The Female Body of Punk

A decade after the Sex Pistols were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the once marginal and vilified punk movement has, for better and worse, been thoroughly assimilated as a major ...

A decade after the Sex Pistols were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the once marginal and vilified punk movement has, for better and worse, been thoroughly assimilated as a major aesthetic and cultural force. One welcome effect of this canonizing process has been a recent wave of new memoirs by some of the major female punk and post-punk innovators: a collection of books that allow us better to apprehend some of the possibilities for sex and gender experiment that briefly opened up, and quickly shut down, as punk took form in the US and Britain in the mid- and late 1970s.

The movement that had acquired definite shape in London and New York City by the end of 1975 was given its name by the American fanzine Punk. Cofounder Legs McNeil explains that the name for the magazine—and soon, the movement—was an act of reclamation. “On TV, if you watched cop shows … when the cops finally catch the mass murderer, they’d say, ‘you dirty Punk.’ It was what your teachers would call you. It meant that you were the lowest. All of us drop-outs and fuck-ups got together and started a movement.”1

“Punk” was, then, like “queer,” a strategic reclamation of a slur. One wonders now, however, how aware the founders of Punk and of punk were of the specifically sexualized, feminized history of the term. A “punk” was originally a derogatory term for a female prostitute; in Measure for Measure, Lucio warns Vincentio, “She may be a Puncke: for many of them, are neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife.”2 By the end of the 17th century, the term had been adapted to mean “a boy or young man kept by an older man as a (typically passive) sexual partner,” and later “a man who is made use of as a sexual partner by another man, esp. by force or coercion.”3 In Alexander Berkman’s 1912 Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, he explains, “A punk’s a boy that’ll … Give himself to a man.”4

This etymological trace of sexual and gender deviance, provocation, shame, and insult in “punk” offers a glimpse into forgotten scenes in the movement’s early history. Siouxsie (of the Banshees) comments of punk, “Before it got a label it was a club for misfits. … Waifs, male gays, female gays, bisexuals, non-sexuals, everything.”5 As Jon Savage outlines in his invaluable history England’s Dreaming, in its early phase, English punk was a radical sex and gender project. The Sex Pistols began life as a promotional extension of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s King’s Road fetish-and-bondage boutique, Sex. In this initial phase, punk was more visibly a sexually non-conformist fashion subculture than a musical one. One participant observes, “People think that the early days of Punk were all banging along at Sex Pistols gigs. … But for me it was camping it up down Park Lane … All these queens going around in Punk gear and black leather going, ‘Ooooooh!’”6 For Savage, “the first Sex Pistol” was not a member of the band, but rather a now-forgotten member of the Sex collective who in punk’s early days had turned herself into a “living advertisement” for the shop’s aesthetics: Jordan, neé Pamela Rooke.7 “I liked to treat myself like a painting,” Jordan says, explaining that she came up with her fetish-wear look as a way to get into a gay club, the Masquerade: “Sometimes I’d get on a train and all I had on was a stocking and suspenders and a rubber top, that was it.”8

As the Sex Pistols’ fame and notoriety surged, however, the “sexual fluidity,” sex-radicalism, and embodied femaleness of punk was muted as incompatible with rock and roll success, and women like Jordan, who had been understood as crucial agents within the movement, were demoted to mere “fans.” One contemporary commented that “the artists who created Punk … were Malcolm and Vivienne”—but Westwood’s role would soon be eclipsed within a music-focused narrative dominated by McLaren and the Sex Pistols band members. Westwood’s name, startlingly, does not appear once in Greil Marcus’s influential Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century9; McLaren’s appears 26 times. It’s difficult not to interpret as symptomatic John Lydon’s complaint (in his recent memoir) that a pair of Vivienne Westwood–designed bondage pants induced “castration”: “She cut them always with a feminine design, and that made male genitalia inside feel incredibly uncomfortable. … She certainly never had any concept of where men’s goods are supposed to go”; the result of following Westwood’s advice to relieve pressure by leaving the zipper open was that “the chafing at the zipper each side of my genitalia was like a pair of saws cutting in from either side.”10

