🌐 WOMEN’S STORIES _ Women’s Roles in Modern Music

By Carly Bell,
The Heroine Collective

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?

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.
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.
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”.
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
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

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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.