|Image courtesy of Karolina Collier.|
Confrontational, at times literally in your face, feminist polemicists War on Women are a hardcore punk sonic assault on sexism. Their lyrics incisively expose and challenge the multi faceted, many layered cultural, political and economic oppression, inequality and harassment experienced by women. The band were formed in 2010 by Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan and have had two releases Improvised Weapons in 2012 and their eponymous album released in 2015 on Bridge Nine Records (1).
On their recent European Tour I was able to see them twice, a few days apart, at The Owl Sanctuary in Norwich and Our Blackheart in Camden. On both occasions they were stunning! Scalpel sharp lyrics embedded in next level hardcore punk with monster riffs, a huge drum sound and bass playing that takes no prisoners they somehow combine power and intelligent subtlety.
Singer Shawna Potter’s experience in drama means the lyrics are delivered within an unusually full spectrum of communication as she commands your attention with her stage presence. This is no more apparent than in ‘Broken Record’ when she subjects a male member of the crowd to the escalating aggression of street harassment normally experienced by women. Live she reminded me of a terrifying flamenco dancer I saw a few years ago in Seville; the same flashing eyes and controlled power. To be honest I don’t think I’ve seen a better front person.
Before their Norwich gig Shawna kindly took time out to discuss music, feminism and, well, pretty much everything really!.
Q: Could you give us an overview of War on Women? Had you been in bands before? How did you get together, had you collaborated previously?
Shawna: Brooks Harlan and I had been in a band before this one, we are based in Baltimore and I moved to Baltimore from Nashville to join a band that Brooks was in. You know I needed a change, I grew up playing music and touring, being in bands but I hadn’t done a lot of different stuff so I thought I’d take a risk and move to the East Coast and join his band. We’ve been writing music together for a long time and at some point that old band, which was called Avec, kinda fizzled out. We knew we wanted to do something heavier and we wanted to talk about the political climate, which it seemed like no one was at the time. We had the midterm elections of 2010 coming up and we were thinking about songs and I was getting pissed (off) and I didn’t know why no one was talking about it. And that might even be ignorance on my part I’m sure there were plenty of people talking about it, but there wasn’t enough of a connection quite yet. So Brooks and I have been writing and playing music together for a while, we have a really good solid connection and working relationship.
Q: So out of Avec came War on Women?
S: In a way yeah but I think we felt it was more like a fresh start. No one else in the band was in Avec, we started talking to people asking ‘Hey do you want to join this band, by the way we are incredibly outwardly feminist, are you OK with that? Do you want to play this kind of music?’
Q: So when you went again with War on Women you had decided you wanted to make women’s invisible experiences visible, that you wanted to confront people with the uncomfortable truths about women’s experiences in society?
S: Yeah it was very thoughtful, I’ve never done that in any other band before. It was very intentional that this is what the band is, this is what we’re doing, and that gives me these interesting parameters to what I write about. Can I talk about XYZ subjects from a feminist perspective? Or can I educate anyone on how this is a feminist issue when maybe it doesn’t seem like it is on the surface? It’s neat from a writing standpoint because I think when people give themselves some sort of parameters or restrictions you can actually really flourish. I’m obviously very passionate about women’s equality and women’s rights and I do my best to continue to educate myself on LGBTQ rights and rights for people of colour. There seems to be an endless amount of things to write about, that’s for sure!
Q: I read that the phrase ‘war on women’ was first coined by feminist author Andrea Dworkin and has become shorthand for Republican policies that disadvantage women (2). How did you come to choose that as a name? Has it led to any confusion?
S: We’ve definitely got some looks in the airport for carrying our guitars with ‘War on Women’ on the side, I remember a woman in the airport looking at the guitar case and then looking at Brooks and saying ‘What does that mean?’ like you had better explain yourself! Which he did and then she was like ‘I don’t like that’. So I don’t know if she just didn’t like it from a man or if she was anti feminist herself, you never know. The term ‘war on women’ was coined a while back but it’s only really avalanched the last few years, at the time we were writing these songs and wondering what to call ourselves it was gaining popularity among feminists. So I’m reading articles on Jezebel and stuff on these subjects and using ‘war on women’ as shorthand. It just seemed it perfectly summed up what’s going on, and it’s aggressive and fits with the musical style. I didnt want it to be vague just like I don’t want to write lyrics for this band that are vague. I used to write more poetically about whatever...relationships.
Q; This band is set up to deliver a message...
