Heavy metal is hardly the most feminine genre of music. Large, hairy men stalk the world’s stages, broadcasting the soundtrack to the apocalypse through an unending stack of amplifiers. These champions of the ugly and downtrodden seemingly have little to offer to the fairer of the sexes… but appearances aren’t everything.
More women are making themselves known in the metal world, with bands such as Arch Enemy and Nightwish (two successful female-fronted metal bands) being prime examples. However, whilst the genre is more accessible than ever to women, the culture remains firmly rooted in heterosexual male ideals. Women are still placed on pedestals as objects of beauty and perfection as they sway gracefully before the microphone, whilst an overweight bald man glides across the stage on his belly. Should they choose to reject this notion of femininity, they must adopt an entirely masculine stage persona – even if they adopt this attitude, the plight of sexualisation persists in the heavy metal community.
Sam Barker is a woman who seeks to overcome this plight, having been influenced by heavy metal since she was fourteen. Going to an all-girls high school, she found that very few people shared her passion for hard rock and heavy metal; nonetheless she taught herself how to play guitar and formed a band. After high school, she attended the Australian Institute of Music, where she met the all-female members of local glam-revival outfit Thrüsh. Working at local metal nightclub Venom, she was able to book the band their first gigs, turning heads in the process. Regardless, being a woman in metal has its complications.
“It’s got its ups and its downs. There are a lot of negative connotations with it, but there are a couple of positive things,” Sam enthuses, suggesting that although it has its downsides, it isn’t all bad. “So, for example, being a chick means that I get more recognised ‘cuz there’s not many women. I don’t know the statistics specifically, but there are just…there are no women.” Women are few and far between in the metal scene, which can be both a good and bad thing for prospective musicians. One must yield to a male-dominated culture in order to make the grade (there is no ‘be yourself’), yet there are very few female musicians to challenge you.
Of course, this is only so long as you satisfy the aesthetic criteria. You might be able to shred alongside Eddie Van Halen, but there’s little success to be found if you look like Angus Young. Assuming you do satisfy these arbitrary beauty standards, however, does ability matter as much? “If I was a guy doing the exact same things as what I do, it probably wouldn’t be acknowledged as much,” Sam asserts. Perhaps you might be able to build a name for yourself on looks alone, yet the very crowd which propped you up on these merits will question your integrity as a musician. If you’re like Sam, toiling somewhere in the middle of feminine and masculine, you get a little of both: “I do get judged a lot more, and it’s a lot to do with aesthetic value as well as…it’s not just musical value.”
I can’t argue with her. In 2010, Revolver Magazine published their ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ calendar, which featured Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy fame. She slammed the magazine saying, “I don’t like the ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ movement at all. I think it’s kind of counterproductive and retro” in an interview with KNAC (an online magazine). She goes on to say, “it’s an embarrassment for female musicians, who actually are musicians,” ramming home the fact that looks have nothing to do with how you play your instrument.
These lofty beauty standards leave men at the door the moment you cross into the heavy metal subculture. Gone is the need for a trim waist and perfect skin, as going to any number of metal shows will illustrate. Instead, you find the sort of people you would normally associate with dirty bars and dark alleyways. Or, as Sam simply puts it, “there are a lot of hairy dudes.” Beauty is totally subjective, though, as Sam herself exemplifies: “I find hairy metal heads exceptionally attractive.” However, it is far more socially acceptable to be attracted to a conventionally unattractive man than a woman of the same calibre – this is only magnified by the distinct lack of women participating in the scene.
She went on to tell me about her experience at a Children of Bodom show in Sydney. Supporting the death metal titans was a local band called Voyager; their lead guitarist, Simone Drow, took the stage as it was time to perform. “A lot of guys around thought she was a roadie,” Sam told me, describing her as ‘”stocky” and “not the most feminine”. Following the realisation that she was actually a part of the band, people started making “derogatory comments… because she wasn’t hot, conventionally.” Afterwards, Sam found the most common reaction was “she’s alright for a girl”. As a guitarist herself, Sam knows exactly how it feels to receive such underhanded praise. Women can never escape their gender in the realm of metal, which mars the expectation put upon them by their peers – even if they do find the recognition they deserve, as Sam and many others have, they are still often met with the tired remark. Sam and Simone are both guitarists, which highlights another issue confronting women in metal; their place in the band.
“It’s sad, but most women are keyboardists or bass players. Guitarists are less common, but the rarest thing is a female drummer. I’ve met four of them in my life.” The most common place women find in bands is that of the vocalist, as Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy and Floor Jansen of Nightwish illustrate. Perhaps this reflects a need for women to be on display to be appreciated. Women might not be able to find recognition if they hide behind an instrument, concealing their aesthetic. Perhaps this is also why female drummers are so rare, along with the stigma attached to drummers as being ‘cavemen of the future’.
With all this focus on beauty, one would be forgiven for thinking that metal isn’t a culture built for outsiders after all. It seems society’s standards for women have persisted despite the declaration of metal as music for the ugly and downtrodden. This can be put down to metal being established from the very beginning of its life as a ‘boys club’. Even the most feminine of the metal genres, glam metal, lacks a solid female talent base to draw on. “The whole glam thing is men wearing spandex and tights in order to appease a primarily male-oriented audience. The whole premise is objectifying women, partying, doing drugs. It’s like this peacocking affair for other guys to admire,” Sam explains. Glam is no refuge for women in metal, as it displays and perpetuates the same misogyny found in other forms of the genre.
Misogyny is everywhere, though. As horrible as it is for women in the metal scene, it is still very much outsider music. The abrasive sound and dark lyrics could never be fully accepted by a mainstream audience. The music rails against everything that defines popular music, even if the culture is still in many ways rooted in larger cultural trends. Sam agrees, “I think Metal is still very much outsider music. I mean that’s the whole theory of metal being for outsiders. But at the same time you’re gonna get the stigmatism with women everywhere. Metal is very misogynistic, but you get that everywhere: in music, in the arts, in media…just anything.”
The rampant objectification and dismissal of women hasn’t gone unnoticed by all, however, as the rise of bands like Steel Panther seek to expose and make fun of this phenomenon. A parody glam metal band, Steel Panther have gained a huge amount of success through their blunt portrayal of eighties hair metal. Although their success has been able to illuminate the sexism in metal for some, there are still many who take the band at face-value. Sam concurs, “Steel Panther have started to poke fun at misogyny in the metal scene… [but] people are still laughing without realising the connotations behind it.”
Sam takes a lot of cues from Steel Panther in her own endeavours with Thrüsh – the five members of the band dress in provocative clothing, including leather, spandex, and fishnets. The band plays a similar style of eighties hard rock, whilst spouting lyrics about using boys and getting trashed; somewhat of a female appropriate of Steel Panther’s own lyrics. “There are five females in the band, and we use that to take the piss out of being objectified,” Sam continues, “a lot of our songs were piss-takes out of the whole glam rock scene, the metal scene, women in metal.” Despite her best intentions, Sam still found that the males in her audience were using that to further legitimize objectifying her and the band: “Some people were saying that, you know, your music parodies that, so therefore it’s okay for us to objectify you because you’re saying so yourself, which wasn’t the case.”
Surely, I thought, being a woman in metal would not only be degrading but also incredibly difficult to crack. After all, if no one takes you seriously, how are you supposed to progress in a world defined by the tastes of your peers? Sam says it isn’t as hard as it might seem – “I’ve been noticed since day one. I started clubbing and it didn’t take me long to get a dent in the local scene.” I assumed this would only last so long, perhaps as a result of merely being a good-looking woman in the right place at the right time, but Sam continues to impress me with the swiftness of her ascent: “Within a year I ended up working at the biggest metal club in Sydney, I had a single come out, I had a lot of recognition from a lot of the local scene. I mean, it’s been two years now, and I’d say I’m definitely a big part of the scene.”
Despite heterosexual male ideology being at the forefront of metal for all of its forty-odd year existence, many women like Sam have made their mark, or began to make their mark. Unfortunately, much of this demands adopting one of two types of personas: one must either embrace their femininity to the fullest, or disregard it entirely. Almost all notably successful women in metal adhere to one of these archetypes in a bid to compete with the men who’ve owned this genre since its beginning. Sam is one of the few women who choose to be entirely themselves on stage, and her success can be attributed not only to her musical prowess, but her cunning ability to navigate the scene.
Making the most of your situation is admirable, but it’s definitely something that needs to change. One can only hope that metal culture will begin to shed its juvenile approach to women, but Sam thinks we still have a while to go; when I asked her if she thought it would change anytime soon, she had this to say: “Maybe. I don’t know – every now and then I see a little glimmer of hope when someone takes me seriously as a musician.” This is hardly fair, but until something changes Sam and others like her will have to put up with being marginalized and objectified. That said, she wishes there was something she could do. “Until I can do something about it, which I don’t know, I might never be able to do something about. As a feminist I want equality within the sexes and the metal scene’s very close to heart – but until then I’m just going to have to take the piss out of it some more.”
This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed