Yugoslav Punk, Gender, and Sexuality: An Historical Overview

Avital Gurman

The emergence of punk music in Yugoslavia arose from curious beginnings. It was not only influenced by the social, economic, and political currents of the punk decades, but it also played its part in influencing politics and mainstream society. Punk broadly challenged the status quo with its new ideas, beliefs, and interpretation of gender roles and sexuality. Eventually, some aspects of punk culture bled into mainstream society. One could argue that punk music, and everything that came with it, was essential for the growth and progression for nearly every aspect of Yugoslav society. Punk music crept across the European continent and slowly seeped into Yugoslavia. At least at the beginning of the rise of punk in Yugoslavia, the punk music and culture was heavily influenced by British punk. The band Pankrti (meaning “Bastards” in Slovenian) are a punk-rock band from Ljubljana, Slovenia. They are known for their proactive and political music, with popular songs such as “Behind the Iron Curtain”. From their beginning, the band was strongly affected by the punk scene in the UK, and derived a lot of their inspiration from bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash. In fact, Pankrti were so closely intertied with the Sex Pistols that they performed as a support act for the Sex Pistols concert in Ljubljana. Iti s readily evident that Yugoslav punk formed as a mix of ideas; it was a hybrid culture that aimed to combine the iconography of socialist Yugoslavia with the pop culture and advertisement world of the West. An example of this is Pankrti’s album Rdeci album, or“Red Album” (1984). This is a combination of the Beatle’s album The White Album (from 1968) and the color red, which represented communism. In spite of the British beginnings, or perhaps because of this mix of influences, Yugoslav punk was not quite as drastic as the punk movement in Britain and America. The culture, fashion, and music was not as dramatically outrageous or shocking in the Yugoslav nations, perhaps because it was diluted, in a sense, by the socialist political atmosphere.

 

Pankrti, Rdeci Album, 1984

Pankrti, Rdeči Album (The Red Album), 1984. 

It is important to understand some historical context of Yugoslavia in the time leading up to the rise of punk in order to fully comprehend how Yugoslavia became open enough to allow such influence from the Western world. In the 50s, after WWII, there was a decrease in spending; this is a common phenomenon after a large war. To stimulate theeconomy and alleviate the economic crisis, the party in power strongly encouraged consumerist spending in the 60s and 70s. In this way, the party itself promoted the rise of a consumer society. As consumerism increased and the people bought more things, there was a natural and inevitable shift towards individualism and individualistic notions to replace the traditionally upheld collectivist social beliefs. To assist with the lack of jobs and heavy unemployment rate, borders were opened and the people, most importantly the youth, could travel abroad and be exposed to Western culture. This explains how Western ideas were able to slowly seep into Yugoslav society. This background of events is very significant because the youth culture of the 1980s would not have been possible without the rise of consumer society. It was the youth that caught on to what was the radical movement of the time, and with every first-hand, second-hand, or even third-hand exposure to Western ideas the hippie and punk movements grew. Once Yugoslav waso pen to the West, it quickly embraced consumerism, allowing the rapid rise of punk music and especially punk fashion. This can be seen in stark contrast to places like the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc. In these areas, which were not yet opened to the West and remained immersed solely in communism and socialism, Western cultural products such as clothes and punk/rock music were rarely seen. Consumption and production of these products and ideas happened underground. However, in Yugoslavia the development of a local consumer society allowed for a unique self-management system commonly termed market socialism, or a combination of planned and free market. Muchlike the punk mix of British pop culture and socialist iconography, this economical style was a mix of the free market economy of the west and the planned, rigid economy of the east.

 
Punk portrayal of gender was also influenced by history. The position and roles of women in society fluctuated throughout the decades of the second half of the 1900s. In the 50s, women gained a new range of legal and political rights. During the wars, women began getting more involved in the workforce as the men were at work, as was happening in nations across the world. By the end of the war, women were represented in Soviet-like, socialist-realist images that depicted them as both strong workers and perfect mothers, the perfect female patriot, and the Partisan woman (Partizanka) was born. Women had particularly large representation and involvement in Tito’s anti-fascist movement. This helped women gain some equality after the war. For example, women were able to vote and be elected in national liberation councils. They gained fundamental rights such as equal pay for equal work and special protection laws for employed women. To support the partisan woman, with the worker + mother expectation, state nurseries were built, women were to receive paid leave right before and after childbirth, and they were allowed maternity leave. Despite all of this, after the end of the war the partisan woman image very slowly began to fade. The partisan woman was half fighter and half mother; now that the fighter part was no longer needed, the only thing left was the mother. Gender values overall remained as before. The participation of women in the socialist Yugoslavia remained low, and women were heavily underrepresented in government. Division of labor in the household remained traditional that is, the women were in charge of the home and the children. Women were slowly demobilized and removed from the workforce. Yugoslav newspapers started including a “women’s page” that was dedicated to fashion, cosmetics, and recipes. While disproved of by Tito and organizations like the AFW (Women’s Partisan Organization), nothing was done to stop this. In the 60s, the partisan woman was still commemorated. But the cult of female beauty and fashion rose. In media, the partisanka was more and more sexualized. By the 1980s, the partisanka had lost her heroic, brave identity. Her image in public culture was increasingly sexualized and marginalized by the media. It was during this time, in the 70s and 80s, that punk women decided to make a statement. Women refused to be marginalized further. Punk women would no longer go along with the meek, docile image of a good woman, and faced the mainstream depiction of a woman head-on.
Partizanka

Female Partisan fighter, an iconic photo by Žorž Skrigin.

