Why Feminism Needs Punk

Why Feminism Needs Punk

Taking a cue from punk icon Viv Albertine, today’s feminists should dare to want more—and forget about asking for it nicely.

Viv Albertine playing in San Francisco in 2009 (sammich / Flickr)

“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both,” writes Viv Albertine, once the guitarist for British punk band the Slits, in the introduction to her new book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys: A Memoir. The first chapter is titled “Masturbation”; her first anecdote ends with the lesson, “Grown-ups lie.” In her fifties now, Viv Albertine is still something of a punk.

Albertine always writes “punk” in quotation marks, as if nodding to its expansive, multiple definitions. Punk is and was about much more than music. The punks of her day were working-class kids, playing with apathy (“I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” “Pretty Vacant”) but also with shock—Albertine writes of sticking a tampon daubed with red-brown paint behind her ear as jewelry. They sang about being young, broke, and frustrated as the welfare state crumbled around them; the world owed them a living, but it thought they ought to be grateful for scraps. They wanted more and made do with less.

“We grew up during the ‘peace and love’ of the 1960s, only to discover that there are wars everywhere and love and romance is a con,” Albertine writes. The women of the Slits mocked romance, suburbia, masculinity, and society’s expectations of “Typical Girls” in their songs. “Who invented the typical girl?/Who’s bringing out the new improved model?/And there’s another marketing ploy/Typical girl gets the typical boy,” singer Ari Up growled over Albertine’s twanging, trebly guitar. Together, they howled their resistance to the narrow choices on offer.

Punk, as scholars Mimi Thi Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour have written, is a moving target, and Viv Albertine’s “punk” was just one of many. Entire books have been devoted to pinpointing the death of punk, yet it remains relevant to lost kids everywhere; from Beijing and Tehran to Brooklyn and London, young people continue to adapt punk to their own rebellions. For Albertine, “punk” was a time when she could just be who she was—“one tiny sliver of time where it was acceptable to say what you thought”—when she and the people around her were not only fighting to liberate themselves but trying to create the world they wanted. Her quotation marks suggest something bigger behind the word and the unfinished revolution it evokes, but they also invite readers to fill in their own meaning. What is punk to us in 2015—a used Slits record in a discount bin, or a subculture that introduced us to radical politics?

Punk in the United Kingdom was born on the edge of Thatcherism, in that transitional time when you could still survive on art-school grants and the dole, and live in a squat and spend all your spare money on guitars and artfully destroyed clothing made by Vivienne Westwood. Although at the time punk roared across the country and beyond, the conditions that caused it to thrive no longer exist either in the United Kingdom or the United States—cities have grown more expensive, the welfare state has shriveled—and the world looks even crueler now than it did when punks spat at it in the seventies. At the end of the “peace and love” years, Albertine writes, it seemed like everything was a con, that politics didn’t serve the working class, that “success” was a scam and that the best response was to try to shock the world into action. Today, austerity policies and rapid gentrification in New York, London, and other big cities have left working-class kids struggling to survive; post–Reagan/Thatcher politics is mostly filled with bipartisan debates about what to slash. Rebellion remains necessary.

The history of punk feminism often begins and ends in the 1990s with riot grrrl, but that, as Nguyen notes, is a story that assumes that punk simply needed a temporary fix by feminism, as if it were only created by boys until Kathleen Hanna picked up a mic. This story writes out the earlier struggles of Albertine, of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, of Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and of Patti Smith across the Atlantic. Styrene shrieked, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think—Oh bondage, up yours!” Albertine cranked the treble on her guitar to find a sound that didn’t sound like the men she heard and argued with Mick Jones that the Clash should be more political. Through her clothing, Vivienne Westwood turned sexual images into semiotic weapons that challenged what women should look like. The old story leaves out the possibility, as Ellen Willis once wrote, that the anger in the music could be just as inspiring to young women as it was to men. And it implies that riot grrrl’s battle was won.

But the conditions around the birth of punk and the music of the Slits and the Clash and X-Ray Spex hold answers—and questions—for us still. The seventies were, after all, a time when the world indisputably changed, and though the popular wisdom is that we collectively moved right, to Reaganism and Thatcherism, to union-busting and racial backlash politics, the period before those things happened is worth studying. Could we have put our faith in something other than free enterprise and social conservatism? Could feminism have done something other than attach itself to the neoliberal revolution, to bland “empowerment” and a seat in the boardroom?

Punks thought there was another way. Though they never “won” (if we define winning as gaining social power), they took a whack at the already-crumbling pillars of society and dared us to consider what might happen if the whole thing came crashing down. What would we do then?


