How Female Rockers Deal With Gender Stereotypes

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The Bangles film their first music video in the '80s.
Some things never go out of style. Take, for instance, sunny, swirly '60s garage rock — a psychedelic sound that The Bangles revved up for the New Wave era and rode to stardom in the ‘80s. Around the time the all-female L.A. foursome was ruling the charts with hits like “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and “Hazy Shade of Winter,” the 1988 comedy Working Girl was helping to popularize another enduring idea. Way less groovy, it’s the notion that women often play against each other, and that when it comes to getting ahead in a male-dominated world, they can be their own worst enemies.

That argument predated Melanie Griffith’s epic battle with Sigourney Weaver, and it still inspires loads of feminist think-pieces (like this 2014 Urbanette post) and the occasional Chris Rock comedy bit. According to Bangles founder Vicki Peterson, however, it’s an idea that’s proved less timeless than those jingle-jangle guitars and honeyed harmonies that remain the bedrock of her group’s music.

“I think it might be an outmoded idea, especially in the workplace,” Peterson tells Refinery29, speaking from L.A. weeks before a series of California tour dates. “That sounds like something from the '80s to me — the woman in the power suit trying to be the man because it’s the only way she can exercise her power or be successful.”

The singer, guitarist, and songwriter formed the Bangles — initially called the Bangs — with her drumming sister, Debbi, in 1981. The original lineup featured Peterson’s close friend Annette Zilinskas on bass, and, together with singer and guitarist Susanna Hoffs, whom they found through an ad in the newspaper, they set out to create their own version of the Beatles. “I thought there was an aspect of the image the Beatles projected where it was this club,” Peterson says. “They were the members. They had the secret handshake. They had relationships and had a dynamic no one outside the club had. That, to me, was really intriguing and fascinating. I wanted that, but with women.”

In an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music from 2000, a decade after the Bangles split up at the height of their fame, all four members liken their partnership to a marriage. It’s not a comparison male musicians generally make, and Peterson says that’s likely a product of culture and gender.

“When you’re a young woman, for centuries, your goal is going to be to become a married woman and have children,” Peterson says. “But when you’re a young woman in the 20th century, which we were, there are other options. I was still looking for partnership. It wasn’t sexual. It was musical. It was ideological. We called it a marriage because that’s how much energy it took.”

Good marriages hinge on communication, compromise, and the ability to fight well — skills the Bangles were sorely lacking in 1989. But it wasn’t because they were power-grabbing she-devils, and Peterson says gender had little to do with the group’s breakup. Sure, the record company had opted to focus on doe-eyed de facto frontwoman Hoffs, even though all four Bangles sang and wrote the songs, but Peterson says the jealousy and animosity that sidelined the band until a 1999 reunion aren’t unique to lady rockers.
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The Bangles in 2008.
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“I’ve seen that happen with guy bands, too. You know, 'He’s cute, he should be the lead singer, and you should fire that bass player, because he’s overweight,’” Peterson says. “These kinds of things happen to everybody.” She does, however, think the Bangles had it worse by virtue of being women. “We were musicians, and not unattractive people, but certainly not fashion models,” Peterson says. “There was a lot of pressure to have this become more of a fashion moment, or a glamour moment, or a celebrity moment than a musical moment. That I found alienating and frustrating. That had nothing to do with what I had imagined when I was nine years old and dreaming about becoming a pop star.”

If fellow Southern California native Frankie Rose hasn’t had the experience of being told what to wear by dudes in a boardroom, she’s also withstood her share of sexist bullshit. Before launching a solo career in the late '00s, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer played drums in two all-girl garage-rock bands, the Vivian Girls and the Dum Dum Girls, both of which faced the kind of scrutiny male bands never have to worry about.

“I’ve seen articles on Dum Dum Girls where the whole review was about what we were wearing,” Rose tells Refinery29. “Which is insane to me.” Rose says gender-related squabbling had nothing to do with her decisions to leave either the Dum Dums or the Vivians — even though she told the Boston Phoenix in 2008 that her departure from the latter was partially a question of, “Who can I be in a car with for a month at a time? Two 21-year-old girls, or three 32-year-old guys?" Now, responding to the quote, she says, “I think it really does depend on the people. You can’t put anything into a category. I’ve been in bands where it’s all men, and no one’s listened what I said, and it’s probably because I’m a woman. And I’ve been in bands with all women the same age as me, where I’ve been asked to be a leader.”

Rose says she had nothing but good times as a Dum Dum Girl, and, like Peterson of the Bangles, she’s suspicious of the theory that women are hardwired to take each other down. “I personally love women,” Rose says. “I consider myself a feminist. I often think of women first. I think of my female friends first. I’ve not experienced that competitiveness. It sounds to me almost like it’s a made-up story, but I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure there are women that are competitive with each other and are pitted against each other.” Rose made her solo debut with an eponymous 2009 album credited to Frankie Rose and the Outs, yet another male-free band, but Rose insists she never set out to play solely with women. She came up in a SoCal punk scene where no one, male or female, knew how to play their instruments, and she didn’t necessarily feel more comfortable learning alongside other women.

That being said, she admits that girls back then weren’t exactly encouraged to pick up guitars and drumsticks. “No one ever taught me how to play an instrument,” she says. “I had to learn on my own. If there’d been a thing like rock camp for girls, I would’ve been all over it when I was 12 or 14.” Nowadays, programs like Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls do exist, and they attract teachers like Victoria Mandanas, drummer for the up-and-coming, grunge-leaning Western Massachusetts pop-punk band Potty Mouth.

