How I became a woman – with a little help from PJ Harvey

Victoria Roskams shares her thoughts on music, gender identity and feeling comfortable in your own skin

Many of us can credit a certain woman, maybe a family member, friend, teacher, a politician or historical figure, in our lives with this – the big moment, or series of moments, which helped us feel comfortable with ourselves as women. Or maybe some of you came out of the womb perfectly happy with your gender and your performance of it.

Not I. I grew up in the tomboy trap. That is, it wasn’t that I particularly got on with boys, but I didn’t go along with everything the girls did, either. You know how it is at school, when these things seem to really matter. If you’d rather play football at playtime than ‘mummies and daddies,’ it’s a big deal. I wouldn’t wear a skirt to high school, instead electing to be the only girl in the whole school, ever, to wear trousers (what an accolade!). All skirts, dresses, and pink items were gradually sieved out of my wardrobe as I grew older.

This attitude extended to my musical taste, something very important in my life. It would pain me too much to look back at old albums and see how much of my taste comprised of female musicians, because, in short, it was nearly zilch. Without consciously willing it, I listened only to male bands. I look back with regret at the Mumford & Sons and Arctic Monkeys era, probably the zenith of my drought of women.

Now, I could certainly blame a wider cause, patriarchy and sexism within the music industry. I recently saw a mock-up of all 2015’s festival posters, with only the female acts included. A sorry sight, most posters were almost as blank as the proverbial canvas. How dare the music industry not shove female artists in our faces, right?

Sort of. That’s all well and good, but retrospectively I realise I have myself to blame, too, for my lack of education where women’s music is concerned. My younger sister recently asked me to recommend bands to her, but, she said, she only wanted male-fronted bands. I asked her why and she said she didn’t know; she just seemed to prefer men’s music. Being a right contrary mare as usual, I told her a bunch of women to listen to.

I wish someone had done that for me. I feel disappointed that it took me about 17 years (though perhaps we can forgive me for overlooking everything but The Beatles, my dad’s choice of music, when I was literally in the womb) to make a conscious effort to listen to women in music. Although when I say conscious effort, it was a friend who told me to listen to PJ Harvey. And that’s when things changed.

It’s pretty corny, but I heard the song ‘Dress’ and felt better about wearing dresses. There was something empowering, to me personally, about the way she sang that song. Then in ’50 Ft Queenie,’ she just took the piss, stealing the bragging vocabulary of men and uncompromisingly wringing it like a wet towel, until it belonged to women. She looked so cool, a theatrical, overblown feminine character one minute, and one of the boys the next. And her sound, too, was something I’d only ever heard men do. I can’t begin to describe how important it was to me to hear a woman playing the kinds of music I already loved, but had only ever known men to play.

What I didn’t realise when ensconced in my terrible little hole of male-only music was how much it held me back. I had the strongest admiration for David Bowie, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, but could I do what they did? I don’t think I ever dared to ask myself properly. Then I listened to PJ Harvey and other female artists and it was like a door opening – ‘they can do it, and they’re women, maybe I can too.’

Listening to solely men meant that I never even envisioned myself in the same arena (quite literally – I know I’m not the only aspiring musician who has dream acts they want to open for). Alongside PJ Harvey, there was Warpaint, St. Vincent, and Anna Calvi, all of whom have made me confident being a woman with a voice and a guitar and, by extension, simply a woman. Music is such a part of my life that it took women musical idols to help me feel comfortable with my identity in general.

It was disappointing to read in a biography of PJ Harvey that she once distanced herself from feminism. But in a way, it also didn’t matter. Of course I’d like her to share my views since she helped me so much in that area, but her views don’t really affect my interpretation of her music and image – it’s the interpretation which really helped me feel comfortable as a woman and how close that is to the ‘real’ Harvey doesn’t matter. I’ve got what I needed from it. I do like to think that she’d be honoured to know that, at least.

Illustrated by Clara Vlessing 

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22 thoughts on “How I became a woman – with a little help from PJ Harvey

    1. I’m a female musician, and I can identify with the lack of feminine role models you mentioned. It’s tough embracing my femininity in the male-driven rock world; but I am so glad you mentioned Warpaint! They and PJ Harvey are a superb examples of woman musicians who don’t shy away from their roots. Great job!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I love this. It wasn’t a rockstar – well, she IS a rockstar in her field – that helped make me the woman I am today. It was a scientist. She showed me I could love science and medicine and play with the big boys (because, in her department, it was all boys), all while rocking whatever she wanted to wear – whether that was a vintage dress, an old flannel shirt, or a baby – with whatever hair style she dug – pixie or Disney long locks. These pioneering women who are comfortable with themselves and in their world and who speak their own truths sometimes without words are heroes.

    Liked by 19 people

  2. I was deeply moved by my class teacher in graduation…god bless her…she was so kind and always advised us to follow the right path….although she never advised us to be girly in any aspect….its our wish…be whatever u r comfortable being…She is one woman I will love forever as she taught us to respect ourself who so ever we are thats a big deal…..

    Liked by 13 people

  3. nicely written!! Look into Mary Gauthier, an amazing artist. Literally, the only one who can make me cry. She has one song about a train whistle that just slays me.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. We’re never one thing. We evolve through time and although I consider myself a woman I feel like I’ll always have a part of me that leans towards what they would call “manly”. I cherish every human being and hope they will all find their own place in this big world. Good luck with everything 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Music is so important to me, as a child I was not the ‘normal’ follow trend girl, but I have my mother and father to thank, my mother is a classical musician and she would always push me to be myself. It was tough at school, but she has and has had some great advice. Really well written.

    Liked by 2 people

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