The expectation is that women don’t belong in music.
In 2014, folk punk band Andrew Jackson Jihad announced a tour with three other bands: Cheap Girls, Hard Girls, and Dogbreth. Out of all four bands, there was, however, only one woman musician total — Erin Caldwell of Dogbreth. Cheap Girls and Hard Girls? No women in those bands.
As a woman, this struck me as a huge disappointment worth exploring: What does it mean to put gendered terms in your band name? Particularly, what does it mean to use feminine or female-associated terms in your band name when everyone in the band identifies as a straight cis man?
In a 2008 Spin article featuring male bands with “girl” in their name, Vas Kumar of Seattle band The Girls told Spin how when one man found out they were all men, “he was like, ‘What? There’s no girls in the band! You know how many guys probably show up looking for action and you guys show up and you’re dudes?’”
Kumar then said, “Exactly.” But while all-male bands with names like The Girls may be playing tricks on vile men expecting something to ogle, they’re also playing tricks on girls who are hoping to see someone like themselves on stage.It’s about representation. Who we’re used to seeing matters. Click To Tweet
When I asked Morgan McCoy of Austin punk band MeanGirls what it meant to her when straight, cis, white men use names associated with women and femme language, she explained, “They don’t know what it’s like to go to show after show of never (or rarely) seeing someone on stage who is like you when you’re a young, impressionable musician.”
It’s this issue of representation that marks the main reason PC Music producer, Sophie* (stylized as SOPHIE), for example, drew ire from Grimes and so many other electronic music fans. As Grimes explained in an interview with The Guardian, “It’s really fucked up to call yourself Sophie and pretend you’re a girl when you’re a male producer [and] there are so few female producers.” [*Editor’s note: since this piece was published, it has come to our attention that Sophie uses she/her pronouns. We regret the error in the original piece.]
Women and nonbinary people are desperate to see ourselves in, well, any kind of pop culture. We’ve created organizations around the world such as Girls Rock Austin, Gender Amplified, and Girls Inc to try to work toward a future where seeing women making music, working in tech, appearing onscreen, or working behind the scenes is normalized and not othered. So, when members of dominant cultural groups take terms used to describe us or our bodies, such as “girls” or “pussy,” this works against that goal by pushing us out of even lingual spaces. Even our words aren’t ours anymore; they’re being snatched back and reappropriated by those who already have so much.
The same goes for people of color. Take the band Slaves, made up of white men. To decide as white men that a band name like Slaves isn’t offensive because “lots of words have two meanings” and, “We live in a society already where people are terrified of the way they act being interpreted, and it’s just getting harder,” is to disregard the struggle of a group whose suffering you have already benefited from and will never understand.Don’t take language from those whose suffering you have already benefitted from. Click To Tweet
In my unpacking of what it means to include gender in a band name, I spoke with music and gender scholar Dr. Elizabeth Keenan, who recently published an academic article entitled “Asking for It: Rape, Postfeminism, and Alternative Music in the 1990s” in Volume 19 of Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture and who contributed two essays to the collection Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to the Modern.
Keenan notes that, “There’s always an element in any kind of popular music of pushing someone’s buttons. [These bands] are doing that, they’re having a name that is deliberately challenging.” The question that follows, then, is whose buttons are these names trying to push and why?
Often, when asked to talk about why a bunch of straight cis guys would call themselves “girls” of some sort in their band name, members of the bands focus on themes of humor, fun, and sometimes, straight-up stupidness.
Pete Tijerina of Austin band Young Girls says, “We were sitting around over a few beers and we thought it would be hilarious to call a band Young Girls.” Meanwhile, in an interview for Noisey on whether they had considered other band names, Daniel Fox of Girl Band says:
“I think if you met us as people you’d understand where it’s coming from. It isn’t a super ironic thing plus we are probably the least macho people, ever. Some people probably think we are taking the piss out of girls, which we are very much against. It was like ‘Look. We’re really against what you think where we’re coming from.’ I’d really hate to think that we put any women off, or any people off. But you could only do what you do and if people choose to get offended, whether they are men or women, they are entitled to feel the way they feel about it.”
