As The DIY Scene Becomes More Inclusive, Sexism Remains
Posted on June 30, 2014
June 30, 2014
by Paul Blest
In 2003, Jessica Hopper (now editor of Rookie Magazine) sat down and wrote an honest and scathing criticism of a music scene from within in an essay titled “Where The Girls Aren’t”. The piece took aim at the early 2000s emo scene, led by bands who were making their way into stardom through dehumanizing lyrics and a fanbase that was all too quick to cosign pissed off tirades against an ex-girlfriend or unrequited love interest. “It’s a high stakes game of control,” Hopper wrote, “of winning or losing possession of the girl.” Love songs, and breakup songs, had always been a part of music, but emo bands had taken it one step further; the lyrics promoted a worldview that suggested that the listener deserved something from their love interest. And although emo had stemmed from the need of the first punk and emotive hardcore bands to distinguish themselves from the cock rock acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s, these bands weren’t very unique at all.
Eventually, that wave of music saw the bottom fall out, and the Glassjaws of the world were replaced by pop punk and metalcore bands, many of them with even more sexist attitudes than those who came through the same VFW halls and clubs before them. But within the last several years, “emo,” and the DIY punk community as a whole, have undergone a renaissance in the indie rock community, boosted by the widespread acceptance of the genre by a music press which largely ignored it after bands like The Promise Ring and Braid called it quits. Many of the top groups have female band members, release music on labels run by women, play shows promoted by women, but in the Internet age, women within the scene are far more visible. And the bands themselves, most notably Pitchfork-approved The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die and The Hotelier, as well as more punk-leaning bands such as Spraynard, have embraced feminism, and more importantly, basic self-respect for other people, in a big way.
But not everyone has been so quick to progress. Regressive attitudes about women who play music or have a role within the scene persist in the form of backhanded compliments at best and accusations of being a “groupie” at worst. And in an NPR article last year about the return of the scene, Maura Magazine editor Brad Nelson offered that “Emo is still such a boys’ club,” referring to the predominance of men in the scene.
The Runout spoke with six women who have been instrumental in the DIY community’s resurgence, and asked them about their experiences. Here are their stories in their own words.
LINDSAY MINTON, FOOTBALL ETC. / TIN KITCHEN / SHOW PROMOTER (HOUSTON, TX)
I first got involved in the DIY scene when I went to college at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The basement scene was killer. It was through that context that I learned how to be in a band, throw a show, go on tour, and so on.
Bands dissolve, people get older, people fall in and out of the scene, but ultimately people who care about DIY are still doing things pretty much the same way. I’ve noticed one slight change, and this is also from the context of having toured overseas several times. When we (Tin Kitchen) went on tour for the first time in 2007, we were fed at least one meal in every city. It is such a cool part of playing DIY shows. People in the US have been doing this less and less. I don’t know why.
I’ve absolutely [dealt with sexism] in the scene. I love playing in a band. DIY ethics are very important to us. I love the community of people around the world that I’ve been able to share experiences with via my band. I’ll forever be grateful for that.
KIMMI ASHWELL, FLANNEL GURL RECORDS / I GOT BRAINS! FEST (CHRISTIANBURG, VA)
I’ve been attending DIY shows for about 11 years, I co-run a record label (Flannel Gurl Records) and up until last year I assisted in booking shows. I helped organized a local festival called I Got Brains! Fest in 2012 & 2013. Over the years we’ve had a lot of bands/artists stay at our house.
I feel that there are more females at shows and in bands now than there used to be about five years ago. I remember sitting at the door at shows taking money and maybe three girls would be there, and sometimes that would include band members. It is still very much so a boys club. Guys still definitely outnumber girls in every aspect of the music scene… band members, attendees, label owners, managers, booking agents, etc. I feel like females sometimes are seen as props and not seen equally. Instead of getting thanked after their set or praised for killing it they get cat called while on stage or are hit on afterward.
