I have a confession to make: like Roxane Gay, I am a bad feminist. She enjoys jamming out to hip hop and rap in her car on the way to work, and for about a solid decade now I have embraced and enjoyed a genre I know is rife with misogyny: pop punk. While the former genre gets loads of criticism for its sexism (rightfully so), the latter genre rarely gets critiqued in the same way. Living in a patriarchal culture means that no part of society, or genre of music for that matter, is free from sexism and misogyny. Yet our ideas about sexism and misogyny are very clearly racialized, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a genre dominated by Black men, a demographic that is often painted as violent, out of control and aggressive, is also painted as violent, out of control and aggressive. This isn’t to say that men of color can’t be sexist, but it’s important to examine who we hold accountable for their sexism (or don’t) and why.
Pop punk isn’t given a pass because there’s no misogyny there. In fact, one of the most difficult parts of writing this piece was trying to narrow down what songs or bands to feature, because there were just so many (for the record, in this piece I’m using the term “pop punk” incredibly loosely — sorry genre purists). There’s been a lot of important discussion around the lack of safe spaces for women, especially young women, in pop punk. Fans of the genre know that it is heavily dominated by White men, and the literal spaces — venues, shows, festivals — can be unsafe for women. So why is rap synonymous with sexism, but pop punk isn’t? We can understand the silence around misogyny in pop punk as part of larger pattern of individualizing or excusing the behavior of White people — a core characteristic of White privilege.
We see this trend in mass media, particularly with celebrities and domestic violence. Chris Brown, Ike Turner, and Mike Tyson are forever associated with their instances of domestic violence, as they should be. But there are dozens of White, male celebrities whose domestic violence and violence against women is swept under the rug: Sean Penn, Michael Fassbender, Woody Allen, Charlie Sheen. This is a clear example of White privilege — having your bad behavior ignored while people of color are demonized quickly and enthusiastically for the exact same thing. We can see this too with media narratives around mass violence. If it’s a young, suburban white kid, he was mentally disturbed. If it’s a black kid, he’s a thug; if it’s a brown person, they are an immigrant or a terrorist. White men are excused for their bad behavior while men of color are demonized for it.
Feminists also perpetuate this narrative. In Gay’s Ted Talk, she uses her love of rap to show how “bad” of a feminist she is, even using the word “thuggish.” Admittedly, she might just not share my love of Fall Out Boy and is unfamiliar with misogyny in this specific genre. Regardless, it’s clear that rap is the go to genre when talking about sexism in music. Another example is the the video, “10 Hours of Walking Around NYC as a Woman,” made by grassroots feminist group, Hollaback! It is a noble attempt at showing the harsh realities of street harassment, but one that features almost exclusively men of color, again giving White men a pass.
These self-depreciating, suburban white guys in ripped jeans are about as different as you can get from big, tough, black rappers from the projects. But both genres reproduce harmful ideas about women and relationships. It’s essential to disrupt these narratives and hold White men accountable if we want to fight racism and sexism in our communities. While much could be said about punk spaces, attitudes, and history, I’m going to focus on pop punk lyrics, and how they perpetuate sexist and patriarchal ideas.
Much of the misogyny in pop punk comes through the “Nice Guy” trope. Core characteristics of the Nice Guy include, but are not limited to, putting girls on a pedestal, watching said girl from afar and obsessing over her, and reacting intensely negatively when she rejects or ignores you. So much of pop punk is about the sad lead singer watching a girl with a guy who’s so lame and totally not right for her. But the pop punk guy? He’s definitely right for her. He would treat her right and write her songs and love her, why can’t she just love him back?
Pop punk legends Descedents embody this perfectly in their song, “Hope”: “When he makes you cry, you know I’ll be there, but I know my day will come, I know someday I’ll be the only one.” This sentiment is echoed by dudes who complain about the friend zone: they aren’t really friends with women, but instead are just waiting for her to finally realize how in love she is with him. For women, it’s horrible knowing a guy has only been nice to you because he’s biding his time until he can fuck you. Fall Out Boy exemplifies the Nice Guy in one of their first singles, “Grand Theft Autumn.” Lead singer Patrick Stump sings, “Where is your boy tonight? I hope he is a gentleman…You were the last good thing about this part of town.” The Nice Guy puts women on a pedestal, which may feel flattering but only fetishizes and objectifies women while denying their agency. On Andrew Jackson Jihad’s song, “Sense, Sensibility” the folk punk duo sing, “a pretty girl with broken wings is all that I desire.” A cute boy with glasses and an acoustic guitar calling you “pretty” feels like a compliment, but it’s disturbing when a woman’s weakness or subordination is a turn on. It’s an insidious kind of sexism, but sexism nonetheless.
Pop punk newcomers Modern Baseball follow the footsteps of so many sensitive White boys before them by perpetuating this Nice Guy trope with their song “Pothole,” which includes the lyrics, “You are the ember of my heart, whether you like that or not.” The first half of that lyric — sweet! The last half — creepy. Paul Baribeau does something similar in his song, “The Wall,” where he fantasizes about his neighbor on the other side of the wall (even while she’s in the shower), a song he admits is about him “being a…freak.” And that is the problem with the Nice Guy trope, and with these pop punk lyrics — they feel innocent and romantic, especially to the young girls who are listening to this music, but are actually creepy and awful. To these men and boys, you are not a whole, unique person — You are A Thing and He Wants You. You are the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to their brooding, sensitive loner. You are the cure to his loneliness, depression and anxiety. In “A Very Pretty Song For A Very Special Lady,” the Ergs! sing, “There’s this feeling in my brain that I just can’t shake and I know with you I’ll be alright.” This perpetuates the idea that girls and women are a thing whose sole purpose is to fix a man, rather than humans with autonomy who can and do choose their own romantic and sexual partners.
