutra, Antisect and the Joyce McKinney Experience; Eastern Europeans like Tozibabe (Yugoslavia) Aurora Clakaco, and Riziko Fucktor (both from Hungary); the New York school of Honeymoon Killers, Nilla, Trick Babys, The Meneaters, Ultra 5, Times Square, Boss Hog, the Goons, Fuzztones, Youth Gone Mad (formerly of L.A.), the Wives, Hissyfits, White Zombie, and Lunachicks; the Midwest’s Bhang Revival, The Blue Up!, Pet UFO, Tem Eyos Ki, Naked Aggression, Selby Tigers, 8 Bark, and Vivians; L.A’s breathless Red Aunts, long-lived Creamers, Paper Tulips, Ramonas/Sheenas, Sluts for Hire, Butt Trumpet, Mini-Skirt Mob, Sister Goddamn, Borax, and Long Beach’s X-It; riot grrl agents Bikini Kill, Lucy Stoners, and Bratmobile; the Bay Area blitz of Sister Double Happiness, Honeymooners, Wrecks, Gargoyles, Clown Alley, Burning Witches, Fabulous Disaster, and Short Dogs Grow; the Boston barrage of Feminine Protection and Disarray; England’s Smart Pills; the DC’s jagged Slant 6, brashy Broken Siren, powerful post-punk Fire Party, mixed-gender Holy Rollers, and white belt hip punk-funk of the Make-Up, not to mention the all girl Chalk Circle and older mixed-sex array of Urban Verbs, Slickee Boys, Nuclear Crayons, Hate from Ignorance, The Nurses, Tru Fax, Insaniacs, Tiny Desk Unit, D. Ceats, and the Shirkers; New Mexico’s the Drags, Eyeliners, and Elephant; Japan’s widely loved Shonen Knife, Melt Banana, Pappys, 5.6.7.8.’s and the lesser known Gomess, the kitchen sink Detroit rock prose of the Paybacks and soul punk whiplash of the Belrays and the garage flair of the Brood, Demolition Doll Rods, Gore Gore Girls, and the Bobbyteens; and Austin’s Swine King and Pain Teens. Plus, the female singer of longstanding dark-punk Irish band Paranoid Visions, and the infinite British, including the garagey mock-pop of the Thee Headcoatees, the pop shambolism of Fuzzbox, the proto-Riot Grrl rebellion of Huggy Bear, the pop punk of the Shop Assistants, and post-punk progenitors Pussycat Thrash/Red Monkey.

Other girl bands of the era include the punk and hardcore circuits of Smash Your Face, Doughuts (Sweden), the Upskirts (Sweden), Scarlet Drops, Inept, The Chitz, Discount, Chimpanzees, Last Cry, Chicken Milk and Obnoxious Race (both from Canada), the Chubbies, The No Talents (France), White Trash Debutantes, later incarnations of (Impatient) Youth, Mini Skirt Mob, Baskervils, Ragady Anne, Vicious Ginks, Lemming , Nashville Pussy, Motor Morons, Scapegoat, Gargoyles, Cedar Street Sluts, Loudmouths, Bimbo Toolshed, The Heroines, Cold Cold Hearts, Milemarker, He’s Dead Jim, Betty Bondage, Do or Die, Da Willys, Screaming Bloody Marys (1990s line-up), Teen Idols, MAOW, Eyeliners, Rotten Apples, Groovie Ghoulies, 4 Gazm, On the Rag; the international rockabilly of Sin Alley (Belgium), or the worldwide sounds of Chin-Chin (Switzerland), Piolines (Italy), Free Love Society (Sweden), and Jingo De Lunch (Germany), Ladybug (Taiwan), Cub (Canada) and Submission Hold (Canada).

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Punk intersected with the lives of women on many different levels and played a role far too varied to capture here with any finality or scope. For instance, women were extremely prominent documentary photographers of the punk and hardcore era, including Roberta Bailey (The Clash and the Ramones), Erica Echenberg (The Roxy, England, Sniffin Glue, and the “White Riot Tour”), Debbie Schow, Marsha Resnick, and later Cynthia Connely (Banned in DC) and Susie J. Horgan (Punk Love), among many others. The infamous clubs the Roxy and Whiskey were, according to Kereakes, 100% run by women. Nicole Panter managed the Germs and helped release the Avenger’s EP “The American In Me,” while the label Frontier was started by Lisa Fancher, who released albums by the Adolescents, TSOL, and Suicidal Tendencies, while much of the label’s early art work was conceived by Diane Zincavage.

