Women fans of popular culture are often derided or overlooked – and music is no exception. But academic work about music fans does not tend to think about the ways in which women music fans might experience their musical engagements differently to men – in part because of the derision. In fact, when it comes to rock music, a lot of work about fans does not think very hard about pleasure in music at all; it tends to use a framework of subcultural theory which means that consumer practices like attending concerts and buying records are prioritised. Music itself, and enjoyment of it, gets left out.
As I grew up enjoying rock and metal music, I struggled to negotiate the stereotypes of women fans. And I felt left out by the culture: in the media women were either ignored or the butt of jokes that furthered male bonding. These things had an impact on my fandom, making for a more obviously gendered terrain to negotiate as a fan, especially when around other fans. And as a feminist I was pretty cross about these things, which I identified as being rooted in sexist assumptions about women.
This is the starting point for my new book: Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music (Palgrave). I examine how stereotypes of women are reproduced in the metal media. This means looking at how women are mythologised as fans and as groupies whilst men take the stage. It means understanding how the gendered roles of fan and musician are naturalised, resulting in a common sense idea that women shouldn’t be on the stage at all. But all this happens within another mythologised value: the metal media propagates the idea that the culture is one of equality, and that it doesn’t matter what sex, race, sexuality or nationality you are, as long as you love the music.
These stereotypes of women as groupies and of metal as a realm of equality impact upon women’s fandom in particular ways. The myth of the groupie means that women’s fandom is always suspect: we are assumed to be more interested in the musician that the music. Women’s passionate engagement with the music is ignored, as if we can have no serious interest in listening. Women fans feel angry about this sexist portrayal. But we also feel inhibited when it comes to talking about any sexy thoughts about musicians that go along with our listening pleasure, because these might be seen to diminish our status as fans. But why should music fandom only be about listening? When we see bands perform it would be odd not to think of the musicians as playing a key role in creating the experience of our musical engagement; why, then, take only select aspects of that pleasure and treat them seriously, but not others? We vitally need to rethink how we understand musical pleasure. And we need to grasp how some elements reproduce sexist arguments that diminish women’s fandom.
Music has multiple meanings for people – there are as many different interpretations of the same song as there are listeners. Some of these meanings are explicitly informed by the listener’s gender, for instance when a particular band become a great accompaniment for doing housework. More domestic labour is still done by women than men and so the significance of choosing music to help get through the cleaning highlights how gender shapes our musical experiences. But not all experiences. Music has the power to help us move beyond those specifically gendered experiences – I spoke to one woman for whom listening to her favourite bands enabled her to forget the boring chore of ironing, even as she was in the process of doing it. Music has a transcendent quality, helping us to think creatively, to leave the gendering of our subjectivities behind temporarily.
Hard rock and metal are culturallycoded as masculine, and they are notoriously male dominated. A lot of research identifies where the culture is sexist too. But this is not the whole story. Indeed, rock and metal exist in our sexist societies so it is no surprise to find sexism here too. More surprising is that for a lot of women fans, our participation in metal events (concerts, festivals and clubs) means entering a space in which we are less likely to be the targets of men’s unwanted sexual advances and harassments than at mainstream events. This means that metal can be a space in which women can find some freedom from constricting gender roles and oppressive sexism. Of course, it is not entirely free, but we can say that it is free-er. That myth of equality clearly plays a part here, helping people to act in ways that are not organised by prejudice. But sexual equality is not yet a reality, and that myth of equality needs work if it is to become reality.
Musical experiences (both private and social) are therefore shaped by gendered divisions and expectations. And yet hard rock and metal fandom can provide spaces in which women can temporarily forget the gendered limitations placed upon them. ‘Metal fan’ it can be an identity through which to resist gender strictures. These subtle conclusions show how examining women’s experiences in male dominated culture reveal some of the contradictions of femininity, of equality, of feminism – and of gender as a division of people into two groups. It reveals the oppressive nature of the ordinariness of sexism and of the strictures of femininity. It speaks of the need for alternatives for women in order to live our lives as we wish.
The book is available from Palgrave:
Rosemary spoke about the book on Thinking Allowed on 21st December 2016.
A note on the research underpinning the book.
The research was conducted at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. It was self-funded. Methods include a case study of semiotic analysis of a music magazine in the early 2000s, and interviews with women fans living in England. The research is conducted in line with feminist ontology and epistemology. In particular it engages with theories about women’s involvement in popular music and research about hard rock and metal.