(Here’s Part 3 of a 5-part series about metal culture by guest contributor David Mollica, a trained cultural anthropologist and dedicated metal head. This series is based in part on David’s Master’s dissertation and the interviews he conducted in preparation for writing it. The previous Parts of the series can be found here.)
Lets talk about sex and heavy metal…Get your mind out of the gutter, I mean gender, not how to spawn while listening to Slayer. It’s a pretty universal truth that there are more male metal heads than female. Of course anyone can rattle off a huge list of metal bands that have some women in them, like Into Darkness, and even a few all female acts such as Derketa or Mortals (all of which are pretty sweet bands), but these groups tend to be exceptions to the rule. The field is male dominated and always has been. I found this to be one of the most difficult things to inquire about during my study because I got a different answer from every guy I interviewed and the few female metal heads I knew at the time didn’t want to do an interview. My conclusions on the subject didn’t entirely satisfy me, as most of them are speculative and one can even be construed as vaguely sexist, so I hope this post spurs some healthy discussion.
First, think about the social environment at your average metal venue. If it’s even a halfway decent night there is going be yelling, pushing, drinking, headbanging, and mosh pits. According to Beth Winegarner, who has contributed to Invisible Oranges, she never liked to go to concerts because of that sort behavior. However, she still felt the emotional connection to metal that many people reported when I asked them why they liked the music. In other words, Beth is a fan even if she doesn’t socialize with the group all that often. She felt uncomfortable about being around what she saw as the aggressive behavior of male fans. Obviously this sort of feeling doesn’t account for everyone — one of my most gnarly pit-related black eyes was administered by a girl who looked to be about 16 — but it might be a contributing factor to why so many gigs end up being sausage fests.
A few academics have also theorized that much of what we do, especially on stage and at gigs, is basically an acting out of maleness in a society where traditional gender roles are breaking down. We all get a certain release or catharsis from listening to metal and being at gigs, so they purpose that we act out our perception of “true manliness” during that period where proper society isn’t around to judge us for our lack of sensitivity. If this is the case, then a lot of women might not like to be around groups of metal heads because the basis of our group behavior is tied up in dialog about being a man. This might, on a more subconscious level, have something to do with the gender divide, but how many of you go to a gig with the idea in your head that you get to briefly act like a real man while you are there? I’d guess not very many. Like I said, this stuff is going to be a lot of speculation, so bear with me.
Now onto that vaguely sexist thing I mentioned earlier. The issue has a lot to do with cultural authenticity, a subject you’ll find me returning to frequently because almost everyone I interviewed mentioned the importance of it. During a discussion I had with a group of guys about why there are fewer female metal heads it was brought up that a lot of the girls at metal gigs and venues are in some way fake. They might be wearing some revealing outfit that lacks patches or band logo, so not only do they seem to be there for attention instead of for the music, but you can’t immediately identify them as an actual fan. Perhaps they aren’t into metal and only showed up to humor their boyfriends. Maybe it’s a rebellious phase and they are there specifically to tick off their parents. I know this isn’t true about all (or even most) of the girls at gigs or in the bars, but that sort of thing came up often enough that I think it is noteworthy.
The suspicion that some male fans have toward scene girls might further add to the general discomfort mentioned above. The end result of this male suspicion could also be that women who are fans sometimes end up feeling the need to validate themselves more than the guys by knowing all of the obscure stuff, wearing gear that is “truer than thou”, and even calling out the girls who are being perceived as fake. The extra work involved could be pushing away female fans and artists just as much as the uncomfortable environment. After all, who wants to have to validate themselves constantly to everyone just to be allowed into the group? Now many of you might be thinking that you don’t make judgments like that, so keep in mind that I’m not accusing most metal fans of being sexist. It’s probably more a combination of general social perception and the heavy metal scene’s inclination toward exclusivity, which I’ll talk about in more depth tomorrow.