Some points can be leveled about punk first impacting woman as fans of music, and how it re-shaped the discourse of fandom — how rock stars were perceived by fans as sex objects, not simply due to their looks, including slanted or tousled haircuts and a skinny, pronounced angularity of a body, but due to their lyrics as well, or the sentiment projected by female rock writers that became a larger part of some female fans’ identification with a performer. As Ann Powers reflects on her teen fantasy life in “Dream Weaver,” she admits that “Punk rock had it repercussions: it made famous a gaggle of boys so unsuitable for teen pin-ups that they revolutionized the fantasy lives of a generation of girls. I learned to forgive Mick Jones his wobbly chin and Glamour-don’t clothes, but only after I discovered his lyrics” (1992). This is noticeably different than even the punk poet and critic Patti Smith, who looked at pre-punk Bob Dylan as “…a sex symbol. Positive energy behind a negative mask is very sexy. Like a full basket under straining pants. It wasn’t the world he saved, in my dreams, it was me” (1973). She is still the one swooning, whereas in the eyes of Powers, the fan retains tokens of power and is only willing to hand over affections when the lyric constructs have been deemed worthy and intelligent enough to crate a level playing field between fan and musician. If Smith is libidinal and fawning, an uber-fan, Powers is conditional, shrewd, and self-assertive.
Flipside fanzine #40 featured an interview by Al Flipside with Sado-Nation, a crossover punk and hardcore band from Portland, whose singer Mish (Michelle) Bondage notes she’s not a “typical meek female. I’m pretty scary I guess.” She further suggests that some women are “so afraid to be themselves and do what they want to do.” For exhibiting tendencies that countered or interrogated such attitudes, Mish had to navigate numerous repercussions, like wading through sexism from even the supposedly “cool” punk audiences that called her a “dyke bitch” at times, or sexist club employees, or getting thrown out of shows for stage diving. Such intense physicality shredded the notion of women as discreet, passive, restricted, and controlled beings, much noted in literature about women’s unruly bodies, including Carla Freccero’s analysis of “Justify My Love” and “Like a Virgin” era Madonna, whose video fantasies challenged “the unitary monolithic construction of the body that is purified, purged, and Politically Correct” (1993: 2). Though Mish admits to Flipside that she harbors “frustration and anger,” she also adds, “There’s more sexism in other music more than punk” (Nov. 1983).

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In spring 2008, when asked how she felt about the history of women in punk twenty-five years later, especially her own role, she offered this succinct synopsis: “I wasn’t a typical female, I didn’t use cutenes … to sell a stage show, I was competing with the men in hardcore, because of that, I couldn’t be the band’s hood ornament … I had to hold my own vocal wise and tough wise with the guys who were my actual “competition” and peers because girls didn’t really do hardcore …. just a handful, and we didn’t really get to hook up with them on gigs.” For Mish, she seemed to seek parity through both the site of performance and everyday interaction — a striking stab at dismantling stereotypes both within the punk subculture and the mainstream, each with a different set of consequences, on and off stage, all of which might culminate in what Karina Eileraas has described in her article “Witches Bitches and Fluids: Girl Bands Performing Ugliness as Resistance” as “an intentional deviation from ‘nice, gentle, pretty’ ways of looking, talking, behaving, and visualizing,” conveying “a resistant practice that challenges cultural representations of “pretty” femininity” (122: 1997). In doing so, they link with, or draw links to, witches, bitches, or whores – ugly, unruly and persecuted female identities throughout history,” which they explore through a raucous, even surrealist geneology to create their own set of images, or resignify old sets, that explore “the violence to and alienation from the body that obedient performances of “pretty” femininity entail (123-124: 1997). Additionally, women can re-define “pretty” and gender bending ambiguity through their own song discourse too, as proposed by this lyric sung by Diane Chai, bass player and singer of the Alley Cats: “Left school when she was 17/she was tough but she wasn’t mean/knows how to spit in the street/when she smiles she looks so sweet…always wanted to be one of the boys/make all that rock’n’roll noise…just an alley cat” (1982).

In an article that deconstructs the performances of Joan Jett, Kathleen Kennedy asserts that there is a third way of constructing identity that is neither masculine nor feminine, but an interrogation of both that leads to a distinct, ‘unruly’ Jett style. For instance, she analyzes Jett’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” video, a hallmark early 1980’s favorite, and describes how Jett destabilizes or reverses the “normal” routines propagated during this era:

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The video mocks both the traditionally female and traditionally female subject positions in those videos – that of inviting a male to touch her –and the traditionally masculine position of those videos – overpowering women with physical prowess. The body Joan Jett reveals is a mixture of contradictory masculine and feminine signs. It is a position in between the conventionally gendered body. Rather than mimic male masculinity Jett’s performance of masculinity interrupted the clear binaries within middle-class society that linked biological sex with appropriate gender and sexual identities (2002: 99).