S: Yes, and hopefully we do it in an interesting way, because when things are too obvious and simple it’s a bit much. The name seemed to fit with the style of music and we wanted people to think what does that mean, what is this? I’m OK with the fact that people have to check in with the name and make sure that we’re against the war on women and not for it, but I also think that people’s confusion comes from the fact that sometimes all male bands decide to have fucked up names like Whores or Black Pussy or things like that. I don’t know if they’re are doing it to be funny or ironic but they are discounting people’s lives, they’re clueless and they think it’s OK. So of course someone is going to doubt War on Women and assume it’s just a bunch of dudes that are actually sexist. I get that and so hopefully we can do away with that idea!
Q: Talking of Republicans and Republican policies, what does Donald Trump V Hillary Clinton look like from an American feminist perspective?
S: Like total ...garbage! I am extremely third party, I vote third party, I vote Green Party which is a political party that basically believes all the magical things that all the Bernie Sander supporters believe but have spoken up about them for decades, they have been saying all these great progressive things forever but because no one is giving them any money the general public doesn’t know or care about it. Money is only being thrown at the Republicans and Democrats so those are the messages that are coming through. It’s really complicated though because when you really look at it Hillary Clinton is super centre and maybe even right of centre so Trump is like off the Richter scale! Just batshit crazy! A meglomaniac who probably just wants to get another TV show out of it, I really doubt his intentions, I really think it’s just advertisment for him. I don’t think he cares why he’s famous, he just wants to be famous. I think no matter what happens he will be satisfied, but I think this situation has gotten away from him and he’s starting to realise he could have real power, and any real power in his hands would be extremely dangerous. I understand that most Americans feel like we just have a really bad choice. Most people that are reasonable want to vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s not Trump but that’s not a real choice. Also because of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court in America that basically says that corporations are people they can donate unlimited funds to political campaigns under Free Speech, all the money is going to Republicans and Democrats and no one else, so no one is going to hear Jill Stein from The Green Party talk about all these “Bernie Sander’s” ideas. I’m lucky enough to live in a Blue state which means I know it will go Democrat no matter what so I can vote with my conscience basically, which is absolutely Green Party. Not everyone in the band agrees, we all have different views because it’s just so complicated and we don’t have any reasonable choices. But Hillary Clinton is obviously more technically qualified to be a world leader. As a feminist I’m like ‘Damn, I wish the first woman President had politics closer to my own’ but I wonder if she is elected whether I might tear up-it’s such a beautiful thing to see yourself represented.
Because we are so limited in our choices for electing women and we just don’t have enough women and people of colour being represented then we’re forced to feel torn between our personal politics and just seeing ourselves up there. Again not a fair choice, if we had a more diverse Senate, House, President and Supreme Court that actually looked like America looks like I think we could all vote with someone who aligns with our views instead of just being excited that there is a woman or a black candidate.
Q: Yanis Varoufakis recently referenced Picasso’s comment that art is not meant to be decorative but should be an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy (4). Is that what you would hope for with your music, that it would disrupt, challenge, wake people up? Music as weapon or entertainment?
S: I look at the music itself as more of a weapon and I look at our live shows as entertainment. I appreciate both and I think there is room for that. What I hope is that if our music is considered a weapon then it’s considered a weapon by traditionally marginalised people, it’s something they can wield against whoever oppresses them or makes them doubt they’re a human being deserving of rights. I would rather it be empowering for women and Queers and people of colour than to be a weapon in the hands of anyone else. A weapon of self defence, if you will. Whereas I look at our live shows as, our lives can be really tough let’s have some fucking fun, we deserve it!
Q: I just finished reading ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard (3) it makes being a woman in a sexist patriarchal culture sound tough; inequality, objectification, sexualisation, harassment- issues you confront in your music, for instance in ‘Broken Record’ (1). You’re particularly involved in ‘Hollaback Baltimore’, could you talk a little bit about that?
