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Punk has many negative stereotypes in society. Many people see punks as individuals who cause wanton destruction with no regard for others in an attempt to destroy order. Punks are seen as violent individuals, who act out against outsiders and one another. Some related groups, such as skinheads, are often labeled as being Neo-Nazi or white power. If all of this is true, then why would the punk movement not also be an attempt to destroy beauty and replace it with horror? Indeed to most outsiders, punk clothing may be seen as an act of pure rebellion without deeper meaning. However, in order to understand the way that beauty is reflected by the culture, we must first see how the culture generally defines itself.
Expression in punk may be relayed to the people through zines or pamphlets, public speaking, slogans or music. Music is the most common forms of expression and one of the easiest to access. It usually revolves around political and social topics that are currently issues within the music scene. Often bands employ sarcasm to spread messages. While it is a good way to measure the attitudes of the movement, it should not be viewed as the most important part. Music is just a form of expression and makes no change in the eyes of many punks. As the Dead Kennedys state in the song Chickenshit Conformist, "Music scenes ain't real life; They won't get rid of the bomb; Won't eliminate rape; Or bring down the banks; Any kind of real change; Takes more time and work; Than changing channels on a TV set". However, I will use it a supporting source for many of the points I am making about the feelings within the scene.
One of the most important aspects to mention of punk is the attitude towards non-conformity. It should be noted that conformity implies a blind following mentality; changing who you are and what you believe in to belong. Conformity is viewed as a control mechanism used to exert power on the obedient masses. Therefore anyone who thinks for themselves and makes an informed decision is not a conformist even if their ideals are similar to the ideals of a group. Blame for this may be placed on institutions like the government, religious leaders or authority figures in general. (1). Blame is also placed on advertising, as represented by the Choking Victim song, "500 Channels", which emphasizes the brainwashing power of television. Punks will even attack blind conformity within their own movement. The song Chickenshit Conformist by the Dead Kennedys talks both about forcing others into having your ideals and creating a "close-minded self-centered social club" that no longer revolves around ideals (1).
In this way punk may be viewed also as being an anti-establishment movement. Many punks believe in anarchy and some are nihilists due to distrust of large institutions. Government, religion and big business are distrusted as they are seen as using coercion, military force, and ignorance to manipulate the masses. They remove freedoms and generate bias. Many bands have songs attacking these institutions. The song Corporate Death Burger by MDC points to this destructive nature of corporate greed. The Subhumans song Heads of State discusses how politicians are two-faced. Anti-Flag uses the song You've Got to Die for Your Government to express how the government uses their soldiers as guinea pigs. Bad Religion links God and government in the song Voice of God is Government by discussing how religion manipulates people to give money for salvation. MDC expresses a similar sentiment in the song Church and State, stating that people are manipulated into becoming martyrs for these larger powers. Police are often despised as agents of totalitarianism. Anti-Flag goes as far as to call them "Hilter's Third Reich" in the song Fuck Police Brutality (1).
Another important aspect of the movement is the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ideal. This means that people try to be as self-sufficient as possible and avoid mass consumerism. Clothes may be made by individuals. Show spaces and record labels are run by individuals or groups of individuals, not corporations. They also generate their own press. "Don't hate the media, become the media" is a common slogan (1). This is often due to the fact that large companies may manipulate or abuse workers or feed the greed of one powerful individual.
Punks dislike sexism, racism and class lines because they create limitations. A large amount of the Oi! movement deals with working class sentiments and a hatred of class boundaries. Sometimes Oi is mistakenly confused with Neo-Nazis; however, the movement was also strongly anti-racist (2). The dead Kennedys, while not Oi, also express dislike of class lines in the song Kill the Poor. The song mocks the way in which the government views the poor as useless so they will use the neutron bomb to clear out poor areas. Operation Ivy's song Nazi Punks Fuck Off, which calls for an end to the racism of Neo-Nazis, represents the large number of anti-racist, anti-fascist songs. The women's movement was also represented in punk, Crass was especially known for its feminist lyrics. The album Penis Envy contained a number of anti-sexist songs that call the construction of male-female roles ludicrous. Even songs relating to sex were generally not derogatory towards women (1).
These attitudes towards the sexist nature of society and the removal from conventional society allowed women to forge new roles for themselves. Women in the movement were involved in everything that went on. Many women in the L.A. punk scene discuss how women were played every role from roadie, to performer, to promoter. They discuss how societal constraints and expectations did not bind them because society dismissed punks anyway. The majority seemed to mention the welcomed nature of women. Even women for whom equality did not seem to come easily mentioned fighting for it. This aggressiveness suggests that women were strong even when they did not find equality (3).