Fox concludes by explaining that also, “It was a long time ago and none [were] not nearly (sic) as stupid as Girl Band.” Keenan is able to elaborate on this concept:
“It’s drawing on irony, which is always a big thing in popular music. Especially in indie music, irony is a big thread. So I can see like, okay, well it’s ironic. ‘It’s so hilarious, we’re a bunch of straight dudes.’ . . . It’s an easy joke. But the one thing about the level of irony that is, to me, slightly problematic is that ‘finding it funny’ is more than just, ‘we’re clearly not a girl band.’
Does it mean you’re better than a girl band? Does it mean you view girl bands as dismissive or stupid? They’re playing with this assumption of what an indie band is and what a girl band is, but I think it doesn’t account for structures of power or relationships of power.”
Asher Katz of Portland band Mean Girls has this to say about why they chose their name: “I’ve always been in bands that are very serious and instrumental or ambitious, and this was sort of supposed to be the opposite.” He continues, “It’s very much that the name, it just matches the music. It’s such stupid, aggressive, hilarious music.”
Presented with this statement, Keenan counters by asking, “but aren’t mean girls serious and ambitious?” Morgan McCoy of Austin band MeanGirls (yes there are two bands named Mean Girls!) offers up this idea when speaking about her band’s name:
“If you deal with some type of institutionalized oppression on a daily basis (sexism, racism, transmisogyny, etc), then you reach a point of exhaustion where you can’t deal with it anymore. You get sick of acting like nothing is happening for so long that all you can do the next time you’re faced with it is yell, ‘FUCK YOU!,’ but once this happens you’re considered a bitch or mean . . . For example, the opening lyric on our album Squirm is, ‘I’m not here to console you, I am here to corrode you,’ so that’s what we are: mean girls.”
Contrast these statements with Katz’s, (i.e. Mean Girls is about being “stupid, aggressive, and hilarious”) and it’s easy to see what Keenan means when she talks about positionality as a crucial element to the discussion of gender in band names. “Are you a straight white guy, are you a straight white woman, are you a black queer woman? Everything you do really does depend on those different things. What comes from one person may read very differently if it comes from another.”
For his part, Dustin Hill of Black Pussy adamantly claims that he’s not trying to push any buttons at all. “I definitely wasn’t doing it for attention,” he says, “I think a lot people think that and it was the furthest thing from my mind, coming up with this band name.” So what was the thinking behind the band name Black Pussy, one of the most controversial band names in culture today, right up there with the aforementioned Slaves?
“‘The words just kind of came to me,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a thought. I didn’t really conceive this idea except for the feeling of the songs and the feelings of the songs were giving me a kind of Quentin Tarantino vibe, a Blaxploitation vibe, a Soul Train, seventies vibe.’”
Hill’s statements in particular show a remarkable lack of understanding of the deeply problematic ways white men like himself and Tarantino pillage black culture and make it something for themselves. Blaxploitation was, as its very name suggests, a genre that exploited stereotypes of black people for white profit. And of course, rock and roll as a genre was built upon racist appropriation and exploitation. Citing “the seventies” as a defense of the name Black Pussy requires a willful ignorance of the racial and gender injustices of the time that defined the decade as one of turbulence, conflict, and social activism.
Citing ‘the seventies’ in defense of ‘Black Pussy’ requires a willful ignorance of racial injustice. Click To Tweet
One man says one misguided thing; one group of men puts “girl” in their band name. On their own these are things that wouldn’t draw much ire. But such is the nature of microaggressions. They keep building and building until they begin to paint a picture of the structural inequalities and pervasive prejudiced attitudes. Context is crucial.
The stories of sexism in the music industry, and particularly in the indie rock sphere, are endless. Historically, Elizabeth Keenan tells me, “You have a history of phrases like ‘girl band’ being a pejorative. If you were looking at discourses in rock criticism that came up in the ’60s and ’70s, you would see that a phrase like ‘girl group’ was a largely negative one.” Critics and music journalists, “would basically say: the girl groups of the ’60s are what killed rock and roll and the Beatles are what revived it.”
