Rosemary Lucy Hill, Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music (2023)

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1Female participation in the metal genre has ramped up exponentially since the mid2000s. Prior to this bands such as Girlschool, Vixen, Warlock, Meanstreak, Chastain and Znöwhite were at the vanguard of what later became known as the femme metal movement. Numbers of female metal musicians—particularly those contributing lead vocals—have been on the rise since the release of Evanescence’s landmark album Fallen in2003, but women still face sexism as both metal musicians and fans. Rosemary Hill now presents her second book, Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music, which builds on her research specialities regarding women and sexism in hard rock and metal. Gender, Metal and the Media is a feminist work whose key argument is that sexism and gender concepts are responsible for our engagement with different forms of music and that hard rock and metal music is not, and should not be, purely for men. In assuming that such music is purely for men, one is in danger of subscribing to narrow definitions of what it means to be masculine or feminine, and undermining female interest in the genres.

2Hill’s book focuses largely on female metal fandom rather than musicianship. Her investigation into sexism in metal finds that it takes many forms, such as the treatment of women fans at hard rock and metal gigs; misogynistic imagery in artwork and lyrics; women having to prove their fandom in order to be accepted by male fans and prejudice experienced by female metal musicians. While much of the investigation focuses on public experiences of enjoying hard rock and metal as a metal fan, Hill is mainly concerned with private experiences of music listening, such as in the car, at home or with headphones and how this makes women relate to metal scenes in general.

3In order to investigate the experiences of metal listeners in relation to sexism, Hill draws from her interviews with 19working and middle class female fans living in England between2008 and2011 aged19 to69. In addition to interviews, Hill also examines the June letters pages of Kerrang! Magazine from2000 to2008 to show how the media portrays female inclusion in metal, focusing on how the letters page is presented, formatted, the kinds of letters which are chosen for publication and the social implications transmitted by those letters. Hill shows that the media controls and portrays a sexist ideology in metal whereby men are depicted as masculine, dominant, imposing and powerful, and women are shown to be subordinate, subservient, sexualised and submissive.

4Hill’s discoveries into the thoughts and experiences of women fans in hard rock and metal are wide-ranging. In particular she is concerned with the myth of the groupie, being that women in the metal scene are only interested in sex with musicians and musical appreciation is secondary or even non-existent. In her interviews, some fans expressed that they resented the labelling of groupie, while others presented that they did find musicians to be sexually appealing and found the warrior type of man to be “very, very attractive” (100). In this way Hill finds that female fan experiences in hard rock and metal “cannot be reduced to simple interpretations,” metal fans either disagreeing with the groupie label or “redefining” it, whereby they felt that sexual practice with musicians “was neither promiscuous not drew attention away from their serious engagement with the music” (102).

5A large part of the problem of female representation and sexism in metal rests with the media. Hill sees the media as having “a powerful controlling role as gatekeepers, determining what we see, read, hear and know” (14). It is the media that controls the importance of music scenes, the roles of men and women within them and the dominant ideologies of the sexes. Hill notes that the Kerrang! letters pages, with their heavy use of red and black and their sans serif font, signify sex, Satan, danger, aggression, volume, war and death (64), emphasising masculinity whilst not implying femininity. Likewise male musicians are always shown to be wearing black, looking masculine and aggressive, their long hair or beards reminiscent of Viking warrior culture. Such depictions help to construct an imaginary community in hard rock and metal which includes the media-led myth of the male warrior, promoting masculinity while excluding femininity. In addition to this, the depiction of women fans in Kerrang! comic strips such as Pandora shows them to be sexualised submissives who revel in their role as male playthings, only interested in sex with musicians rather than the music, whereas chosen photographs of male musicians with female fans show women as adoring and doting while male musicians are shown as indifferent and apathetic. This emphasises an unequal relationship whereby “the musician is always special to the fan; the individual fan is rarely special to the musician” (71).

