Our live music scene has a sexism problem. You needn’t look further than the #ItTakesOne campaign championed by Courtney Barnett, Camp Cope, The Jezebels, Frenzal Rhomb and more to realise it. While it may be a minority of men, it’s still a real group of humans who feel as though they’re entitled to act toward women however they choose, ripping at our social fabric while they do so.
Despite the fact that a logical and well-articulated argument has been put forward, this overwhelming minority refuse to listen. And women continue to feel unwelcome, or straight up unsafe at shows. Unfortunately, it seems it’ll take more than a logical and well-articulated argument to get through to the source of the problem.
Now working away on their debut album, UK’s Petrol Girls are one of wave of post-hardcore bands to identify as feminist, closely associating themselves with the word and the movement. We spoke to founding figure and driving force Ren Aldridge to work out what needs to be done to get through this minority.
This is a problem that’s been around forever, but the conversation about how women are treated at shows and in music in general is really starting to gain some momentum in Australia. According to Ren, the situation in the UK and Europe “Isn’t perfect” however, “It’s improved loads in the last 5 years.”
“There was a real explosion of bands with women in them and also bands that were outwardly feminist. Obviously, just because you’re a women in a band doesn’t mean you have to be a feminist band but that’s something we’ve chosen to take on.”
“You can tell from touring that things in London are a step ahead of other places but everywhere seems to be heading in a more positive direction. I think a lot of it centred around things like D.I.Y Space For London, which is a new space that opened up in South London. A lot of bands are coming out of that.”
Over this period of time, a number of campaigns and initiatives specifically aimed at addressing the issue of equality at live shows were formed. Organisations like D.I.Y Space For London, a social centre catering to a variety of community needs including pro-feminist events like Jam On Your Hands, School Of Frock and others that “encourage women and non-binary people and people who often get excluded from this white male dominated scene, to take up instruments and give it a crack.”
However as Ren explains, 5 years ago it was a very different situation. In fact, a situation not unlike the one we are facing in Australia.
“I sort of remember seeing a few women in bands on stage and thought, ‘Maybe I can have a go at that’ but I felt like all that I could do was play acoustically on my own or as a side role, or an addition to a band. There were a few awesome women that I saw; I remember seeing them and thinking, ‘Whoa, this is amazing’.”
“I tried to start bands with loads of different guy mates but no one was really interested. You need this space where you can suck for a bit. You have to be allowed to be shit, for a bit; I kind of felt like I was never given that opportunity. If I was shit, it was because I was a girl and things like that.”
“I use to run house shows in my kitchen in this Punk house I was living in, so I started to make an effort to make sure the shows weren’t mainly men. Then, I started running International Women’s Day shows, that were all women line ups, and then on the third one of them put together Petrol Girls, which was all girls to start with.”
While most bands will openly support equality, or if anything, not publicly endorse inequality, it’s not often an outfit will put themselves directly in the line of fire by labelling themselves as feminist. Ren explains that at in the beginning of the band, it wasn’t such a big deal. However, now they’re starting to outgrow their “cozy little feminist bubble,” the heat is picking up: “I get accused of misandry and all kind of shit and it’s like ‘I’ve got two men in this band!'”
“The internet is a weird place. Some of our new songs are very in your face. One of the new songs on the record finishes with the line ‘Touch me again and I’ll fucking kill you‘ shouted again and again and again. People seem to really struggle with that.”
“There seems to be a level of feminism that the mainstream is comfortable with but if you’re pushing it any further all of a sudden you’re going too far. They’ll say ‘Touch me again and i’ll fucking kill you? that’s violent!’ or whatever. They’ll say ‘Why can’t you be like these nice, calm feminists?’ But no, we’re all part of the same movement here and I’ll react to sexual violence in whatever way I fucking want to.”
The sad reality is, Ren explains, that the band “completely” expected this level of vitriol from the unnamed, faceless masses. That said, the band don’t just cop it lying down.