Such a performance manifests an alterity, she argues, likely attracting a wide audience (the video has logged over 170,000 views on http://www.youtube.com), including both ‘typical’ male rock’n’roll fans, but also teenage girls and gays and lesbians. Though Kennedy focuses on Jett’s rather ambiguous gendered body — a slim athletic body in a small swim suit — she chooses to ignore Jett boxing with a well-oiled black man. Next, they pose together as the scene cuts and back and forth to a huge arena crowd clapping hands in tight, rhythmic unison. Later shots include Jett boxing at the camera (the subject position becoming the viewer) and lighthearted moments in the beach sand, like Jett smashing a bass drum and an old man scanning the foreground with a metal detector. Hence, is Joan seeking to find gold by smashing stereotypes and aligning herself with the much-maligned black body? That symbol system remains unexplored, but his chest and bicep muscles flex, juxtaposed with full shots of Jett’s scantily clad body, together with a resonating aural soundtrack: deep growls of “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Despite the possibilities, such arena rock, even when shaped by Jett’s punk pedigree, likely didn’t hold too much legitimacy within the hardcore community of the era, even if the performance, to borrow from Ryan Moore, were to undermine the dominant meaning supplied by the status quo social order and parody the power behind it, which is ideally what punk tried to accomplish (311: 2001). Also, if this is true, and the performance does not take hold in the imagination as disordering, has it then, as Hebdige might argue, been simply recuperated, thus reasserting the old ‘repaired’ social order?

Joan Jett.

One should contextualize these “performances” genre-wise, in which punk bands readily offered a steady diet of sexism, like GBH’s “Big Women” and “Slut,” the Queer’s “I Want Cunt,” the Meatmen’s “I’m Glad I’m Not a Girl” and “Lesbian Death Dirge,” and the Dwarves “Skin Poppin’ Slut,” just to mention a few titles. In order to understand the forces shaping such discourse in a supposedly oppositional culture open to and even touting change, Bill Stevenson from the Descendents, the band who penned both widely loved romantic punk pop songs (“In Love This Way”) and also more raw, juvenile, sexist tirades like “NO FB” (No Fat Beaver… “I don’t wanna smell your stinky beave … I’d rather be shot…”) explained to me in 2003:

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…we tried to emulate the things we were hearing in the songs and also this kind of prevailing browbeating of girls and women, which you know, that’s done by male ignorance because you don’t know any better and you’re insecure and afraid of women as a young man … I was kind of dumb kid, I was raised very white bred sheltered … I was raised by a conservative man from the Midwest. My father worked two jobs and didn’t have a lot of time to teach me things, and even if he did try to teach me he would teach me to be a racist or something, so I had to learn to be a good human in my 20s and 30s. I am still learning…

Also, as letters to zines like Flipside attest, women were regularly harassed, as Mish also noted, by the employees. In 1989, Jacqueline Fauteux described the clubs 1970’s, Helter Skelter, and the Stardust Ballroom, where security guards felt “it is their right to touch, kiss, caress, and maul the female club goers” (#63). Likely, such incidents were not rare.
By and large, one might argue, the punk scene often mimicked the very culture it supposedly loathed, acting out the master narrative of sexist stereotyping and intolerance; hence, the notion that punk offered different gender roles often acts more like a trope than a reality. That may be just one reason that letters to editors and columns in a wide array of zines constantly illustrated the debate, such as Gabriel Kristal penning one entitled “Why Ending Sexism in the Hardcore Scene is Men’s Responsibility,” suggesting men must constantly attempt to recognize the inherent sexism of not encouraging female performers, their roles in the shaping and fostering of sexist environments through language and pornography, and their remiss in not addressing the physical needs of women in punk spaces, such as not providing childcare (#25). Yet, in a Maximum Rock N Roll issue over a decade earlier, V. Verdi, a punk woman writing a letter to the editor, argues that “X-rated movies and Hustler exist because of [a] mental difference between men and women,” including the fact that their sex drives are often different. Hence, what high-minded moralists call “smut” actually serve a useful purpose. Women should feel thankful” (1986: #32).

