Earlier this week, the BBC aired a Culture Show special Girls Will Be Girls about the “female punk spirit”. Next week, Amy Oden’s documentary From the Back of the Room – a celebration of women in punk – is screening in London. It’s shown with a telling regularity here in the UK, and not just because it’s an excellent piece of film-making. It addresses an issue that punk just can’t seem to shake: female visibility, or the lack of it.
For all the films and programmes about women’s role in punk, their recognition has been a problem since the 1970s and it looks like very little has changed. Women were a part of punk from the beginning – as musicians, promoters, venue heads, artists, provocateurs, community organisers, documenting their local scenes in zines, films, books and photographs. As LA punk veteran Alice Bag has pointed out, punk started out as an inclusive and diverse movement, but was quickly annexed by white dudes. Women have had to fight for space and recognition in punk ever since.
Even as the Sex Pistols and the Clash began their noisy quest for world domination, the radical all-girl punk band the Slits faced opposition at every level of industry, as chronicled in guitarist Viv Albertine’s excellently sharp memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. In the 90s, riot grrrl rose up in protest at endemic punk scene sexism, while bands like Bikini Kill fought to reclaim the stage and the mosh pit. Two decades on, Alanna McArdle of Joanna Gruesome battles with sexist online trolls, Laura Jane Grace calls out the macho punk culture and both Syracuse, New York’s Perfect Pussy and Vancouver’s White Lung rage openly against the sexist boy majority. Same shit, different decade.
So why the groundhog day? Well, partly because the industry bros with power and influence aren’t doing all they can to change this inbalance. When Megan Seling interviewed Warped tour founder Kevin Lyman recently, challenging him over the persistent lack of female artists on the festival’s line-up, Lyman blamed women, saying there aren’t enough female bands out there to book.