Draped over an amp on the stage at Walters Downtown Sunday night, and at every stage Speedy Ortiz plays on, was a black jersey that says boldly in all caps: “Gender Is Over.”
It comes from a campaign of the same name, inspired by Yoko and John Lennon’s “War Is Over! (If You Want It),” seeking to dismantle society’s emphasis on assigned binary gender roles and instead uplift chosen gender identities all along the spectrum. For the band's front woman Sadie Dupuis, in rock, this means dealing with gendered expectations of how a woman should perform, or with questions from fans or people working the show about “what it’s like to be the girl in the band.”
“I think having [‘Gender Is Over’] on the amp is sort of trying to kick those expectations at the gate,” Dupuis said. “Your gender identity and presentation really don’t have to have any correlation to your hobbies or interests or playing abilities.”
In many ways Speedy Ortiz, which shared the bill Sunday night with The Good Life, the latest project of Cursive’s Tim Kasher, has been on the front lines of movements within the music world for both gender equality and all-around-inclusiveness. Dupuis' band has done fundraising for the Girls Rock Camp Foundation and started a hotline for people at shows in case they feel like they’re in danger or are being harassed. They’re also often considered emerging indie-rock heroes in a time of oversaturation and when the descriptor “indie” can mean pretty much whatever you want it to. In Speedy Ortiz’s case, the indie acclaim has been marked by Dupuis’s gripping, oftentimes subtly gloomy lyricism (she does have an MFA in poetry, after all) and her occasional reverberating falsetto, blanketed by dissonant chords that seem to not take themselves too seriously. After 2015’s Foil Deer, though, if there’s one more specific label that everyone seemed to stick on Speedy Ortiz, it was “feminist.”
And it’s definitely one Dupuis can get behind. Foil Deer was laced with feminist messages all throughout: On “Raising the Skate,” Dupuis gives a nod to the Ban Bossy campaign, saying “I’m not bossy/ I’m the boss”; she smashes gender-role stereotypes on “Mister Difficult,” singing in a near whisper, “Boys be sensitive and girls be, be aggressive”; and “My Dead Girl” turned into “a mourning of the depressing footnote that comes along with female independence, which is that we always have to be on guard against assault and harassment and violence,” as she told VICE.
So Dupuis gets asked about gender — a lot. In one way, it’s kind of counter to Speedy Ortiz's ditch-gender message onstage, drawing attention to the very thing Dupuis wishes were no longer relevant in rock (as we are ironically doing right now). But in another, the attention invokes the politics that Dupuis finds necessary for gender-equality progress in rock, when festival lineups are no longer ruled by a vast majority of cis white dudes and when, for females, their gender is no longer inseparable from their music as it is today.
“It’s tricky, because on the one hand representation is important all along the gender spectrum, but you also want to avoid being tokenized as a musician who might be in the minority of people playing a certain genre,” Dupuis says, adding: "It’s such a strange issue to even talk about, because you think about punk music and rock music as liberal, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of making people aware of things like sexual assault happening in the music industry."
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In 2015, Dupuis, and many others, had a dozen reasons to point to progress in terms of gender-equality—the list of highly acclaimed records put out by female-fronted or all-female bands seemed to be endless: There was Speedy’s Foil Deer, Hop Along’s Painted Shut, Palehound’s Dry Food, Screaming Females’s Criminal Image, DILLY DALLY’s Sore. But as Dupuis noted, the list has really always been endless—perhaps last year, for whatever reason, more people just seemed to care. Many of these bands are still being compared to riot grrrl acts of the 1990s like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney — some accurately, some not so much. In the cases where it appears to be a lazy inclination to exclusively compare female bands to other females, Dupuis said it’s also likely because the band’s politics are conflated with their sound.
Still, in a society so far away from calling itself “post-gender” — not even the “Gender Is Over” campaign would go so far to make such a claim — Dupuis says maybe that’s not a bad thing. Is it going to encourage a 12-year-old girl to pick up a guitar? If yes, then by all means, Dupuis says: Invoke gender.
“When gender doesn’t even come up [in interviews] because there are so many people who don’t identify as cis men playing music,” she said, “the question will become less necessary, and I’ll be happy to not talk about gender at that point in time.
"But we've got a long way to go."