Viv Albertine and Chrissie Hynde could be understood as having been two of Vivienne Westwood’s punk daughters—allied in common cause with, but often overshadowed by, Malcolm McLaren’s punk sons. They have both recently published memoirs offering overlapping accounts of their experiences in the London birth of punk; other recent memoirs, by Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, and Carrie Brownstein, tell their own stories of a female experience of American punk and post-punk. Although these women position themselves in very different ways in relation to the movement and the music, their life narratives reveal the possibility of a punk history centered less around the familiar iconography of Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), Sid Vicious, and Joe Strummer, and more around female performers’ bodies.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: the title of Viv Albertine’s engrossing memoir cheekily captures some of the implications of a shift to a more Vivienne Westwood–centered punk history. The title comes from her mother’s exasperated summary of her teenage daughter’s priorities. Note the subordination of “music” between “clothes” and “boys.” Albertine was a key member of the early Sex cohort and briefly Sid Vicious’s bandmate before he was recruited away to join the Pistols. She subsequently formed the Slits, a short-lived but influential all-women post-punk band. The memoir concludes with an appendix, “Clothes Music Boys,” in which Albertine usefully breaks down her personal chronology from childhood onward in terms of the three categories. So, “1976–1979” includes under “music” the likes of “Velvet Underground, Ramones, Iggy (The Idiot), Bowie (Low), Lou Reed (Metal Machine Music), Eno, Patti Smith,” and under clothes: “Black leather jeans, rubber stockings, pink patent boots, tits T-shirt11 … studded belts and wristbands. … Old black leather jacket. … Customised fringed tights.”

<i>Viv Albertine at the New Oxford, Salford, as part of the Sounds from the Other City Festival</i> (2011). Photograph by Man Alive! / Flickr

Viv Albertine at the New Oxford, Salford, as part of the Sounds from the Other City Festival (2011). Photograph by Man Alive! / Flickr

For Albertine, punk always seems to have been less exclusively a matter of music per se than a broader stage for a radically honest performance of self: an art project in which the most repressed, putatively shameful personal and cultural material, especially that related to female experience, could be turned inside out and transformed through public visibility. She describes the transformative effect Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses (and, crucially, its Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo of Smith), had on her in 1975:

I have never seen a girl who looks like this. She is my soul made visible, all the things I hide deep inside myself that can’t come out. … She’s a private person who dares to let go in front of everyone, puts herself out there and risks falling flat on her face. Up until now girls have been so controlled and restrained. Patti Smith is abandoned. Her record translates into sound, parts of myself that I could not access, could not verbalise, could not visualise, until this moment.

Albertine had experienced her adult female body as an affliction: “Having periods changed my personality,” she explains; “from the first one onwards I was resentful and angry inside, I felt cheated and I knew to the core of my being that life was unfair and boys had it easier than girls. A burning ball of anger and rebelliousness started to grow within me. It’s fuelled a lot of my work.” In art school, she “did life drawings of my friend Sarah Hall … naked in lots of different positions, with the little blue tampon string dangling from her vagina. I thought the blue string subverted the whole prurient, porn thing by showing the reality of female bodily functions, which of course you never see in sex magazines.”

Later, in the Slits, she is amazed by the physical fearlessness of her teenage bandmate Ari Up: “Being attacked, spat at, sworn at and laughed at is part of all of our lives”—you try walking through Thatcher’s London in a dyed Mohawk and tits T-shirt—“but I think Ari’s especially brave.” Albertine was especially impressed by Ari’s attitude to menstruation: “She was excited to be a woman, not horrified and disgusted like I was. Now, whenever she has a period, she talks about it and shows us the blood. … Ari stuffs her knickers with huge hanks of cotton wool, fat white tufts stick out either side of the gusset. When the cotton wool is saturated with blood, she pulls it out and holds it up for everyone to see.”

For young women in punk, the baseline level of abuse that their male peers also experienced was exacerbated by the additional constant threat of sexual assault.

