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Bootgirl Power, By Jenny Woo

Going punk was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Instead of trying to squeeze myself into whatever teenage girl fashion there was at the time, I cut my own path and made my own clothes. I found that by creating my own aesthetic, I avoided a lot of the societal pressure placed on adolescent girls to look and act a certain way. Instead of focusing on my body image, I embraced the fact that I was a unique person with a multi-dimensional world view and personality. Through bands such as The Wednesday Night Heroes, Cock Sparrer, and Riot 99 I learned to triumph the values of authenticity, independence, and critical thinking, and I have no doubt that this subculture helped me create the strong sense of self that I have today. Punk rock is a potent medicine that I would prescribe to any young woman going through a crisis of confidence.

However, as the years went by I found myself getting more and more interested in oi! music, and eventually cropped in as a skinhead. I still loved punk, but I no longer felt the need to spike my hair out in a million different directions in order to show the world that I was different. I already felt the difference on the inside, and I wanted to find a subculture whose values incorporated not only the importance of being distinct, but also a sense of community, a sense of self-pride, and a sense of loyalty. I love the fact that oi! music is still working-class DIY music, but I also love the fact that behind its

apparent simplicity there is a lot of social complexity and feeling. As a woman, I find that it is empowering to listen to music that exudes the values of unity, strength, and pride.

Another thing I love about oi! music is the aesthetic. Unlike rockabilly, mod, or the mainstream, skinhead women dress very similar to their male counterparts. I love going out in a pair of Levis, doc martens, and a button-down because I feel like myself. Moreover, I love the imagery of the strong skingirl wielding a baseball bat and heading into battle alongside her friends. I’ve never been a big fan of pin-up calendars because I feel like the women portrayed in them are valued for their looks instead of their abilities. However, a lot of the iconic pictures of skingirls are based around their strength, courage, and loyalty, and I champion being a part of something that encourages strong values in both men and women alike.

That being said, the skinhead scene is rampant with sexism, and the more involved I become, the more this degree of exclusion is apparent. In 2007, I finally had worked up the courage and the guitar skills necessary to join an oi! band. I started bringing up the idea with a few friends in my hometown, and was thrilled when I was told that I could start playing guitar for an up-and-coming band in the area. However, even before the first practise I was cornered by the founder of the group who said that he wanted to start a “tough” oi! band, and didn’t want to have a woman in the group as it would negatively affect its image. I was kicked out of the band before I even had a chance to strike a single chord, and I was livid. I started second-guessing my friendships and questioning myself. I wondered how it was that this scene could champion unity but at the same time disqualify women from trying to participate in the music. It was this anger and stubbornness that eventually motivated me to get over my inability to start a band, and to go solo.

As I was just one person, I decided to start writing songs on an acoustic guitar because I could both sing and play without needing a backup band to perform. My first song that I wrote was called “I’ll Rise Again,” which was about my experience of getting kicked out of the first band, and my attempt to give it another go on my own. I wrote songs that were a reflection of my own experiences in the skinhead scene, and about the values of the movement. I was angry, and I hoped that the real meaning behind the songs would shine through in a distinctive way as there as there was no distortion to mask the lyrics or the feeling in the music.

I recorded five of my songs, and I released them on a demo in 2008. I titled the album “acoustic oi!” because I wasn’t able play drums or electric guitars or bass on the demo, and I thought it would be interesting to people to listen to oi! in a stripped-down way. Naturally, I received criticism that my music wasn’t actual skinhead music as it lacked the fast and loud beat of typical oi!. However, I was encouraged by the fact that a few people approached it with an open mind, and that they heard the themes and values of the skinhead movement in the music despite the fact that it was in a slightly different package. I started going to the open stage nights in my hometown to get some experience on the stage, and I still remember the exact feeling of nausea, excitement, and nervousness that ensued. Sure, I was angry and I wanted to prove to myself that I could play, but I was not prepared for the feeling of humility of being on stage alone and singing my own personal songs. It was probably one of the hardest things that I learned to do, but with the support of a few good friends, I got through it.

