“I talk about my own struggles because I know I’m not the only one who feels dark and anxious.”
In our culture of positivity, happiness has become more akin to an ideology than a feeling or mood. Salient reminders of expectations for emotional experience are everywhere: from Instagram to everyday conversation, we selectively curate our lives in order to create the illusion of conspicuous happiness. This ideology is so normative, openly discussing negative emotions is abrasive and unconventional—but one woman who has always resisted being silenced by convention is Shirley Manson. As the front woman of legendary rock outfit Garbage, Shirley rose to prominence in the ’90s with a slew of instantly recognizable songs, such as “Stupid Girl“, which were constantly running down the batteries in our discmans. She is iconic for her refusal to compromise her music or herself in order to present a perkier, sexier image—a decision that’s only had a positive impact on Garbage’s decades of widespread success.
Today, Shirley is still one of the few women in music blatantly addressing emotional turmoils without getting labeled as less strong or less badass for doing so. When most of pop culture’s role models merely serve as cheerfully complicit eye candy, Shirley provides a much-needed dose of reality. We experienced it first-hand earlier this week, when we talked to Shirley about mental health, selfies and being brazen without compromise.
GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Shirley. We’re living in a time colonized by a wellness ideology, with social media movements demanding relentless positivity and so on. To what extent do you feel these movements pushing positivity are helpful or harmful?
Shirley Manson: Oh, good question, my god. Well, on the one hand, I think that any movement encouraging people to take care of themselves and elevate themselves is good. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s necessarily that simple. Perhaps it’s easier for some people to receive messages of that nature, and to utilize those strategies. However, for a lot of people who suffer from depression, are bipolar, etc, I think it’s sometimes difficult to receive that information or put it into practice. To this day, there seems to be very little dialogue in our culture that deals in any realistic way with mental health issues. I still think it’s something that people feel a little ashamed about, or are fearful of. Unless you’re cognisant enough to go to your doctor and ask for help, there seems to be very little outreach in our communities to help people who are not able to take care of themselves. Even if on the outside, they look perfectly capable of doing so.
For sure, there are definitely still stigmas when it comes to mental health. It seems like there’s an emphasis on “moving on” from emotional issues—that it’s more acceptable to talk about how you overcame them than it is when you’re in the midst of them. Have you ever felt this kind of pressure while talking about your own struggles?
I never felt pressured to talk about my own struggles: I wanted to talk about my own struggles because I am aware that I am much like millions of people. I’m not the only one who feels dark and anxious. I think I was lucky enough, though, to be the type of person I am and to have emerged as an artist at a time when the things that I wished to discuss were covered by the media. And I think that has really changed, particularly in the last decade, with the rise and onslaught of social media: people feel real pressure to present a very positive face. Nobody’s on social media explaining how terrible their lives are, other than the odd teenager being very dramatic. In general, people are trying sell their lives in a really glamorous, happening sort of way. And I don’t think that is really speaking to the truth of our culture. I think people really struggle, and we’re all feeling sort of confused and lost, and we’re living in chaos it can seem. I saw a very worrisome statistic on BBC recently about depression amongst young people; there’s never been a higher rate of depression among young children. It’s terrifying. And y’know, that’s on us as adults. Whatever we’re doing, it’s affecting children. So it’s very alarming.
In contrast to this “happy” image, you and Garbage started out at a time when a lot of women in music were so-called “rebellious” or outspoken. With the Riot grrrl movement and ’90s rock, it seemed like you could really be angry and didn’t have to present this everything’s-fine-and-lovely image. What were the expectations like around the “happy” image back then vs. now?
Well, I think the women of my generation emerged as a reaction against all these conventional expectations that had been laid on women—to be beautiful, pretty and compliant, to sit in a corner and not make too much noise. And unfortunately we believed that we had broken through a glass ceiling: that somehow, women would advance and not have to resort to these conventional roles that they had played up until that point.
But now I see that there’s been yet another reversal. Once again, we’re seeing the most famous women in the world play very conservative roles in culture. Kim Kardashian, arguably one of the most famous women in the world, is incredibly—terrifyingly—conventional in some regards. She plays the role of sex symbol, she plays the role of object, she plays the role of looking beautiful, and yet she rarely actually speaks of anything of any substance. And she has such influence on young minds. And she photographs herself in waist trainers! The very sort of constraints that my grandmother—not just me but my grandmother—fought to free women from.