Unlike Rose, Potty Mouth bassist Ally Einbinder says she made a conscious decision to form a band with only girls. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, she lacked close female friends and found the local punk scene to be woefully male-centric. There were girls around, but they were aggressive and competitive, and they weren’t starting bands. After high school, Einbinder headed to Northampton, Massachusetts, to attend Smith College, a noted incubator of feminist thought and, as it turned out, a testing ground for bass-playing skills she’d first explored in a mixed-gender band that left her wanting more.

“I made the decision to go to an all-women’s college partly because I wanted the ability to develop really powerful and strong female relationships,” Einbinder says. “That became the inspiration for me wanting to form an all-female band.” Asked about the idea that in-fighting women do more to hurt the feminist cause than sexist males in positions of power, Einbinder agrees with Peterson and Rose: The theory doesn’t hold water. It’s clearly something she’s thought about a lot. When not touring with Potty Mouth and playing shows with heroes like Juliana Hatfield, Einbinder works as a program coordinator at Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work & Life. She makes her point emphatically and intelligently, like she’s leading a discussion group for undergrads.
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The Dum Dum Girls perform in 2014.

“Attributing that problem to any behavioral traits within women is inherently damaging and almost misogynistic, because the reason relational aggression exists is because of patriarchy,” Einbinder says. “When you’re in a male-dominated environment, where men are at the top of the hierarchy, and there’s not enough room for women to enter the top, that’s when you get women competing with other women. It’s the idea of scarcity.” Einbinder admits that in the early days of Potty Mouth, before the group signed with Old Flame Records and dropped its excellent 2013 debut LP, Hell Bent, she sometimes felt jealous of friends whose bands were getting out of the rehearsal space and making things happen. These days, she feels supported by — and supportive of — other female musicians.

“It’s been such a wild and amazing and valuable experience, and I’m always happy to meet other people who’ve had a similar kind of experiences,” Einbinder says. “You typically find that in bands that are within our same larger universe, like Speedy Ortiz or Swearin’ or Waxahatchee. They’re all our friends. I feel like my jealousy has gone away. I’d rather have people support me than be jealous of me, so that’s what I try to put out into the world.” Within her own band, she says, there’s “miscommunication or little arguments here or there,” but there’s also a one-for-all spirit that keeps things from boiling over. “We all have this dream, and we can only achieve it together,” she says. “I think in a lot of ways, it’s motivation for nurturing our friendships. We know if we’re going to achieve the big things we want to achieve, we have to be a family. We essentially are a family.”

Should Einbinder ever establish the Center for Strong & Supportive Female Bassists, she might appoint as director Catherine Popper — not that the in-demand session and touring musician likes to be identified as a “female bassist.”

“I have a degree in this,” Popper says with a laugh. “I didn’t study ‘female jazz arrangement,’ or ‘female Duke Ellington.’ I’m a fucking musician. When I’m playing bass, the last thing I’m thinking about is my tits.” A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Popper typically works as a hired gun for artists like Ryan Adams, Jack White, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and NYC punk troubadour Jesse Malin, with whom she’s touring this spring. But, she occasionally steps into the spotlight with Puss n Boots, an alt-country trio she started with friends Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson in 2008. Jones, of course, is a mega-selling pop superstar with a boatload of Grammys, and Dobson is a well-established and respected singer-songwriter with multiple albums to her credit. It was natural, then, for Popper to feel a little apprehensive about writing songs for the group’s 2014 debut, No Fools, No Fun.

Only, she had no reason to worry. Puss n Boots is very much a democracy, and there were no ego battles to speak of. Quite the opposite, in fact. “At one point, they got to know me and know I’m very self-conscious,” says Popper. “I was like, ‘I have [a song], but I’m sure it sucks.’ And they were like, ‘Shut up and send it to us.’ That’s what I needed. I needed someone to say, ‘There’s no time for your horseshit, because we’re just having a good time.’” Popper wound up contributing two songs, including the breezy, heartfelt, endlessly hummable “Always,” one of the album’s highlights. Not every experience with female musicians has been as positive, but Popper is reluctant to blame certain incidents — like the “cattiness” she experienced while touring in 2012 as a member of Jack White’s all-girl Peacocks — on women sabotaging one another.

“A lot of women are just green and haven’t done a lot of touring," Popper says. "There’s cattiness from men. Almost every band has someone who’s crazy, catty, and nervous on the road. It’s still sort of a new thing for women to be touring as much, and a lot of times, I attribute it to somebody being green and maybe a little rigid and nervous.

“Some bands I’ve been in, some of the biggest bullies have been men,” Popper adds. "When I was in a band with Grace Potter, she was always dressing me to look better than her. She was so supportive: ‘Let’s do our hair. Let me do your makeup.’ There was no cattiness at all. It’s so funny how people read into that. I was just texting with her and saying I miss that.”

The Nocturnals are a coed group, and that’s how Popper likes it. The Jack White thing was too good to pass up, but usually, when she’s considered for a gig simply because she’s female, it strikes her as gimmicky. That’s not cool, and it’s certainly not what led her, Jones, and Dobson to form Puss n Boots.

“We’re women, and we’re friends, but it wasn’t like, ‘Let’s start a chick band,’” Popper says. “It’s a hang. But I will say there’s a really fun aspect to us. We sing like angels, but we tell dick jokes, and we get gassy, and we talk shit about dudes. It’s nice to group up and remember what it is we really do. That we’re not angels, and we’re not whores. We’re just musicians.”