Punk, Feminism, and the anarchist Femme Fatale

sexy punk girls

Young women did much to shape the Punk movement of the late 1970s, even if they often overlooked or relegated to the role of girlfriend and groupie (think “Sid and Nancy”).

Along with Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood was perhaps the first designer of Punk clothing. Siouxsie Sioux was one of the more famous, and early, Punk singers. And, though now largely forgotten, early Punkette Jordan played a number of roles — from managing Adam and the Antz to appearing in Derek Jarman’s classic 1970s movie about despairing youth, Jubilee.

The Punk movement meant that young people, though frequently unemployed during Britain’s decade of recession, could still do things for themselves. They could protest against a system that was in obvious and radical decline (with high unemployment, mass strikes, widespread power cuts, and modernist architecture that housed people in “rabbit hutches”). Just as importantly, they could imagine a different future. And, with limited skill in music, design, or fashion, they had a possible route to get to it.

Punk girl Jordan.
Early Punk mover and shaker Jordan as herself (left) and on the poster for Derek Jarman’s movie Jubilee (right).

For late-teen girls and young women, Punk facilitated radical feminism. Referring to the all-girl band, The Slits, Jordan remarked at the time: “I think it’s good that females can now get up on stage and have as much adoration as the male contingent… it’s been a man’s world in that area for a long, long time now… It’s good that girls are getting up their [on stage] now.”

But Punk itself was a kind of anarcho-theater, blurring the lines between stage and audience. Anyone dressing so outrageously was, figuratively at least, on stage, all of the time. For young women it meant they could be sexy in a highly aggressive and anti-stereotypical — even anti-feminine — way. The 1950s image of the perfect female was perhaps the available secretary. During the Sixties women became “flower children.” Punk meant women could dress in ripped clothing and workingmen’s boots, and still be hot. In a certain sense, the adoption of “male” clothing accentuated the feminine.

The movement inspired a wholly new type of femme fatale that remains part of our culture, with Punk-inspired  or Punk-derived looks reappearing periodically in movies, graphic novels, pop music (think Lady Gaga, as well as Rihanna’s and Miley Cyrus’s haircuts with shaven sides), and fashion shoots, most especially for women.

Superficially, the Punk girl and the femme fatale are antithetical, with the latter seen as the embodiment of sophistication and cold manipulation, and the former typically portrayed as the “troubled” youth. But at a deeper level, they appear intimately intertwined.

The Punk girl is the femme fatale of an increasingly troubled age. She is destroyer of convention, sexual, yet aloof. She is youthful, yet ageless, drawing on ancient or older cultures, from the tribal to the Victorian: “Steam Punk” and “Gothic Punk”.

If the success of the controversial Suicide Girls brand — promoting alternative “pin up” models — proved that the image has a serious niche market, the Punk girl as femme fatale appears fairly regularly in popular culture. Notably, the recently released movie Blue is the Only Color — controversial for its graphic sex scenes features a blue haired heroine (a look that obviously draws on eighties Punk).

Original Punk pin up girl Soo catwoman (left) and Amber Valletta (right)
Original Punk pin up girl Soo catwoman (left) and Amber Valletta with Punk attitude and cosmetics (right)

Some years ago model Amber Valletta also appeared in a photo shoot for Id magazine, with make up and hair clearly inspired by the now somewhat obscure Soo Catwoman. Not, as you might think, a comic heroine, Soo was a member of the so-called Bromley contingent — a group of friends living in the Southeast London suburb of Bromley that frequented early Sex Pistols shows and Malcolm McLaren’s Punk fashion shop, Sex, on Kings Road.

Recognizable by her double Mohawk haircut and thick black eyeliner, Soo appeared on the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy on the UK” single, making her perhaps the original pin up Punk girl. 

Perhaps the most famous member of the Bromley contingent was singer Siouxsie Sioux, lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees and — though lesser known — The Creatures.

Sexy Punk girls Siouxsie and Poly Styrene.
A new type of sexy: Siouxsie Sioux with Johnny Rotten (left), Siouxsie (center) and Poly Styrene (right).

There’s a fine line, of course, between the Punk girl as femme fatale and the sexualization of young women. “I feel sorry for bands like The Slits,” Jordan remarked at the time, “who tend to get gigs mainly just because they are a girls band, and they’re not held on their merit as much as they should be. And they get a lot of male hangers on, saying ‘you’re great’ but looking them up and down at the same time. It’s a bit of a drag for them, I think.”

Poly Styrene, the female singer of Punk band X-Ray Spex may have sung “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”, protesting the exploitation of women, but the movie Sid and Nancy sought to sexualize Styrene by portraying her as wearing bondage gear (which, of course, she never did).

Still, while the image may be misused for commercial purposes, the Punk girl as femme fatale is now firmly embedded in our culture, and will — in often diluted forms — continue to convey the idea of going against the grain, doing things for oneself, being experimental and being shocking. All classic qualities of the femme fatal, but with more energy, and more bravado.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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