Wilkins, A. (2004) ' "So Full of Myself as a Chick" Goth Women, Sexual Independence, and Gender Egalitarianism', in Gender and Society, 18 (3): 328 -- 49.
This is a study of a local (US) Goth group based on interviews, participant-observation and internet postings. It is also clearly informed by feminist critiques of the strategy of 'active feminine sexuality in gaining gender egalitarianism' (328).
Women Goths describe their environment as liberating, partly because there is some evidence of men doing '"gender blend" wearing make-up and skirts', and partly because there is active feminine sexuality (328). The subculture offers a space for resistance, especially resistance to 'mainstream notions of passive femininity' (328), although this is not unique to Goths. Some contradictions are exposed in the particular Goth scene, however.
It is common to find women Goths talking about'"choice", "objectification" and "empowerment"' (329), but this is about sexual activity almost exclusively -- probably because members are young, often students, and have not yet encountered the constraints of employment or marriage. Their 'strategies of active sexuality (proactive sexuality, nonmonogamy, and bisexuality)' appear liberating and anti-mainstream, permit experimentation in self presentation, and enable 'sexual play with multiple partners' while avoiding stigmatisation (329). This bestows a political significance on the scene, sometimes supported by a feminist discourse. However, gender inequalities are present as well -- sexy dressing still leaves women subject to 'predatory and critical male and female gazes' (329). There are still double standards. There are still broader gender inequalities which are unaddressed, and there is the unwitting 'reproduction of an ideological system in which romance trumps sex' (329). Goths are insufficiently critical of romance, and still operate with some notion of romantic '"ideal" intimate relationships', even though these need not be monogamous as long as they are valid (330). Heterosexuality is still the norm, although same-sex relationships between women are permitted -- men approve of them as long as they are 'subsidiary' (330).
Active and experimental sexual activity for women has followed economic independence, although cultural gender divisions are still powerful. There have been moral panics about this activity among women, and feminists are themselves divided -- is increased sexual activity liberating or does it put pressure on young women to indulge? What young women actually want sexually is still relatively unstudied, however. Girls are still seen as victims or as slags, and their public behaviour still has to be carefully managed: they need to be both heterosexually attractive and yet not 'too loose' (331). One consequence might be inadequate contraception 'since carrying condoms suggests that the girl anticipated having sex (rather than being "swept away" by the moment)' (331, quoting Thompson 1995). The notion of love seems to encourage risky behaviour [amour fou!]. Romantic relationships are still central to identities. Women are still seen as responsible for maintaining romance. Women's passions are still seen as primarily emotional and biological.
There are various responses involving combinations of 'accommodation and/or resistance' (332) [so we're on familiar gramscian territory here]. Some empirical studies (332) show the contradictions: individual liberation may not challenge institutionalised constraint; constraints can be both pleasurable and oppressive, as in the wearing of make-up or in being noticed by men. It is clear that overt sexuality can subvert conventional notions, but sexuality and sexism are closely connected.
The Goth scene it does offer some refuge and room for experiment, especially if supported by University-based tolerance. Studying specific 'micro contexts' can complement the more general analysis about ideology and its effects. However, classic studies have tended to see women as passive or as reproducing gender hierarchies. A recent study of punk (Le Blanc 1999) shows that sub cultural values can be used to do gender resistance, and so does a study of alternative hard rock (Schippers 2002). Neither really challenges mainstream gender relations, though. Goths do see themselves as subversive enough to challenge 'hegemonic gender relations' (333), although this is doubtful too.
Goth began as a matter of shared musical tastes and eccentric dress. It is possible to be a weekend Goth [actually, a Tuesday Goth, since the club met on Tuesday nights]. It is an inclusive Group and there are overlapping memberships 'in the queer, polyamorous, bondage-discipline/sado-masochism and pagan communities' (334). Nevertheless, most Goths are young, white, middle-class, college-educated, liberal, unmarried and childless. There is an online presence for this particular local group. Wilkins has studied the group and was accepted as a potential recruit, and she also joined the website.
Many Goth women saw themselves as independent and in control of their personal lives. There was an insistence that they be recognised as a person and not just a sex object. They did experience Goth culture as sexually liberating and 'as supportive of women's sexual power' (335). Many seem to draw support from feminism. There is a rule to restrict predatory behaviour by men, and to respect personal spaces. This permits women to dress provocatively. They can dress sexily without people assuming that they are easily available. The rules are established by contrast with normal clubbing which features less control by women over their own sexuality.
