High heels & XLR cables

Over the last week or so, two articles from two very different sources caught my attention.  The first is the by now famous Tumblr post from electronic musician Grimes – an open letter of sorts, penned with some anger and with some sadness at the end of her tour.  The second is a press article from Irish stylish Annemarie O’Connor on The Irish Examiner.  Both reflect on the relationship between feminism and femininity in the workplace, and read within a couple of days from each other, they percolated and allowed me to consider my own position with this rather tight space.

O’Connor throws down the gauntlet, proposing that ‘Fashion and feminism traditionally have little in common.  Their dialogue is fractious, fraught with sexual stereotypes and, at best, politically incorrect. (…) The idea that one can be both an adherent of matters sartorial and gender equality is counterintuitive. Women can have it all, just not in a pretty Erdem dress. Or can they?’

She proceeds to provide some examples of iconic women (interestingly, all from the music world) who have successfully used fashion to ‘rock the status quo’, such as Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Beth Ditto. I found it jarring that despite this idealized version of a music world, of ‘non-normative style ideals’, a promised land where women can be whoever they choose to be, the most recent, lonely voice we do hear emerging from the music world is in fact quite sorrowful and depicting a world far from ideal:

I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living

i dont want to be molested at shows or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction

i dont want to live in a world where im gonna have to start employing body guards because this kind of behavior is so commonplace and accepted and I’m pissed that when I express concern over my own safety it’s often ignored until people see firsthand what happens and then they apologize for not taking me seriously after the fact…

Grimes is a hugely successful musician with a considerable international career and she is 25.  I work in a niche area of a relatively minor artistic discipline and I am in my thirties, so our experiences will naturally be different. But we both work within the broad realm of sound, travel abroad (often on our own) and interact with others (mostly male) colleagues on a regular basis due to the nature of what we do. I would be lying if I didn’t say that her post immediately grabbed my attention – and judging by its popularity it did so with many other women working in sound and music. Specifically, this section:

I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them.  or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology.  I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers

I am a sound artist and a field recordist.  Despite some strong female pioneers in my field (see Laurie Anderson, Eliane Radigue,  Delia Derbyshire, Pauline Oliveros and so on) and some equally strong contemporary female artists (Christina Kubish, Mira Calix, Annea Lockwood, People Like Us and more) the area has traditionally been considered – and still is – a largely male-dominated environment.  This has something to do with both the scientific nature of the material we work with, as well as to the technical aspect of choosing and handling the equipment that is our bread and butter.  And that is before we even bring into the picture the hours spent lugging kilos of said equipment up and down muddy fields (in Ireland anyway!) for the reward of sitting in stillness for hours, often in the cold.  You get the picture: hardly most women’s idea of a good time.  I am of course generalizing here- I am a woman, and I love it all.  But I do find that despite having the same amount of experience and achievements under my belt as my male counterpart, if not more in some cases, I often find myself in the position that Grimes describes above: walk into any music or electronics store and let the uphill struggle commence for the right not to be patronized.  Then watch the assistant’s expression change as you start reeling off the specs for whatever it is you are looking for, followed by a disconcerted: ‘what do you…do?’  I work with sound actually, like you.  And yes, I also wear heels. Amazing.

I can also mention a specific incident that happened to me during an International concert (where I was only one of two female artists performing out of ten).  I was looking for a USB cable and asked three of the male colleagues within range, one of whom replies with an ill-judged smile: ‘aw, should we get you a pink cable?…’.  Thankfully the other two looked as appalled as I was, and we mostly spent the rest of the workshop actively avoiding this person.  But just goes to show, it does happen- even when you wouldn’t expect it.

