A Study Into Punk and Sexism in Aotearoa
If you know anything about the musical history of Aotearoa, it’s likely you recognise quite a spectacular record in the punk genre. In the 1980s, Aotearoa was home to Flying Nun, which made waves both in the local scene, and influenced overseas bands like R.E.M., Pavement, and wider British and American shoegaze during the nineties.
So, while we, in Aotearoa, may have this indie music pedigree, where has the scene gone? Is it still going? Who’s around? In the post-Me Too era, we have to be more conscientious than ever of making sure that the media we put into the world is conscious and responsible. It only makes sense that music should follow.
In 2014, The Guardian posted an article exploring punk music’s problem with women, exploring the riot grrl phenomenon of the 90s. It explained the differences between the reception of riot grrl bands, and more tame (ironic) punk bands, like The Clash. The article posits the lack of female visibility in punk as a Groundhog Day; womxn-centric punk bands existed but weren’t in the same sphere of celebration as their male counterparts. We can see this in the discrepancies between something as simple as a Cotton On graphic tee—how often do you see a Ramones logo? How often do you see a Bikini Kill tee for $15.99?
Jade Lewis from the band Club Ruby had a bit to say about these issues a bit closer to home. One of the critical points they made was that though Aotearoa, primarily, has an excellent level of representation in these circles, there’s obviously room for improvement. By its very definition, punk is a genre representing a movement forward for musicians, a shift away from the status quo and the outright rejection of it, when necessary. Jade explained the number of women they’ve seen come through 95bFm that have struggled with being welcomed in these spaces—spaces that they thought would be a second home and open to their presence.
Punk was born out of the want to be better, changing a system that wasn’t working for the youth. Until recently, the punk mainstream has been dominated by angry men, disregarding the voices of their female peers. We’re moving away from that now, but Jade’s words prove that there’s much more work to do.
Over the last 12 months, many communities have seen a shift from complacency to frustration to anger. The anger moved from behind closed doors, from within activist circles to being front-page news. In the wake of 2020, it’s becoming ever more apparent that we, collectively, need to start listening, watching, and reading local, varied media. We can start with the bands we listen to. The Uni radio station, 95bFm, specialises in showcasing local talent and highlighting voices that have otherwise been moved aside for more of the same. It’s time for that to change, and we have the power to make this happen.
We’re already pushing forward for more significant change in the industry in supporting punk and local music. We’ve begun to follow bands that support and highlight LGBTQIA+ voices rather than those old bands we know and love. Look at the genre as a moving medium, as something to be consistently modified. It begs the question of when women will get equitable treatment in punk. It’s simple enough to figure out that the theoretical answer is never. Punk was born out of a desire to rebel, to challenge. It’s grown to need to feed off this anger, which means the challenge still needs to exist. For a genre born out of cries for progression, it’s not very progressive.
That being said, it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to accept this (somewhat backwards) status quo. Punk is angry, yes, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep the exact reasons for being angry.
In Aotearoa, we’re doing pretty well, considering. It’s 2021, and we seem to be moving ahead with the times pretty well, but the danger here is that we’ll get complacent. I don’t want us to get complacent, and I’m sure the local musicians don’t, either. Jade highlighted that there is a lot of casual sexism and toxic masculinity within the local music sphere, despite what it might look like to outsiders. People tend to forget that while we’re doing pretty well, we’re by no means clear of criticism. We still have plenty to work on, and the first step is to acknowledge this. We’ve still got work to do and to think we didn’t would be completely irresponsible.
Maybe one day we’ll be able to rest easy in a dive bar, listening to a band we don’t feel guilty for supporting, knowing our money’s gone to a few people who will do good with it. That day isn’t here yet, though. We’re going to need to work to make sure that we get to that day. That means moving into a sphere where people from all walks of life can feel welcomed in the communities where they put their art. Where they can feel like their music’s going to be heard, and felt, and not blatantly ignored in favour of the next best classic-inspired punk band.
So, how can we do this? It’s a pretty big thing to ask, to take on. But, luckily, I came prepared. To get anywhere in changing punk (and local music on the whole) into something better, we have to invest in those bands/musicians/venues that actively work for progress. Be critical of what media you take in, follow bands and actively support artists that help us move towards a more equitable future, a more welcoming one.
Of course, it’s not all as easy as I’ve just made it sound; a lot of it boils down to us needing to critically rethink what we consume and how we consume it. This is where it gets complicated. More often than not, I’ll find myself wanting to sit down at the end of a long day and just watch whatever comes up first on Netflix. I won’t think about what it could have done better, and I’ll take the entertainment at face value. Without thinking like this, I’m not pushing myself to be a more conscious consumer, and that’s where the complacency sets in. If we want punk to be less of a boys’ club, we’re going to have to start pushing for this change to happen; it won’t happen overnight.
We need to actively open up our local spaces; we need to make them more accessible—less of a boys’ club, less exclusivity. We need it to be more welcoming, more open, more accessible. Only then will we be able to move forward and shift with the times. Music isn’t benign; it’s not something that’s stopped breathing. But it can’t live on its own; for it to be revolutionary, we need to actively make it so. We need to take ownership.
Jade’s interview shone some light on these issues, and I hope that we’ll see more of a dialogue on this in the future and what we (as casual listeners) can do to help.
Have you noticed any discrepancies in the treatment of women or other marginalised groups?
In New Zealand, I’d have to say my initial impression was just of the openness and friendliness of Kiwis that I met. This I felt especially within the Māori and Pasifika community and friends that I met, that I figured was universal.
Trigger warning: It was a surprise when I started to experience the culture of toxic masculinity and ignorance that many young kiwis embodied, going hand in hand with the high rate of suicides amongst male men in New Zealand.
However being a woman pursuing the creative arts, as we can see time and time again, has always been difficult. Throughout my time at 95bFm, and just playing in bands here in general, I’ve interviewed many females in New Zealand who haven’t felt welcomed within the gigging scene. Whenever I play, my male bandmates are often acknowledged before me, the lead singer and songwriter of the band. It’s just a bit discouraging sometimes, and it almost feels like I’m invisible and not welcome to jam or network without being hit on or ignored. I’ve gotten some tougher skin now but it’s a bit bleh. Conversations around race are also seldom understood, and I’ve been told I’m too sensitive and that I can’t take jokes seriously.
What do you think causes or highlights these discrepancies?
I experienced a pretty diverse culture growing up in Virginia and moving to Washington, DC, and issues of social acceptance, racial sensitivity and progressive ideals and conversations were almost impossible to ignore.
I’m sure growing up in a more isolated environment would lead to people not seeing many people of color or having these types of conversations, but the lack of openness is kind of frustrating and makes it feel hard for me to express myself and feel understood. I hope that more conversations about cultural diversity, race and mental health can become more commonplace, which can start at the home, schools and between friends.
Where do you reckon the local punk scene can move from here?
Really all a scene can do is to continue playing shows and welcome new artists and bands to the scene. Often at shows I see a majority of all white male bands, so when putting on shows, maybe keep in mind who you’re inviting to play and consider if more diverse perspectives would invite more people to join in!