This essay was written for my Text, Art and Performance unit last year. Basically, the theme of the unit was that anything can be a text, which can be read, and the final essay of the unit was entirely up to us, we came up with the question, did the research, just had a little bit of guidence. I couldn’t think of anything to write about comics, so it was obvious I was going to write about music. If I wrote it now some things would probably be different, I think I may have pushed the interpretation slightly too far in places, and it’s written about obscure bands even in the alternative scence, but I’m incredibly proud of it, and the fact I got a first for it helps too.
Sex, Appearance and the Male Gaze: Male Feminism in Alternative Music.
The original plan for this project was to explore the relationship between feminism and music, it soon became clear this would be too large an undertaking, and the project needed to be more focussed. To write about alternative music seemed obvious, as it is what I know, the decision to write about male feminism came about as I made a preliminary list of feminist songs.
Though feminism is most associated with women men can also be feminists or produce texts that are feminist. I have chosen several songs, all of which I perceive to be feminist and are written by men.
One of the preoccupations of feminism is equality of the sexes, or lack of it, this is one of the topics of both Male Chauvinist Gig, by Five Knuckle, and Fuck Machine, by Propagandhi. Another central preoccupation of feminist theory is sex, this is a theme in all the songs, but especially in Date Rape, by Sublime, which explores rape in an unexpectedly comedic manner. Little Baby Nothing, by The Manic Street Preachers, is concerned with sex, and the pressures society places women under, this can also be seen in a more general way in For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, by Sonic Boom Six, which is especially concerned with appearance. All these songs are written by men, though they are not necessarily solely performed by men.
The songs all seem to be influenced by the main preoccupations of modern feminism, as would be expected, though these influences have led to several very different songs, one of the main reasons for this difference being genre, the reggae influenced Date Rape has a totally different sound to the hardcore punk of Fuck Machine. I intend to explore these different ways of presenting and representing feminism, both through the text of the song and through the music as art and performance.
One of the themes that is obvious throughout the songs is the acknowledgement of the presence of the male gaze. Every song I have chosen deals with the way women are looked at, and look, either explicitly or implicitly, and especially with the way women are looked at by men. Fuck Machine deals with the male gaze most brutally; the narrator’s eyes unwillingly ‘rape the innocent womyn, children, humyn beings’. This is obviously a criticism of the way men look at women, though from a different viewpoint than a female feminist would present the same criticism, it is the guilt of the perpetrator rather than the anger of the victim.
The image of women as objects recurs several times throughout the songs. Though the title Fuck Machine only hints at the objectification of women the lyrics make it obvious that it is women who are the fuck machines of the title, in some cases willingly being objectified. The song is directed not just at men’s objectification, but also at women’s allowance of it, the narrator asks ‘Do you really want to be our fuck machines?’ Women are also compared to toys in Little Baby Nothing, in the line ‘beauty and virginity used like toys’, as well as the mention of ‘Barbie Doll futility’, the specifically female toy has connotations of stupidity and shallowness, as well as childishness.
Another form of objectification of women presented by the songs is in the form of names; especially those women are called by men, such as the ‘baby’ of Little Baby Nothing. It is infantilising, suggesting helplessness and dependence, a more extreme version of the innocence that is stolen, as well as suggesting the youth of the girl or girls being sung about. This is especially relevant and disturbing considering the female singer, Traci Lords, gained notoriety for featuring in pornographic films while she was underage. The use of the diminutive name ‘baby’ is no less disturbing in Date Rape, where the rapist repeatedly calls his victim ‘babe’ or ‘baby’. The fact she has no name both depersonalises her and makes her into an everywoman, a warning and perhaps an inspiration. It also illustrates the rapist’s total knowledge of what he has done, especially in the line ‘Now baby don’t be sad, in my opinion you weren’t half bad’, acting as a contrast to the way someone who would call a woman by a pet name would normally act towards them.
The association with names and sexuality is further continued in several of the songs, especially in the form of insults. In Date Rape the rapist says ‘she lies, that little slut’, here the common accusation levelled at rape victims by defence lawyer is attempted, she is called sexually promiscuous, so it could not have been rape. However, the judge is aware the rapist is lying and he is sentenced to prison.
There is also reference to ‘the useless sluts that they mould’ in Little Baby Nothing. At first sight this seems insulting to women, and distinctly antifeminist, as much of the lyrics do on paper. However, it is here that the difference between text and performance becomes crucial. The line is sung by the male singer rather than the female, who, throughout the song, takes the role of men in general, and it follows the line ‘You are pure, you are snow’. It is this line that seems to refer to women, as earlier in the song the male singer explicitly uses the pronoun ‘you’ to refer to women. So, the pejorative term ‘slut’ here seems to refer to men, unusual for such a sexual term, as insults to men often refer to lack of sexuality or misplaced, homosexual sexuality.
However, a similarly gendered insult is again used against men rather than women, in Male Chauvinist Gig. The song is directed at men in bands, especially lead singers as they often act as the spokesperson for the band as a whole, the line ‘speak out loud your slutty fantasies’ is explicitly directed at singers. Again, ‘slutty’ is an insult usually directed at women, especially in regards to appearance. Here the normative form is reversed, it is used in the context of respecting women rather than judging them as well as making clear the shallowness of the singer’s fantasies, disguised as lyrics.