In scholar Marion Leonard’s book Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power, Miki Berenyi of London indie rock band Lush describes going into music gear shops only to be treated with disdain and baffled dismissiveness when she tried to purchase a pedal or guitar, being asked things like, “Do you want a reed for your flute or something?”
Leonard also cites a Village Voice article by Ann Powers from 1992 — A Shot Of Testosterone — in which Powers explains how, “Women who love [indie guitar pop/rock] learn the art of transference . . . that everyone in indie rock is a boy.” And noted rock critic Jessica Hopper asked women on Twitter to share stories of sexism in the music industry, amassing over 400 infuriating replies in three days. The expectation is that women don’t belong in music.
In this undeniably rich context of sexism in the music industry, gendered language in band names and the reasons and intentions behind them become much more important.
It’s this context, also, that’s missing from a recent Paste Magazine pieceinspired by the long overdue changing of the band name Viet Cong to Preoccupations. Claiming that the all-women garage band The Coathangers is problematic in the same way as all white-male psychedelic band Black Pussy is more than tone deaf — it’s delusional.
A name like The Coathangers is intentionally provocative and political; it’s not done for an ironic lark. The listener is forced to revisit uncomfortable facts and envision a brutal medical procedure that thousands of desperate women were forced to endure and often died from. It does not allow you to dehumanize those who seek abortion.
The author of the article remarks that the name induces disgust by using a “really messed up” symbol of abortion rights, but that’s exactly what it’s intending to do in order to try to get an important social issue across. It’s easy to ignore abortion rights issues when they’re spoken about in euphemistic ways; it’s harder when, as a man or an ardent member of the pro-life movement, you’re required to imagine a scared woman suffering in a very specific, visceral way.
Essentially, just because something is challenging, that doesn’t make it problematic. Similarly, however, just because something is challenging, that doesn’t make it not problematic.
In response to every argument or defense that something “starts a conversation,” or “makes a statement,” I want to ask, “What conversation?” “What is the statement?” If the defense of a band name or a piece of art is, “It says something,” surely you must be able to clarify what it’s saying. From there, it’s up to the audience to decide whether what it’s saying is worth the negative impact it may be causing. As Keenan says, “It depends on how much you think irony is worth.”
So why might it be a different story when a band that has gendered language in their name actually contains members of that gender group? For example, take bands such as The Girls!, the aforementioned MeanGirls, and Perfect Pussy. Reclaiming a word, Keenan explains, “is saying to the culturally dominant group, I’m taking this name and it’s going to mean what I want it to mean. So that’s really different than somebody taking it and using it in an ironic way based on the history of what that word means.”
When it comes to reclaiming pejorative or stereotypical terms and subverting them, again positionality matters. Keenan describes Perfect Pussy’s reappropriation — led by Meredith Graves — as decidedly different because, “They’re taking that term [pussy] and they’re not using it in a way that fulfills cultural expectations. They’re imbuing the term with something that theywant to convey.”
Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy echoes the sentiment: “Pussy is a reclamation! It’s disappointing to me that a word associated with my body is used to either insult or sexualize people . . . I want a broader definition. I want to define that for myself. To me, pussy is power.”
But even in reclamation, those in positions of less power are still subjected to heavier criticism and higher expectations than the dominant group. In the aforementioned Fader article about controversial band names, Meredith Graves remarks that,
“We’ve seen white men in a band called Slaves, we’ve seen all-male bands called Girl Band. We see people doing garbage human shit every day, and I feel like they get less shit for it than I do for having the word ‘pussy’ in my band name.”
Reappropriation can — or should — only be done by the group at which the terms have been thrown. On the significance of her band’s name, Screaming Females, Marissa Paternoster notes, “If Screaming Females didn’t have a female identified human in the band maybe we would have thought twice about using the name.”
Ultimately, meaning, identity, and impact do matter.
We don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people, so we try to find ways to argue that we don’t do bad things. None of the bands I talked to, for example, believed their name was sexist.
