Challenging the Patriarchy: ROCKRGRLS Battle Sexism and Rape Culture in the Music Industry
The largely male-dominated music industry is an important space in which to consider the ways that women in popular music have been treated as secondary performers and songwriters, as well as the primary focus of the male gaze. While female composers, songwriters, and performers were not entirely absent from popular music history, prominent women’s roles within rock music were largely prescribed. Women often were back-up singers, dressing in flashy dresses and playing a supporting role to a male singer; all-female pop groups like The Supremes and The Marvelettes, for example, were groups that Motown created in the 1960s, giving the women in these acts some fame, but little to no control over their musical output or lives while under contract. Important musical figures like Joan Baez, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon were singer/songwriters who wrote about politics, sex, and shifting gender roles, yet were unable to escape the qualifier of “female” and were thus inhibited by the sexism running rampant in Western society. Women in popular music, but especially rock (including the multiple subgenres such as folk, country, pop, and punk, among others) might have been able to perform in the company of other male acts and control their musical output, but they were still under the stringent male gaze of mainstream society. Women in music at that time were criticized for many of the same mundane reasons as today: their looks, weight fluctuations, romantic relationships, and any and all behavior that was thought to be sexual. These unfair and insulting critiques highlight the double standard that exists in the contemporary moment surrounding the dichotomy of negatively labeling female sexual expression while demanding feminine sexiness (the hegemonic kind that the mainstream supports) within popular music.
ROCKRGRL’s significance lies in the ways that the zine brought forward examples of women who actively looked patriarchy in the eye and spat at it. In response to many of the examples above, the zine frequently included content that challenged the dominant patriarchy by pushing back against sexism in the music industry, and/or advocating for awareness of rape culture and violence against women.
Speaking out about the sexism that existed in music stores, for example, brought attention to the presumptions that men made about women's roles or presence in a music equipment store. Assuming that all women were merely girlfriends or obsessive followers of male bands conflicted with the notion that a woman would show up at a store like Guitar Center because she needed to purchase drum heads or sticks, amps or a new guitar, or any of the accessories that go along with live electric musical performance. ROCKRGRLS spoke out about these everyday occurrences that women who dared to start their own bands went through. Related to expectations of women in music scenes, ROCKRGRL also addressed the role mass culture and the media played in establishing and reaffirming (thus giving power to) beauty norms for women. ROCKRGRL was a space in which those expectations needn't be upheld, and in fact, readers were encouraged to eschew those constraints in pursuit of individual identity. In doing so, women in rock mentored female communities and created spaces for women to record and produce their own music without having to play by the male-dominated industry's rules.
Feminist activism and advocating for women's safety in the face of rape culture and domestic violence is another important way that ROCKRGRLS regularly challenged the patriarchy. From Riot Grrrl festivals to benefits supporting women who were victims of targeted violence to crisis lines for girls and women who were the victims of rape, incest, or abuse, ROCKRGRL paid attention to the ways that women in the music industry took action against the dangers of the patriarchy. The activism the zine highlights takes traditional forms of protests or rallies, as well as smaller events like benefits or personal narratives about surviving a traumatic or dangerous experience.
Included in this gallery is a mixture of early, short pieces that rail against fashion norms for women (“Don We Now Our Grrrl Apparel”, “On Beauty Tips and Guilt Trips,”); ways that women infiltrated the patriarchal structure in order to be seen and heard (“WHER: Pioneering the All-Girl Station,” “The Accidental Ghetto”); photographs of artists or bands whose interviews in the zine address issues of sexism, rape culture, or patriarchal control (PeeWee of I.C.U., Sleater-Kinney, 7 Year Bitch); and longer feature articles that discuss the dangers of rape culture and the need for activism (“Rapes at Woodstock ‘99” and “The Continuing Sad Legacy of Woodstock ‘99”).