One question commonly raised when considering the 1970s Punk subculture draws equally on societal trends that were emerging at the time and those popular in academic enquiry today. That question being: did punk liberate women?
The often overlooked female punk scene existed, on majority, in not quite the same cut-throat, ‘up-yours’ manner of the Sex Pistols and various other male groups, but fashioned a separate identity using the movement’s artistic boundaries to explore and reclaim the participants’ own sexuality and gender.
This appropriation of the movement’s working class aims into another expressive medium is explored by Caroline O’Meara in The Raincoats: Breaking down Punk Rock’s masculinities in which O’Meara offers insight into the female side of the punk/new wave movement through the career of the Raincoats.
Who were the Raincoats?
A latecomer to the Punk scene, the band – fronted by Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, though the membership would fluctuate considerably throughout the Raincoats’ existence – is perhaps more deserving of the ‘post-punk’ label. This being so, O’Meara makes it clear that the amateur style of punk was an enabling factor in allowing the Raincoats, and indeed the rest of the female punk scene, to partake without criticism being fired on a gendered basis.
There is note that the Raincoats’ music was described as ‘somehow female’ in nature, entrenching a separate identity within the subculture for female punk – O’Meara also compounds this opinion in her later analysis of three of the Raincoats’ early songs and their distinctly female stylistic approaches. In this sense then, punk’s amateur style provided a universal platform for female liberation in levelling the playing field for critiques. The dodgy instrumental and vocal skill of band members couldn’t be picked apart simply for the musician’s gender, and therefore the genre paved the way for consideration of female music in its own right.
O’Meara makes note that the band had a markedly different approach to creating music than other female punk musicians. In reference to their image, O’Meara quotes Anita Chaudhuri on the ‘asexual’ approach the Raincoat’s took by wearing ‘bin liners and old boots’ on stage, contrasting this with the more experimentally sexual approach of Siouxie Sioux for example. Here, the comparison that O’Meara makes seems to denounce Siouxie Sioux’s image, yet, I have to argue that both chosen images are equally self-empowering.
An element of the band’s music that can be seen as entirely characteristic of the punk movement comes in the subject matter of the songs analysed by O’Meara. She notes how the lyrics bring the everyday lives of women to attention with songs such as ‘Fairytale in the Supermarket’ and ‘In Love’ containing lyrics addressing the mundane, yet bringing an, intended or otherwise, feminist meaning to their work. She repeatedly notes how this moved beyond the nihilistic character of the original genre and rejected the constraints of rock as a male oriented genre in order to bring ‘new meanings and subjectivities to the table’.
This is where O’Meara’s exploration of the band comes into contact with the wider question – Did Punk liberate women? Though this article has simply scratched the surface of the full extent of O’Meara’s work, including her complex musical analysis, it has explored the key themes that relate to this query. The answer then, has to be that the liberation that Punk provided for women – as seen through the lens of O’Meara’s work on the Raincoats – was an introspective one. From the equal playing field owed to the amateur style of the genre, to the ability for the band to cater to separatist (all female) venues, the ‘devil-may-care’ attitude of the movement provided a way for women to explore and express their own gender in ways uncontrolled by prior expectations of critics or audiences.
All references – C. O’Meara, ‘The Raincoats: Breaking down Punk Rock’s Masculinities’, Popular Music, Vol.22, No.3, (Oct., 2003) pp.299-313