Computer advertisement

The cover of a 1988 popular magazine covering computer technology and culture, featuring a female model as an advertisment strategy. 

Tožibabe was one of the first all-female punk bands, the first in Solvenia and trailblazers for all. Their song “Dezuje” is a great example of punk music, and the lyrics transmit the angst and frusteration of this group of women. Part of the chorus sings, “we don’t see, we don’t hear, we don’t feel”, as a clear social commentary of society; like many other punk bands, they ridicule how “mainstream people” just float along mindlessly, not looking or feeling anything. In the music video, the band is a great example of how punk women challenged gender roles through their fashion choices. The women of Tožibabe have short hair, sometimes spiked, often dyed. They wear heavy, dark eye makeup and matching lipstick. This is very typical of punk fashion, and was a new, edgy image for women. For example, in “Amsterdam” – a song by female punk band Milosevic – Alexandra Milosevic also sports the short spiky haircut, dark eyes, and dark red lips. While Tozibabe was a very hardcore, punk-rock band, Milosevic is a curious comparison. She’s conventionally attractive, but embraces the punk look and style, wearing leather clothes and singing in a raspy, unique voice. She sings about “defying the establishment”, doing what she wants, being brave and headstrong. Finally, Boye is another well-known female punk/rock band of the 1980s and 90s, from Novi Sad. Popular hits include “Je Sam Radosna” and “Dosta! Dosta! Dosta!” (Enough! Enough! Enough!), where the Boye women sing that they’ve had enough with the boring, “extremely ordinary” life of a woman. With all of these, it is clear how female punk bands using their new fashion, music, and style to rebel against the gender norms that society assigned to them, while using their music to comment on the male dominance in society.

 

 

While some women were able to utilize punk to express their dissatisfaction with the image expected of them in society, punk remained largely a male-oriented music genre. This is why there are not many well-known female punk bands, but many more male punk bands. Perhaps women were for the most part more drawn to pop because femininity was still tied to feelings of passivity, tranquility, and beauty, which clashed strongly with the harsh, loud “masculine” rock sound. Denis i Denis was an all-female electropop music band from Rijeka, and became one of the most popular bands in Yugoslavia. One of their popular songs, “Soba 23” features a pleasant, if slightly raspy, voice singing calmly over a light dancing beat. Pop provided a new style of music, but one that was more lighthearted and friendly than the heavy, sometimes abrasive punk-rock sound.

 

 

However, punk women could express themselves through more ways than just punk music. Yugoslav punk challenged not only the gender and sexual norms, but more importantly the public presentation of these conceptions. The punk feelings of anti-authority, anti-sexism, and rebelliousness carried over into fashion. Punks began breaking the traditional female role of being controlled and restrained, and wore their strong feelings with their bodies. Both men and women in punk focused on being open, carefree, and bold. Clothes for either gender included leather and dark colors. Women donned fishnets and miniskirts, often with short, spiky hair and dramatic, dark make-up. As previously mentioned, this was very common in female punk bands such as Tožibabe and Milosevic. Fashion was, in a sense, a form of rebellion for punks, made possible by the commodity culture prevalent in Yugoslavia, for reasons previously discussed. Punk fashion used the commodities available to them (for example, clothes) and deconstructed it. For example, when the three-piece suit was popular, punks cut them up and put them back together however they wanted, using whatever materials were available to them such as safety pins, chains, and more. Punks took mainstream ideas of fashion and decontextualized them, making it their own. In a way, it is ironic that it was the punk shredding and deconstruction of aspects of consumer culture which forced it to be fully immersed in the consumer culture itself. In any case, women no longer acted passive or like they were trying to attract a male. In fact, the new image was slightly threatening, but in essence sending out the message that women are powerful and strong. Punk fashion not only disrupted the mainstream ideas of fashion, but also often made parodies of it. As an extreme example, some women tried to wear tampons as earrings to enforce their message that women don’t have to hide or be ashamed of themselves, and that they had the freedom to do what they wanted. Curiously, though, some aspects of punk actually made it into mainstream fashion. Designers took the intensity and boldness of punk and incorporated it into their own ideas. It is with further irony that punk habits of fashion, based on aims to stand out from the norm or the status quo and once used as a form of identification for fellow punks, slowly became a part of the general population. 

