Punk, which emerged as a movement in the mid-1970’s, sought to create an environment where sexual liberation was rife, a carefree attitude of anti-establishment was popularised, and a real political Otherness prevailed amongst a society riddled with unemployment and malcontent youths. Others, however, merely “define punk in terms of a loosely construed aesthetic,”[1] suggesting that its rather more superficial tenet ruled the movement, and perhaps in turn facilitated a sense of sexist fetishisation of its female members. Indeed, Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, suggests that punk wasn’t as open as it may have originally seemed, and that women’s bodies were objectified, in a claustrophobic environment where vulnerable girls played dress-up and sexual autonomy was non-existent. Albertine’s body, physically and metaphorically, endures a cycle of pain, filth, illness and sexualisation, and she thus allows Cixous’ ideas of the female body to be manipulated, alongside facilitating debate surround sexual dirt and cultural hegemony which combine to exacerbate this Western inclination to “confiscate” women’s bodies.

Cixous’ ideas of women’s bodies being “confiscated” and “uncanny strangers on display,”[2] as well as Mulvey’s ideas of scopophilia, are found within Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys. Albertine, guitarist for the all-female punk band The Slits, experienced these patriarchal tendencies throughout her life, yet by writing her memoir and obeying Cixous’ admission that “woman must put herself into the text,”[3] she performs a subversive act. Indeed, when Albertine expressed to her manager that she wanted to write her memoirs herself, he replied: “Well, if you want the book to be shit.”[4] The way in which her male manager is “telling [her] that [she’s] a shit writer and can’t write a book about [her] own life”[5] is an example of how men are trying to confiscate women of their identities, and that a text about a woman can only be truly genuine if written by a woman. Cixous explains that Albertine was forced to fight for her right to write her own book because “smug-faced readers, managing editors and big-bosses don’t like the true texts of women – female-sexed texts.”[6] And indeed, Albertine’s text is not only “female-sexed,” but explores in depth how at various moments in her life she felt as though her body and other female bodies were, as Cixous says, “uncanny strangers on display.” Albertine describes how “at school, a boy would sometimes bring in a magazine he’d found under his dad’s bed and flash pictures at the girls – I acted all snooty, like I didn’t have those bits on my body.”[7] This embarrassment and rejection of the vagina by a woman herself feeds into Laura Mulvey’s ideas of the “paradox of phallocentrism,” which “depends on the image of the castrated women to give order and meaning.”[8] This symbolic castration by Albertine, who also admits that she “never looked at [her] own vagina and [was] not interested in looking at anyone else’s,”[9] is indicative of how men are able to feed off of female disempowerment and castration in order to feel sexually overt themselves; they, essentially, in this case with the boy and the porn magazine, steal from women’s bodies, confiscate them, and use them for their own benefit. Mulvey, in her famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ explores the notion of scopophilia, i.e. voyeurism, and explores how Freud associates scopophilia with “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious change.”[10] In this manner, it is clear to see how Albertine, performing onstage with The Slits, was subjected to “voyeuristic separation” and unintentionally facilitated spectators’ “primordial wish for pleasurable looking.”[11] The female band, indeed, became “uncanny strangers on display,” invited a gaze upon themselves, and lost the right to their own bodies – because of their sex. In her memoir, Albertine writes: “my body feels like one of those diagrams you see on posters in doctors’ surgeries: skin stripped away, palms turned out, vessels, organs, arteries on show, blood raw.”[12] At this point, where Albertine has been voyeuristically preyed on, sexually assaulted and spurned by society, she has utterly lost ownership of her body; this loss has been a gradual, yet vicious result of decades of having men manipulate her due to her womanly status and body.

Furthermore, Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys explores how women’s bodies and identities are spurned through the notion of filth, sexual dirt and abjection due to their gender. In a passage from the Chapter ‘Ari Up,’ Albertine talks of how bandmate Ari would “stuff her knickers with huge hanks of cotton wool [as opposed to using a typical female hygiene menstruation product]” and “when the cotton wool is saturated with blood, she pulls it out and holds it up for everyone to see […] you can smell it too.”[13] Cixous would define this performative action as a “systematic experimentation with bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of [Ari’s] erotogeneity,”[14] and indeed in this bold, unflustered action, Ari completely subverts the notion that many hold of menstrual blood being something abject and alien, reclaiming her body from the clutches of societal disapproval. When Albertine says that “sometimes for I laugh I wear a tampon – dipped in reddish-brown paint […] looped over my ear like an earring,” she then explains how a stranger spotted this and “had a strange impression on her face. Horror, embarrassment, nervousness.”[15] This stranger serves as a symbol for society’s view of ‘sexual dirt,’ an idea explored in Mary Douglas’ essay Purity and Danger; “in some, menstrual pollution is feared as a lethal danger.”[16] This idea of menstruation being something repugnant shows how something which women cannot help or control has been categorised for them by society’s male lens.

This view of female dirtiness is bolstered further by Albertine’s involvement in the punk movement also. After the hippy movement of the 60s, where these subcultural females roamed with no makeup, floating dresses and were at ‘one with nature,’ the unkempt and often deliberately dirty world of punk was seen as far more disordered and dangerous; indeed, the “reflection of dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder.”[17] When Albertine talks of a childhood habit of being too afraid to ask to go to the toilet at school and consequently soiling herself, she describes how her mother “stormed out to the garden, picked up a rough stick and scraped the poo off my bum and legs […] that scraping really hurt my legs, my pride and my feelings. I never did it again.” Her mother here is attempting to remove “the abject,” – the abject being something “that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered “Other.””[18] Society’s views of abjection are discussed in Judith Butler’s work Gender Trouble, where “the expulsion of alien elements”[19] is an attempt to rid the world of this defilement, effectively confiscating this dirtiness which seems to be embedded into punk culture. When in an intimate moment, Albertine describes the encounter: “he gets his willy out. He smells like stale piss. So do I. We all do. I like it – it’s familiar. That smell is nice and cosy to me. None of us wash before or after sex. It doesn’t occur to us […] I’m not squeamish about bodily smells.”[20] The sense of dirt embedded into this passage surprisingly liberates Albertine, because her body is seen with the man’s with a sense of equilibrium, and so the patriarchal tendency to put the woman on display is not present here; Butler notes how this abject notion of “stale piss” raises the point that “if the body is synecdochal for the social system per se, […] then any kind of unregulated permeability constitutes a site of pollution and endangerment.”[21] It is not, then, the punk movement that subjugates Albertine the most; it is her gender, and ‘sexual dirt,’ feminine dirt. When Albertine first gets her period, she says: “I hated it, didn’t want it, but I had no control over it,”[22] showing how society’s views about the repulsiveness of menstruation has been embedded within her and how, similarly, Albertine cannot control the way in which her body is confiscated and displayed.

At the time of the punk movement, the idea of there being a ‘cultural threat’ towards the societal norm ignited a Western inclination to use punk as a way to belittle women whilst simultaneously fetishising them as a commodity, effectively putting punk bodies as “on display.” Antonio Gramsci, a neo-Marxist, discussed how ‘cultural hegemony’ is implemented in order to maintain a Capitalist state[23]; indeed, “the ideal order of society is guarded by dangers which threaten transgressors.”[24] This is reflected in embedded attitudes towards, for example, women being instrumentalists; in Albertine’s memoir, she recounts buying her first guitar, saying: “the shop assistant is a bit sneery towards Mick, I can see he thinks it’s pathetic that this boy keeps asking his girlfriend which guitar she likes. When he realises the guitar is for me and I can’t play a note, he becomes very impatient.”[25] Men being punk musicians is seen as bad enough to the propagators of this culturally hegemonic state, yet women, “culturally unruly”[26] women, were seen as worse because “cultural values emerge as the result of an inscription on the body:”[27] a body which women do not own themselves as it is constantly being confiscated from them. A dichotomy then opens up, because these ‘dirty,’ female punk bodies are both repudiated, yet fetishised. Albertine writes: “I dress in fetish and bondage gear, rubber and studs, and give off sexual signs with my clothes but don’t act on them in real life,”[28] reflecting this dichotomic issue embedded not only in society but within her own identity. It shows that her identity has indeed been subverted and made cultural; Iris Young encapsulates how this complex view works, as “the repudiation of bodies for their sex is an “expulsion” followed by a “repulsion” that founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex axes of differentiation.”[29] Women, specifically punk women, are “strangers on display,” ready to be fetishised; their bondage and leather get-up seen as a cheap form of entertainment to be consumed by the male gaze whereby “the boundaries of the body” are understood as being “the limits of the social hegemonic.”[30]

In conclusion, it is clear that, despite punk’s rallying, laissez-faire message of freedom and ‘anything goes,’ women once again were the ones who still continued to suffer. In punk’s homosocial discourse, which many all-female bands such as The Slits did certainly test, their bodies were still not completely reclaimed from the clutches of the male-centred, taboo-discouraging, and culturally hegemonic society. Female figures such as Albertine were undeniably superficially subversive, and outwardly relayed the punk message, yet within their inner selves still felt the effects of subjugation in terms of their confiscated bodies. Merely the title of Albertine’s memoir is repetitively superficial, focusing on things that could relate to anyone, not specifically a member of the punk movement. Ultimately, the patriarchal tendencies outlined by thinkers such as Cixous and Butler incontrovertibly find themselves in punk, and indeed “confiscate” the bodies of punk women.

[1] Thompson, Stacy, ‘Punk Cinema’, Cinema Journal, 43.2, (2004), 47-66 (p. 47).

[2] Cixous, Helene, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Signs, 1.4, (1976), pp. 875-893 p. 880.

[3] ibid, p875.

[4] Albertine, Viv, ‘Friendly Fire’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 396

[5] ibid, p. 396

[6] Cixous, Helene, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Signs, 1.4, (1976), pp. 875-893, p877.

[7] Albertine, Viv, ‘Blow Job’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 114

[8] Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16.3, (1975), pp. 6-18.

[9] Albertine, Viv, ‘Blow Job’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 114

[10] Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16.3, (1975), pp. 6-18.

[11] ibid

[12] Albertine, Viv, ‘Hell’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 284

[13] Albertine, Viv, ‘Ari Up’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 166

[14] Cixous, Helene, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Signs, 1.4, (1976), pp. 875-893, p876

[15] Albertine, Viv, ‘Ari Up’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 166

[16] Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger – an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, (ARK Edition: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd, 1984), p122.

[17] ibid, p6

[18] Butler, Judith, ‘Gender Trouble: Subversive Bodily Acts’, in Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (London: W. W. Norton, 2010), p. 2546

[19] ibid, p.2546

[20] Albertine, Viv, ‘Blow Job’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 114-115

 

[21] Butler, Judith, ‘Gender Trouble: Subversive Bodily Acts’, in Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (London: W. W. Norton, 2010), p. 2545

[22] Albertine, Viv, ‘Shit and Blood’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 27

[23] Gramsci, Antonio, Prison Notebooks, ed. by Buttigieg, Joseph (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1992).

[24] Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger – an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, (ARK Edition: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd, 1984), p3.

[25] Albertine, Viv, ‘First Guitar’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 92

[26] Butler, Judith, ‘Gender Trouble: Subversive Bodily Acts’, in Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (London: W. W. Norton, 2010), p. 2544

[27] ibid, p2543.

[28] Albertine, Viv, ‘The Shop’, in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 128

[29] Young, Iris Marion, ‘Abjection and Oppression: Unconscious Dynamics of Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia.’ Presented at the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy Meetings, Northwestern University, (1988). Quoted in Butler, Judith, ‘Gender Trouble: Subversive Bodily Acts’, in Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (London: W. W. Norton, 2010), p. 2546

[30] ibid, p2544

Advertisements