The connection some people seem to make between women artists and ‘pink’ (see above), or fashion, or superficiality, brings me to another point both Grimes and Annemarie raise. I am deliberately saying ‘people’ here, and not men firstly because – despite the instances above- in my experience with the gender these are a minority, but also because women can be just as guilty of making this connection, and can be far more aggressive in judging and  criticising other women.

im tired of being considered vapid for liking pop music or caring about fashion as if these things inherently lack substance or as if the things i enjoy somehow make me a lesser person

Grimes invites us to consider image, clothing and style in the workplace. I don’t work in an office of course, but Annemarie O’Connor makes a useful reference to the iconic movie ‘Working Girl’, pointing back at a time back in the 80s when women felt the need to power-dress as men to be considered as capable.  While things have considerably improved since then, I regularly see female artists across all disciplines annihilating their femininity for the sake of ‘being taken seriously’, I see others playfully and cleverly engaging with it, and others exploiting it, or depressingly trading it as a commodity.  So where do I stand?  (as I write this I can’t help but feeling a male artist doesn’t even have to bother himself with all this, and I am a little bit jealous.)

I have made this decision before of course, but it’s the first time I’ve actually stopped to consider it consciously.  I think it happened when I had to go on stage for a live performance for the first time, and didn’t know what to wear. That same evening I went out, came across and bought a short red voile dress, which I wore with the highest heels I could find in my suitcase. I wasn’t trying to make any sort of stand or to be ‘sexy’- what I was doing was celebrating a very special event at a very special time in my life by being the best I could be, in every way.  Since then I wore the dress again and again at other gigs and openings, almost as a ‘costume’, and looking back I can see how it took on a certain significance since that first night. Also, I am a woman and I am from the South of Italy – consciously or not, femininity and sexuality play a large role in how I experience the world. Every idea I have, every work I create, organically grows from this body and from its relationship with both the female and the male gaze.  The dress (red, bold, fiery and inherently feminine) was bringing all these elements out in the open and tying them all together for me.  It felt immediately comfortable, and true, and yes, a little revealing at first- not in terms of hemline, but in the feeling of wearing my heart on my sleeve.  All in all, as an artist it felt like a good place to be.  I do want to claim my sexuality and my femininity, because they are both an integral part of me- like my experiences, my memories or or my accent- and they affect the ideas that I develop and the works I create.  Denying that or de-sexualising an image for the sake of conformity or ‘propriety’ (mostly a female-peddled term, that one) or to blend into a largely male background is tantamount to lying. Having said all that, I am just as proud not to ever have used either femininity of sexuality to get ahead- even when I could have, even in a society that seems to actively warrant it and promote it.

I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected (I have four brothers and many male best friends and a dad and i promise i do not hate men at all, nor do i believe that all men are sexist or that all men behave in the ways described above)

Couldn’t agree more, and I will reiterate that the vast majority of the colleagues I have met and worked with through sound have all, unfailingly been respectful and engaging, fun and inspiring in equal measure, and make up a large part of the reason why I love this field so much: they are the people who make it both pleasant and intellectually challenging.  This post is not a critique of the male majority- but of a small (both male and female) minority.

There is a lot more to be said- in fact I jotted a lot of thoughts and experiences down on a pad, and I am only trying to make some sense of these now.  I will no doubt come back to these in future posts.  For now I’ll close with Grimes herself, to whom I am grateful for her bravery in speaking out her call to be true to ourselves.

I’m done with being passive about any kind of status quo that allows anyone to suffer or to be disrespected.

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13 thoughts on “High heels & XLR cables

  1. This is an interesting post and it is a subject that I’ve mulled over and discussed with many peers, colleagues and friends over the past few years.

    I don’t know of Grimes or her music but I certainly feel sympathy for her having to endure that kind of behaviour in her day to day work: nobody should have to suffer that kind of behaviour at any point, full stop.

    I have been playing music for 26 years, joining my first band at the age of 16. My Father is a musician and actively encouraged me to pick up the bass guitar (my first instrument). He was always extremely encouraging and always made a point of telling me that i should never let anyone hold me back from doing what I wanted to do and definitely never for my gender. That might sound like an odd thing to say but I suppose he made the point because he’d worked in music since he was 14 himself and suspected that I might find barriers put before me because I was a young female in what would be a largely male environment. He also told me about female musicians such as Carol Kaye and Sister Rosetta Tharp and as a teen, there were plenty of female musicians playing in the bands I loved. I was also very fortunate in that I had a role model in my Grandmother – a woman who became a widowed single parent to two children in 1950 and who was strong, independent, intellectual and funny. She also impressed upon me that there was nothing I could not do if i was prepared to work at it. Gender was never an issue.

