Women in Punk, an Essay. Punk Aesthetic: Uses to Question and Reclaim the Female Gender

by Hannah Hickman

For a visual history of women in punk, please visit our ongoing Visual Vitriol archive (we suggest subscribing!):


Punk comes from a long tradition of social movements and entertainment forms aimed at dissent. What perhaps makes punk special is the way a generation incorporated the attitudes and practices of the music into an entire subculture. Of particular interest in the study of punk subculture is punk aesthetic. This facet includes hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, clothing, make up, stage personas, and presentation to mainstream culture. Punks constructed these features with the same goal in mind—to turn anything normative on its head, inside out, and backwards. Women occupy a distinct place in punk aesthetic. One may assume in removing themselves from dominate culture, punks would have escaped prescribed gender norms—however this is far from the truth. This essay will focus on how women used punk aesthetic to comment on and traverse societal and counterculture expectations of femininity.

Much information, some of it folkloric in nature, exists on youth resistance movements and punk. Such academia focuses on the impetus behind such movements, the tools used by various folkloric groups to carry out and symbolize resistance, and the semiotics of cultural opposition. Besides the recognition of some important bands and broad details of punk’s history, there is little cohesion in the academia written on the subject of punk as a movement. This can be attributed to the enormous and varied history and subsets of punk culture. There are numerous enclaves of punk music, aesthetic interpretations, and lifestyle—all of which influenced punks from different countries and socio-economic backgrounds. I would like to state clearly this essay does not attempt to speak for all punks across time and place. My paper will focus on general trends across punk aesthetic and women’s place in punk culture.

Penelope of the Avengers, staking her ground.

Punk as a subcultural entity should be of importance to folklorists as it presents a contemporary interpretation of traditional folk elements like song, dance, and clothing. There is no denying punk is folkloric in nature. In Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture, Paul Hodkinson proposes a four-pronged rubric for deliberating a genre’s title of subculture: identity, commitment, consistent distinctiveness, and autonomy. Hodkinson notes, “…each of them should be taken as a contributory feature which, taken cumulatively with the others, increases the appropriateness of the term subculture”. Punk lifestyle, dress, and music fit all four qualifications although the appropriations of each vary according to time and place in the punk movement. Punk also manages to create a complex code of speech, interaction, art, humor, and gender roles transmitted informally, which can be analyzed through a folkloric lens.

Punk emerged in the late 1970s, although its foundations were laid long before then. In 1975 Theodore Roszak wrote Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, which expounded on a younger generation’s intent on defining themselves in opposition to the normative bourgeois values of their parents. While Roszak does not focus exclusively on punk culture, the book is useful in understanding the reason behind punk. Punk, like the other forms of youthful resistance Roszak mentions, emerged as a response to growing political and social alienation felt by a younger generation faced with a capitalistic technocracy. For these reasons the main characteristic of punk subculture developed as aversion to mainstream mores. Roszak mentions the feelings of despair, rejection, and futility felt by a generation coming to age in the 70s. These qualities are evident in an analysis of punk culture. In his article, “Anarchy in the UK: ‘70s British Punk as Bakhtinian Carnival”, Peter Jones notes punk participants manifested, “…irreverence, dissent, and symbolic resistance through music, dress, and behavior”.

Diane Chai and the Alley Cats.

This resistance is epitomized in punk’s DIY (Do It Yourself) culture. Punk music, zines, posters, and clothes were produced not by corporate machines but individual participants and punks rejected mainstream incorporation of their music and culture. The DIY culture established punk against other forms of mainstream music and production which many punks saw as controlled and driven by capitalistic greed. DIY also meant punks participated in a culture created by and for them, with no rules except what organically developed from the interactions of participants in the punk community.
Punk is also characterized by a sense of nihilism. As Sinda Gregory discuses in “Junk and Punk Aesthetics”, the desire to reject mainstream culture also emerged in a belief in, “…the freedom offered by death and pure chaos…madness, self-destruction, glossolalia, nonsense, ugliness, horror, willful crudity, ephemerality, and pure noise”. Punks used such characteristics to adorn their music, culture, and bodies. These emotions are understandable when you consider the previously unimaginable threat of nuclear warfare prevalent in the 70s coupled with economic crises in the UK and the US, political corruption, assassinations, riots, and the imminent possibility of war. In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Greil Marcus explores punk impetus. In one chapter, Marcus describes the nihilism and intent on destruction prevalent in punk figures like Johnny Rotten as, “…he wants to destroy the world and to survive it”. While previous movements of resistance shared punk’s anger at societal and governmental structures, many focused on change within the system. Punk skepticism and anger at socio-political organizations created a movement in which instead of working within the establishment, punks completely rejected it.

