overground scene


Heavy metal musicians and objectification

The heavy metal subculture is famous for its gendered and exclusionary to women character (see Weinstein, 1991). Since its crystallisation as a genre in the late 1970s – early 1980s, a phenomenon fueled by the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal, women tended to be thin on the ground. That is not to say that there were no women in metal. Girlschool was one of the seminal English metal bands and their influence can be seen on bands like Metallica (check out how similar Girlschool’s “Not for sale“, themselves influenced by Motorhead, is to Metallica’s “Seek and destroy“).

Women in heavy metal who became famous, like Doro and Lita Ford, were objectified in accordance with the objectification to which women have been subjected in mainstream culture. Through images at record covers and inner sleeves on which their bodies were exposed and would assume sexually suggestive poses, women in metal were reduced to only one aspect of their personality, their bodies. These bodies were meant to be gazed at by what was perceived to be the main occupier of the heavy metal fandom, the heterosexual male.

ford1

Lita Ford was one of the most successful women in Metal

 

Looking at media representations of women in heavy metal, toughness as well as the particular subcultural attire would be the only two elements of their performance which would distinguish them from women in mainstream culture. The ostensible tough performance women would put on represented only a minor diversion from mainstream representations of female sexuality. Toughness, at the same time, would grant them subcultural legitimacy. The stereotyped metalhead, as a vehicular unit (Goffman, 1971), involves a specific dress code and a specific body language. The dress code includes denim, leather, dark colors, and chains; the specific body language involves toughness. Thus, in heavy metal culture, women might hope to be accepted as equals as long as they espouse these subcultural norms. Insofar as toughness is a signifier of hegemonic masculinity (Connell and Connell, 2005), then women have to conform to this hegemonic masculinity in the heavy metal subculture. In that sense, women in metal might appear to liberate themselves from the shackles of a dominant femininity that wants them docile and fragile, but might find themselves subjugated to the binary opposite. This, combined with the likelihood of continuing being sexually objectified as in mainstream culture, precludes any emancipatory potential through subcultural membership in heavy metal.

doro

Doro as the singer of Warlock

 

However, sexual objectification in metal, one could argue, has not necessarily been limited to women. Male performers like Manowar or even the much more “underground” Bathory would also expose their bodies to the “camera’s gaze” (Mulvey, 1992). Of course, like in mainstream culture, the meanings ascribed to male objectification were different to those coded into the female body. While in the case of women, objectification conveyed – apart from eroticism – vulnerability, often hidden behind a veil of toughness, in the case of men it signified indisputable strength. It could be said that in the case of male performers, objectification played a central role in the broader narrative of their music. Both Manowar’s and Bathory’s music was about warriors, and their revealing attire (fittingly supplemented by swords) was meant to be a warrior’s attire. Their “bodily hexis” (Bourdieu, 1977) as well, was quite different to the one of their female peers; men confidently stood their ground with arms spread and flexed, while women were in awkward positions (see Lita Ford pictured above) that insinuated vulnerability (Doro on the Warlock cover above might appear strong, but she is barefoot and threateningly enveloped by a man). Having said that, it does not mean that the audience would necessarily decode the male bodily rhetoric (Foucault, 1977) in terms of “strength”. The heterosexual female receiver or the homosexual male receiver, or potentially anyone, could read these pictures in terms of eroticism.

ManowarIntogloryride

The hilarious artwork of Manowar’s sophomore album.

 

Moreover, glam metal bands in the 1980s, like Poison, Motley Crue and Ratt, were prime examples of male sexual objectification. These bands were products of the music industry primarily marketed to the (heterosexual) female gaze. Also, from a psychoanalytical perspective, these examples of male sexual objectification do not preclude the possibility of narcissistic identification by heterosexual men.

Throughout the years, there have been women, predominantly in the less commercial sub-genres of metal, like Death Metal, that resisted the more blatant sexual objectification that is observed in mainstream culture and the more commercial strands of subcultures. Jo Bench from Bolt Thrower, Lori Bravo from Nuclear Death and Rachel Van Maastrigt-Heyzer of Sinister are three good examples of women who were not objectified, self- or otherwise (although they might have conformed to hegemonic masculinity). This further supports the hypothesis that in patriarchal capitalism sexual objectification is positively associated with commercialism. When the art world becomes colonised by the logic of the business world, the former’s practices reflect the imperative of profit. To the extent that profit depends on sales and that the heavy metal audience is a predominantly male chauvinist one, sexual objectification of women becomes a strategy for companies to maximise profit and a tactic for women heavy metal performers to succeed. The body becomes a resource used to compete and improve a woman’s position in the record industry.

jo-bench_2053990

Jo Bench at a concert.

