On my recent cruisings through the dregs of the internet I was struck by the story of a young Massachusetts punk band by the name of Kalliope Jones. The band, consisting of three girls, aged between 14 and 16, entered a battle of the bands competition, and lost points for showmanship, specifically for not being “sultry” enough for the judges’ tastes.
The article was accompanied by a series of pictures of the band playing – having fun, pulling silly faces and doing rock and roll poses – just generally being high school kids in a band. It broke my heart a bit because when I looked at them I saw children: three girls enjoying each other’s company and basking in the excitement of making music together. Some judge had looked at that same scene and beyond the purity of that moment and thought “not sexy enough”.
Leaving aside for a moment, my visceral disgust at the idea of willingly sexualising teenage girls, it got me thinking about how we treat women in rock music. In male dominated genres, women often occupy a very tenuous position. They are either too delicate to be there, or too powerful; too delicate or too unstable to fit into a scene defined by boring machismo.
A good example of this is the way we talk about Courtney Love. We tend not to think of Courtney in terms of her significant contributions to the musical landscape, but rather as the “crazy” widow of a male rock icon riding out the success of a band she wasn’t even a part of.
There is a reason we’re so quick to write Courtney off. Beyond the occasional bout of erratic behaviour (the kind of behaviour we let slide with male rock stars, mind you), Courtney has never done anything specifically for the male gaze. Throughout her entire career she has remained certain of the sound and certain of the message.
“I never expected I would be connected to the Alpha male as some kind of ancillary object, and to this day it mystifies me,” Love said.
Her refusal to continue to play the role of the girlfriend/wife/mother and her continued devotion to her own craft mean that she is difficult to categorise and too powerful to dismiss as the “sexy girl with a guitar” trope men’s magazines love so much. And as such, she becomes the “crazy” butt of the joke. All that power dismissed as a punchline.
At the other, more tragic end of the scale we have voices like Amy Winehouse. Amy was an enormous talent, however her often very public struggle with addiction combined with her incredibly personal lyricism made her again difficult to categorise within the spectrum of the male gaze. It’s difficult to sexualise someone standing in the street bleeding through their ballet flats.
However, with her passing we are able to dismiss Amy as “troubled”, a tragic figure too delicate for this world. All that talent is once again reduced to a comfortable trope.
Obviously, the perpetuation of these stereotypes, along with the continued scrutinising of female sexuality, is not only harmful to women in the industry but also to young girls trying to use music to exercise their voices.
Kalliope Jones had an excellent response to the insinuation that they could be more sexy.
This is a well-thought out response that shows a maturity beyond their years. While I am concerned and upset at the thought of these children having to deal with something so vile so early in their lives, I am proud of their response. They are an excellent example of what happens when we educate and empower young girls and encourage them to stand up for themselves. This is how change happens.