She Shreds Magazine Proposes SXSW Panel on Women in Music

She Shreds announced plans for a SXSW panel to highlight inequality women face in the music industry. The need for this discussion was cemented by Jessica Hopper, whose Twitter feed recently served as a platform for marginalized people to share stories...

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Aug 29 2015, 8:30pm

Jonathan Caramanus/Stocksy United

On one side, an image of a woman with painted-on bikini bottoms and a too-small crop top leans on a guitar she definitely is not playing. On the other side, a woman—Bibi McGill to be precise—in a white suit, underwear conspicuously not visible, holds a guitar like she knows how to play the thing.

The two pictures are featured on the Facebook page of She Shreds —the magazine that had McGill on the cover. She Shreds has proposed a panel for the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) music festival focusing on representations of female musicians in advertising and the media. Voting closes on September 4; if the panel is selected, it will include She Shreds founder and CEO Fabi Reyna, indie rock band Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis, The Windish Agency's Michele Fleischli, and Mindy Abovitz of Tom Tom Magazine. They plan to discuss how women musicians are portrayed in media today, how that's different from the way they were portrayed in the past, and how the industry can work to change those representations.

The importance of this discussion was underlined this week by Jessica Hopper, Senior Editor at Pitchfork, and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Hopper tweeted out a request for women "and other marginalized folks" to tell her "what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ [sic] idea that you didn't count?" The response was overwhelming—the tweet has been retweeted almost 350 times—and depressing. One woman said she had people insinuate she was sleeping with an executive to get an internship at a record label. Another said a man expressed surprise that she was writing for a prestigious magazine because "you don't know much about dance music." And those were only the public tweets; Hopper told me the stories in her direct messages were much much worse.

Sexualized images are part of a culture that doesn't see women as central to music making.

When I asked Hopper if sexualized images of women musicians in the mainstream fed into dismissal of women musicians, she was hesitant. "I think many things correlate," she said. Sexualized images of women musicians don't necessarily lead to a denial of women's achievement; rather, the sexualized images are part of a culture that doesn't see women as central to music making. Hopper pointed to, "the different ways that men are still viewed as the primary makers of music. We know historically within rock and roll that the vision and creative accomplishment of the male musician is seen as the most important. And what happens when that's the hierarchy is that everyone else gets smaller. And that means women and people who aren't straight white men holding guitars, their lives and their bodies and their respect is way down there in the hierarchy of music."

Women, Hopper said, are seen as "outsiders and interlopers, and if they come here they should be expected to be treated poorly." Women's experiences are seen as secondary or negligible. And it's in that context that women musicians are portrayed as eye-candy first, and as awesome rock stars second—look no further than Rolling Stone's review of Joanna Gruesome's latest record, Peanut Butter, in which writer Rob Sheffield, describes former lead singer Alana McArdle, as "sublimely saucy." For male rock stars, virtuosity, swagger, and musical accomplishment are part of their sexual appeal. But women and musical virtuosity are seen as incongruous. Which is why a guitar magazine with a woman on its cover has her use the guitar as a prop, rather than treating it as something she might actually play.

It's also true though that women musicians, from Madonna to Lana Del Rey, often present themselves in their videos or marketing images in extremely sexualized ways. Nicki Minaj, for example, enthusiastically endorsed the life-size wax figure of her at Madame Tussauds, which shows her posing on all fours in the tight, skimpy outfit from her "Anaconda" video. Rapper Azealia Banks saw the pose as disrespectful, and wondered why Minaj, a rapper, wasn't shown with a mic in her hand. She also predicted that people would pose for sexual pictures with the figure—which is in fact what happened.

The vision and creative accomplishment of the male musician is seen as the most important.

Janell Hobson, a professor of Women's Studies at SUNY Albany says that one of the things that strikes her about black performers like Nicki Minaj and Rihanna is how they have to depend on a performance of sexual excess to achieve popularity. She suggested that this is the result in part of the hypersexualization of black women in hip hop culture. "I think in some ways," she said, "Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and even Beyoncé to some extent have co-opted and appropriated hip hop men's fantasy video vixen image and took it and made it their own. We could see it either that these women have been subjugated by a music industry that puts the onus on sex and sexuality, or we could say instead that they took that fantasy and gave all those nameless, faceless women a voice."

Hobson pointed out, too, that women are often pushed towards a kind of hyper-femininity, in their public appearance, but at the same time femininity is denigrated. People like Rihanna, and Beyonce, and the nameless woman posing in her underwear with the guitar, are seen as lesser, or as not musicians, because of the way they dress. Bibi McGill posing in a less stereotypically glam feminine way is taken more seriously—though not necessarily allowed to make more money (unless she works with Beyoncé, of course.) You can be Nicki Minaj, and have people laugh at you, or you can be Azealia Banks, and have a lot of difficulty getting on the charts.

As Hopper says, that double bind is built, in a lot of ways, on the fact that women and musicians are seen as two separate categories. To the extent that you embody femininity, like Nicki Minaj, you're not a "real" musician. To the extent that you don't, you're not sexy--and (as Elvis knew) you can't sell as a pop star, of any gender, if you're not sexy. I hope that SXSW gets on the schedule both for its discussion of mainstream images of women musicians; the more people who point out that women musicians exist, and are central, the better.

Read More: Kate Nash on Feminism and the Internet