Sexism, Misogyny and Female Musicians

Sexism, Misogyny and Female Musicians

The fact that we still get excited about all-female bands and use an appendage, ‘girl band’, like we used to say ‘lady doctor’, indicates that we still have a long way to go.

The night I meet The Franklys there are four bands playing and they are headlining and so they should be. They are live genius.

Identifying their audience as 80% male and 20% female, The Franklys are more than aware that they are a rarity. For singer Jen it is still “a matter of perception. People are waiting to see what you will be like and then they decide how they are going to react to you.” There does seem to be a little bit more to prove if you are an all-female band. As drummer Lexi points out, “There is still a stigma about girl bands. They are still seen as something ‘special’.” I guess anything in a minority just is.

“It’s as if female has become a genre – rock, pop, female bands,” adds bass player, Zoe Biggs.
“People just want to put you in a box.” It is interesting to study the press coverage of The Franklys to see how they are referred to. It’s difficult to find any pieces that don’t identify them as ‘female four-piece’, ‘all girl band’ or simply ‘the girls’. Fanny Broberg, the charismatic lead guitarist, acknowledges that they’ve, ‘still got to work twice as hard.’ The cliches still exist because the inherent sexism still does. But, they say, they have plenty of male fans and ‘it’s refreshing to be supported by just music lovers.’

I watch the crowd whilst I’m here. And they’re right, there is no obvious sexism. There’s definitely a bit of older male interest and some sustained close-up recording of Broberg that will probably pop up on Youtube somewhere. Rather that than purely personal use.

There are a number of female bands, however, who have had quite different experiences. Cassie Fox, now with GUTTFULL, has been very vocal about the treatment of women by male members of the audience. “My old band, The Wimmins’ Institute, was all-female, all over-35, and our songs were about gender roles and everyday sexism. So as you can imagine we were an ‘easy target’ for a lot of online misogyny. Our video for our song ‘Mansplaining’ attracted utter charmers, many just calling us ‘fat and ugly’, with a few prize trolls coming out with quite astounding comments, like: “a bunch of old hag women (wouldn’t surprise me if they are HIV+) who are all on their period because no man would want to sleep with them”.” Weaknesses of reasoning aside, this kind of abuse can be extremely damaging. You have to be pretty resilient to put yourself in the firing line of such comments, especially given the enormous bravery it takes to get up on stage and perform in the first place.

There is a definite distinction to be made between all-female bands and female fronted ones. Much more traditional, in a sense, female fronted bands are very much the accepted, often desired, make up of a group. Nina Courson singer with Healthy Junkies echoes The Franklys, “There’s a core amount of men who love to go out and support and often follow round female fronted bands, lots of photos are taken, before after and during the gig.”

Similarly, she identifies the audience as being 80% male. “I think female musicians get a lot more attention from a male audience than male musicians do but you want it to be the right attention for your music…that’s why some musicians feel the need to dress down so they’re not judged on their appearance.” It’s difficult to imagine the likes of Mick Jagger consciously dressing unprovocatively to go on stage.

It’s not a compromise Courson is prepared to make either. Sofia de Oliveira Martins singer with Starsha Lee, renowned for her breast-baring antics on stage is someone who has also spoken about her sense of empowerment in doing so. However, it is important to remember that both Courson and de Oliveira Martins are in bands and on stage with their partners and that a certain degree of protection will be felt.

Talented artists such as Bjork and Kate Bush have had their musical skills undermined by a focus on their strikingly beautiful looks. Whilst each one is aging gracefully, comments on the aging process indicate that for some audience members, their musicianship is not their main appeal. We still have a fixation with what they look like rather than the music they play. And we’ve all been at gigs and encountered men whose priority has been to get a flash of Kim Gordon’s or P.J. Harvey’s knickers on the front row.

Having women in audiences affects the balance of everything – not just hormones, like having daughters makes men more likely to vote left wing. Women in bands are often regarded simply as equals by male musicians, ‘It’s no different than men. Respect to those genuine, authentic, living, breathing musicians,’ says Huw Edwards of KOYO.

The problems can start, though, when romantic relationships are formed between band members. Rather like mixing the genders in the army, women and men together can have a destabilising effect. Jerome Alexandre of Deadcuts has had experiences of being in all male bands and ones with women, “Everything is fine until they start not talking to each other. Otherwise it makes no difference who is in the band.”
“Addiction transcends gender,” adds Mark Keds.

As with so many things, except poorly paid social work, cleaning and waitressing, women remain a minority in an industry that has no reason to be inherently male. People’s perceptions of women in music won’t change until the balance does. Whilst I am not advocating positive discrimination, it is the responsibility of all aspects of the industry to make sure that women are given equal representation in the press, on festival billings and all aspects of production. Let the normalisation begin.

  1. When I write about music I try not to mention the band’s gender too often… but it’s hard when so few bands even have a token female, let alone being all-female (or even non-all-white-middle-class-male), and being all-female is, as a result, a pleasant novelty. It is of note that a band is all-female, and it is often also very relevant because many female bands sing about their experience and interests, which ofter relate to their gender. And, of course, all decent bands are heavily political, and it is almost inevitable that an all-female political band will be significantly feminist in their work, which makes not mentioning their gender difficult.

    Not only that but… I like guitar music but so much of it has been done before that one of the very few ways left that a band can use to sound even vaguely new is to simply be all-female… depressingly that gives a difference of perspective and a difference of approach that tends to set all-female bands apart from yet-another-fucking-shit-all-male-band-saying-the-same-fucking-thing-that-numerous-all-male-bands-have-been-saying-for-years.

    Female bands do not have to work twice as hard for me to be won over. In fact quite the reverse… if a band is a bit boring and generic I would dismiss them instantly if they were all-male, yet if they were all-female I would give them the benefit of the doubt because female bands tend to be more interesting, other things being equal. I would listen to two or three boring indie-punk numbers from a female band in the hope that something fresh appeared (musically or lyrically), but 30 seconds into the first song from a similar all-male band I would know for sure that they had no merit whatsoever.

    “People just want to put you in a box” – that’s inevitable. I am probably worse than most – I hear a band and I kinda need to work out how it fits in to the history of music before I can really appreciate it. But it is a rather sad indictment of an individual’s intelligence that when it comes to putting an all-female band in a box they can’t get beyond the all-female bit and work out a slightly more accurate box to put them in!

    “a bunch of old hag women (wouldn’t surprise me if they are HIV+) who are all on their period because no man would want to sleep with them”. Easy for me to say, but surely when people are that hard of thinking that they write things like that it is very easy to ignore them?

    FWIW I have no issue with positive discrimination… and whilst it is not perfect I tend to take issue with those who oppose it.

  2. I was thinking about why people end up grouping female acts get like a genre of its own.
    As I see it male acts dominate rock and alternative scenes as the default perspective on TV, radio, and music’s history, if you want to hear the female perspective you actively have to seek it out.
    You have to opt in to female bands. Where’s as in a patriarchal society you have to opt out of the male band monopoly. You have to be really into music before you even realise you’ve made that decision and most people don’t get there. Like how there are people who don’t like female comedians on TV and think women can’t be funny, there will be people who don’t know Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Fanny, the Slits and they just think woman can’t make rock music. And the patriarchy allows you to get by like that without having to think about it

  3. The fact that we STILL discuss the gender of bands and their members is ridiculous and beyond dated. Who gives a fuck what genitalia they have. Music is not a gender.

  4. As an older woman who has fought massive discrimination to even be in a band (no job for a mother/woman your age) from both women and men, and who has worked tirelessly for equality in music as a musician, writer, venue, promoter, radio presenter, it is disappointing sometimes to be dismissed because we are ‘only’ a female fronted band – so, you do the groundwork over many years to make positive change so the next generation get equality only for that to also treat you with a disdain not far off what you have fought against and tried to change for them. As if, despite a body of work that only points towards working for equality you’re a sell out – who is holding the torch for the under represented middle aged invisible women musicians? The victims of sexism and ageism? No one it appears – don’t fight patriarchy with the behaviours of patriarchy – they are losing their ground and using their game tactics will bring us down with them – don’t fight – build.

  5. R – I agree.

    LC – Are you saying “it is ridiculous that you had to write an article like this” or “it is ridiculous that you have written an article like this”? If the former I agree completely, if the latter I disagree completely.

    EM – Not sure I get entirely what you’re saying but I think I agree with most of it. Age is a tricky one though… ageism is wrong… but then again either your band is ‘rock n roll’, it is about youthful energy, in which case anyone over 30 is on dodgy territory. On the one hand I go see some relatively old bands (some bands who were successful years back, others more local who just happen to have 40-something musicians who love playing.) On the other hand a band should start young, burn fast and bright, and fuck off before they get old and boring.

    I suppose I’m saying that I am obviously 100% anti-ageism… but then again I also believe that rock n roll is about youth and I would not criticise someone under 30 from saying “you are over 30 – I have no interest in your music or your opinion on music”. Or something.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.