6The use of Kerrang! letters pages between2000 and2008 is chosen since, according to Hill, this was the point whereby there was a resurgence in the popularity of hard rock and metal, and sales of the magazine rose quickly. It is unusual that Hill did not decide to include—or at least address—examples from Kerrang! letters pages from the1980s, arguably the most prolific [and sexist] decade in the history of hard rock and metal. Though the magazine highly sexualised its representation of women musicians at the time (Dome, 1985: 28), letters from the1980s did address female participation in the genre, at some points even vilifying Kerrang! for their sexist depiction of women and their “idiot-brained” male readers (Glenn, 1986: 31), while describing women musicians as behaving just as masculine as men (Whitehall, 1987: 13). In addition to this, the letters page of the decade, called Kommunication rather than Feedback, was presentation as a stark black and white column rather than one emphasising masculinity through its strong colours. Such a change from the1980s to the2000s implies a greater agenda on the part of the media to promote masculinity in the 21stcentury. Additionally, the Pandora comic character of the1980s is presented as a tall bimbo with voluminous blonde hair and bulging breasts, in keeping with the sexualised female aesthetic of the time, in contrast to the Pandora of the2000s as cited by Hill (68), who is shown as slimmer, more petite and dark haired. Such a character evolution demonstrates how media portrayals of women effect what is considered sexually attractive from decade to decade.

7If there is one main oversight of Gender, Metal and the Media, it is the lack of female-fronted metal bands mentioned, or the very existence of a global female-fronted metal scene. Hill focuses almost exclusively on male-fronted metal due to the fact that she is concentrating on sexism, male privilege and the perspective of the female fan, but doing so does not not give a rounded view of women’s overall participation in the genre. One could be forgiven for thinking, from a reading of the book, that women’s inclusion in metal was sparse at best, though in reality there is a large scene of female-fronted metal whose nexus since2003 has been the Metal Female Voices Fest in Belgium, which only recently went on hiatus because, in addition to financial issues, the organisers felt there were too many similar events appearing in the world, and that the concept of a female-fronted metal festival had lost its novelty1. Hill does mention the Dutch gothic metal band Within Temptation and the German death metal band Arch Enemy, but other highly influential and important female-fronted ensembles such as Warlock, Nightwish, Epica, Theatre of Tragedy, Thorr’s Hammer, OperaIX and The Gathering go unmentioned, nor does the fact that women musicians from drummers to vocalists feature in every subgenre of metal from traditional metal to thrash, to death, to black and avant-garde. In this way the book does not feel particularly “modern” in how it addresses female participation in the genre, additionally, it draws from Walser’s Running with the Devil (1993) a little too often, a book that was very much a product of its era, and though it still contains arguments relevant to 21stmetal, much of it is now outdated.

8This is not to say that Hill does not address female participation in metal, indeed she does, but from a rather one-sided perspective. Of particular note is an instance whereby one of her interviewees discusses the difficulty of being accepted as a female guitarist and marginalised because she’s a woman (143-144). The interviewee discusses disparaging looks from male musicians or lack of communication as examples of sexism, in other words, interpretive cues, but not more concrete examples such as verbal or physical abuse. Female musicians in metal do receive positive comments for their craft though: a study conducted by Schaap & Berkers in2014 found that female metal musicians who posted videos of themselves singing metal covers online often received very few sexist comments and a large quantity of positive and encouraging comments posted on their YouTube channels. This relative absence of sexism was described by the researchers as “striking” (112).

9Gender, Metal and the Media is an important publication for highlighting the effect that the media can have in gendering the musical experience. Hill notes that the Kerrang! letters page shows women as fans, rarely as musicians, and generally always as potential sexual objects, and that groupie culture is a fundamental part of the way that hard rock and metal are imagined (161). Depicting women purely as groupies is damaging in that it ignores any cerebral interest in the music and assumes women are purely guided by their bodies and emotions. Importantly, Hill also notes that her discussions with female fans show that women are not purely interested in sex with male musicians or music, but that female fans take from metal “a sense of freedom, of companionship and of fantasy or romance” (163): an all-encompassing musical experience which can satisfy the erotic, emotional and cathartic needs of an individual.

10Such an experience can make metal, in a sense, addictive. This is no doubt part of the reason why Hill was able to choose from such a wide age-range, interviewing fans who were teens and those well into their60s. Gender, Metal and the Media is highly useful as a method of looking towards a freer, more liberal world of extreme music, however, caution should be undertaken. Though metal music may exscript women in some cases, it is important to note that it does not do so to the extent that it used to. Also the suggested resolution of the inclusion of new gender identities to the genre or a future “which embraces visions of worlds without gender” (167) may lead to new and exciting developments in metal, but these would surely be in addition to, not in place of more traditional metal subgenres. Vive la différence.

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