Typical Girls

Albertine writes the way she plays guitar, with no formal qualifications or training, and like absolutely no one but herself. Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, a mean guitarist herself, calls Albertine’s style “beautiful and unsettling in its strangeness. It’s not simple, but rather a distortion of the facile,” a description that also applies to how she writes. Her book is divided into two sides like a record—the chapter titles for the second half are buried somewhere in the middle and not visible until you’ve read the first. This structure acts like a dare to those who only want to know about Sid Vicious and Mick Jones and the Slits to read the rest, to care about the adult woman and her post-Slits life. The arc of her story is of her life as an artist, her struggle first to feel capable of picking up a guitar, and then to create a sound that was hers, without falling into stereotypes of girlishness. Albertine had few role models before punk, and she writes eloquently of her elation when musicians like Patti Smith and Johnny Rotten not only made her feel something new, but also that she could do it too.

And then after punk, after marriage and motherhood and cancer, she undergoes an almost mirror-image journey back to the guitar, back to making music, and to finding a way to create songs that weren’t simply an attempt to reclaim her youth. If rock has little space for young women, the place it holds for older women to sing about their lives is almost nonexistent.

Women’s memoirs are often the stories of their relationships to others, but Albertine’s “boys” are never the stars of the show. That she refuses to give us the details of events we might consider momentous (the deaths of Sid Vicious or Johnny Thunders) and shares others (getting crabs, her abortion, her teenage infidelities) at great length shouldn’t be worth remarking upon, but it is. At some moments she simply closes a door in our faces. Her refusal may not make for always satisfying narrative, but her omissions remind us that she and other women made punk as much as their male counterparts; her ideas and songs and clothes shaped a scene. Her struggle to be heard for herself, not for the men she was close to, may be all too familiar to women reading today.

Clothes, even more than boys, are usually dismissed as unworthy subject matter, but in Albertine’s hands they are weapons in a war of the sexes. “I’ve crossed the line from ‘sexy wild girl just fallen out of bed’ to ‘unpredictable, dangerous, unstable girl,’” she writes. “Not so appealing. Pippi Longstocking meets Barbarella meets juvenile delinquent. Men look at me and they are confused, they don’t know whether they want to fuck me or kill me. This sartorial ensemble really messes with their heads. Good.”

At first, she writes, she was worried she’d be stereotyped in an all-girl band. But after Vicious threw her out of their prior band, the Flowers of Romance, before they’d ever played a gig, she found in the Slits a girl gang that made her feel strong. In her band mates—Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive—she found partners in crime who had her back, figuratively and all too literally, especially when the Slits’ confrontational and unfeminine performances led to actual physical assaults, onstage and off. “We march down the street four abreast and people scuttle out of our way, or spit on us or swear at us and it just makes us laugh,” she writes. “We’re invincible together.” On tour with the Clash and Subway Sect, it was the Slits whose appearance and behavior freaked out bus drivers and hotel managers. In one city, she writes, the manager took one look at them—“in a mixture of leather jeans, rubber dresses and knickers on top of our trousers, matted hair and smudged black eye makeup”—and threw them out of the hotel.

The Slits’ music pushed boundaries too—their gleeful cacophony merged into something more avant-garde and musically complex as they learned from reggae and free jazz, and mixed nursery rhymes and bits of conversation into what became their own sound. When they broke up, Albertine was shattered.


Confessions of a MILF 

Not abortion, marriage, motherhood, cervical cancer, or divorce changed her as much as the end of her band and the end of “punk”—“the only time I fitted in”—even though, by then, she was unhappy in her band and punk had mostly been taken over by careerists. Albertine’s time playing in a punk band, she writes, was the only time in her life she felt she was free to speak her mind. But she also found the punk scene to be narrow-minded, judgmental, and unforgiving. “Although we like the idea that anybody can do anything, without any history, talent, or technical ability,” she writes, “if you miss the mark, by even a tiny bit, you’ll be derided.” Punk didn’t live up to its own ideals in the end—and that end left her needing to reinvent herself once more—and yet its sense of rebelliousness, its willingness to break the rules and to revel in the discomfort it caused remained part of her ethical compass long after it ended; it’s also present on every page of her memoir.

That rebellious streak defined her post-punk days studying at London College of Printing under legendary feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey—in between classes, she would take a black pen to the pages of as many library books as she could, adding “/she” to every “he” and “woman” to every “man.” It included vowing to teach her daughter not to respect authority. It included, at an open-mic night in her late forties, switching every lyric in one of her songs to a curse word to get the audience’s attention. And it included deciding that her return to the guitar, to her music, was more important than salvaging her marriage.

The album she released in 2012, The Vermilion Border, is as much a weapon and a feminist statement as anything she did with the Slits, whispery and loud by turns, ultra-feminine and totally alien, turning all the stereotypes of women too grown up for rock on their heads. Carrie Brownstein calls Albertine’s live performance one of the most fearless things she’s ever seen. “[W]hen someone is brave enough—honest enough—to confront the difficulty of it all,” Brownstein writes on her NPR blog, “the strange, often irreconcilable dichotomy of being a mother and an artist, a woman and an artist (and why should it be a dichotomy?), frankly, it’s scary as hell.”

