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In 1969 when asked why there weren’t any other powerful women in the music industry, Janis Joplin said “it’s not feminine, maybe, to really get into music, instead of float around on the top like most chick singers do.” Maybe that is why today, in the 10’s there is a lack of challenging female artists who truly break down boundaries. The contemporary music industry offers very few independent, strong female role models who do more than simply sell sex to make people buy records.
This investigation will focus on the representation of women in music, specifically in punk and underground music, from their breakthrough in the 70’s to their lack of representation today in the 10’s. The primary case studies will be various female punk bands from the 70’s to the 90’s such as Xray Spex and Siouxsie and The Banshees, with Beth Ditto as my contemporary focus. I will analyse music videos and song lyrics, as well as their physical representations. I will examine theorists such as Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf and Laura Mulvey to assess how their work can be applied.
As second-wave feminism took hold in the 60s, music turned into a political manifesto for feminists, as female singer-songwriters began to campaign for women’s rights. Their music often dismantled myths held about women, and enabled women to embody their own self-made identity as opposed to that which society and culture allocated for them. Janis Joplin was largely unconcerned with the feminist movement, but proceeded to represent a feminist symbol for women in a male dominated rock culture, influencing generations of female musicians to come.
Women were of significant importance to the punk culture of the late 1970s; beginning in New York with performers like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, punk rock spread around the world and women in punk music became more visible. As punk music gave them an outlet for their edgy, political, anti-establishment lyrics, and non-conformist, unconventional female personas, it became perfect for feminist musicians to have their voices heard.
Women in punk music had to be strong to stand against their male contemporaries. By the late 70’s, punk’s peak in London, female-dominated bands like Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Slits and X-Ray Spex were playing on the same bills as all-male bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols. These bands gained public recognition not only because of their revolutionary music, but also by challenging expectations of femininity.
Widely considered “the most influential woman in punk rock ever to walk the Earth” Siouxsie Sioux said in 1974 “I don’t carry anything for any females, and I hate being called the best female singer ’cause I think I’m better than any male singer as well.” These bands didn’t want to be classed as a separate category from male musicians; they just want to be classed as musicians. Siouxsie Sioux said “it was a powerful time for women. Girls were finally picking up instruments and not just being a puppet held up by a man with strings in the background.”
Laura Mulvey is a feminist media critic who is best known for her seminal essay entitled “Visual Pleasure and narrative cinema “(Sight & Sound 1975). In it she sites the media as o tool for male oppression and that women are seen merely as objects for male gratification. The camera, she argues, sees from the Male gaze”. Mulvey’s theory also states that the media “satisfies and reinforces the masculine ego and represses the desire of women”.
The Siouxsie and The Banshees video ‘Happy House’, goes against Laura Mulvey’s theory that images of women are displayed as sexual objects. In the first shot of this video Siouxsie looks fiercely into the camera, her eye make up is dark and she has bright red lips; her signature look. She looks androgynous as she is wearing an oversized jester outfit with short spiky black hair. No skin is visible except for her face and hands. The camera follows Siouxsie around, showing she is controlling the video, contradicting this quote from Laura Mulvey: “in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed”. As the camera follows her, it is not in a voyeuristic way, she is simply the main focus of the video, and the camera angle remains level with her face throughout the video, showing she is dominant and confident. Despite being the only female seen, she appears more confident than the male members of the band, overshadowing them by controlling the video. Siouxsie is also shown playing instruments, displaying her as equal to the male musicians. This opposes Mulvey’s idea that men always dominate. Also, she continuously looks aggressively at the camera, conveying she feels superior to the audience. Nothing in this video suggests Siouxsie is being portrayed as a sex symbol, in fact quite the opposite.
Many of these women did not seem to care about being sexually alluring, this contrasts with Germaine Greer’s theory of there being a dominant image of femininity which rules our culture and to which all women aspire. It also disagrees with Naomi Wolf’s argument that women in Western Culture are damaged by the pressure to conform to an idealized concept of female beauty. On The Slits first album cover they are pictured topless, covered in mud, looking dishevelled, not appearing to have made any effort at all to look ‘good’. Despite being topless, this cover is not shot through the ‘male gaze’ as the women appear dominant and in control as opposed to passive. The women of these bands took their entire personalities onstage, often involving wearing clothing that reflected their thoughts and attitudes.
Siouxsie Sioux frequently performed wearing black leather and rubber bondage attire, as well as heavy eye make-up, making overt statements about her sexuality. When asked about her appearance, Siouxsie said “image represents in a way, a kind of rejection of a stereotype, a blonde, dumb cuteness that was sought after by most singers, especially female”, conveying that she dresses for her own pleasure and not others. Ari Up of The Slits, constructed an image that played on conventions of female sexuality by always sporting long dreadlocks, never using make-up and often wearing underwear over her clothes.
