There is a growing culture of rebellion amongst women musicians who are demanding respect on the grounds of their musicianship as opposed to their ability to stimulate the male gaze. But how have women changed the role they are expected to fulfil and challenged expectation?

Contemporary music gives us a range of examples of individuals who have forced cultural changes and allows us to explore public reception, investigating the backlash women suffer for refusing to be pigeonholed by a patriarchal society.

In her book Music, Gender, Education Lucy Green discusses how a woman singing as part of a performance is a form of display, and the way in which display exists to reinforce a woman’s femininity. Being on display is coded as overtly feminine; it is a passive act and routinely linked with an idealised womanhood wherein the woman is passive, aesthetically pleasing and available.

Conversely, women instrumentalists perform within an alternate sphere. Unlike the female singer, whose body is the main “thing” on display, women who play instruments interrupt that display by incorporating technology. While some instruments – like the flute, harp or piano – are coded as being feminine by society (as opposed to masculine coded instruments such as the trumpet and the drums) the fact that the instrument exists next to the woman on display puts itself in the way of the woman existing in the same form of display. Here, it is useful to consider the way in which women are posited as in tune with nature, not least historically through their monthly menstrual cycle. Men however, are viewed as out of touch with nature, separate from their bodies. Men master nature through technology, whereas women are viewed as separate from technology. Women who play instruments however, demonstrate a form of womanhood incompatible with this image. Lucy Green writes “for the woman player is clearly capable of at least attempting to control an alienated man-made object. No longer a mere part of the nature that man controls, she steps out, into the world, into the position of controller”. Women who play instruments resist a position of submissiveness to men: they express themselves as equally able to control and master technology, equally able to play music. Because of this, it can be argued that women making music is in itself a feminist act.

If the use of the voice for musical expression causes the least delineation from the patriarchal construction of femininity – delicate instruments such as the flute and harp causing only a slight delineation from patriarchal construction of femininity, and the louder and more technically advanced instruments, such as the trumpet and saxophone, causing the most delineation from femininity – it’s not hard to guess which ways women have had their musical interests steered.

Imagine yourself what an unsightly matter it were to see a woman play upon a tabour or drum, or blow in a flute or trumpet […] the boisterousness of them doth both cover and take away that sweet mildness which setteth so forth every deed that a woman doeth – Baldassare Castiglione, circa 15th Century

In Making The Scene: New York City Big Band Jazz, female jazz musicians are criticised for having a “weak tone production and reticence” and this is attributed to over-concern with appearance. Men depicting concern for women’s appearance whilst performing is an insidious idea that pervades the male obsession with women’s performances not interrupting their display of femininity as directed by patriarchal standards.

There is a trend within much of society to minimise the achievements and musical ability of women who perform to a fan-base of predominantly young women and girls. This is clearly outlined in the case of Taylor Swift. The absolute hypocrisy that surrounds the music created by Taylor Swift is never clearer than when you look at reviews of Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s album 1989. Reviews of Adams’ cover posit it as providing a masculine legitimacy to feminine trash; when Taylor Swift performs her song Style it is a “posh, sexy provocation about the thrills of being a wild woman” yet when Ryan Adams performs it it’s “a hushed, whispery lamentation of troubled love”.

This attitude of musical snobbery towards women in pop is far-reaching. In an interview with Pitchfork, Björk discusses the attitudes towards her as a songwriter, and how she is frequently assumed to be solely the face of her music. “Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs,” she says, “but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album”. Forrest Wickman notes in an article in The Slate “it’s not just Björk” and Solange Knowles says “I find it very disappointing when I am presented as the “face” of my music, or a “vocal muse” when I write or co-write every fucking song”.  It’s a constant belief that the creations of women have no value beyond the visual, the sexual, the materialistic; that women have no place to be creating and using technology. Women in music are expected to perform a femininity defined by patriarchy. And this femininity doesn’t include writing meaningful music.

In Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality McClary states “Madonna has simultaneously been cast as “porn queen on heat” and “an organic feminist whose image enables girls to see feminine sexuality can be in their control”. Interestingly, McClary states that the response to Madonna from men is vastly different from the response to Madonna from women. Men accuse Madonna of “setting women back 20 years” whereas her presentation was received more positively by women. McClary suggests that the fantasies Madonna enacts are “not good at being male fantasies”. She represents a female heterosexuality which is under the control of women, she “consistently engages with conversations about gender, power and pleasure” and these clearly interfere with male sexual objectification of women as passive, submissive and available.

A theme central to the discussion of women in music is the forcing of women musicians into the dichotomy of Virgin or Whore. Society continues to remove intention from women who display sexuality, and Madonna is no different. McClary wrote “to strip Madonna of all conscious intention in her work is to reduce her once again to a voiceless, powerless bimbo”. Madonna acknowledges society’s unwillingness to perceive sexually attractive women have anything beyond their sexuality in Feminine Endings, “People have this idea that if you are sexual and beautiful and provocative then there is nothing else you could possibly offer. People have always had that image about women”. She later continues, “I was in control of everything I was doing and I think when people realised that it confused them”. Is men’s criticism of Madonna caused by simultaneous arousal and confusion at her owned female heterosexuality?

Music is a hostile environment for women and despite the relatively present status of women in pop music, it provides no shelter from the hostility. Perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than in the domain of rock music. Girls Rock: Fifty Years of Women Making Music provides an insight into the culture that surrounded rock music, “women were only welcome on the side lines, as fans and groupies”.