A few months later, to my astonishment, I started getting messages from a couple of record labels in Europe. I had no idea why or how they would be interested in what I was doing, and I was overwhelmed with both excitement and a bit of dismay. When I was initially contacted by labels they seemed more interested in the fact that I was a woman playing music than in the actual music itself. To many, it was such an anomaly that a woman would go solo in the oi! business, and people were looking for a way that they could market this aspect. I decided to sign with Randale Records because Diana, the owner of the label, seemed to believe in my music and in my potential as a musician. She told me about her experiences in the oi! scene, and warned me that it may not always be easy developing trust and respect as a female musician. I appreciated her honesty, and saw what she was offering as an opportunity to gain more exposure as a musician. I took a deep breath and took a step forward.

Over the next few years, I worked hard to improve my musicianship by taking singing lessons on youtube, asking friends to teach me things on guitar, and by writing and re-writing songs that came from my life experiences and my moments of truth. I wrote and released two albums, and toured through Canada, the United States, and Western Europe. I have so many great memories of meeting new people along my travels and getting to play with some of my greatest idols such as TV Smith and Garry Bushell. I’ve got a lot of great stories about touring through Europe by myself on a train with just a bag full of “Jenny Woo Acoustic Oi!” tshirts to sell and an acoustic guitar. In short, I would say that starting this music project was one of the best things I have ever done, and it continues to be one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of my life. However, this isn’t to say that there haven’t been some negative experiences that have come along with it.

I wanted to write this article from the perspective of a female musician and female participant in the skinhead movement, because I think that sexism is widespread throughout the scene, but is often undiagnosed and is generally accepted. There is a huge lack of women playing oi! music, especially compared with men. Moreover, there are relatively few women who are putting out fanzines, organizing gigs, or DJing. Seeing as there are just as many talented, hard-working, creative women out there as there are men, I started wondering why there aren’t more women actively participating in the oi! scene? It could be because the skinhead movement values violence, aggression, and sheer physical strength – values which do not necessarily dovetail with traditional feminine values. It could also be because there has been an overall lack of precedent for women involved in the oi! scene. However I think, more than anything, that it is because there is a general attitude that women should be seen and not heard in the skinhead movement.

Of course, there are exceptions to this and there are lots of very proactive and positive bands and people out there. However, I have heard the phrase “there is no such thing as a skinhead girl, only a skinhead’s girl” no less than 100 times. I remember last week on the “Real American Oi!” forum someone posting a question “name your favourite female-fronted oi! band?” and there were about ten comments to the effect of “you’re joking” or “no such thing.” There are many oi! songs that portray women as tricking men, being demonic sluts, and making dinner, whereas only a handful of songs portray women in a positive and empowering light. To make it worse, there seems to be a general attitude of distrust and competition between women in the skinhead scene. I often hear women writing

each other off as “oi! toys” or making comments about each others’ weight or size before taking the time to size up each other’s personality.

From my own experiences, I can say that being a woman performer in the world of oi! is not always a walk in the park. I have played to audiences where I hear shouts of “take off your shirt” over the sound of my own guitar. I’ve had people make sexual hand gestures to me on stage, even though my music has nothing to do with sexuality and I have never acted in a way to encourage sexual attention. I’ve been called everything from a “Japanese porn star” to a “bonehead’s wet dream” on both right-wing and left-wing websites. I’ve read critiques of my albums where the writer has found it necessary to criticize my body shape and weight even when this has nothing at all to do with my music. I think that this is because women are held to a different standard in the oi! scene than men are. Male bands are often criticized for their musicianship, their politics, and their attitudes, but it is extremely rare to read a critique of a male oi! band on the basis of their sexual prowess or on their body image. On the other hand, women in the oi! scene are often reduced to their physical attributes. In my own experience, being reduced to this shallow definition of a human being can be shameful and alienating. It has the power of making one feel like less of a human being, it removes the value of everything one has accomplished or wants to achieve, and it makes one feel unworthy of basic respect. In short, I believe that it is the opposite of what the foundational values of being as skinhead are about.