S: Yeah, absolutely. I actually founded the Baltimore Chapter but there are Chapters all over the world on almost every continent, many different languages, many different countries. It’s based out of New York but local people in their own towns can start their own Chapter, where they can organise and educate people around the issue of street harassment. It shows that street harassment and sexual harassment in general are not peculiar to one area or to one type of person or one language, it’s a worldwide problem. In general women are second class citizens and LGBTQ folks even worse. It is everywhere and the people that live in their own communities know best how to tackle it. I like that there is no white saviour coming in to tell everyone what to do. The people who actually live there are working on the issue, which I think is really beautiful. I founded the Chapter around the same time that I started War on Women with Brooks. I was just feeling really inspired to do something in my late twenties, when I was realising that the world is bigger than me and that I need to do something about it! So I ran that for four years and I recently handed it off to someone else to run the day to day but I’m still involved in a general shaping of where they go and running training sessions. I train venues which could be a bar, a music venue, a store, a coffee shop, whatever, in how to become safer spaces, directly telling them how to deal with street harassment when it happens on site, patron to patron. When a customer comes in and has just experienced street harassment, how to help them through the moment, basically acknowledging that street harassment happens and that our response should be victim centered. At least half of their clients deal with street harassment all the time so how do you help promote the wellbeing of your customers and let them know they can come into your place anytime and feel OK and really in the end feel OK enough to keep spending money in your place, that they know they can complain to you. Everyone that I train gets the same information and the more trainings I do the bigger the network of people in Baltimore that know these simple steps to create safer spaces.
Q: Talking of harassment and objectification do you think that is a problem to the same extent in the punk scene as the mainstream? Or is it an easier, safer place to be a woman?
S: I think sexism and harassment are absolutely everywhere, I think there is a little bit more of an idea that if you’re going to a punk, hardcore gig or space, where you’re surrounded by people who look like you that it should be safer. In a way walking down this street in public I expect street harassment more than when I’m in The Owl Sanctuary and I drop my guard a little bit more walking into that space, ‘cos I’m home and I’m hopeful and it’s tiring to carry around that expectation of ‘attack’ and you want to let it go some time.So walking into this space I’m going to let that go, I’m going to relax, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen and when it does its profoundly disappointing but I’ve found some hope in that as the lead singer of a feminist band I can stand up for myself in those situations. So I live up to my own standard of how powerful I think I should be, especially if it’s our show and we’re playing I don’t let anything slide and that’s a really great feeling. Honestly the more shows we play the easier it is for me to feel that empowered on the street- I deserve to take up space, I deserve respect, I deserve dignity, I don’t deserve to have you talk to me that way!
Q: Contrasting 70s feminism which was quite essentialist with third wave feminism which was more social constructionist- where do you stand on the gender thing? Gender as a social construct?
S: I long for a world of gender anarchy, I think that’s really beautiful. I don’t think any specific trait is a straight line to sexual organs or gender identity even. But people’s lived reality is that you have to be categorized in a way in order to be counted, in order to make sense to the people around you. We humans we love to categorize things. It’s a really personal thing and people should identify however they feel and I respect each and every individual’s right to do that, and applaud it, because I know we’re not in a world yet where we can let all of that go.
Q: Claudia Mesch wrote in ‘Art and Politics’ that mainstream culture is market and media driven (5) do you think the punk community with its ethos of DIY art and grassroots participation can be a site of resistance to passive capitalist consumption. Can the punk scene be something that encourages activism?
S: I certainly hope so! We are so limited by capitalism these days, we’re trapped because you have to have money to survive because I don’t live in a country that provides any resources to people that don’t already have some money. There are people who have Food Stamps so they get some free food but we have way too many homeless people on the streets, there are way too many drug addicts who can’t access methadone or rehab, we just shoo them aside. Any kind of survival in America right now is based on having money. So you think ‘Can I lead a very simple life and just pay my bills and make art?’ And I definitely think that’s possible because that’s what I’m doing! We go on tour and play these songs because we love it, I can’t be home to do Hollaback every day-so to me doing this band has become my form of activism, hopefully changing some minds and validating others and empowering people. That’s hard to talk about without sounding like you are full of yourself but I do hope that.
Q: Capitalism tries to create a sense of insecurity and anxiety about appearance, in women particularly, encouraging them to construct a sense of self based on visually pleasing society (3). Do you think exploring your creativity and having a sense of community can help in resisting those pressures?
S: Yes, I do. When you show up at a punk club and you see all different body shapes and sizes and funky hair and makeup, just kind of experimenting, playing around with their appearance I think there is something innocent and fun about that actually. Capitalism makes money off people who are unhappy, it wants you to be unhappy and then wants to sell you the only solution to your unhappiness, and maybe there are 70000 versions of the solution, maybe try them all! It’s all bullshit and we all get duped by it from time to time and we all perpetuate it. So walking into a punk space and seeing people engaged in even the slightest bit of rejection, to see people play around, to see them happy is ‘Oh, I can do that too!' But it’s not about individuals, it’s about systems that keep people down so any woman who does really care about her appearance, you can’t know if it’s a really genuine choice and she just really fucking loves makeup or whether she feels like she has to in order to feel like a person who has worth, even if I ask her and she tells me an answer I can’t know for sure because I can’t read her mind and to badly quote Gloria Steinem ‘I can’t blame anyone for playing the only game they know’ I blame the people who made the game and keep it running.