 

Having said that, I do not imply that Jo Bench or Lori Bravo simply were not subjected to the record industry’s pressures to be sexualised (or more precisely, embedded in the industry’s logic), because of the underground character of the death metal sub-genre. Indeed there is a chance that they were unlikely to have situated themselves in commercial metal to begin with. Maybe due to a more emancipated habitus they might have felt more at home within this specific sub-genre where the logic of the market would not apply its pressure on them. It is also likely that they would have resisted sexual objectification anyway, regardless of the logic of the sub-genre. At the same time, the logic of the sub-genre at any given time is expected to reflect the business model characterising the sub-genre, so in death metal (a genre that thought of itself as counter-cultural) it is likely that mainstream femininity would be looked down upon.

Some small changes have occurred in the metal landscape over the last two decades. In particular there’s a new tendency which can even be interpreted as a relative victory of dominant femininity in the heavy metal subculture. While in the 1980s we would see women in mainstream metal being subjected to the same sexual objectification as in other genres of mainstream culture and, additionally, having to adapt to the subcultural norms of hegemonic masculinity, today we see an acceptance of some of the attributes of dominant femininity in mainstream metal. In particular, we see women being dressed in typical feminine clothes (dresses, skirts, etc.) and singing in forms traditionally reserved by women (e.g. soprano). However, the issue of sexual objectification confronts women in heavy metal in pretty much the same way. As one can notice in Metalholic’s Top 25 women in metal list, women continue to perform the role of the sex object common in hegemonic culture, which involves exposure of their bodies and ridiculous poses that denote subjugation to the mainstream media logic of commercialisation.

hastetheday

Metalcore band “Haste the Day”

Moreover, contemporary commercial heavy metal is not very different to mainstream pop boy-bands and girl-bands, both in terms of composition and in terms of “look”. This is indicative of heavy metal’s increasing embeddedness into the mainstream, with old subcultural boundaries increasingly becoming blurred. This tendency is exemplified in the metalcore sub-genre or bands like Baby Metal, where sexual objectification concerns all genders. Again, it would be inaccurate to view this as a totally new development. As explained earlier, today’s metalcore and mainstream heavy metal are the equivalent of glam metal in the 1980s; both of them are commercialised sub-genres that coexist with less/non commercialised sub-genres.

Defunct boy-band “One Call”

The implications for this increasing mainstreaming of heavy metal music include on the one hand objectification becoming even more common (as now commercial pressures on the genre are even stronger), but also creating metal sub-genres for audiences that are more susceptible to consumerism and, therefore, more likely to spend loads of money on merchandise (compared to the traditional working class base of Heavy metal). The latter serves the interests of the metal music industry and I would expect that even minor record labels that proclaim to be “true” have opened up to metalcore.

To conclude, sexual objectification of all genders has always been prominent in the more mainstream segments of heavy metal. It is both reflective of the colonisation of song production by the market logic and of the comodification of bodies (itself a reflection of the infiltration of market logic in all aspects of human life). The logic of each music industry sub-genre structures the choices available to the performers that are situated therein. The more the sub-genre fits the characteristics of mass culture, the more likely is for performers to have limited choices on how to present themselves. Moreover, the meanings attached to the objectification of women and men are different and dependent on the social construction of femininity and masculinity.

 …

References

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connell, R. W. and Connell, R. (2005) Masculinities. University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon.

Goffman, E. (1971) Relations in public: microstudies of the public order. London: Allen Lane.

Mulvey, L. (1992) “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”, in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality, pp. 22–34. New York and London: Routledge.

Weinstein, D. (1991) Heavy metal: a cultural sociology. New York: Lexington Books.

 

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I wanted to know the author of this wonderful article? Very well written!! Big fan of the article.

Comment by OmarS

Hi there! Thanks for your nice words, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! If I wrote it again I would be a bit more explicit about the fact that I am talking about the opportunity structure of the record industry, rather than the actual practices of people and the ways they find to engage with these opportunities and limitations. As for the author’s name it’s not important; like Roland Barthes says “to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text”. 😉

Comment by lentil81




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