This essay is part of a wider series of articles called ‘Who is She?’ where we explore the legacies of women in popular culture, paticularly those who have been misunderstood throughout history and modern society.
Punk icon, Poly Styrene was frontwoman of the band X-Ray Spex from 1976 to 1979. Known for her lyrics that satirised consumer culture and dealt with topics such as technology, postmodernism and feminism, Poly Styrene stood out: a woman of colour in a white, male-dominated punk scene, she was a pioneer for women in rock. Her social commentary and humour was a thread which continued from her days in X-Ray Spex to the music she made towards the end of her life. As music journalist Zoe Howe described in her interview with Poly before her death: “Humour is, of course, one of the most effective and intelligent ways to move things forward and bust issues wide open, and Poly has never stopped looking at popular contemporary culture with a satirical eye. Indeed, the pop culture and media obsession of today is ripe for parody…”. Poly has been cited as an influence for everyone from Bikini Kill, to Neneh Cherry and FKA Twigs and her radical individuality has inspired both the riot grrl and Afro punk scenes.
In the new film Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell celebrates and explores her mother’s legacy; trying to understand both Poly, the punk icon and Poly, the mother. Co-directed by Bell and Paul Sng, the documentary is artfully-curated, blending original footage of Celeste in various locations important to her mother – London, New York, Hastings and India – with unseen archival footage and Poly’s own diary entries read by actress Ruth Negga.
The self-proclaimed ‘misfit superstar’ was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 to a British mother and a Somali father. Poly was brought up by her mother in London, describing herself as an ‘ordinary tough kid from an ordinary tough street’. Being mixed-race, she struggled to fit in with either the white, working-class community that she lived in or within the Black community. But it was music that allowed Poly to carve out her own identity. In 1976, she put an ad in the Melody Maker calling on “young punks who want to stick it together” and X-Ray Spex – and her alter-ego – were born.
Even within punk, Poly had a distinct and different style. In the documentary, Bell reveals that her mother never considered herself a ‘punk’ but recognised that the scene was a “perfect vehicle for her creative transformation”. Poly was like a performance artist in some ways in that she embodied the plastic, pop girl figure and the concepts, such as postmodernism, that she sang of. Music and fashion both provided an expression for her social observations, particularly on consumer culture. She was aware of this, in an interview used in the film, she stated: “clothes are never really you, that’s why people wear them. You can just create an image, they’re part of a façade.” Poly’s sense of joy really shines through in the documentary. She played with fashion and concepts within her music and identity to create art which reflected the world she lived in.
The film explores how Poly, and her quirky style, were read by the media. She was different, funny, she had braces and smiled in photos where other rockers of the era would chose to look sullen. These things which made Poly stand out, and were the reasons why so many fell in love with her, were also the things for which the media scrutinised her. Journalists insinuated she was unattractive or overweight, because she wore lots of clothes. However, Bell explains they simply did not understand the reasons why she chose to cover up. Her unconventional style – for which she was known – was a tool that Poly used so that she wouldn’t be sexualised and glamourised by the industry and wider culture. In wanting to be taken seriously, she ‘covered’ herself up with ‘quirky’ clothes. In her interview with Howe she explains: “I had a very quirky style but I wanted to be respected for my music, my lyrics specifically […] I really felt strongly about not prostituting myself in order to be heard. That sounds a bit over-dramatic now. Looking back I would probably tell myself not to be so afraid of that part of myself.”
Throughout the film, we see contradictory and multifaceted representations of Poly. She was, of course, an icon for whom people pressed upon their own thoughts, feelings and ideologies. Her seemingly defiant stance against patriarchal culture was encapsulated in the song ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’. However, for Poly this song was inspired by all forms of bondage; she wrote in her diary of being inspired by not just one struggle, but images of suffragettes, enslaved Africans and Moses and the Israelites. Bell expands on this stating that her mother was not staunchly ideological, but instead that she was an “observer, rather than a critic”.
This perhaps sums up Poly best. Her lyrics were of a pop sensibility, yet they were complex. She seemed to absorb the modern world and through her writing, commentated on what she saw, heard and felt. This is particularly apparent in her observations of consumerism. By the late 1970s, the world was rapidly modernising and shifting away from the post-war world into which Poly was born. She was fascinated with modernity. New York represented an extreme version of what she had seen beginning in England, and whilst there she felt that the Americans had developed a ‘perverse kind of fondness’ of plastic. By being there, she felt that she began to share that ‘fondness’, which frightened her.
