Gender Expectations in the Music Industry

Women in the music industry are more limited than men when it comes to the instruments they play, the way they express themselves as artists and as fans, and the way they can express their gender and sexuality. Women are fundamentally disrespected and underestimated in the music industry because of society’s preconceived notions and expectations. In addition to having to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of financially by labels who get the artists to sign “deal memos” so that the “label is in a position of strength,” women also have to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of sexually. We live in a society that is full of mixed messaged about women and their identity and value. Although music is an outlet, for many women in the industry it becomes something that holds them back from being authentic and developing as a person and artist.

Women are in most if not all genre of music, but they have not infiltrated them as men have. For example, in the article “Jazz View; Why Women Remain At the Back of the Bus,” author Peter Watrous discusses how “the mythology surrounding jazz works against women as well. It perpetuates a value system based on stereotypical notions of masculinity. A woman playing a deep blues on tenor on a saxophone enters traditional male territory, where all signs of passion are identified with gender, and a woman, to pull it off, must learn how to be male, a form of tranvestism.” However, even when women do take on this form of “transvestism” they are criticized for it. As Watrous points out, “even the way he [Louis Armstrong] disfigured his lip while playing the trumpet seemed an acceptable act for a man, less so for a woman.” Society is uncomfortable with seeing women perform typically masculine behaviors. As a result of this, women in the jazz world and in other genres of music are forced to miss out on opportunities.

Madonna received the Billboard’s Woman of the Year award and gave a painfully honest speech about the reality of the music industry and her experience in it as a woman through the decades. In her speech she touched on the “sexism, misogyny and abuse” she endured in the music industry as a woman. When she started out her “real muse was David Bowie. He embodied male and female spirit and that suited me just fine. He made me think they’re were no rules but I was wrong. There are no rules if you’re a boy. If you’re a girl you have to play the game. What is that game? You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy but don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion.” Women don’t have the same artistic freedom as men do because all of these expectations tied up in gender and sexuality are being imposed on them. Women in the music industry have been marketed by using sex and femininity for so long that when an artist doesn’t adhere to this, it’s hard to sell them. More male artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, and David Bowie have played with gender and “transvestism” than women. Men have been dressing up as women since before Shakespeare, once again leaving women out and narrowing their roles in the world of art. Therefore, it makes it hard for female artists like Madonna to challenge long standing gender norms without getting backlash. Although men in the industry may get criticism, because of their dominance and male privilege, they get less of it.

Another important relationship she discussed was between women in the music industry. Madonna stressed the importance of supporting each other, “as women we have to start appreciating our own work and each other’s work. Seek out strong women.” Girl on girl drama in the music is nothing new to us. Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea, are both “emerging young women in an industry that has, especially since the turn of the millennium, all but relegated women to video-girl roles.” Yet, these two have intense twitter feuds and put each other down. The rap music industry, like most music industries creates an environment where women are constantly pitted against each other for the spotlight and most importantly, for respect. It seems as in Azalea and Banks’ case, that respect can only be gained by dominating the other.

David Bowie, the “godfather of glam rock and the patron saint of defiant outcasts,” was successful in creating this “androgynous” persona or alter ego of Ziggy Stardust at one point in his career, becoming even more alluring and dynamic as an artist. Many people saw “a kindred spirit in Mr. Bowie’s various characters and gender-bending style” and thought “he had helped pioneer a sexy (and marketable) form of otherness that mainstream artists have tried to replicate in the decades since.” Arguably, there has not been a woman in the music industry who has adopted a gender neutral or “androgynous” persona as successfully as Bowie.

Even female music fans were expected to adhere to some pre-set gender notions when it came to their behavior but they were no doubt challenged by “beatlemania,” a “sexually defiant consumer culture” made up of preteen girls hopelessly devoted to worshipping the Beetles. Girls during the 1950s and 60s were expected “to be not only good and pure but to be the enforcers of purity within their teen society.” This “mass outburst” of girls did just the opposite, instead they defied societal expectations for women. To “abandon control — to scream, faint, dash about in mobs — was in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture.” This liberation movement for young girls was met by much disdain and was labeled an “epidemic.” Psychologists even offered theories and cures for the preteen Beetles groupies.

Another sort of movement that developed was the feminist inspired “self-empowerment” focused girl punk scene. Notable girl punk bands like Bikini Kill came out of this 90s movement. They took “inspiration from Madonna’s clothes” and unapologetically expressed themselves. Lead singer Kathleen Hanna recalls how she felt as a young woman in society at the time and in the music industry, “I was just sick of it. Every movie I saw, everywhere I looked, I saw sexism. I had never been looking before. And once I had that lens on, I just got more and more rageful.”

While newer female artists like Lady Gaga and Young M.A. are pioneers in the industry when it comes to challenging gender norms and expectations in the music industry, we still have a long way to go.