Illusio and gendered marginalisation in DIY punk scenes

Megan Sharp and Steven Threadgold

It’s about thresholds, you know? When every day, not just at shows or as a band member or even in any music space, you have to deal with men treating you like you’re incompetent, your threshold for bullshit gets higher and higher. And then these micro-aggressions get less and less noticeable because even you are used to them. And it becomes even more pervasive and insidious because you start giving out cookies to dudes just for making room for you at the bar.

(Elle, Participant, Melbourne)

Punk has a long history of aligning itself with politics of emancipation and exclusion from dominant political, economic, social and cultural spheres. But punk itself is not neutral terrain. Hierarchies of exclusion are reproduced within punk spaces which mirror those it attempts to flatten. People of colour, women, transgender and gender diverse folk, and people with disabilities are some of the groups which find themselves at odds with the majority of punk participation. What is curious about punk’s tendency to replicate exclusion is that most scenes are ‘built from the ground up’ in a way that upholds a DIY ethos. So why then, do some punks find their access restricted, and their histories erased by white, straight, able-bodied, cis men?

One of the ways we can attend to this question is by looking back to how punk has been theorised in the social sciences by those who are part of the scene itself. Conceptually, punk’s definition has moved along a trajectory from subcultures and scenes to being described as an attitude and a spirit. The naming politics of punk scenes in social sciences help conceive of what punk does in relation to broader cultural phenomena. Punk scenes are social spaces where likeminded people can gather to pursue creative activities that challenge the so-called mainstream, especially concerning consumerism and ‘selling-out’. We suggest that punk is also a Bourdieusian illusio, defined as the luminosity of the stakes and rewards of a particular field; pursued not just in creative or artistic spaces, but used to make decisions about careers and life goals (Threadgold, 2018).

These stakes and rewards are scaffolded by a particular set of interacting social dynamics which privilege the talent, skill, aesthetic and capital of men and reproduce wider power relationships within society. To attend to these dynamics, our research challenges the general ‘resistance’ and ‘collective identity’ definitions of punk to show how it is ultimately a space of struggle, especially when it comes to matters of gender and sexuality (Sharp and Nilan 2015, 2017). For Bourdieu (1994), symbolic violence is embedded in language. In the punk scene, an example might be routine micro-aggressions by men against women and/or queer people that have become normalised to the extent that they rarely speak up against them, an internalised relation of gender ‘business as usual’. Authoritative frameworks of communication privilege the normative values of advanced, capitalist, patriarchal societies and so, systems of classification and categorisation themselves become systems of oppression.

Symbolically violent gender relations are experienced in punk, especially where straight, white, cis men can see themselves as allies of emancipatory gender and sexuality struggles, but their actual practices tend to maintain the status quo. Women struggle against sexism but also acquiesce and compromise in ways that maintain the gendered hierarchy. For instance, Axel talks about how the gender problems in the scene are real, but they are just the reflection of society in general: ‘[t]here is always a marginalisation of women in music when the focus or the language being used triumphs masculine values … It’s just that we live within a time and within a scene or culture in which these things are ignored or marginalised … these are facts about culture in general’. Such an assessment is valid, as women are generally marginalised, but this nomalises gendered oppression in a space that is meant to exist alternatively to mainstream discursive norms. This rhetorical move absolves those with power to do anything about it, such as speaking out when they witness sexist behaviour or putting more women on their record labels, while shifting blame away from his own accountability, which is what women argue needs to happen for punk scenes to be made less symbolically violent and in turn, more inclusive.

Men tended to discuss gendered issues through observations, whereas women discussed them through their own everyday experience of the affects of violence. Elle (quote above) listed some of these experiences in terms of thresholds. Elle’s threshold elevation recognised her actions as reproducing encoded marginalisation, however her embodied sense of safety and exhaustion is reflected on afterwards with contempt. Elle is cognisant of the symbolic violence in her scene keeping her complicit, and at the same time configured her responses to it around rewarding basic tenets of respect in order to remain in the scene. As Elle explained through her description of micro-aggressions, minimisation and erasure are part of the everyday experiences of being a woman in punk scenes. By delegitimising the distinction between men and women in these spaces, resistance to gendered symbolic violence becomes less and less achievable. Elle’s use of ‘giving out cookies’ suggests that being treated respectfully by men becomes a congratulatory act, ‘giving out cookies’, where men are rewarded for not being overtly sexist. Both men and women become complicit in the production of symbolic violence.