Q: The Women’s Lib movement of the 60s and 70s had an anti-capitalist thread within it- how do you think that got lost so that now feminism is framed within the parameters of the capitalist system?
S: Like any movement once it gains a little bit of traction someone in the capitalist system tries to co opt it, they try to figure out how can they make money off this? That’s absolutely true of feminism, I just read ‘We Were Feminists Once’ by Andi Zeisler which basically traces feminism’s origins and how it got co opted and how now it’s like a consumer product and what we need to do to re-steer the ship and get back to the roots of what the whole fucking point is; general equality. To actually create an egalitarian society is hard work and choosing which eyeliner to buy is not!
Q: A lot of versions of masculinity seem to include dominance over women (3), which I think you refer to in ‘Meathead’ (1), also the mainstreaming of violent pornography, pole dancing clubs etc seems to have led to a deterioration in men’s attitudes towards women, sex and equality (3). How can men be rescued from such a shit model of personhood? How have the men you know who have got their act together done it?
S: They listen to women! It can sometimes be that simple! To actually listen to and believe the women in your life! And if they’re are not saying anything about it to ask them. I have a partner who grew up with a sister and a mother so you think he’s totally set up to be a righteous feminist but he’s become one because he listens to me. He has ideas and thoughts and cares about equality but he would misstep sometimes or not understand something because he couldn’t, because he can’t live life like a woman because he’s not one. So he had to sometimes just stop and listen to me and see what it’s really like and listen to my perspective and actively incorporate that into his perspective. I think that a really big issue is the lack of empathy men have for women, men don’t see women as being as human as they are.
Q: Who is your song ‘Diana La Cazadora’ (1) about?
S: Diana La Cazadora is Diana the Hunter, she is a mythical person but there is an amazing statue of her in Mexico City. Not many people know about this but in Juarez, Mexico for decades now there have been mass disappearances of Mexican women. Either never found or found in a mass grave. The political system there is very corrupt and it can be a scary place for your average hard working person. The cops do nothing if anything they perpetuate it and so I read a story about a woman who wrote into a local newspaper calling herself Diana the Hunter and claiming credit for the murder of a male bus driver saying ‘The bus drivers are in on it, the cops are in on it. The bus driver knows, he’s the one taking them back and forth and so he’s complicit in some way. Even if it isn’t the specific bus driver who died’. She was saying this is really fucked up and you can’t keep doing this to the women of Juarez without expecting retaliation. I thought that was a really powerful story of revenge in an environment where there is no justice. So that song is about the woman who wrote the letter claiming to be Diana the Hunter claiming to have killed this bus driver, I still don’t know if they know if she did or not. But I definitely know that still women are dying and disappearing in Juarez today. People should look that story up and see if there are ways they can get involved.
Q: OK, last question! Who are currently listening to and reading?
S: I’m currently reading a book about the basics of electronics as a refresher, I work in an amp and guitar repair shop, I’m a technician there and the manager, I actually run it with Brooks our guitar player. He designs and builds the amps that we use at home- we had to rent stuff to play over here. I have more practical knowledge and experience of ‘Here is a thing in front of me. How do I fix this thing? OK now I know how to fix that thing’. I don’t have as much theoretical knowledge about electronics so it’s just trying to build up my knowledge so I know more about the ‘Why’ behind everything.
Q: ... and what bands have you been enjoying lately?
S: Well, we are playing with Clowns (Australian punk band) tonight and a few days ago we happened to play in Vienna together, that was really fun, I actually like them. And Beyonce, I’ve been mostly revisiting the self titled album, watching the videos on my I-Pod! And I’ve also been revisiting a lot of my early Sonic Youth records because I’ve just finished Kim Gordon’s book and she was talking about specific songs and I was going ‘I got to listen to the song’ while I was reading about it!
Big thanks to War on Women for music, ideas and time and big thanks to Karolina for organising the interview.
- ‘War On Women’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Women
- Banyard, K. (2010) The Equality Illusion, Faber and Faber, London.
- Varoufakis, Y. ‘Artists should be feared by the powerful’ – Keynote closing the 6th Moscow Biennale, 1st October 2015 https://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2015/10/04/artists-should-be-feared-by-the-powerful-keynote-closing-the-6th-moscow-biennale-1st-october-2015/
- Mesch, C. (2014) 'Art and Politics; a small history of art for social change since 1945', I. B. Tauris, London & New York.