It’s time to change the world. Everywhere the eye turns, the struggle is apparent. Between the left and the right, this party and that. Between governments and people. Between the Ninety-Nine and the One. Between stagnation and dynamics, the past and the future. It’s happening in Egypt, in Yemen, in Libya, Greece, the UK. And amazingly enough it’s happening here. 2011 has become some kind of chrysalis; what will emerge remains unclear. Hopefully whatever it is will remain veiled at least until this article is published. Sometimes the throes of a defunct era can be exhilarating. It’s a bit like being a teenager.
A struggle of this proportion is not exclusively social. Millions of people throughout the world are coming to terms with their value as individuals, and they are coming to the sudden realization that this individuality is precious, that it is inalienable, and that they had damn well better fight to make it recognized or risk being smothered under the weight of a life that is ruled by the institutions and ideas of yesterday. And so they protest; they focus the strength of many individuals into a single entity, allowing their collective power to push back against the monstrous creatures that clutch at them from the past.
Teri Gender Bender started her own protest: Le Butcherettes. Like the demonstrations on Wall Street and those at 3rd and Salmon here in downtown Portland, Le Butcherettes arose as Teri became simultaneously cognizant of and confused by her position in the world. As a girl who was born in the US before moving to Guadalajara, Mexico for the duration of her teenage years after her father’s death, as a girl who was referred to as a ‘gringa’ by the Mexicans regardless of the fact that her family is Mexican, and as a girl who refused to be boxed in by the word I’ve already used three times in this sentence, Teri was left with no choice but demonstration.
Teri performs like a bag full of cats that are ripping and tearing to break free. I’ve heard the word ‘catharsis’ thrown at her several times, but catharsis is not powerful enough to describe what happens on and off a stage while le Butcherettes rule it. Teri’s is the sort of catharsis the Sun will experience when it finally explodes and bathes our insignificant planet with light and fire. It is the catharsis shared by mother and child at the instant the umbilicus is severed. If Hell expelled all of its inhabitants, you would not see a more calamitous purgation. The audience sits in awe and bewilderment and wonders just what it is that she is trying to release.
“I wish it was just one thing,” Teri says in a voice that is soft as a kitten’s heart while simultaneously intimating an underlying firmness and more conviction than you’ll find in a maximum security prison. “I can just be myself on stage. Off stage I’m sort of a pushover. I’m scared of creating conflict. When I’m on stage I get to take out the passive aggressiveness and be who I really want to be. So in a way I’m kind of living a double life. I always talk about feminism and how women have the right to speak out, and I realized that I’m my own biggest oppressor. I could have spoken out when people put their foot on me. But I never did. Even at school when I was bullied I could have stood up for myself. But instead I took it and kept quiet. I permitted it.”
Her words come steadily, not quite hurried, and with the deliberate yet subliminally questioning tone that indicates a person who is consistently self-analytical. Any one topic she discusses quickly takes on a multifold characteristic. A conversation with Teri is like floating down a river with an endless number of springs that run off from the main flow, only to rejoin it later. And so will this article digress. We shall return to the contemplation of what it is Teri is purging as we move along. For now, let’s delve into another word that, like catharsis, has been tacked on her by just about every person who has written about her: Feminism.
“When I was younger in Mexico a lot of people would see us over and over again because of the small community, and I would always try to prove myself to them. Which was bad. I started doing the blood and raw meat thing” – that’s right, the blood and raw meat thing – “to denounce the abuse put upon women verbally. It was very unsafe to walk down the streets because all of the men would harass you. That’s what the meat represented. And the blood represented all of the assassinations and kidnappings of the women in Juarez. They just thought it was a gore thing. I was trying to prove that I’m more than just a piece of meat. Right now I’ve grown past that. I don’t care if they see me as a piece of meat or not.”
Photo by Nick Hilden
There are some who might argue that this last statement indicates that Teri has perhaps given up on the struggle to change how men view women; that she’s all Sound and Fury. That would be false. While her work often outwardly expresses a social message, it devotes just as much time to the introspective examination of that essential self possessed by each of us. It’s the self that somehow achieves isolation from society that allows us to be free willed. Through her performance, Teri Gender Bender gives us a glimpse of all of the strange, elusive, and often illuminated creatures that swim at the depths of the ocean that composes seventy-five percent of her body. The strange thing about peeking into someone’s privacy is how often we see ourselves reflected in it. When people see Le Butcherettes play, they are captivated because it is like looking into a frenzied mirror. Teri’s aspirations to address the questions facing feminism are clear, but visible too are a great many of the other staggering questions that we all ask ourselves. In her own words, she is her “own biggest oppressor.” Teri’s art allows her to break out of the cell constructed of the anxieties and restraints that afflict us all. Only once we break free of our internal prisons can we find the strength to dissolve those that are externally imposed. Confidence comes as one realizes how little one has to prove to other people, and how rewarding it is to push oneself to be better, stronger, and more complete. It takes confidence to get up on a stage and expose yourself without fear or shame. And it takes confidence to think that you can go out and affect the world. Watching the news, it appears that confidence seems to be catching.
