Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Measuring Sexism & Homophobia in Punk: An Interview with Lauren Denitzio of The Measure [sa]
Earlier this year Lauren Denitzio of the band The Measure [sa] wrote an article on sexism in punk rock titled "You Know What Makes Me Feel Unsafe?". Since then there has been much discussion over the articles content, including this interview with her published yesterday at punknews.org. During the same time period as that, Lauren talked to me in an interview which she indicated she was far happier with (I suggest you read both to get the fullest perspective). I've separated it into two parts, one dealing with questions related to her article on sexism and one dealing with questions related to music.
D: In your column you identify yourself as "queer" yet there is little mention of homophobia and instead a focus on sexism. Is this because you feel homophobia is not as prevalent a problem within the punk scene?
L: I was asked to write a piece on sexism, so I kept that as my focus. I mentioned queer as identifying my perspective and experiences. I think issues of homophobia can be handled with the same mode of thinking that I'm trying to talk about regarding sexism.
D: What things would you say make an LGBT person uncomfortable at a show, that the perpetrator might not even realize?
L: For me, I think those things are probably much more relatable in everyday life, not just a punk show. Like, when someone assumes you're straight, and addresses you as such. Or when people who I think should know better use dyke or fag in a derogatory way. It's the kinds of things that are insensitive to someone else's experiences or lifestyle, making light of things you shouldn't be. Not like I don't have a sense of humor, and my bandmates in The Measure crack jokes sometimes about my identifying as queer, kind of as a way to out me to people, but those are people who know me really well, who I can talk to if something goes too far or if I'm not comfortable with a comment. I think my point of just being accountable for our words and actions can alleviate a lot of tension if someone feels alienated in a certain way.
D: There's always been a debate on what makes a band or person punk, and if there's a certain criteria. The same could probably be said for feminist. How would you define feminism? Can someone like Sarah Palin be a feminist?
L: It's been said that feminism is "the radical notion that women are people," and I think my feminism falls into that definition. I think it's also about identifying patriarchy in a variety of forms and combating that in our communities, punk or otherwise. As far as someone like Sarah Palin being a feminist, I think that anyone who would limit a woman's power over her own body has some major issues to work out, one of which being whether or not they should be calling themselves a feminist.
D: Do you see a problem with bands like The Mr. T Experience who write all their songs about women but never put them in a role other than love interest?
L: I don't think that's a problem. That's what kind of band they choose to be. If a band is constantly demeaning of women in general, that's one thing, but I don't see anything inherently wrong with a pop punk band writing a lot of love songs about girls. I do that too!
D: One of the most discussed statements was that it makes you feel unsafe "when you take your shirt off at a show". Is this directed at men in the pit, to those on stage, to women (I assume not, but noticed you never specified the gender of the person in the article), or all of the above?
L: That one specifically is directed at men in the crowd and on stage. I think for a lot of women it can be triggering and a very visible statement of strength and power within a group. Even if it's just sorta hot in a room, and a guy doesn't think he's being threatening, some women definitely see it that way and don't want to be a part of that. It's really as simple as that and something to think about when "dudes are being dudes" or whatever. While dudes taking their shirts off isn't necessarily triggering for me personally, it makes me uncomfortable in the sense that "yep, I'm not part of your club. why am I here again? do you even care that I'm here or want me here?"
D: In regards to performers, a lot of people make the counter argument that they're moving around and sweating. I know in the early days of Black Flag, Henry Rollins started performing in just shorts because his sweat would soak through his clothes and he would immediately have to wash them in a bathroom sink.
L: I've played plenty of shows where I've completely sweated through ever piece of clothing I have on. Except I don't have the privilege of being able to take my shirt off without being ogled or getting comments about it. So I've opted to keep my shirt on. I deal with it. If you're a guy playing a show where women are present and you want to make sure they all feel welcome, I'd advise keeping your shirt on. If you don't care, that's your own issue and obviously I can't do anything to stop you. If you do care though, and want to complain about it, you can cry me a river.
Also, I've had it happen that a guy who sometimes takes his shirt off opted to keep his shirt on while playing a show at my house, knowing how I feel about the issue. As far as I can tell, it wasn't a big deal at all, which is kind of my point. If you're aware that certain things would make a space safer for people there, be a respectful human being about it. It's that easy. It's those sorts of actions that make me really proud of a lot of people I know.
D: In regards to women performing without a shirt, I know there's been some instances of punk musicians doing that, be it for shock value, the idea that it's an equality means, or saying something like "this is my sexuality, deal with it." How would you respond to these situations?