    When i joined my first band, i was nervous and inexperienced. I’m not going to deny that I didn’t come across sound engineers who were patronising to me but then I was also very young and baffled by DI boxes and cables! Any negative behaviour I came across i brushed aside as THEIR problem, not mine. I went on to be the only female in many bands and never once did any of the male musicians I worked with treat me any differently because I was female.

    With all of the above in mind, I was surprised to hear horror stories from younger female musicians who felt that they had been treated differently because of their gender. Again, i reiterate that nobody should be made to feel inferior by other people like this.

    However, as I’ve got older I’ve discussed the issue with lots of different people, both male and female and there are things that trouble me. I have heard female friends talk of sexism and feminism in music a great deal. I have often felt completely disconnected from their view points about music being a male and often aggressive place to be. I find the knee-jerk defensiveness I have encountered in that context uncomfortable, particularly when I’ve heard women say they believe that certain types of music are not open to females and that is why they are under-represented. I find that hard to believe because I’ve worked in underground/niche and avant garde music scenes for years and never once seen this aggression or been put off being involved. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist – there are arseholes in every music genre – but I feel personally that if someone has treated me badly, its not necessarily because I’m a woman and they are a male but just because they’re an idiot!

    I have also attended events recently where women have been represented in equal quantities as male. I have been disappointed to learn that often this has been because funding or institutional requirements have dictated that the proportion of male and female artists must be equal. Disappointed because I don’t like this kind of positive discrimination and feel that an artist or musician should be there on merit of their work being good, regardless of gender. Sadly, I’ve often felt that some of the women I’ve seen in this context have presented work that just isn’t very good! And for the record, these events have mostly been run by women, not men.

    I find your points above about clothing, femininity and also other women really interesting.

    Above you say “but also because women can be just as guilty of making this connection, and can be far more aggressive in judging and criticising other women” and this leaps out at me. This is something I’ve encountered a LOT more than any kind of negative behaviour from male colleagues though this has been largely in the work place for me (the other work place, where I make a living though certainly not in my current job!). However, I’ve certainly encountered this in music a few times and to be honest, it has made me shy away from female only events in the past (though this is also because I prefer inclusiveness).

    With regards to what you say about femininity and clothing – I can’t say i’d really given much thought to the matter, personally. I wear what I feel comfortable in – i’m not really a high-heels kind of person but that has a lot to do with being clumsy and fairly tall anyway. I like wearing feminine clothing, a bit of make-up and generally, i like being a woman and I’ve never really stopped to think about that in the context of my music.

    And now the bit where I contradict a lot of what I say above! Last year, I started on a degree course in Music Technology. I am a 39 year old woman on a course largely dominated by young men. I have 2 great male lecturers who have been absolutely fantastic and extremely encouraging. However, I was unprepared for my first few weeks where I heard some of the younger men say things about women which I found utterly shocking. They used very sexual and often aggressive language to describe women and a few of them tried very hard to antagonise me. I’m not sure why this happened – i guess they are immature and insecure and saw me as a challenge. One of them told me, and I quote: “The concept of female bass players escapes me”. I told him women bass players weren’t a “concept: women had been playing music for thousands of years! I sent him off to the library to look up Carol Kaye and Sister Rosetta Tharp on youtube! Thankfully, this behaviour stopped pretty soon when they realised they were not going to get away with speaking to me like that but it did trouble me and it did make me wonder how some of the younger women would find that. I can only hope that none of them are put off of their chosen career path and that the men are educated by being around women in their field. And i feel that education is the key thing here.

    Anyway, i’ve rambled on enough! I will now take myself off to listen to Grimes.

  2. Interesting post Susanna and it coincides with a day spent in a conference where the topic of genre and feminism was at play. Having said that, I believe that there should be a redefinition on how women use terminologies to describe their place/role in a generally complex social/political system. It is not about how women are being perceived by men but how they perceive themselves in lets say an x context. I see that as the only way of surpassing an x stereotype and if not establishing, at least negotiating/suggesting and alternative viewpoint by keeping things in perspective.

