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A Genderless Utopia

The birth of electronic music gave way for a new hope, the idea of a genderlessness in the production of sound. But as data and the accounts of countless active women in the electronic music scene show, it is a hope that has not been fulfilled (yet?!). Women still have to put up with wide-spread misogyny, while the gendered perception of technology and the focus on the appearance of women are the two biggest obstacles for female artists that are trying to succeed in electronic music.

A feminist hope – Genderless Electronic Music

Robot on turntables
The genderless DJ as an utopian ideal

The promise of the rising importance of electronica in music production, roughly dated at the emergence of the disco movement in the 1970s, was great. There was the expectation of a new mode of music production that transcended the boundaries between the genders in terms of cultural production, that had been weighing so hard on many women who wanted to get into certain parts of the music industry but couldn’t, because they were bumping against the glass ceiling.

 „Feminists received club culture with hope: anonymous bodies, authorless tracks, and faceless laptop performances could work to replace artist-subjects and the gender-biased cult of authenticity associated with Rock, they thought. Electro music entered the feminist imagination as the formulation of new free zones where biological ascription and gendered star-cults would disappear.“

In general electronic music seems to have preserved the initial hope of providing an arena for artists, where the way they express themselves is not limited by gender. The general idea of genderlessness is still very pervasive, as Michael Iovino points out in a music review:

„When I think of electronic music, I think of genderlessness, I think of machines that offer the artist an opportunity to exchange their sex for the opposite one, or get rid of it entirely.

On top of that, the strategy of remaining relatively anonymous is still often to be found with electronic musicians, albeit primarily within the more avant-garde and experimental parts of the scene. Often there is little to no information about the artists themselves in booklets or on websites, while videos and tracks can be produced ‘facelessly’ in order to omit or obscure e.g. the artist’s gender or ethnic background, and circumvent stereotyped expectations.

The status quo

But as it is so often the case, hopes and reality could hardly be further from each other. Hannah Bosma writes that through „[g]oing to computer music conferences, lectures about electronic music or hi-fi shops etc., one learns that electronic music is a man’s world.“

A brief first impression based on actual data is provided by the informative graphics found on ‘female:pressure’, which offer an overview of female representation among (not exclusively but mainly electronic-)festival line-ups and labels. It is shown that only 10% of all artists in festivals are female, with a low additional 7,5% of artists/bands having a mixed line-up. This means that not even every 5th act on festivals has a high-profile female contribution. (While it must be kept in mind, that the jobs behind the scenes that make the performance possible are not nearly as clearly gendered, as the artists themselves.)

Percentage of Female Artists at Festivals

Almost the same results can be found for the representation of artists on labels, with 9,3% being exclusively female and 8,7% having a mixed line-up.

Percentage of female artists for musicians signed to labels

It is not the only measure by which the promise of irrelevance or at least the equality of genders gloriously fails. Between 2007 and 2011 there was only one woman included on DJ Mag’s list of the best 100 DJs. Which goes to show that it clearly remains a great hustle for most women to succeed in the notably male-dominate electronic music scene.

What Women have to put up with

 But what do the people actually involved in the EDM scene, that are producing electronic music have to say to that?

To anticipate the result, unsurprisingly the experiences of women in their efforts to advance inside the scene are immensely frustrating.

Some of the most typical reactions that women, who are DJs get, are along the lines of ‘You play good for a girl’, ‘I didn’t know women could play records like that’, ‘I bet a dude does all the work’ or they even get mistaken for the girlfriend of an imagined male DJ. A user named GalaxC Girl describes the attitude behind that in an online message board: ‘Dudes are like “who the fuck does this girl think she is stepping in the boys cigar room club”?’

And the self-expressed attitude by male actors inside the scene is not very promising either, as this comment about a new turntable resembling a stove shows perfectly.

Spinnin’ Records’ take on the role of women.

The Two main culprits

So what are the main structural reasons, besides the misogynist attitude among the mostly male actors in the scene, for the problems women still encounter when choosing to dedicate a great part of their life to the production and performance of electronic music?

A brilliant 2-part article in the Huffington Post about women inside the EDM scene sees two prevailing stereotypes about women as the main causes for women’s frustrations. The perception that ‘women lack the technical abilities to DJ and produce, or that they’re expected to look a certain way.

Reducing women to objects of the male gaze

The expectation towards the appearance of women is mentioned over and over again in the criticism of the EDM scene that is uttered by women.

„While male electronic music artists are valued for their skill, female artists are often valued more for their appearance.

