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To What Extent Has Popular Music Culture Challenged Dominant Gender Norms? Critically Analyse with Reference to Relevant Literature and Examples

In: Film and Music

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To what extent has popular music culture challenged dominant gender norms? Critically analyse with reference to relevant literature and examples
Traditional dominant gender norms state that women are feminine in appearance, including everything from their hair down to their shoes and of course their demeanour, voice and behaviour. The traditional man would be that who is strong and rugged with a deep voice and who is overtly masculine without a hint of make up or traditionally feminine clothing. It has been decades since these norms have begun to alter and be challenged as both sexes began experimenting with gender and identity through the medium of music. By looking at different music genres throughout the ages I will attempt to show how popular music has broken down social barriers and in my opinion has succeeded in challenging gender norms to a point where the perceptions of what is socially acceptable have been altered. Before delving into the world of rock and roll it is noteworthy that the music industry was like any other business, a typically male environment in which women were not expected to survive.

The music industry and specifically the Rock genre were sexually focused from the very early stages, as far back as the 40’s and 50’s. Rock music posed a question of morality and was perceived as shocking and dangerous because of its explicit sexual overtones. An example of these first steps in the scene would be Elvis whose gold, tight outfits and pelvic thrusts were considered hugely taboo yet millions of young girls, and indeed boys, idolised and fantasized about him. Rock music had a large following because of its rebellious nature and the rise of consumerism whereby it meant that teenagers could freely buy records themselves. Through this boom in consumerism and the addictive and thrilling nature of the music, rock was pushed into the mainstream of popular culture.

Glam rock emerged and was more about performance and image than previous rock music to date. The idea of androgyny and subversion of one’s gender became more and more apparent with characters such as David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ a controversial challenge to tradition and heterosexuality. This was in stark contrast with the indie rock scene present in Liverpool in the 1990’s where the accepted look and style was that of ‘lads off the street’ and people were violently opposed to men in flamboyant dress as they were of the strong belief that ‘real men don’t wear make-up’.

On the other end of the spectrum came about artists like K. D. Lang who dressed in boyish clothes making no attempt at femininity because of the unwanted attention it would draw to her appearance and the discomfort she felt at being objectified by her fellow musicians. Kathy Lang sang songs about a non-descript lover and often her image was portrayed so carefully in music videos that she appeared truly ambiguous with regard to her gender identity. Many influential artists partook in the gender-bending experimentation, even huge names such a Mick Jagger. Despite his macho persona and controversial opinions of women as subservient beings, his very feminine style and demeanour added a different dimension to his character. As the singer/songwriter, writing the lyrics to his songs, he is a male with masculine views but his ambiguous persona allows him to play at once the ‘titillating/submissive woman and the male perpetrator of violence’.

For women to be involved in rock music it was the common presumption that they would be background singers or maybe lead vocals however they were very rarely instrumentalists. Women were often relegated to the roles of singers which were believed required less talent than a musician playing the drums or electric guitar. The electric guitar was seen as a masculine tool. Music making, often seen as an activity that involves a large amount of technological knowledge, was assumed to be something that women could not handle, the electric guitar being a very good symbol for this. The softer tones of an acoustic guitar could be seen as feminine but it was thought that the ‘rock’n’roll’ sound of an electric guitar was too heavy and strong for a woman. The guitar was seen as ‘an extension of the male body’, a phallic symbol with which to boost their egos and therefore they were not culturally accepted as a unisex instrument.

The punk rock genre evolved in the 70’s and was considered a more ‘DIY’ form of rock. This new approach and attitude to the genre seemed to open up more space for women in the industry as it offered the opportunity to speak one’s mind and experiment with music. The ‘riot grrrl’ movement was a product of this genre and was an underground feminist punk movement by which female artists were reclaiming the word ‘girl’. Instead of following male trends in rock the grrrls wanted to create their own sound and so took inspiration from British reggae, finding a lot in common with the style of music as it relates to being an outsider. Women would hold underground shows where various female artists would perform to female audiences in an attempt to alter and undermine performance conventions. Problems that they were likely to face was that by shutting men out of their target audience and by being self proclaimed feminists, their success rates would not be particularly high as half of the market would not buy into the scene. This led to worry that the message of the movement might have been lost somewhat because men didn’t necessarily listen to what they had to express. Although most artists were self proclaimed feminists, many also refused to call themselves feminists. ‘Feminism’ seemed to come with strings attached to it, as though one had to know all the ‘rules’ and details of feminism and when dealing with a movement as rebellious as the riot grrrls, it was unlikely that they were interested in following a set of perceived rules when all they wanted at the time was anarchy. Women in the industry are rarely taken as seriously as men. Alanis Morissette was criticized for being pretentious when attempting to write clever lyrics and was accused of ‘sixth-form self-indulgence’ because she sounded like someone having ‘just discovered Philip Larkin’ whereas the Manic Street Preachers were openly praised for their intelligence when quoting Larkin in their lyrics, clear double standards at work. Women are often seen to be whining and irritating when writing of emotions in their work whilst men are the objects of our sympathies for their troubled lives, an example of this mistreatment by the press can be seen when comparing the deaths of both Polly Jean Harvey and Kurt Cobain. While Cobain was mourned as a tragedy where an authentic and honest musician was tortured and ground down by the industry and henceforth driven to his deathbed, Harvey was seen as mentally unstable because she was not strong enough to handle the business and went through typical female issues like leaving home and having a failed relationship. The triviality with which P. J. Harvey’s death was handled shows how discrimination is apparent even in death. Although the sounds of Poly Styrene and the Slits are difficult to come by in popular music of our generation, there are still constant hints of their inspiration in artists such as Lily Allen and Kate Nash who’s latest album has a track titled ‘Kiss that grrrl’.

