Updated: Feb 10
At the height of music is her passion's metal month, we take a closer look at gender equality and the topic of sexism within the metal scene. From artists to fans and professionals behind the stage - this article examines the importance of equality empowerment in a tight-knit community of music fans.
When we think of heavy metal and its countless sub-genres, a few images immediately come to mind: long hair, headbanging, black clothes, studded leather, electric guitars, sweaty crowds, perhaps even long beards. For those who are not part of the metal scene, womxn will rarely come to mind among the first associations with heavy metal music. Nevertheless, the heavy metal community often describes themselves as one of the most inclusive and equality-empowering niches of musical fandom. Female festival-goers would agree with this: the metal scene is based on a mutual love for music, and less focused on differences in gender, ethnic background or sexuality. The early days of metal were heavily marked with macho lyrics and degrading imagery of womxn on metal artwork. In the 80s, rather conservative Christian organizations, such as the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and the American Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) voiced deep concern that metal music could be damaging due to sexist and violent language and imagery. Their concerns were partially justified through feminist ideologies - perhaps to appeal to a wider range of people - and definitely fueled by the overall Satanic Panic that stigmatized the music genre at the time. Without a doubt, the days of judging heavy metal based on conservative Christian ideology have passed - but it is still not free of judgment from other directions. How sexist is heavy metal today?
“The whole game of ‘rock’ was designed and maintained by the patriarchy. So if the rules are written by men, it makes it very difficult for women to infiltrate. It’s very difficult still for women to be treated as equal thinkers and creators.”
Shirley Manson (Garbage)
Equality On Stage
As explored in detail in our article on the revolutionary band Girlschool, womxn had fight hard for their seat at the table of heavy metal. Only after over a decade of the genre being dominated by male-only bands, in 1978, the British quintet Kim McAuliffe, Enid Williams, Kelly Johnson, and Denise Dufort began to pave the way for a more gender-neutral future of heavy metal. Since then, many incredible female solo artists, musicians, and bands have risen to great success within the metal scene. The branding "female-fronted" has been widely eradicated over the years, and some of the most successful artists of recent years happen to be female-presenting. However, as music journalist Chris Aitkens describes in his article on the darker side of metal, "women in bands are still seen as a novelty and their music isn’t necessarily celebrated". From artists being bullied by their own band members, catcalled by predominantly male crowds, or just paid less when booked for a festival - there is still proof for gender inequality of artists in the heavy metal scene. And, even if they are celebrated and paid well, female-representing artists are often underrepresented among prestigious festival line-ups. For instance, of the 17 bands announced for British heavy metal festival Bloodstock 2018’s main stage, Nightwish was the only one with a female member. In 2021, as the festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary, the prestigious line-up of metal legends, newcomers and hidden gems has added a few more females on stage. But with only seven of nearly fifty confirmed acts having one or more non-male members - making up 15% of the line-up - it looks like gender equality still has a long way to go on the stages of metal music. If festival bookers need some help finding excellent female metal artists, feel free to check out the line-up of our article on female forces in metal music today!
An inclusive community?
In front of the concert stages of heavy metal music, and within the community of fans, inclusivity and equality are highly valued. Far from mainstream pop culture, metalheads are united by their love for music and the lifestyle that comes with it. According to R.L. Hill, a University of Leeds researcher who examined sexism in the metal community in her 2018 paper "Metal and sexism", found that equality is a highly valued concept for metal fans. The love for music unites a worldwide community and concertgoers everywhere. This prioritization of music within the community also explains concert and festival venues being a relatively sexism-free environment.
“Honestly the men are there for the music, they're not there to pick up women [...] and it's all business", says one of the participants of Hill's study.
While female fans are perhaps less likely to be harassed at Bloodstock or Wacken than at Coachella or other mainstream music festivals, they still experience some discrimination on a different level. For instance, as music remains at the center of the community, many female metalheads admit to having been faced with a barrage of questions to prove the authenticity of their fandom, as researchers Nordström and Herz note in their 2013 study. Interestingly, women in jazz - a similar niche genre with an incredibly dedicated fan base - seem to face similar issues, as the founder of the Young Jazz Professionals network Kine Lundervold told us in an interview. The early days of both jazz and metal were both heavily shaped by male artists, and this intense questioning of female community members might just be the after taste of that - oh, and the media's tendency to label female-presenting metal fans as groupies might also contribute to the issue.
Sexism behind the scenes
As yesterday's in-depth article on the incredible legacy of Argentinian PR manager and publicist Gabriela Sisti proves: there are many womxn pulling the strings behind the scenes of heavy metal today. Another one of the most high-profile women of the metal industry is Brazilian artist manager Gloria Cavalera, best known for her work with Sepultura in the 90s. The most successful womxn of the industry share the same passion for music, ambition, and thick skin. Despite the success of her clients, Gloria Cavalera had to face countless misogynistic verbal attacks from (male) fans who blamed her for her husband Max's departure from the band in 1996. Her achievements in making Sepultura an international success were forgotten in the eyes of many.
“A few years ago, a stagehand didn’t realise who I was and asked my husband if he could have a blow job from ‘that girl over there’, and it was me. I just introduced myself and said, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Vicky, the promoter of the festival.’ The look on his face was one of, ‘I’d love to be anywhere but here’. It’s how you handle it that makes a difference.”
Vicky Hungerford, Bloodstock director
Gloria Cavalera and Vicky Hungerford's experience show that despite having achieved incredible career milestones, female-presenting professionals of the metal industry often have to deal with being underestimated, questioned, or simply not credited. Another example of this is Wendy Dio, now primarily known for being the wife to Ronnie Dio of Black Sabbath. If you google her, the first result is found within her husband's Wikipedia article. Her existence has been reduced to being "the wife of", despite having had a solid career in the music industry herself prior to meeting Ronnie. The same applies to Gloria Cavalera.
Cavalera, Hungerford, Sisti - and countless others - are proof that many of the greatest achievements within the metal industry are the work of womxn. However, their stories also show that female-presenting professionals are constantly questioned, discredited, and overlooked. They still have to fight harder for recognition than their male colleagues.
“Just keep on,” says Wendy Dio.“Especially the musicians. You do what you believe in. Don’t change yourself. And if you’re good enough, you’re gonna make it.”
Be it on the stage, in the mosh pit, or behind the scenes of metal productions, the metal industry is not free of sexism yet. The questioning of female-presenting fans, discrediting of womxn within the metal industry and under-representation of non-male acts among festival line-ups are proof of that. However, the metal community's primary focus on union through music also sets heavy metal apart from other genres within the industry. While they might have to fight just a little bit harder and grunt a little bit louder to make their voices heard, womxn are faced with less harassment and objectification in the heavy metal scene than in most other genres. We have high hopes that the heavy metal scene will take its inclusive agenda a step further in the near future and become an equality-empowering force for music lovers of all genders, ethnicity, and sexual orientations.