For a genre of music founded on anti-racism, anti-sexism and, above all, the ideas of equality, punk continuously mistreats and discriminates against women involved in the music industry. It is meant to be a genre accessible to all people, specifically minorities (see: Rock Against Racism, a 70s political campaign of anti-discrimination in music) and those who have suffered under authorities and establishments. Yet, it is a classic demonstration of patriarchy.
Despite some of the pioneers of punk rock being female-fronted bands such as Blondie and Patti Smith and the Runaways, male-led bands are much more respected and better treated within the industry. Take the lineup for the Reading and Leeds festival for example where in the roster of over 60 acts, only 10 featured a female performer. This festival is notorious for its celebration of more alternative bands but it has become a typical sample for how women are underrepresented in the music industry. Regretfully, it proves that the punk rock scene is only truly accessible for men despite the punk movement’s core values.
One of the most infamous examples of this is the double standards in the ‘quest for world domination’ attitude that punk bands in the 70s took on. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were praised for their loud and aggressive anti-consumerist behaviour when The Slits faced opposition on every level, with frontwoman Ari Up telling Rolling Stone that being Punk was “hard enough for the boys, but for the girls it was a witch hunt”. Up was stabbed on two separate incidents in one year (1976) as a result of misogynistic hate crimes.
Many other punk bands with clear feminist outlooks were treated in a similar way, failing to go down as pioneers of a supposedly subversive musical and political movement. Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, for example was one of the most innovative artists of this time period and held up the same key concepts as any other male fronted band. However, the band ultimately only managed to release one album during the heyday of punk.
This should be a thing of history, but it’s still seen so frequently within the alternative music scenes. Warped Tour, a US-based rock event often dubbed the country’s “largest travelling musical festival”, has the chance to showcase the talent of countless artists. And yet, less than 20% of the bands that took place in the tour in 2014 contained at least one female artist in the band line up. Similarly, Riot fest, also an alternative rock festival, only included 15% of bands with female members in their lineup in the same year. Sexism is rooted even in movements that stand for the subversion of misogyny and women in the industry are tired of it.
Nevertheless, punk’s glass ceiling is not completely impenetrable. The Riot Grrrl scene of the 90s was a feminist, political, punk music movement with a core message that women should be able to express themselves through music to the same degree to which men have always been entitled. It was an aggressive attack on male established femininity and often addressed issues such as rape, domestic violence and racism through music. From this bloomed a widespread political movement, eventually taking the fourth-wave feminism to internet spaces and ‘zines’ being published and shared to give young women voices. It was a scene made for self-expression of all people and was a breath of fresh air from the male dominated industry and genre.
This movement undoubtably sparked a change within the alternative music scenes despite there still being a modern gender imbalance within the industry. Female led bands now recognize their worth and have begun trying to make concert spaces safer for women and non-binary people which wouldn’t have been possible without the Riot Grrrl movement.
This doesn’t change the fact this is only necessary because not only on stage, but in concert arenas, women (fans and performers alike) experience sexual harassment in situations such as mosh pits which are shown to be a staple of ‘lad culture’ and typically unsafe spaces for minorities. A report this summer of a woman in a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert in Colorado who had to undergo surgery because of the violence of two men is harrowing. This is not a lone incident and not enough is done to prevent violence against women in these environments. It’s time for a true revolution in punk rock music to ensure that a genre that was founded on liberalism and unity of people can finally realise its original goal.