Taking Up Space
“All the girls to the front, I’m not kidding” said Kathleen Hanna, front woman of Bikini Kill at a punk gig in the 90’s. An iconic moment that I’ve watched over many times thanks to The Punk Singer DVD. Back when Bikini Kill were touring in the 90’s many women were being beaten and bruised by men at their shows when trying to take up space at the front. It was this violence that led to that important moment and calling by Kathleen Hanna.
Vick Bain recollects, “When I was younger, in the early 90s, and starting to go to gigs I was living in the NE where the best venue there was the Riverside, a legendary club where all the cool, underground bands played before they became mainstream. But it was a tough business. One particular Faith No More gig I left with my arms literally black and blue just from trying to get down close to the stage. It was probably a 90% male audience. I just accepted it as the way it was, something you couldn’t stop, but it definitely stopped me going to see certain bands even though I loved dark, loud music. Not long after I got into raves where there was never any fighting and that was a huge part of the appeal.”
Years later why are we still here? Why are we still fighting to take up space?
I remember attending a folk gig at The Lexington standing at a distance from the stage with a friend. We were observing that something didn’t feel quite right. There were men with and without cameras huddled at the front of the stage watching the female performers avidly during their set. The rest of the audience were further away giving the men their room. It was as if there was an invisible wire separating us.
In the past when running live music events I’d speak to female artists who expressed to me their uneasiness with men taking up space at gigs whilst photographing them continuously. This is something I too have experienced as a performer at a selection of live shows.
When I co promoted a night called ‘Girls To The Front’ our aim was to bring female acts to the forefront on the live gig circuit. I noticed that for many of the events there would be a handful of men who would claim their seat at the front of the stage leaving not much room for anyone else. There were some wonderful male allies who understood the ethos of the night and shared or even gave up their usual spot. At every show I would relay the Kathleen Hanna story in the hope that the message would resonate.
I reached out to folk singer-songwriter Catherine Rudie to get her reflections. “It is true that gigs are still predominantly a territory designed and occupied by men, what they value and what makes them comfortable. They can get offended if they are asked to back away from the main stage, to take a look at the gender balance of who they are booking; to ask why they value one artist over another. I’ve been shouted at very aggressively and at some length for just pointing out that there were 8 male artists in a row by the male promoters. I think it would be really helpful if more men were allies, and were aware that what they enjoy (even if it’s a female artist!), especially en masse can be off putting and difficult to navigate for everyone else. But what we need more than anything is more visibility of diversity, and a recognition that this is important in every aspect of the gig experience.”
Men dominating the space whether it be a folk, punk, rock or any other music genre gig is not ok and never has been. I’ve spoken to a few female promoters who have also recognised the problem of some men taking photographs incessantly, invading the female performers’ boundaries at their events. It’s important to point out also that non-binary and transfeminine performers/promoters and audience members experience similar difficulties with ‘manspreading’ in gig spaces.
I put out a tweet to get thoughts from male allies and gig goers. Performer and composer Luke Moore replied, “I’m often aware of this at gigs and festivals, which can often feel like crowd Tetris! I’m not super tall but at 5’11 I’m conscious folks directly behind me (whoever they might be) can’t see. Venues with sloped floors make it less of an issue but a tiny amount of awareness of other gig-goers isn’t really much of a tall order!”
I would have loved to hear more thoughts from male gig goers that delved deeper into this issue however, no one else came back to me.
Although currently live gigs are not able to take place it’s good to know that there are bands like Dream Nails and female led events who have been setting necessary boundaries along with a strong message. Cassie Fox, founder of LOUD WOMEN says, “The ethos of LOUD WOMEN events is DIY feminist punkrock, so the large majority of people coming to our events are respectful of rules like girls to the front, restrictions on photography and so on. Most women can tell you tales of having been groped or worse at gigs, and how they’ve been made to feel for years like gigs and concerts were macho, aggressive and threatening environments.”
The mission continues. The more awareness brought to this matter, the more we can all continue to call out this unbalanced behaviour. We must keep paving the way for gigs that allow people of marginalised genders the privilege to take up space at the front.