Sure, a modern corset, which not only crushes the skeleton of a woman that’s supposed to be there to protect her vital organs: it also sends out these alarming messages that women are somehow supposed to be “perfect objects”. It really upsets me. I see young women objectify themselves in the press—artists and musicians who are desperate for attention and success and survival—and I understand it…but they always resort to taking their clothes off. Always. And they allow their own vanity to propel them forward into these actions, and they don’t really take much accountability for it. I think they think they’re being post-ironic, y’know? But in actual fact they are simply playing the same old roles and subjugating themselves to the same old standards that have been foisted on women for centuries.
I find it really disturbing. There are hardly any stars out there anymore who won’t take their clothes off, and there’s a reason for that. They want to secure their own survival in a business that’s highly competitive, I get it. And they get attention for it because our culture wants women to disempower themselves. By the way, I must emphasize that I think women’s sexuality is powerful and potent, and can be used in really interesting ways, like the way Madonna once did. But very few women are intelligent enough, it seems, to use those tools in a really smart, powerful way.
So what do you think of selfies? Do you think that they can be empowering, or that they just perpetuate traditional gender stereotypes and expectations?
I think we’ll look back on the selfie with great fascination. It’s much like in pre-Victorian times, when they had portraits made of themselves; it’s more or less the same thing. But let’s see it for what it is: it is definitely the worshipping of oneself. Or the examination of oneself. Both are interesting and both have validity in some ways as a mark of our existence—I was here, here I am, I exist—but on the other hand, when it becomes a habit and you’re doing it every single day, multiple times a day…that’s narcissism. It’s as simple as that.
I’m super stoked on this L7 documentary that’s coming out soon, and in the trailer you mentioned that you admired how they were “brazenly feminist”. What do you think it means to be in-your-face and brazenly feminist now, as opposed to back then?
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more entrenched as a feminist, because I think it’s much clearer to me now what feminism means. I naturally gravitated towards it when I was young, but I’m not entirely sure I understood just how out-of-balance the genders were. Now, I really see it. I’ve had the luxury of traveling all around the world and I see how things are for women in all different cultures. I’ve become more and more determined that I always want to speak up for the equal rights of women. I gravitated towards L7 because I understood that they weren’t playing these conventional stereotypes, these conventional roles that I believed women were expected to play. I had been raised—luckily—by very liberal parents, and so I was always encouraged to believe that my intellect was equal to that of a man. And I also grew up loving men—I have an amazing dad, and I’ve always had good relations with men. So I don’t blame the imbalance of our culture onmen at all, and I don’t believe the feminist agenda will be secured by alienating men.
I believe that feminism is also a male issue, and that we must encourage men to stand with us in order to secure human rights of women all over the world. So in that regard I think I’ve changed—I’m much clearer about how we truly move this movement forward. I think it really is just a fight for human rights and an equal agenda, and therefore I think it’s important that we really encourage men to stand with us. Because in general, aside from a few assholes out there—male and female—I think people, men, want good things for their wives, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunties and so on and so forth. I don’t believe 99.9% of men want women to be unequal. They want to stand with us if they’re encouraged to do so without believing that they are going to lose anything in the process.
Yeah, it’s tricky to balance, because on one side there’s the Kim Kardashians, and on the other side there’s maybe the bashing or more separatist side of feminism. Do you see many other modern musicians today who are finding more of a normal, healthy balance? Like, able to be outspoken feminist musicians without falling into either side’s pitfalls?
That’s an interesting question. To be honest, I’ve never really examined other musicians’ stance on feminism necessarily, but I do believe that most female musicians are already displaying their feminism by succeeding in music. It’s incredibly difficult and competitive, so they are asserting positive role modeling on our culture, by doing, by being. Y’know, when you’re an artist, you’re already bucking the trend. For women, it’s so difficult in some ways to be taken seriously as an artist still. So I believe all my fellow musicians are already taking great strides and pushing forward a positive example of what feminism is: it’s just doing without having gender be a part of the conversation. St. Vincent would be a perfect example of that. I don’t feel that her body is exploited in any which way to present her phenomenal music; she uses her talent to blow people out of the water. Just as a random example. But there’s millions of girls out there doing amazing things. Savages, Chelsea Wolfe, Grimes, I could go on. There’s so many amazing artists out there.
Is it weird to have been an inspiration to so many of these amazing people who you think are doing amazing things? Knowing that you’re also a part of how they got to there?
To be honest—and it sounds so cliched and overly dramatic—it’s by far the greatest privilege of my life. To have been an artist who has preceded other artists, I’m lucky enough now and again to run into them, and the delight on their face is the same delight that I registered when I ran into the women who came before me. So, to take part of that lineage is the greatest privilege of my life. It fills me with great joy.