Punk Music Is No Longer a "Boys' Club"
It's hard for a genre to serve as an outlet for outcasts and rejects to voice their frustration with societies, governments and peers if it's dominated by white men. For years, the angry, sweaty, middle-class, white male has been the stereotypical punk musician. Not every punk scene has been all white, yet for the most part, women, people of color and LGBTQI voices have been grossly underrepresented in punk's history — most people think of punk as a white boys' club.
But in the past year especially, many successful female-, trans- and minority-led punk groups have finally gained major recognition. Bands like Perfect Pussy, White Lung, Ex Hex, Chumped and Speedy Ortiz all received recognition on some of music's most well-respected end-of-year lists last year. Sleater-Kinney and the Muffs, two foundational female-led punk bands part of the riot grrrl movement, both released new music for the first time in years.
"Mark down 2014 as the year that women tore down the punk-boy clubhouse and erected a big middle finger in its place," Anika Pyle, the singer from the band Chumped, wrote in Vulture, celebrating the achievements of the past year. In 2015, it's only going to get better.
Female punk bands have been around since the genre started. But only now are they getting the kind of recognition they deserve. Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy has been one of the most outspoken and visible contributors in the efforts to open up punk. She says there's a reason why white boys are the most visible.
"It's because middle-class whiny fuckin' white boys are the only ones who are safe anymore," she told Mic. "Nobody else is allowed to talk about the shit they've gone through. And if they are, they're talking over someone else."
She wrote in the Talkhouse about what it feels like to try and make a minority experience heard over a majority voice. "Women are called upon every day to prove our right to participate in music on the basis of our authenticity — or perceived lack thereof," she writes. Even if a woman is lucky enough to pass those checks, she may still get seen as a "gimmick, there so the guys in your band seem progressive, or because you're cute, or they couldn't find anybody else. Worst of all, they might compliment you, and tell you that you're good — for a girl."
But increasingly, critics and fans are recognizing the independent legitimacy of female-led punk bands. Bigots in the mosh pit might not be ready to give Graves that respect, but Pitchfork, among many other publications, was more than happy to celebrate her record Say Yes to Love for the "life-affirming ... sonic avalanche" that it is.
Perfect Pussy was far from the only act bringing gender to the fore of the conversation, though. One of the most talked-about punk records of 2014 was Against Me!'s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which provided perhaps the most in-depth dissection of the transgender experience punk has ever heard.
In 2012, the band's lead singer frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender after living most of her life as Tom Gabel. Their first album since she revealed herself to the world, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, discusses the feelings of isolation, alienation and depression she faced coming to terms with her sexuality. She talks about infiltrating the "punk's boys' club" on the track "Drinking With the Jocks."
"I'm laughing at the faggots / Just like one of the boys," she sings of her attempts to fit in with the scene. The hypocrisy and pain of that lifestyle drives the album's narrator to the brink, but it all gives Grace's story a sense of urgency.
Big event albums like these force awareness of new voices on the public. Punk is now an older and somewhat institutionalized genre, and it will take a more significant shift from those institutions to really make the change. Against Me! is one of the rare non-majority punk acts that has gotten coverage on the commercial punk circuit. Mainstream punk festivals, like the Warped Tour, have received a fair share of criticism for the lack of diversity in their acts.
"I'll see these articles that say like 2% [sic] of the people playing these festivals are not male-identified, and that's kind of an embarrassing statistic," Sadie Dupuis, frontwoman of the band Speedy Ortiz, told Mic. "You'll hear companies saying, 'The bands just don't exist! We'd book them if they did.' But they do. That's a realm that I don't really care about musically – the more commercial punk stuff. But maybe I would if the bands weren't all total bros being hyped in the mainstream press."
This isn't exactly an anomaly in American history. Mish Way, lead singer of White Lung and journalist who's been published in the Guardian, Vice and Talkhouse, thinks it's barely an event in the punk scene.
"My female members of my band have never experienced any blatant misogyny because we do not put up with it," she told Mic via email. She admits that punk is a boys club, "but so is EVERYTHING IN A PATRIARCHY. Don't act like it's unique to punk and my band and my peers are all so fabulous for overcoming this great stride in music," she wrote (refusing to conform to the thesis of this article in true punk fashion).
"The women of jazz in the 30's were punk as fuck and had to deal with a way more misogynistic landscape than we ever have, you know, Dinah and Bessie and all the rest. WHEN HAVE WOMEN NOT HAD TO DEAL WITH CRAP JUST FOR BEING WOMEN?"
But that's the point. In American history, that answer is never — and those are the narratives punk is meant to oppose. Punk gender equality is progressing at the same painfully slow pace as all gender equality in this country. We can hope one day there won't be a place or a need to write this kind of piece because the stereotypes will have dissolved and revolutionary music will find its own way to the people who need it.
Until then, all we can do is continue supporting radical music and the musicians who make it. The good news is, that's only getting easier.