How To Treat Female Musicians
As the director of Girls Rock! Rhode Island, I spend a lot of time with female musicians. Though, recently I spent a concentrated amount of time with four other female musicians on tour. Some of the incidents on tour, our combined life experiences as musicians, and our conversations led me to think a lot about the fact that some things that seem obvious to myself and other female musicians may not be obvious to everyone.
So, with that, I will include a list of how to treat female musicians: whether it’s at a show, in interviews or music writing, in music advertising, or at a music store.
1) Assume they are in the band.
Unlike unicorns, female musicians do exist. There are lots of us, actually! Just because a woman is at a show early does not mean she is a roadie, merch girl, girlfriend, or groupie.
2) Assume they aren’t dating someone in the band.
Don’t assume that if a woman is in a band she must be dating one of the members and that this was her “in” or that women in bands are dating each other. Also, don’t assume that an all-male band doesn’t have members who are dating each other (not that it would be anyone’s business either). If a female musician is dating her band member, also assume that that’s not the only reason she’s in the band.
3) Talk to them about more than their appearance.
Even if female musicians wear costumes, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s more to what they’re doing than just their appearance. A focus on their looks may make them feel like their skills and creativity as a musician aren’t as important. Being told that they are “hot”, “sexy”, or “have a non-traditional look” doesn’t typically open up a reciprocal dialog, so commenting on their appearance is not a conversation that they are likely to find engaging. Female musicians spend a lot of time thinking about music, their sound, and their song-writing. They would probably love to talk about those topics, especially since other topics might often be asked first.
4) Include pictures of them with their clothes on (and maybe even playing their instruments).
If this is confusing, think about the way they are posing in the picture. If it would look “funny” or “awkward” if a male musician was in the same pose, think about changing it up. This goes for music gear ads and fliers for shows, too. Think twice before putting a scantily clad woman, dying/injured woman, or adoring female audience member on your flier or in your Ad. It isn’t controversial, creative, or cool; in a patriarchal society, it’s totally traditional, overdone, and boring. It’s the musical equivalent of a Budweiser Ad.
5) Assume they are capable and know what they are talking about.
Know that female musicians spent a lot of time to get to the point where they are performing, even if they are new musicians. They carry their music gear frequently and they set it up themselves. They might not spend all of their free time reading music gear blogs, but they also might not care about gear as much as music gear nerds. Or they might—ask them about it! There are a lot of women who are professional sound engineers who know more about working sound for a band than the sound engineer hired at the show. Lastly, if women go to a music store, they aren’t there just to buy something for their boyfriend or son. They are customers, too.
6) Use clear language and understand how it’s interpreted.
Know that the way you frame the conversation determines how it’s interpreted. That means that especially in music writing, headlines speak volumes. Women are sexualized in our culture and media. The use of the term “hot” typically doesn’t mean “climbing the charts” when used to describe a female musician.
7) Talk to them and write about them with respect.
Once again, if this is confusing, think about whether what is being said or written would sound weird or offensive if used to describe a male musician. For example, few male musicians have probably ever been told by an audience member, “You are really good, for a guy”, “I’ve never seen a guy hit so hard!”, or “You look really hot when you perform”. Also, giving female musicians unsolicited advice about ways to “improve their sound” assumes that they don’t already think about their sound or understand it. Of course, more overtly offensive comments like “Take off your shirt!” are disrespectful, but still happen as well, and hopefully audience members (especially other guys) know enough to call out offenders.
8) When comparing them to other artists or setting up shows, think outside the gender box.
Sometimes people have a hard time thinking past the vocals in bands with female vocalists, since male vocals are considered “normal”. So, they automatically compare the band to other bands with female vocalists. Think about the music, too! This also happens when bands with female members are booked on shows with other female musicians, not because their bands make sense together musically, but because the other bands have female members, as well. It’s great to play with other female musicians, but don’t assume that’s the only way to construct a bill for them. A related example of this is using a term like “female-fronted band”. Grouping “female-fronted” bands together is not breaking gender boundaries—it is reinforcing them. A show that is “female-backed” or featuring all female musicians is more ground-breaking, since women’s position as the lead singer (with a focus on appearance, rather than musical skill) is actually fairly common. Think about it—try to name five female drummers. Many people find that hard to do! Lastly, comments such as those in #7 (“You are really good, for a girl!”) serve to reinforce the idea that female musicians are not on the same level as male musicians.
9) Ask them about their experience as a female musician—but not only that (and not always).
Yes, they probably have something to say about how it’s different being a female musician than a male musician, and it is important to hear why. But sometimes it’s nice to talk about other things and not have gender as the main focus.
10) Include and feature them.
The more women who are included and portrayed positively in bands, in bills, in music writing, and in music gear advertising, the more role models will be present for girls and women who aspire to play music or perform, themselves. Make music a place for them.
In sum, treat female musicians with respect. Music is not a privilege, it is a right, and it is a means of expression and shared experience. It provides a space for identity development, social justice, transcendence, and fun. Negative treatment of female musicians (or musicians of color or queer, trans, or gender-non-conforming musicians) denies access to that right. Let’s create a world where mutual respect is paramount and creativity sets us free.
If you’d like to learn more about female musicians and their experiences, check out the following resources:
(Originally posted on the blog of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island)
Girls Rock! Rhode Island is a volunteer-based non-profit that uses music creation and critical thinking to foster empowerment, collaborative relationships, and the development of healthy identities in girls and women.
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