“I don’t know that we’re being sexist or appropriative in any sense,” Tijerina of Young Girls says. “We’re not trying to sell any kind of thing or objectify anybody.”
Katz says he would respond to someone saying his band’s name was sexist by saying:
“You don’t get it. If you listen to the music, if you come to one of our shows, if you meet us in person, it’s very clear that it’s satirical and it’s all in good fun and it really doesn’t have much to do with gender politics . . . if you take offense, then you’re not understanding that it’s a satirical joke.”
Dustin Hill of Black Pussy describes the controversy over whether his band’s name is racist or sexist as “kind of kooky.” He says, “The response, anyone saying that those two words condone sexism and racism, that’s kind of crazy to me. I don’t get it. It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around, that those two words condone it, because it’s just two words.”
Similarly, in the previously cited interview with Noisey, Daniel Fox of Girl Band says, “At the time of coming up with it, we didn’t really think about that kind of aspect of it and it was upsetting to have someone think that about you.”
The fact is that men don’t really consider the implications of their name on other groups and the reason, Keenan explains, “is that they don’t have to.” Men are in the position of staring down at the rest of us from their place of privilege, head cocked and eyes wide, pondering how on earth someone could see things another way.Men stare down from privilege, curious how someone could see things another way. Click To Tweet
“I came up with the idea [of the name Black Pussy] nine years ago,” says Dustin Hill.
“Initially, when I was doing it, there was no negative [statements] surrounding it. I think if I played my first show or my first few shows and people were like ‘this is a horrible idea,’ I would have rethought it. It’s only in recent years that people are saying this is a horrible idea.”
“If you look at the position of even women journalists in popular music,” Keenan tells me:
“It’s never been a situation where there’s been a whole lot of women who have very powerful positions in rock journalism, and it’s not necessarily women who are setting this discourse about critical discussions there. It’s easy to dismiss criticisms that are completely valid, like ‘Hey what histories are you drawing on when you’re using these terms?’ It’s easy for people these days to dismiss that as, ‘Oh that’s just part of callout culture.’ People don’t even pay any attention to those kinds of critiques. They think it’s ‘humorless feminists’ saying these things.”
Keenan surfaces an important point about invoking the concept of “callout culture” to deflect criticisms. It’s a common tactic, especially in an age where everyone can so easily share their opinions to worldwide audiences; we often dismiss “callout culture,” acting as though people are merely looking for ways to complain or get angry about anything. The problem with that idea, however, is that it’s ignoring the most important impact of this new World Wide Web-ed world where everyone has a platform — which is that it’s given so many people a platform for the first time.
For centuries — and still it persists today — white men in power had the ability to dominate large cultural conversations because they controlled the platforms of discussion. With social media and widespread access to devices that connect to the internet, it’s harder and harder for a single cultural narrative to exist, for a single type of voice to be heard as the Truth. So it’s easy to how see those in power could respond poorly and dismissively to new, negative critiques from previously unheard groups. When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. It’s not.
“Maybe [these bands] will change their ideas,” Keenan muses.
“It can happen. The Beastie Boys are a really good example of that. They thought it was really funny to play the ironic sexist jerks on their first album, and everybody responded to that and they realized: What’s the difference between sexism and ironic sexism? There’s really not a difference. And they ended up changing their tune.”
Indeed, other bands have changed their name when faced with backlash. Most notably, the aforementioned changing of Viet Cong to Preoccupations after years of resistance. Similarly, Andrew Jackson Jihad recently released an announcement that they would be simply AJJ from now on and Richmond band Black Girls now goes by Rikki Shay.
The day after my conversation with Pete Tijerina of Young Girls, the band posted the following question on their Facebook page: “Do you guys think our name is sexist?” Unsurprisingly, many of the responses were from men who were already fans of the band: a lot of flat out “no”s. Upon realizing the inherent bias of their fanbase, the band then asked that the question be shared across the internet to spaces that wouldn’t have that same bias. And that is, well . . . something.
This step, of questioning things that, as men, they might not have previously questioned, is a sign that greater awareness and consideration is possible. It suggests that opening a dialogue and asking “why” really does have the ability to affect change.