Our contemporary music scene is one that prides itself upon its progressiveness. As members of a predominantly socially conscious arts community, we easily recognize gender based discrimination as wrong. We exist in a macro-society that believes it has evolved beyond sexism’s antiquated ideology, and also within subculture where dialogue about gender and sexuality politics in music is commonplace, in which artists regularly discuss the gender disparity between artists as something to acknowledge and change. So how is it possible that the double standard and stigmatization of non-cis-males in the arts persists?
Because the alternative music community’s critique of dominant culture, while justified, still comes from a socially privileged perspective, it can often neglect more implicit sexist patterns in the way women in music are represented in media. The fact that gender discrimination still exists in music demands that it be addressed, yet media’s focus on the novelty of female experience in music perpetuates a stereotype of female musicians. Press that praises women who participate in a male-dominated field as something revolutionary because of its unusualness admits the reality of the issue, but also risks tokenizing female musicians and preventing women’s presence in music from being normalized.
The fact that gender discrimination still exists in music demands that it be addressed, yet media’s focus on the novelty of female experience in music perpetuates a stereotype of female musicians.
Attempts to include and elevate women by saying they are successful or talented even though they are female do more to reinforce the idea that exemplary female musicians are notable because they are uncommon. This kind of speech belies a musical culture in which women must validate themselves according to male standards, where the burden of females is to be exceptional where males are permitted to be sufficient.
When I am complimented for being surprisingly skilled at guitar or competent about gear, I know that the omitted phrase is “unlike most women”. When I hear my peers talk about bands fronted by women or with non-male members and say, “but it’s not, you know, a girl band”, I hear it as preemptive defensiveness against an ingrained assumption that a band containing females will not be good, will have a particular sound, or—scariest of all— will have an explicitly feminist agenda. When I am asked about my specific experience as a queer female in the music industry, I’m aware that the personal narrative I give about my art will be filtered through the lens of presuppositions about women and lesbians. While openly discussing those aspects of my identity means more representation of marginalized groups, it can also mean that the music becomes secondary to my queerness or femininity. The challenge then, is more complicated than to increase female/non-cis-male representation in music, it is to unlearn the habit of unnecessarily compartmentalizing musicians according to gender. Normalizing female presence in music begins when we stop feeling compelled to legitimize art made by women for any other reason than that it is art.