Though women have made great strides toward acceptance, equality, and respect, the music industry is a man’s world. Many women find receiving the same amount of respect as their male colleagues a difficult task. Some musicians, like Annie Clark of the band St. Vincent, believe women have achieved their long sought after equality. In a recent “back and forth” interview on Noisey TV, Clark says, “The only difference (between male and female musicians) is probably that you get asked, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in music?’” However, a recent poll (figure below) shows that the majority of people believe the opposite is true.
Forty-five percent of those who participated in a recent poll conducted by The Local Scene feel that the biggest challenge women face in the music industry is being seen as a sexual object. Another thirty-six percent believe the biggest challenge is that women are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. How much truth is there to this? If this is true, what can women do to gain equal respect among their male colleagues in the music industry?
A recently published article in the Broward New Times music blog epitomizes one of the biggest issues women musicians allegedly face: the viewing of women as sexual objects. The article, entitled “Eight Pleasantly Plump Female Musicians We’d Like to Get Down With,” was so misogynistic that it created a social backlash across Twitter, Facebook, and blog sites like Tumblr. In addition, the article’s author was fired and the story removed. The New Times editor Eric Barton explained away the article as sarcasm that didn’t come across the way it was intended; or, as Saltyeggs.com put it, “an exercise in ‘sarcasm’ gone awry.” Even if the Broward New Times article was meant as sarcasm, statements like, “This is a stretch. This is a very massive, massive stretch,” in reference to Beth Ditto, and “It doesn’t matter how big Simpson gets; she stays as dumb and sexy as ever,” are insulting and demeaning.
This is not the first time an article like this has been published. Seven years ago, Outside the Left published an article that named what the author deemed to be the 12 hottest female guitarists. This story, in the same fashion as the “Eight Pleasantly Plump Female Musicians” article, primarily focused on the physical attributes of the women with little comment on their talent as musicians. However, unlike the Broward New Times article, the “Top 12 Hottest Female Guitarists Ever” story has not been removed or decried as “the most insulting thing on the Internet,” which, according to Barton, is a common comment made about the Broward New Times story.
After the 2012 Grammies, The Village Voice wrote an article denouncing articles like the two cited above. The piece, “How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide,” points out how women are commonly described by their physical appearance and seldom by their talent as a musician. These types of descriptions are seldom utilized in the reviews of male musicians.
This stereotypical view of women is not limited only to media portrayals, nor is it prevalent only against mainstream, big name musicians. Alicia McLeod, who has been a vocalist in Montgomery, Ala. for over 18 years, says this sexualizing of women is a product of the environment. It is prevalent in more than just the music world. It is everywhere from television to magazines to advertising. It is a marketing tool leaving few untouched by its influence.
McLeod points out that sexuality can sometimes work in favor of female musicians. For example, a woman who dresses up the part, she says, increases her chances of getting a gig. This same technique would not be as effective for male musicians.
The presence of a woman on stage can also affect the image of the band. In photos of bands, women are usually front and center of the group. An exception would be the case of a single man with an all female band who might use the women around him to make himself look more attractive. An article on the Codeaires: Life in the Drab Lane blog entitled “Women in Sludge Metal – An Analysis,” authored by Dora Robertson, discusses how women usually fall into three roles when involved in a band. Although this article discusses women in metal, the same roles can sometimes be seen with other types of bands. The first role is that of a diva, wherein the woman’s function is to “stand in one place, look pretty, and sing over the bombastic power chords playing behind her.” Then there are the centerfolds, who use their sexuality to draw attention to the band. “Centerfolds don’t mind being objectified in this way and actually like to play into the stereotypes that men create for them,” writes Robertson. Rarer, according to the article, are the diva-folds, who are equally praised for both their looks and their talents.
Sex can be utilized in other ways to promote a band as well. For example, “Pussy Rock” is a gimmick created by the Birmingham, Ala. band Miss Used. The band’s lead vocalist, Roxy Lane, says “Pussy Rock” came about as a joke while the band discussed what other bands do to call attention to themselves. Lane says a former band mate created this gimmick as a way for people to recognize Miss Used. “It’s nothing like seeing a chick onstage,” says Lane as she quotes her former band mate. “It’s like, she’s a pussy but she rocks, like pussy rock!” She was initially excited about the idea, and the band created a hand sign to go with it. When she’s off stage, she admits to being embarrassed. On stage, however, she says she has no problem with it. “A lot of people recognize it,” she says, “and it gets us a little bit of recognition. It’s all about the marketing.”
In a world where sex sells, is it possible for women to truly gain respect and equality? McLeod suggests this may be difficult because women cut their own throats with the Women’s Liberation Movement. According to her, prior to the Women’s Liberation Movement, men viewed women as delicate things to be protected and respected. Then, when women demanded to be seen as equals, men started to treat them as one of the guys and, besides the “old school guys,” ceased to give women preferential treatment.
In 2008, musicologist Laura Viñuela interviewed female musicians in Spain regarding the issues women musicians face and the methods they use to overcome them, as discussed in the article Femme Genial/Femme Musical. Viñuela comes to the conclusion that music is a masculine world women must adapt to, but that does not mean women musicians have to play by the rules men set for them. Viñuela suggests the straightforward method for women musicians to utilize in dealing with the lack of respect they face is to “either accommodate to traditionally feminine values such as ‘sensitive’, [sic] ‘naïve’, [sic] ‘loving’ [sic] or ‘delicate’ or to be considered as leaders of some feminist cause, thus facing its negative consequences.” Alternatively, women could instead “follow a zigzag path, negotiating between asserting their position as women musicians against patriarchal stereotypes and avoiding the labeling of their actions as a political stance.”
“No,” adds Amelia, “you have to do things. And live your life the way you want it.” In essence, the best way for women to handle the issues is neither to pretend the challenges don’t exist nor to come across as an angry feminist and risk alienating half of their audience. Rather, women should acknowledge these challenges as something that is a part of life but continue on in their own way without letting it define who they are as a musician.
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