However, men also benefit, in reducing 'the risks of sexual rejection' and avoiding 'a unilateral chase' (336). There may be no sexual assault, but there is still 'sexual objectification'. The pleasures of sexual expression extends to larger women as well, but large women are not always welcomed or seen as equally attractive -- 'Goth women are the objects of the critical gazes of both men and women' (340). The spectacular dress styles can 'expose the performativity aspects of femininity', and can even be mimicked by Goth men (338). However, heterosexuality is not challenged, even if it is parodied. The performance of heterosexual femininity seems almost universal: rather than a free choice it becomes the 'expected model' (338). There is certainly much heterosexual activity at the club, another 'unspoken (and perhaps unseen) absence of choice', since continued acceptance requires people to join in and be 'sexually open ' (339). Undesirable male behaviour is not entirely restrained, and some women have to be rescued from male dance partners.
There has been an occasional discussion about these ideas, sometimes covering the issue of objectification, and offering women a chance to discuss and reinterpret behaviours. This helps reconcile some of the contradictions of seeking sexual pleasure while retaining equal power. Nevertheless, 'the scene's master gender narrative' persists (340), and short-term empowerment seems unlikely to dent longer term conventional gender relations.
As an example, there is a continual reproduction of 'an ideology of romance' (340). Romance is used uncritically to manage contradictions, for example by being maintained as the ultimate goal of sexual experiments. However, double standards await. Sexual experimentation looks progressive, but women's bisexuality in particular can camouflage the inequalities of heterosexuality as well as feeding male fantasies. Similarly, multiple relationships rejects exclusivity, but still 'embrace romantic intimacy'(341) . Emotional relationships are still sought, and emotional authenticity is used to deny that participants are simply sleeping around -- it still has to be about love, and sex is justified as a route to emotional commitment. The acceptance of promiscuity as irresponsible is clear.
However, polyamory might still be seen as privileging female notions of relationships -- 'trust and communication... openness and respect' (342). Men may be forced to adopt these norms, although they are not necessarily egalitarian -- for example they can also characterise evangelical Christian guidelines (342). Relationships alone cannot change structured gender inequalities -- bondage, for example, does not change wider notions of power, and nor does other sexual play. The actual patterns seemed to indicate this -- men dated lots of females, but not the other way around, and straight men tended to be involved with bisexual women but not vice versa (343). Partners can be jealous, and inequalities can be rationalised -- by arguing that opens sexuality permits more relationships for women, even if they do not actually occur.
In particular, 'sustained intimate relationships between women' are not supported (344), despite frequent physical experimentation. Heterosexual relations are seen as normal and are more likely to be long term. Bisexuality is seen as safer for men, 'less real', a turn-on (345). Ultimately, notions of love regulates relationships most strongly, and is seen as more enduring than sexual experimentation and choice. Overall, breaking away from conventional monogamy offers a limited freedom -- 'engaging in multiple loves rather than in free sex' (346) -- and it is still seen as the woman's responsibility to make romance work. [It is difficult to see how Goth women can win -- free sexuality means objectification, regulated sexuality delivers them over to uncriticised patriarchal elements. Only multiple lesbian relationships are truly liberating?].
Gogh offers both 'victories and limitations' (346) [compare with penetrations and limitations in Willis]. Sexual agency of this kind seems unlikely to challenge conventional notions of gender. The isolation of the subculture can permit more liberating forms of sexual expression compared to the mainstream, but the 'socio-cultural power of men' is unaffected: men are still 'sexual consumers/owners' (346). Men benefit most from women's sexual freedom. Romance persists, and this maintains 'women's socio-cultural reliance' (347). Systematic inequalities are affected, and sexual freedom alone might provide an illusion of emancipation. Sexual experiment can serve simply to maintain an identity as superior, even as a commitment to feminism, doubts can be stifled and political quietism ensured.
LeBlanc, L. (1999) Pretty in punk: Girls' gender resistance in a boys' subculture, New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Schippers, M. (2002) Rockin' out of the box: Gender maneuvering in alternative hard rock, New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press.
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