Pictures of Me on Your Bedroom Walls: Explorations of Women’s Sexuality Through Feminist Music

‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’
Pictures of Me on Your Bedroom Walls: Explorations of Women’s Sexuality Through Feminist Music
By Joanna Horton

 Trigger warning: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.

“Music can change the world because it can change people.”

This incredibly wanky quote can be attributed to an incredibly wanky person: Bono. (Now before you throw down the zine/click away from the page in disgust, I promise that this article will never mention Bono again.) However, there is some truth embedded within the mountain of wank that is the above quote. Music can be a powerful agent of social change – or at the very least, social awareness.

A great example of this is feminist music – and for the purposes of my article, I’ll be focusing on the feminist music explosion of the 1990s. Specifically, I’m talking about all-female punk bands with a feminist edge. Some of these bands fit under the heading ‘riot grrrl’ but there’s so much debate over what and who does and does not qualify as riot grrrl that I’m just going to leave that whole label alone. It’s not what I’m interested in, anyway. I’m interested in how this music explores and portrays women, and women’s perspective on sexual encounters in particular.

I first got this idea for this article upon listening to Sleater-Kinney’s song ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’. The song is about wanting to be (or at least wanting to be able to be) the kind of punk-rock sex symbol that so many male musicians seem to automatically become. The song bases itself on an entirely accurate premise: that fame endows a male musician with the kind of sexual irresistibility that makes groupies seem an entitlement, but not so for a female musician. Undoubtedly there is something sexual about the act of performing and the performer/fan relationship, but the sexuality of a woman musician is still held distant, feared slightly, not embraced in the way that a man’s is. Sleater-Kinney wants that to change:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

I wanna be your Joey Ramone

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Pictures of me on your bedroom door

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Invite you back after the show

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

I’m the queen of rock and roll

 While the groupie/star relationship can undoubtedly be manipulative and exploitative (is it a coincidence that most groupies are young women devoted to male musicians?), Sleater-Kinney uses it as a device to advocate for the free and equal expression and embracing of female sexuality. (The last line of the verse above also seems to poke fun at the traditional male equating of sex and status. See also: slut/stud double standard.) As I’ve noted in this publication in a previous article, being comfortable with female sexuality is an extremely important part of feminism. And at first, I had the idea that this article would go along the lines of ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’, discussing how feminist music helped women to express and discover their sexuality, thus bringing women’s sexuality into public discussion and (eventually, hopefully) normalisation.

However, during my research (which was very rigorous and gruelling and involved a lot of listening to music on public transport), I started to come across darker themes. A lot of the music deals with sex, yes, but it got much more complex than simple equality of sexual expression. As feminists, we can’t ignore the fact that the sexual relationship is the site of intense social, sexual and political warfare. We can’t simply say that male and female sexuality (and for that matter queer, trans* and any other kind of sexuality) should be regarded as equal, normal parts of life, and be done with it. Part of exploring women’s sexuality is exploring how the patriarchy manifests itself in sex and sexual relationships. I found that this theme was explored much more in feminist music than I had originally thought.

Take, for example, ‘Doll Parts’ by Hole. This incredibly sad song is basically all about rejection. The refrain:

Yeah, they really want you

They really want you

They really do

Yeah, they really want you

They really want you

But I do too

Who hasn’t been there?! In the face of such rejection, the narrator literally object-ifies herself:

I am

Doll eyes

Doll mouth

Doll legs 

In other words, just an object to be used (sexually, we assume, as the motif of ‘doll’ wasn’t chosen for nothing) and left behind. While the object of her desire is so badly wanted by so many, the narrator herself is no longer wanted at all. Themes of self-loathing also surface (she has ‘bad skin’; she is ‘dog bait’). She is stripped of all identity and all autonomy apart from a sinister threat of revenge (‘someday, you will ache like I ache’). In essence, the song expresses the cheapening, the degradation that many women feel when used for their bodies but never appreciated for themselves.

‘Doll Parts’ refers to what Germaine Greer calls ‘petty rape[i]’ – a sexual encounter where only one party (often the woman) expects and hopes for a continuation of the relationship, and is later rejected. This is as opposed to what Greer calls ‘Grand Rape’, the physical violation of someone’s body without any consent whatsoever. Another Hole song, ‘Asking for It’ addresses this phenomenon.