The Lunachicks.

In a discussion of punk aesthetic one must question why the body is the primary site used to display punk folklore and folk art. Part of it has to do with Hodkinson’s third category: consistent distinctiveness. Hodkinson imparts the importance of solidarity and acceptance from a subculture accomplished by, “…making oneself sufficiently compatible with the distinctive tastes of the subculture”. In punk culture the body became the quickest way to identify one and other and to display punk status to mainstream society. As punk popularity spread the body emerged as the text punks used to parody and disassociate with the oppression posed by normative ideas of dress, beauty, and gender. The body proved a useful canvas for displaying punk’s commitment to consistent opposition. In her 1999 book Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Resistance in a Boy’s Subculture, Lauraine Leblanc notes, “…punks intended their stylistic bricolage to be subversive…style [was] the primary weapon in punks’ ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’ against the dominant culture”.

Joan Jett.

Punks used various aesthetic methods to align themselves against the norm. Taken as a whole, punk style can be characterized as fluid and ambiguous. Punks incorporated normal objects and clothes into a frenzied bricolage of police uniforms, catholic schoolgirl skirts, dock martens, dog collars, bondage wear, chains, fishnets, ripped clothes, and safety pins. Punks used their bodies as a text to describe nihilistic and destructive impulses. Hair was shaved and teased into unnatural spikes. Clothing was ripped to show bare skin. The body was penetrated and created anew with razor blade scarring, tattoos, and various facial piercings—some sporting safety pins instead of normal body jewelry. Punk aesthetic not only focused on different uses for ordinary objects, it emphasized the destruction of such items and the socially sanctioned body in order to create something completely disengaged from normative culture.

The aesthetic displayed the same desire as Bakhtinian carnival: to render the body grotesque. Punk style parodied and inverted normal style, but it also worked to make it gory, ugly, and hideous; an ultimate rejection of anything deemed by good, right, or proper. Jones stresses the punk desire to emphasize the corporeality of the body—particularly those bodily uses and functions considered taboo or grotesque, “…punk facial disfigurement or decoration, the use of garish, clownish heavy make-up [evokes] a destabilizing androgyny and proclivity for grimacing in its attack on decorum and dictated notions of beauty and femininity”. The use of the word androgyny is especially important in a discussion of feminine punk aesthetic. Social order depends in large part on the binary construction and division of gender. Punk resistance poked at this tenant of by creating boys who looked like girls, girls who looked like boys, and more defiantly, people who looked like neither.

In punk aesthetic, everything supposed to stay hidden and oppressed by polite society comes to the forefront, and punks showed that desire through clothes, make-up, hair, body modification, and disposition. This desire was especially important for the women of punk, which can be accredited to the simple fact that in mainstream culture, many social codes for femininity rely on the proper way to comport the female body. The female body is a contested space in normative culture and this contestation carried over into punk subculture. Women who displayed elements of punk aesthetic struggled not only with what punk style dictated about opposition and inversion of normative culture, but also how, or if, it opposed ideas of femininity.
Punk was an unmistakably male-oriented creation. The carnivalesque qualities endorsed through punk aesthetic and music are decidedly masculine in nature, like aggression, anger, violence, and crudeness. Arenas of punk like the thrash pit and pogo dancing included women, however many felt threatened or unwelcome in such male dominated spheres. As Leblanc notes, “For a girl to become punk, she must reject the mainstream culture’s femininity games and embrace the masculinist ideologies of punk, as adopting punk style is anathema to conventional femininity”. While punk women embraced distancing themselves from traditional femininity, many also struggled to reconcile the disparity between punk culture and style and any vestiges of femininity, “…for [girls], either the acceptance of femininity or its rejection can incur social sanction”.

Male punks shocked mainstream society in their use of makeup, hair dye, piercings, etc. However female punks shocked in their incorrect use of such feminine artifices. While punk men rejected social norms, they still used traditional masculine attributes to create their distinct music and aesthetic sense. While outsiders may have seen punks as androgynous creatures melting the line between male and female, this is not entirely true. Punk demanded a reorganization of social order, but constructed in terms of male need and preference. In becoming punk, women were not asked to reconstruct femininity, but to abandon it. In the evolution of female punk aesthetic we see a struggle as punk women deliberated how to be a correct punk and still retain their sex.