Despite the feminism of the songs chosen women’s appearance is still a feature of a number of them, notably For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. It acts as a critique of celebrity magazines and the people who read them, so appearance is central to it. This is obvious in lines such as ‘Oh but her dress is not right, and her legs are all cellulite’, a common accusation of magazines to celebrities, it is sung by the female lead singer, reminding the listener of the practise of women judging women, a reversal of the sisterhood aimed at by feminism. The voice set up for the magazines is authoritative, a new diet ‘you have to try’, and the repeated command ‘read all about it’.
Despite this it is the readers of the magazines they ‘buy to tutt about the daft slag’ who are become the real object of ridicule of the song, with the deft reminder ‘she gets a Prada handbag, so who’s laughing last?’ This not only suggests the pointlessness of judging others by looks alone but also that the root cause is jealousy, and possibly insecurity. This insecurity, also apparent in the lines about diets, is echoed and expanded upon in the final verse, with the repetition of ‘And now we’re ugly sisters’. This self-loathing is a learned process, from ‘Watching our ugly mothers’, sung by the female lead singer it comes to represent all women, who judge each other as they judge themselves.
Sex is a major concern of many of the songs, whether it is consensual or not. Part of this concern is an underlying sense of the lyrics attempting to confirm heterosexuality.
The line ‘And though I long to embrace’, in Fuck Machine, is about heterosexual desire, but the right sort of desire for women, ‘I got hormones, hormones too’, in Male Chauvinist Gig, follows the same pattern. As well as criticising sexist men for blaming their behaviour on hormones or desires they affirm heterosexual desire, so denying homosexual desire and asserting masculinity. As such the lyrics are in effect saying ‘I respect women, but that does not make me gay’.
This undercurrent of heterosexual desire and lack of homosexual desire becomes explicit in Date Rape. The song tells the story of a girl’s rape and her rapist’s trial and imprisonment, where he is in turn raped by another prisoner. Though the poetic justice seems like revenge it also exposes the homophobic subtext of the song, in the line ‘Well I can’t take pity on men of his kind / Even though he now takes it in the behind.’ The song suggests that anal sex is the worst thing that can happen to a man, not rape, and a case for pity in any case other than that of a rapist. It also portrays male rape as something to be ignored, though the female victim gets justice the male one does not, despite the prison guards full knowledge, ‘But the guards paid no attention to his cries.’
However, despite the confirmation of heterosexuality in some of the songs heterosexual desire is also problematised. Little Baby Nothing constructs heterosexual desire as oppressive and exploitative, the bridge ‘Used, used by men’ sums up the song’s attitude. Female sexuality is presented as being seen as dangerous by men, ‘Because it’s something real that I can’t touch’, in retaliation it becomes something they ‘steal’ and ‘destroy’. In stark comparison women are ‘hopelessly passive and compatible’, utterly reliant on the men who destroy them. This heterosexuality is emotionless, it seems to describe prostitution rather than relationships, all the men ‘leave behind is money’.
Though Little Baby Nothing clearly casts men as abusers and women as victims, sexuality in For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is more complicated. The title, a contrived acronym for the word ‘fuck’, suggests a disallow of sex, the exact opposite of what is suggested by the song, with it’s authoritative ‘we all need to fuck’, here it is more a suggestion of duty or convention than desire.
Other mentions of sex in the song deepen the suggestion of sex as convention, the public are described as having an ‘obsession’, not just with the celebrity magazines, but with the sexual aspects of them, ‘all the spitroasts and the dildos’. Sex becomes a spectator sport, with the mention of reality television, the suggestive ‘maybe they’ll even…’ though despite the obsession with sex it is still a taboo subject, to be mentioned crudely or euphemistically only.
The songs were all chosen because they can be read as feminists texts, as has been illustrated above. However, there are also differences between them and most feminist texts, for example, that of perspective, these songs are all either mostly or exclusively from a male perspective, writing either about women or relationships between men and women. In this way they form part of the male gaze, even if they seem to criticise it, as Fuck Machine does. This leads to the presence of guilt in the songs, already discussed in relation to Fuck Machine. This can possibly also be seen in Little Baby Nothing, the male narrator does not totally separate himself from other men, the girl’s face offends ‘because it’s something real that I can’t touch’, though the use of the plural ‘they’ several times shows some disassociation, the narrator regards himself as guilty but not as guilty as others.
The songs are populated by a wide variety of female figures, many of them active, for example the female anchor in Fuck Machine, who progresses throughout the song from being passive to active, her ‘fists finally clinched’, the words ‘I’m not your fucking toy!’ are hers, and seem to sum up the ideal reaction of a woman to men’s sexism.
The rape victim of Date Rape is another strong character, meant to be pitied and respected. From the first line there is identification with her, she is ‘a girl that I know’, but the narrator’s attitude to her is mixed, though the girl’s spoken lines are in quotation marks the rapists are not always, so ‘Now babe the time has come/ How’d ya like to have a little fun?’ seems to come from the singer, he seems to become the rapist. This can be seen as a different expression of the male guilt that is found in the other songs, an awareness of the possibility of being a rapist.
The girl does not seem to be blamed for what happens to her, though she is ‘in a bar, by herself’ this seems factual rather than accusatory; there is also no mention of her appearance, the sole blame for the rape is placed upon her attacker. She is not a passive character at all, the most explicit act of violence in the song is by her, ‘she picked up a rock … hit him in the head’, and she takes the rapist to court where he is successfully prosecuted. The ending lines of the song enforce the message of female strength, ‘she didn’t want to / Take it!’, this is especially clear in performance, where the last two words are shouted, leaving a forceful last impression.
Despite the positive message of the song it in fact acts to cover up the reality of most rapes, perpetrating the myth that rape is committed by ‘a man she’d never seen before’, when in 2005 72% of rapes were committed by a friend, relation or partner. Also, the prosecution of a rapist is in fact very unlikely, less than half of all rapes are reported, and in those cases that go to court the suspected rapist is found innocent in 15 out of 16 cases. Though the song can be seen to address a difficult issue honestly and in a supportive manner it also reinforces several myths, and presents a more positive view of the aftermath of rape than many victims in fact experience.
The question of authorial intention is especially relevant in relation to songs, where the line between the author of the text and the voice of it is especially liable to become blurred, because of the immediate manner of delivery. So, a song with a feminist message does not imply a feminist author, though several of the songs used are by artists that are explicitly feminist, for example Propagandhi, who have a reputation as a political band. In the video of a live performance of Fuck Machine the lead singer introduces the song by saying ‘most of us were bought up to believe people should be treated differently because of their gender… and that’s just a bunch of shit’, an explicitly feminist statement. Their use of the terms ‘womyn’ and ‘humyn’ are also explicitly feminist, though controversially so. According to Dictionary.com womyn means ‘women (used chiefly in feminist literature as an alternative spelling to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequence m-e-n)’, though it can also be used in the singular, the term humyn is used in the same way. It is a term mostly used by radical feminists, and it is especially unusual to see it used by a man in a non-satirical or mocking context, showing Propagandhi’s commitment to radical politics.
In his book Music: A Very Short Introduction, Nicholas Cook draws attention to the three categories that make up a music GCSE syllabus, ‘composing, performing, and appraising’, writing that this implies that the three categories are totally distinct from one another, as well as introducing a hierarchy between musicians and ‘“ordinary” listeners (ordinary that is, in the sense that they are not musicians)’, before showing that in fact the categories are not distinct, implying that the hierarchy may be false as well. Cook’s point that the categories are not distinct seems to be proven to some extent by alternative music, for example the popularity of live albums and videos, such as the video of Fuck Machine discussed above, where the noise of the crowd, the ‘appraisers’, becomes part of the performance. The blurring of the boundaries of performance and listening is especially interesting in the context of music with a political message, a crowd singing along to Little Baby Nothing are voicing the author’s opinions, even if they do not agree with them, they become complicit in the song to some extent.
Several of the songs used are violent, especially in their performance. With violence against women being such a taboo subject, and such a politicised one, it may seem strange for often overtly feminist music to be so violent, especially as the pit in gigs is often an overtly male space, excluding women. One of the reasons for this violence is undoubtedly genre, hardcore and punk by definition sound violent, the sound of Fuck Machine and Male Chauvinist Gig is not unique among Propagandhi and Five Knuckle songs.
The idea that gender and violence can be connected in music is not a new one, ‘gendered terminology and the undercurrent of violence have a long history in descriptions of musical form… a sonata’s first idea (or theme) should embody “such essentially masculine characteristics as force, energy, concision, and clarity”’. Following this all of the songs can be classified as defiantly ‘masculine’; they are certainly all forceful and energetic. It seems that what was once an undercurrent of violence has now, especially in alternative music, become overt, and especially expressed in performance.
This expression in performance can be seen in videos of the songs, for example in the video for Date Rape, where the physical act of producing the music can be seen as violent, especially the drums, and there the violence of the pit can be seen in the audience.
In investigating the similarities and differences between the chosen songs several themes that are in all or most of the songs have emerged, especially sex and women’s appearance. Not only are these themes very important to feminist theory as a whole, supporting the proposition that the chosen songs are feminist texts, they help create and overall picture of the concerns of male feminists, expressed through alternative music.
Male Chauvinist Gig. Artist. Five Knuckle.
Date Rape. Artist. Sublime. Album. 40Oz to Freedom. Author. Sublime. Label. MCA Records. 1992
Little Baby Nothing. Artist. Manic Street Preachers featuring Traci Lords. Album. Generation Terrorists. Author. Nicky Wire and Richie James. Artist. Sony Music. 1992
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge Artist. Sonic Boom Six. Album. A Ruff Guide to Genre Terrorism. Author. Barney Boom. Label. Deck Cheese Records. 2005
Traci Lords, Traci Lords: Underneath It All (Harper Collins Press 2003)
Nicholas Cook Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998 )