I have been on tour in America with Joanna Gruesome for the past few weeks, playing shows and venues that are a bit bigger and a lot less welcoming than I have been used to. It has been a relentless and tiring experience, playing more shows and travelling further and for longer than I ever have before. Its been amazing but its also coincided with my feelings towards my body, my clothes and my gender shifting hugely.
This has happened for a few reasons I think, some of them really positive. This past year I’ve been surrounded by incredibly inspiring, thoughtful people who have shared their own experiences of their gender with me and this has changed the way I think about it forever and I am so grateful for it. There are also loads of incredible bands who are using their music and performances to express ways of approaching gender that have helped me to think about my own. The new Spook School album is probably one of the main reasons I’ve been thinking about this stuff loads on this tour and I recommend you all go and listen to it now.
This week I read this article by Katie from Priests and it totally helped me to align some of these thoughts that have been flying round my head all tour; both the positive ones and the negative. This quote particularly expresses something that feels close to my experience although I have never expressed before to myself
“I’m not sure I am a woman. I am pretty sure I am not a man. I’m not sure I know what it means to be a woman beyond being read as “woman” in others’ eyes, and the experience of being perceived does not an identification make. Being a woman is not something I consciously “do” on a regular basis.”
Its may be inevitable that my thoughts about the fluidity of my own gender, the excitement of all those possibilities and the rejecting of a binary that has been hindering my relationship with myself and my body for years, has coincided with this period of intense performance and scrutiny (both self scrutiny and laying myself open to scrutiny from outward eyes). My bandmate Kate and I are in a slightly unusual position of having replaced Alanna in Joanna Gruesome this year and our genders played a role in us being chosen. Politically and sonically it was important to have non male identifying bodies and voices in the band. And even though I understand this and believe in the importance of this in terms of increasing the visibility of non male genders in music, I guess until recently I didn’t think about the ramifications for me of being in a band because of my gender.
I have been a performing musician for 10 years and that whole time I have identified and performed as a woman and have on the whole been comfortable with that in the spaces I’ve played in and have often felt proud of being a woman and inspiring other women to start playing music. However I’ve always aligned that position as a woman with the need for a level of attractiveness which I have also never felt I possessed. This is an anxiety that has come and gone in the different bands I’ve played in – sometimes seeming more relevant, sometimes less. Reading Katie’s writing this morning for maybe the first time in my life expressed to me concisely and in a way that made sense where that anxiety comes from.
My relationship to femme practices has always been an uncomfortable one. When I was a preteen I started to reject what I saw as femme clothing and outfits – I never learnt how to wear make up, I stopped wearing skirts, I never really knew what to do with my hair apart from dye it bright colours. I don’t wanna be simplistic in what femininity is, because a lot of what I did as a teenager was perform a femininity that I found in music and other cultural influences. But it was never overtly femme. I have for a long time, and still do, reject being femme, sometimes in the name of a sort of feminism that sometimes makes sense to me but always out of fear. The fear that if I attempt to appear femme to the world and fail then I will be failing at some crucial aspect of my gender. I have instead turned to some concept of my “natural” gender. But what are the signs of my natural gender? My body shape? My voice? Relying on these has always left me feeling anxious that they also fail to conform to gender as I think it should be. On this tour more than ever I feel that my performance of my gender is failing – its not representing how I feel inside and its not fulfilling the political possibilities of my gender either, as a woman in music. I’m realising now that idea of femme is also my idea of attractiveness and in my mind I am failing at both.
Performing every night is definitely contributing to these anxieties because every night I worry that the clothes I’m wearing don’t express what they should. I worry that my body shape doesn’t fit with the guitar I’m playing and that everything about me doesn’t fit with this band that I have joined. And I worry that my failure to be femme or feminine correlate with my failure to be attractive. And that if I am a woman on stage but I am not attractive then I am worthless. These beliefs are deep rooted and hard to shake, especially in cities so far away from home where the audience is compiled of strangers.
I guess I want my performance on stage to become less connected to any gender. I want to be femme or not femme or femme and not femme all at once during any given performance but for that decision to be motivated not by fear but by excitement at the possibilities. And I wanna get more used to and more comfortable with the idea of how little that femmeness has to do with my gender. And how little femmeness and attractiveness are connected and how little attractiveness has to do with performance. These are all things I know and believe in logically but which are firmly seated inside me and which are hard to control when I am tired and vulnerable.
I don’t think I have a conclusion to these thoughts but I think I have found it so helpful to listen to other people’s experiences of gender and it seems important to talk about them. So often gender is reduced to an outward appearance – the power is given to the audience who read your gender and define it. I want the power to lie within me, I want the ability to define my gender with words and ultimately I want that definition to be as complex and endless as my experiences. It is not one thing or another thing. It is a continuing relationship between me and myself.
The stage is such an exciting opportunity to perform and be what you can’t be everyday, outside on the streets because its too dangerous or too tiring. But its still a space where the audience is reading you and defining you. Ideally I would want this to change. I would want all of us to change the way we interact with performers. Not defining them and gendering them and scrutinising them. But listening to them and watching them in a much more open way. I feels like performers have always been playing with ideas of gender, provoking audiences to challenge these binaries. And that’s amazing. But it isn’t just the performers job. One of my favorite things about DIY is the idea that everyone, performer, promoter, audience is responsible for the space, both physical and cultural, that you are in. Audiences are just as responsible for changing the cultural reliance on gender binaries in performance.
But I suppose if I want to keep performing music in bigger spaces, in bigger bands, which I definitely do, I want to find a way to reconcile how I feel about my self and my body in these spaces which I feel I have little control over. I guess I want to feel comfortable presenting my body to the world and probably just not give a fuck what they read in to it or take from it.