In this discourse, Kristal might be targeted as a “moralist.” To complicate matters further, Maximum Rock’n’Roll had previously ran an article covering the pornography debate, “Ed Meese and the Question of Pornography,” (1988: #67) which was highly critical of the Meese report, while longtime female flyer and album artist Shawn Kerri (Germs, Circle Jerks, DOA) published lewd cartoons in Hustler and Chic. By the 2000s, alt-porn and punk porn, which I previously published zine articles about, have become market forces in the era of FrictionUSA, Supercult, Suicide Girls (including a burlesque show, clothing line, and web site) and Joanna Angel (Burning Angel). At least part of the philosophy and overall drive is to reclaim porn from a ‘fake and bake’ aesthetic, coupled with “punk rock rhetoric and DIY packaging” (Koht: 2005) Hence, punk provides no fixed meaning or way to cope with gender issues, thus women and men in the scene have to continuously navigate and negotiate these cultural swells.

Joanna Angel and company.

A few prominent women writers identified with the shock therapy of bands like the Sex Pistols. Writers like Ellen Willis preferred them to the “women’s genre,” for they offered “the music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated – as good rock’n’roll did – challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics” (qtd. in Stein 61: 2006). In contrast, Karina Eileraas surmises that “the punk aesthetic embodied by the Sex Pistols, consisted of self-defilement, or ‘uglification’ …reductively speaking, punk enlisted cursing, safety-pin fashion, and the animal-like snarl. .. Punk imagined the body as a quasi-Hobbesian state, rule by uncontrollable urges for sex and violence” (123: 1997) She seems to unconsciously graft two punk song title together here: Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Sex and Violence” by the Exploited while countering Willis’ premise that punk was anti-sex.

Willis’ depiction also suggests that the brash, aggressive, “primitive” modus operandi of the Sex Pistols seemingly trumped the introspective, earnest, and careful approach of the women’s genre, which merely might have masked tendencies towards submission, or at least lacked the visceral and physical indiscreetness, or raw physicality, of punk. Still, Camille Paglia argued that women essentially lacked the testosterone and basic hormones of punk. In 1991, she once declared that there had not been a great female guitarist in the last twenty years, although Simon Reynolds has suggested that greatness is a kind of broad loose term that should be met with suspicion, since women’s approaches may differ; for instance, he cites the cooperative, mutual guitar interplay of Throwing Muses, or the writer Luce Irigaray, whose work on the nature of female subjectivity may lend credence to the fact that one man’s solo may be a woman’s gap, breakage, and fragment. Also, the sentiment suggesting sense that girls lack a rock’n’roll physicality is seemingly interrogated by these lines, offered as exhortations of the female body, offered by the writer Sue Golding: “…our living, pariah skin: the memory of our skin; the unforgettable landscape of our skin; the molecular, danceable, corruptible, sickening journey of our skin…our fluid, mad, exiled, mutated, villainous, impossible, uncontainable …” lives (173: 1995). All these depictions lend themselves to the idea of a women’s body’s being as transgressive and rock’n’roll as a man’s body.

The arguments of Paglia also tend to ignore, even erase, the trailblazing, self-aggrandizing, meaty guitar work of the Runaways, L7 (L.A. based), 7 Year Bitch, Lunachicks and others, which deflates the notion of rock’n’roll “crunch” and swagger as being phallocentric. Moreover, I also suggest the blurred gender of rock’n’roll is a byproduct of total physical metamorphosis of the body into a metaphoric unit of noise production, in which the genderless body segues into technology, fusing industrial grade parts with organic host sensibilities — an ambiguous body writhing with electrodes. As Larissa, guitarist for the much overlooked Laughing Hyenas (see photo below) describes it: I love music so much. It’s so physical for me. People think that dance is the only physical art form, but I don’t think it it’s physical; I think it’s visual. It’s about how graceful and beautiful the body can be. Music is the only physical art form available, and for me the feeling is irreplaceable. For me, I feel electrified when I play. It’s as if someone shot a lightning bolt through my body ad into my guitar, and I just want to explode into feedback” (1989). This sense of bodily voltage resembles historic precedents that Michelle Henning outlined in her essay “Don’t Touch Me (“I’m Electric”): On Gender and Sensation in Modernity”: “turn of the [20th] century images of electricity and electrification depicted women emanating electricity from the fingers, holding together the wires of the newly electrified city (34: 1998) Moreover, such ambiguous electric or electro-chemical processes emanating from women, historically referenced in archetypes ranging from images of Medusa, to poems by Rimbaud (“Les Chercheuses de Poux”), to an electrified vamp in the film Metropolis, typically trigger twin engines of fear and enticement in men who encounter women with such transmongrified bodies. Rockn’roll, what some have referred to as electric folklore, also offers the possibility of women experiencing an all-encompassing, primal, voltage-infused atavism as the body becomes a porous conduit. Thus, we can regard this space and time as liminal – popularly imagined as a between and betwixt state, inverted, “time out of time,” offering a brief suspension and critique of conventions and norms. Perhaps such space may even be considered a third space, neither male nor female. As Mish from Sado-nation explained to me: “I would push it so far sometimes. I would have a sort of out of body experience, and I would get totally lost in the music and the energy. I couldn’t always tell you play by play what happened in the show, since I was long gone in a place deep inside me, and what was released was pure primal animal energy. It was no longer me. It was very exhausting and exhilarating at the same time” (2005).

