Girls: meet your punk foremothers

Stephanie Phillips enjoys rare footage on The Culture Show's Girls Will be Girls episode but is left wanting more than talk of fashion, women's sex appeal and lingering concerns over the survival of the female punk spirit

Stephanie Phillips, 6 July 2014

When it comes to documentaries on women in punk, the topic is usually given a brief five minute recap. A few token women are name-checked in between various dog-toothed male veterans discussing whether Lydon or Strummer influenced them the most. So when I see The Culture Show has a special half hour feature on women in punk I immediately sit down to see what it is all about.

In Girls Will be Girls, presenter Miranda Sawyer documents the history of women in punk during the early era of 1976/77 when it was limited to squats and small shows across London. Focusing on the stories of veterans Viv Albertine, guitarist in The Slits, and Chrissie Hynde, Sawyer inquisitively asks whether the female punk spirit still survives today. The answer is obviously yes, but let's move on.

As a music nerd, I have sat through a fair few hours of grainy footage showcasing half lit basements and grey portraits of cities and landscapes that I somewhat recognise. The idea that new footage of these well documented bands existed seemed like a stretch but lo and behold, rare footage of The Slits, The Raincoats and a young Pretender-less Chrissie Hynde appear before my very eyes.

It's certainly refreshing to hear the women who started it all reminiscing about the old days. There's a particularly funny story about Viv Albertine getting kicked out of her own band by Sid Vicious because she couldn't play guitar well enough that alone makes the show worthwhile.

The girls' ease with one another allowed them to celebrate their own aggressively feminine outlook

The film then takes a sad but obvious turn away from the music to, you guessed it, fashion. It certainly is true that the punks that frequented The Roxy nightclub and SEX had a certain ability to throw together an outfit to shock the average Sun reading lad back then but now it just seems boring.

Everyone and their Great Aunt Sylvia know about Vivienne Westwood's shop SEX and how she tried to sell her reassembled plastic and probably highly sweaty tat by fobbing them off on local bands. It's been done so why don't we move on and talk about the music?

The constant focus on fashion, looks and the women's sex appeal or lack of it does become grating. However, the idea that women liked to be seen as asexual is interesting, as Chrissie Hynde explains: "You weren't dressing to attract the opposite sex, you were dressing to tell everyone to go fuck themselves."

In hindsight, whether they adopted this persona of asexuality because it was their identity or because it was a way to fit in or avoid harassment is a question that will never be fully answered.

Throughout the documentary we are teased into thinking the subject that we really want to discuss is going to arrive but it never truly does. As good as Girls Will Be Girls is, we never get a full analysis of exactly how influential and revolutionary these women were and still are in some cases.

The impact of our early punk foremothers on today's culture cannot be stressed enough. The Slits merged punk's DIY ethos with the late Ari Up's love of roots and reggae and exacting feminine rhythms to create their trademark sound. It was also the girls' ease with one another that allowed them to celebrate their own aggressively feminine outlook and write the proto-riot grrrl anthem 'Typical Girls'. Meanwhile, The Raincoats' art rock canvas has been copied by just about every post punk band since the early 1980s and Poly Styrene's operatic vocal warble influenced riot grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna, who based her scream on Poly's. Poly's lyrics were truly ahead of their time; hearing a small girl in a day glo outfit, with braces on her teeth, scream about consumerism, identity and environmentalism makes 'God Save the Queen' look, well, a bit wimpy if you ask me.

It is apparently decided that 'the youth of today' are doing it wrong

When making a link between the fetish gear heavily worn by punks back then and hyper sexualised modern pop culture, it is apparently decided in this programme that 'the youth of today' are doing it wrong. This seemingly obligatory smearing of young women has to be either ironic or just plain unaware.

Perhaps there are three things guaranteed in this life: death, taxes and the knowledge that, no matter what, young people will always be told that they're useless. Let's not even start on the fact that they're basically comparing a counter culture movement with a mainstream business. Does anyone remember what was popular in 1977? It was David Soul (who even briefly features on the programme as a star of the times). Not that revolutionary at all.

There is a very brief nod towards the young women currently involved in punk with the appearance of the teenage all women of colour punk band Skinny Girl Diet but it's not enough.

To give it credit, Girls Will Be Girls is a celebration of older women. Women who were trailblazers; whether they gave it up years ago or are still gigging every night, they deserve to be remembered. Of course we need more than 30 minutes to remember all the amazing women who were involved in the punk scene but this doesn't have to be the last documentary on women in punk.

With the revived interest that documentaries such as From the Back of the Room and The Punk Singer have brought to the public there is more chance than ever that the foremothers of punk can get to tell their stories for themselves.

You can catch Girls Will be Girls on BBC iPlayer until 10pm on Tuesday 8 July.

Image description:

Delilah of Skinny Girl Diet (eyes closed, with guitar and wearing black) at the microphone at Roundhouse Rising in February 2014. She is surrounded with purple light and a screen can be seen behind her. By Paul Hudson, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

The Goldfish // Posted 06 July 2014 at 23:58

The thing that bugged me about the documentary was the repeated sentiment that "It didn't matter what you looked like, anyone could be a punk." Only quite obviously it did - all the period punk women were thin white girls without physical impairments. It's true they didn't have to be conventionally gorgeous and this departure from fashionable femininity did undoubtedly inspire later artists of all shapes, sizes and colours. But even so, it seems very un-punk to rose-tint that particular issue.

jj // Posted 08 July 2014 at 20:39

"all the period punk women were white" - not quite, Poly Styrene who is mentioned in that article/featured in the programme wasn't - her father was Somalian.

The Goldfish // Posted 11 July 2014 at 20:49

jj, my apologies and thanks - I didn't know that and I didn't notice, despite the fact I was thinking it during the programme.

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About the author

Stephanie Phillips

Stephanie Phillips is a journalist and blogger who runs her own blog about women in music called Don't Dance Her Down Boys. She spends far too much time watching music documentaries and searching for the perfect ice cream sundae. You can follow her on twitter @stephanopolus

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