Priests' Frontperson on Finding Femme in Punk
Photo by Hayes Waring
Washington DC’s Priests express the urgency, anxiety, and possibility of the present moment as well as any band today. Their most recent EP, out on Don Giovanni Records, “Bodies Control Money and Power,” pushes us hard to reconsider comfortable notions of sexuality, relationships, mainstream politics, traditional girl power, and the other trappings of the status-quo. They deliver their message with anthemic vocals placed skillfully over catchy dance basslines and haunted surf guitar chords.
The band is made up of Katie Alice Greer, Taylor Mulitz, Gideon Jaguar, and Daniele Daniele. The quartet also manage Sister Polygon Records, where they’ve released music by equally radical acts like Neonates, Sneaks, and Pink Wash.
Priest’s frontperson Katie is also an avid visual artist and writer and focuses on the intersection of mainstream politics, gender, class, and sexuality. We asked Katie to talk about how she’s been thinking about gender and music in 2015. -Victoria Ruiz
A Narrative on Femme Practice in Punk
‘Femme’ is not “man” or “woman”; it is presentation of self. Most of the time, femme is not allowed. It is written off as ‘too gaudy,’ ‘distracting,’ ‘in poor taste,’ ‘unsophisticated.’ “It’s just not my style,” says a figure of authority. “I just prefer the real you, with no makeup,” says your lover. “It’s not the way I like to see my employees dressed around the office,” says your manager. So, how do we practice femme in punk?
How do we practice femme in anything? Show me where in the world we thrive in heavy makeup; point to the spot in history when we wore the highest heels and they respected us for it. Who grew their hair long, clipped it back in neon bow barrettes and subsequently made more money? Who felt safer in a dress than in pants? When were we admired for the way we looked and also trusted for our intellect? When were we shown love, rather than resentment, for our ability to command visible attention?
Show me where in the world we thrive in heavy makeup; point to the spot in history when we wore the highest heels and they respected us for it.
“You’re too hot to live in our house” I was once told in response to my housing application. The place was perfect: a beautiful neighborhood, affordable rent, and even a recording studio complete with vocal booth. Two men in their 20s who looked like they played lacrosse in high school met me for the housing tour. We joked about chore wheels and other customs of shared housing. I dressed down for the meeting in jeans and a tank top, pulled my then-long hair back into a ponytail and wore probably little makeup. This was hardly high femme, but certain clues still gave me away: painted toenails, some bracelets, maybe a purse. We left the meeting shaking hands and they assured me they’d email with confirmation of the good news later that week. Instead a few days later I got, “It’s nothing against you, you seem great. It’s just that our girlfriends would probably be jealous lol. No hard feelings.”
I offer this anecdote to illustrate the strange anti-power of femme. If you look feminine, even casual and femme, even restrained and femme, even “hey-I’m-just-one-of-the-guys” and femme, and you’re automatically an instigator. You are, to certain predilections, a sexual threat. Sure, I might be grateful that I’m attractive to some jocks. It is often safer to be desired than reviled. But, these two seemingly-opposite sides of the coin are more related than different. “You are too hot” might as well be “You are not worthwhile” or “You pose a problem.”
What does it mean to be desired when love is expressed through objectification? How can I be grateful for non-love? I want to know, where is my reward? What the fuck do I get out of it? Being femme, even when desirable, is alienated rather than embraced. It is, at best, compliment with a backhand.
What does it mean to be desired when love is expressed through objectification?
And in punk, how do we measure our livelihood? Praxis may very well be an act of survival and continued existence, the connection drawn between presentation and agency. I feel more visible when I wear a dress on stage but typically less respected. I never feel truly safe. Will you listen to me despite my wingtip eyeliner, or because of it? I wonder how many self-identified femmes feel both visible and respected. If punk is truly a community standing in opposition to patriarchal, masc-exclusive world order and not a microcosm of oppressions at large, then there is a place for me and my animal print spandex bodysuit and lace up velour boot-wearing experiences, right? Or does that make me untrustworthy here, too? If I wear jeans and t-shirts sometimes, and skirts and heels others, which one is the “real” me?
I identify less with “woman” and more with “femme.” 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. I do, on the other hand, wear mascara. I drool over beautiful and delicate lingerie. I listen to Nicki Minaj, Prince and David Bowie. Right now I like shades of red and pink; I wear them as much as possible. These things don’t make me a man or woman but they’re related to how I understand and construct my femme-ness. These are personal associations with femme, not objective definitions. Femme to me is perhaps not femme to you. Femme to me is a multiplicity. It is my many dimensions rather than a reduced, flat page of paper. It is theater, it is communication of a reality existing in negative space between contradictions. In the words of philosopher Avital Ronnell, “the power to create distance, to dis-identify with one’s self, to mask and play around, and to perform different versions of oneself.”
Even if we’re fingernail-painting, crop top-lounging, flower bouquet-wielding gurlz to the extreme, we’re not exempt from the toxic ideas we internalize about what it means to be femme: vapid aesthetics, childish preferences, deceptive presentations, sexually manipulative intentions. We are taught from youth that the stylized “feminine” is both less desirable, and not to be trusted. Furthermore: ‘feminine’ coupled with ‘agency’ = danger, perhaps even death to the subjects of its seductions. But I want to know, who invented the idea of the Femme Fatale when Masc Fatale is strangling humanity? What’s so dangerous about a femme with a brain who isn’t going to let you exploit his or her wealth of resource?
People ask, especially in underground music, why I bother with pop music. They roll their eyes, as if my politics can’t account for the contradiction of loving spectacles created in the capitalist machine. As if my fantasies shouldn’t involve women with microphones commanding attention in sparkly spandex and lipstick. Pop music is an escape world where, only for a moment, only when I disconnect the dots as they stand and draw my own mythology, those who paint themselves in bright and beautiful colors emerge triumphant. Don’t think literally of the Taylor Swift “Bad Blood” video and all of its head-scratching socio-political implications. But, think of the final scene: a bunch of babes in Janet Jackson-esque early 00s gladiator outfits standing together as what we can only assume to be an outdated and oppressive world burns behind them. That’s how I like to take it, at least. This is a Hollywood stylized version of what I assume the femme revolution would look like: super tough, very stylish, major destruction of all things terrible. Fire, the most dazzling of nature’s spectacles, is very femme to me.