Rock critic Joe Carducci may insist that girls feminize music, or that they lack the hormonal set-up to feel it in the gut, or are alienated from their own physicality, but the descriptions of both Larissa and Mish reveal the self-limiting, inherent sexism of his comment while suggesting that electricity may transcend or transform sexual persona, or at least undermine the notion that women’s bodies can’t be circuits as well as men’s body: genderless bodies can be imagined as the habitus of punk. Yet, these same electric women’s bodies may be tainted, due to the “recalcitrant physicality, which breaks out, out of place, as dirt, as disease…” that threatens the social order (Pacteau 92: 1999).

.
Hence, Carducci’s claims as merely part of on ongoing trope, not a truth, normalized through much of the discourse of rockn’roll, that cements the space of rock’n’roll as phallocentric. Whereas art movements such as futurism may have deplored women’s bodies, or femininity, as conservative, backwards and backwards looking (qtd. in Herring 32: 1998), I suggest that punk electrified the female body, collapsed gender roles into perhaps more free and flexible forms, and even perhaps momentarily de-phallicized the rock aesthetic. As Larissa, whose tastes spanned the art of De Kooning and Rauschenberg to the novels of De Sade and Dostoevsky, told Maximum Rock’n’Roll, “People ask me about being in a band with three guys, the only difference is that I piss sitting down. I eat, breathe, and feel the music as much as they do” (Walter 1991). The band mates of Mish Bondage of Sado-nation similarly noted that she bridged “the gap between male and female, all of a sudden it is non-sex” and described her as being like “any male musician” (Flipside #40 1983). Such “fluidity, ambiguity, and hybridity are ‘threatening,’” Karina Eileraas asserts, “because they represent the possibility of an in-between, of contamination… that trace back through a feminist strategy to “generate subversive, feminist reconceptions of sex and identity… as artists claim their bodies as their own battlegrounds, waging war on oppressive limits,” which relates to queer theory’s desire to dismantle them as well (137: 1997).

One can also argue that such women did and do not necessarily exploit their own tomboy, gender-blurring tactics and presence per se, nor did they feminize the form, nor do they queer it. Instead, they negotiate outside suspicions about social behavior from fans and lovers, navigate the pitfalls of having their aptitude, skills, and abilities deconstructed in terms of gender, and keep keenly aware of the dynamics off-stage spaces, such as vans and motel rooms, or the discursive spaces of rock’n’roll magazines. All of these are deconstructed when Mish examined how:

It’s complicated.. the whole issue on how women were treated, and what women did or felt they had to do to “get ahead”…i have mixed feelings about it. I feel sometimes like I’m under the microscope. If I dare have sex at all I’m a predator with her boytoys…I’m the bitch with the bad reputation who you should know better than to go out with, stay the hell away from the she-devil … this mostly from people who don’t know me very well personally..I am a threat.. Why? Because i dare to follow my own heart and be independent and rely on myself? bands with harder core women like me many times get ignored by the press cause we aren’t a pretty magazine cover.. Or the armchair critics who like the male vocals on Sado, but dislike the female ones. Why? cause girls don’t do hardcore? Cause you subscribe to the Tom Lykas bible? Cause women suck in general? Cause women who aren’t cute and in their place are fucked? (2008)

Similarly, Kira from Black Flag and Dos also noted to me:

.
Girls grow up as tomboys all the time and always have, that they would naturally always participate in music and sports in garages and playgrounds…. Mo Tucker is a good example and there are many we haven’t heard from. There is no obstacles in the playing, in the interest, the capacity, the role, sex symbol or otherwise.
 The difficulties (from my perspective) come with some personality stuff between men and women, the physical challenges of some instruments, and of touring in general. Guys probably didn’t want a girl with them on the road in the van, whether they were dating a member of the band or playing. Any signs of physical weakness or lack of technical prowess (not understanding signal flow) would be accepted
between guys but not by a guy for a girl. And there is this underlying assumption that sex is somehow always at play. If I am in the van talking to someone for a while alone, sex must have occurred. Girlfriends of band members also don’t appreciate the girl player who goes on the road with their sweetie while they stay home….(2005)

