Monday, March 22, 2010

Punk Feminist Cults of Personality, Part 1: Putting them on the pedestal

I know I already said this, BUT: I had a really great time at the Sarah Lawrence Conference. My presentation went much better than I thought it would, and just as I was starting to fret that it hadn't provoked any thought, I got a bunch of questions.

For me the defining moment of the panel was the last question I received. Beth, who I don't actually know, but have seen at Brooklyn shows, asked me why I choose to do a study of a single person, when it sort of feeds into the 'cult of personality' that the record labels are always trying to push on us? (Also, for the record: I swear that Beth's actual phrasing of her question was much more eloquent than I just made it sound, but unfortunately, this was the best my spotty memory could do.)

Beth's question has stayed with me for the reason why criticisms usually stick with us: because we fear that they might be accurate. Since my proposal's acceptance, I had been joking about how it was just hero worship disguised as scholarship. I even mentioned this during my presentation, while trying to explain how it had developed into something else while I was working on it.

While worship isn't a productive method of doing research, I do believe that there are at least two good reasons for doing studies of individual punk feminist artists. After my presentation I was talking with a student who's writing her master's thesis on an African American activist whose name I unfortunately can't remember, and we got to talking about how people connect with individuals, and that they need hero(in)es. We discussed that all things, all art, all dissent, all organizing start with an individual, and grow to include more people if you're lucky and work really hard. I think studying the people with whom things start is necessary.

Which brings me to my second reason. Current scholarship on Riot Grrrl is rather general, and it tends to see it as a social movement -- not as an important genre within the rock tradition. Riot Grrrl needs to be understood and respected as a musical form, and it won't be unless we start studying the individual bands and musicians who were involved. And we won't understand the real value of Riot Grrrl on the whole unless we study both its ideology and its art.

That said, I do think that Beth's question is valid. I stand by my belief that we need our heroines, but I also believe that we need to understand them realistically, and as human beings. I think we benefit more from them when we see them, and the context in which they live and work, clearly.

Beth's question also hinted at the way in which the record industry constructs nebulizing, half-myth personas around its stars. This is the capitalist system at its insidious work of turning people into brands and artistic output into yet another commodity. The impact that this has on artistic output is something that does need to be addressed, both in general, and with any study of popular music.

Beth's question is particularly important because the only way to keep my research from devolving into hero worship is by keeping the issues Beth has brought up on my mind -- all. the. time. And that's how it is for all of us: as feminist activists, researchers, and artists, it is our responsibility to keep ourselves in check and think critically at all times. Critical thinking isn't something you tack on at the end; it doesn't work if it's an afterthought. Critical thinking to the point where you break everything down until nothing is whole anymore has to become part of our constant consciousness. Halfway or only part-time simply won't do. Going all the way with taking everything apart is the only way you can put it all back together.

But it's also our responsibility to constantly be conscious of the way we talk to each other. Maybe the real value in the dialogue between Beth and I is that it gave us both some practice in discussing these issues. That's right: questions like Beth's are not only important because they improve research and are essential to the production of worthwhile knowledge, but they're important for the simple fact that they are a form of communication.

You'd think that 'dialogue' is easy; it's just talking, right? Not exactly. Productive dialogue is often draining, because it requires those involved to think deeply about ideas and beliefs they take for granted, and have probably taken for granted for some time. It requires us to be sensitive to how difficult the process can be. It requires us to check our egos and our privilege, and it might expose us to painful exchanges, even in the best of circumstances. And because of that, it also requires us to trust each other. I can say that as hard as it is, it can and does form bonds between activists.

And that's the deal with feminist research, activism, and dialogue: taking everything apart to reassemble it in a way that benefits the greater good -- whether via music, other art forms, political organizing, or a conference paper -- by necessity requires us to also take apart ourselves. It requires us to take apart ourselves and each other, often in front of people, and sometimes after presenting a powerpoint and pretending for twenty minutes straight to not seem jittery or nervous about it. Yes, it's scary. But based on this one experience, and how much I've gotten out of it, I would say that it's worth it.

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