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CocoRosie: The Resurgence of Radical Feminism

Hawaiian born, sororal songsters CocoRosie talk gender identity and racism against women

Bianca Casady’s feminism is a work in progress. As one half of surreal folk duo, CocoRosie, the New York-based performer and visual artist has weighed in on a growing discourse around resurgent radical feminism in music. If that comes as some sort of surprise, then it shouldn’t. The Casadys have been challenging and deconstructing ideas of oppressive heteronormativity and patriarchy long before this year’s Tales of the GrassWidow.

Over four albums and nearly ten years, Bianca has played with gender identity and universal spirituality. From the explicit denouncement of institutional sexism in orthodoxy in songs like Noah’s Ark’s ‘Armageddon’ (“And Jesus said, ‘now take her hand and raise this harlot’s bastard son’”) to experimenting with drag performance live, it sounds like CocoRosie have been rather explicit. But it wasn’t until the heartbreaking first person narrativeof this year’s ‘Child Bride’ and the characterisation of a woman scorned in ‘Harmless Monster’ (“it’s alright to recognise me, call out my nameless”) for that message to really resonate.

“We have a song called ‘God Has a Voice, She Speaks Through Me’ and I don’t feel like anyone hardly even noticed,” Casady says, over the phone and on tour in Basel, Switzerland. That’s a track that was released as a single in 2008 and, while it’s easy for its meaning to get lost in the gauzy imagery of crystals, dolphins and angels, that’s exactly where the truth really holds for CocoRosie.

In reconnecting with the earth and shedding the endless layers of patriarchal conditioning that Bianca, specifically, has found herself contending with, Tales of the GrassWidow is an indictment, as much of capitalism as it is the destruction of the environment and the male god image. Religion is a contentious issue, especially in the context of a new globalised feminism, with its focus on cultural sensitivity, but CocoRosie is more concerned with the “female race” over any other distinctions. And that’s because, as Bianca quotes performance artist and fellow “Future Feminist” Johanna Constantine, “you don’t have to know what’s right to know what’s wrong.”

Dazed Digital: I saw that you follow Starhawk on Twitter, what’s your relationship to the Goddess movement?

Bianca Casady: I’m working on it. It’s not an overnight thing, to really be able to visualise a Goddess thing. I feel like that’s been one of my focuses for many years, in my work. To try to erase the male god image and it’s really deep in there. So I can’t personally relate to a Goddess image but lately I’ve found myself going back to the basics and feeling like the earth is our creator and to be connected symbolically with the feminine force of Creation.

I feel like I’ve gone full-circle to things I learned as a child, a more indigenous style of religions, which are really focussed on the earth, not worshipping a sky-god. That’s where I’m at right now, which is also making a direct connection between Feminism and ecology. Sky god religions, for me, are the biggest set back for humanity, so that’s where a lot of my focus is. 

DD: That reminds me of that idea of there being a disconnection from the earth by people on lands that have been colonised.

BC: Yeah. It’s a huge problem, which has led to human beings not being accountable for the way they’re affecting the earth. It’s focussing on an afterlife and a paradise or hell something. It’s making people not be accountable for their actions on earth and also not being present.

If you think you belong somewhere else, or you came from somewhere else, you have less investment in where you are. When you really think about it, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know how these “religions of the book” have been so successful and I’m really tired of it. I’m not even interested in freedom of religion because I don’t feel like I have to tip toe around and be respectful. I’m completely offended and disturbed by any religion that dictates any idea of a male god, I think it’s totally inappropriate.

DD: I suppose the focus of this holistic view of the world is about collaboration and, when you think about feminism as a philosophical movement, a lot of contemporary issues have revolved around cultural sensitivity. So, by being opposed to these religious paradigms, there are women out there who would feel alienated by that.

BC: For sure, it’s tricky. In a way, it seems like it’s a big threat to feminism; this need to be sensitive, cultural sensitivity and sensitivity to race. I’ve seen a lot of people are backing down on how they think women should be treated in order to be sensitive to variance of culture and religion but I’m thinking about the female race more than I am other qualifications of race at this point. 

DD: Another big issue that you’re still struggling to resolve is this ‘spectrum of gender’, that, in not being able to define what “woman” is, feminism has lost credence. But there’s no denying that there’s injustice, based on these existing gender dichotomies and it’s unconstructive to focus on that language.

BC: Well, language is the thing that really bares some of the most obvious forms of racism against women. I’m becoming kind of annoying because I’m constantly correcting people when they say “heand when they say “mankind”. The more you tune into it, the more you realise that, as a female, you’ve been excluded and you’re supposed to just paint yourself in to the picture, into the male image. 

The more you tune into it, the more you realise that, as a female, you’ve been excluded and you’re supposed to just paint yourself in to the picture, into the male image.

DD: It’s only now that you’ve been really clear about your feminist intentions around a record. Do you think there was an element of self-protection stopping you from being so explicit in the past, to avoid offending anyone?

BC: No. I definitely was out to offend. But I guess I’m really into contradiction, mutability and openness to interpretation, trying not to fall into any pragmatic thinking. I definitely take advantage of that as an artist and as a human being; as those being tools allowed to artists.

I’m also changing and updating my views on feminism almost every day. It’s really a discovery process and it’s weird because it’s been right in front on my face, in front of everybody’s face. A lot of us have been very compliant with it, in different ways. I guess I was dealing with it in a very personal way. I was doing my own feminist acts that were more personal and not as accessible or something.

DD: Is there anything specific that happened that made you reconsider your position on feminism? 

BC: I’ve been trying to put my finger on it and I’m not sure, exactly. Antony incited this group that we’re calling ‘Future Feminism’ and, in one of our first informal meetings, there was a discussion about the name of the group. There were some older artists who wanted to be a part of it but they wanted us to change the name, to not use the word feminist and to say something else. “Future Femenal” was the suggestion and it was the first time that I suddenly felt this fire inside of me to really stand behind the term “feminist”.

It became really plain as day, suddenly, that I had also fallen victim to the ugly charges, which have been associated with feminism. I had my own weird sense of shame with it that I hadn’t really confronted and, in seeing these older generation artists really put that shame on the table, I felt like, ‘okay, I’m never turning back from this moment’. The first step is to reclaim this thing. 

DD: You mention the negativity people feel towards feminism, not only among women but those defensive attitudes some men have towards women with feminist views.

BC: I definitely experience that a lot with men. There’s this very ignitable friction, where you can see men are really threatened by the concept of feminism, as being something that’s against them. This has been something I really have been trying to work out, in developing a language that, even if it’s female-centred, can include men, not through the male identity but through just engaging them, engaging men in feminism and making feminism an inclusive thing and a holistic thing.

It’s definitely challenging, though. It’s one of the big topics, of how to reengage men and make them useful in feminism. Because it’s not like women can do it alone or something. That’s a ridiculous idea. It would just become a war. 

DD: I guess men have something to be threatened by because if you have a system that’s based on a power structure and you’re enjoying a privileged position within that, it could be something you want to hold on to. 

BC: Hmmm. I think that maybe there are also some deeper things happening, like men are afraid of being rejected by women. I know that’s an uncommon view because it implies that men need the women but there’s so much love and hate. In all the hate, women are also like, whether it’s sexual or enslavement or whatever, you still have men seeking women constantly. I’m not buying into all the hate.