For argument’s sake let’s compare two bands to illustrate some of what I’m getting at here:
Did you, at any point, question the authenticity of the ladies in Mortals? I didn’t. In fact, after a brief moment where I registered that the entire band was female I stopped watching and started headbanging so I could take in the tasty drum beats. On the other hand, how much attention were you paying to Jill Janus’ unnecessarily low neck line in the Huntress video compared to the fairly epic sound of her voice? You don’t have to answer that. The first time I saw that video I immediately questioned the authenticity of Huntress, and Jill Janus specifically, because why else would she rely on that sexy Halloween costume in every scene? I’m guilty of making a fairly baseless assumption, but am I actually wrong?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the root cause of the gender divide is. Formulating these ideas and putting them into words came close to doubling the time I spent writing my paper and I still hated the result. For an anthropologist, what you see and hear in the field and what the people you study tell you is just as important as a social theory or psychological research. Unfortunately, I had too many conflicting answers from male fans, half-baked theories from academics who I would wager encountered similar problems while doing their research, and very little actual female perspective to work with. It might be the fault of the metal culture and the enacting of maleness, or it might be the music itself. This stuff might just turn most women off. I think it goes beyond any of that, because the issue is likely with larger society and how we are taught to view the role of each gender from childhood. Each sex is guilty of typecasting both itself and the other.
Depressingly, in the part about scene girls you could replace every instance of “metal” with “geek” or “nerd” and still have an accurate representation of how some misogynist assholes in the nerd community feel about women. Given what I know about how uncomfortable that makes women in that environment (many do indeed feel like they have to validate themselves more and know more than their male counterparts, just to not be seen as a “fake geek girl”), I think there’s a definite possibility that your speculations there are accurate.
Also, somewhat related, I saw this right before reading this and thought it was kinda funny. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=186973268093533&set=a.119521798172014.2187.118337464957114&type=1&theater
Speculations about how the presence of that mindset in the metal community makes women feel, I mean.
Funny you bring that up, some of this stuff was based on my own experiences with playing Dungeons and Dragons! Crap, I just admitted that in public forum…
Pshaw. Admit away. I’m currently playing a dwarf barbarian in a Pathfinder campaign. You are among friends here.
I’ve never thought of metal as being “an acting out of maleness” but I think that is an interesting speculation.
Then again, some of us listen to metal because we like the music.
I’d assume that’s most of us.
This was a really interesting read. You have a good set of questions and unfortunately right now I don’t think there’s a whole lot of answers. I have a whole lot of speculation myself. I’d echo what Black Shuck said above about metal culture (and a lot of other male-dominated cultures) being skeptical and even outright hostile to female fans at times as a contributing factor.
Working under the assumption that a lot of metalheads got into metal during their teenage years I’d say socialization and gender norms play a role. Metal does often portray extreme masculine traits. Both the fanbase and the performers are predominantly male. The mere fact that it’s seen as masculine could be keeping women away and creating a sort of feedback loop. The fact that there are more women getting into metal and getting into bands that a broader base of fans would consider TRUE metal (Kat Katz and the woman in Christian Mistress vs Evanescence and In This Moment) may create the impression that metal isn’t just for men anymore and over time we could see a shift to a more gender-neutral fanbase.
Sorry that was all kind of half-baked. I’m totally spitballing here.
You and me both! That sounds about right to me though.
While the gender divide in metal has always been there and still continues, I think the breaking down of that divide is occurring at a very positive rate. And I think the continuous fracturing of metal into sub-genres is the reason why. It’s creating comfortable zones for people who might otherwise not have felt they belonged under the umbrella of heavy metal as a singular genre. 2012 seemed like it was a great year for women in metal. There were fantastic albums from bands fronted by women like Witch Mountain, The Devil’s Blood (RIP), Christian Mistress, and Royal Thunder and none of them relied on the sexualization of themselves like Jill Janus does. You also have women like Jackie Perez Gratz, Stevie Floyd, Jessica Way and Lorranie Rath of Worm Ouroboros, etc. who have won over their fans not with their looks, but their immense talent. If this influx of talented women in metal continues at this pace, I think we’ll see more woman drawn to it as appreciative fans rather than just scene girls. I hope, anyway.