Now, to once against digress from these increasingly Nietzschian waters…
On to literature. Le Butcherettes’ latest album Sin Sin Sin is smattered with allusions to the writers who have influenced Teri’s thinking. Not surprisingly, Mary Wollstonecraft makes an appearance. More surprising are Teri’s references to F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Rousseau, and—the namesake of the album’s single “Henry Don’t Love”—the notorious Henry Miller.
“I love him. I remember being really influenced by feminist literature and they would really judge him. And I would think that’s such a shame. Here you are talking about freedom of speech and about how women have been oppressed, and here you are oppressing a man who had nothing to do with oppressing women. He was a writer who, yeah, wrote really different and vulgar things, but that’s the beauty of it. Just because you’re into something doesn’t mean you have to exclude another group. I came to learn that all of these –isms are never going to work out because they’re always excluding the other people, the groups who have nothing to do with the other –isms. Henry Miller? I think he’s a great writer. I can relate more to Henry Miller than I can to Gloria Steinem. Back then [when she was younger] that would have been horrible to admit. I would have felt such guilt. It’s kind of like when you’re a vegan and you have a little taste of butter, you feel guilt. But you know what? I can’t help it. Henry Miller is my butter. The way he wrote about women, it was so sexy. And it was so controversial and he didn’t care. He just kept doing it. He’s someone I admire.”
But Teri doesn’t let Henry off the hook entirely. “A lot of the great writers’ or painters’ or directors’ biggest flaw was being a womanizer. And I always thought that was a shame. Except Dalí. He was always faithful to his wife.”
The moniker Gender-Bender emerged from Teri’s examination of the female role in a traditional marriage. Originally born Teresa Suarez, Teri chose to drop her late-father’s name and reject the notion that a name must be passed on to a woman by a man. Gender-Bender became part of her endeavor to create herself in her own image. But the denial of her father’s name should not be inferred as some kind of outright dismissal of her father himself. Like Hamlet, Teri knows what it is to be joined onstage by a paternal phantom.
“When my father passed away when I was thirteen I never really dealt with the issue, so I depend on music and playing live to deal with my father’s death. In a way it’s healthy, but in a way it’s not healthy. Offstage I go right back and regress into being quiet again instead of dealing with it.”
Photo by Nick Hilden
If the stage is where Teri works things out, she’ll have ample opportunity to sort through things over the next few months. Le Butcherettes will be headlining several dates on the East Coast in November, followed by opening several shows for Iggy Pop and the Stooges in California—“I can’t believe it still. I don’t know what to expect”—and she hinted at a headlining tour in early 2012. Last time Le Butcherettes came through Portland, they played at the Keller Auditorium, presumably because it was one of the only venues large enough to contain the Flaming Lips’ Stargate or whatever they call it. “The theater was beautiful. The less punk a place is, maybe the more it is. It felt very maternal; like I was playing inside my mother’s womb.”
Photo by Nick Hilden
Portland—and the rest of the Northwest for that matter—has garnered high marks on Teri’s list of favorite places to play. “Portland…The first thing that comes to mind is amazing food. The vibe there is so great and the people are so nice. Portland has a good smell to it. Don’t forget that: it has a good smell to it.”
Reminiscing about her performance at the 2011 Puyallup Fair—definitely a strange gig for such a chaotic band, one would imagine, considering the last time I saw a show there I must have been eight years old—“In Washington the people were sitting down, very well educated, and there was no rowdiness. No one threw anything at us. I’ve gotten used to people sometimes throwing stuff at us. But I couldn’t read into them, so that made me give myself more. When I can’t read people it makes me want to open up, so maybe that way they’ll open up. I had no idea whether they hated it or loved it, so that made me question myself. And it’s always good to question yourself.”
From Puyallup, Teri and Co. made their way north. “Bellingham is so great. The people there just take you in. You can be a complete stranger but if they get a good vibe about you they open themselves right up to you. People in the north are eccentric. Twin Peaks was filmed near Bellingham. Every character there has something special. Something different about them. That’s how I felt the people were, kind of from a surreal series that you’d see on TV. That gets banned eventually.”
As we in the Northwest hunker down for the winter and as Occupiers all over the world build up their resilience against the weather, Le Butcherettes are gearing up to take us all by storm. As I type this, the news is announcing the death of Muammar Gaddafi. It’s showing footage of his half-dead carcass being dragged around by a truck. Now there’s a “blood and raw meat thing” if I’ve ever seen one.
The world is maturing. Like children who suddenly realize that their parents’ rules don’t make any sense, we’re collectively going through the fits and starts of a people who want to take matters into our own hands. We’re throwing off the chains of our past, in some cases violently, in others peaceably. We’re learning that we have power, that we have a voice, and that we can be strong. Teri Gender Bender comes at a time when we need just such a role model, a person who can stand on stage and push us to struggle.
“On a symbolic note, the message is that anyone can do what I do. Everyone has that little animal inside that can grow. It doesn’t have to be on stage or musically speaking, but whatever they want to do. They can do it, their passion. Use that rage or that love.”