Music/Features

Beyond grrls to the front: Reimagining equality in the Canadian heavy music scene

”Take a step back—literally—so someone else can stand in front of you and enjoy the space you’ve had the privilege of taking up until now. “

March 8, 2019

For International Women’s Day, we’re passing the mic to the women on the frontlines. As part of this series Kat McGouren, a writer and musician who currently plays bass in the Toronto punk band WLMRT, explains her vision for the future of the Canadian heavy music scene.

I share a first name with a woman who made her mark by proclaiming “girls to the front,” when a woman performing music on stage was still often met with “take off your shirt.” The reason for this proclamation, as empowering as it sounds, was a matter of physical safety for women attending and performing at punk shows.

In the 20-odd years since Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna first demanded space for women in music, I’m fortunate to step in front of a crowd of people a few times a month with an instrument slung around my neck and not be goaded to remove my clothes, and I don’t often find myself fearing for my physical safety while playing or attending a show.

But misogyny in heavy and alternative music is as pervasive as it ever has been—it just looks different. I’m still told I’m “good for a girl.” I’ve had a promoter who’s never seen my band play approach the stage in the middle of my set and adjust the EQ on my amplifier. I’ve had a sound technician assume that I was the keyboard player, despite the bass hanging around my shoulders. I’ve been told, in many different ways that I am doing a thing I get paid to do incorrectly. In a city that prides itself on its “progressive attitudes,” my peers—other women in Toronto bands—recount worse interactions, and with more frequency.

But for most, it’s not a heckle from the crowd or the threat of being pummeled during your set that directs a laser focus on the overwhelming shift in behaviour that’s still necessary: it’s the veiled statements or subtle actions that show that the thing we’re supposed to have moved past still lingers.

And it’s not because we aren’t present. Women make up a significant segment of the various Toronto heavy music scenes. We play in bands, put on shows, create zines, take photographs, run distros, make poster and T-Shirt art, take your cover at the door and pay cover at the door. I’m proud to be a part of this network inherently connecting me to so many interesting and creative women in this city. We’ve worked together and inspired each other to become important contributors to our scenes.  

But dig into this further and you’ll be met with the uncomfortable truth that a significant majority of those women are just like me: cisgender and white, making it clear that we still have a lot of work to do.

To my cis, white, femme peers in Toronto’s punk and wider alternative scenes: show up for those who don’t look like you. Show up for the women of colour, trans women and nonbinary people hosting events in your scene; buy their zines, their art, their records and tapes; share their posts and work on social media; actively listen to what they have to say. Use your platform and privilege to amplify their art. Take a step back—literally—so someone else can stand in front of you and enjoy the space you’ve had the privilege of taking up until now.

Start bands with people outside of your circle. Pay attention to the bills you play on: are they all-white, all-male? Ask your promoter why, and demand something different.

To the cis men who continue to dominate these scenes: do the same and more. Show up for all the women, not just those you find attractive. Start bands with people outside of your circle. Pay attention to the bills you play on: are they all-white, all-male? Ask your promoter why, and demand something different. If you have access to a space, reach out to your peers that don’t have access and ask them to book there.

Most importantly, men, dedicate yourselves to making the space safe for people not like you. Call out other men acting badly, and prohibit that behavior. Listen to people who have been mistreated by men in your scene and believe them. Don’t let those men continue without consequences.Toronto outsider art is up against hostile bylaws and ballooning rent. We need everyone to keep our scenes vibrant and flourishing. We want a truly inclusive and diverse scene, so let’s everybody keep doing the work.

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