We call these moments reflexive complicity, which is performed when one knows about unequal social relations or forms of marginalisation, can observe them and claim to want things to change, but there are no significant changes in practice by the individual and little effort to engage in situational interventions that make a difference. Exemplifying reflexive complicity, when asked whether or not as a record label owner, it is his responsibility to seek out bands with women members Jim says, “I dunno, maybe I haven’t thought about it enough. Like, is it my responsibility as a label guy to present more female artists? And maybe the answer is yes, maybe I need to be really aware of what we are releasing and to make sure that people are represented fairly.”

At other times though, women will oppose gendered symbolic violence and enact what we are calling defiance labour. We define defiance labour as situational confrontational moments where the complicity of symbolic violence is reflexively defied through reactions, responses and actions, whether in situations of paid work or in general social situations. This distinction is important as ‘work’ in a DIY scene is often unpaid. Defiance labour differs from emotional labour (and its ‘concept creep’) as it is not about placating, educating, or managing discomfort, but creating discomfort to deliberately provoke offence and resist forms of gendered marginality from men. In this sense it is a resistive punk attitude invoked to defy dominant norms within punk.

The expectation to perform femininity, to smile, be accommodating and look more like she is having fun is what Jemima understood to be a form of emotional and aesthetic labour that is specifically woman-centric in the punk scene and in the music industry more generally (Strong & Rogers, 2016; Taylor, 2012). For instance, Jemima reflected on her experience of being policed by music journalists who she noted have a sexist understanding of what her disposition should be while she plays guitar in her band:

Jemima: It’s clear that it is a dude who is expecting a specific performance from a female on stage or a specific kind of engagement. And I’ve definitely never done that, mainly ’cause of shyness and mainly ’cause of not caring. I’m always careful on stage, stay focused. I always try to do things that are outside of my technical abilities as well, so I’m always trying to do the thing that I’ve made on guitar. I’ve probably had between five and seven other reviews over the last year where people have been like ‘she never smiles on stage’.

In order to be upheld as a role model and successful musician, Jemima is required to do more visibility work than her cismale band members, to affect the audience in ways they can read easily as feminine. This frames the way women in punk, who implicitly resist emphasised femininity through their participation in the scene, are trivialised. Reducing women’s punk participation to their bodily expression reinforces dominant tropes of performing for the male gaze. By refusing to smile following this review, Jemima is performing defiance labour.

If the affective environment is one of symbolic violence, what does this mean for punk and politics? Punk has often been analysed as a coherent or homogeneous space, where its unity and coherence has been overemphasised. Our research shows that even those collectives that mount resistive practices against dominant norms will contain struggles and hierarchies that may actually work to reproduce the very things they are built to challenge. Men, women, gender diverse people – heterosexual and queer – have vastly different ways of negotiating their relationality to violence and invoke a multiplicity of labours – affective, emotional and defiance – to simply remain active in their scene.

In this way, being ‘aware’ of social divisions in punk amounts to a performance of empathy without doing the actual labour and practices required to make emancipatory social change, something that women pointed out was actually a display of reflexive complicity.

Dr Megan Sharp is a researcher currently working with the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne. As the faculty Research Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion, Megan’s research explores institutional practices of exclusion based on gender and sexuality as well as the affective and dynamic practices of resilience and solidarity found in minoritised groups. Megan earned her PhD in sociology at The University of Newcastle, Australia in 2018. Her work has been published in The Sociological Review, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, The Journal of Youth Studies, and Emotion, Space and Society as well as publicly via Cliniko, Pursuit, and the Australian Sociological Association’s Youth and Gender blog platforms. Twitter: @meganbrains Email: megan.sharp@unimelb.edu.au

Steven Threadgold is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University of Newcastle. His research focusses on youth and class, with particular interests in unequal and alternate career trajectories; underground and independent creative scenes; and cultural formations of taste. Steve is a director of the Newcastle Youth Studies Network, Associate Editor of Journal of Youth Studies, and on the Editorial Board of The Sociological Review and Journal of Applied Youth Studies. His research monograph Youth, Class and Everyday Struggles is published with Routledge, with Bourdieu and Affect: Towards a Theory of Affective Affinities forthcoming with University of Bristol Press. Steve’s current research projects are on online cultural taste communities called ‘Dank Distinction’ and the ARC DP funded ‘Young Hospitality Workers and Value Creation in the Service Economy’ investigating the affective and immaterial forms of labour young people perform to create value in the night-time economy. Steve’s staff profile with all publications: https://www.newcastle.edu.au/profile/steven-threadgold. He tweets at @stevethready75, his website is https://youthclassculture.wordpress.com/.

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