Kira, Black Flag…

This is the workday world of a female band musician, not exactly the intriguing conceptual space so coveted by punk theorists. This is mirrored by the recent girl punk musicians like Greta from Bang Bang!, one of Chicago’s premier neo-punk bands, admitted:
As a woman in rock…hmm…I get a lot of dudes assuming I can’t play my instrument until after our shows when they then come up to me saying things like “You play your bass HARD like a guy!” NO dumbass, I play my bass hard because that’s how I play! Another fun thing I had someone say was when I was at guitar center before our last tour when I asked for my strings and the salesman pointed to the strings I was asking for and said, “These? These are bass strings, mam.” No shit? Is that the instrument I play? It’s not hard being a girl in a band but you do have a lot of colorful assumptions made about you, but I get to set them straight. (2008)

Bang Bang, with Greta second from left.

Hence, punk becomes a primary mode for some women to interrogate long held assumptions about gender and musicianship while also “infiltrating” and destabilizing typical male spaces, such as musical gear shops, with their pretensions and jargon, to gig spaces, like all ages venues. These too were sites of contestation between genders. Yet, Robin Barbier, a punk fan since the mid-1980s from the Midwest and Southwest drew a conversational picture of a space that offered a sense of community and bonding, though not necessarily overshadowed by boys, who are absent from her depiction. This highlights a sense of women forming their own bonds and associations, modes of resistance and learning, and a tight-knit liminal space that is often totally overlooked in male-authored histories of hardcore:

The “hole in the wall” offered us a place to release our anger and pent up frustration. The music was often politically charged and not only did we come out feeling like we could deal with another week we often ended up learning a thing or two. It was an awesome scene; at least from where I was standing. We thrashed hard and I often came home tattered and bruised, but not as a result of fights just from pure unadulterated moshing. If someone fell in the pit numerous hands were on you to pull you out before you got trampled. Being there gave me a feeling of community. One of the chicks from our group used to say something to the affect that we were individualists looking for someplace to belong. Now that might not seem very punk to some out there but it really is more fun to belong to a group of freaks than to be the only one. Being a girl in the scene was a pretty great place to be during the whole high school thing. We didn’t care about clothes, being popular, or our hair being perfect which seemed to be a past time of other girls in the 1980s. That left a lot more time to expand our minds (2008).

These are not the traditional images of women founding punk posters, but perhaps little more could be expected from the visual culture of men whose behavior is typified, as Leblanc study shows, by four categories that her women subjects described, including men “as standoffish, sexist, or abusive, men as protective, chivalrous, or gentlemanly, males as respectful and egalitarian, and men as flirtatious or sexual” (118). This seems little more than a reflection of men throughout America at large, indicating to some degree that “ though punks leave mainstream society (hopefully) and give up mainstream social practices and expectations, all we do is recreate these expectations on smaller level in our own society That sucks. We reject the uniforms and the conformity of society but we not only create but tolerate the same in our own scene. This could mean that our socialization by the dominant culture is so pervasive that we cannot get away from it, or it could make a comment about our basic needs as social creatures (to fit, to conform, to have a per group),” explained writer Jen Angel in 1997.

In contrast, L7 (from L.A.) had been known to confront males in audiences who harmed girl concert goes, even hitting them with mic stands, and Wendy O. Williams was sentenced by an Illinois judge to one year supervision and fined $35 for roughing up a freelance photographer who had attempted to take her picture as she jogged along the Chicago lakefront. During the same time frame, she had been appearing on stage in a nurse’s uniform, electrical tape or shaving cream barely eclipsing her nipples, and attacking guitars with chainsaws, unleashing shotguns bursts at amplifiers and pounding television sets with sledgehammers, even on live TV such as the Tom Snyder show, which left sets by the Clash, Ramones, and others seem very timid and ascetic. This is the ribald, uncontrollable, frenetic image of women that was broadcast to my own eyes when I was barely 10 years old. With her sandpaper voice and lean mean presence, which was in stark contrast to her supposedly reserved vegetarian lifestyle outside the media circus, she single-handedly reversed the notion of what Simon Reynolds and Joy Press have deemed the problem of rebel imaginations of the female, which pictures women representing “everything the rebel is not (passivity, inhibition) and everything that threatens to shackle him (domesticity, social norms)” (1995). The former sex act star from Times Square (Captain Kink’s Theatre), who performed in non-sex roles in two porn movie (“Candy Goes to Hollywood” in which she shoots pingpongs from her vagina, and “800 Fantasy Lane”), and eventually worked with the likes of Gene Simmons from Kiss, proved that such notions of women were entirely bankrupt by 1980, incinerated in the smoke and ash of William’s performance as it was dismantled by the more cerebral but no less hostile critiques of Crass on “Penis Envy.” Any punk who disregarded these and abided by the rigid normative ideology, with its underlying social control of woman, was simply no longer an agent of resistance.

