‘Normal’ Was Never Good Enough: Why We Still Need to Fight for Representation on Stage

It’s exciting to see tour announcements, all-dayers, and festivals filling my timeline once again. I’ve been to two post-lockdown gigs now and it has been a joy to reunite with musicians, friends, and those acquaintances that you only ever see on cig breaks between bands. 

Apart from a few notable exceptions, I can’t help but notice that a lot of the gigs in my diary are looking heavily dominated by cis white men. I’m not the only one to notice; a conversation about the ratio of women to men recently highlighted a real disparity. Have we forgotten all the hard work that went into diversifying line-ups before the pandemic?

As we fight to ‘get back to normal’, it’s important that we remember that ‘normal’ was never good enough in the first place.

Before COVID hit, there had been years of shouting and grafting to improve representation on stage within the punk scene. That activism was starting to make a tangible difference, with promoters, festival bookers, and bands making an active effort to ensure their line-ups were inclusive and more diverse. In particular, we were starting to see a lot more women on stage, although it was widely acknowledged that there was more work to be done to ensure the representation of other historically marginalised groups. 

Beyond what we see on stage, a lot of hard work went on behind the scenes to ensure that shows were safe, comfortable spaces for an audience with differing needs. Groups like the Good Night Out Campaign, Safe Gigs For Women, as well as initiatives like Ask for Angela and Shawna Potter’s book Making Spaces Safer have made headway in first acknowledging that there’s a problem, and then working to fix it. As gigs return, it’s important that these lessons are not forgotten. Safety, inclusivity, and zero-tolerance for verbal or physical abuse and harassment should be at the top of any venue and promoter’s list. 

Instead of ‘going back to normal’ we need to be better than normal.

As live music starts to return, and we hope to replicate the nostalgic memories of gigs past, it’s essential that we don’t turn too far into the past. An 18-month live music hiatus has hit the brakes on a lot of bands’ plans, however, we cannot let it arrest the momentum of improvement that took so many years to develop.

In 2021, it’s not good enough to book one woman on an all-day line-up of bands. It’s not acceptable to have an entirely cis white male line-up. Promoters need to actively include girls, gays and theys on their bills, as well as a representative mix of people of differing ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities and vulnerabilities. The punk rock community preaches acceptance, but it still takes work to demonstrate it.

Representation is an important part of making people feel comfortable at a gig – if you see yourself represented on stage, then you know you are welcome in that space. I feel safer at gigs where marginalised genders are playing because I know that my needs have been considered. I feel even safer at gigs where female musicians aren’t treated like a ‘big deal’ or a novelty. Whilst great strides have been made, there is still a lot of work to do, and it’s especially important now to be inclusive not only of women but of other more marginalised groups in the punk scene: integrating people of colour, queer, trans, non-binary folk and individuals with different abilities and intersectionalities into gigs until it’s normal, unremarkable and everyone is treated entirely equally.

Positive discrimination is a hard concept to swallow when we all agree that bands should be booked on merit, however, it is a useful stepping stone in the process to normalise representation on stage. If you’re booking a gig, you need to consider your line-up: if it’s full of stereotypical punk rockers (by which I mean cishet white males, typically with Black Flag, Descendents or Alkaline Trio tattoos) then you need to actively look to change that. 

When questioned about an all cis white male line-up recently, a promoter friend said he’s struggled to find any bands with women in to book. He’s asked a few, but none were available to play at the time. That does raise an interesting point: not all bands are ready to play post-lockdown yet. There’s still a lot of concern about the virus, many people haven’t had the chance to practice properly yet, and some people’s priorities have changed. I applaud anyone for making the effort to try and book a more diverse line-up, and if you’re struggling to find bands with availability then there are a range of resources that can help. Hell Hath No Fury has a directory of Women, Trans, Non-Binary and Queer-Powered Punx. There are collectives like Loud Women or Decolonise Fest, festivals like Nice as Pie or Ladiyfest, and plenty of playlists to scour for recommendations. If in doubt, ask other bands or promoters for their recommendations. A list of resources is included below. 

Beyond that, in 2021 it’s not acceptable for venues to be unsafe or inaccessible. Adequate toilet facilities are first on my personal list: women, trans, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals have different needs to cis males, and something as simple as having a wee shouldn’t be the challenge it often is. Cubicles with working locks and ample toilet roll surely can’t be that hard to achieve, yet it’s still a rarity at a lot of independent venues, let alone the provision of gender non-specific facilities. 

Safety is also essential in terms of behaviour; no one in the crowd, band or staff should be made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. It is completely unacceptable to touch someone inappropriately without their consent, to make lewd comments at performers, or to question someone’s personal choices in a way that might make them feel unwelcome (e.g., their choice of clothing, their gender presentation, their choice not to drink, etc.). It’s also essential that we don’t fall into the easy trap of ableism; spaces should be physically accessible, multi-level viewing is great, quieter areas are beneficial, and good ventilation and temperature control can help with sensory issues and anxiety. A venue that stocks alcohol-free and gluten-free beers also gets a gold star immediately. 

There has been a long-held double standard for women in bands (and presumably other marginalised groups, although I can’t speak on anyone’s behalf). Women in punk bands seem to be both criticised and celebrated more than cis white men – who we’re more used to seeing on stage – with no shortage of people ready to remark on womens’ appearance, stage presence or banter in a way that is more pronounced than the commentary on their male counterparts. Much of this critique is well-intentioned, but as fans, we need to be careful not to overemphasise the importance of gender or other characteristics, and treat artists equally. 

There is an unspoken expectation for women fronting bands to be the embodiment of all feminist ideals, their inclusion in the band an act of activism in itself, but we need to move beyond that to understand that anyone can be in a band (especially a four-chord punk band) and ultimately many of us are here for fun, not to change the world.

The stereotype of women as ‘groupies’ is unfortunately persistent, even now. Shortly before the pandemic, a platonic male friend of mine was told to, “Sort your woman out,” after I’d said ‘no’ to request about a show I was promoting. At a gig this weekend, there were two separate incidences of men talking to a women in an unreasonable manner, then turning to her male friends to say, “Is this your girlfriend?” implying they should correct her. Whilst watching a band, another woman was asked, “Is your husband playing?” Women attend shows in their own right, not as a counterpart to a male companion. The man stood next to her is not her boyfriend and, even if he is, he cannot speak for her. 

These persistent instances of offhand sexism (from a crowd that are performatively feminist and inclusive), are something I’ve repeatedly experienced in my years of attending gigs, however I can’t even begin to imagine the ‘casual’ racism, ableism or homophobia that others might still be subjected to. Rather than returning to ‘normal’, we each need to consciously question our inherited views, our biases and our potential shortcomings, and continue improve ourselves as well as our scene. This, in combination with a push for representation on stage, is what we need to make punk rock a truly inclusive community.

It is frankly weird that we can still have events where half the crowd is female, but there’s only one woman in a line-up composed of 40 people. We – those who aren’t represented on stage – are turning up, buying tickets, buying t-shirts and fuelling the scene. The experience of women at gigs had improved dramatically before the pandemic, and we cannot allow a regression to previous standards. Instead, the move towards representation, safety and diversity needs to be treated as a priority and extended to other traditionally marginalised groups.

Normal isn’t good enough. Instead of ‘going back to normal’ we need to be better than normal. 

Resources to help make your gig more inclusive

Article by Sarah Williams. Cover photo by Cold Front Photography.

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