Welcome back to Book Journeys, where I talk about books that have shaped my point of view in some way or another, and the moments in my life where they became most important. This week, you’re in for a ride!
A couple years back, I was sitting at my dining room table, adjusting and readjusting my skirt. There were a few years when it was always a little uncomfortable coming home, all the space to myself, my own room – it felt menacing under the watchful eyes of my parents. So, picture it: We have family friends over tonight, staunchly Republican ones. I face a barrage of questions, field them the best I can, and am repeatedly met with the response, “Oh, that’s so Berkeley.” It gets a bit tedious to hear after the fourth or fifth echo, especially when they keep justifying the fact that they prefer not to call themselves feminists. And after I combat with a particularly heated response, our family friend looks at me and says, “You used to be so sweet. What happened?”
I go quiet, because it feels like that’s what she’s begging me to do. “You used to be so sweet,” dripping with contempt for my vocalizations, longing for a time when I didn’t have quite so much to say. The sweetness she was talking about is one I have been asked to summon every day since then. It’s a sit-nice-and-cross-your-legs type of sweetness, a molasses of feminine passivity. It’s not really sweetness she wants; it’s compliance.
You used to be so quiet. You used to be so nervous, you used to be afraid to speak up. Where did that Annie go? I am taunted by calls of shy girl, nice girl. Shadows of the shells I outgrew encase their words as I retreat into the back and forth motion of cutting up my dinner. I stop talking now like I would have back then. I start to believe that I have become a nuisance, starting arguments at otherwise cordial family dinners.
I rinse my dish, go upstairs, and take refuge in the words of my punk-comedian-goddess Carrie Brownstein. Low levels of Sleater-Kinney play over a small speaker as I open to the marked page in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. The book details Brownstein’s upbringing in Olympia, Washington, in the shadows of the early punk scene. She talks about the ecstasy of writing her early albums with the band, the morphology of their music over the years, and her indoctrination into music and queerness as a young woman.
I read a line, and brush my thumb over it as a tactile response to its truth: “I suppose some people are born with the certainty that they own sound or volume.”
It was the dawn of my Riot Grrrl obsession. Someone was finally talking about this forced silence I was feeling. Headlines all over the world shut down women, demand their passivity, politeness, purity, but a glimmer of hope – a call to action – shines through the words of Carrie Brownstein. And so, albeit in a perhaps naïve way, punk was my new niche, and though I didn’t belong to the epicenter of the community by any means, the aftershocks were crucial to my understanding of my internal power. Punk as a movement formed out of queer femmes needing a platform they are consistently denied access to. Yet even with that history, men are remembered, given a voice and an amp and broadcasted worldwide while women perform in the token ragged bars of the punk scene. Somehow, the woman is the “other” in the music world.
This actually calls to mind something I learned in class, a formal distinction between belonging to something and being “other” to it. In cognitive science, here’s this idea that some members of a category are more central than others. For instance, for the category of ‘red,’ a bright, fire-truck tone is more central than a salmon or a pink. For the category of ‘bird,’ a crow is more central than an emu. So, it’s like in the category of ‘person,’ men are somehow more central than women, more salient, specific, iconic to this category. And we see this manifest all around us: in medicine, we run lab tests on men and ignore side effects they might have on women; in business, we assume to see men in seats of CEOs; in music, we expect male artists, producers, and when women make a foray into this world, we question whether they belong.
“What does it feel like to be a woman in a band?” Brownstein is often asked. “I realized that those questions – that talking about the experience – had become part of the experience itself. More than anything, I feel that this meta-discourse, talking about the talk, is part of how it feels to be a ‘woman in music.’ To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band – I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’”
As a woman, you are forced to feel your embodiment, to consider its place in the scenery of every moment. As often as I think about the space I inhabit, I think about being a woman while inhabiting it. When an interviewer asks Carrie Brownstein, “What does it feel like to be a woman in a band?” he assumes that she should not be where she is, doing what she does. She should not be making noise. It drips with the same denial, the same distaste as those words so often thrown at me: You used to be so sweet.
That’s why I read those stories. Feeling heard, feeling at home in a history of women who have challenged the status quo, who have made noise, rustled feathers, been an angry voice at the dinner table when their family just wants them to chill. I love to be critical, and I kind of enjoy being a nuisance to my family if it means voicing when I disagree. I’ve not always felt comfortable doing so, in fact, not until the past year did I really feel comfortable, but now I relish the opportunity to voice dissent, to not always sit tight and agree.
Since then, I’ve been eating up memoirs just like this one. Another obvious favorite is Just Kids by Patti Smith. Published in 2010, the book details Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe with a sense of nostalgia and honesty that I would consider unparalleled. The singer’s storied lyrical genius translates beautifully into prose. The story follows two icons at the birth of the punk movement, partners and roommates in mid-70s New York.
If you want to read about the very beginning of the Riot Grrrl response to masculine punk, you need to get your hands on a copy of Girls to the Front. It catalogs the debut of bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear, all so gnarly with their unabashed attitude. These girls are all crushing it on stage, being anything but docile, spitting words into audiences that maniacally shout them back.
These girls are not patient. They are raw, edgy and ruthless. They will do anything but keep quiet.
These girls are not sweet, but that said – why would they want to be?
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!