I remember going to a house show a few years ago and Flashlights were playing. The drummer is female. Guys were saying “Hey, girl drummer” and kept saying things like “I like your drums” and just kept trying to get her attention. I can honestly say that I have never heard a male drummer be called “boy drummer” nor have I heard anyone say ever “Oh, there’s a dude in the band.” At our I Got Brains! Fest last year we had the band Cayetana perform, whose members all happen to be female. A few of the guys coming out of the venue after their set said “Wow, that was really good… for a girl band.” I mean, would it have been great as oppose to just “really good” had they been just dudes?
I get offended when people inquire about the label and direct the questions to Jonathan. That goes for inquiries about our name, too. It makes me feel like people are disregarding me. My name is on the website, Facebook page and every email we send out, and when I sign my name only in the emails, sometimes the response is addressed to only Jonathan, even though I was the one who sent it. We have a message in our inbox as I write that pertains to this. Also, I remember seeing a particular female artist perform and afterwards I was hanging out with her, talking to her about how tour was going and these dudes came up and starting talking to her, which is cool and all but they would say few things about her performance and mostly be hitting on her. And sometimes I get bummed when I talk to some of the other girls at shows and it comes out that they are only there because their boyfriends like a band that is playing and they decided to tag along. I have been to shows before by myself or with another girl and I feel like guys talk to me more than when Jonathan is there. I mean, is there some unwritten rule somewhere that states that I can’t have an intergender conversation unless I’m not standing beside my significant other because I’m female?
I feel that a lot of people don’t acknowledge the issue of sexism because they think it isn’t an issue. I guess I can see that, I mean, it is 2014. You would think this really wouldn’t be thing, but it is. Perhaps they don’t think about it because maybe those people are guys and it doesn’t affect them directly. Some people just don’t care. I have come across guys and girls alike who really just do not think/care about the issue and don’t address it. It’s like it’s just disregarded because they have the mentality that it’s just life and nothing we do is going to change it. I will say that most of the bands our label chooses to work with include me in every conversation and even call/text me before they contact Jonathan, so that makes for a good experience. It’s a complicated thing. Women have always had to struggle in society and this community should be one that is accepting and embracing. But I do think it is improving.
KATE GRUBE, KITTYHAWK (CHICAGO, IL)
Do you want to know what my favorite compliment is? It is the back-handed open-faced BLT of compliment sandwiches. First, the delicious toppings – “Hey I thought your band was really great.” Then the transitional condiment – “…which is really weird because,” all sitting atop a slice of the most rock-hard slice of stale bread “I normally hate girl singers.” My brain misfires every time, and thus, my bewilderment and frustration mostly bubble up into a belly laugh. My go-to deflection? “That sucks for you, but thanks!”
I first became involved in the DIY scene in 2005 when I, armed with a Hello Kitty folder of sheet music, braved the stage and played some Ben Kweller covers at the teen open mic near my high school. Shortly after that performance I began playing moogy synth leads in a band called Walrus, a project that would later slowly dissolve around my sophomore year of college in 2009.
I had been listening to emo since junior high when a friend from my Unitarian church youth group shared a headphone with me in the back row one Sunday. Those first few years of listening synced up so perfectly with my inner teen turmoil. Matt Pryor loved from afar, Chris Carrabba finally got down with the girl he liked, and then hated her (same girl? different girl?) later for scorning him (how dare she), and Matt Skiba and Jesse Lacey both planned elaborate murders for their ex-lovers. This was perfect. I both simultaneously loved and hated the endless apples of my eye for years! And these crooners of emo’s weepy underworld so totally understood me in ways I was positive nobody else ever would. Surface level crushes from the opposite end of the classroom blossomed into passionate trysts in my head, and then crashed into oblivion in an instant as I snapped back to reality.
But though I felt those things so strongly, I was still frustrated with the lack of prominent female voices to sing with. As Jessica Hopper mentions [in Where The Girls Aren’t], those girls in all of the songs I loved so much weren’t whole humans, they stood as bastions for the entire soulless bloodsucking female community. Luckily, Caithlin de Marrais of Rainer Maria, Adrianne Verhoeven of the Anniversary, and Maura and Keeley Davis of Denali, to name a few, flew that flag high for me. Being a female that played music was empowering for me and was genuinely encouraged and I was seen as an equal by my peers that were trying to have a good time alongside me.
