Are you talking to me: Respecting women in metal

L - R: Zdenka Prado (Estuary), Melissa Hastings (Adorior), Susan Gerl (God Dethroned)

. . .

I was raped when I was 15 years old. It was my first sexual experience. To cope, I disassociated. It wasn’t on purpose; my mind just didn’t want to be in my body while my body was doing things my mind wasn’t ready for. For years afterward, I couldn’t be sexual with anyone without totally checking out of my body.

I’m not telling you this because I’m some kind of victim. I’m telling you this because it hurt like hell, and like all nasty wounds, it needed strong medicine to heal.

When Metallica released “One” four months afterward, I hung on and couldn’t let go. “Now that the war is through with me, I’m waking up, I cannot see that there’s not much left of me. Nothing is real but pain now”. Sure, James Hetfield was inspired by a landmine victim in a 1930s war novel. But you couldn’t convince me that he didn’t know what it was like to be a sexually abused girl. It was clear in every line. Singing with melancholy, numbness, and rage, Hetfield was right there with me, just when I desperately needed to know I wasn’t alone.

At the time, I had no idea why the song rang me like a gong. I just knew I needed more. More guitars, more bass, more double-bass drum pounding like a panicked heartbeat, more angry, sad words. I was already into Guns N’ Roses and a few other metal bands who straddled the mainstream, but after “One” I fell into metal like Baby Jessica falling into that Texas well. The only difference was, I would have savaged anyone who tried to pull me out.

Ironically, the music I suddenly needed most had no use for me. I had every right to listen to the music, at home or in the clubs. But plenty of signals told me just the opposite. At that time especially, metal was very much a guys’ world, from the take-no-prisoners music to the rigors of the mosh pit. In lyrics, women were lamented, reviled, violated, or ignored, but rarely respected. At shows, it was much the same.

When you were a female in the metal scene in the 1980s, you had two choices. If you wanted to bag a guitarist – the one onstage or one in the crowd – your required uniform involved a tight leather miniskirt, a studded bra or bustier, and enough hairspray to light a bonfire. If you were there for the music, you dressed like the guys. Being sexualized was the last thing I wanted, so I went with option two. I hid in black jeans, band t-shirts, Converse high-tops, and backwards baseball hats.

Like any subculture, the world of heavy metal has rules. There’s an obvious dress code; violate it at your own peril. What you give up in fashion choices, you supposedly make back in community. Millions of misfit kids have made their home in heavy metal, and with that comes a sense of belonging: a tribe. At least, that’s how it works when you’ve got a Y chromosome.

I would have loved to join that headbanger tribe. But because of my dress code choices, the guys, by and large, ignored me. It didn’t help that I was shy. At my small high school, male metalheads seemed to accept me. But at shows? Forget it. While the guys bonded over the band’s riffage, I might as well have been a scuff on the floor.

Had we talked, we might have discovered much in common. Adults said such aggressive music would only wind kids up, but for me it did the opposite: it soothed me. I’d read dozens of metal magazines and watched hours of Headbangers Ball and nobody mentioned this effect, so I assumed I was an aberration. It wasn’t until I read the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in my late 20s that I realized guys were listening for the same reason I was. Go figure that in a male-dominated scene, nobody (including the women) would own up to how the music made them really feel.

. . .

Metallica - 'One' (video still)

. . .

The thing is, I suspect their reasons for loving metal were similar to mine. Some of them – possibly most of them – found something in metal that purged their pain and made them feel powerful. And it didn’t just help with big, life-changing trauma. Frustrated at school? Anthrax’ cover of “Got the Time” provided a three-minute thrash-filled vacation. Feeling like my parents didn’t get me – or my love of metal? Accept’s “Generation Clash” provided the perfect, brooding companion to my angst.

Despite those common threads, I was left alone with the music. That, too, was problematic. For example, one of the best – and most inescapable – metal albums of the 1980s was Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. Penned by a bunch of testosterone-fueled musicians just on the far side of adulthood, the album is reckless, alive, full of emotion: anger, love, sexuality, confusion. On the one hand, there are tender moments in “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. On the other, there’s the balls-out version of “You’re Crazy”, the perfect antidote to those times when your friends and loved ones stop making sense. So far, so good.

But then there’s “It’s So Easy” – “Turn around, bitch, I’ve got a use for you / Besides, you ain’t got nothing better to do, and I’m bored” – to say nothing of the sexual exploitation in “Anything Goes”. The original album cover, by Robert Williams, featured a robotic rapist standing over his sprawled, unconscious victim. Sure, a flying monster was about to give the robot its comeuppance, but the damage had already been done.

I don’t know what guys made of these messages. As a female fan – and as someone who had been through sexual assault – it made me uneasy at best. I loved the music, mostly. But I had to love it in spite of what it told me about women. Certainly GNR were not the only ones exploring exploitation and dominance over women: Mötley Crüe, Alice Cooper, W.A.S.P. ,and many others belted their fair share of misogynistic lyrics. Even those bands more likely to appeal to “chicks” made sure to feature prancing women in their videos just so we’d know men’s desires were still important. In some ways, it was easier to listen to bands like Slayer and Metallica, who barely acknowledged women at all.

Sure, there were women metal musicians in those days. Lita Ford rocked with the best of them, but she always did so with her breasts on display. All-girl bands such as Vixen gained airplay but were largely marginalized. Their music was too girly for the guy crowd, and their sexy outfits relegated them to pinup status in most people’s minds.

Even the use of makeup among ’80s bands – from Twisted Sister to Poison – was in no way a concession to feminine power. Quite the opposite; by co-opting “girly” makeup, the guys were saying, “I’m so manly, I’m going to doll up and you’ll still know exactly what I am: a hard-rocking, ass-kicking dude”. Looking like a woman was a way of proving how much of a man you were.

Metal’s guy-centric atmosphere can be chalked up to the fact that metal was founded almost exclusively by young men. For a long while, it was a rowdy boys’ club, one where they could let it all hang out, specially their fears and neuroses about women, and about the feminine parts of themselves. Even with counter-evidence staring them right in the face (I was by no means the only female buying records or concert tickets), it was a shockingly long time before guys realized they weren’t the only ones throwing the horns.

When it did come, that awareness didn’t come so much from the guys themselves but from the women who powered their way into the scene. At the end of the ’80s, as grunge took over the airwaves, everyone took a break from the hyper-masculine world of heavy metal. Guys got a chance to be angsty and emotional with bands such as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden – and to share the auditorium floor with girls. Meanwhile, Riot Grrrl put women in power. Their guitars roared with it; their voices screamed with it. Even when women like Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love dressed like sexy little girls, it was clear that it wasn’t for titillation.

. . .

Appetite for Destruction - Original Cover

. . .

As metal soldiered on, it branched out. Operatic and folk metal bands place women musicians front and center. Singers like Angela Gossow, Stevie Floyd, and Otep Shamaya have proven they can bellow with the best of them – and rock out without flashing their goods. Mainstream metal acts, from Tool to Lacuna Coil, offer emotional music that doesn’t emasculate the audience.

Now, many metal shows see something approaching gender parity. Many women still adopt the t-shirt/jeans uniform, but others finally feel free to dress in their own style without the risk of being ostracized. Sure, there are limits – metal is still a subculture with some fairly strict rules, but those limits are expanding.

That doesn’t mean the sexism is gone. The rise of women in metal bands has unfortunately given rise to such ideas as the “Hottest Chicks in Metal” tour, reinforcing the idea that women are only onstage to be ogled. And not just onstage – even now, there are men who will tell you that if you dare sit on someone’s shoulders so you can see, you’d better show your tits. If you want to crowd-surf, you might as well be Lara Logan in Tahrir Square. And when a woman shows her love for Slayer by belly-dancing to “Black Magic”, it’s only fair to (a) laugh at her or (b) talk about how hot she is, right?

It isn’t gone from the music or the videos, either. Behemoth’s latest, “Ov Fire and the Void”, maintains one of the oldest feminine symbols in the book: woman as demon – a sexy, child-bearing, edible demon.

There are no quick fixes for the misogyny that’s been rampant in the metal scene since Ozzy sang “Evil Woman”. Partly, that’s because the sexism in metal mirrors (and distills) the sexism in larger society. To get past it, we have to consciously choose to transcend thousands of years of cultural and DNA programming.

The good news is, metalheads love finding ways to rebel against mainstream society. We can use this to our advantage. Musicians and listeners both need to get past the blockade known as the male gaze. Stop assuming that the primary listener is a heterosexual male, and you’re already on your way.

Guys can do their part by making space for women in the scene. For starters, get past the idea that women “don’t like metal”. Be friendly at shows, but don’t flirt. Talk about a song you like, or the last time you saw the band live. Then ask women about their experiences with the music and gigs. In other words, make them feel welcome without making them feel like a steak on a platter. Keep your hands off. If you see fellow guys mistreating the women in the audience, say something.

Women have their responsibilities, too. Show up, rock out, and speak up for your love of metal. Do it your way and don’t let anyone cut you down for it. Talk to guys at shows – about the music. Keep an eye on women in the crowd who aren’t being respected, and step in (or get help) when that happens. Get involved. Take pictures at shows, or start a blog. Make a lot of noise about the bands who write music for everyone. Make a lot of noise at bands who don’t.

Readers: What have your experiences of sexism in the metal scene been? What lyrics, images, or behaviors stand out to you? And what do you think can be done to make the scene more welcoming, particularly to female fans? What, if anything, needs to change?

— Beth Winegarner
Pictured front: Susan Gerl

. . .

Beth Winegarner is a frequently published author in print and online.
She blogs at Backward Messages about misconceptions of metal, violent video games, the occult, and other topics.

. . .