This IS a love song
Don’t take it personal
I choose my own fate
I follow love
I follow hate
The Slits, Adventures Close To Home
I recently read an essay by Sophie Hopesmith, author of forthcoming novel Another Justified Sinner. She wrote about the way that women writers and musicians provided a context and gave courage to counteract the ‘be nice, be quiet’ mode of girlhood that so many of us were and often still are expected to adopt. It struck a chord with me – a thrashy, joyful and rancorous chord.
As with Sophie, many of the women who acted as my signposts were musicians from the punk and post-punk era. But not just the musicians. The bold and beautiful girls on the streets of Reading, with their wild hair and wild style that I admired, took to and adopted as soon as I was old enough. (Shout out, Star Girls!)
Before the genuine liberation of becoming a punk (as naive as that sounds, there is in all teenagers a kind of becoming, youth cultures can provide the context) I was baffled. I didn’t understand girl-world. There was a dull pink passivity, a sense that girls waited to be invited. Girls sat on the edge, watched boys play pool, they waited to be noticed. It was such a bloody boring offer. The song that says everything about this to me is Typical Girls by the Slits, one of the best bands that ever existed, and a band that is finally getting the recognition for their musical genius that they deserve.
Don’t create, don’t rebel
The Slits, Typical Girls
There was a myth-making about punk, a pretence that it was all raw, new, wildly creative. But though the street fashion was clearly inventive, much of the music was standard rock and roll. Even the delivery had been coined in America by bands like MC5 and the Stooges. But there was, amongst the snarling iteration of bog-standard rockology, beautiful bits of invention. For me, top of this pile is the album Cut by the Slits.
I thought at the time that what I described in the above paragraph as a liberation was a simple cauterisation. I had seen what was wrong and simply stepped away from it. I played in bands, watched football, was for a while a pretty blinding pool player. I shouted, got drunk, scared people sometimes. I was in control of my story, things happened and I jumped into them without needing permission or approval. And this is all true, and all precious. But with age has come a more nuanced view.
Many men I knew from then were and still are excellent feminists but most, however alternative in their taste and style were no different to the mainstream in the way they perceived women. Girls were great for, you know, tits and stuff but the important act of music making, as in playing thirty year old blues riffs fast and loud with your legs apart, that was a man’s job. So entrenched was this view that The Slits were often presumed to have a maverick male genius stashed behind the scenes somewhere, working the glorious girl puppets. For a supposedly unconventional group, punks and post-punks were often remarkably dad-like patriarchs in their views.
The presumption of male superiority and perhaps more cripplingly of female inferiority created the necessity for a kind of defiance for all of us. It wasn’t a matter of being the girls we were, but of defying the girls we were supposed to be. For example, and somewhat tragically I stopped wanting, for a long time, to be sexy. This was because there was a narrative, there still is, that I was responsible for any attention I got whilst in public. If my hips swung as I walked, what could I expect but that a man in a car would leer and shout? If I wore sexy clothes to please myself or attract a specific man, how could I complain that any random man paid me attention of a boorish or threatening or demeaning nature? I am quite tomboyish, so the consequent periods of cropped hair, no makeup and battered jeans was not a hardship, but nor was it entirely a free choice.
The joy of the punk era was that there was a flock of wild creatures whose exteriors expressed defiance, even when their insecurities and uncertainties were held tenderly inside. It was possible to be defiantly, anything. Perhaps one day we will reach an age when women (and of course, men and boys and others) will be able to emerge as themselves, without the need for that self to be shaped as if against anything. How simple and wise a world that would be.
I look now at my daughters in their early twenties and teens and I see that in many ways, they are making exactly the same sets of choices as I did. Times have improved to the extent that no one doubts that is possible for non-specific women to achieve high office, great reward, impressive power. But no one can seriously believe that we have progressed so far that there won’t be times in my daughter’s lives when their gender, even in supposedly liberated Europe, won’t count against them in some way. It has been after all, proved countless times that blind auditions and interviews still hire more women than those in which gender is known. Some things have perhaps got worse – now even the ‘feminists’ are supposed, along with their carefully signalled powerfulness, to look sexily ready for a bit of male-gaze fantasy fulfilment.
But happily for this immature and frustrating world, I see in my daughters the same beautiful defiance that I used to see in my friends. It takes courage. Not all these girls are or were confident. It is hard for young girls to be confident, confidence is not handed to them as a birthright. But wonderfully, they do it any way. Their courage comes easily, confidence has to be hard won. Everywhere there are women and girls holding out for more than passive, pleasing softness. It is infuriating that it is still necessary for them to defy, for them to invest their own courage to reshape the world whether the world wants it or not. But believe me, we are lucky that they do.
All of them have my admiration and gratitude.
Interesting viewpoint. I thought growing up in the 70’s and 80’s were shit and punk was the reflection of a violent, woman hating world, where the sisterhood was often in conflict with each other. I never got the experiences that most women write about in the punk years. I thought the rhetoric was much stronger than the lived reality. I still remember a sounds article about Penetration called The future is Female. I cut it out and stuck it on my wall. Dunno bout you, but I’m still waiting
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I completely get what you mean Nik. And I think that what I got from it was what I chose to take rather than what was on offer, and precisely because I am still waiting too, is why I look at young women today with a mixture of resignation and admiration that the same old boring battles are there for them to fight. It is frustrating that nothing changes and the stupid complacency of the status quo drives me mad. Perhaps I you we would’ve found a way to be ourselves what ever the context, it just so happens that that era was our context and so in some way, it framed the way we chose to proceed.
Brilliant essay, Lou. I had a Mohican at art college much to everyone’s dismay. But I don’t think I had ever felt so liberated being able to be ‘nasty’ for a while, drink beer out of bottles, snort speed off paving stones and shag whomever I wanted. Everybody had an opinion. I remember the guy building our new house telling me what a shame it was that I had such a stupid hairstyle because I was quite pretty really and why did I want to ruin that and be so unfeminine. *face palm*