title: Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture
author: Lauraine Leblanc
other shit: 1999, Rutgers University Press. 231 pages + appendices (including a hilarious punk glossary!), notes, index.
rating: 3/5 safety pins
According to my records, I have apparently been working on this post since the beginning of April. I kept starting it, and then I’d realize that I’d written a few thousand words about combat boots. About the first pair I ever got, at 13, about the years of fighting I had to do to get them, because “you can have combat boots when you go into combat.” I think that’s a thing people say as a brush-off, but I come from a military family; my father meant it. Which is to say that wearing combat boots was never about wearing combat boots.
At any rate, I sometimes wish I’d hung onto that first pair. I can still picture them by the door in the last apartment they were ever in, patched with duct tape. I can feel them on my feet, lopsided but comfortable, the outside of their soles worn noticeably lower than the inside. I remember when I finally replaced them, putting the old pair next to the new, realizing that the new pair was a full inch taller than the old. I believe this is my fourth pair.
I ended up on that tangent — and believe me, those two paragraphs are very much condensed from the original — because Pretty in Punk is essentially a textbook. What am I supposed to say about it? I’m not in a position to critique the scholarship, really. It’s a straight-up ethnography about punk girls, focused on the way they (we) negotiate and rebel against the mainstream idea[l] of femininity by diving into this subculture… and that’s when things get hard, because of the constraints that a male-dominated subculture like punk places on the women who want to be involved. Leblanc looks at the difficulties in that, and the strategies the punk girls come up with for coping with both mainstream society and with their chosen subculture. It’s part women’s studies, part sociology, and there are a lot of sentences like this one:
Whereas subculture theorists conceptualize resistance as stylistic, and feminist theorists consider discursive accounts, recent critics of resistance theorizing have begun to examine the behavioral forms of resistance constructed by oppressed individuals in their everyday lives.
Yeah, see? My feminist theory is reasonably solid, but let me tell you about my resistance theory. It goes like this: “Fuck you.” I probably would have gotten a lot more out of this book if I’d spent a month at the library doing the background reading, but while I consider myself to be someone with a healthy amount of intellectual curiosity, that’s a bit much. I soldiered on.
I think I did that because, early in the introduction, she asks, “How do punk girls, with their shaved heads and their combat boots—”
And that was it. I didn’t much care what came next, frankly. It sounds specious and shallow to say, well, there I am in this book, a girl with a shaved head and combat boots, but let me tell you how often I see myself in mainstream literature. Not often. When I do, I’m usually a criminal. This is hardly mainstream literature, but it was still nice, a book with some glimpses of me in it, with some echoes of things I might once have said, with an approximation of how I might once have felt.
There wasn’t a lot of me, of course. The book came out in 1999, and a lot has changed since then — in feminist theory, in punk rock, in society as a whole. (Depressingly, a lot hasn’t.) It focuses on people who are very deeply into the scene, on gutterpunks and crustpunks and kids who live in punk rock squats. None of those descriptors apply to yours truly. But there were enough glimpses to keep me moving through the academic jargon.
There was almost nothing about music; instead, Leblanc focused on what brought the girls into punk, the kinds of challenges they faced in their previous lives and the ones they face as punks, the way they negotiate those challenges and deal with their fellow punks, and any lessons non-punks can learn. I think my favorite bit of the latter was in the chapter on dealing with street-level sexual harassment, something that every woman deals with at some point. And while it’s been suggested that one of the more effective responses is actually to confront the harassers, I don’t know a lot of women willing to do it.
(Am I? Probably, but keep in mind that I haven’t been catcalled since I shaved my head. I have many stories about shit that happend to me before I shaved my head, though. That isn’t why I did it — it never crossed my mind — but I’m not complaining, and there are sometimes people who start talking in my presence about how they don’t understand why women would deliberately make themselves “ugly.” (What’s “ugly”?) Well. I do.)
