Thursday, March 12, 2015

Quoted: Ellen Willis on Patti Smith and Gender

I've always wondered if she were afraid of her considerable power. I'm also uncomfortable with the androgynous one-of-the-guys image; it's rebelliousness is seductive, but it plays into a kind of misogyny --  endemic to bohemian circles and, no doubt, to the punk rock scene -- that consents to distinguish women who act like guys (and is also sexy and conspicuously "liberated") from the general run of stupid girls. -- Ellen Willis
(note: I think I may have posted this before, but I wanted to go into further detail why I think this kind of essentialism is problematic.)

I've always looked at Patti Smith as "proto-genderqeer." The language may not have been around when she was starting out, but the script is achingly familiar. In a 1993 issue of Details magazine, she said, "All through childhood I resisted the role of a confused skirt tagging the hero. Instead I was searching for someone crossing gender boundaries, someone both to be and to be with. I never wanted to be Wendy -- I was more like Peter Pan." I realize the danger in retroactively assigning queer identities, but I think this aptly shows how she sees gender. It's also important to note, as Willis suggests here, she came up in a scene that was unfriendly to women. But what makes me uncomfortable with this quote, and the Sarah Schulman one I posted a while back, is the assumption that a women should be supportive of "sisterhood." Schulman felt betrayed and accused Patti Smith of appropriating lesbian identities. She did nothing of the sort. She sometimes sang from a male POV, which could be interpreted as misogynistic, but her lack of a commitment to feminism is instead referenced. (That she used the "n-word" in a song title is curiously ignored.) Male artists aren't asked to perform ideological purity test. Even now, when was the last time a male singer-songwriter was asked if he was a feminist?

If it looks like I'm being an apologist, I guess I am, but time and time again I see female artists forced to question their choices that it overshadows the actual work that they do.