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Punk and Gender Expression

by Rowan Bagley

In 1975, Patti Smith released her album Horses, which featured cover art by a relatively unknown photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe. The black and white photograph features Smith leaning against a bare wall and wearing masculinized clothing while staring into the camera. There were no leather jackets or torn jeans or revolutionary slogans, but the dissent was there for anyone to see.

This stark portrayal of androgyny by a female rock musician hadn’t been seen before in a scene where female stars were expected to dress like “coy sex kittens or wronged blues belters”, making Smith’s unisex photograph all the more exciting. Women in the public eye (or outside it) have long been pushed to have their appearance be accessible to the male gaze, often in disregard of their own comfort or personal taste. Smith turned this idea on its head with the assertion that female punk rockers could dress however they pleased.

Punk has always been rooted in anti-establishment ideals, including the establishment of proscribed gender expression. For this reason, punk artists of any gender have not been sequestered into any one “look” based on that gender. Siouxsie Sioux chose to wear bondage gear. The Runaways aligned themselves with a masculinized, “unladylike” aesthetic. Perhaps the one of the most radical instances of non-binary gender expression in punk music came when Iggy Pop, often called The Godfather of Punk, donned a dress and a Dior clutch for a photoshoot in the spring 2011 issue of T Magazine. This embrace of a traditionally feminized appearance by a masculinized person is radical because it acknowledges that feminine aesthetics are deemed as second rate to masculine ones and then proceeds to give these sexist ideals a massive middle finger. A man in a dress is revolutionary because we are told that the feminine is shameful. Not only did all these choices spit in the face of deeply entrenched gender roles, they also rejected what could be seen as “sexy” or easily digestible by mass media.

Part of what makes the punk movement radical is that it gives space for gender exploration and expression, which is inherently revolutionary in a Westernized culture that places so much value on a gender binary. Anyone in the punk scene can put on a pair of tartan print pants and a leather jacket studded with safety pins and feel comfortable, regardless of gender, pushing ideals of strict gender expression into the background, if not disregarding them entirely. In a world where the terms “men” and “women” are inherently pitted against each other (and the term “nonbinary” having only recently broken into mainstream circles), the punk movement recognizes that to be truly revolutionary, the establishment of gender needs to be challenged.


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