Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies

Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies
School of Sociology and Social Policy
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Rosemary Lucy Hill publishes new book: Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music

Gender, Metal and the Media by Rosemary Lucy Hill

Gender, Metal and the Media by Rosemary Lucy Hill

By Rosemary Lucy Hill



Women fans of popular culture are often derided or overlooked – and music is no exception. But academic work about music fans does not tend to think about the ways in which women music fans might experience their musical engagements differently to men – in part because of the derision. In fact, when it comes to rock music, a lot of work about fans does not think very hard about pleasure in music at all; it tends to use a framework of subcultural theory which means that consumer practices like attending concerts and buying records are prioritised. Music itself, and enjoyment of it, gets left out.

As I grew up enjoying rock and metal music, I struggled to negotiate the stereotypes of women fans. And I felt left out by the culture: in the media women were either ignored or the butt of jokes that furthered male bonding. These things had an impact on my fandom, making for a more obviously gendered terrain to negotiate as a fan, especially when around other fans. And as a feminist I was pretty cross about these things, which I identified as being rooted in sexist assumptions about women.

This is the starting point for my new book: Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music (Palgrave). I examine how stereotypes of women are reproduced in the metal media. This means looking at how women are mythologised as fans and as groupies whilst men take the stage. It means understanding how the gendered roles of fan and musician are naturalised, resulting in a common sense idea that women shouldn’t be on the stage at all. But all this happens within another mythologised value: the metal media propagates the idea that the culture is one of equality, and that it doesn’t matter what sex, race, sexuality or nationality you are, as long as you love the music.

These stereotypes of women as groupies and of metal as a realm of equality impact upon women’s fandom in particular ways. The myth of the groupie means that women’s fandom is always suspect: we are assumed to be more interested in the musician that the music. Women’s passionate engagement with the music is ignored, as if we can have no serious interest in listening. Women fans feel angry about this sexist portrayal. But we also feel inhibited when it comes to talking about any sexy thoughts about musicians that go along with our listening pleasure, because these might be seen to diminish our status as fans. But why should music fandom only be about listening? When we see bands perform it would be odd not to think of the musicians as playing a key role in creating the experience of our musical engagement; why, then, take only select aspects of that pleasure and treat them seriously, but not others? We vitally need to rethink how we understand musical pleasure. And we need to grasp how some elements reproduce sexist arguments that diminish women’s fandom.

Music has multiple meanings for people – there are as many different interpretations of the same song as there are listeners. Some of these meanings are explicitly informed by the listener’s gender, for instance when a particular band become a great accompaniment for doing housework. More domestic labour is still done by women than men and so the significance of choosing music to help get through the cleaning highlights how gender shapes our musical experiences. But not all experiences. Music has the power to help us move beyond those specifically gendered experiences – I spoke to one woman for whom listening to her favourite bands enabled her to forget the boring chore of ironing, even as she was in the process of doing it. Music has a transcendent quality, helping us to think creatively, to leave the gendering of our subjectivities behind temporarily.

Hard rock and metal are culturally coded as masculine, and they are notoriously male dominated. A lot of research identifies where the culture is sexist too. But this is not the whole story. Indeed, rock and metal exist in our sexist societies so it is no surprise to find sexism here too. More surprising is that for a lot of women fans, our participation in metal events (concerts, festivals and clubs) means entering a space in which we are less likely to be the targets of men’s unwanted sexual advances and harassments than at mainstream events. This means that metal can be a space in which women can find some freedom from constricting gender roles and oppressive sexism. Of course, it is not entirely free, but we can say that it is free-er. That myth of equality clearly plays a part here, helping people to act in ways that are not organised by prejudice. But sexual equality is not yet a reality, and that myth of equality needs work if it is to become reality.

Musical experiences (both private and social) are therefore shaped by gendered divisions and expectations. And yet hard rock and metal fandom can provide spaces in which women can temporarily forget the gendered limitations placed upon them. ‘Metal fan’ it can be an identity through which to resist gender strictures. These subtle conclusions show how examining women’s experiences in male dominated culture reveal some of the contradictions of femininity, of equality, of feminism – and of gender as a division of people into two groups. It reveals the oppressive nature of the ordinariness of sexism and of the strictures of femininity. It speaks of the need for alternatives for women in order to live our lives as we wish.


The book is available from Palgrave. Use the code PM16THIRTY until 31st December 2016 for a 30% discount. http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137554406

Rosemary will be talking about the book on Thinking Allowed on 21st December 2016.


A note on the research underpinning the book.

The research was conducted at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. It was self-funded. Methods include a case study of semiotic analysis of a music magazine in the early 2000s, and interviews with women fans living in England. The research was conducted in line with feminist ontology and epistemology. In particular the book engages with theories about women’s involvement in popular music and research about hard rock and metal.

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Safe Spaces and the politics of vulnerability

By Chris Waugh

Image credit: the author

Image credit: the author

In her recent essay, “Bouncing Back: Vulnerability and Resistance in Time of Resilience,” Sarah Bracke identifies a clash between what she calls the “Look I Overcame” narrative and a culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces on University campuses. For Bracke, the former epitomises an enforced character trait of resilience within neoliberalism. Subjects are expected to be resilient to the harsh threats and dangers of life, to respond with overcoming rather than vulnerability, and thus those subjects who are not perceived as resilient – those who call for safe spaces, for example – are denigrated and belittled.

As both an activist and a social movement researcher, the concept of safe spaces has long interested me. My research focuses on gender discrimination and sexual violence within socialist movements, many of which are ideologically hostile to gendered ideas of vulnerability. Safe spaces, in some ways, are an attempt to explore this vulnerability. So I’d like to consider in this blog post the role of safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are vital spaces for the politics of vulnerability.

Safe spaces. Who’d have them? A fair number of students unions and leftist campaigns would, but the list of people who wouldn’t includes, in no particular order, Stephen Fry, the Guardian, and Theresa May. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to speak for safe spaces, but the list of people to speak against them is long and acerbic in their condemnation. If you knew nothing about them, you’d think that safe spaces were some sort of ungodly bogeyman responsible for all evil in the world; Theresa May brands safe spaces as “self censorship” and even went as far as to blame them for potential problems in the UK economy. More commonly, we hear the claim that safe spaces impinge on freedom of speech, and are the product of “molly coddled” or “snowflake” students who want to live in a bubble, isolated from the sober realities of the world. It’s funny, really; one of the principles of free speech, as I understand it, is that you try to understand your opponent’s rationale, and it seems in the majority of cases, the free speech advocates haven’t bothered to do this with safe spaces. So, now, let’s speak for safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are a sometimes clumsy, but vital part of enriched public discussion and political participation.

Let’s begin with a few distinctions. People have a tendency to elide “safe spaces” with “no platform” policies. While these are correlated, they are not the same. “No platform” (a refusal to permit someone a public stage or forum) as a political concept originates from the anti-fascist movement, as a way of preventing the dissemination of racist ideas. This in itself is not a concept which is divorced from wider societal expectations – we do, after all, have a legally enshrined concept of racial hate speech, and provision within law to take away the liberty of those who racially abuse others. Since the 1980s, no platforming has spread to prevent those who advocate hate or violence to marginalised groups from gaining a platform, and there’s a separate debate to be had about that and the concept in general. Safe spaces, on the other hand, arose from the LGBT movement. It was, in essence, a policy proposal to allow LGBT students in particular to find “spaces” (whether these be physical spaces such as rooms in a university building, or metaphorical spaces like a social movement) where they could escape from homophobia and transphobia. This is principled on, for example, encouragement to modify language, to think before you speak, to never presume experience on another person’s behalf, and to be reflexive and supportive. From there, the concept of safe spaces has grown to be incorporated by feminist movements, BME movements, leftist organisations, and beyond. I, for example, attend an alcohol support group which isn’t remotely connected to any university environment, where we are reminded that within that space of a church hall in South Leeds for one hour every fortnight, we are in a safe space, a space where we can talk about our addictions, where we will not be judged for them, and where we must not judge others. At least in principle, safe spaces are based on the idea of consideration and solidarity. What’s so wrong about that?

Part of the criticism of safe spaces is that people who want them do not want to engage with the difficult issues of life, and instead live in fantasy. This is a rather simplified way of looking at things. It has been argued that safe spaces are an excuse for individuals to wallow in their own vulnerability. This buys into a dichotomy, articulated by Bracke, that vulnerability is opposed to resilience, with the latter being an essential virtue of neoliberal subjectivity, and the former being a barrier to resistance. However, as Judith Butler has argued, this binary is not quite so simple. Vulnerability can empower agents and  become a catalyst for resistance in certain contexts.   If anything, people use safe spaces as a method of engaging with difficult issues, often to do with deeply personal topics such as discrimination, rape, ostracism and so on, in a different way. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that we tend to think that there is only one “public sphere” which we are all part of, and this is fundamentally incorrect. While there is a “public sphere” each individual and group forms their own “counterpublics” where the rest of the actors in the public sphere are not, necessarily, welcome – your home, for example, is a counterpublic in this sense. Fraser argues that social movements, feminist organisations and the like, function as counterpublics for people with some shared political aim or experience of discrimination. These counterpublics, however, are not separatist organisations but spaces for recuperation, a place where individuals and groups can think about how best to face the issues in the public sphere. Within certain forms of psychiatry, there is a similar concept of the therapeutic community. This is a place, or group, outside of the usual therapeutic setting (i.e, the hospital or the counselling service) where individuals may find some sort of escape from the issues which affect them in daily life. This may be a gym, a community group, or even family. These communities are not separatist, but, rather like safe spaces, are positioned as a place of temporary withdrawal, and recuperation. Fraser writes:

Perhaps the most striking example is the late-twentieth century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. In this public sphere, feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality, including “sexism,” “the double shift,” “sexual harassment,” and “marital, date, and acquaintance rape.” Armed with such language, we have recast our needs and identities, thereby reducing, although not eliminating, the extent of our disadvantage in official public sphere.

Safe spaces, in this sense, allow for groups to come up with new tools for political engagement in the public sphere, new strategies of resistance. Consider, based on Fraser’s example, how our public discourse is vastly improved for the fact that we have concepts of sexism and so on.  Are safe spaces perfect in implementation? No. Rather like political correctness, they are a clumsy, but ultimately well meaning attempt to build a more inclusive society. What’s so bad about that?

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CIGS student rewrites the balance on sport reporting

by Olivia Morris (MA Gender Studies)englandnewzealandscrum2016-copy_0

Women’s sport is massively underreported in national print press, and the percentage of female writers publishing articles on sport is even lower. I wrote a match report on the England V New Zealand rugby game played on Saturday 19th November at Harlequins Stoop for Kettle. The aim of the article is to provide a detailed report of the game as well as an insight into my experience of attending it.

As a rugby player myself, I find it frustrating that men’s rugby is defined as just ‘rugby’ whereas female teams are always ‘women’s rugby’ e.g. England Rugby and England Women’s Rugby (as is with most sports). Instead, I have titled the two teams either by their country or how they are better known in the rugby world as the “Red Roses” (England) and the “Black Ferns” (New Zealand).

You can read the full match report here:


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CIGS gets a new blog page

CIGS now has a blog page! We will be adding new posts about the research being undertaken by CIGS staff and PhD students.

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