Anyway, Leblanc mentions the confrontation strategy, saying that although it goes against feminine socialization (true) and risks escalating the encounter and alienating passers-by (also true), it’s by far the most common strategy employed by punks. Comments are mirrored (“I bet a punk rock girl could give you a rough ride.” “I bet a steel-capped boot could shut you up.”), assholes are confronted (“What’d you just say, motherfucker?”), punches are thrown. The author’s dry summation, though, is what cracked me up: “Clearly, not all of these strategies appeal to all women; engaging in street brawls or dressing in punk style will be unacceptable to many.”
You don’t say.
What I did think was interesting was her comment that most women respond to sexual harassment by ignoring it, but punks don’t. However, despite their reputation as violent and confrontational, most punks DO ignore general harassment, which is more common and ranges in severity “from obtrusive gazing to physical assault, including instances of visual harassment, verbal harassment, and physical harassment.” The chapter intro talks about Leblanc’s own experiences with this, including stories of having her picture taken without her consent, being surrounded and threatened, being physically attacked with no provocation, being followed by store detectives, being shouted at from the windows of passing vehicles. I mentioned that I no longer get catcalled, but in 2011, I certainly get stared at and yelled at and followed around by “subtle” store employees. Like the punks in the book, I ignore it.
The section on general harassment, though, let’s pause and talk about that for a second, because it’s responsible for my biggest problem with the book. I’ve seen the assertion made in a lot of places, that punks are discriminated against because we look funny. We have blue hair, we have no hair, we dress weird, we have visible piercings and tattoos, whatever. We look different, and so people fuck with us. We are totally discriminated against. Just like black people!
No. Stop it, white punks. Stop it right now. Yes, I get it, and yes, I have been beaten up for looking like a freak. Obviously that sucked. But you know what? I cut my own fucking hair.
Leblanc’s response is:
Does the fact that punks create their self-presentation, and even the interpretation of this presentation as deviant, excuse harassment? Should punks cease “whining” and adopt a more mainstream style if they dislike the harassment they experience? If so, does this not mean that blacks should attempt to be more “white,” or that gays and lesbians should always pass as straight when in public? Not so, as punks would argue; it should be everyone’s right, whether “different” by choice or by birth, to enjoy their full civil rights in a public environment that is free of discrimination and harassment.
For fuck’s sake. Of course everyone should always be in a tolerant environment that celebrates and encourages diversity and is free of discrimination and harassment. But the fact that I shouldn’t have to change my appearance doesn’t mean I can’t. I’m not going to, but I can, and there is a huge and very fundamental difference between having hateful shit directed at me for who I am on a biological level and having it directed at me because of how I choose to look. I can sympathize and I can empathize and I can do whatever I am capable of doing to fight against the former, but it is not the same, and saying it’s the same is disingenuous, appropriative bullshit. (It also really pisses off punks of colour, by the way, and drives many of them from the scene. That links to an MRR article from ~2000, but someone made this blue-hair-discrimination argument to me only a few weeks ago.)
Anyway. I have just realized that one of the lovely things about “reviewing” a textbook is that it’s written in that classic format where she tells us what she’s going to tell us, tells us, and then tells us what she just told us. It is therefore really easy to summarize her salient points. For example, the chapter on constructing femininity, which I liked, ends this way:
True, housewives may not soon sport combat boots and liberty spikes and refuse to serve dinners, and punk girls in mohawks and crinolines and mainstream girls sporting combat boots with their prom dresses may not topple the government, but they certainly do expand the parameters of what is permissible. They are changing the faces of femininity.
There were also interesting bits on adolescent girls’ self-esteem, a surprisingly decent historical overview of punk rock, and a lolarious punk glossary (apparently we’re all anarchists). Should you read the book? I don’t know. I assume that you’ll know by now if this is the sort of book you’re interested in reading, and if you’re only interested in the scholarship, I have to assume that there are more recent studies available that would be more worthwhile. I liked the book for what amount to personal reasons, but I don’t expect everyone to react the same way. That aside, apart from the glimpses of myself, what I liked most were the glimpses of the author.
In particular: “Trying to emulate my female rock heroines, I just accidentally became a punk, and serendipitously ended up becoming myself.” More than almost anything else in the whole world, I love stories about How Punk Rock Saved My Soul, and there was enough of that in here for me to keep on keeping on.