what I’ve learned from being in an all-girl band

I’m in a band called Cunt Sparrer with my best friend Jennie.  We cover songs by Cock Sparrer, an old-school British oi band with a fanbase largely consisting of big, burly, intimidating skinhead dudes.

Even though Jennie and I both consider ourselves proud feminists and the word “Cunt” was right there in our name from go, we didn’t initially think of Cunt Sparrer as a feminist project.  However, we’d always been aggressive about our femininity as a band — not in a Pussycat Dolls way or even a Spice Girls way, but just in a way that’s like, “Yes, we’re girls, and we’re happy that we’re girls, and the fact that we’re girls informs the way our music sounds.”  Cock Sparrer’s songs are intrinsically male, and our renditions strip them of their testosterone and give them new context.  Still, the idea that this was somehow a feminist act didn’t really occur to us at the time.

Then we started experiencing some sexist ‘tudes from folks in the scene, and that rankled me to the point where I now absolutely think of the band as a feminist project.  I feel like I’ve become really finely attuned to misogyny in the scene — in fact, these days I might actually cry “sexist” too much about punk rock.  I can’t help it, though.  My understanding of punk has always been that it’s about solidarity and equality and autonomy and standing up against discrimination, so experiencing the level of sexism that we have in the scene is ugly and hypocritical to me, and I want to talk about it.

With that in mind, this post will be self-serving and probably more than a little rambling, but these are some things I’ve had on my mind for a while, and I want to share my experiences with my readers and get your opinions and feedback.  Excuse me if I come off a little bitter at times — I don’t mean to, and I try to be light-hearted about this stuff, but this subject is really close to my heart.  I never would have learned these things about punk rock had I not started my own band.

1.) No musical talent is required to start a band, but balls help.
My lack of experience playing music kept me from starting a band for years, even though it’s always been a fantasy of mine.  I can sing and arrange harmonies, but when it comes to playing an instrument, I had barely any discernible musical ability when Cunt Sparrer started up in January of 2010.  Childhood piano lessons and the most rudimentary grasp of country guitar chords were all I was working with.  But you know what?  I decided to say “to hell with it, I’m going to try it anyway,” and I faked it, and I made it work, and now I actually kinda know what I’m doing.

What I learned over the course of my first months with Cunt Sparrer is what boys have known all along — the only thing you have to have in order to start a band is confidence.  Seriously.  Half the dude bands that you see playing at your local venue on any given night?  They had no idea what they were doing when they started, and chances are good that they still kinda don’t.  But boys are born with confidence and raised to believe they can do whatever they want, while girls are trained by society to second-guess themselves and not to get overambitious.  Having learned that just having balls and pretending you know what you’re doing is all it takes to start actually figuring out what you’re doing, I now really think this is the main reason there are so many more men in music than women — not because men are more talented or more driven, but simply because they have the cockiness to believe they can.

2. How you look is more important than how you play.
Cunt Sparrer started out by putting our practice videos on Youtube, and word of mouth got us to where we are now.  I should have realized that as women, by putting our music out there on the Internet for people to judge, our appearances were bound to go on the chopping block as well, but I guess, naively, I just didn’t think about it.  After all, why would our looks matter?

Then the comments started.  Several band crushes were formally declared, and Jennie fielded a volley of marriage proposals, but there was also a lot of surprising cruelty.  When I would Google the band, the discussions popping up about us on punk message boards seemed to be focusing not on our interpretations of Cock Sparrer’s songs, but on our appearance.  I mean, whole threads, three pages long, about what we looked like, how they’d like to date Jennie and, conversely, how I was horsey-looking and needed to be “replaced.”  One commenter suggested I be “taken out to pasture and shot.”

The most off-putting comments, though, were vulgar sexual ones about what people wanted to do to us.  It disgusted me that because we were women who had taken the risk of putting our work on the internet, we had unwittingly opened ourselves up to this level of sexual harassment and close-minded, solely gender-based cruelty.  These men seemed to  be under the impression that because we had put our music out in the world for public scrutiny that our bodies were also being offered up as part of the deal.