Albertine shows us another way to talk about the tightrope-walk between family life and “career,” not as a quest to “have it all” but as a vitally necessary puzzle that we haven’t yet solved. We still don’t know how radical women—or any women—can be themselves and mothers too. Albertine must defend to other artists what she did as a wife and mother as “real” work, but also confront the fact that, at some point, it is work she wishes to refuse.

Relationships are still a battleground, love still a power struggle, and heterosexual women, as Angela Davis once wrote, are still expected to be the reservoir for feelings in a marriage. Perhaps the most punk song Viv Albertine ever wrote was “I Don’t Believe in Love,” released first on her 2010 EP, Flesh, where she dares to refuse the emotional work of love itself, even if she goes back on it at the end of her book.

By refusing to end her story with the end of “punk” or even, as so many women’s stories are supposed to end, with love and marriage, Albertine excavates the happy ending and shows us how much work we still have to do.


Adventures Close to Home 

Feminism today could use a punk moment. It has become buttoned-up and sanitized, in thrall to capitalist ideals of success and the endless rehashing of narrow debates. Our public conversations about abortion and sexuality have been scrubbed clean of all references to bodies and blood, desire and loss—most pro-choice groups won’t even use the A-word. Albertine gives us the dirty details and her honest, complicated feelings about her abortion coupled with an adamant political defense of abortion rights. From her rage at her first menstrual period to her bloody-tampon college art projects, to sharply honest songs about in vitro fertilization (“needles, needles/so many needles”), to the blood she wakes up to after her first post-divorce sex, she gives us a woman’s life in all its intimate, grimy reality.

There have been a few moments in recent years when feminist activists’ anger has spilled over into creative, irreverent troublemaking. In 2010, when Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin introduced a bill that would require official investigations into miscarriages to make sure that they weren’t stealth self-abortions, blogger Devery Doleman began a campaign to send Franklin photographs of extremely bloody menstrual periods to aid in his investigations. (It is illegal, apparently, to send a used tampon through the mail.) In Texas, when state senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster of the bill that would go on to shutter dozens of abortion clinics was interrupted by her male colleagues, feminists who were gathered on the balcony to support her simply drowned out the vote with shrieks, cheers, and chants. And Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! made herself a punk-feminist icon for 2014 with her unflinching album Transgender Dysphoria Blues about her experiences as a transgender woman.

But there have been too few protests that embrace feminism’s confrontational side, even as disruptive protests for racial justice erupt across the country, many of them led by young, queer black women. As Jennifer Pan noted in this magazine last spring, when young activists protested NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly’s speech at Brown University by making so much noise that Kelly left, prominent feminist and liberal commentators like Katha Pollitt wagged their fingers at young activists for being badly behaved. Yet those same commentators rightly lament the sad state of feminist affairs today and call for more vibrant activism. We will not change the world by asking nicely. Women’s bodies remain a site of political conflict that no amount of “leaning in” will change, so why not embrace the mess and the discomfort they so obviously cause in some men (and some women, too)?

As Pan has also pointed out elsewhere, recent celebrations of punk and riot grrrl often come as prepackaged commodities, records to buy, sealed-off chunks of the past to consume. But nostalgia is not revolutionary, and we can’t reclaim punk’s spirit by turning backward, by reenacting sartorial provocations or rehashing musical sounds. The more recent incarnations of punk—scenes in places like Boston and Minneapolis with ties to activist communities in the 1990s and 2000s—helped keep left ideas alive in dark times, helped bring a (perhaps smaller) generation of activists to causes like the fight against the World Trade Organization, and helped lay the groundwork for the explosive movements of the past few years. But these punk scenes also, like other left movements, often became insular, obsessed with their own personal purity and questions of “selling out” (whether to a record label or to capitalism itself) rather than with making real political change. Pan noted too that without a connection to the very real resources needed to make music, all the calls in the world for girls to pick up a guitar won’t help spark a creative assault on status-quo patriarchy. Punk at its height had an irrefutable class politics that gets erased from rose-colored histories, which focus too much on personal enlightenment at the expense of collective politics.

The world we live in now is missing the safety net that allowed early punk scenes to flourish, making it harder for working-class kids to pick up instruments (hip-hop, as many have noted, was more accessible for people with less money precisely because it didn’t require guitars or a drum kit). As Ian Svenonius, scion of the 1980s generation of Washington, D.C. punk, explained upon the death of the former D.C. mayor, Marion Barry created youth employment programs in the early 1980s that considered punk bands “legitimate employment” and subsidized their venues. It was “[t]he kind of welfare state thing you would expect to see in Sweden.” Patti Smith lived in New York when you could cobble together a couple of jobs and trade art for rent. And Viv Albertine lived on her art-school grant and dined on burgers on Sid’s dole money.

Facing down the twin specters of austerity and newly ruthless social conservatism, activists from Occupy to Black Lives Matter have found it no time to be well-behaved, embracing direct action even when literally staring down the barrel of a gun. It is past time for feminism to join the rebellion; we should dare, as Albertine sings, to want more.

Sarah Jaffe is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and the co-host of its Belabored podcast.