L: Someone like Kathleen Hanna taking her shirt off and having "slut" written across her chest is making people uncomfortable in having to deal with both the female body as powerful and the issue of slut shaming. That's FAR different than a guy trying to act tough, taking his shirt off, and doing something that is potentially triggering for someone like say a sexual assault or abuse survivor - of which, I can guarantee you, there will probably be one in the room when women are present at a show. If there's an example of a cis-man taking his shirt off at a show as a way to combat discrimination, sexism, etc. I'd really love to see it.
D: I guess one could try and make the argument that someone like Damien from Fucked Up combats any sort of body image taboos when he performs shirtless in the same way that a woman like Beth Ditto does. Obviously it isn't as taboo for a guy to be fat, but maybe that's because it's sort of been accepted through things like this.
L: I see what you're getting at with this, but Beth Ditto doesn't have to perform in next to nothing in order to be combating those taboos. I don't think Damien does either. I also don't think the discussion of his weight when he takes his shirt off on stage is anywhere near as big of a deal in our world as if Beth Ditto performs in revealing clothes. That's a shitty double standard, but it's there. I guess I just think you can't take male privilege out of that situation, even though I'm all for combating fat-phobia in whatever way we can.
D: Do you feel that there needs to be a balance however between not singling out and making fun of people who are overweight, but at the same time not glamorizing an unhealthy life style? I feel like glamorizing being overweight like Beth does is in some regards similar to what some bands like NOFX do in glamorizing their overuse of drugs and alcohol.
L: I know Beth Ditto is really open about promoting a healthy body image and being proud of whatever body type or size you happen to be. I think that's wonderful and I don't think that concept in any way promotes an unhealthy lifestyle. I think equating being fat with being unhealthy is pretty offensive, honestly, because that's just not correct. I'm really glad there's a lady like Beth out there kicking ass and pushing the boundaries of what the media puts out there in terms of both music and body image. I'm a big fan of her band Gossip and just her in general. I've been pretty skinny my entire life, and while I've certainly had body image issues, it's in a totally different way. I can't speak to those issues in the way that she can. I think the thing is that the notion of loving whatever body type you were born with is really important and it's none of my business if someone is medically healthy or not.
I wish my friends would all stop smoking and that some of them would take it down a notch with the drugs and alcohol (I've written songs about it!), but that's their choice, not mine. I think unless you constantly go around criticizing people for those things, commenting on someones weight as a health issue is inappropriate. Odds are Joe Strummer didn't eat enough kale but I still fucking love The Clash.
D: Also couldn't the act of a female performer writing "slut" across her chest also potentially trigger a level of uncomfortableness within women in the audience, regardless of the artistic intention?
L: I'm sure it could, but it's not coming paired with a physical threat. I think there's a much better chance of that action helping someone feel empowered than alienated or unsafe.
D: Another thing you note as creating an unsafe environment is using the word "bitch". Is there an artistic context where this could be okay lyrically? For example Patti Smith has the song Rock N Roll Nigger, in which she aligns herself as the same type of outsider persona as people who have been labeled by society as "niggers". Couldn't the same be done in regards to sexist rhetoric?
L: I think combating the use of a word through lyrics is different than someone using it in their every-day language, as part of their normal vocabulary. I think you can reclaim words, for sure (see: Bitch Magazine, The Dyke March, etc.) but that's not the same thing as using those words in a derogatory way and thinking that it's not a big deal. Words have context and history to them and I'd rather not perpetuate the use of words that are demeaning to women.
D: You alluded that having "women-only spaces" would be a productive thing. By this do you mean venues?
L: I was talking more about events or meetings. The feminist collective I'm a part of, For The Birds, is a women identified only group. One reason for this is to maintain a safe space for everyone to feel supported and able to express themselves, which wouldn't happen if there were male identified people in the room. I'm not sure if there are women-only venues but if there were, I'd certainly go!
D: Is there an online directive where people could find communities like this? Do they exist as a subculture of the punk scene, or are all sorts of woman from different communities involved?
L: Well, for starters, you can find out more about For The Birds at forthebirdscollective.org. If you're in the New York City area, we table our distro and organize a lot of events. We're not solely "punks" but the group did grow out of that subculture, for sure. As for other female-only groups, I'm not sure of an online directory (though that would rule), but there are things like Ladyfest organized in all different cities (one is coming up in April in Amherst, Massachusetts) and C.L.I.T Fest in D.C. this summer, which to my knowledge are organized only by women. Even something like the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls that are all over the country, and I think are even in other countries, is trying to maintain a safer space by making it girls-only.
