Smith and Feminism/Gender

Understanding Smith’s portrayal and “acting out” of gender is essential to understanding her cultural impact. Such an understanding allows us to place her in a historical context in which her uniqueness truly shines. Both on paper and in interviews, throughout her career, Smith has repeatedly shunned a feminist mantle being placed upon her, claiming instead to desire only “the right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth”. In Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk, Smith is quoted as saying: “Most of my poems are written to women because women are inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women. The masculinity in me gets inspired by the female. I fall in love with men and they take me over. I ain’t no women’s lib chick. So I can’t write about a man because I’m under his thumb, but a woman I can be male with. I can use her as my muse. I use women (emphasis mine)”.  Smith effectively assumes the role of the oppressor in her quest for artistic freedom and lack of regard for identifying with traditional feminist ideologies or movements (at least rhetorically). Still, this dual occupation of both male and female space is significant in its transgression of fairly rigidly defined gender roles at this point in rock .In her first interview, with Victor Bockris, Smith continues this strong non-identification with feminism: “ I don’t consider myself a female poet. It’s only lately that I’ve been able to consider myself as a female at all. But I don’t consider myself a female artist. I don’t think I hold any sex. I think I have both masculine and feminine rhythms in my work” .  Aside from its problematic equation of asexuality with dual sexual expressions (Patti Smith is anything but asexual), such speech “suggests a woman who was more interested in achieving a personal success than risking compromise through an explicit identification with the women’s movement”.  Such statements and lack of explicit and concrete feminist identification have, perhaps rightfully so, provoked much criticism from traditional women’s rights movements.

Speech and actions, as well as artist intent and cultural effect are not synonymous however, a fact that needs to be fully recognized in regard to Smith and gender. Words are not what have the last say, in the case of Patti Smith. In action, in performance, Smith allowed full expression of this dual sexuality, of both the “masculine and feminine rhythms” of her work. This duality effectively blurred and reconstituted ideas of gender, of what it meant to be a woman rock performer. Regardless of what she says on paper, it is not ludicrous to see Smith’s work as performing a feminist function based solely on how she represents and enacts a dual notion of gender in both still photographs (Horses being the notable, but certainly not sole example) and, especially, in live performance.  She herself notes the impact of performance in a 2002 interview: “ you know to see a woman with an electric guitar was very rare, you know, in the past and now it’s very commonplace so I think that it’s a very strong, uh, arena”, at which point she reverts back to her stated opinions of  “not thinking of myself as a female artist” and striving for an artistic freedom “beyond gender”. It is in an understanding of her gendered performances and the role models that lay beyond them that one fully realizes the impact and uniqueness of Patti Smith.

To further understand her performance and also problematize her relationship to gender politics, one must also acknowledge the fact that Patti Smith’s role models, from childhood onward were almost exclusively male. This has to do largely with the historical context and the lack of “different” females to emulate: “ It was 1962.  A time when roles were rigidly assigned. The boys had Bond and Brando. They beat off to Bardot. The girls had the pale range of Doris Day to Sandra Dee. All through childhood I resisted the role of a confused skirt tagging the hero. Instead I was searching for someone crossing the gender boundaries, someone both to be and to be with. I never wanted to be Wendy–I was more like Peter Pan”. This male identification was especially notable in her musical role models, especially Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Keith Richards.  As a music critic, Smith idolized and endorsed the raw power of male sexuality in rock.   In writing about the first time her band performed with a drummer, Smith mentions Dylan‘s attendance and the power that she draws from it by saying “ This knowledge had a strange effect on me. Instead of humbled, I felt a power, perhaps his; but I also felt my own worth and the worth of my band. It seemed for me a night of initiation where I had to become fully myself I the presence of the one I had modeled myself after“.  Patti Smith essentially uses Bob Dylan to her own ends; she acknowledges her artistic debt to him, but then transcends it in becoming something different. For a female to use a male rock musician this way, especially one on the level of Bob Dylan is very significant.

Also important is the aspect of the duality, the fact that Smith stylistically represented both male and female. The result was that she “made masculinity feminine, merging the genders”.[Footnote] Apart from gender boundary crossings, her appearance also had an immediate direct effect on her audiences, what Chris Stein calls the Patti Smith “phenomenon”: “ audiences showing up dressed like the album cover–a sea of white shirts with black ties”. [Footnote] Again it is not so much her sources that I am interested in as how Smith herself appropriates and uses these explicitly male influences as a nonetheless female artist and performer and what effect this has. By her revolutionary, female use of a cast of all male role models Joe Tarr claims Smith “freed pop culture from the tyranny of masculinity– demonstrating that all forms, styles, roles and genres were open to anyone who dared appropriate them for their own use”.[Footnote] Although this claim of a complete freedom from male control is a bit of a stretch ( as later female based musical movements, most notably RiotGrrl will attest to), the space that Smith opened for women in music by her use of male role models was nonetheless significant and important, especially given the historical context in which it occurred.

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