It is an unassailable fact that women are socially created as sexual beings. In developing punk aesthetic the men of punk explored ways to reconceptualize the social artifice of the body—however they didn’t explore the sexualization of the body because it was not a part of their previous social context. Women utilized punk aesthetic to create a discourse on female sexualization. While the fluidity and bricolage of punk aesthetic generated numerous ways to envision individual style, there are two main trends female punks used to demonstrate resistance to ideas of femininity.

The first trend commented on the social perception of females. Punk artists and participants adopted blatantly sexual styles to expose the conventional societal image of females. For instance, some female punks wore underwear or bras on the outside of their clothes. This completely removes the titillating aspect of seeing a woman’s undergarments while at the same time exposing the implicit notion of fantasy in women’s lingerie. Such a technique, “…traverses the fantasy not by countering with it’s opposite—pants…but by playing to the fantasy, moving directly into and through it in order to come out the other side”.

Female punks also used little girls’ clothing to counter the infantilization of women. Punks wore little girl skirts, barrettes, tights, and shoes with smeared childish make-up—however they juxtaposed such outfits with traditional punk aesthetic elements such as tearing clothes and pinning them back together. The image of a woman dressed in torn stockings or skirt with too much eyeliner and smudged bright lipstick, “…materializes a set of fantasies in order to stretch them until they tear, revealing a different reality underneath”. Female punk artists like Bikini Kill or Hole preformed onstage in such little girl fantasy ensembles not bothering to cross legs or hide crotches while singing confrontational songs which often addressed female sexuality, like Bikini Kill’s “I Like Fucking” in which lead singer Kathleen Hanna sings, “Just because my world, sweet sister/Is so fucking goddamn full of rape/Does that mean my body must always be a source of pain”. The combination of lyrics and outfits created a personification of the virgin/whore complex faced by the feminine sex.

Poison Ivy of the Cramps.

Such presentations revealed the performance of traditional femininity and sexuality. Stacy Thompson equates this aesthetic technique with a stripper walking onstage already nude. Female punks negated fantasy by denying the spectator the act to go along with the costume. In “Witches, Bitches, and Fluids”, Karlina Eileraas discusses the performance of female punk musicians, “…girl-band members’ physical appearances may have been pretty by conventional standards, but they questioned this prettiness through scathing indictments of its enabling props, conditions, and effects”.
The other strategy used by female participants commented on the reality of the female body. Some punk females used a rejection of anything feminine to symbolize their disillusion with traditional feminine norms. This technique is more in line with the Bakhtinian idea of rendering the body grotesque. Punks adopted the idea of ugly to counter ideological constructions of females as pretty, nice, or gentle. Men too utilized this uglification of the body, however it traversed more lines for females since masculinity is not created in direct opposition of ugly. Eileraas argues female punks invoked images and labels of “witches, bitches, and whores” as a way of identifying with persecuted females who spurned traditional femininity.

Babes in Toyland.

Punk women used their bodies and performances (spitting, vulgarity, writhing on the dance floor or on stage, beating themselves in an orgiastic frenzy like Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland) to emphasis, “…disorder, filth, unrestrained pleasure, and ugliness…[in contrast] to the distinct, finished and authoritarian classical body”. In a 1992 performance, the lead singer of L7, Donita Sparks, pulled a tampon from her vagina and hurled it into the audience. Some performers also stuffed their pants with exaggerated labia outlines in parody of male crotch stuffing. The accentuation of the female body as a corporeal entity with fluids, smells, genitals, and uncontained urges allowed female punks to expose standard femininity as a pale imitation.

Punk women frequently wrote words like ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’ on their bodies. Kathleen Hanna describes this technique as reflecting what many members of the audience presumably are thinking back onto them. This practices reveals the impetus behind both aesthetic techniques—to reclaim the physical body for one’s self. Female punk agency came from the use of either traditional or oppositional iconography to comment on the creation of the female body by misogynist dominant and punk culture. Through the aesthetic discourse on female sexuality and corporeality the women of punk conceived new ways to interact with their bodies, gender, and punk culture as a whole.


3 responses

  1. Hey, this is a great essay! Thanks for writing it, I’ve been looking for info on women and punk as punk music and aesthetic seemed very male focused. This essay delved right in, and I appreciated that.

  2. Pingback: Two Subcultures | Media Analytic

  3. Pingback: a brief essay on the importance of ‘riot grrrl’ as a social movement | need some angst?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s