Artistic Practises of Fourth Wave Feminism: Expressions on and off stage

Despite the rise of prominent feminist media: Bitch and Ms., online sites such as Jezebel and Gender Focus, fourth wave ‘zines, radio programs, and other alt media sources—the conversation about everyday sexism, misogyny and harassment has stayed out of mainstream media in a real way for years. Certain events – those that shock “us” into taking a hard look at how prominent slut-shaming, harassment, sexual assault, and other tactics used to silence women are, break that barrier so often imposed by editors of major media sources in North America.

That self-imposed silence is beginning to crack; evidence of the burgeoning desire to have a conversation about feminism in a way that is inclusive and genuine is demonstrated by the increased number of mainstream and alternative media who are giving column space to those conversations. A cry for stronger feminist icons by Guardian writer Daisy Buchanan runs only days after the same news outlet runs an op-ed by Chvrches front woman about the misogyny she faces daily from her “fans” and haters alike.

Internationally loved Canadian based signer and young fashion icon Grimes wrote an intense and bluntly honest blog post in April of 2013. She unleashed a lot in her short post—her hatred for mansplaining, the feeling of fear and concern for her safety, the infantilization she deals with, and the constant judgement that because she is young and a woman she must need guidance. Bluntly she says, “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if I did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them,” and illustrating the sexual harassment she faces as a female musician, “I’m tired of creeps on message boards discussing whether or not they’d ‘f—’ me.”

In a conversation with Brittany Griffiths of Lethbridge based Fist City she identified challenges of being in male dominated spaces and playing on bills where she is one of few self identified women. While Fist City explores ideas of gender, sexuality, and privilege in their music—it is not explicitly their core purpose. They are, like most artists, making music they love. And like many artists Brittany works through various outlets to confront misogyny. “I recently contributed an article to a local queer and feminist zine on white male privilege and my experience growing up as a woman of colour in the predominantly white-male dominated punk scene. A lot of people aren’t even aware, or refuse to recognize that white privilege and male privilege exist in society and by extension within the music scene.” While artists like Brittany use these outlets to speak out against oppression, there remains a discomfort when confronting actions in their present time and place. She notes, “I would like to feel more comfortable in male dominated spaces but sometimes it can be difficult to penetrate the ‘boys club’ mentality.”

Sexism is no new thing in the music industry. Many bands have made their bread and butter by treating women like sexual props, and treating themselves like examples of virility. Reducing male and female relationships in a hyper-sexualized, objectified context that always maintains male privilege above all else. The Riot Grrrl movement of the late eighties/early nineties, fought back—fighting in the punk/garage rock scenes—public spaces that are still very male dominated. Feminist and Queer icons like Kathleen Hanna, Don Pyle, Fifth Column, Peaches, Patti Smith and the many more loud and proud persons set the stage and inspired young men and women to become rock stars in their own right.

While these icons have moved into new expressions (perhaps less radical expressions), they have not been forgotten or left behind. Clearly the current movements in public artistic space are not out to re-create past action or do again what has been done. It is necessary for this recent wave of anti-oppression expression to take a different context. Building on the work from these past artistic movements, artists are making statements outside of their predominant art forms. Chvrches doesn’t explicitly write and perform for the sake of gendered art—they exists in a broader context of music and art – but that didn’t stop Lauren Mayberry from writing her post about her experiences. Not to say radical feminist art isn’t happening. It is. Alive, well and kicking, but there are also radical feminists taking back back space in other venues and platforms.

There are those artists that do openly define themselves are radical feminists, like Martiné Menard from Calgary’s Hag Face and The Slabs. A well known and respected member of the Alberta music scene, she has played in a number of notable bands—some explicitly feminist and some not. The struggle though is that in order to be seen as a feminist band or musician there is an assumption women will only play with other women. She notes, “I don’t want to feel like in order to be supported as a woman in music that I have to play lead or always be in an all-girl band.”

The understanding that misogyny is all too present is the core of what seems to be driving these strong artists to speak out. Not only through their music but also in ways that reach wider, and different audiences. Taking back the front stage is still a struggle, but it is a struggle that extends off stage as well. The solidarity shown by bandmates and fellow artists is always noted and well appreciated. It is that solidarity and it is this wave of activism that will continue to struggle for gender equality—on stage and off.

Originally published on National Music Centre blog October 29th, 2013. 

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