Anyone who bemoans feminist discussions for being stuffy, crunchy, woolen affairs is not only looking for a swift punch to the nethers, they’re also dead wrong. A panel held last Thursday at the Brooklyn Museum challenged the Portlandia image of feminism and witnessed several women being their badass selves, see: Lydia Lunch’s impassioned spoken word about race riots and abuse, Narcissister’s short film in which she plays a topless Little Red Riding Hood who “rides” the Hunter, and Johanna Fateman’ trademark Valley Girl diction. Unlike that introductory Women’s Studies course you took as an undergrad, “I Will Resist With Every Inch And Every Breath: Punk Rock And Feminist Art” (named for the Bikini Kill song above) was pretty freaking rad.
Though hard to define, “punk” was at the center of the panel discussion. “Punks can’t even agree on the word ‘punk,'” said moderator Leah DeVun. Now an art historian and professor at Rutgers, DeVun grew up in the punk scene and frequented all ages shows in Olympia, Washington in the early ’90s. “It still shapes the way I think about my identity and my politics,” she said. Punk, she argued, remains relevant and not just in her own life, because right now “punk is being reimagined inside and outside of art institutions.”
Now a worldwide phenomenon, punk has been studied, codified, documented, and of course exploited, repackaged, and commodified. It’s been recognized and legitimized by corporations, the media, and institutions of higher learning– in a word fitting of punk dialogue, the establishment (see: the Riot Grrrl Archives we dug through at the NYU library, the Met’s 2013 exhibition, Punk: from Chaos to Couture). And yet punk is still elusive — as the negation of norm society, punk is a constantly shifting identity and one that’s closely tied to notions of authenticity, whatever that means. Yet “punk,” like feminism, in many ways remains feared and misunderstood.
But leave it to Lydia Lunch to keep it 100 percent real and thwart the term “punk” entirely. “I never considered myself a punk. I made No Wave music. I have more in common with the surrealists,” she said in her trademark raspy growl. “But I have always been fucking resisting.”
Johanna Fateman, founding member of Le Tigre and leader in the Riot Grrrl movement of the late ’90s, admitted she had serious trouble nailing down a definition for a faction of punk she knew well. In 2010, the editor of Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’ account of the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, courted Fateman to write a review for the book. “You have to say what Riot Grrrl is,” he told her. “I can’t write a review, because I can’t define Riot Grrrl,” Fateman recalled of her predicament. But Fateman eventually came up with something of an anti-definition, one that appears in her review of the book for Book Forum:
“Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous,” she wrote. “The revolution belonged to all girls but couldn’t be owned or represented by any one.” She concluded that “it was the power to confront a rapist, an urgent challenge to the systematic silencing of girls, and the invocation of inconsolable, vengeful, and exhilarated revolutionary states.”
But apart from the struggle over a definition, many people (namely those who aren’t straight, white males) have a complex relationship with punk. Fateman recalled her first encounter with punk music and the surrounding scene– as a teenager she and a friend stumbled on a Tribe 8 show in Berkeley, California. “There was this castration scenario — it was extreme and, as 16-year-olds, extremely interesting to us,” she remembered. The music struck her because “growing up in Berkeley, radicalism was tinged with male intellectualism, or on the other hand being a radical meant being a hippy woman milking a goat or something.” Tribe 8, a radical queer feminist punk band, smashed both of those molds.
Whereas Fateman found in punk a liberating ethos, one essentially intertwined with feminism, and a path to radicalism that differed from the crunchy brand of her parents, punk wasn’t as welcoming to other panel members. Osa Atoe spoke about how punk culture is overwhelmingly white and plagued by racism. Once a columnist for Maximum RockNRoll and active musician, she’s now working as a teacher. In 2006, Atoe created a black-centric punk music fanzine Shotgun Seamstress and has since released hundreds of issues.
The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Atoe explained how she was responsible for her own punk education. “Although my Dad had a huge record collection, it didn’t contain a single iota of rock n’ roll,” she said. Atoe eventually started forming bands, making zines, and writing with a feminist approach through the lens of what she called the “very useful concept” of intersecting identities. “I felt that any art I made should also be political,” she recalled. “The intersection of punk and radical politics felt natural to me, being influenced by punk in D.C. like Fugazi, and also having been deeply inspired by Riot Grrrl.”
Her zine, Shotgun Seamstress aimed to create “a psychic refuge for myself and other black kids isolated in white punk scenes.” After moving to Portland, Oregon, home to a thriving punk scene, Atoe’s perspective as a woman of color shifted. “I began to feel very isolated as a black person in punk– I found myself in a political but predominantly white punk scene that was constantly but awkwardly attempting to address its own racism,” she recalled.
Atoe’s concerns about the whiteness of punk culture echo the same problems that plague Western feminist dialogue. But Atoe said she had no interest in creating a zine that approached feminism and punk from a position of critique. “I just wanted to make a zine that was a celebration of black punk identity,” she said. “I made it specifically because there weren’t enough voices in the dialogue about punks of color.”
But in light of recent developments, Atoe came up against a new challenge, one that made her question her contribution. “In my zine, I focused on freedom of expression for black people but, admittedly, this goal seemed frivolous to me,” she said, in light of the “rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Suddenly, celebrating black self-expression (what she described as a a means of resisting “psychic death”) seemed secondary to fighting against the immediate threat of physical death by police officers for young black men across the country.
Eventually Atoe came to terms with her own project, realizing the importance of her contribution.”I attempt to use a Xerox copy music fanzine to resist stereotypical conceptions of blackness,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like much, but I promise the desire to redefine ourselves, to redefine blackness, to surprise people with the scope of our self-expression, was always central to the project.”
Of all the panel members, Atoe probably best captured the activist-punk ethos — a cynical worldview to be sure, but one that’s nevertheless about resistance and the continuing relevance of punk today. “We live in an ugly and dysfunctional world and we carry that ugliness and dysfunction around inside of us,” she said. “Our mission in life is to prevent self-destruction, to prevent our own psychic deaths and then to lend a hand to others so they can do the same.”