Thanks to Ari’s example, Albertine explains, “I’m becoming more and more relaxed about bodily functions, and sometimes for a laugh I wear a tampon—dipped in reddish-brown paint, so it looks like stale blood—looped over my ear like an earring.” She recounts a hilarious story about the time a middle-aged Jamaican woman at a bus stop tried to warn her, with great embarrassment, that “You’ve got a … it’s in your hair … must have got caught there when you were, you know … dressing” (suspension points in original). When Albertine finally realizes what the woman is hinting at, she hops on the bus and calls back, “I know! It’s meant to be there!” Later, doing a radio interview with the Slits, she asks the listeners “‘to list the colors of the stains on a girl’s knickers through her monthly cycle.’ Me and Ari have been talking about writing a song around this subject …, we think it could be quite beautiful. The switchboard lights up, we get loads of insults, which we laugh hysterically at, then a girl comes on the line and says, ‘White, pink, red, dark red, pink, white.’ ‘Yeah! She wins!!’”

In John Lydon’s autobiography—not so many stories about bloody-tampon jewelry and knicker stains.

Albertine’s depiction of life as a young woman in punk is not always joyous. She experienced routine unwanted male harassment: “I’m always being touched by boys, in the streets, in clubs and pubs, even though I haven’t invited them to touch me or hardly know them, that’s just the way it is,” she explains about one incident at a club; “but this time I feel trapped, no one will hear me if it gets out of hand when I tell him to fuck off.” To walk around a then-conservative big city in what looked to most observers like sex-freak outfits was not a ticket to a peaceful night out. But for young women in punk, the baseline level of abuse that their male peers also experienced—the members of the Sex Pistols were frequently attacked—was exacerbated by the additional constant threat of sexual assault.

Chrissie Hynde’s memoir, Reckless, has generated controversy for its account of Hynde’s gang rape at age 21 by a biker gang in her hometown of Akron, Ohio.12 Hynde’s declaration that she takes “full responsibility” for her decision, while incapacitated on quaaludes, to follow the bikers to what they had described as a “party,” which turned out to include no other guests, has infuriated many for its implication that responsibility for sexual assault rests with its victims. But in its very different way, and with a less overtly feminist framework, Reckless, like Albertine’s memoir, explores the embodied female punk experience.

Hynde describes an early experience at a Jackie Wilson concert that invites interpretation as an allegory of the conventional teenage-girl musical fan as passive and self-abandoned. The soul singer had a shtick in which a stagehand would select a young female fan from the front rows and deliver her to receive a kiss. “I prayed to be passed over, but instead was lifted from my seat like a rag doll, the muscular arms of Jackie’s man raising me to the stage like a sacrificial lamb too paralyzed with embarrassment to protest. … I guess that was my first kiss.” The encounter hints at some of the more sinister later outcomes of her thirst for musical and erotic experience.

Hynde seems to view what she disturbingly calls her “comeuppance” with the bikers as her own failure: a failure to be strong, to be smart, to be self-aware, to take care of herself as she should; to prevent herself from being treated as “a rag doll” or a “sacrificial lamb.” When, after years of missed possibilities and confused half-steps, she finally put together the band of her dreams in London in 1978—the Pretenders—and achieves rapid success and fame, we see her triumphantly switching places with Jackie Wilson: no longer the silly girl lifted up to be kissed, but the powerful, sexy, charismatic singer on stage. “I wanted my voice to take life by the throat and rattle it until it made sense.”

Feminism comes to the fore in Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon’s memoir of her years before, during, and after her band Sonic Youth. Gordon, an occasional contributor to Artforum since the 1980s, is immersed enough in the worldview of feminist theory that she defines Sonic Youth as for her something of a lived gender experiment. She comments that her lyrics to one early song, “Shaking Hell,” related to “the idea of women as creations of film and advertising” and derived from her reading at the time about the “male gaze” and its definition of “the always-passive woman and the always-active male protagonist.” She describes how, in 1980, a year before the band was formed (and five years before the publication of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men), she published an essay, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding” (reissued in Gordon’s 2014 essay collection, Is It My Body?: Selected Texts13), in which she laid out a program for her subsequent self-understanding as a member of Sonic Youth:

I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were together onstage … Male friendships were triangular in shape, and that allowed two men some version of intimacy. In retrospect, that’s why I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window.


Girl in a Band tells a story of Gordon’s 30 or so years in Sonic Youth as an ongoing experiment with the potentials and possibilities of operating, as a woman, inside the masculine dynamic of the (punk) rock band. She considers such figures as Madonna—“She was realistic about her body type, and she flaunted it, and you could feel how happy she was inhabiting that body”—and Karen Carpenter—“She was an extreme version of what a lot of women suffer from—a lack of control over things other than their bodies, which turns the female body into a tool for power—good, bad, or ugly.” Madonna’s influence, in particular, seems to have eventually nudged Gordon to decide she “wanted to look more girl” and to turn the male gaze to her own purposes. “The most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you. … I like being in a weak position and making it strong.”

