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8 October 2015

Chrissie longed to be one of the boys. Unlike us, she didn’t have riot grrrls

Chrissie Hynde has been accused of victim blaming. But her plight seems to me very much the plight of a female rock fan of her age.

By Tracey Thorn

I keep thinking about Chrissie Hynde’s memoir Reckless, and the controversy that has swirled around her apparent blaming of herself for a sexual assault she suffered as a teenager. The whole sad story says so much about what it used to mean to be a rock fan and a rebel in the Sixties and Seventies. Chrissie tells her tale in a style of swaggering bravado, eulogising her male rock heroes – “I wanted to be them, not do them” – and the biker gangs she idolised (“I loved the bikes and I loved the way they talked about honour and loyalty and brotherhood”).

I heard Chrissie interviewed on the radio about the book and squirming through a line of questioning that accused her of having the wrong attitude to her rape. Hang on, she objected, I never used the word “rape”. And it’s true, she never does, describing the assault instead in a tone which implies that she regarded it more as some kind of awful initiation. She says getting her “comeuppance” was her fault for failing the code, for being too mouthy. All she wanted, it seems, was to be respected by the bad guys, to be admitted to their ranks.

This, understandably, hasn’t gone down well, and Chrissie has been accused of victim blaming. But her plight seems to me very much the plight of a female rock fan of her age. Born in 1951, she had no female role models. To be a woman meant to have no place in the rock scene she adored, and so, she writes, “I thought sex was, like becoming ‘a woman’, something to put off for as long as possible.” Desperate to be one of the guys, she accepted their rules – no complaining, no whining, taking it like a man. Hence her macho stance, refusing to blame anyone but herself.

I found Chrissie’s book quite cold and sad, and so I was greatly cheered by then reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. Carrie’s band Sleater-Kinney sprang from the Washington punk and indie scene of the early Nineties, and what her book showed was how much changed in the 20 years or so that separated the two women.

Chrissie Hynde had acted as an individual, an outrider. She grew up going to see the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin, and as for female rock stars at that time, she said, “You could count them on one hand.” But Brownstein was born in 1974, her first gig was Madonna, and by the mid-Nineties she had the whole riot grrrl scene to call on – “a network of people finding their voices”. Both the participants and the subject matter had changed: “Girls wrote and sang about sexism and sexual assault, about shitty bosses and boyfriends.” Feminism and gender politics had reasserted themselves, and this time the girls in music weren’t playing second fiddle.

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I remember going to a riot grrrl gig in London. The bands were Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, the audience was women only, and it was thrilling, very unlike the days of punk, when there may have been women onstage but usually men ruled the room. The recent documentary The Punk Singer shows Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill on stage at another gig. “All girls to the front,” she yells. “I’m not kidding. All girls to the front. All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back –” and she waves the guys out of the moshpit and towards the back of the club, finally laying claim to a literal space for women to inhabit. It felt like the culmination of a years-long rebuttal of the rules of rock’n’roll.

So it can be easy to forget now that once upon a time, the only available musical identity was male. Even Patti Smith, our heroine and champion for so long now, wrote about seeing Keith Richards and wanting to be him. In the words of that great feminist saying, quoted by Caitlin Moran, “I cannot be what I cannot see,” but Chrissie’s generation took that fact and turned it on its head. They wanted to be just like the guys – and sometimes that came at painful expense to themselves, but in doing so they opened up the options for female identity. And those of us who followed: we could be something new, because we could see them. 

This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis