Pop Punk and Feminism: Intersectionality and Microaggressions
Posted on June 11, 2015
June 11, 2015 | by Kayla St. Onge and Jonathan Diener
Having been in a touring band for years, it is very disheartening to witness the public outing of more and more band members in relation to sexual assault, manipulation and overall abuse of power in relation to others, especially women. It is not disheartening because they are being outed, but because it keeps happening. I’ve been wanting to speak out on the subject for a while and instead of calling out individuals, I wanted to help educate everyone on the importance of what is going on and how we can work together to stop it.
I reached out to my friend Kayla, who has been outspoken lately on the issue and we put our heads together to come up with a new column that helps people understand WHAT is happening and WHY it is harmful to so many people. Think of it as Feminism For Dummies, but relating to our music scene. This isn’t a shouting match, this isn’t a blind witch burning scenario, but an open platform to create dialogue and help avoid terrible situations in the future.
Intersectionality & Microaggressions
One of the most valid criticisms of punk is its inherent whiteness, maleness, and the heteronormativity that permeates the culture. The first step to understanding how to fix the scene is understanding what’s wrong with it at the heart. All of this comes with the heavy disclaimer that I am a white, cisgender woman– I can explain it to you, but my experience as a white woman is vastly different than that of a non-white or trans woman.
At its core, that’s what intersectionality is meant to highlight. Historically, feminism has struggled along with every other school of thought to reconcile the diversity of the people for which it crusades. The term was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s to point out that African American women in particular were treated unfairly by a law enforcement system that saw race and gender as two totally separate things. Today, we expand that theory to include the separation of race and gender, sexuality and gender, and the differences between the privileges cisgender women have versus trans women.
How does that tie into punk music? Let’s back up and break it down. Punk has by and large been a white, straight, male club since its inception. Maybe you haven’t been aware of it. Perhaps, like me, as a young person, you were taught that non-white people did not like this kind of music, based on some really weird racist thinking. While it’s true that non-white, queer, and trans people have been a part of the punk community the whole time, how they’ve been treated is an entirely different story.
The best example I can think of as far as feminism-in-punk failing to be intersectional is the riot grrrl movement and specifically Kathleen Hanna. On the outside, it’s very easy to look at her and Bikini Kill uncritically and get super pumped about the message they were spreading. But underneath the veneer of loud, angry girl power was explicit transphobia and subtle racism. The riot grrrl movement was for white cis women, by white cis women, and it’s easy to see that when many of the bands continue to play trans-exclusionary festivals like Michfest, which is an “all female” festival with a “womyn-born-womyn only” policy. I think that kind of problematic thinking has never truly been eradicated from punk– I could easily come up with a huge list of bands from our current scene guilty of similar crimes.
If you ask anyone at a show if they’re against racism, they will most likely say yes. If you ask them if they’re for LGBT rights, they’ll most likely say yes, but you have to think critically about these things. Any idiot can say they aren’t racist because the picture we have of racism is white men in hoods lynching people. But they forget to examine the social norms we have been bred with. Another large part of racism (and any kind of discrimination) are microaggressions. Microaggressions are small, subtle, and often unconscious patterns of thought and action that we have been conditioned to see as normal.
Dealing with microaggressions can be one of the hardest things when explaining the nuances of feminism and intersectionality to people. Because these behaviors are so normalized and are often accidental (for example, automatically assuming non-white people are immigrants), a lot of people will refuse to see their behavior as problematic. The best rule of thumb in a situation like this is simply to listen to the criticism brought against you. If the person criticizing you is a member of a minority and you are not, chances are they have a good reason to be calling you out. As hard as it is, you have to let your privilege take a back seat and just listen.
This has been one of the hardest uphill battles for me. I was raised in an incredibly conservative, religious environment. Racism, homophobia, and transphobia were the norms. When I was a teenager, I did and said so many things I would never even consider now. I look back on old Facebook posts and cringe. But I think it’s important to acknowledge these struggles instead of sweeping them under the rug. We don’t start out as great feminists or perfect people. It’s constant learning and constant unlearning, in all areas of life.
A particular contemporary example is the climate change in regards to women who are sexually active. When I was a teenager, it was pretty common to call any girl who annoyed you a “whore” or a “slut.” That casual anger directed at any girl who dared cross someone was clearly reflected in the music of the time. Hayley Williams just wrote a blog about the mindset she was in when writing “Misery Business”, and Anthony Raneri of Bayside recently responded to accusations that Bayside’s music is misogynistic. These are good examples of people brave enough to listen to what their fans are saying and deal with the problems they have created in their scenes. We should all be so willing to examine ourselves and disown those former selves with misguided ideals.
I won’t say it isn’t hard to be all-inclusive, because that’s naive. But we can take the basics of intersectionality and the failures of our forefathers and strive towards it. Punk was meant to be a safe haven for the outcasts. Instead, it’s turned into another place for men in positions of power to exploit those under them. We can make a difference and turn the tide back, but to do that, we have to learn from each other first. We have to be willing to talk about the problems permeating the industry, and most importantly, we have to be willing to let go of cherished traditions to make the scene a better place. It’s going to be a long road, but I believe we have the chance to not only make things right, but to make them better.
–Kayla St. Onge
I would again like to end this piece with the disclaimer that I am a white woman. If you are a non-white person in this scene and would like to discuss this with me or point out anything I have said that may be incorrect, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org