We’ve had drunk guys holler at us to take our tops off at shows.  When we performed with the U.S. Bombs last summer a (male) show promoter incorrectly and rudely inferred that we were only on the lineup because Duane Peters wanted to fuck us.  People have told us that we should welcome the attention we get for our looks — both positive and negative — because it also draws attention to the band.  I have a hard time imagining any of these statements being directed at male musicians.  Yet people seem to think that because Cunt Sparrer is an aggressively all-girl band in a male-dominated scene we’ve somehow waived our right not to have our physical appearances picked apart along with our music.  We’re told we should “expect” this, that we’re “asking for it” (doesn’t that sound familiar?), even that we should be grateful — but I refuse to accept sexism in any form.  I grew up with the understanding that punks fought oppression in all its forms, and this kind of behavior is oppressive to women.

3. How you dress is even more important than how you look.
What’s been even more surprising for me than the chauvinism is the amount of people who are really, really pissed off that girls who don’t look traditionally “punk” have the audacity to cover punk rock songs.  People threaten to beat us up if we ever come through their towns (this has never happened), people tell us that Colin, Sparrer’s singer, would hang himself if he ever heard our covers (he has heard them, and he’s still very much alive), people telling us to throw ourselves under trains (not going to happen) or to “get out of oi forever!” (also not going to happen, though it does make for a funny t-shirt).  It’s one thing if people don’t like our interpretations of the songs — hell, to each his or her own — but the vitriol tends to be aimed more often at our haircuts and wardrobes.

See, Jennie and I don’t look “punk” or “skin” enough for some people.  We have long hair instead of Chelsea cuts, and we tend to wear silly dresses and cardigan sweaters rather than Fred Perrys and bullet belts.  But we both grew up punk, and we’ve both been there, and we both truly love Cock Sparrer and everything the scene is meant to represent.

At 25 years old, I thought I had finally escaped that whole high-school mentality involving looking a very specific way in order to prove something.  My experience in Cunt Sparrer has taught me that some people really never grow out of that phase.  There are plenty of grown-ass, fully adult men out there who have absolutely no qualms about wishing violence upon women they have never met merely because we don’t look like their idea of what a punk is.  I feel confident that it’s not our twee sound that gets people pissed off about our covers — if we were a couple of skinbyrds, I’m certain we wouldn’t be getting so many bilious comments.  Rather, it’s that people still get so hung up on outer appearances that it’s nearly impossible for them to readjust their opinions, even when their opinions run against what they supposedly stand for.

Punk was born on the concept of going against the grain, which is why I find it so strange that all these punks and skins should be so mad that two girls who don’t look traditionally punk rock should still love the music and be active in the scene.  People almost can’t believe that there’s any way we could (because if we did, wouldn’t we dress a certain way?) — on Youtube we get told all the time to leave oi to “the real fans,” and we’ve even had commenters claim we’re “making fun of” or “taking the piss” out of Cock Sparrer with our covers when this is clearly, clearly not the case.  We’ve even had people in the industryexpress skepticism about our motives, saying that we don’t look like punks and suggesting we do our research.  Why on earth would we be in a Cock Sparrer tribute band if we weren’t real fans?  It’s not as if covering a band that’s hardly known outside the oi scene would be giving us any hipstery indie cred.

In my opinion, it all comes back to sexism again.  The same people that have told us we “don’t look punk” and to read up on Cock Sparrer’s history would never say the same thing to three dudes in jeans and t-shirts.  Why are men in punk rock bands allowed to dress like regular joes but females are expected to conform to some kind of male fantasy of what the punk rock girl looks like?  My days of leopard miniskirts, four-rows, Creepers and thigh-highs are over, but that doesn’t mean my days as a punk are or will ever be.  I’ve just learned as I’ve gotten older that how you dress doesn’t define you so much as it serves to refine you, and I think it’s kind of sad that so many punks — you know, that subculture that claims to reject the status quo — are so quick to judge us rudely because we don’t fit some kind of cookie-cutter punk image.  Hasn’t listening to the Angelic Upstarts taught these people anything?  And at this point isn’t it actually more punk to do something unexpected?