It’s interesting you bring up Jill Janus, because to me, she carries so much other “freight,” if you will, besides just being a scantily clad woman in a metal band. I liked “Eight of Swords” when I first heard it, and of course it got a lot of attention because BOOBS, but then you start to read/listen to interviews with her, and it’s hard for me to not roll my eyes right out of my head. She was a model, and a DJ, and in Playboy, but she’s always been a witch and a pagan and she believes in numerology and alchemy and applies it to the band’s album art and… None of those are necessarily in conflict with each other, but it comes across as very disingenuous, at the least, or very cunning in using the spell talk and her sexuality to get her band and herself noticed.
(If you’re curious: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BqWEgH7NXQ)
And the song Spelleater is just awful. Seriously. Four octave range or not, sometimes her voice is just bad.
O.K., I think I’ve gotten all my misplaced Jill Janus rage out now. 🙂
First of all I’d like to 100 percent agree with your assessment of Huntress and Jill Janus herself. You said everything I was going to say but I’d also like to point out that live she is even worse on the vocals to earsplitting levels. As for your video link, I’m cracking up because that interview was conducted by a former best friend of mine who runs that website it was for. And he is completely enamored with Huntress because of the pagan aspect and his fanboyism blinds him to whether or not she is fake and has talent or not. This is someone who is also a huge fan of In This Moment. So their marketing is working to some levels to an audience that eats it up.
Personally I’d rather hang with and admire women like Jo Bench of Bolt Thrower because she’s not out there saying “I am woman hear me play” but just an integral part of the band. That’s more sexy to me then someone who is trying too hard to fit in and thinks they’re being a pioneer by flashing boobs and screeching.
I think a large part of the problem might be that asking female metal fans why there are so few women who like metal is asking them to speculate on the feelings of other people that they probably don’t understand or agree with. I know why I like metal; I don’t know why other people that happen to share my gender do not share my love of metal. I do think that interviewing women who like metal but dislike participating in the social aspects of it is a step in the right direction in terms of understanding the issue.
I think it’s attitudes like ‘JC’s’ that prove Mr. Mollica’s point. So she likes numerology and showing off her body. That doesn’t make her any less genuine than a man who does the same. However, because she’s a girl ‘disingenuous.” (I swear I’m not picking on you, JC. Just trying to prove a point with an immediate source.) And not all metal singers have “good” voices. In fact, to most mainstream listeners, they’re nearly all kind of bad. I don’t think Jill Janus’ personal life should have any effect on whether or not she makes good music, or any musician, for that matter. Most people don’t question guys in polos liking metal, why should scantily clad girls be any different?
Very good point. A woman can be both sexy and smart at the same time and of course she can show off both traits if she wishes.
One theory I’ve heard is that some people use metal to understand and deal with emotions (maybe even subconciously). In our society it’s alot more okay for females to express and talk about their feelings, so perhaps they dont “need” metal in the same way as many men do. Personally, I have a very hard time expressing my feelings to others, it might be one of the reasons why I like metal. It’s honest, emotional, deep and complex.
I’m a female metalhead and I can definitely say that the feeling of having to validate yourself as a metalfan (or gamer, or geek) is very true. At the same time the music culture and especially the gamer world is very sexist and a horrible environment for women to be in. You recieve all kinds of threats, sexist comments, degrading treatment and “sexual invites”. And not only from teenage boys, as you might think, it’s men of all ages. It’s unbelievable and totally ruins the good experience.
Fortunately there are some good sites on the internet too, where I’ve found my place as a female metalhead.
First, Eldrid, thank you for understanding and elucidating my point much better than I did. Second, I am glad you found a place to be yourself in this rather sexist world. You raise excellent points; it is hard to be a girl in any of these sub-cultures, especially the ones you named. Most gamer and geek guys (I don’t know as many metal heads, so it’s a little harder for me to speculate) bemoan the lack of females in their chosen sub-culture whilt simutaneously belittling any that show interest in joining…and then wonder why women don’t like them/share their interests.
Women can have a hard time showing their emotions, especially when they are expected to always smile and be happy. Though, that may be an observation from being in the service industry too long and being told to smile more than once by men and a few times by other women. Just because a woman is expected to show a happy face all of the time, does not mean she is happy. In fact, good bet she is deeply unhappy, but society has taught her not to share it.
This isn’t limited to sub-cultures, either. “Normal” women in “normal” society have it just as hard. We are constantly pressured to be pretty, pleasant, and subserviant. A female CEO gets called a b*tch much more than a male CEO gets called a douche. No matter what society or culture, women are always working twice as hard.
And what’s worse, it’s not just men that perpetuate these situations, but also other women. Women tend to compete with each other over being the “most legit” female in their sub-culture. They work twice as hard to be fans and have better obscure references so they can laugh at other women and impress guys (and I mean that purely in an acceptance way).
Metal heads, you want to be awesome and individualistic? Next time a cute girl says she likes metal, accept that she does, whether she is new to it and only likes one band or knows more obscure bands than you. For the new girl, help her find other bands she might like, even if the band she likes might not ne “metal” to you. Sometimes, baby steps are needed, which is what is great about sub-genres. And for the girl that has better references, don’t feel threatened. Chances are she likes you and wants to impress you. Don’t write her off as “trying too hard.” Instead, as her about the band she referencing and why she likes/dislikes it. Create a venue for discussion that is inclusive to new and old fans, males, females, and whatever gender, those that like a sub-genre and those that are “purists” and you will find that “exclusivity” stereotype disappearing.
(And, wow, I apologize for the book. Women in society is something I take kind of seriously. I don’t think this happens everywhere, or that everyone is like this, but it is pervasive enough to be worrying.)
Awesome comment. And your advice in the next to last paragraph applies to the way we ought to treat anyone who expresses an interest in metal, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or any other distinction. The interest ought to be encouraged, not discouraged. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I think most of my metal friends do in fact react that way — they like to proselytize metal to people who aren’t in the scene when the opportunity presents itself (and so do I).
Thank you, Islander! You’re right, everyone should be treated that way, but it’s a sad fact that many aren’t. This doesn’t apply to just metal culture, but to many sub-cultures like geeks and gamers. I’ve been pretty lucky myself, in the friend department, and I do my best to encourage any interest that someone shows, whether they are new to it or have been into it for years, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. And even if the don’t like it, I like to encourage discussion about why and maybe nudge them into sort of “gateway” metal groups. (Which, to me, are groups many metal heads likely dot not consider metal, and are mainstream, but start to lead into that sort of sound.) Sometimes, it’s better to ease people into it with something familiar, but just different enough to be interesting. A lot of times, I see a growth towards wanting to listen to more and more metal, once they’ve been eased into the concept. 🙂
This is a really good point, and one I’d agree with. For me, a lot of what I love about metal is the ability to express emotions. I’m a very passive person in real life, and when I found metal music in my teens it was in the middle of years and years of bullying. The music allowed me to express the anger and aggression I wanted to show toward these people but felt I couldn’t. It still has this use today – when I’m feeling upset or angry or whatever, nothing turns that around like listening to metal.
I’ve also been in situations where people have expected me to validate my metalness, there are subtle “tests” of knowledge, and sometimes this sense that they feel you’re only at a show because your boyfriend is there or because you’re a groupie. Although I have to say that I am finding this less and less these days, and there are also a lot less comments on my site about how I know nothing because I’m a girl. As someone else said below, I think this might have something to do with the fracturing of the scene into smaller sub-genres, and also a bit because there are more “accessible” styles of metal than ever before, which I think appeal to women more. There were certainly equal parts male/female attendees at the Alestorm show I went to last month.