Ellen Alien

Women in general have been very sexualized in electronic music, especially when it comes to the consumption of it online, where a lot of channels that provide people with electronic music almost exclusively cater to a male audience by setting highly sexualized pictures of half-naked women as background for songs on YouTube (see 95% of all electronic music channels, especially, but not exclusively those that share house music) or by portraying female Djs in a very sexualized way.

Representative for that is the discussion around Nina Kraviz’ feature in ‘Between the Beats’ where she is being portrayed in a bikini on the the beach and, most controversially, interviewed while taking a bubble bath. Nina defends that portrayal as freedom of expression of every artist and criticizes exactly the opposite, that people advocating against it, focus too much on her gender. I don’t want to decide who’s right here and it definitely is an honorable goal to want to ignore gender in the portrayal of artists. But in my opinion it could be a bit naïve to assume that her gender didn’t play a role in how she was portrayed in those interviews. An important interjection comes from Reid Speed, when she says that, ‘[w]hile you wanna believe that women are just becoming empowered and feel comfortable with their bodies, I’m not sure that’s what it’s all about’.

And this specific mode of portrayal can be used as a means to reduce women who are active in electronic music to objects of the male gaze, that don’t have to be taken seriously anymore in their artistic endeavors. A preconception that female Djs have to fight on a daily basis.

Technology vs. Nature / Men vs. Women

The second, hugely important notion women have to fight and which also keeps a lot of women from choosing to take interest in the production of electronic music in the first place, is the idea that technology is something inherently masculine, that should only be pursued by men.

The correlation between the binary opposites of gender (male vs. female) on the one hand and technology and nature on the other hand is huge. So big in fact, that men and masculinity are strongly aligned with technical proficiency, while femininity is almost exclusively associated with non-competence and dependency of men’s skills and knowledge.

A telling example is again to be found in a discussion on a message board where a user (urple.eeple) writes that ‘From my experience, woman listen to music because of how it makes them FEEL. Guys, on the other hand, listen to music for a variety of reasons, from how masculine it sounds (example: dubstep or hard hitting bass music) to the technical aspects of the rhythmic and melodic structures’.

Dr. Rebekah Farrugia devoted a whole book to the connection between technology, women and EDM. According to her, technology is gendered as masculine since the early 20th century and was advertised ‘as a means of escape from domestic life’. She further states that “[g]iven the extent to which technology in general and music technologies in particular have been carefully constructed as male since the beginning of the 20th century, it is not surprising that EDM has developed as a male-centric space that mirrors most other popular music genres and the mainstream music industry”.

I feel the need to point out something that should be obvious but is still worth noting, so as not to miss it. Namely that technology is in no way a masculine concept in itself, but that the use of it has become gendered as an extremely masculine trait.

Jennifer M. Brown also published an immensely interesting text about the specific relationship between power and knowledge about music technology in connection to gender, which is constantly being reproduced.

Furthermore Allison Lynn points out an important lesson to learn from the connection between technology, gender and electronic music. „In order to address the sexism inherent to the electronic music industry, discourse should focus on not just the presence or absence of female DJs, but the societal implications of this disparity.“ And it is only when this societal background is taken into account, that one can really expect to be able to turn the tides into a more just and pleasant direction.

What to learn from it

So as not to close with this relatively bleak and frustrating picture of the obstacles women encounter in the electronic music scene, many have pointed out ways in which to overcome those difficulties. Raising awareness and giving support are two of the most commonly mentioned remedies. Allison Lynn for example, points out that upcoming female DJs can find support online, even more so in the last years, because of new ways to distribute music without the need of support by the industry (BandCamp, SoundCloud, etc.).

It also has to be kept in mind that the electronic music scene is no sphere that is seperated from the rest of society, so  in many cases it’s a reflection of the attitudes that are found in society as a whole. Therefore change in the thought patterns that are described above is only possible if change on a broader scale is to take place.

A great concern that I had before creating this blog was that, in an ideal universe, it shouldn’t matter whether a woman or a man, or anyone else for that matter, created a certain track. But as we are obviously not living in one of these ideal worlds, I agree with the notion that ‘women should be recognized and appreciated for their accomplishments and contributions’ to electronic music and for that one apparently has to perform some affirmative action.

What is interesting is also that questions of gender are almost exclusively being discussed in works by female or mixed-gendered electronic artists (e.g. The Knife, Planningtorock). So, providing a panel for female electro musicians also helps to raise awareness of the importance of gender.

And it’s not only about raising awareness and giving support, but it can also help to provide role models for young women that show an interest in electronic music that they can be guided by. Because women in electronic music do exist and they are doing awesome work without letting themselves be limited by the perceived notions of society about what is deemed appropriate for their gender.

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