Masculinity in the context of Bikini Kill: Is Violence Necessary to Enjoy a Punk Show?

By Tate DeCarlo, KUPS Loud Rock Music Director

Cover Art by Rhae Schulz-O’Neil, KUPS Media Director

I’ve always accepted violence as an inherent part of punk, in the music itself as well as the culture. An anger-fueled genre of high tempo drums, thrashing guitar and strained screaming vocals; punk embodies rage by nature. Born of youth dissatisfied with the status quo, punk has served as an auditory protest for decades. Across eras, punk music is characterized by a central theme: anti-establishment. To me, punk tears at oppressive societal structures with an urgent fury, not simply upset over their existence but outraged at the lack of action taken to fix them. 

This sentiment is emphasized through the live performance of punk. Singers and band members shriek and hurl themselves into seething crowds. Fans form mosh pits in front of stages, circles in which they engage in a voluntary beat-down, so moved by the music that their frustration can only be released through shoving bodies and flying elbows. Hardcore punk even pioneered the two step, a dance specifically intended to send feet and fists flying with the rhythm. Punk has always been intense, so its coupling with violent crowds seems like a no-brainer. When your preferred musical genre is rooted in fighting inequalities like racism, classism, and police brutality, it seems obvious to condone behavior associated with anger.

I’m not claiming to be a punk show veteran, but I did some time in the Portland and Eugene DIY scenes back home and have seen punk live at larger scale concerts. I’ve been in enough mosh pits to have taken some punches and given some out, to have sustained injuries that I only noticed the next day. I’ve pulled others off the floor to avoid trampling, and to have found camaraderie amongst those I smashed into. I know punk as an outlet of ire and energy, a space where casual violence is recognized as enjoying oneself. 

All of this was turned on its head by a show I saw a few weekends ago: Bikini Kill, a feminist punk group that  changed the face of the genre. Born in the early 1990s in the drizzly Pacific Northwest, the band was formed by a group of female students at Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. Disgruntled by the exclusivity and misogyny of the men in their local punk scene,  Kathleen Hannah, Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox, and Billy Karren came together to form a band that would do the opposite. Driven by second-wave feminism with which they grew up, Bikini Kill became a band intent on bringing to light sexism, androcentrism, women’s subordination, and general inequality faced by female bodied people. The band fought patriarchy in the same manner punk had previously approached other social issues, outraged lyricism at furious volume. Their unique sound ripped apart sexual assault, rape culture, and domestic violence, whilst also campaigning for a wider conception of gender, sexuality, and what it meant to be a woman.

Riding the momentum of the mid-1990s third-wave feminist movement, Bikini Kill pioneered a genre they came to call Riot Grrrl, a play on words replacing the vowel in the infantilizing term “girl” with a guttural growl. The genre sparked inspiration like a cigarette at a gas station, and tore across the country like wildfire. From Olympia, Washington to Washington, DC, the message was simple: Punk had been an outlet for social change for men for decades, and now it was time for women to get their turn. Their music was just as loud, just as angry, just as un-fuck-withable as the men who’d discouraged them from playing in the first place. In a pivotal moment for musical history, rage over gender inequality was publicly conveyed by the women who were experiencing it. Riot Grrrl, and its founders Bikini Kill embrace the same rage I associate with punk today.

Which is why my jaw about hit the floor when I was asked not to mosh at their show. As Bikini Kill stepped out from the darkened stage and tore into the first chord of their hit song “New Radio”, a single guitar riff sent the crowd around me frothing like an angry sea. With a grin on my face I allowed myself to be swept up into the waves of churning bodies, holding onto my friends and pushing back to stay afloat. The crowd bounced and clashed like a shorebreak for the first handful of songs, not the rowdiest but certainly no lazy river. Doc Martens met shins as dyed hair whipped faces. I whirled along with it, having the time of my life. 

After a few more songs, the mosh began to slow and the band paused to catch their breath. Kathleen Hannah took to the mic and addressed the crowd, stoking energy and engaging with her fans. During the interlude, a hand snaked around my left and tapped me on the shoulder. I swiveled around to see a middle aged woman who bore a striking resemblance to my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Donnelly. Met with her stern gaze, the smile faded from my face and I readied myself to apologize for blocking her view. She beat me to the punch before I could open my mouth.

“Hey boys,” she said, gesturing to one of my friends and I, “come on, none of that. Not here.”

At first I was completely taken aback, unsure what she even meant. When I realized she was referring to our involvement in the mosh, I was defensive. It would’ve never occurred to me that moshing at a punk concert could be inappropriate. I wanted to retort, to snap come on, it’s a punk show! We didn’t even start it, we just got sucked in!, but I bit my tongue as she vanished into the crowd. Mosh pits are normal, don’t come if you don’t expect them, I wanted to yell. As I looked after her into the crowd though, the echo of her words in my head drowned out the beginning of the next song.

It was as though her comment drained all my energy, and I wormed my way away from the stage. From the back of the venue, I scanned the onlookers with a new clarity, as if my head was finally above water. Around me, whirlpools of violence ebbed, small pockets here and there, most in front of the stage. Despite them, the vast majority of the audience simply swayed and bounced, occasionally throwing a hand in the air. It was as though small mosh pits were erupting and then dissipating as people moved away. When the dust cleared and the shoving stopped, the culprits moved on to try and incite somewhere else. There was a clear pattern, the perpetrators of violence were always male. It didn’t matter if they were high schoolers younger than me or old hardcore heads, these guys seemed even more confused than I, unable to comprehend why the people around them were so tame. Were they not enjoying the show?

