(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.