When women do exercise that autonomy and reject a Nice Guy, he suddenly turns not so nice. Their intensity turns from obsessively wanting you to obsessively hating you. All women become evil, manipulative and untrustworthy. It’s a core characteristic of the Nice Guy Trope and something you see often in pop punk lyrics. Say Anything embody this bitter, vindictive attitude in their song, “Every Man Has a Molly,” where lead singer Max Bemis sings, “Molly Connolly ruined my life, I thought the world should know.” In their song, “Dysentery Gary,” Blink 182, arguably one of the most famous pop punk bands of all time, sing, “Life just sucks, I lost the one, I’m giving up, she found someone, there’s plenty more, girls are such a drag.” It’s alright to feel sad and dejected after a break up, but there’s a line between sadness and hating women as a group because they are women. Again, Blink 182 on their song, “Dumpweed”: “My dad used to give me all of his advice, he would say you got to turn your back and run now, come on son, you haven’t got a chance now….I need a girl that I can train.”
If talking about wanting to literally train a woman isn’t misogynistic, then I don’t know what it is. The trope of the manipulative, lying, untrustworthy woman is recreated again and again in pop punk. We can see it in “Kabuki Girl” by the Descendents, where they sing, “You’ll probably stab me in the back, but that’s the chance I’m gonna take.” (We should talk about the racism in that song too, but for the time being I digress.) It’s again exemplified in the song “Cute Without the E” by Taking Back Sunday — “She’ll destroy us all before she’s through and find a way to blame somebody else.” In the song, “Roam,” The Story So Far speak directly to Evil, Manipulative Woman and sing, “I know where you’ve been, you’re ruining men.” Burger Records darlings FIDLAR have a song simply titled, “Whore,” which features the lyrics: “Why did you go betray me? You’re such a whore.” It turns out rappers aren’t the only ones that use misogynistic slurs in their music. Unfortunately, men aren’t the only ones that use misogynistic slurs either. Singer Hayley Williams, frontwoman to the band Paramore, sings, “Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry that will never change,” on the band’s breakthrough single, “Misery Business.”
This anger and frustration at women sometimes turns more explicitly violent. One of Brand New’s oldest and most famous songs, “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” contains the lyrics, “I hope the next boy that you kiss has something terribly contagious on his lips.” That’s pretty bad, but the song goes on — “Even if her plane crashes tonight, she’ll find some way to disappoint me, by not burning in the wreckage or drowning at the bottom of the sea.” Yikes. This bizarre theme of begging for their ex girlfriends to get in some kind of accident is continued in Fall Out Boy’s song, “Tell Mick He Just Made My List of Things to Do Today.” Lead singer Patrick Stump sings, “Breaking hearts has never looked so cool as when you wrap your car around a tree.” They get more violent on their song, “Chicago is So Two Years Ago,” which contains the lyrics, “With every breath I wish your body would be broken again.” Say Anything are very blunt on their song, “Little Girls”, which opens with the lyrics, “I kill, kill, kill little girls.” The misogyny in pop punk ranges from idolizing women to wishing actual physical violence on to them.
Misogyny in pop punk, and the broader ways in which White men uphold and perpetuate patriarchy and sexism, need to be taken seriously. We know that media, including music, shapes our ideas about the world around us. These sexist lyrics reflect specific ideas about women and relationships and young kids internalize these messages to learn what is right, what is wrong, and what is acceptable in relationships. I’m not proposing videogames cause school shootings or hardcore music rots children’s brains, but I am proposing we take these messages seriously. The normalization of sexist and unhealthy attitudes is one way things like sexual assault and relationship violence are able to flourish, and we know these things are present in punk and alternative spaces. By failing to address how White men perpetuate sexism and misogyny, we also create a narrative that men of color, especially Black men, are uniquely sexist or dangerous. We know this idea is false but it has real, oftentimes deadly consequences. Black, Latino and Middle Eastern men are painted as criminals and disproportionately targeted by police. #BlackLivesMatter has highlighted the frequency with which unarmed Black men and women are shot by police. Before murdering nine people in cold blood in South Carolina, Dylann Roof attempted to justify his actions by saying, in part, “You rape our women….You have to go.”
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Just like rappers, or EDM DJs, or country singers, pop punk singers and White men as a whole need to be held accountable for the ways they uphold patriarchal ideas. Being fans of something and being critical of it don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We know women aren’t manipulative, evil people, or manic pixie dream girls that will suddenly make someone’s life magically better. Women are independent people bumbling through life like everyone else. We know that men of color aren’t inherently more sexist than White men, but instead are victims of a racist society. We also know that men can and should be our allies in the fight against patriarchy. Actively rejecting these narratives in an attempt to carve out a safe space for women and/or people of color is an essential, and radical, and very punk thing to do.