4. But there are a million things that make it all worth it.
Like meeting other amazing women who are forging their own way in the scene, like Christine “Cece” Sherman and Lisa Howe of Black Fag.  Like having girls come up to you after shows and tell you that you’ve inspired them to start their own bands.  Like seeing the look of surprise on door guys’ faces when you tell them you’re in the band.  Like having huge middle-aged skinhead dudes tell you they haven’t been to a show in ten years and that you were what made them come back out.  Like seeing a bunch of 14-year-old punks circle-pitting to your set.  Like inspiring the awesome Cheri Love Affair, a G.G. Allin tribute.  Like changing people’s minds about what is and isn’t punk.  Like realizing that for every anonymous asshole on the internet there are three people who can’t wait to sing along to every word of your set.  Like learning that there truly is still a spirit of solidarity in punk rock, if you look for it.  And, most importantly, being able to be involved in something bigger than you.  Being a part of Cunt Sparrer has given me more of a sense of purpose than anything else in my life: I get to spend time with my best friends, I get to play music, I get to meet incredible people and take part in some really fun shows, I get to have a voice and a platform, and most importantly, I get to be part of a catalyst for change within the scene.  That’s something that’s true of all women in punk rock, and that’s why every girl needs to go out immediately and start a fucking band.

If it sounds like I’m just bitching here, that’s not my intention.  There are a lot of things about the punk scene that make me feel angry and othered, but there are plenty of other things about it that give me joy and a feeling of unity.  I think being involved with the scene has been a huge part of my continued growth both as a feminist and as a person.  I wouldn’t trade my experiences in punk rock for anything — I just want girls and women to be able to be a part of it without feeling lesser than, which is why I think it’s so important for us to keep screaming until our voices are heard.


17 responses to “what I’ve learned from being in an all-girl band

  1. Ugh, if I didn’t love you before, Sara, I am totally in love with you now.

  2. I write about metal on a fairly well-read site and the amount of sexist abuse I get is astounding. It actually makes me happy I write under a pseudonym (Leyla Ford, I use my real name but a fake last name that’s also a tip of the hat to Ms. Lita Ford). I’ve loved metal since I was in middle school ( I started out with punk and drifted that way) and talk about your sexist genres of music. I also don’t typically look “metal.” I wrote about how at 25 I no longer feel the need to look like what I listen to. I’m me, and the music I love is a part of that. I don’t need clothes to announce it. I got called ignorant. It’s despicable what some people believe is okay to say or write, especially if they know they can’t be called out on it. Partly the reason why I loved your keep hipsters out of oi! t-shirts and got myself one. Thank you for writing the part of something bigger. I almost let one anonymous comment get to me just yesterday. Is it worth it? Yes. My opinions and love of the music matter and I will stubbornly keep writing about it! Now come to Boston when I’m there so I can write about you girls because even though you’re not metal, I can still probably get away with it!

  3. Well said! Awesome post! Sadly, everything you said is dead on and totally true.

  4. “a (male) show promoter incorrectly and rudely inferred that we were only on the lineup because Duane Peters wanted to fuck us”

    That would piss me off like no other. Having someone who has authority over the crowd introducing my band by saying “they’re not really good enough to play, use this set to go piss and have a cigarette” would just make me livid.

  5. this post is fantastic. i’m not in a band but have had similar experiences in my scene too, so have my friends and other girls around the place. it’s disgusting, childish, sometimes horrendous behaviour and i am proud to be one of the girls, like you, willing to speak up and combat it.

  6. you are so amazing. i’ve often dealt with sexism in my experiences in the “punk rock” scene in the midwest and i applaud your courage. i love your blog and i kind of want to marry you 🙂 i hope that doesn’t apply to #2. i actually love you for your substance, not just your look!

    sarah rose

  7. The fact of the matter is that you’re in a band that is paying tribute to one of, if not THE, the most influential and iconic Oi! bands to have ever existed. I think that in saying that people wouldn’t “say the same thing to three dudes in jeans and t-shirts” is a little off because I think that they’d actually have MORE to say and MORE shit to give/threats to offer towards three seemingly “non-punk” males playing acoustic lo-fi Cock Sparrer covers. In fact, I can safely say that I think three males doing covers the way you guys have been would probably never have made it past the first song without getting heckled or even beaten up. Skinheads are extremely protective of their subculture and music and it’s not really a progressive scene nor has it ever been. Oi! is straight forward and testosterone driven and it’s like that for a reason. I love it because it offers that pure grit and I think that’s why everyone who loves it loves it.

