Feminism in Rock (Inspired by the Women’s March)

Feminism In Rock

Photo: By Samantha Abernethy (Flickr: NekoForecastle1) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some view recent political protests and marches as the Millennial generation post-humorously reaching for the coat tails of the Civil Rights movement, for others it’s an inspiring example of our freedom as Americans to express outrage and distrust through organized political protest, but regardless of opinion the Women’s March on Washington will take place around 10 a.m. on January 21st. Doubtful to bother President-elect Donald Trump, who is no stranger to public criticism, the march may do little to undo what has already been done. However, for many protesters, that isn’t really the point.

To understand the how, why, and what of the March, we’d have to quickly review feminism’s journey from the 1960’s to today.

While debated by many cultural scholars, a major criticism of second wave feminism is that women of color felt left out of a predominately white woman’s mission; part of this may have been due to the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was at large and many tackled race and gender separately. Regardless, it’s been noted that third wave, or feminism’s current state, is very much aware, embracing, and tackling race and gender all at once.

This humanistic approach became more popular as Generation X began to grow and is embedded within the Millennial generation now. For those who may be confused by the Women’s March on Washington – why it’s necessary, what it seeks to accomplish, who is involved – they only need to know that modern feminism is about equality for all, emphasis on the all. This means that many view president-elect Donald Trump as the figurehead openly opposing that root belief – consideration of all genders and races.

This is the so-called third wave of feminism. As such, its learned from its predecessors that “women’s rights are human rights” and that a large gathering of men and women creates a sense of community, brings clarity to unified initiatives, and shows support to the American citizens who feel betrayed by the political and social agendas Trump promotes. The march is a statement – a bat signal pivoting in the air, calling to all others to say: “We’re together. We’re here for each other and for you.”

Whether you’re participating in the March or not, the event inspired us to look back and discuss how feminism represents itself in rock ‘n’ roll culture, and how particular moments, movements, and musicians have influenced feminist rock today.

Sex, Freedom, and Rock ‘n’ Roll
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, feminism isn’t always in the forefront, especially in today’s day and age. And the music industry in general has a long history of being laden with sexism (it isn’t about being taken seriously as much as it is about being packaged as a pop princess). What’s scariest of all is how even feminism can be tweaked, packaged, and sold (many point to groups like The Spice Girls as example). If the artists we love aren’t organic, then neither is their message, but one thing has always been the same: musicians who don’t mind selling out a little bit can cash in a lot.

Second wave feminism revealed the potential and ability for talented women to find power in owning and even selling their sexuality – tipping the patriarchy of the music industry on its head. Many applaud female artists, such as, Madonna for harnessing the “sex sells” attitude of a culture obsessed with physicality and using it to their advantage.

And while the rock genre is no exception to the predominately-male music producers and executives who may search for not only vocal ability but also a pretty face, there is a freedom that rock and its sub-genres allow female artists. Rock ‘n’ roll is meant to be messy, grungy, a little in your face, and definitely ground-breaking. Female rock stars aren’t necessarily expected to jump around in tank tops with sparkling abs, but if her name is Gwen Stefani and she wants to – she will. And if she wants to sing about something considered lewd or a taboo part of the woman experience – she can.

That’s the freedom in it. That’s the power of it. It’s about sexuality as expressed on the terms of the musician not her audience.
Feminist Moments in Rock Music
Throughout history and its waves of feminism, there have been iconic moments in which musicians have advertised, emulated, or upheld feminist ideologies. In the past, we’ve witnessed metal band, L7’s lead singer, Donita Sparks throw a used tampon into a crowd, quite literally throwing her womanhood in the faces of society. Neko Case, a long-standing and proud feminist, has taken to social media to battle sexism, calling out Playboy for calling her a “woman in music” rather than, simply, and accurately a musician.

But it isn’t just women, other musicians have spoken out against sexism or on behalf of other feminist initiatives, such as reproductive rights. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sported an arm with the words “PRO CHOICE” during their historic performance on MTV’s Unplugged (way back in 1992). Jack White and Kurt Cobain, to name a few, have routinely made headlines for their humanist statements. Ted Leo of the Pharmacists is considered a long-time and avid champion of women and equality; in fact, you could name pretty much any feminist rock band and he’s probably tied to it in some way.

Rock music and feminism overlapped during the riot grrrl scene of the 1990’s. Women such as Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, The Julie Ruin, Le Tigre), Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile) and Carrie Brownstein (Excuse 17, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia) were and still are common associations of this punk rock movement that sought to empower girls and women.

Originating on the west coast, riot grrrl was the result of three major circumstances: 1, an equality-seeking, open-minded group of individuals we now know as Generation X (born between the mid 1960’s and late 1970’s) were living or moving to the Pacific Northwest in throngs, 2, daughters of the bra-burning mothers were becoming angry about the continued state of a male-dominated society, and 3, rock music was hitting a new golden era of creative surgent, particularly in Portland, Oregon and Seattle and Olympia, Washington.

Zines, hand-crafted magazines created by followers of the punk movement, gave women an outlet to share the collective female experience, which was highly lacking, particularly in the male-dominated punk rock scene. The movement even had a manifesto, stating its missions, hopes, and ideologies.


Feminist Rock Today
While a culture and society that obsesses the term “celebrity” and everything that goes with it, a main hope of riot grrrl was that perhaps a little more anger and awareness in the world would convince more little girls to be a musician or song-writer rather than a pop star. Counter culture doesn’t always win, but it can be traced; like a very small yet not insignificant river running through the cities, towns, suburbs, alleys, and every corner of America – the rock genre today would be lacking without the past moments that lead it into the present.

It’s difficult to express exactly what changes these feminist moments in rock history made on the present. While Miley Cyrus is inducting Joan Jett into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and Alice Cooper is a self-confessed fan of grunge-pop champion, Kesha, there are other manifestations of the female rock star – Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, everyone’s favorite Icelandic musical icon, Bjork, contemporaries, like Grimes, Warpaint, Chasity Belt, and Russian punk group, Pussy Riot who have made international news with their number of political stunts, and so many more.

What couldn’t be more clear is that women of the rock genre, even if they lean slightly pop, are free to do whatever they want and call it art, especially if it means mixing blood and glitter in a live show or playing a punk song called “Punk Prayer” in a cathedral.

Updated March 1, 2021

Feminism in Rock (Inspired by the Women’s March) article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2017

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