Personally, there is another element to it for me, and it’s that I LOVE the overtly male aspect of it. It really resonates with me, which is maybe odd if that actually turns many women away, but I don’t know? When I studied anthro and archaeology and learned a lot about sociatal structures and warrior codes and so-called “primitive” societies, a lot of the aspects of those cultures that really resonated with me are very similar to metal culture. It’s like being part of a world of drinking halls and tavern brawls, pagan rituals and hunting parties. It’s different from the here and now and that’s why it’s awesome – it appeals to the anachronist in me. Although I guess I’m more likely to be IN the brawl, rather than the tavern wench behind the bar.
I have to agree with you on the last paragraph. The overtly male aspect of metal appeals to me on a level I can’t really quite explain. Maybe it’s socialization? A “masculine-esque” sense of independence? I like the idea that I can go to a show own my own and enjoy myself by myself but yet still feel like I’m part of a community. You can exchange a nod with a fellow metalhead (of either gender) and connect without having to verbally interact with someone (aside from the bartender and/or merch person). Some women often feel they can’t have an outing that doesn’t involve a gaggle of girlfriends. I find my female friends who enjoy metal are more adventurous than my friends who are not. They can do something like go to a bar or to a movie alone and enjoy it and not worry too much about a guy chatting them up or bothering them. Learning to be a single female alone, sitting at a bar is a wondrous thing.
Just throwing another thing into the mix: do you think the perceived level of attractiveness of the women at metal shows would cause her “tr00”ness to be validated? Basically the more attractive the woman, the more she must be there for impious reasons—to bang the band, for attention, etc. Despite being one of the handful (or less) of women at metal shows, I’ve never actually had to validate my knowledge of metal for anyone. But again, I’m also unconventionally attractive, so my experiences may differ than those who are more conventionally attractive than I. 🙂 If you’re a more plain or homely looking woman, would that make a difference?
Also, do you think the particular metal genre matters? Would a woman catch shit like the above at a folk metal show vs. a thrash metal or black metal gig? Some genres of metal are more female-friendly than others, I’d wager.
That is an interesting thought; that some genres might be more female-friendly than others. It’s possible that some genres are more geared towards women, whether that is incidental or intentional, I have no idea. It is definitely something to think about, though.
It’s an interesting thought, I don’t think attractiveness one way or the other would make a huge difference. As far as the genre friendly thing goes I would guess that Folk Metal is more female friendly in general than say Thrash, but I never made genre distinctions during my study so I don’t really know.
Is spawning while listening to Slayer really a good idea?…
So I am totally gossiping here, but the original singers to Seattle’s Addaura were all females. That sounds awesome, right? Except that the style of vocals, ermmmm kinda Black Metalish?, were not very feminine, so its not like it really matters if a male or female is singing a song if you can not tell the difference. While it ‘should’ make it irrelevant what the gender was, my argument with Addaura is that they specifically found ONLY female vocalists, they were not even open to having a male sing in the band, because like it or not sex sells, and its way “cooler” to the kids if the singer is a girl instead of a boy and gets them more brownie points with the PC Crust crowd that is all the rage.
Double standards much?
Thankfully, Ryan finally gave up after two or three singers did not work out, and to be honest they are way better now with him singing. The first time I saw them, it was like Wolves in the Throne Room got a cute singer (how Nathan got his current girlfriend, I have no idea, but he sure as shit is not very cute. Oh wait, he’s a rock star, that’s right) as Chloe (also in Galdr) literally sang Wolves vocal patterns.
My point is that to truly overcome gender, it needs to not be the focus, as someone else said the lady in Bolt Thrower(who would, and could, kick my ass for calling her a lady) who just plays. Her gender is only as relevant as we make it with our own bullshit.