It’s no secret that being a woman in music means facing constant stereotyping and criticism. With just a small fraction of female artists winning prestigious honors like The Grammy Awards, it’s easy to see why female artists feel pressure to perform well and keep their audiences engaged as they progress through their careers.
Gender discrimination is not unique to any particular style of music — from pop to hip-hop, women are constantly stereotyped, sexualized and undermined — but it can present itself differently from genre to genre. Within niche genres like punk, women struggle to gain visibility in a scene that not only excludes female voices but also generalizes them, ignoring their individual contributions.
Since the birth of punk rock in the ’70s, women have participated in the scene as artists, stage crew and promoters, yet they continue to be unrecognized. While it began as a movement dedicated to countercultural and a rigidly defined “other,” the punk scene quickly became dominated by white men and hasn’t changed much since. One of the most overt forms of sexism is the live music scene, where festival lineups are comprised of mostly men and where women face sexual harassment while on the road, sometimes due to the large groups of rowdy men they must travel with. From the Slits to White Lung, female punk artists have been fighting off sexism for decades.
In the early 2000s, the punk scene was shaken by the emo-pop sensation Paramore. With frontwoman Hayley Williams sporting bright orange hair and slaying anthemic vocals, the female punk image was forever changed. As Paramore released top performing singles like “Misery Business” and “Ain’t It Fun,” Williams slowly became the face of women in punk.
Williams was a pioneer for female punk artists, paving the way for other women in the scene. While it’s true that Williams opened doors for more female acts to occupy the punk space, especially at punk staples like the Vans Warped Tour, her music has also become a way for music critics to ignore other female punk acts. When a punk track performed by women comes across a journalist’s desk, they’re quick to draw parallels to Paramore, even if their sounds are distinctly different. As Williams became the face of punk, the industry made her the standard for other female punk artists.
A 2018 NPR article that dubs Williams to be a “punk prophet” even declared that “girls were patently not musicians in (the punk) scene” before Hayley Williams showed up, undermining the contributions of female icons like Patti Smith, Debbie Harry or even Avril Lavigne. While it’s true that Williams’s popularity contributed to female acceptance within punk, her success was preceded by other powerful female artists who worked hard to be respected and recognized in the industry.
Williams is rightfully a punk staple for her powerful vocals, Hot Topic wardrobe and bright orange hair, but Paramore’s music was also palatable for mainstream audiences, which made them more likable. Mixed in with the loud guitars and rollercoaster lyrics were hints of pop elements, allowing the band to occupy both the punk and pop space. In other words, Paramore wasn’t too edgy for a general audience, which helped them rise on the top charts. Female artists who solely identify with punk are less likely to be noticed by a pop-dominated industry and may not receive the same level of attention as a pop-punk icon.
As a public relations coordinator at a small, independent music publicity agency, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several female punk acts trying to catch their break in the music industry. When thinking about how to market a female punk band, the question is always: How do we pitch this album or song in a way that journalists don’t compare them to Paramore?
Today’s female punk artists are facing a difficult crossroads: How does an artist stay true to the punk tradition while being different enough to stand out from previous, successful acts? When female artists are constantly compared to a single act, there’s little room for them to pioneer new styles and take ownership of their contributions to the punk scene; this also inhibits female visibility in punk, making younger artists less keen on pursuing the genre because of its seemingly male-dominated culture.
That this is a gendered issue becomes all too clear when considering how bands consisting of men are treated. Male acts like All Time Low and Blink-182 are hardly ever pitted against each other, even though there are obvious similarities between the groups. For female artists, there is constant pressure to work a little harder in order to be visible in an industry that’s so quick to generalize their work.
Perhaps the world is so hesitant to recognize female punk artists because the female punk movement is symbolic of women’s freedom; there’s nothing more liberating than a woman cranking out power chords on an electric guitar with bleached hair and studded jewelry. But this is what makes female punk so powerful: Women took a male-dominated movement and reclaimed it by being loud and demanding respect through music. Since the birth of the genre, women have played an important role in the punk aesthetic, and it’s time that they receive the recognition they deserve, from Hayley Williams to the small garage bands trying to find fame in a cold industry.
Daily Arts writer Kaitlyn Fox can be reached at email@example.com.