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Review of "Pretty in Punk"

By Lauraine Leblanc
Rutgers University Press, 1999
Review by Fiona Nelson on May 10th 2002
Pretty in Punk

Lauraine Leblancs Pretty in Punk: Girls Gender Resistance in a Boys Subculture (Rutgers University Press, 1999) is an exemplary piece of sociological research.  Her empirical examination (40 punk girls interviewed in Atlanta, Montreal, New Orleans and San Francisco), is grounded in a wide-ranging theoretical discussion that draws on a number of literatures.  By analyzing girls subcultural involvements and, in particular, how girls negotiate and construct gender in that subcultural context, Leblanc has made a much-needed contribution to the existing fields of subcultural and gender studies.  This book is not, however, just for academics; it would be completely accessible to parents, youth workers, punk girls themselves and other interested readers.  As a well-written and truly engaging narrative, this book is one of the finest examples of  cross-over (between academic and public audiences) literature that I have encountered.

            Leblanc articulates the basic premise of her research:


gender is problematic for punk girls in a way that it is not for punk guys, because punk girls must accommodate female gender within subcultural identities that are deliberately coded as male.  How do they negotiate between these seemingly conflicting sets of norms? (8)


She explains that the recent spate of studies examining the drop in self-esteem experienced by adolescent girls tend to portray girls as passive recipients, victims even, of their gender socialization but that, as punk girls so clearly demonstrate, girls are much more active in negotiating their lived expressions of gender. Furthermore, such resistance/negotiation can be associated with stronger self-esteem.  She elucidates a theoretical model of resistance which will underpin much of her later discussions and argues that


by joining male-dominated youth subcultures, girls construct forms of resistance to the dominant cultural models of femininity, and they do so at a critical time in their development&. What we can learn from their struggles are the costs and rewards of struggling against femininity. (13)


Before discussing her research findings, Leblanc offers an in-depth overview of the historical manifestations of punk and an introduction to punk vernacular, customs, symbols, mores, and codes of dress and body adornment.  In combination with the punk glossary in the appendix, this chapter offers an essential corrective to the usually partial, obscured and demonized representations of the punk subculture that are common in the mass media.

Leblanc goes on to examine the routes by which girls enter the punk subculture. Despite the fact that many of the girls use family metaphors to describe the punk community, the punk subculture remains male-dominated and girls have to struggle daily to negotiate a place within it. Leblanc finds that although punk offers girls a way of rebelling against mainstream constructions of femininity, they must conform to punk guys subcultural, contradictory, and heterosexist constructions of femininity if they want to remain in the group and benefit from the guys protection.

            This points to some of the gender complexities girls face in the punk subculture. Leblanc coins the term trebled reflexivity to describe the tactics used by punk girls to challenge the norms of the dominant culture, as well as the feminine norms of both culture and subculture (160).  She ultimately argues that punk girls are changing the faces of femininity (165).  No doubt this is true, and Leblancs discussion is enlightening.  I would, however, have liked to see some discussion of the Riot Grrrl movement, spawned by punk, which has brought some of these changed faces of femininity into more widely mediated music venues and has permeated some significant aspects of popular culture.  I would argue, in fact, that Xena, and other kick ass female protagonists in film and TV, are the inheritors, and manifestation, (albeit packaged and sold for capitalistic purposes) of the very gender disruption and resistance in which punk girls are, and have been, engaged.

            Leblanc also explores the sorts of harassment that punks are subjected to. These include the exclusion, exploitation and evaluative behaviour that both the punk girls and the guys experience on a daily basis.  This discussion is well situated within an overview of critical and interactional theories of deviance.  She also examines a type of harassment that only the punk girls experience, sexual harassment in public.  Built on the foundation of a discussion of legal and theoretical approaches to sexual harassment in semi-public places (such as work or school), this is a sobering insight into the sexual harassment punk girls experience (by the general public, by other street-living males and by male punks) and the strategies of resistance they develop in the face of it.

            In her final chapter, Leblanc offers notes to a number of different populations who might be reading this book.  These include subcultural theorists, socialization theorists, feminist researchers, parents and youth authorities, and punk girls. This book would definitely be of tremendous value to any of these groups.  In addition, it would be completely appropriate in a Womens Studies class, a Gender Studies class, a Youth Culture class or a Sociology of Deviance class.  It should be required reading for anyone who works with youth, especially street youth. Leblanc succeeds in explaining the complex challenges involved in negotiating punk femininity and thus in offering insight into the gender pressures and expectations that are placed on all girls and women and on the ways in which girls and women can and do negotiate, resist and transform those expectations.


© 2002 Fiona Nelson


Fiona Nelson is Assistant Professor and incoming Program Director of Womens Studies at the University of Calgary.  Her areas of research and teaching include family studies, gender studies, gender in popular culture, lesbian motherhood, the (sub)culture of motherhood, womens identities, and sexual identities.

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