Wendy O. Williams.

Women did fight back too, physically, such as when Karen Neal, the singer of Detroit’s Inside Out, reflected on the Detroit era, including the band getting into bar fights, including her pulling a knife on a skinhead (Smith et. al 2005). This was not a feminist disruption of patriarchal symbol systems, this was a turf war in the heart of grimy clubs. It is equally important to note that women, even those in the era of riot grrl gender politics, did not always pose an alternative, as Brody Armstrong of the Distillers, realized: “As far as women and unity within the scene at shows, I felt there was this hypocrisy, because my last band played with some of the “feminist bands” and for all the shit that they spoke, they didn’t live up to any of their ideals in front of me. It was so Nazi to me” (Fleming: N.A.). Thus, Brody, like other punk females, was aware that the “norms of femininity can be changed through practice, and the rules change as we play them out differently” (Leblanc 139: 1999).

Unfortunately, headway is still slow. Even in the late 1990s, Felix Havoc lamented the fact that “After hardcore took over we see fewer women involved. And seriously in the straight edge scene there were almost no women, as fans,” suggesting from personal experience that as hardcore took root in boy’s imagination during the 1980s, Goth took root in the female imagination. He uses this column of Heart Attack to explore the vexing issue of labeling girl bands, which seems to frame and even market them as sex objects, whole also exploring their participation over the years. First, he notes that they have held pivotal positions in the music business, though he offers no illustrations, even though Ebullition, Revelation, Equal Vision, and Frontier Records (Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies) were partly, or in the case of Frontier Records, solely, operated by women. Next, at length, he explores a wide range of punk and hardcore bands, including the overlooked Sin 34, Fatal Microbes/Honey Bane (England), GASH (from Australia) and Distjej, Livin Sacrifice, and Diskonto, all three from (Sweden). This at least fills in the gaps that even women writers have left, such as the book Cinderella’s Big Score.

Although the book itself is a noteworthy overview of women’s contributions to indie and punk music, author Maria Raha can only muster up the name of one female hardcore band, the obscure Chalk Circle, thus single-handedly perpetuating the myth of women being absent from hardcore. This, in effect, unintentionally bolsters the idea by the controversial straight-edge band One Life Crew that women were supposed to be no more than “coat racks” at shows. To be fair, Raha notes that this was long held true, for Jena Caldwell, the girlfriend of Germs guitarist Pat Smear points out that felt that girls were lapdogs waiting around to drive or buy beer for the band.

Penelope and the Avengers.


Yet, in Raha’s account, she also balances this notion with a counter-perspective from Penelope Houston, lead singer of the Avengers, “I felt that things were pretty egalitarian, and I felt like the scene was so small that just being a punk was enough to join you in with a bunch of people, and you were accepted…” (2004: 12). Raha’s dismissal of hardcore as a male-centered enterprise, devoid of women musicians, which was has been proven unfounded, effectively dismisses, ghettoizes, and even deletes women from the narratives offered as a kind of witnessing and truth, legitimized by a female author’s voice. In contrast, a whole other history emerges. As Howard Wuelfing recalled DC punk for me:

“At hardcore shows at the 9:30 Club I’d usually stand in the center of a big old bunch of young women; I recall Lyle Presslar’s [Minor Threat] little sister yanking me out of the way as someone stage-dived in my direction! There was always a large female contingent at hardcore shows I attended. The main difference from earlier times is that they seemed to come in large groups whereas it used to be that women attended shows in pairs or with boyfriends or on their own … Also right after the first batch of hardcore bands broke up and realligned (this transition saw Teen Idles morph into Minor Threat etc.) that there were suddenly MANY MORE women joining or forming bands. I think that seeing their guy friends actually go thru the process impressed them with how do-able this actually was. (2008)

