On Not Being a Douchebag: The Moral Obligation to Confront Sexism

Today I’d like to discuss sexism in metal. Don’t we talk about that all the time? I hear you ask. If you pay attention to publications in the field of metal studies, it appears that yes, we do. The topic is even getting significant uptake in mainstream metal press outlets like Decibel, Noisey, and MetalSucks. All of this is a good thing. So why am I bringing it up again, you may ask? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, and most importantly, it would be harmful to assert that we have reached a point where it is not worth talking about. To quote an article (which is currently under review) I submitted with my friend, colleague, and fellow blogger Amanda DiGioia, ‘as academic feminists. . .we will be “post-feminists” in the “post-patriarchy.”’ The second reason, and this is the point of this little discussion, is that I believe that members of the metal community have an obligation to confront sexism and sexist behaviour within the scene.

Moral obligation is kind of a sticky subject, but hear me out. I think this is important again for a couple of reasons. First, it is important to be critical of the media we love (to borrow from Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency). It could be, and is, argued that certain genres of metal are more problematic than others (looking at you, death metal), but it would be kind of ridiculous to assert that one must stop liking it because it is problematic. Rather, I can still enjoy Cannibal Corpse while making attempts to come to terms with the sexist lyrical content of some of their songs. I realize it is problematic, but in providing critiques of it, forcing conversation (and spending less time with their more problematic material), I can still at least enjoy them as a band. Even better, I may convince others to view it as problematic, and if everyone is really successful, the culture of the music will change. Lofty, but not impossible. Again, to borrow from Sarkeesian, it is important to critically engage and reflect upon such material. This brings me to the second reason for the importance of obligation (which I will explain as I go); confronting sexist behaviour allows female identified (and non-binary folks) the opportunity to protect their autonomy as fans. Note on pronouns: for the purposes of argument, and terms used in literature, I will be using binary pronouns such as “men” and “women,” but ultimately this argument could (and should) be extended throughout the gender spectrum.

This second aspect is part of an argument which I am expanding/leaning on forwarded by philosopher Carol Hay. Hay’s article asserts that women who have been sexually harassed have an obligation to confront their harasser. She prefaces this by discussing the nature of moral obligation, and deals with some normative concerns like personal safety, and how much obligation women have exactly. The latter stems from this argument: we only want to grant obligation to people whom we consider autonomous, and so if women are in fact autonomous, then they can have an obligation to confront their harassers. Exacting how much autonomy women have/how much obligation is accorded to them is challenging. The patriarchy limits a woman’s options, and because women internalize their oppression, women end up with preferences which can end up obstructing their interests (internalized misogyny is a big problem in metal, if we’re being real about this). On the other hand, though, it would be unfair to say that women are incapable of any meaningful degree of autonomy under the patriarchy. Arguing that patriarchy strips women of all autonomy would undermine the actual power that women in the Western world do have.

Still with me? Good. So, women have some autonomy and therefore have some obligation. How much is more of a normative question to deal with in specific cases, but for the sake of argument we can at least say that there is an obligation. Now we can deal with whom this obligation is to. This is a pretty simple breakdown which I think works when translating this to the metal scene. The main assertion is that women have an obligation to confront their harassers, and that obligation is both to themselves and to other women as a group. They are obliged to themselves, because doing so protects their autonomy. The harm of sexual harassment/sexist behaviour is that it acts to diminish the autonomy of women. And so, confronting that behaviour is an obligation women have to themselves to protect whatever measures of autonomy they do have. The obligation is not to confront a general moral harm, but a moral obligation to resist the behaviour which undermines their ability to be morally obligated at all (i.e autonomy). The harm of harassment/sexist behaviour draws on and reinforces the social norms of the patriarchy. This means, then, that women also have an obligation to the larger group of women because all women suffer together under the patriarchy (it is important to note that this happens in varying degrees. Enter: intersectionality). When one is harmed, they’re all harmed.

Now, because we’re talking about the metal scene here, it comes with the territory to ask about the men since they still make up the greatest number of fans. It would be unfair to assert that women, who are the ones who suffer the greatest, bear the brunt of the burden when it comes to fighting the patriarchy. Hay asserts that men, even those who do not actively contribute to patriarchy, benefit from it (and are also harmed by it), and there is a valid concern that by obliging women to confront this behaviour risks shifting the moral burden from the harasser to the victim. We don’t want that, so men, you have an obligation, too. Men have an obligation to fight injustice, and by not resisting the patriarchy, that counts as a failure of that obligation. It is also important for men to share this obligation because one could argue that the power men have under the patriarchy puts them in a largely better position to dismantle the patriarchy. It is also worth noting that the patriarchy harms men, too, and so there is an extra incentive (if needed) to dismantle it.

To connect this back to metal, sexual harassment is one of the many potential barriers/harms which exists for women fans. Sarkeesian recognizes this in her realm of video games, which is why her mantra of ‘being critical of the media you love’ is important. The games which she spends the most time critiquing, are the ones she loves the most. The importance of this being critical, and why I believe we have some sort of obligation to do so, is that doing so, first and foremost, allows fans who suffer from patriarchal oppression to maintain their autonomy as fans. As a scene we take pride in the community we have created, as for the most part, it is a great one. However, everything great has its fair share of problems, and metal is no different. While people such as Frankie Palmeri from Emmure will always release problematic merchandise, and people will always buy it, it is important that others (both men and women) confront those oppressive behaviours by whichever means they see fit/are comfortable doing. Making metal a less oppressive and more open space should be everyone’s goal, because to quote Sarkeesian, ‘it’s not only possible but important to be critical of the media that you love, and be willing to see the flaws in it, especially the flaws that reflect and reinforce oppressive attitudes and unexamined ways of thinking in our culture.’

Works Cited

Hay, Carol. ‘Whether to Ignore Them and Spin: Moral Obligations to Resist Sexual Harassment.’ Hypatia 20, no. 4 (2000): 94-108.