It seems strange to me that despite the skinhead movement’s obsession with racism, there have been only a small number of people who have commented on the outright and blatant sexism in the scene. There are few people who are willing to laugh at an overtly racist song, but at the same time many people laugh and freely play Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments” without thinking twice. Perhaps it is because sexism is so entrenched in our society that we are normalized to it and many of us do not recognize it for what it is. Perhaps it is because many people in the skinhead scene cannot identify with the harm that is caused by sexual discrimination. Or perhaps it is because fighting sexism has been portrayed as being emasculating and even effeminate, while fighting racism has been portrayed as waging a holy war against a an absolute evil. I’m not sure what the reason is, but I am sure that sexism is as harmful and hateful as racism, and that if we are to fight one, by logical extension we ought to be prepared to fight the other.

Although there have been some challenges along the way, I have decided to keep taking steps forward with my music because I love playing and I believe in the songs I write. This movement is at the center of who I am, and I believe that I can contribute to it. I have also received a lot of positive support because I am a woman. For better or worse, the anomaly of having a woman playing a solo acoustic oi! show has intrigued people in my music, and I have gained more exposure for this reason. I think that I have also gotten away with putting out a softer, mellower acoustic sound because I am a woman and there are different standards of “what’s tough” for women than there are for men. I have even had a few people say that they support me simply because I am a woman and they want to see more female musicians out there. I’d rather be supported because of my music than my gender, but I suppose one could say that, in spite of all the negative sexism out there, there is positive sexism out there too.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for “affirmative sexism,” as both women and men would be equally accepted and appreciated in the skinhead movement. I hope that we’ll get there one day. The most rewarding thing for me about being a female musician has been meeting and communicating with other skinhead women who are interested in what I am doing, and have offered to sing or play on my songs or have decided to write songs of their own. On the tough days, I remind myself of all the positive effects that my music has had, and I take my anger and resentment and channel it into marching forward and practising what I believe this movement is about – integrity, community, and self-pride.

I do believe that there is a great place for women in the oi! scene. Women are typically resilient, opinionated, and have many different experiences and talents that could contribute to the diversity and spirit of the movement. The oi! scene is the perfect place for women to exercise their talents and to speak openly, as the foundational values of the scene theoretically encourage women to be strong and independent. Unlike mainstream culture, skinhead fashion provides women to escape the pressure of dressing “sexy” and to instead wear clothes that allow them to fight, dance, and get up on stage. I know that for me, the punk and oi! scene gave me a way out of my miserable adolescent existence. Like the skinhead scene, I’m not perfect – but I owe it to the skinhead scene that at least I’m comfortable in my own skin. I hope that many other women in the future are given the same alternative.

So how do we get to this ideal world where men and women are appreciated and accepted equally in the skinhead movement? I think the first step is to recognize the fact that sexism exists, and that it stands in the way of our growing, thriving counter-culture. I think we would do well by questioning the double-standard for men and women in the scene, and to be critical of both the blatant and commonplace sexism that is apparent in festivals, at shows, on the internet, and at the pub. We should use the spirit and the principles of the movement to encourage women to participate actively, and we should question our own deep-seated prejudices before we question the motives of others. Most importantly, despite all the stereotypes, the negativity, and the ignorance, we can’t back down and we can’t give up. I know that for myself, I’m planning on keeping myself on a stage, releasing music, and speaking out about this issue. I don’t have all of the answers, but I do believe that this is a good starting point, and with a lot of drive and courage, we’ll get there.

When I was thirteen years old, listening to Vice Squad and seeing pictures of Bekki Bondage on stage changed my life. I am looking forward to the day when the next generation opens up fanzines and turns up their stereos to see and hear even more strong skinhead women fighting the world, offering an alternative, and playing music from the heart.

Catch Jenny live at the Great Skinhead Reunion, Brighton , England 31st may- 2nd June 2013

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