Feminine But Not Feminist

Justin Cober-Lake
Magneta Lane

Why some 'girl groups' must be identified as such and others feel inclined to avoid feminist descriptors: Cober-Lake gauges the cumulative effect of gender-obsessed definitions.

Sometimes you have your nails done and you don't want to get any dirt under them; other times you just can't help messing up that new manicure.

Those split urges seem to be part of Magneta Lane's persona. The press materials that accompanied the release of its debut EP, The Constant Lover, made it clear that the group was "feminine but not feminist", which I could have left well enough alone if the band hadn't seemed so much like feminists. The band, after all, formed when a group of young women decided it wasn't right for the men to be having the stage all to themselves, and filled its brief EP with tracks questioning a woman's place in the music industry, examining the complexities of society's restrictions on gender roles, and revealing the dangerous power of sexuality.

"The Constant Lover", for example, destabilizes a female stereotype. The female character refuses to settle down and, therefore, make herself vulnerable in a true relationship, so she flits from person to person, always loving physically, but never experiencing love. The song hinges on the lines "Girl, keep your beauty / They say that's your duty", which call out the prominence of societal objectification while merging it with suggestions about virginity. The song, even as it resists its unsettled protagonist, refuses to accept traditional roles. On "Mare of the Night", Lexi Valentine repeats the lines "Your eyes, the death of me / You make me pretty" in order to reverse traditional love songs. Often in song (think of the old warhorse "You Are So Beautiful"), a lover's gaze inscribes beauty and creates worth; in this particular song, the viewer casts a spell, causes nightmares, and makes the narrator feel ill. Eventually she must escape by fleeing. These tracks, along with "Ugly Socialite", "Medusa", and "Kissing Is Easy" (essentially 5/6 of the EP) deal directly with gender issues.

Confused, I emailed the band's publicist to ask why the explicit unprompted resistance to the feminist label. I received no response then, but I later heard from someone at the label, Paper Bag Records, who suggested, in essence, that I was raising issues better asked of more experienced artists. Magneta Lane was simply a young, exciting band finding its footing, and I should leave it at that. Fair enough in some respects, but someone somewhere made the decision to make sure that these young rockers never got tagged as political.

The decision most likely came about for commercial reasons: "girl rockers" are far more marketable than "feminist rockers". The feminist label still carries much baggage (some of which is worth carrying), and it's more profitable to stick a disclaimer on a record than to risk your band turning into banner carriers or being held up as representatives of political views they may or may not share. It's not just to be so cynical toward Paper Bag — there's also a need to watch out for young artists.

That sort of anti-branding carries an additional weight: it's reminiscent of the frequency with which all-female acts get labeled as the "girl version" of whatever male act is hot at the moment. As a marketing ploy, it's cleverer than it seems, because it advertises power while continuing to service the status quo. Young girls get the lesson that they too can be as cool as the boys, but the lesson comes via a priori knowledge: you have to always judge yourself in comparison to the boys. Being the original Magneta Lane isn't as noteworthy as being, say, "the girl Strokes". The most egregious example of this system in recent years occurred when Sahara Hotnights were consistently tagged by their press and the media as "the female Hives". The Hotnights — from their name to their look to their lyrics — provided an interesting intersection of female empowerment and sexuality, but it was possible to pin them down with a simple label.

Of equal importance is the use of the phrase "all-girl band", which plays out a similar role, even if it functions as a more fact-based descriptor. A true statement, it nevertheless reinforces the conception of a rock band being naturally male. We'd never say U2 is an all-guy group — unless otherwise noted, it's assumed that a group is predominately (if not entirely) male. You might see a parallel in other kinds of tagging — "the Swedish Beatles", "the urban Nick Drake" — but these sorts of phrases, whether based on geography or a canonical yardstick, come with less political baggage. Aside from issues of exoticism and lazy journalism, these phrases don't carry the weight of oppression. While a US audience might respond to a Swedish band for their Swedishness, that doesn't carry the degrading bagging of being Julian Casablancas with a vagina. And if it does, that doesn't make gender-based tagging any less harmful.

Fortunately, there is a flipside: at least girls have role models in the music industry. They aren't consigned to being the "hot bassist" or the "chick drummer", but they can move out independently of male structures. While there have long been artists and examples like Ani DiFranco and her Righteous Babe Records, it's encouraging to see more traditionally masculine guitar-rock staying open to women. If a band like Magneta Lane, Sahara Hotnights, or the Like inspires our adolescents, then maybe it's worth the uncomfortable tags that get applied to them.

And maybe things are changing. With a new album just around the corner, Magneta Lane no longer has the not-feminist warning in their bio; it now states that "they preserve their femininity while engaging the audience in positively gritty sounds", which rings less troubling and more honest. It's not that we need groups like this trio to actively embrace feminism. For now, it would be enough just to have them not fighting against it. Further hope: the band's bio now ends with this: "Magneta Lane have shed the false plastic layer that has been put on girls like them and show you what is underneath; in this case the reality is much more intriguing...they deliver their female experience genuinely." With this reflective and assertive approach, it's hard to care whether or not they're defined as feminists. Now let's hope the album lives up to expectations.

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