“Name three songs!” Women who listen to metal music are familiar with this demand from men who question their interest in the genre. Metal culture places considerable value on authenticity and women are often subject to greater scrutiny to prove that they are legitimate fans. While female listeners face skepticism, the treatment of women who work in the metal music industry ranges from objectification to invisibility. An example that illustrates this spectrum is the cringe-worthy interview that Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider conducted with Danzig guitarist Doyle, and his partner, vocalist Alissa White-Gluz, at the 2014 Revolver Golden Gods Awards. Despite her achievements in one of the world’s most recognizable melodic death metal bands, Snider awkwardly ignores White-Gluz, admitting that he thought she was “just a date” even though the pair were there to promote her band, Arch Enemy. These persistent microaggressions are reflective of the fact that metal culture is still not gender inclusive.
The relationship between metal and gender has a long and complicated history. Metal music is inherently masculine but at the same time, it often blurs gender identities and challenges social norms. Notable examples from the 80s “glam era” include bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison, and the aforementioned Twisted Sister, who wore full faces of makeup, colorful outfits, and had long permed hair. Still, those who identify as women are underrepresented in the metal scene, with recent estimates indicating that only 3% of metal musicians are women. Women in metal tend to be vocalists or they work in supporting occupations as managers, promoters, journalists, and academics. Why are there so few women in metal and why must they remain relegated to certain roles?
One explanation for why there are few women in heavy metal is that women simply have different preferences. This notion is shortsighted and often leads to unsound conclusions such as the idea that women dislike complex music due to biological factors including limited intellect, emotional instability, hormones, and sexuality. Women may indeed have different preferences but it is likely due to strong social conditioning that discourages them from pursuing certain careers and interests. Furthermore, a toxic culture that views women as insincere or less capable may discourage female fans and musicians from participating in the community.
Women who succeed in metal bands tend to be singers rather than guitarists or drummers. This provides greater visibility but less recognition for the most valued aspects of metal music, including song writing and technical performance. Women in metal tend to be high achievers because they have to prove themselves to be taken seriously, and this may explain why they often play critical roles behind the scenes. Wendy Dio and Kristen Mulderig have been pivotal to the success of the world’s most popular metal artists, but they still face blatant sexism and diminished acknowledgement. Women managers who have relationships with men in the metal industry risk blame for band breakups, a trope that mirrors the perception that Yoko Ono caused The Beatles to split.
Problems related to discrimination do not disappear on their own and require pragmatic solutions. The journalistic representation of heavy metal is particularly important for changing the language surrounding these issues, which provides a good starting point. In recent years, it has been refreshing to see the term “female fronted” disappear as a subgenre title. The heading emphasized gender segregation while ignoring vast subgenre differences in bands with women vocalists. For example, the symphonic band Nightwish sounds nothing like death metal outfit Arch Enemy, despite both having female leads. Similarly, Revolver Magazine discontinued its “Hottest Chicks in Metal” issue, a popular campaign that reduced the talents of women to their physical appearance. Changing the way we talk about women in metal must continue, but this strategy is not enough on its own. Heavy metal culture needs to develop a greater consciousness of its gender inequity problem and make real changes. Only 5% of bands at the popular Download Festival in 2019 had at least one female member. Festival promoters and record labels should prioritize efforts to recruit bands with greater gender diversity and they should showcase these bands more prominently. We should not underestimate the power of female role models in encouraging women to participate in the metal community as instrumentalists and composers.
In the 50 years since metal’s inception, women are still the minority. If good metal music still exists, why should we care about the gender of those who produce it? We should care because, by excluding an entire segment of the population, we are missing the contributions of talented people. Society often defines individuals in boxes, but the truth is, most of us don’t quite fit the mold. As our understanding of gender changes, so must heavy metal, and it must do so with intention.
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