Rap and hip-hop music holds a very different female stereotype in that women are simply sex objects that come second only to money. Although a generalisation, in the majority of male dominated music videos for the genre support this. However, that being said, there have been a fair few very successful female artists of the genre who break these stereotypes. Missy Elliot is one of the most successful female artists of the generation and along with others, her personal style and take on rap music found a way to diffuse the idea that all black women are objects of sexual desires and nothing more.

Country music is another genre shrouded with racial stereotypes but which has had a very strong female presence from an early age with the likes of Dolly Parton. However, much like rap and hip-hop, one doesn’t ever see gender bending or ambiguity within the genre. This lack of variation and sexual experimentation is due to the roots of the genres. The social conditions by which these genres are formed and enjoyed are social environments in which sexual ambiguity would be completely unacceptable.

The treatment of women in the industry by the music press is another hot topic of much debate. In June 1996, mojo produced a ‘100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’ list where a mere three of these were women. It can be argued that as the majority of music journalism is written by males, that their interest would be in other male artists whom they admire and less so in female musicians and when women are in fact written about they are regarded primarily as ‘women’ and then as musicians instead of the other way around. It is almost as if women’s achievements in the industry are being forgotten about and sometimes seems as though the riot grrrl movement may as well have never happened. Even when women make it onto the cover of a music magazine they will more often than not be portrayed in an overtly sexual manner whereby their talent is overlooked because what is really intriguing is their femininity.

Although inequality is still rife in the music business, I think that men, as sexual human beings who are primarily stimulated by images, will always find a woman in woman’s clothes attractive in some way. To say that this is always a dismissal of the woman’s talent I find irrational as it sometimes may simply be their admiration for the female form and not personally undermining the artist at all. However, that there are still criticisms of intelligence and strength of character simply because someone is a woman I find simply intolerable and this attitude represents yet another barrier that remains intact. I feel that the popular music industry has definitely cleared the way for experimentation with gender and identity and although it was considered extremely taboo initially, the likes of La Roux and Lady GaGa today have had huge success and have been accepted without question into the industry, showing in my opinion that thanks to musicians all those decades ago, music has become a medium by which one can openly express their creativity and originality with little objection from the public.
Word Count: 1,700


* Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997 * Critical Readings: Media and Gender, Edited by Cynthia Carter and Linda Steiner, Maidenhead Open University Press 2004 * ‘Punk’s forgotten female heroes’ Leonie Cooper, Wednesday 8th August 2007


[ 2 ]. Pg. 26, ‘Men making a scene’ Sarah Cohen, Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997
[ 3 ]. Pg. 29, ‘Men making a scene’ Sarah Cohen, Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997
[ 4 ]. Pg. 192, ‘K. D. Lang: from cowpunk to androgyny’ Stella Bruzzi, Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997
[ 5 ]. Pg. 95, ‘Jagger, sexuality, style and image’ Sheila Whiteley, Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997
[ 6 ]. Pg. 59, ‘(R)evolution’ Norma Coates, Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997
[ 7 ]. Pg. 43, ‘Women and the electric guitar’ Mavis Bayton, Sexing the Groove – popular music and gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge 1997
[ 8 ]. “took musical inspiration not from the 4/4 garage rock of the 1960s but from reggae music” Punk’s forgotten female heroes, Leonie Cooper,
[ 9 ]. “feminism at that time came as a set of rules and punk was about anarchy and rejecting rules” Punk’s forgotten female heroes, Leonie Cooper,
[ 10 ]. Pg. 169, ‘The great Rock and Roll Swindle’ Helen Davies, Critical Readings: Media and Gender, Edited by Cynthia Carter and Linda Steiner, Maidenhead Open University Press 2004
[ 12 ]. ‘Mojo: Greatest 100 Guitarists of All Time’ Gordon Stephen , Mojo Magazine 1996,
[ 13 ]. Pg. 164, ‘The great Rock and Roll Swindle’ Helen Davies, Critical Readings: Media and Gender, Edited by Cynthia Carter and Linda Steiner, Maidenhead Open University Press 2004
[ 14 ]. Pg. 166, ‘The great Rock and Roll Swindle’ Helen Davies, Critical Readings: Media and Gender, Edited by Cynthia Carter and Linda Steiner, Maidenhead Open University Press 2004

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