Written by Ana Isaacs
Graphic by Hengjia Liu
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
Beyoncé. Lady Gaga. Ariana Grande. Our reigning queens of pop music have given 21st century feminism a voice that is unfailingly commanding, inspiring, and never offkey. These international superstars are powerful role models for girls and women everywhere, turning heads and dropping jaws as they strut six-inch heels and thigh high boots across the world’s grandest of stages, gag-worthy special effects erupting in the background. These are the feminist superheroes of our generation, and none can deny their influence.
However, every heroine has her foil.
Allow me to introduce the punk feminist. She’s messy, imperfect, and exhausted – but she has an equally important role to play in shaping and developing our movement. According to Los Angeles-based garage-punk group The Regrettes, she’s got pimples on her face and grease in her hair (you can go ahead and stare). British singer-songwriter GIRLI describes her as a hot mess while nineties punk-rockers The Frumpies posit that she just wants to puke on the stereo. Admittedly, she’s no Beyoncé.
What this alternative, feminist not-quite-superhero offers instead is relatability. Women and girls are able to listen to female punk artists and hear a version of themselves screaming back at them, with a raw and visceral honesty that is often far too dilute in mainstream music. In the space that alternative music creates, women are encouraged to embrace their jaggedest edges, retiring from the demands of contemporary womanhood to emerge as hex-slinging, feminist “punk witches”, as London four-piece Dream Nails puts it.
For those of us who struggle to slick every strand of hair back into a Grande-esque ponytail, who cannot walk in heels without twisting an ankle or perform the choreography to ‘Single Ladies’ without falling over backwards, the punk movement provides much-needed respite.
Here, an entirely different form of empowerment takes place: an exultation of the girl who goes to bed with her makeup on and wakes up with gunk in her eyes and gum in her hair; the girl whose untied shoes we’ve all walked at least a couple of miles in. If the pop feminist represents our best and #blessed self, the alternative feminist is every other version.
Not only does punk challenge the pop feminist trope, but it decidedly shifts its focus away from the individual, emphasising the role of the collective in the feminist movement. No punk group better exemplifies this approach than Moscow’s own Pussy Riot: a somewhat amorphous conglomerate of Russian artists and activists whose collectively earned notoriety far outsizes any one member’s individual reach.
Pussy Riot hail from a tradition of “tactical frivolity” established by Waldemar Fydrych’s anti-fascist Orange Alternative in the 1980s, known for painting orange-hatted gnomes wherever anti-regime rhetoric had been censored by the Soviets in Poland. Perhaps the only punk group to be charged (and subsequently imprisoned) with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, Pussy Riot is known for guerrilla performances that challenge misogyny and authoritarianism with musical flair.
Perhaps most notable of the group’s acts is 2012’s ‘A Punk Prayer’, in which five band members besieged the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and performed a mock-prayer version of Ave Maria, which urged the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and help the girls oust Putin.
During the performance, as in most of their acts, band members wore neon-coloured knit balaclavas that almost entirely covered their faces. This distinctive uniform serves a dual purpose. First, it keeps the girls safe from Russian law enforcement, who typically consider the band’s performances to be illegal. Second, it creates a recognisable and jarring image that transcends each individual member of the band. The message is one of unity; achieved via the group’s creation of a collectively owned, occasionally pom-pommed face for feminism across Russia, which any one of us can don for a day, or a lifetime.
The punk and alternative scene is also arguably more diverse than America’s suite of pop princesses, particularly with regard to queer voices. Feminism is incomplete without concerted discussion regarding what it truly means to be a woman. Queer “punkas” (as girl band Kenickie refer to fellow punk musicians) answer this question with vigour and fury.
In a deliciously queer take on The Kooks’ ‘Lola’, seventies post-punk outfit The Raincoats topple binary perceptions of gender as they tell a lilting love story between a cis woman and a trans woman, asserting nonchalantly that girls will be boys, and boys will be girls.
In ‘Man Enough to Be a Woman’, trans artist Jayne County lionises ‘scandalous’ womanhood and queerness in opposition to the stifling ‘mask of masculinity’ which society demands of AMAB people. County’s bravery in the seventies and eighties, performing as America’s first openly trans punk rocker, signalled to a worldwide audience that their definition of womanhood was about to change.
The Spook School’s ‘Burn Masculinity’ picks up where County left off, dissecting misogyny in a more contemporary tone from an underrepresented transmasculine perspective. Lead singer Nye Todd recognises squarely that he has inherited a privilege that [he] should be aware of, before urging his audience repeatedly to burn masculinity, as the title of the song suggests.
The punk movement defines women fluidly: more so than by outdated and artificially constructed gender norms, all of us are connected through aggressive vulnerability in our war on oppression.
Punk achieves something for our movement that mainstream music cannot: it provides a constant challenge to the feminist ‘norm’. Punk reconstructs the image of a feminist – transforming her from manicured Glamazon to red-eyed miscreant. Punk encourages us to think in terms of the collective, rather than the individual. Punk allows our movement to be shaped and altered by gender-diverse voices who have been excluded from feminist rhetoric for far too long.
In the 2017 documentary Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, performance artist Penny Arcade reminds us that “losers, freaks, and deviants started this movement”. The alternative feminist musicians of today – rebel girls, screaming females, and punk witches alike – make it quite clear that we also intend to finish it.