    If you’re going to talk about the sexism involved with the band you really need to look at how it’s working in your favor as well. I love you and I love that you are passionate about Cock Sparrer and I think it’s great that you guys have fun playing music you love but I am having a hard time agreeing with a lot of the stuff you’re saying in this post. It seems to me like if you want to go against the grain and prove something and show that you guys are talented and involved in the scene it might be better to have a stronger leg to stand on by writing your own songs. Either that or you just be prepared to turn the other cheek at the naysayers. It’s really easy for people to pass you off as a gimmick or a novelty when you’re not doing original material.

    I also need to add that I have been in a predominately female band (3/4 of us) and never experienced any of the things that you guys have experienced. Hell, we even did a Cock Sparrer cover and never heard a whisper of negativity from any of our male audience, a lot of which were skinheads.

    Sorry to have written such a lengthy comment, I just had to give my two cents.

    • Yeah, I can see what you’re saying. These are just my personal experiences, and I know from talking to lots of girls that they’ve been through similar stuff, but I’m glad you’ve never had to deal with anything like that. I know Cunt Sparrer is a novelty act and we have no illusions about that; we never intended starting out to be making a statement or anything. All of this stuff has just come to light for me since the band took off. I don’t expect people to take us seriously as musicians or anything, but I do expect not to have to be a victim of sexism just because I’m putting myself out there, you know? Regardless of anyone’s feelings on oi or punk or Cock Sparrer, the kind of misogynistic bullshit coming out of some of these people’s mouths is disheartening to me and not OK.

    • Courtney – I think you’re right that an all-male Cock Sparrer cover band would face different hurtles, like threats of violence. However, I don’t think that diminishes the hurtles that Jennie and Sara face as women. If anything, I think your point that an all-male band would have such a different experience reinforces a lot of Sara’s points about sexism. Pragmatically, I’m sure Sara and Jennie are glad not to be the recipients of physical violence in the way you propose that a male band would be. However, you have to admit that “I would assault them if they were male, but since they’re women, I won’t” is not an acceptable attitude. In a word, sexism cuts both ways in this situation: guys shouldn’t be getting beaten up because they’re guys.

      Sexism that “works in one’s favor,” is still the same sexism that ends up hurting people in the end. There are a lot of examples of this kind of thing in society at large: women get free drinks at bars, men open doors for women, etc. While these things may be desirable on a pragmatic level (I like a free drink as much as the next person), it would still be better for women if they were simply treated in an equivalent way to men, because these practices reinforce that women are pretty, delicate flowers rather than real people.

      Also, I’m not sure what covering songs (as opposed to writing originals) has to do with any of Sara’s points about sexism. You’re right that covering the songs of a beloved band opens one up to a specific kind of scrutiny, because people feel protective of the material. But that doesn’t mean that being a cover band is inviting inevitable sexism. They should be scrutinized for their sound, not their look or their genders.

      • I wasn’t relating the fact that they are a cover band to the sexism they have experienced. I guess my late night thoughts got a little jumbled because what I was referring to was the desire to make an impact in the punk scene. It’s just kind of hard to do when the “voice” you have (musically speaking) is the voice of someone else. I’m not knocking Cunt Sparrer or Sara by any means, just offering an outsiders POV. I think it’d be awesome if the experiences Sara and Jenny have had with this turned into some inspiration for original songs. I mean shit, we know the girl can write and they already have a following!

  8. You rule.
    That is all.

  9. Way to call it like it is! I love that instead of being cowed by these simplemided individuals, you choose to perservere and use this platform to call out this very present (and disgusting) phenomenon. The only way to change things is to keep fighting. Love your new blog; keep on rocking!!

  10. I’m forwarding this to every girl I know in a band, and every woman I know in the music scene because I hear about the rampant sexism in the music industry all the time from dj’s, musicians, roadies, etc. that just happen to have tits and a vagina instead of a penis. Love you, and I love reading your work.

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  12. love.love.love this post. its put into words alot of things i’ve felt about being in a all girl band (also with the word cunt in it!!!!) i don’t think i would have ever started a band if i didn’t have other ladies encouraging me and making me feel ok to do the type of music i like even though a lot of people didn’t take us seriously at first

  13. she and her friend has guts!, there like the modern ”Runaways”. girls can kick butt as well as boys. and those boys think girls can’t do punk, they should reseach ”Joan Jett”. she dose punk,and half of her fans happen to be Men, so those boys need another look at wikiapedia.

  14. And Don’t forget bordy dalle from the distillers, she is punk too! and a GIRLLLL!

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