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Women obviously did go to shows, even straight-edge ones, evidenced by Chrissy Piper’s published photos of Chain of Strength. What is noticeably absent from most male band straight-edge posters, however, is the presence of women, which would not surprise Ross Haenfler, a straight-edge sociologist who penned a book on the subject, for he told the Chronicle of Higher Education that straight-edge is “rarely a welcoming space for women” because it is “exclusive and male-dominated,” in which women feel “invisible,” as if they don’t “count” (2007: A18). Although this may be true for the scenes he witnessed, several glaring exceptions exist. First, the co-editor of Heart Attack zine, originally affiliated to some degree with the straight-edge genre, was co-edited by a woman, and XsisterhoodX, which also presents a radio show, and Xgirls got edgeX are a web sites dedicated to straight edge women, along with hardcore punk zines and web pages like Clitocore and at least fifteen other girl-centric web sites. XsiserhoodX is not a recent development either, since the page’s history section outlines the fact that the blogger/editor came across a website in 1995, essentially “a page about a discussion list called xsisterhoodx®. I joined and within a day I was connected to three hundred girls and women of the straightedge persuasion. Daily I would read their stories filled with fear, empowerment, frustration, and strength” (2007). Later, she took on the duties of maintaining the site, thus providing a transition to a new era of straight-edge hardcore for which the call to power remains: “Know your role” and empower yourself. Second, recent seminal posicore band Good Clean Fun changing line-up has included two women and newer bands like Gather are led by women. Thirdly, even when Canadian magazine Macleans did an article on straight-edge in 1999, the writer discovered a crew of girls who provided candid insight: Bif overcame issue with alcohol and heroin, while straight-edge cleared her perceptions and provided the fuel for self-help; Keeley understood the growing importance of the movement; Shannon critiqued the overly aggressive players and explained how straight-edge means “exploring options and more meaning in life”; and Lauren spoke about overcoming sexual assault maintaining good grades, starting a fanzine called Regulate, and seeking political power in the future unclouded by drugs an alcohol.” Hence, to some degree, Haefler actually creates the perception that women are bystanders, minor players, and boy toys instead of exploring their actual contributions and how they still act as the pivotal consciousness of the movement, making sure that boys understand that the straight-edge revolution must be sincere and sexist-free, not just another reflection of mainstream values cloaked in militant clean living and easily digestible philosophical platitudes.

This held true even in the beginning of hardcore in the early 1980s, in places like Texas, where Dina T, girlfriend of Big Boys drummer Fred Schulz told me, “Basically circa early 1980’s I came on ” the scene” and I must say it felt like one big family. As a girl, I felt totally part of it. There were some rough characters at times, but I always had guys that looked after me. Once this drunk guy was bothering me and the Big Boys stopped playing. Fred and Chris came off the stage, turned the guy upside down and bodily threw him out of the club! I was on stage with them at Club Foot singing background vocals for the ‘Superfreak’ cover. I also was in a band for awhile with Fred (post Big Boys) and we played a few places too.” Again, this reinforces the notion that participatory culture remains a hallmark of punk culture, inviting fan kinship, participation, and finally, a model for fans’ own ventures. Hence, the Big Boys motto: ‘Go start your own band,” was not an empty phrase, but a real, living call to action that transcended gender roles.

Jarboe.
In the meantime, the depiction of these women, and women throughout punk, will remain problematic, disconcerting, yet also ironic and potentially liberating, once history can reveal her story too. To end, I would like to provide this exchange between Jarboe, former singer from the Swans, and me, in 2004, which I believe may encapsulate the dilemma:
You’ve said, “Don’t take what men who criticize you say too seriously.” Do you feel that men are still unwilling to accept the power, knowledge, and intuition of women who have already repeatedly proven themselves?
Jarboe: Some men, yes. This has been my experience, yes. The
Controlling. The Power Play … yes,yes,yes. The Alpha Dog Syndrome.
The Competition. The War.

1 Comment »

  1. Hoan Tucker said,

    Hey! Member of the Raunchetters! Still have my Matrix cassette. Went on to do an 45 with Jargon,EP w Bomp, full-length with Jargon/Midnight- morphed into Sacared Miracle Cave- a S/T on Bomp produced by emembers of Mazzey Star’s David Roback and Will Glewn and Brett from Epitaph (It’s a hot mess) – there are many collecible 45s in all colors and version- grab on- on Sympathy for The Record Industry, The Full Length s/t is on Amazon on bomp for like a dollar. There is also some of the same girls that Drummer and blonde singer that went on to do the Phenobarbidols. A 10″ on Sympathy and then a full length on Sympathy called “Fish Lounge” with the punkier EPBeyond the Valley of the Phenobarbidols: added on – aslo costs like a buck or free on line. And yes the female identities were stilla main focus..sometimes in a way to slap a face- some songs called Blow Job” because I couldn’t walk to work at 6:30 at the corner of Sunset Blvd, without someone thinking I was a hooker in my sweat suit and glasses….so in that song I get in the car and give him what he said he wanted, but that can be taken many ways, click click boom.
    Fuck Truck is from the Man’s point of view – a peak inside a sick head- this confused many. And Well, we kept up our anger and we had flip sides of very femme ballads. It’s what came out and we never felt like we were letting our sisters down by being 3 dimensional. Thanks for noticing that first cassette! Epic for us. We were so flattered.
    Thanks,
    Joan


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