    Sound and music are indeed territories with loads of male representatives. But lets try not to limit it only to the behavior of male musicians towards females. Try to think of the terminologies used for example in our field, they all have this reference to male-bound activities. How would it be if a shotgun mic was actually called a Tweezer Mic? Haha imagine that. Or if we didn’t master a track but brush it. There is a certain sense of masculinity in the terminology yet masculinity is not necessarily a male characteristic. It perhaps goes back to the invention of that particular set of technologies and to a very generic assumption that females were not emancipated enough to study and evolve within the field. But that’s not even true, I cannot support such an assumption in any way.

    Stereotypes are common in the field but its up to the person who is subjected to them to neglect or accept them. Being aggressive is not necessarily a wise way to go some times and it might end up being stereotypical in itself, especially in feminist contexts. Btw I don’t consider my self a feminist of any kind or wave. For instance, I once had to engineer a live show about indian music. A small room was filled with 10 male tablas players looking at me with disdain when I approached them to set up the mics. I didn’t really give a f$$%ck about it, I carried on doing my work, the show went on air, everything was great etc and then all of them came to thank me for the work I have done. And I have many similar examples but the are all relating to specific contexts, scenes, traditions and mentalities. I don’t want to generalize in any way. Perhaps the amount of popularity surrounding an artist raises the amount of discourse around her (e.g. Grimes) and the need to develop a reaction and redefinition of that person’s status. Perhaps. But lets agree that there are some people out there who like to be in the easy position of categorizing people on the basis of stereotypes’labels. These people are dangerous. Greeks and Italians are lazyarses etc etc. Are we? Really? Being a female a italian and a sound artist is a hell of a combo right?

    That’s how the current state looks like, to me at least and yes there are still loads of cultural misunderstandings that females have to shake off their mentality before going out there to demand claim their rights and so forth. Academic feminism is not going to answer any questions either I think, it is well protected in its safe-bubble of theorising. That’s actually something that was mentioned today as a comment after some presentations. I couldn’t agree more. And lets not confuse femininity and feminism. Wearing a red dress on stage in different contexts could be seen, regardless of your personal take, as an offense, or an aesthetic cliche, or even perhaps as a “stereotypical” way women performers (Lisa Gerrard comes to mind haha) behave on stage OR even a parody of it all. The Red Dress Feminist! But what matters in the end is why you chose it and what meaning it has to you and in what context. Keeping things in perspective is important when it comes to creating an understanding and to negotiating ones position in a larger constellation of perplexed fields. I can’t believe I actually sat down and wrote all this… 🙂 I am not even going to read it again. You can debate as much as you want. I am done for tonight. And I am not a feminist. Or maybe I am a tiny bit and I don’t even know it. Haha. I now press POST! PHeewwww

  3. I came back to this, this morning because I was genuinely fascinated to read other peoples opinions. With regards to Maria – up there, what she says! Yes! I wholeheartedly agree with everything she says but I do listen and think about what my younger female friends say and it does worry me. As Maria says, women also need to think about how they perceive themselves. I have a friend who has been an visual and sound artist for many years and I’ve spoken to her a great deal about the subject – she said that she doesn’t even think of herself as a woman as such but as a person. Thats a small part of the conversation and taken out of context but the point is: that is HER perception which comes from HER, not from any external male perception.

    I also read with interest Robin’s response and found it thought provoking. As a point of interest, I was in Cindytalk, the band fronted by Gordon Sharp (as mentioned by Robin) for several years from the age of 19 and again my mid 30’s.

    Anyway, i could go on and on but I need to go to work! Thanks Susanna for writing this article! Really interesting and thought provoking!

  4. When I read Grimes’ post I was really pleased that a popular voice for her generation spoke up about issues that were really affecting her. My mind punched the air repeatedly as I was reading it as I felt what she was saying was personal but accessible and importantly easy to ‘get’. I really hope this will trigger something in young people to realise that inequality continues to exist and they can challenge this in a relevant way. Feminism is so often written about in such a theoretical, long and boring way that young people just switch off, same can be said for politics in general. I’ve spent the past 5 years working in an office off a common room in a sixth form college and this is a real problem. I think it’s great that someone respected in the mainstream has been so vocal, more of this kind of thing please!