Poly believed her music reflected what she felt, and this period in America did affect her writing. Celeste travels to New York in the film and comments that her mother fell down a rabbit hole imagining this dystopian, artificial world where plastic rules. In her diary, Poly wrote of this world with her signature wit: “the downside, humankind destroys the natural environment. The upside: burgers will be cruelty-free, veggie rubber buns”. This segment is just one of many within the film which perfectly capture Poly the visionary. Although it is a cliché to say, she was truly ahead of her time. The concepts she was concerned with – technology, identity, the rise of artificial material – are at the forefront of our dialogue today, but they weren’t so much in the 1970s.
Punk was revolutionary, and as Rhoda Dakar states in the documentary, as women of colour she and Poly, and others like them, felt embraced by punk in some ways. Yet despite its celebration of the outsider, the punk scene was still very much a boy’s club which Poly struggled to fit in with. In the film, there are disturbing stories of Sid Viscous locking Poly in a cupboard at a party and Don Letts admits candidly that himself and Sex Pisols were just ‘lads being lads’ when Poly was around. He recalls a time when Poly shaved her head at Jon Lydon’s house, admitting: “I’ll be honest, we were totally insensitive”. Poly had always said thatshe would shave her head if anyone ever tried to turn her into a sex symbol, however as Bell recognises while it was a powerful statement, it was also a cry for help.
After her time in New York and dealing with the intense, fast-paced nature of the music industry, Poly began to experience mental health issues. It is admirable how sensitively the film deals with this. Bell explains that Poly struggled with the labels regarding mental illness; she was sectioned in 1979 and misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, when she was in fact dealing with acute bipolar disorder. As the film explores, Poly was a deeply spiritual person who at this time felt she was experiencing a spiritual awakening. Perhaps because the film is co-directed by her daughter, it never treats Poly’s mental health issues with scepticism or judgement. Indeed, the film actively chooses to leave an open question around what we deem as ‘mental illness’ and in doing so, creates a sensitive portrait of the complexities of human beings and their mental health.
Poly made the brave decision to disband X-Ray Spex for her own health. Fame had been exhausting for her. A highly sensitive person, her sister describes her as a ‘sponge’ absorbing the good and the bad. When X-Ray Spex broke up at the height of their success, people thought Poly was ‘mad’ – why would a young woman on the cusp of everything abandon it all? There was no room for understanding that she was making an empowered decision to step back from the fame which had become all-consuming. As Bell identifies, the persona had to die so that Marianne Elliot could live. The tragedy of fame is the subject of many recent documentaries, particularly about stars of the 2000s such as Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. Bell and Sng’s film however, offers not only an insight to the treatment of such women in popular culture, but provides personal perspective on how fame can affect familial relationships.
The film is not just the story of Poly’s career, there is within it space for Bell to explore her own relationship with her mother and the complexities within it. After releasing her solo album, Transluence in 1980 – which was not well-received by critics – Poly met Bell’s father and gave birth. In Bell’s early life, her mother joined the Hare Krishna and her and Bell lived within its Hertfordshire manor for a time. Bell does not shy away from exploring the times in her childhood when Poly neglected her needs due to her mental health issues and the effects this had on her. Empathetically, Bell explains that motherhood was a challenge for Poly. The film, even when exploring Poly’s public and artistic life, always comes back to the mother-daughter relationship at its heart and the appreciation and understanding Bell has of her mother is a thread which runs throughout.
Poly died of breast cancer in 2011, not long after releasing her final album Generation Indigo, which Bell had worked with her on. We are left with a bittersweet sense of healing and Bell’s own appreciation of what made her mother so special. Poly’s cultural legacy is huge. However, the documentary – of course, being made by her daughter – feels like an intimate portrait. It offers a personalised glimpse of the woman, rather than solely the ‘icon’. Similarly, it adds to an ever-growing canon of film which reflects on the damage that fame can do to people, particularly those who are sensitive or vulnerable to its intensities. Whilst painting a picture of a true visionary, the film also tells the moving story of a mother-daughter relationship. Poly’s legacy is her radical sensitivity and the joy that she found in her art; this joy and sensitivity is precisely what makes her one of the most memorable punk pioneers of her generation. As Pauline Black remarks in the film, “the world is playing catch-up with Poly Styrene, not the other way round.”