‘Asking for It’, as hinted by its title, deals with the notion that people (traditionally women) who are raped or assaulted were ‘asking for it’ by giving non-verbal signs of sexual availability or willingness. I’m sure we all know how ridiculously moronic and misogynistic that sentiment is, so I won’t waste words discussing it. The song (written by Courtney Love after she was digitally raped while crowd-surfing) turns the notion on its head with a hyper-literal interpretation, questioning sarcastically:

Was she asking for it?

Was she asking nice?

If she was asking for it

Did she ask you twice?

This points out that there is a difference between really and truly asking for it (as in, “please can we have sexual intercourse now?”) and the kind of ‘asking for it’ that rapists mention. The latter, of course, doesn’t signify any kind of consent whatsoever and is a wonderful example of the way the patriarchy disregards women’s bodily autonomy and uses women as the puppets of male sexual desire. Now, I’m not part of the ‘all hetero sex is rape’ school of feminist thought, but it’s worth giving thought to the way that even some technically consensual encounters involve a certain degree of exploitation and power play, which is again simply based in patriarchal norms and conditioning. As Love sings:

Every time that I sell myself to you

I feel a little bit cheaper than I need to.

Bikini Kill takes up this issue in their song ‘Anti-Pleasure Dissertation’. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit) – the song reflects on the manipulation inherent in the way that many men traditionally conduct sexual and romantic relationships with women. The narrator begins with an admission:

Maybe I like you

Maybe I do …

 But it’s not too long before there’s trouble in paradise, as she realizes exactly what it means to this particular suitor to have her ‘like’ him:

Was I wrong

To trust anyone?

Tell me, tell me

Did you tell them everything I said?

Did you tell them everything I said?

And quickly moves on to a rather apt roasting of the ‘frat-boy’ attitude (still sadly present in many men, frat boys or no) to sex:

Tell me was it good, was it good, was it good for you?

Did you win that race?

Did you score that point?

Are you so fucking cool?

… Go tell your fucking friends! 

The themes here are more or less the same as those explored in other feminist songs: exploitation, objectification, sex-as-conquest, petty rape. It’s quite a long way from ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ – or perhaps not, as even in that song there is recognition of an exploitative relationship (groupie/star) that men (and exclusively men) conduct.

None of this is meant to reinforce the stereotype that women always want relationships and are incapable of enjoying casual sex. Of course that is not the case, and if both parties agree to a casual sexual encounter, it can certainly be a good thing. However, this doesn’t change the fact that for generations men have been conditioned to believe that they can go around taking advantage of women, using them for sex, raping or sexually assaulting them, boasting about their conquests to their friends, and generally treating them like people without brains or feelings. This makes women feel like cheap, worthless, disregarded second-class citizens. This dynamic is still sadly common in modern relationships and encounters.  And it was this addressed by so many feminist bands as recently as the 90s. (Who would have thought: the biggest challenge for feminism these days isn’t equal pay after all!)

I’m fully prepared to receive accusations of man-hating in response to this article. Let’s be clear that I am not accusing every man of behaving this way and I know many who do not. But the fact remains that men don’t un-learn generations of social conditioning and gender stereotypes by themselves. It’s very easy to keep the blinkers of privilege on until someone comes along and rips them off you. The feminist movement aims to do just that, and hopefully this article contributes in some small way. For that, I make no apology.

Want More?
Here are some great albums by feminist bands to check out (including those featuring the songs mentioned in this article).

Sleater-Kinney – Call The Doctor (1996)
Hole – Live Through This (1994)
Bikini Kill – The Singles (1998)
Sleater-Kinney – All Hands On The Bad One (2000)
The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
Babes in Toyland – Fontanelle (1992)
L7 – Bricks Are Heavy (1992)

[i] Greer, G. ‘Seduction is a four-letter word’. The Madwoman’s Underclothes, 1986. London: Pan Books Ltd. (Pages 152 – 168)

~ Joanna Horton


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