In all honesty, I feel lucky that all of us came upon the DIY emo community, because I don’t feel as if I am under nearly the same amount of gender-based scrutiny as women in other genres. But the thing that bugs me most about the “I hate girl singers” comment, is that I’m bummed that people of any gender think that that is a cool thing to say to someone. Like their preference is something that came over them like a head cold and they can’t get rid of it. Female voices come in a wide variety of timbre and pitch, just like male voices do, so maybe they just don’t like the idea of a girl playing in the boys-only emo sandbox.
Still, I look forward to a time when I’ll hear less public assessments about a female performer’s attractiveness, as if that is a good barometer of her skill. Maybe promoters at venues will stop making us assure them more than once that we are actually performing that evening and not tagging along. I look forward to young women finding encouragement in the awesome ladies that play today; Lindsay Minton and Mercy Harper from Football Etc., Sheena Ozzella from Lemuria, Carly Comando from Slingshot Dakota, just to name a few. The power that we have, really, is to just keep playing until it isn’t weird anymore and try to diminish the notion of women from simple objects of lovelorn ballads. We’re already the authors and we’re writing our own!
As a woman who plays in a hardcore band, runs a small independent record label, and has worked as an assistant sound engineer at a live music venue, I am misjudged and underestimated every once in a while. Yet the underground music scene here in Connecticut has become my home in the last three years I’ve lived here. It is the one area of my life in which being myself is not a problem; in fact, this community has allowed me to grow and start projects I never thought would see the light of day.
In plenty of other areas in my life I can tell tales of discrimination, harassment, horrific mistreatment. I have left jobs because I couldn’t deal with the consistently hostile environment my male co-workers never experienced. I have moved out-of-state more than once to get away from abuse and distance myself from attacks I’ve survived.
This scene is where I feel most accepted and comfortable. I know that isn’t the case everywhere, and I’ve heard of truly awful situations in which women have been taken advantage of, harassed, treated as second-class if they are acknowledged at all within their own scenes. I also know that things here could be better.
I’ve had a few minor run-ins – my bandmates in Setsuna are asked on occasion what it’s like to be in a band with a girl, to which the reply is usually some variation of “What difference does it make?” Once, after we posted goofy post-practice photos of us drinking beer together in our underwear, some guy threw a fit about how they were “misogynist” and “sexist.” We thought the photos were funny, and pretty characteristic of ourselves, yet the mere image of a woman with three men all in their underwear struck a nerve. I couldn’t be bothered too much by it; after all I was with my bandmates doing what we do – hanging out and having a drink. If someone else has a problem with it… well, it’s their problem. Yet there are phenomenal people of every gender identity who put forth incredible amounts of effort and energy into building our community, fueling it with their own passion and further inspiring my own. This isn’t limited to just musical endeavors – there are people who organize workshops discussing rape culture, donate proceeds from benefit shows to charities fighting against child slavery and sex trafficking, and simply support each other in our daily lives.
This scene gives me hope that change can occur, that there can be a place where equality exists. It will never be perfect because we as human beings will never be perfect, but when people care enough to actively make our community a safe space for everyone who wants to participate, it can and does actually happen.
EMILY BYRAM, SHOW PROMOTER (NEW HAVEN, CT)
I was sixteen years old when some friends and I started our first real band, called Mutiny Amongst Friends. That band gave me great opportunities, but most importantly, it opened my eyes to the importance of feminism within music. I lived in a town where I was the only female drummer in my high school. I liked being unique, but I wasn’t taken seriously. I figured it was just because my peers were sheltered and just plain rude. When Mutiny Amongst Friends started to play more shows, I realized that it was not just my peers who weren’t taking me seriously. The conviction that a girl couldn’t be a good drummer was expressed at shows nearly everywhere we played.
