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Girls to the front: why we need more women-friendly gigs

It's time for gigs to take women's safety seriously, in a world where audience members and performers are routinely assaulted.

Feminist punk Kathleen Hanna demands "All girls to the front!" at gigs. Photo courtesy of Sophie Howarth


Watching riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna demand “All girls to the front!” on the recently released The Punk Singer documentary is an exhilarating experience. Hanna was determined to create a space for women to rock out in the male-dominated punk scene of Nineties Washington, so she ordered all the women to come to the front of the room and didn’t start performing until that happened. The recent events at Rockfest 2014 demonstrate it’s time to revisit Hanna’s policy.

At Rockfest, Staind frontman Aaron Lewis was forced to stop singing and police the “molesters” in his audience who were sexually assaulting a young teenage girl as she crowd-surfed.  He pointed out that the girl was underage and warned the guys groping her to stop immediately or he’d turn the crowd on them. And they stopped. And you can guarantee a few rows back another woman was removing a stranger's hand from her arse. Because the only novel thing about this incident is that the girl didn’t have to leave the gig to make it stop.

Most women have been groped at gigs. Friends describe spending an entire two-hour set by their favourite band trying to manoeuvre away from creeping hands; having men grab their breasts because they know no one will hear them shout over the music; attempting to dress in ways that will deter potential assailants; having beer dumped over their heads when they refuse to let guys kiss them; having their bras stolen at festivals and resigning themselves to lurking at the back of a crowd; compromising their view but at least able to concentrate on the band.

It’s not just women in the audience who are at risk; many women musicians have also been attacked and occasionally raped while performing. In 1991, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love topped off a tour with a stage dive; by the time she got back on the stage her dress and underwear had been torn off, her breasts groped and multiple audience members had put their fingers inside her. Hip-hop artist Iggy Azelea recently spoke out about being attacked at gigs and revealed she wears two pairs of underwear and tights when she performs, Florence Welsh was sexually assaulted at a Leeds gig in 2010, Lady Gaga has been kissed and licked by fans while stage-diving, the stories keep stacking up.

Women are changing the way they act on stage; many artists are beefing up their security and have stopped stage-diving completely. Meanwhile women gig-goers are modifying their own behaviour; although many of them will still charge to the front, even more of them are starting to hang back. In 1999, a series of rapes at Woodstock prompted Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz to highlight the dangers faced by women at live shows. During an acceptance speech at the MTV awards Horovitz asked the room of musicians to help combat sexual assault of women at gigs. He asked them to speak to venues, security staff and promoters to help create safe spaces for women and deal with things like sexual assault with sensitivity.

The lessons to be learned from Woodstock still stand and many of the safeguards that Horovitz described in his speech have not been implemented. Music venues have a far more positive influence on their crowds than many care to admit; simply lowering the temperature in a venue can prevent people overheating and becoming disorientated or getting drunk too quickly. People-finders on hand for larger gigs help ensure that groups can stay together and women don’t become separated from their friends. Making sure that staff are trained to recognise assaults, intervene as necessary and offer support to victims of sexual violence are all vital and yet sadly lacking at most venues.

All these safeguards would also protect male gig-goers who are vulnerable to physical assault and slowly certain venues are starting to recognise their merits. LGBT-friendly venues have been especially quick to get on board with the newly established Good Night Out campaign. Launched by HollaBack, GNO requires venues to sign a pledge stating that they will challenge assault, posters are distributed telling gig-goers that they can approach the venue's staff members asking for help if they are attacked, and warn off potential attackers.

Venues and performers can still do a lot more (and GNO demonstrates that some of them are trying to) but until we hold everyone responsible for the protection of women, from the door staff to the gig-goers to the people on stage, women will still be at risk from roving hands. Horovitz and Hanna had the right idea; when metaphorical barriers don’t work, the idea that people should and shouldn’t behave in certain ways, it’s time to start thinking about physical barriers.

Women will keep attending gigs because women love music, and, to quote a friend who recently emerged from a moshpit unmolested but sporting two black eyes: “music is forever!” Certain types of music have worse reputations that others; punk and grunge gigs are usually linked to higher levels of sexual intimidation while gigs with an older, chilled-out audience (who knew Sludge was a genre?) generally lead to a relaxed atmosphere. But it shouldn’t be a case of dressing defensively for certain bands or favouring Patti Smith and Nick Cave gigs over Rancid because there’s less chance of being groped.

Listening to Asking For It, the song Courtney Love penned after that awful stage dive, is a chilling reminder of the anger and the powerlessness many women feel when watching their favourite bands. Making sure women are safe at gigs should be a basic priority for everyone attending, and if that isn’t working we should revisit the idea of Hanna’s girls to the front policy.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.