This is far from a new concept (see: Wellesley/Smith Univeristy, Riot Grrrl chapters, etc.) but I think punks and other politically radical folks can take those ideas to strengthen a female and/or overtly feminist presence in their scene. Anyone can start these sorts of groups in their community if they feel it's necessary and the right step for them. I don't see that as just being a "punk" thing. For the Birds just put out a zine called "So You Want To Start a Feminist Collective..." as an answer to a lot of the questions we were getting about organizing. It addresses a lot of issues around DIY organizing, communicating, addressing white privilege within feminism, the logistics of starting a collective, etc. Though we do choose to be female-identified only to preserve a safer space, not everyone needs that depending on the goals of their collective. There are a lot of links in the resources section of the For The Birds site, though that's by no means everything that's out there.
D: How would you respond to someone saying that woman-only spaces is discriminatory, not to just all men, but more specifically gay men or transgendered people who may be experiencing the same sort of unease as a sexual minority within the subculture.
L: I think it's all about why a certain space is trying to accomplish. I know a lot of women-only groups are trans inclusive, which I fully support. Since I was really talking about events/groups rather than venues, I think it's important to create safer spaces for everyone, such as having LGBT events. I can acknowledge that I have certain privileges that would make me unwelcome in spaces that are trying to be safer for certain people. I think when folks aren't comfortable with acknowledging their own privilege, you see them getting defensive about being excluded.
I've had men say to me that women-only spaces aren't productive or solving the problem and it's really offensive to me that they can't just back off for one second and see that sometimes women might need a space without them in it. I think while it's important to work against sexism with all genders, and to not isolate yourself, it's also important for men to just let go of the power for a moment. Learn to be a good ally.
D: Do you see a differing level of sexism within the subgroups of punk?
L: I think it really varies from place to place. I wouldn't make generalizations like that cause I think it's really different depending on where you are more than the genre itself. The level of sexism was much different between the hardcore shows I used to go to in high school and the hardcore shows I might go to now, just based on location and the people going to shows.
D: For better or for worse?
L: Definitely for the better. Even just the fact that while I was in high school I can't think of more than two girls who were in local bands that I'd seen. Now I can't even count all the women I know who are doing things like that. It's awesome. I think even just that fact has facilitated talking about sexism in a much bigger way and has made it possible for me to feel like women are a really vital part of the scene instead of just a side note.
D: Do you feel your statements about what makes women uncomfortable, speak for a majority of the females who go to shows?"
L: I wasn't trying to speak for everyone, or be some kind of representative. But I think just from the support I've seen since writing that piece, a lot of women-identified folks, and men as well, agree with me and have seen those things happen at shows. I think it speaks for a majority of the women I associate with, though obviously that's not everyone.
D: Finally, do you have any comments on the Ben Weasel incident? Since it happened I've been hearing people say that it is inherently sexist to criticize him, not for punching someone in particular, but for punching a woman, as that inherently implies a weaker status to women. What would you say to these people?
L: Not punching a woman isn't about her automatically being weaker, it's about not perpetuating the oppressive thought that you can just beat women to make them shut up. It's not that people think a woman can't defend herself, (which, unfortunately, many people still do) it's that men have traditionally had the power to just slap women into submission without having to face much in the way of repercussions from society. "Feel threatened by a woman? Violence is the answer." THAT'S what's fucked up. It's a social norm that's pandemic and his actions fall into that category. This may be a whole other discussion, but the concept of not hitting someone who is "weaker" is also problematic because even if a woman was able to fight back in such a situation, I wouldn't make the assumption that she's weaker if she chooses to NOT fight back. I think we'd all be better off if the use of violence wasn't the qualifier for being the stronger party. That's not a new concept.
Regardless of gender, hitting someone in the crowd isn't something I'd ever condone, but gender does make a difference here. I think when you hear the misogynist things he was saying to her before, and then see him taking out that anger physically, it says a lot about him. It says something that makes me personally not want to support him or a band that he's in anymore.
D: As a kid what music inspired you to start playing guitar?
L: It's weird, it was a mix of Ani Difranco/Dar Williams/Indigo Girls and louder stuff I was listening to like Rancid and The Clash. I learned how to sing and play at the same time by learning a lot of folk stuff and it was definitely the singer-songwriter element that got me into playing guitar. Even the punk stuff I learned, the whole point was so I could play and sing along. I don't think it was till I started listening to Billy Bragg that I really wanted to play electric guitar or be in a band though. The whole protest singer notion had a big impact on me from the start, so connecting that with punk made a lot of sense to me.
D: Was The Measure [sa] the first band you were in?
L: Yup. I did the whole singer-songwriter "thing" for kind of a long time, just writing songs by myself, but I had never written anything with a band before The Measure. I was 20 when we started the band.
D: When and why was the band formed?
L: The band was formed in the summer of 2004 just for fun by myself, Mike Regrets and Fid. We just wanted to write some songs together because Mike and I had a similar punk/folk taste in music and Fid wanted to play drums in a band. We thought it would end when I went back to school in the fall, or when Mike was thinking of moving away, but that didn't happen...and here we are!
*What does the sa in The Measure [sa] stand for? Is it supposed to be in ()'s or 's?
L: It's supposed to be [sa]. It stands for Strictly Analog as a way to distinguish ourselves from another band called The Measure that existed a while ago. It's based on something Fid used to say, based on him refusing to get a cell phone and also our love of records. We've put everything out on vinyl first and record analog, so there's that too.
D: Other than you and Fid it seems like there's been various members coming and going. Why has this been the case?
L: Since Mike Regrets left the band, it's been Fid and I writing the songs primarily. I think we have the most investment in it and any turnover has really just been that people have other commitments/priorities than being in a somewhat regularly touring band.
D: All of the artwork for the bands releases incorporate images made over newspaper articles. Who's idea was this? Is there a conscious effort to include specific news stories on specific releases?
L: It's based on drawings I was doing when we started the band, and the newspaper/dictionary pages still happen in a lot of my other drawing stuff. It was Fid's idea to use that style thematically with our records and the whole "cover stars" thing is a Smiths reference. The newspaper articles aren't significant though, unfortunately. Sorry, that's not very exciting!
D: Another thing I've noticed about your discography is the amount of splits and EPs recorded vs. full lengths. Was the attitude of the band that as soon as songs were written they should be recorded and released, that full lengths had to be of the utmost quality, or did labels just prefer these types of releases?
L: I think for a long time we just wrote a ton of songs and when a band would ask to do a split, we always had new songs to record. We recorded the Songs About People... EP as a middle ground between the 7"s and a next LP, kind of a stepping stone to a full-length. I think we just took the opportunities that came along to release the songs we were writing. Then at a certain point we knew we should put the effort into a coherent full-length. It certainly took us long enough, but we did it!
D: Who wrote the songs "Workage" and "Dullards and Dreadful Prose" that The Measure and The Ergs! both recorded versions of on the splits you did?
L: We wrote "Workage" and The Ergs wrote "Dullard and Dreadful Prose"
D: Your song "Hello Bastards" was on the "Please Don't Hang Out in Front Of The House" comp. Being from New Jersey can you talk about the basement/house scene that led to that comp? How does it compare to other regions that the band went to?
L: I think people should or have written books on this topic. In short, New Brunswick has had a lot of basements that would have shows, sometimes to the point of there being multiple similar shows on the same night. There's always been the opportunity for new bands to play house shows on a pretty regular basis, far before we ever started. So many "bigger" bands have come out of that scene but I think the best part are the bands that I got to see all the time that I LOVE but you'll never hear on the radio or see playing huge venues. It's just been a really supportive place for people to just start bands with their friends and always have shows to go to. I can't talk about right now specifically, as I haven't been going to shows there as much as I used to, but basements are a big part of the scene there. I think there are a lot of towns with really exciting scenes and all-ages spaces going on but I think New Brunswick will always feel a bit more cohesive to me. I think it's different if you're living in a town that has house shows but then also has a few bars for shows or bigger venues to go to. New Brunswick doesn't really have that anymore, aside from the Court Tavern which mostly doesn't have all-ages shows. So house shows have been sort of the life of the scene for a while, which I thinks make them feel more important/significant.
D: You announced that the band was breaking up because your heart wasn't in the project anymore. Are you tired of playing music, playing this type of music, or just feel like you need a change of scenery from the group?
L: I'm definitely not tired of playing music, or that type of music. But we've been a band for over six years now and it was a period where a lot changed in my life. I think needing a change of scenery is a nice way of putting it. I've started playing more shows with my other band Worriers, so it'll be nice to see where that goes, and I've been playing some solo shows too. Those things are where my focus is right now, musically anyway.
D: The bands last show is scheduled to be this October at The Fest in Gainesville. Will there be a final tour leading up to this?
L: Nope, unfortunately. We're playing May 7th in Brooklyn and May 8th in New Brunswick. Then the show at the Fest, and that'll be it!
D: If you get approached with opportunities to do other shows before Gainesville would you take any of them up?
L: I wouldn't rule it out, but because of our schedules and at least my having to fly to Gainesville, it's pretty unlikely.