At that age, I felt bullied for being a girl but I didn’t yet understand that I was experiencing sexism. People would ask me which of my bandmates were my boyfriend, how long I had been playing, if I wrote my own parts, or if I needed help setting up my gear. The male musicians at the shows I played were never asked those questions. Feeling unique stopped being something that I enjoyed, I wanted to feel accepted. I realized that when a female would perform, people would say things like “She isn’t even that good” or “Oh, she is actually good.” It is offensive that so many people do not expect a female to perform well, then feel surprised when she does.
I started to meet more female musicians and all of these people who are feminists involved with music scenes. I met people who understood how I felt and didn’t make me feel like I was being sensitive or dramatic. I learned that oppression of all kinds still exists and that all people, even myself and my bandmates, needed to stop saying and thinking certain things that one may think is acceptable. I was able to embrace feeling unique again once I met so many awesome girls, but knew that I had to help change people’s perceptions of women.
My involvement in the DIY music scene really became consistent in 2008 when I returned from my first long tour. Giving bands a safe, comfortable place to perform and spend the night is something I’m proud of and truly enjoy. It has given me the chance to inspire and encourage girls to play music over the years. Today in the DIY scene, I am still meeting people who are surprised that I’m a drummer, people who can’t politely compliment my performance and girls who are too nervous to be in a band. It’s important to me to defend myself and other women in music who experience this oppression.
EMELIA ANDREWS, WE’RE NOT DEAD (ORLANDO, FL)
I started coming around to DIY shows around 14 or 15 years old. Prior to that I had gone to only a handful of “bigger” shows composed mainly of Epitaph-level bands. I got wind that a local I had seen open for a touring band was playing at what I would later learn to be the DIY spot in town. While my introduction to the scene was incredibly memorable, for many of the other people there it was not. I learned that a friend to many there had recently taken their own life. As everyone was still coping with their loss, people would get up and talk in between bands about their loss and memories. I was absolutely amazed by the level of community, to see everyone come together for each other like that, I just knew right then that this was where I belonged.
Back then there was an incredible sense of community where people would share ideas and support each other. I remember seeing tables set up with all sorts of literature ranging from feminism, anarchism, veganism, and any other -ism you can imagine. It’s one thing I think kids now are completely missing. I learned so much about various issues and, more importantly, how to be a better and understanding person, by reading anything I could. Though those days of having literature tables and book exchanges are mostly gone, it’s that sense of community that still remains on the DIY level, and it’s because of that I feel safest at DIY spaces being a transwoman. It’s where I first presented as female and it’s where I was able to first publicly admit to people outside of my immediate circle who I was.
As a transwoman I feel that Laura Jane Grace, and to a lesser extent Mina Caputo, have really paced the way and made it easier for us in the music scene to be ourselves. I remember coming out to a select few around the same time the LJG Rolling Stone article dropped and being amazed at how much support she received. More importantly, that article had people talking, because prior to that, trans issues were largely ignored. While I’m sure Laura Jane Grace is sick of talking about it, every interview she gives is a chance for one person to be exposed to and educated about trans issues.
Since I’ve come out, which is still relatively new for people, I’ve yet to experience any negative reactions, at least in the DIY scene. I can’t say for sure some people fully understand it and it’s highly likely that I’ll eventually encounter someone who’s a complete shit about it, but everyone has been supportive. One of my biggest fears was, having been in bands much of my adult life, that people would turn their backs [on me], which has yet to happen. Surprisingly, my bigger concerns now are less transphobia and more sexism. Punk rock is still by and large a boys club. Even by people who should “know better,” women in the scene are still subjected to the same standards of beauty and what have you as they are outside of it. I remember reading an article about Pussy Riot and in one comment I read someone talked about how much they stand behind feminism and in the next sentence talk about how “hot” the girls were. I’ve seen articles on Tegan and Sara where people claim to be supporters of LGBT rights and then make some incest related comment about their sexuality. Shit, I’ve even heard a comment or two about my looks already. That sort of stuff blows my mind.
Still despite all this, my time in the DIY scene has been the best of my life. Punk rock has been there for me my entire life and I really don’t know where I’d be without it. It’s not perfect, but for each girl that picks up a guitar, writes a zine, or puts on a show, and for each person that comes out, does the same and shares our experiences, hopefully we’re making one more step in the right direction in making it better for the next group.