As the punk movement grew and developed, so did its closely tied notions of sexuality. Inevitably, as women started behaving in ways that were previously attributed to men, embracing traits and characteristics that were bold and strong, the line between genders became slightly more blurred. These was the perfect conditions for the beginning of the LGBQ movement and the development of queer elements of punk. As the 1980s was a period of, loosely speaking, social revolution and liberalization, it is logical that this also happens to be the beginning of gay rights movement and reasonable that this movement was so closely related to the punk scene. In 1976, Slovenia was the first republic to decriminalize homosexuality. In 1980, a theatre group known as FV 112/15 was established. They quickly progressed from theatre to a multimedia platform for the expression of punk (and other alternative culture). It released records that related to or hinted at aspects of homosexuality; it established a regular club night in Ljubljana; it even organized Magnus – a festival of gay and lesbian films in 1984. Four of its members formed the band Borghesia, which was extremely successful in the electronic music scene by the late 1980s. Borghesia utilized electronic music and BDSM aesthetic as a way to critique Yugoslavian society. The band used its music and visuals as strategic resistance to the perceived notions of militarism and authoritarianism in the country. Borghesia was all about domination and submission and other BDSM ideas. Sexuality and sex was often used in their performances and music videos as a sort of allegory about power and the controlling aspects of those in power in society.  

 

"So Young," 1984 experimental video made by the members of Borghesia and set to the band's soundtrack; the video intercuts archival footage of military marches with scenes from Ljubljana's underground scene of the 1980s, proposing an allegorical reading of sexuality vis-a-vis the state.

 

In this way, the queer movement was closely intertied with politics. Gržinić, a FV associate, once said that “queer positions – every form of non-heterosexual positioning we understood, exclusively and entirely, as a political stance” (Crowley). For example, Miki Stojkovic took a series of photographs featuring g a man and woman (topless) with a large, five-pointed star – the primary symbol of Titoism. These types of depictions were clearly intended as open and clear commentaries on the politics of the time. Naturally, actions such as this caused an official response from the government, which promptly tried to censor these types of publications. However, that only spurred more videos, photographs, and performances as it proved the authoritative role of the government which is exactly what the movement was critiquing. This scene had its own contradictions, however. While the VF 112/15 group was creating an environment free from the conventions and traditional, “acceptable” social behavior, it also did not hesitate to utilize resources from state-funded institutions when needed. At the same time, the group would put on performances going as far as to incorporate S&M and/or BDSM aspects in front of their audience. Additionally, the Ljubljana scene overall fluctuated between classifying queerness as a symptom or consequence of the Yugoslav ideology, but then embracing the liberal feelings of gay and queer rights.

In a less open and abrasive manner, many 1980s Yugoslav punk/new wave bands produced songs that simply alluded to homosexuality, often in a concealed manner. The clarity of allusions to homosexuality and gay personas ranged along a wide spectrum, from incredibly straightforward lyrics to more hidden meanings in music videos, where the sexuality of a male is only hinted at. In Belgrade, the year 1980 also witnessed the rise of the band VIS Idoli. Their song “Retko te viđam sa devojkama” (“I Rarely See You with Girls”) was a major hit single, and only hinted at homosexuality as they sang “I rarely see you with girls… you’re surrounded by boys/they’re nice but mind you/rumors spread quickly”. On the other hand, “Ramo, Ramo” by Muharem Serbezovski is clearly and openly a sad story about a love lost between two men. While the queer and sexualized punk music and style may not be the prevalent form of music in culture in Yugoslavia anymore, the impact of their ideas and the impact from their actions can still be recognized today. 

 

 

  

VIS Idoli, "I Rarely See You With Girls," 1980. 

Bibliography

Kreilkamp, Ivan. "The Female Body of Punk." Public Books. N/a, 02 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://www.publicbooks.org/the-female-body-of-punk/>.

Hebdige, Dick. "Subculture: The Meaning of Style." Critical Quarterly 37.2 (1995): n. pag. Web.

Moore, Ryan. "Postmodernism and Punk Subculture: Cultures of Authenticity and Deconstruction." The Communication Review 7.3 (2004). Web.

LGBT History in Yugoslavia. Wikipedia, 1 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_Yugoslavia>.

Bulc, Gregor. "Hard Bosom: Top Pro-gay Tracks from Ex-Yugoslavia (Part One)." BTURN. Music, Culture, and Style of the New Balkans, 21 May 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <http://bturn.com/8384/hard-bosom-top-pro-gay-tracks-from-ex-yugoslavia-part-one>.http://astar.tv/post/fashion-rebellion-how-punk-became-mainstream/

Crowley, David. "The Future Is Between Your Legs: Sex, Art and Censorship in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." Faktografiadotcom. N/a, 6 Sept. 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <https://faktografia.com/2015/09/06/the-future-is-between-your-legs-sex-art-and-censorship-in-the-socialist-federal-republic-of-yugoslavia/>.

Batinic, Jelena. Women and Yugoslav Partisans (A History of World War II Resistance). (2015): n. pag. Web.

 

 

Yugoslav Punk, Gender, and Sexuality: An Historical Overview