After reading Albertine’s and Hynde’s often painfully embattled stories of their lives as female punk pioneers, one feels a sense of relief in arriving at the calm self-confidence of Gordon’s narrative. Although she’s about the same age (they are all now in their early 60s), Gordon operated within a 1980s and ’90s punk/alternative scene that was in key respects more woman-friendly, or at least less woman-hostile, than the one Albertine and Hynde initially faced.

<i>Sleater-Kinney on tour in 2015 in support of their album </i>No Cities to Love<i>, the bands first since reuniting in 2014</i>. Photograph by David Lee / Flickr

Sleater-Kinney on tour in 2015 in support of their album No Cities to Love, the bands first since reuniting in 2014. Photograph by David Lee / Flickr

To turn to the new memoir by Carrie Brownstein about her days in the 1990s–2000s riot grrrl group Sleater-Kinney, though, is to feel that one may have nearly arrived at feminist punk utopia. The musical scene in Olympia, Washington, that germinated Sleater-Kinney, along with other key riot grrrl bands, “operated as if in a constant seminar.” Brownstein’s bandmate Corin Tucker’s apartment “was part feminist art show, part lecture hall,” and playing in a punk band was a form of lived feminist praxis: “It felt like everyone was queer…. Girls wrote and sang about sexism and sexual assault … about fucking and wanting to fuck.” Brownstein’s memoir even features a welcome uncanny return of Albertine’s tampon jewelry: “It was on this tour that I witnessed a girl with a tampon as a hair accessory and another with the word ‘Hippo’ written across her T-shirt with a Sharpie. Reclamation had no bounds.”

Of course, the feminist-queer hotbed of Olympia is not exactly the heart of contemporary America, and Brownstein and her bandmates also encounter their own fair share of sexist dismissal and misunderstanding. Like Gordon, Brownstein is particularly exasperated by the questions they must endlessly field about “how it feels to be ‘a woman in music’ … I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’”

Patti Smith, who was profiled on the cover of the second issue of Punk magazine in 1976, recurs in all of these books (except Hynde’s, surprisingly) as a major influence and inspiration. She’s just published a new memoir, too, M Train.14 It touches on Smith’s career as a musician virtually not at all, however, so instead of considering it here, we might conclude with a postcard Smith sent to Robert Mapplethorpe from a trip to Paris in 1969 that’s reproduced in an appendix to Smith’s gorgeous previous memoir, Just Kids:

Roaming round a little street carnival in Les Halles.… There are stock cars here … small gaz [sic] cars on a huge wooden track. I took a bright yellow one—everyone surprised as girls never try it—people kept buying me tickets ($1.00 a ticket)[.] I was going crazy. It was beautiful. I went so fast. Paris wind behind me crashing into everyone.15

Smith’s anecdote offers an early hint of what was to come when she and many other young women would surprise everyone with their hungry pursuit of punk thrills, danger, speed, and style. icon

  1. Quoted in Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, rev. ed. (St. Martin’s, 2002), p. 131.
  2. Act 5, scene 1, line 178.
  3. Both definitions are drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary.
  4. Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912; NYRB Classics, 1999), p. 169.
  5. Quoted in Savage, England’s Dreaming, p. 183.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p. 93.
  8. Ibid., p. 95.
  9. Secker & Warburg, 1989.
  10. John Lydon, Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored (Dey Street, 2015), p. 2015. To be fair, Lydon also added, “I really felt hateful in it. I loved it!”
  11. A notorious Sex shirt, worn by both men and women, that featured a realistic photo of a naked woman’s breasts on the front of the shirt.
  12. See Sophie Glbert, “The Public Shaming of Chrissie Hynde,” The Atlantic, October 6, 2015.
  13. Edited by Branden W. Joseph (Sternberg, 2014).
  14. Knopf, 2015.
  15. Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010), pp. 296–7.
Featured image: Kim Gordon playing with her band Free Kitten in Leicester (1993). Photograph by Greg Neate / Flickr