404 Ink’s collection of essays, Nasty Women, is unlike any other you’ll read this year, and probably for the foreseeable future. That in itself is a reason for its existence and its importance. Collecting accounts from various contributors, it comments not only on “what it is to be a woman in the 21st century”, but, when taken as whole, it asks any reader to consider their own attitudes and beliefs on a range of subjects, both specific and general. It’s also a reminder that the written word is the most nuanced, complex and complete way to tell stories and relay truths.
The importance of Punk is visited throughout. The ideas and ideals of the movement – (which have always been more important than the music itself) often mask a reality where individual and collective sexist and often abusive behaviour betray those professed principles. This is nothing new, and I recommend Cosey Fanni Tutti’s biography Art Sex Music and particularly Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys as evidence of this. In the latter Albertine describes how she and her fellow Slits were patronised and attacked, from inside as well as out. What they refused to be was ignored.
In Nasty Women, Ren Aldridge’s ”Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You”: Cultural Resistance To Gendered Violence In The Punk Rock Community.’ sets out a similar scenario in an unforgettable manner. It is one of the most exacting pieces I have read in a long time, challenging the notion of self-image versus an individual’s actions. If you have ever considered yourself a “good person” as part of your identity, Aldridge makes you confront the truth, how you actually treat other people rather than any superficial ipseity. Aldridge identifies something which is rarely broached – sexism and gendered violence within liberal groups and societies, and the self-delusion which allows them to endure. Labels do not guarantee commensurate actions, and it is the latter which define us most.
Kirsty Diaz’s chapter ‘Why I’m No Longer A Punk Rock “Cool Girl”‘ looks at how there are roles being played in Punk as with anywhere else. Her description as to what is expected of ‘Cool Girls’, (a notion she borrows from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl) says that she must, “..like real music. Good music […] She doesn’t listen to pop music […] She can hang out with your musician mates and hold her own in a conversation, but she won’t point out the ways in which even punk rock, this glorious utopia, has the capacity to oppress. And, much like the original concept, she’s not real.”. Such fantasy figures are all too identifiable in modern culture (the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a similar creation), and they prevent individual recognition in favour of a fantastical type.
Using the above definition, perhaps the ultimate ‘cool girl’ was Courtney Love, at least before she was labelled in the media as anything ranging from succubus to murderer. Becca Inglis’ ‘Love In The Time Of Melancholia’ looks at Love’s life and public image, and how someone who means so much to the writer and many others has been publicly hounded and ridiculed. Perhaps the most telling accusation, or at least the one which seems most common, is that Kurt Cobain wrote most of her best songs and music. This is a familiar claim – see Carly Simon & James Taylor, or Justine Frischmann & Damon Albarn. Not only are the women not allowed to be viewed as artists in their own right, their position as a role model is lessened, something which can only have detrimental results culturally.
The idea that there are roles set out for women that society expects them to fulfil, and if they don’t they risk being ostracised, is revisited throughout Nasty Women. Laura Waddell’s insightful ‘Against Stereotypes: Working Class Girls And Working Class Art’ looks at the inherent restraints to learning and employment in the arts for the working class in a capitalist economic system, a situation which is only getting worse as arts funding is cut alongside that for tertiary education. Nothing restricts individuals more than lack of opportunity, and economic restraints are the most effective means of this. As Waddell surmises, the result is that whole sections of society risk being silenced and sidelined further than they already are. If there are no stories being told about your immediate society then where does inspiration and understanding come from for future generations?
The link between the psychological and the physical is another recurring theme in Nasty Women. Jen McGregor’s ‘Lament: Living With The Consequences Of Contraception’ is a superb piece of writing which looks at how society’s expectations rarely allow for individual choices, and how that can have repercussions which are tangibly dangerous. It’s also about abuse, but not in the manner you may initially believe. Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘Afterbirth’ looks at pregnancy as a physical and psychological state of being. This is a subject which bizarrely still carries more than a hint of being taboo, and is a primary example of a story rarely told but relevant to all.
Nadine Aisha Jassat’s ‘On Naming’ deals with something equally essential, the importance of an individual’s name to their identity, both self and for others. Taking the care to learn how another person’s name is pronounced may seem to some unimportant, but there are few things more important. It’s about respect, recognition, and acknowledging that the other person is an equal. Refusing to do so does just the opposite. Language defines who and what we are, and how we use it and how it is used against us is of huge import. It gets to the heart of how people view and respect one another, and Jassat’s chapter is another example of a piece of writing which makes you look at yourself anew.
The spectre of Donald Trump hangs over the book, as his description of Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” in their final presidential debate was partly an ‘inspiration’. It’s still astonishing and utterly depressing that such utterances seemed to boost his popularity rather than destroy it. Just imagine he had been caught boasting about how he grabs men “by the cock” and consider if he would now be in charge of nuclear codes. Somehow I doubt it. The rise of Trump is examined by Elise Hines in ‘Adventures Of A Half-Black Yank In America’, where she bemoans the role of some women voters in his election, as well as depicting the institutional, and often unthinkingly casual, racism which still exists in the US, and elsewhere, today.
I have only just touched upon the tales told in this book so for goodness sake get a copy for yourself to get the bigger picture. It looks closely at identity, race, gender, immigration, class, sexual violence, pregnancy, contraception, family, and so much more – all of which we need a greater understanding of and essays such as these can only aid that understanding. Those who would claim that Nasty Women is anything other than essential reading simply haven’t read it. The stories are extraordinary in a manner which is two-fold – in their honesty and their rarity. These are voices which are seldom heard in the mainstream, despite what some may claim. It’s a book which refuses to deal in binary opposites, offering no simple answers for the simple reason there are none. It promotes constant questioning of ourselves and of others. That’s the only way to understand each other better. That’s the truth.