Women played in many of the early bands that aided in the formation of punk. Women adopted more than the traditional vocalist role. The Velvet Underground, an influential proto-punk band, had two female members. One of whom, played the drums. Crass, the Plasmatics, Black Flag and the Adicts all had female band members and male band members. Both the Adicts and Black Flag had females playing bass. All female bands like the Slits and the Raincoats were also popular at the time (4, 5)
Most females within the movement deviate from the expected social norms. Bands with females made similar music to those with males, which means loud, fast, intelligent and hard. Outside of that attitudes and actions can also be stereotyped as masculine. Gina from Go-Gos stated, "We were as bad as or worse than boys. Talk about gutter mouths". Caroline Coon spoke about the changing roles of women that punk bands represented, "Ari Up and the Slits are highly defined examples of an ideal type that is becoming more attractive to women all the time. What they represent is a revolutionary and basic shift of female ego from one which is biologically defined to one which is made strong by an assertive, mainstream role in society" (5). Ari herself states that punk existed to shatter standard of both men and women (6). Greil Marcus spoke about the Raincoats stating, "The very idea of roles is done away with...I was amazed." (5). Poly-styrene of the X-Ray Spex was known for being unglamorous, and stated that if she were made into a sex symbol she would "shave her head" (5).
Women are also known for being able to hold their own against men. Mosh and circle pits are circles that break out at concerts where people either dance in a circle pushing one another, or smash around chaotically kicking and punching. It should be noted that there is an attitude of respect in this form of dancing. Those who fall are always picked up and no one should injury anyone else purposely. Women in mosh pits tend to be treated no differently than their male counterparts and everyone is respected.
Even females that appeared to fall into societal stereotypes were often upon closer inspection strong individuals. Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the Plasmatics, was known for using her sex appeal on stage. Wendy saw her body as something she owned and was frustrated that males in rock could use eroticism while she could not, "It's that censorship thing, that male thing that chauvinistic attitude. They have all these roles women are supposed to play. Women are supposed to be barefoot pregnant and in the kitchen. Women onstage are supposed to be almost asexual, a prude. Its bullshit and it really infuriates me. In the front of our shows there's always lots of girls...Girls like having a female out there doing all this stuff...its about time they had someone to relate to who's not afraid to be a woman stepping out and doing my thing and not being inhibited" (5). She was her own person and an individual who would not let anyone control her. Joey Ramone even stated in her tribute, "In the punk era everyone was always so angry, but she was someone who had fun with it. It was about liberation and movement." (7)
It is sometimes stated that the relationship between Sid Viscous and Nancy Spungen was the typical groupie rocker relationship. However, this was far from true. Sid Viscous was the bassist for the Sex Pistols. Nancy met him and latched onto him, in other words she became his groupie. They were known for their terrible drug addiction that likely played a major role in their deaths. However, Nancy was more to Sid than simply sex and drugs. He cared deeply for her. Nancy was known for being bossy and controlling Sid. He listened to her more than his band. Even though he is known for having beaten her, usually in a drug-induced state, she was also known for fighting back. This was clearly farm from the typical groupie relationship (8).
These women can be viewed as being one ideal for female beauty within the punk scene. These roles, attitudes and actions all show individuality, strength and intelligence; the individuality and rebellion against oppression that is integral to the movement. However, the women each had an individual personality and persona in expressing their freedom. For these things to become the stereotype of a community they must be accepted by the community. Ideally a community that tries not to be sexist would allow someone to be judged outside of the common societal boxes. Furthermore, these roles all show the attitudes of punk, the desire to be a strong independent individual. This shows a focus towards a deeper sense of beauty, a beautiful mind rather than exterior.
There is of course the issue of superficial beauty; however, it also tends to express the deeper beauty of the mind. There is a large amount of androgyny to punk fashion. Clothes are generally form-fitting. They may be ripped or old. They are usually black or brightly colored. Both males and females may wear dark eyeliner and heavy eye-shadow, although this is more common for females. One main difference between styles is that women sometimes wear skirts and fishnets; however, otherwise hair and clothes are similar (1).
Hair has several major styles. One is the Mohawk. Basically, the sides of the head are shaved and a long strip of hair is left down the center of the head. This hair is suspended upright. It can be arranged as pikes or a fan and is often supported by Knox Gelatin or glue. It is a time consuming endeavor to create. Dying it a bright color is not uncommon. Some punks also put hair into dreadlocks (1). Much of the hair styling is time consuming; however, it attracts attention representing a role as a gazed object.
All these elements of punk fashion are actually an expression of ideals. Fashion is one of the least important aspects of the movement. In general attracting attention to oneself can make people notice that these other ideals exist. Wearing political slogans may even make more opened minded individuals aware of current situations. It also shows the freedom to dress or act outside of what is conventionally acceptable. This is seen in the fact that much of punk fashion, such as spikes or razor blades, may be viewed as threatening or dangerous (1).
General fashion tends to revolve around the DIY ideal coupled with the political mindedness of many punks. The thought that pretty much anything can make clothes is common. Safety pins and razor blades were used as jewelry. Punks would sometimes pierce or tattoo themselves rather than going to a parlor, expressing the DIY attitude once again. Political slogans were written on T-shirts, pants or any article of clothing. These slogans show the political and social feelings that are so strongly present in punk (1). Another extension of this ideal is that clothes tend to be old and tattered or purposely ripped. In some cases this can be seen as merely being shocking or being linked to an anti-consumerist nature. Spikes and studs are often placed on clothes or jackets. Clothing can be time consuming to construct, although not always.
Attention and notice was one of the common threads that surfaced while talking to individuals; however, the role the gazed was no longer one of powerlessness. They wanted to be gazed like objects, representing this with hair styles like large Mohawks that can take hours to make and individualized clothing that can also take time to construct but attracts attention in all cases. They generally found negative attention amusing and positive attention a nice compliment. They felt power in that they control the way they were gazed making them different from the female in the painting who has no power. They also were apathetic towards most people's perspectives (9).
In changing the role clearly make themselves gazers of society, judging the actions the world takes. In this role, many stated their objections to the female ideal in society, because it seemed manufactured and fragile. They see their role of gazer as the ability to see problems and improve society so that it is fairer to all who live there. There is a beauty in the change that one individual can create.
On a superficial level the appearance and actions of punk may seem to be a direct rebellion against society. They appear as the anti-beauty and making the ugly beautiful or at least this was suggested to me many times as I began this paper. Some would say that beauty is that gut reaction and that horror and beauty are therefore very similar. This makes people feel that punk style fits with the horrible and the shocking. However, I strongly disagree and feel that this represents outsiders placing their cultural ideals on another group based on first impressions.
The horror beauty of punk is not the case; beauty ideals, in both the superficial and deeper sense, arise from the other goals of those in the movement. After all, no one would ask a tribe that pierces themselves if their beauty relates to horror even if it is horrible to us. Robinson states in The Quest for Human Beauty that ideals for beauty arise from the accentuation of the best feature (10). Perhaps the best feature to a punk is the mind's ability to create individuality and to express itself freely. Therefore this free expression becomes the mode of beauty rather than a physical feature. Punks also do not say that someone that does not dress in their style or express their ideology cannot be beautiful. However, humans tend to gravitate towards others that are similar. This shocking appearance is amusing to many and entertaining relating back to the role of the gazed.
From interviews it seems that many people within the movement are attracted to this expression of the mind when judging the superficial. Seeing any form of self-expression can make the superficial beautiful. Generally they realized that their expression tended to be similar between individuals in the subculture but most were adamant that they only wore what they enjoyed wearing and liked the fashion as individuals, not because they were surrounded by it. This fashion has evolved as the result of the desire to express a mentality that is synonymous with punk and the beauty of it comes in a wow factor. It is great to see something new and inventive, especially if it is different both from society and from the movement in general (9).
The deeper beauty in punk can best be summed up as being an individual; which means that punk generally transcends the male-female boundary. Going to shows or wearing the clothes does not make a person a punk but a desire for freedom, social change and individuality does. One might think that because clothes and ideals are similar between many members, that this means that they are conformist. However, as stated previously clothes are not important; only shallow individuals will judge others based on their attire. As for ideals, generally all that is important is the desire for freedom for oneself and others. Punks will generally accept those who have different ideas revolving around freedom as long as they are intelligent. Those ideals do not make them the anti-establishment punk but that does not mean that they will be excluded or attacked (9).
Women in punk are very similar to the men. All individuals have the tendency to wish for the gaze of society and to judge society themselves. In doing so, they are all strong and intelligent individuals and this is respected. It is not that there should be no difference between the two genders but rather that everyone should be very different. Whether or not punk can affect change throughout the whole of society is not the issue at hand. It is unlikely that any one subculture can really change the masses. To do so it would have to be marketed, and especially in the case of punk, the movement would lose some of its heart in doing so. What punk does offer is an escape for those who share the ideals or simply wish to be surrounded by those ideals, a place where people are judged on individual merit rather than societal stereotypes. It is a window to freedom but no the ultimate answer, if such a thing exists.
1) Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. 13 May 2005, Accessed 13 May 2005. Various Articles all linked from Punk Ideology
2) Skinhead Nation. ST Publishing © 2002. Accessed 11 May 2005 WWW:http://www.skinheadnation.co.uk/newyorkskinheads.htm
3) Bag, Alice. Women in LA Punk. Interviews conducted from November 2004- April 2005. Accessed 12 May 2005
4) Women of 1970's Punk. 7 March 2005. Accessed 8 May 2005
5) Marko, Paul. Punk77. 12 May 2005. Accessed 12 May 2005
6) Dakota, Baron. The Official Website of ARi-UP of the Legendary SLITS .©2003 UP-Dakota Productions. Accessed 9 May 2005
7) Albano, Humberto. Tribute to Wendy Orlean Williams and the Plasmatics. 9 Jan 2004. © 2004 Accessed 10 May 2005
8) Bruno, Anthony. Punk-Rock Romeo and Juliet: Sid Viscous and Nancy Spungen. Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods. © 2005. Accessed 12 May 2005
9) 15 interviews conducted from April 29 2005- May 11, 2005. Note: Many people asked to remain anonymous or not have their name posted on the internet as such I have chosen not to include names
10) Robinson, Julian. The Quest for Human Beauty. W.W. Norton and Company. New York © 1998
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