“She’s pretty good for a girl”: sexism against women musicians

// 8 October 2012

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Close up of feminist badges, including small blue Ladyfest London, medium sized pink Subtext, small black

The Edinburgh Anarcha Feminist Kollective has recently announced the launch of a project to raise awareness of sexism experienced by female musicians. She’s Pretty Good For a Girl is ongoing and includes a website and zine. It grew out of a reading group discussion and its purpose is to use accounts from female-identified musicians to highlight the sexism they often experience:

When I started getting a little better, people would say, ‘you play guitar like a man’. I got that comment recently at a session here (in Edinburgh). I said ‘so do you play guitar better than Bonnie Raitt?’ (meaning that all men must play guitar better than all women). He was laughing, and he said ‘she plays guitar like a man too’. I said ‘I play guitar like a woman who plays guitar well’.” (Interview with Lake Montgomery, 1 October 2012)

This all sounds very familiar and I imagine the project will be able to gather plenty more material. Only recently, a musician in one of my Facebook groups said common occurances for her include guys picking up her instrument and adjusting her amp without asking, giving inpromptu advice, generally assuming it’s her guitar that isn’t tuned properly (not theirs) and people thinking she is with a guy who writes for her.

Another problem is that, as the blurb on the site says, female musicians are often treated as if ‘girls with guitars’ is a genre in itself. This lines up with what Lewis Mullen, a singer-songwriter and author of the zine One and All Towards Equality: Why Men Should Take An Interest In Feminism, describes in his interview as the ‘chicks with guitars’ syndrome, where a number of straight men find both music and women sexy “and then they encounter a sound engineer, and rather than just assuming that she’s good at her job, they just go, ‘woah, this is sexy’.” (I’ve experienced a mini version of this myself when the man next to me on a record stall has responded enthusiastically to my conversation about music by making sleazy comments about me to my partner as if I wasn’t there!)

This conventional casting of women as eye-candy first and foremost, along with sexist ideas about skill, is what leads to women musicians not being taken seriously (particularly those playing apparently ‘male’ instruments like guitars and drums). It’s little surprise then that women musicians themselves sometimes end up taking a harsh view of so-called ‘chick singers’ who they perceive to have an apologetic or feminine style:

I feel that I’m a bit sexist, because there’s all these female singers who are doing very little, and I think it undermines them, and it undermines the rest of us.” (Fiona Keenan, 29 September, 2012).

After just a few weeks, She’s Pretty Good for a Girl is already a fascinating resource of interviews documenting many different experiences and observations of sexism in the music industry. One particularly interesting aspect for me is reading about some of the different approaches women musicians take in response to the pressure to look conventionally sexy or femme:

When I first started gigging as a drummer, I used to dress very “male” – crewcut, muscle vest, jeans. I saw that the very femme-styled musicians weren’t taken seriously in terms of musicianship, so for a while being totally unfeminine in my stagewear was my way of staking territory as a serious musician. Now, I feel like – in the words of Morrissey – I can have both. I can thug out on the double kick or bust out some full-kit rudiments in sparkly makeup and a tutu. Who cares?!” (Jane from Doll Fight! 29 September, 2012)

The site is looking for contributions from artists of all genders. Get in touch here.

Photo by Catherine Redfern, shared under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Gaptooth // Posted 9 October 2012 at 8:43 am

I experienced more sexism when I was working as a sound engineer than I do now as a musician, although I certainly still get some (largely from sound engineers, actually).

As a sound engineer I would turn up for soundcheck and start setting things up, and (male) bands would look at me incredulously and ask if I was there to help out the sound guy. I was often assumed to be someone’s assistant until I corrected them.

As a DJ I got all kinds of sexist comments, and a lot of men just coming into the DJ booth and looking through my CD collection without asking, in a way that never happened to male DJs. We got so much harrassment the venue put a lock on the DJ booth for us.

As a musician I mostly get patronising comments from sound engineers even after I explain that I used to be one and I know what I’m doing. Lots of them really don’t like being disagreed with by a woman…

S. // Posted 9 October 2012 at 8:45 am

Fantastic piece.

I recommend this Seattle satirical piece highlighting sexist music journalism:


Lucy // Posted 9 October 2012 at 11:38 am

Thanks for this post – this is an issue that has enraged me for quite some time. I used to buy guitar magazines for the tips on improving your technique and such, but I got so fed up with the fact that 99% of their articles were on male musicians, and lots of the ads consisted of half naked women wrapped around guitars that I stopped buying these magazines altogether. But I think this issue of gender discrimination extends far beyond guitars/drums. For instance, I have gotten really frustrated lately because all the classical pieces I play on Cello are by male composers – and it is hard to get sheet music for anything done by a female composer. Also, a lot of Philharmonic Orchestras are still really sexist, even though they pretend not to be.

Cycleboy // Posted 9 October 2012 at 5:24 pm

This is an issue that has puzzled me for quite a while. If you look at the classical music world you will see lots of women, both in orchestras or as soloists, so clearly, young girls are quite willing to put in the hours of practice to become good musicians.

That said, however, if you look in the pop world – and listening to Woman’s Hour only confirms this – the number of women pop singers far outstrips the women who are known as instrumentalists.

Of course, there are some amazing women playing pop/rock instruments (Jennifer Batten, Orianthi to name but two), but I’m still slightly depressed when a woman is interviewed on WH and then steps over to the microphone while man1 is on guitar, man2 is on bass etc. Often when these women do play a predominantly ‘male’ instrument, like the electric guitar, they do not display nearly the same technical mastery as many men. Of course, perhaps they can do the ‘flash’ stuff, but just choose not to. As I said, it’s obviously not a sex issue, as women classical players abound, but there does seem to be a ‘gender’ issue in the world of pop.

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