“Sometimes I do troll bait. We took our video clip a little further. It’s a subversion of this old performance art piece. I started by painting my mate blue, and I whacked him on the bum to play on the sexual nature of that power dynamic. Most art is about sex – including music. So I wanted to emphasis the sexual power dynamic…The righteous male social justice warriors of the Internet were appalled and outraged. I did it knowing full well that would happen though.”
For Petrol Girls, it’s not enough to just invoke the ire of these people. In an attempt to make sense of why people say these things, they attempt to look beneath the surface of it all. Their findings thus far; “It’s generally people who are really privileged in their position and they’re scared of that being taken away from them.”
“I think it’s really dangerous that these arguments get set up like there’s two people on a level playing field. But actually what you’ve got, say with feminism, is these men who are in a position of power attacking down the hierarchy. It’s not level at all. I get told a lot to find a middle ground, it’s like ‘No! That’s not how it works.'”
Of course, for putting their necks on the line and speaking up on the issue, the band has also received plenty of love. Thankfully, more love than hate.
“I appreciate it every single time. Whenever we come off stage and people take the time to come up to us and say what it means to them – Especially other women. When they come up and say that the songs have affected them personally or give them confidence about certain things, or they want to talk about their experiences – that means the world to me. Otherwise we start to feel a bit isolated and crazy.
“I really need the support from that community. People think that because I’m in a hardcore band, I’m tough enough to take it all and to an extent, yeah. But, I need really need the community to look after me as well, and I’m trying to make a point of saying this at the moment.”
The decision to use post-hardcore as a vehicle to spread their message was a unique one. The genre is aggressive, and from the outside, at times threatening. But as Ren explains, it was the only way.
“Firstly I’m rubbish at playing acoustic, so there’s that. Acoustic music can be powerful in it’s own right and I don’t think you have to be aggressive to be powerful. But for me, personally, that was my route. It’s the aggression and the catharsis of it. A few years ago I had all kinds of trouble with anxiety and anger management, so finding this really aggressive outlet for those feelings…which all stemmed from sexism when I stop and think about what it was that I’m angry about – Just being able to shout about it feels so good.”
Obviously this is a problem as old as live music itself but the narrative is only relatively new for us, whereas in the UK, they’ve been working on a solution for some time. Ren walks us through her thoughts of what needs to happen now that the conversation is moving ahead. In fact, the solution should simply start with “listening to the women that are most effected by it, as well as making a conscious platform for women to play.”
“There’s also things in the UK like The Good Night Out campaign, which trains venues up to deal with sexual assault and harassment. It trains their staff in how to deal with those issues. Love Sex Hate Sexism campaign – started right in the old school punk end of things. They do flyers about consent, explaining the idea that it’s not OK to try and sleep with someone who’s passed out. They hand them out at shows.”
“I think what needs to happen is men need to be educated in what is and isn’t OK, and that men take it upon themselves if they see something happening to not just leave it to the women but to speak up and say that’s out of line. Educate each other.”
Ren adds that good things can come from “not always praising mucho behaviour and thinking ‘hey, if we’re having this really aggressive pit right here, are we literally smacking women and moving them to the sides and the backs of the room, is that happening?’ Just being aware of how much space you take up. There’s so much stuff that can be done, I think.”
Petrol Girls will be releasing their debut album Talk Of Violence in November, so anyone who doesn’t like what the band has to say, well, they aren’t going anywhere. More about the album…
“It’s heavier than the stuff we put out before. We wrote it very quickly; it was a wicked experience. We’ve reached this point where we can really go for it, so I was throwing ideas and feelings into this riffy, whirlpool thing. We decided to call it Talk Of Violence when we heard it.”
So while it might be some time before Petrol Girls head Down Under for a tour, perhaps we can follow in the footsteps of UK, continue to hear the conversation, take action to educate, and shape our live music scene to be a place of equal enjoyment for all fans (not just the ones with penises) in time for their arrival.