Not Quite Feminist Punk

It’s funny how sometimes, a confluence of events offers up a little epiphany. This is the story of one about feminism & punk rock that I’m still processing.

A week or two ago, I was on a long car ride with my daughters and a pop song came on the radio. Talking about our love of pop, my nearly-16-year-old said that she thought it was unfair that many put pop music down and that she suspected that it’s because pop is designed to appeal to young women. Not a new argument, but fresh to hear it coming from her mouth—as it came from mine decades ago. I got mad all over again at the way that, without vigilance, we let patriarchal culture tell us that our taste, whatever it is, is second best.

Last week, I read Claude M. Steele’s wonderful 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi, which details, for a general audience, his decades of research on stereotype threat and how to combat it, especially in colleges. Stereotype threat, if you’re not familiar with it, is that phenomenon when your performance will falter just because you know that the stereotype is that people like you (people who share a salient identity category with you) don’t do well on the task at hand. Again and again, Steele and his colleagues have shown that making, say, women aware of their gender before a math test, or whites aware of their race before athletic competition, decreases performance. At the same time, performance goes right back up if you tell test-takers that the test shows no differences along gender lines, or offer some of the growth-mindset affirmations that Carol Dweck (who’s cited many times here) espouses.

One of the things Steele talks about is how, when you’re a minority, you become really adept at reading the context clues of the room—of counting if you’re alone or if there’s only one other member of your group, etc.

So, on Friday, I went to a meeting of a group of English professors from around the city who all work in my field. Some of them I know well, some I’ve only seen or met in passing. They’d been meeting as a group for a while, but I had missed the first two or three gatherings. NJTransit was not my friend and I was late as it was. In short: this meeting had all the ingredients to make me just a touch more nervous than usual about entering an unfamiliar room.

I got in, I counted: yup—I was the second woman. I sat across from her and smiled. We were two. Not quite critical mass, but not horrible. The meeting went well. My colleagues are, in fact, lovely and thoughtful and interesting and not interrupters and, when the convener invited us all to join for lunch, I confirmed that the other woman was going and I went.  

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At lunch, two men about my age started talking about the punk shows they went to back in the early 80’s and I could feel my blood pressure rising. I love music of all kinds. I have been to some really fun shows. I wanted, so badly, to participate in the conversation, but I couldn’t figure out how to put my oar in without their mockery. I sat there, racing through my options from all the shows I saw in Seattle. What would they think if I told them the one about how disappointing Grandmaster Flash was? Or how my friend that I had a crush on made us miss the Thompson Twins, which was the main reason I’d wanted to see The Police at the Tacoma Dome? Or that I used to go to SubPop when it was a record store and get mocked by Bruce Pavitt (who was such a snob) for buying OMD and Culture Club while my friends bought the real punk? Or just how cool it was to be friends with the Bernstein boys and go to their dad’s club to see a local band? Or to see Joe Newton’s posters around town? Or seeing UB40—a show newly tainted by the newest Justice-cum-sexual-assaulter-and-drunkard at a roller rink? Or the Ramones, way after their prime but still amazing, in New Haven? Or how amazing Black Uhuru was at the Paramount? I sat there laughing at their stories—which were good—but frustrated at myself for being so tongue-tied.

I knew my transcendentally happy time seeing the Psychedelic Furs with a girl I’d met at a writer’s conference for high school students was out—but why? I had gone away for a week on a writer’s retreat for high school kids. I’d lived in Port Townsend and made friends with a girl—I don’t remember her name—from a tiny town, a couple hours outside Seattle. She and I both loved the Psychedelic Furs and she got her parents to drive her to the show. We met, sat together and it was great. In those days before cell phones and email, arranging such a meeting was not easy and it felt so cool to be the cool city kid welcoming her cool country friend to this amazing show. As anecdotes go, this seems pretty acceptable & worthy of sharing. Why is it that my story felt less good to share than my colleague’s story about knowing that some punk shows were too dangerous to attend?

To the rescue came my friend, who had cool punk stories, but also listens to himself and he said, “God, we sound so old.” And then, another colleague, younger than us, made a joke about going to see Dickens speak and that turned into a riff that was an actually deeply hilarious mash-up of a story of a punk rock brawl (“they were unscrewing the lightbulbs and breaking them to use as weapons”) and Bloomsbury—“and then, John Maynard Keynes beaned Leonard with the andiron….”

That was a relief.

Then, yesterday, just to make me feel less a fool, a made a joke about the Butthole Surfers in a very high-level meeting at my university and got a high five from a VP for my quickness.

L’esprit de l’éscalier.

My tentative conclusion has to do with analogies. I was glad to read Steele’s generous assessment that analogies do, in fact, help our understanding. In my experience, analogies are critical to our understanding, but they need to be wielded with care. It can be too easy to say “I know just how you feel,” when really, what we can know is “I am better able to imagine how you feel because I felt something similar.” My stress at lunch was real, but extraordinarily low stakes, but I might not have noticed it absent the conversation with my daughter about what music gets to be cool and my reading of Steele. But it was stereotype threat and it did mean that, for ten minutes of a really lovely and pleasant lunch, I was anxiously flipping through the rolodex of my brain, trying to figure out how to join the conversation, desperately wanting to, and, in the end, never figuring out how. Boy, it’s amazing how complicated life is.