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Glitter Kids and Orange Lipstick: Gender Ambiguity in Rock-and-Roll

I had the great privilege of seeing The Pretenders live last week, and the even greater privilege of seeing them with my mother. After the show, still reeling from the glorious experience, my mother said that Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer, was the greatest rock star to ever perform. When I asked her why she felt this way, my mother replied, “Chrissie never bowed to the stereotypes of women in the music industry. She blew people out of the water without needing to rely on femininity.” This led me to think of an entire subset of musicians who chose ambiguity over convention, placed over a variety of genres.

Teresa deLauretis said, partially quoting Foucault, that “gender is not a property of bodies or something originally extant in human beings, but ‘the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviors, and social relations’.” (The Technology of Gender, 3). There are very few musicians who embody this description more than Susan Quatrocchio, better known as glam rock sensation Suzi Quatro. While she never had long-term success in the United States, Suzi was the iconic female glam rocker in the UK, the home of this new genre. One of the aims of glam rock, characterized by elaborate makeup and ambiguous dress, was to proffer the idea that “all social identifications are temporary, self-selected constructs rather than expressions of an essential, natural identity” (Performing Glam Rock, 67). It seems that the ideals of glam rock were very much in line with those of deLauretis. Suzi Quatro exemplified this theme in her performances, where she exuded a much more masculine image than any other female musician at the time. She wore leather cat-suits popular with other glam rockers and applied very little makeup, so that from a distance you couldn’t tell if she was a man or a woman. Her mannerisms on stage also reflected her male counterparts. Suzi fit perfectly into the definition of a “cock-rocker,” a term coined by cultural theorist Simon Frith, because her performances emphasize gritty, crude interactions with the crowd and, most importantly, because she wielded her guitar like it was a “technophallus.” No other woman in the history of rock had worn her guitar that low and played at sexual gratification from it, just as no other woman, at that point, had refused to change pronouns and genders in covered songs like Suzi Quatro (I Wanna Be Your Man, 6-9).

In the early 1980s, past the generation of glam rock, a new figure was emerging to challenge gender stereotypes in music culture. After experiencing the sexual pressure of being the only female member of a band, Annie Lennox founded the Eurythmics with Dave Stewart at the beginning of the music video era of MTV. In their videos, Lennox played both male and female parts interacting with one another, portraying many gender stereotypes along the way. The main difference between Lennox and other figures of popular culture who “went drag” was that she portrayed men as convincingly as possible. It was difficult at times to tell that it was actually Annie Lennox under the suit and bowler hat, and many people found this convincing drag threatening (Drag, Camp, and Gender Subversion, 17-19). This is particularly noticeable in the video for “Sweet Dreams,” where she and Stewart appear facing each other, dressed and coiffed exactly alike, with Lennox’s lipstick being the only hint at femininity. She didn’t assume these personae with the intention of shocking society, but rather to express her “discomfort at the expectation that, as a woman in pop music, she should present herself in an overtly sexual way” (Drag, Camp, and Gender Subversion, 20). Almost predictably, critics assumed her to be a lesbian because of her clothing choice and refused to believe that her relationship with Stewart was anything more than a cover, despite her own protests. Gillian Rodgers compares Lennox’s efforts to the core of Judith Butler’s idea of gender as performativity (26), and I would agree with her that it does expose the construction of gender, similar in manner to Suzi Quatro but different in approach.

Finally, turning away both from women and clothing, this discussion on gender ambiguity in music could not be complete without the much subtler challenge of Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure, and his infamous red-orange lipstick (currently MAC Ruby Woo). As the only remaining original member of the band, Robert Smith essentially is The Cure. While he doesn’t dress in clothing traditionally assigned to women, anyone who has seen Smith can remark on the extraordinary amount of makeup he wears. Unlike other heavily made-up rock stars who paint their faces to portray their persona, Smith always wears his makeup: on stage, at home, and out grocery shopping. In a recent interview, he said, “I like how I look. It just feels like me. And it’s not just a performance thing. Really, I don’t look that different when I’m off stage than when I’m on-stage, except I wear a lot more make up on-stage” (The Cure’s Robert Smith). The Godfather of Goth, who inspired a generation of makeup-wearing, black hair-dying youth, managed to express in a few succinct sentences how I feel about gendered technologies like makeup, clothing, and hairstyles: it doesn’t matter if it’s a “boy” thing or a “girl” thing- if it feels right to you, then it’s yours.

Over many decades, music has served to both continue and challenge gender stereotypes through performance and presentation. Musicians, because of their elevated status as pure performers, have been able to buck conventional trends. Why is it acceptable for Annie Lennox to wear suits and Robert Smith to wear lipstick, but an average citizen is given sideways glances for doing the same? Society needs to take these bold rockers not as curiosities or rebels, but as samples of the wide range of desired expression that is present in this country and in this world.

Auslander, Philip. “I Wanna Be Your Man: Suzi Quatro’s Musical Androgyny.” Popular Music,
Vol. 23, No.1 (Jan., 2004) pp.1-16.
Auslander, Philip. Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music. Univ. of
Michigan, 2006.
deLauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory,
Film and Fiction. Indiana University, 1987. 1-30.
Rodger, Gillian. “Drag, Camp and Gender Subversion in the Music and Videos of Annie
Lennox.” Popular Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 17-29.
Smithies, Grant. “The Cure’s Robert Smith” ¬Sunday Star Times. 8 Feb. 2008.

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    February 16, 2009


    You certainly make it clear, here, that we should be spending more time in this class on popular culture!

    What strikes me about your paper is the way you accentuate the ambiguous gender performance of the three stars you discuss. What confuses me is what—as students of gender and technology—we are to make of those performances: how to understand what they say to us, socially and theoretically. You say that “society needs to take these bold rockers as samples of the wide range of desire gender expression”—but I’d say that their popularity is evidence that society has already done so. The deeper question is why it’s acceptable for rock stars to assume ambiguous roles, and not for the rest of us to do so (or is it….? Are you creating a false binary, a straw “man”?)

    The even deeper question your paper raises, though, has to do with this matter of gender performance. You quote Gillian Rodgers quoting Judith Butler on gender as performativity—but you follow that immediately by quoting Robert Smith denying his own performativity: “It just feels like me. And it’s not just a performance thing.” And then you agree: “ it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy thing or a girl thing—if it feels right to you, then it’s yours.”

    But of course Butler’s point is that there isn’t any “yours”: that all the ways in which we act in the world are learned, and so re-enactments, of social scripts. So where’s the “you” (and wherefrom the “you”?) that you and Robert Smith are valorizing here?

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