  5. This is a really great blog post. I found it through Andie and we’ve discussed these kinds of experiences in the past so I thought I’d chip in.

    What you’ve described echoes a lot of my experiences in many areas of my life, not just in music. Sexism is endemic and ingrained into us from a very early age. It takes a lot of hard work to undo this. I work in neuroscience, I enjoy cycling and building bikes, I’ve enjoyed listening to and making various kinds of music since I was a teenager. These areas are male-dominated and they have typically been where I’ve experienced most discrimination based on others, mostly men, perceiving me as a woman and assuming I am somehow inferior. Like you say, it’s a minority of people who make life difficult for women and when I was younger I used to just brush it off, tell myself to get over it and to not be so sensitive. Basically I told myself to man-up (note the language) and get on with life.

    Gradually these entrenched stereotypes about gender started to wear me down. I got fed up of randomly encountering sexist assholes who would make me feel like I was less than human and not worthy of respect. I find it really interesting that you brought up fashion and feminism. I have also been guilty of suppressing my femininity and sexuality in order to be taken seriously and it took me a while to realise that the problem is those who cannot see past my appearance who are the problem, not the dress I’m wearing or who I go to bed with. I think these attitudes are symptoms of the fact that from a young age we are all trained to see women’s bodies at public battlegrounds. If it’s not patriarchal capitalists telling us to buy their products to look “beautiful” it’s religious dogma telling us to hide our bodies lest we shame ourselves and drive men to rape (which is our fault, of course, not the rapists). Anything beyond a woman’s physical appearance seems to barely get a look in. And Grimes post was spot on, much like when Robyn spoke out against sexism in the music industry. I’ve talked about this with so many of my friends and we totally rate her for coming out and saying what we’ve all been saying for so long. Both these artists have a louder voice and a larger platform than we do, so we hope that people will listen to them.

    Like Maria and Andie said, you can choose to be confident in yourself and go out and do your own thing despite what people say, but we don’t exist in our own bubbles and there will always be people out there who will discriminate against you, often to your disadvantage. I thought Robin’s response was great. He described Intersectionality (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality) and how that can affect both men, women and all the genders in between, which is a product of academic feminism meeting grassroots feminism (academic feminism is important, even if it doesn’t directly help you). Intersectionality is particularly relevant to the treatment that Elizabeth Veldon and her family have been receiving recently.

    I realise lots of people openly hate feminists but that’s their problem. Feminism has helped me realise I’m not alone, provided a support network, helped me understand the world we live in and taught me how to deal with discrimination. It’s trained me to question everything, so now when I am on the receiving end of sexism I assess the situation and if appropriate I question it. Granted this doesn’t always get a good response but I hope that planting a seed in someone’s head will lead them to think about what they have said or done. Same goes for me. Feminism has taught me to question myself, how I judge and treat people and how to be a fairer person. For example, when you mention women policing other women’s “propriety” I totally get that. I feel sad when I see women knock other women because we should be each other’s allies, and when I see this happen I try to ask the woman in question why they did it. I keep reminding myself that openly being feminist despite negative stereotypes and speaking up against discrimination doesn’t just help me, it has a drip-drip effect that ultimately helps everyone. So I suppose my point is that I’m really sorry to hear that you’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination, you are not alone and hopefully more people will speak up and say it’s not right and that we should do something about it.

  6. These Feathers… I am sure it was a great experience being in Cindytalk. Let me thank you for your contributions to a musical project that continues to intrigue. I bought the first album soon after release and still listen to it. Though the group’s later developments are more subtle and in some ways more satisfying, the impact of the debut is undeniable.

    Maria… As a poet I think a lot about language and can only agree with your comments regarding terms like “shotgun” and “mastering”. In other fields it is even worse. For example, photographers “shoot” or “capture” their subjects. I make a point of instead of describing my recording process as “gathering” sounds or images.