That couldn’t be further than the truth, smiles and whoops of approval flashed and echoed all around me. Mothers holding their daughters’ hands looked just as delighted as the teenage girls clumped together at the front of the stage. Some of the loudest cheers came from the grandmas on their picnic blankets in the back. Picnic blankets, at a punk show? How ridiculous was that? I scoffed. This is probably the only show where you could get away with something like that without being trampled. It was that thought that finally led me to pause. Why was not being trampled a rarity? Why is it normal to have to put yourself in harm’s way to enjoy punk music live? Who enjoys that? I thought back to the belligerent attempts to incite moshing throughout the crowd. Why was it that the men in the audience sought violence while the women around them were more than satisfied with just listening to the music?

The answer lies in masculinity, and more specifically its relationship with casual violence. Hegemonic masculinity restricts the ways men allow each other to express emotion, condemning anything that can be interpreted as remotely feminine. Until Bikini Kill birthed the Riot Grrrl movement, representation for femininity in any form was nearly impossible to find in punk music or culture. The suppression of emotion has become an essential part of manhood, and the only valve through which men believe can release this burden is violence. Punk was, and predominantly still is, completely male dominated. Men in punk are enraged by the state of the world, by society’s shortcomings and inequalities, but because they are not allowed to cry, they lash out instead. Yes, punk is a middle finger to the status quo, inherently a fight, but masculinity has encouraged an ideological battle to become a physical one.  

Bikini Kill’s concert demonstrated that, contrary to my previous beliefs, punk is not intrinsically violent. I believe its brutality is a result of the genre’s historically masculine composition. Because of its male domination, the behaviors embraced to express the emotions it embodies rely on violence. This ostracizes a larger audience who may want to engage with its ideologies but do not feel comfortable because of its brutal nature. What Bikini Kill curated at their show was a space that allowed non-masculine people to enjoy punk with the same anti-establishment messaging, to engage with punk that fights the issues male-fronted punk has overlooked. Bikini Kill’s music is just as punk as any other male band, an expression of frustration in equal magnitude, but violence is not an inherent part of their performances. Violence is a masculine demonstration, and Bikini Kill is anything but.

Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl Movement have carved out a place in punk culture that allows female bodied and other gender identifying people to be a part of punk culture without having to conform to the masculinity that so traditionally comes with it. It is not that women can’t or shouldn’t mosh, it’s that mosh pits are a masculine activity that does not promote a universal expression of the need for social change nor an enjoyment of punk music. People of all gender identities can enjoy crowd violence, but said violence is rooted in masculinity, and it is an unfair expectation to believe that all people will be comfortable in such an environment. Bikini Kill demonstrates that a band can be just as anti-establishment and make just as powerful music without the need for the crowd to kick the shit out of each other for the message to be heard. 

Punk’s reliance on violence is exactly the restrictive behavior that necessitated a movement like Riot Grrrl. Men are not the only people who are unhappy with the state of the world, who seek serious social change, but because of the masculinized approach toward campaigning for social  issues, many will be overlooked. This Bikini Kill concert is demonstrative of male punk’s shortcomings and hypocrisy. While this genre has historically fought for equality across contemporary issues, its normalization and naturalization of violence has done the opposite for engagement with a larger audience. The violent nature of punk music prevents many who may share the same ideologies or frustrations from joining a community that allows them to express it. Though punk music is a genre built on fighting for equality, its outrage has been communicated based on a man’s understanding of how anger is experienced and expressed. 

Though Bikini Kill was an enlightening experience, I am left with more questions than answers. Punk was an essential part of my upbringing and something that I enjoy daily, but I now understand the way it has been shaped by societal structures with which I strongly disagree. Though historically some of the most prominent musical activism and a genre I find highly enjoyable to listen to, punk is flawed. Despite this, I still find moshing a source of an incredible adrenaline rush and one of the most fun augmentations to the experience of listening to music. I love when a crowd forms a pit and when flinging my body around feels like the only way to appreciate the band performing. What does that say about me? I still firmly believe that moshing is a central part of punk as a culture, but not that it is a requiem for every concert. 

I bought tickets to another concert next week. All-male, the footage posted by the bands on tour has been crowd violence incarnate, and despite my new perspective on moshing, I am counting down the days until the show. Is my excitement for a rowdy concert an appreciation for punk music and culture itself? Or is it indicative of a deeper issue, an engrained masculinity of which I am unaware, one that may be affecting my behavior across other spheres?

The realizations prompted by my experience at the Bikini Kill concert have led to an updated perspective on moshing in general. Understanding some of the reasons for violent behavior in this genre can help shape the way I engage with its embodiment now. I give you the concept of conscious moshing, not a complete rejection of moshing, rather a mediated approach toward crowd violence based on context. I’m not looking to give an ultimatum or tell anyone to quit moshing, instead I implore punk show-goers to read the room. Moshing is a choice, and now my choice of whether or not to mosh, as well as the severity of the moshing itself hinges now on the type of show, the people around me, and how appropriate violent behavior would be. At some shows, it is a given and an expectation, but at others it may not be received the same way, just as Bikini Kill demonstrated. 

If the show is one where moshing seems like it would be well received, be aware of your own body and subject position, keep your arms to your chest and obviously avoid unnecessary grabbing or touching. If someone falls near you, help them up, and if you are taller or bigger, don’t forget that others nearby might feel the repercussions of your actions more harshly than you. Just because it is a punk show does not mean that moshing is the optimal course of action, and if it is, participation can still be accomplished in an inclusive manner. I hope that mosh pits will always remain a cornerstone of punk culture, but I also believe that they do not have to be a given. Punk music can exist and be enjoyed without violent masculinity. 

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