In New York, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry of Blondie expressed two very different takes on punk femininity; Smith was a cross-dressing, androgynous woman, comfortable with blurring her gender, and Harry was a bleached-blonde former playboy bunny, still playing on the stereotypical conventions of female singers.
Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex was a geeky teenager, overweight, and with large metal braces, known for wearing bright abrasive clashing colours onstage. Xray Spex dealt with various issues on their album ‘Germfree Adolescents’ such as the environment and living in a consumer society where you have to live up to the expectations driven by advertising and consumerism. Even lead singer Poly Styrene’s name reflected the fake and ‘plasticness’ of the society they were living in. The song ‘Plastic Bag’ reinforces her view as she sings “my mind is like a plastic bag that corresponds to all those ads it sucks up all the rubbish”. ‘Art-I-Ficial’ contains the lyric “I know I’m artificial but don’t put the blame on me, I was reared with appliances in a consumer society. When I put on my make-up the pretty little mask not me that’s the way a girl should be”, this conveys Polly’s feminist views and her opposition of society’s expectations of women.
This theme can also been seen in Xray Spex’s most widely known song “Oh Bondage Up Yours” where Polly begins by saying softly in a childlike voice “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…” before exploding with a screech of “Oh bondage, up yours”, turning the ‘girly’ voice into something more distasteful. This song is about the aversion at being constantly scrutinized by mainstream society.
After a lack of female punk bands in the 80’s, Riot grrrl exploded in the early 90’s. It originated from the punk movement, initiated by nonconformist female bands who aimed to stomp out sexism and inequality in response and developed into an underground feminist movement in the early 1990s. It is often associated with third-wave feminism and it is sometimes seen as its starting point as a response to the backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism. The subculture gave women a place to exist out of the system. Riot grrrl was about 90’s women making a stand, screeching against authority and exploring what they wanted a woman to represent.
Today’s music charts seem only to reflect generated pop-rock, especially where females are concerned. The only mainstream female band with political views and strong female role models, who want more than to just be sex symbols currently are Gossip. Competing with artists marketed through the ‘male gaze’, it’s no wonder Gossip’s Beth Ditto is deemed controversial in today’s music scene. Whether it’s because she’s openly gay, a non-shaving punk, or morbidly obese, mainstream society sees her as an outsider.
30 years ago, it would’ve been typical in the underground music scene to see individuals like this. Beth Ditto is said to be a fan of Riot Grrrl and states Xray Spex as her biggest influence. Gossip’s lyrics are often about society and feminist issues, disguised with a mainstream catchy electro-beat. Even Gossip’s most widely recognised song, ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ is extremely political as it is attacking George W. Bush in response to same-sex marriage being prohibited in some states of the USA, the resistance can be seen in the lyric “we’re standing in the way of control, we will live our lives.”
Her unwillingness to conform to society’s expectations is clearly visible on the NME issue on which she appears unshaven and naked on the front cover. The image shows Beth with her hand on her bottom which has a kiss mark on it and another hand covering her breast. She is looking at the camera, not in the conventional, seductive way female singers are usually photographed, but instead almost snarling as if she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. The headline reads “Kiss my ass”, once again reinforcing her reluctance to conform. This image shocked the teenage audience of the magazine and sparked controversy as it is an image that mainstream society is rarely subjected to. It was also nominated to be crowned the best magazine cover of all time. This image doesn’t represent the usual ideology of women and this is why Germaine Greer has praised Ditto on appearing like this on the cover of a mainstream magazine, and also NME for allowing her to do so. Greer speaks highly of Beth stating: “her intention is to force acceptance of her body type, 5ft tall and 15 stone, and by this strategy to challenge the conventional imagery of women.” Laura Mulvey’s theory of feminism can be seen here; Beth Ditto is the dominant female who refuses to be passive to the male viewer.
Gossip’s video ‘Listen Up’, follows two transvestites, one male and one female and depicts what it means to be masculine and feminine. This is an alternative theme for a music video and so once again Ditto challenges mainstream society. However, in this video, Ditto herself is not shown in her usual rebellious way, but instead appears to be typical of a music video, showing that everyone needs to conform to sell records.
My research has established that despite years of feminism and social movement, women are still objectified as sex symbols in the music industry.
For my linked production I will be producing a music video in the style of 1970’s female punk bands to the song ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours’ by X-ray Spex. The target audience for the video will be predominately female teenagers who feel their views and values aren’t represented in mainstream music. The video will not sexualise women and it will reject the ‘male gaze’.
Word Count 2002
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