    However, let me speak out against the easy shots taken in some of the comments against “academic feminists”. Surely grouping all such thinkers together is an over-simplification of the worst kind. Without developing deep understandings of historical and cultural contexts, the philosophy of language, etc. how can meaningful praxis develop? We don’t need to agree with all of their theories or arguments, but let’s be open to ideas that have already changed our world… and might do far more if we take it on board.

  7. hello Robin, I understand where you’re coming from re: academic feminists and appreciate your comment absolutely. I just think there is room for making the subject more accessible with the goal being to get more people on board. This doesn’t mean OVER simplification but simplifying the subject so that more people understand and don’t get overwhelmed from the off is a needed thing and I think Grimes’ post is a good example of how this could be done. Le Tigre did it for me as a youth and provided a good route into the bigger picture.

  8. Hi Robin – thanks for the kind words but it would be unfair of me to take any credit for any of those albums. They are beautiful, i would agree. I was part of the live band and only (sadly) contributed to 3 songs: 2 on a single and 1 on Wappinschaw. Anyway, i digress – i just thought it interesting that you mention Gordon, whom I have first-hand experience of working with.

    I do understand your view point regarding oversimplification and thoughts on academic feminism. Of course, in this forum we can but scratch the surface in any case. From my own personal perspective, at this moment in time academic feminism is not something I identify with and indeed, I feel this way about many strands of feminism. That is not to say that I am not open to discussion, learning/education and changing my mind. I’m always fascinated to debate these subjects and get a greater understanding of other view points.

  9. Hey Robin,

    Academic discourse is of course a platform designed for the development of new ideas or the redefinition of older ones, the creation of a new language etc etc. I think my comment on that was mainly an intuitive reaction biased by the actual discussion I had the chance to experience yesterday. I felt that quoting or re-chewing Judith Butler’s quotes was a bit too much, e.g. presentations referencing in almost the same context the same literature just to prove that there are women who get violated out there is a safe way to feminism but not one that will break new ground. I know that my view is partial, my actual knowledge in the field is little to zero and with my comment I never intended to provide a complete argument but one that was pretty much a thought in process. But yes I agree that deeper understandings are needed indeed. Perhaps this concept of keeping things in perspective is also needed so as to create a platform where many voices can exist together in dialogue and move towards a meaningful praxis that is attuned to the current state of gender politics. I will agree with Andie that I cannot identify with how things are at the moment.

  10. Hey, my eyebrows jumped when I read that comment about the pink USB cable. What an idiot!

    The worst I experienced (and it wasn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things) was after I bought my first mixer. I thought there was a problem with it and popped into my local sound-store to ask their opinion before I arranged to ship it back. My tech-vocab was pretty ropey as despite having done a blast of gigs, I never had to describe out loud just *how* I used my equipment before (and didn’t know the proper names for things) but visibly struggling, I tried my hardest to describe how it was different to other mixers I’d borrowed previously and what I thought the problem might be. I received a withering, dead look and a cutting remark about how I should maybe learn how to *use* equipment before ever touching it. I was pretty hurt by the way the manager treated me but Ilearned after that he was a notorious prick. I guess written down, the above remark seems as though it could have been delivered by a hi-fi ‘guru’ to any struggling eejit regardless of gender, but facing him, I could feel patronising macho vibes hanging in the air like stagnant Guinness farts the morning after. He had to close the store down last year. Good riddance, asshole.

    Anyway, read this today and thought of y’all: http://thewire.co.uk/in-writing/columns/abi-bliss_invisible-women

    The work I do (the more physical solo stuff, I mean) mostly came (initially, anyway) from my experience of a crisis pregnancy at the age of 19 and all that followed after it, so when I perform, a lot of weight comes onstage with me that normally doesn’t get a chance to…er, breathe. After shows, mostly women would come up to me, needing to speak about the performance and how it affected them. Men have usually kept their distance. I have no feelings about it. That’s just how it has been so far.

    Recently, I walked in on my kid sitting on the couch inspecting the ball of her foot by bending all her toes backwards so that the skin on the sole of the foot was white and speckled. She looked up at me and asked very seriously, “Mum, am I meat?”. I prefer to reflect on these kinds of things.

    x

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