Words: Julie Raaken | Header Image: Matthew Kiss

It is International Women’s Day, and to celebrate this, I want to talk a bit about representation in music. In today’s society, the music industry can still be described as male-dominated, especially when we are talking about rock. For example, I went back in the archive of essays I have written (only just before Christmas, but it was dark times), and found my dissertation on exactly this topic. I then, as I will now, use instruments as examples when talking about gender in music. When looking at instruments in relation to ‘masculine’ genres, it is clear that some are seen as more feminine, and, therefore, more acceptable for women to play. It has previously been said that many women in rock bands have been relegated to a bass player because the “lead” guitar was presumed to be a male role. Girls are growing up in a society where they are being told what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. This then determines what instruments they go on to play; choosing the ones that are seen as traditionally ‘feminine’ because this is what they have been told from a young age. Due to young women repeatedly being shown images of men playing electric guitars, most of them would not wish to become rock guitarists, and if they did, they wouldn’t believe it to be possible because of how few female role models there are.

Girls are growing up in a society where they are being told what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

Julie Raaken

I had a conversation with a friend of mine when I was researching for my dissertation. She recently started a music project, where she plays the electric guitar – a ‘masculine’ instrument. I brought a statement to her attention, where someone had said that the electric guitar is seen by many as “weird-looking” on a woman, whereas the acoustic guitar is more easily associated with women and a certain type of femininity. The guitar is often being compared to beautiful women because of the instruments “hourglass” shape. My friend found this fascinating, and true. She has felt that people automatically assume she plays the acoustic guitar, and are surprised when she goes on to say that in fact, she plays the electric guitar. They never expect her to play electric or any type of loud music. Another thing she said, which I found interesting was that, she felt more powerful on stage when she present a more masculine attitude. The guitar is phallic in a way. Some electric guitarists play their instruments as if it were a technological extension of the penis. So, maybe by using the guitar as a power tool for women, is feels like owning your sexuality? Stereotyping continually affects society, by ignoring the individual and combining an entire group together. We, as women, have been told that we can can’t do the same as men for centuries, and being criticised if we are ‘angry’, or performing with a masculine persona on stage.

Expectations are put on us, depending on what gender you are, and it seems to be a surprise when women perform rock music. An interesting point to make is that, gender has always shaped genres and works of music. Subcultures have provided platforms for women musicians to see themselves as equals to their male counterparts. Let’s look at grunge, a subculture which is seen as a more gender-neutral scene, and has a history of having a relatively high proportion of women performers and bands. Grunge bands generally avoid imagery that objectifying or degrading.
Although, there is still a long way to go. Women are being encouraged to break free from the boundaries set and change the way traditional stereotypes are being used within the industry. Last October, Fender carried out a study showing that 50% of new guitar players are women.

So, here is to the new generation of more badass women playing whatever instrument they want. As we get more role models showing us how it can be done, societal norms will no longer dictate what we should or shouldn’t do on and off stage.

To conclude, I’d like to recommend some of my favourite women currently owning the stage with an electric guitar:

St. Vincent

Dream Wife

Girl In Red

Cherry Glazerr

PJ Harvey

Let us know what you think!