In 2012, "challenging femininity" was about more than Riot Grrrl and Alanis' bitching.
Mish is the lead singer of the Vancouver-based punk band White Lung.
Of all the things that piss me off, nothing pisses me off more than the term “rock chick.” Why? Because it’s 2012, that’s why. The whole women-playing-in-bands thing is not shocking anymore. I hate it when people ask me what it’s like to be a girl who plays “punk” music. You want to know what it’s like? That’s what it’s like. The only difference about being a girl who plays “punk” music is that people ask you that stupid question.
However, I know that once upon a time way back in Olympia in 1992, there were a bunch of college girls who thought it was important to separate themselves as female musicians, even to go so far as to call themselves “riot grrrls.” But this was a political strategy invented on their own terms. Riot Grrrl was their answer to the violence that had emerged in the hardcore punk scene. They wanted to talk about rape, sexuality, abortion, and women’s health, as well as boys and girls they fucked and loved. It was conscious, about starting a discourse while invoking rebellion and empowering for them. But that ship has sailed. Kathleen Hanna lives in a loft in Soho or whatever and is married to a Beastie Boy. She’s doing her own new thing in the Millennium. Let her do it. We still have Girls Rock Camp though and I believe in that stuff. Riot Grrrl has laid its head to rest and that is okay. It will always, always be influential, just not relevant.
Last week, I read an article in The Independent by Gillian Orr called "Trending: They don’t make rock chicks like they did in the 90’s." Shirley Manson of Garbage, Fiona Apple, and Alanis have new albums coming out, so this means that every 40-year-old journalist is going to go on a one-person crusade to defend the “angry girl” movement of the 90’s and use this to bitch about how today’s stars don’t really challenge femininity like Alanis did.
Orr claims that they don’t make 90’s icons like they used to. Well, duh.
“If artists such as Del Rey, Katy Perry and Rihanna were to write so honestly about what it is to be a woman, it would damage their carefully cultivated sexed-up aesthetic,” Orr writes. “Are modern acts afraid that the public can no longer handle a woman who is happy to admit she can be a pain in the arse; promiscuous; a bitch?”
Let’s be real here. Del Rey, Perry, and Rihanna can’t challenge femininity like Orr wants them to because they are big stars. When you are a big star--not a big cult star, but a big, playing-at-the-Super-Bowl kind of star--there are rules. It’s apples and oranges. It’s Alanis vs. Wendy O. Williams. It’s “angry girls” vs. riot grrrls. One is a more mainstream version of the other, an easier pill to swallow. Digestion is important to the masses. It always has been.
I’m going to get some flack for this, but Alanis did not challenge femininity. Sure, she sang about blowjobs and wore butchy leather pants, but she did not resist any dominant social structures. She never once sang about her own pleasure, but instead about all the guys that screwed her over. As a feminist, I don’t find that empowering. I find it passive. Fiona Apple talked about female pleasure, I’ll give her that, but she did it by MTV standards and that’s totally okay. It’s just what she had to work with. Courtney Love challenged everything feminine and everything “rock wife.” She consciously constructed the ultimate female archetype with her kinderwhore, baby doll look, and then screamed foul insanity while singing about the Los Angeles child services taking her child away. That’s challenging. Thank God she became a celebrity punk. And don’t forget about Jennifer Herrema, Jennifer Finch, Donita Sparks, Cristina Martinez, Mia Zapata, and all the other non-riot grrrls of the 90’s who may not have reached Alanis status, but Alanis could not have existed without.
Femininity is challenged in new ways now and we need that. It’s challenged by Hether Fortune of Wax Idols when she tweets about being a pro-domme and then sings an amazing pop song she wrote, recorded, and played all the instruments on. It’s challenged by Andrea Lukic of Nu Sensae by ignoring femininity and just screaming like a banshee. Phlo Finister does it by embracing her own brand of sex appeal, by being ultra-femme and playing dress-up on her own terms, by calling out fashion and fucking with it. It’s challenged by Hannah Lew of Grass Widow by being a badass bass player and making amazing music videos--directing, mastering cinematography--typically a man’s field. These women challenge femininity because they don’t have to constantly remind us that they are women. They just do what they do and they are damn good at it.
Look, the point here is that gender isn’t something we need to focus on so much when it comes to music. Throw the term “rock chick” away, please. Focus on gender when you are talking about health rights, abortion laws, and access to birth control (which are all majorly fucked up in North America). When we talk music, when we talk art, leave it at that. I’m a person. My vagina does not make me.