On the whole, playing rock music has itself been an expression of masculinity. In particular, the electric guitar and electric bass have been perceived as extensions of the male body – Carson

As well as having to negotiate negative attitudes towards their musicianship, women also have to contend with instruments that were built without them in mind. Guitars moved into the male domain due to their presence in pop and rock music, and as a result, began to become expressions of masculinity, growing in size, from an eleven inch width up to a sixteen inch “dreadnought” which has since become the standard. This increased size made the instrument more incompatible with the female body. It was not until 1996 that a limited edition acoustic guitar came out from C.F. Martin which incorporated a “smaller body, slender fingerboard and narrow neck”. Routinely women are ignored when it comes to manufacturing instruments; I would argue this is not because they aren’t making the music, but because men don’t want them to. Despite this, women continue to make rock music, but it’s important to acknowledge that they’re being forced to make music using instruments made by and for men.

Andrea Dworkin writes in Pornography: Men Possessing Women of the “tenets” of male supremacy, the fourth of which is “naming”. Dworkin describes naming as a “great and sublime power” that “enables men to define experience, to articulate boundaries and values, to designate each thing its realm and qualities to determine what can and can’t be expressed, to control perception itself”. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts were formed in 1981, the same year Andrea Dworkin published her chapter on the way men dictate boundaries to enforce their dominance over women. The music of rock artists like Joan Jett was being created in an era and time where Second Wave feminism was challenging all notions of male dominance. A woman making rock music is an invasion of a sphere men have labelled their own; it’s an irrefutable objection. Women making rock music is women taking up space and making noise in a world men constructed from themselves, forcing society to question femininity as prescribed by patriarchy, and to re-evaluate the meaning of womanhood.

Music is also a way of teaching women how to resist subjugation. Sarah Ditum discusses in her New Statesman article Riot Grrls: As a teenager, I never wondered – Why is all my music made by men? Ditum discusses how bands like Bikini Kill sing about a “reproach against the fretful, mutual monitoring that can go on when women police women”. In an article published two years later, Ditum re-visits the topic of Riot Grrl music with a review of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir from Carrie Brownstein, “Brownstein recalls being taken to a party by some musician friends where, of the three women present, she is the only non-call girl”. Ditum alerts us to the sacrifices women have to make in order to succeed in the business. They have to stay out of the debate in order to be acceptable, “they want female openness and accessibility, familiarity that validates femaleness”. This is a theme that pervades this discussion on women in modern music: women sacrifice themselves to men for success be it in sexual passivity, pretence of intellectual inferiority, or learning to play the more gender-appropriate flute over the trumpet.

Pussy Riot gained notoriety after a stunt where they performed their song Punk Prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Although they were removed from the cathedral after 40 seconds, the footage was edited into a video, it quickly became viral and a few weeks later, three of the group were arrested. This particular protest – perhaps the one Pussy Riot are most famous for – stood against the support the Russian Orthodox Church gave to Vladimir Putin, but it became clear at the sentencing that their punishment was about more than just silencing dissent to Putin’s leadership of Russia, but that it was a clamp down on feminist belief.

Whilst the protest itself was not a specified as an act of feminist activism, it definitely sparked a feminist debate. When speaking at Harvard in 2014, member of Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova describes how she asked one of the witnesses for the prosecution, a minder of blessed relics in the cathedral, “if feminism was a dirty word”. Tolokonnikova states that the response was “in the cathedral – yes”.

Women have consistently rebelled against men’s attempts to force them into a specific mould of sexually pleasing, ornamental beings who are neither noisy nor talented, and forced men to accept that not only can women play music, but that they can do it as well as men. Women make music to teach each other, to inform the next generation, and they make hard decisions in order to help achieve a semblance of respect from peers and critics alike. Women use music to make political points, to stand up against corrupt leaders, and to simply make noise when men don’t want them to. Women use music to criticise the boxes society wishes to place them in, and to pick at the biases of a society that remains unwilling to accept them as fully human.

But most of all, women make music because, just like their male counterparts, they have the desire to express themselves and articulate themselves through this specific medium.

References include: Anon, (2013), Pussy Riot: The Story so far, BBC // Carson, M, Lewis, T & Shaw, S, M, (2004), Girls Rock!: Fifty Years of Women Making Music, The University Press Of Kentucky, Lexington, KY // Crouch, I, (2015), Haters Gonna Hate: Listening To Ryan Adams’s “1989”, Newyorker // Ditum, S, (2013), Riot Grrls: As a teenager, I never wondered – why is all my music made by men?, New Statesman, London // Ditum, S, (2015), At Last: A Survival Guide For Rock’n’Roll Feminists, New Statesman, London // Dworkin, A, (1981), Pornography: Men Possessing Women, The Women’s Press LTD, London, UK // Green, L, (1997), Music, Gender, Education, University Press, Cambridge, UK // Hopper, J, (2015), The Invisible Woman: A Conversation With Bjork, Pitchfork // McClary, S, (1991) Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, University Of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, MN // McCormick, N, (2015) Ryan Adams, 1989, review: ‘beautifully evokes the ghosts in Taylor Swift’s pop machine’, Telegraph // Sperling, V, (2015), Pussy Riot’s Real crime was feminism, Oxford University Press Blog // Stewart, A, (2007), Making The Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz, University Of California Press, Berkley, CA. USA // Wickman, F, (2015), It’s Not Just Bjork: Women Are Tired of Not Getting Credit for Their Own Music, Slate.
Carly Bell

Written by Carly Bell

Carly is a musician and recently completed a degree in Music. She currently works as a saxophone tutor and enjoys writing, travelling, and exploring the outdoors on her skateboard.
Sachin Mital

Image by Sachin Mital

Sleater Kinney, Pop Matters: