GREETINGS, cis men musicians of Earth! Sound the bonerkill airhorn, because it’s time to talk semantics and sexism in the music industry. We’re warning you now—this whole piece is about stuff that might inspire you to rage-post on Twitter. But we promise that if you make it to the end of this, we will tell all your future dates that your creative work passes the Bechdel Test. So let’s start this year off with a consensual bang, shall we?
For musicians, choosing a band name can be stressful. Should you play it cool and pick some vacant placeholder devoid of meaning? Should you painstakingly weigh the pros and cons of various monikers before landing on one that seems to reflect the creative drive of your passion project? Who the fuck cares, right? Rarely does a band name adequately capture the essence of the work it’s describing in a few self-conscious syllables. Well, we care when cis men feminize the name of their group for personal and/or professional gain.
As we are two ladies with music criticism jobs, we’ve spent years of our lives working in the industry (no need to mansplain its complexities to us, nor the innate tautological structure of this sentence, designed especially for you, dear reader). We’ve crossed paths with just about every kind of band name that exists, including many of the “chick shit” variety, by which we mean any band name capitalizing on the use of terms originally deemed only necessary to describe womxn, ladies, chicks, bitches, sluts, whores, and girls.
Many bands consisting of only cis men (go slap some fives if that’s your band, too) choose names that use such terminology in a manner that’s misogynistic, demeaning, and oppressive by nature. Last summer, Stephanie Phillips of the Liverpool, UK blog Getintothis posed the question, “Are all-male bands who use female names alienating women in music?” We believe the answer is yes!
In her piece, Phillips points out that DJ Gregg Michael Gillis (AKA Girl Talk) chose his moniker in an effort to stand out in an insular, male-dominated scene. But his reasoning exemplifies the troubling issue at hand—since womxn are few and far between in Gillis’ “dudes with laptops” scene, he decided to pick a feminized name that would stick out, since his true identity as one of the many dudes with laptops wouldn’t. It was a calculated decision to raise his profile using an identity that didn’t belong to him.
All-male sludge metal trio Breast Massage had an interesting response last November when Uproxx editor Caitlin White asked about their name and album art for their tape Cruisin’ for Filth: “Oddly enough, the band name Breast Massage is in reference to the volume and ‘heaviness’ of the sounds of the band, and how the air from the speakers is so strong that it massages [one’s] breast (not gender specific), and was not meant to be directly sexual. Our mistake was in neglecting to consider how it would be received, operating from only one perspective. We can see why the name of the band coupled with the image of the naked female body [on the tape’s cover] would be disturbing to some, especially without any context for the name, and we sincerely apologize to those people.” (We’re assuming by “those people,” they are referring to womxn.) “Our intent is not malicious,” Breast Massage added, “as we are all respectful human beings. This dialogue is an important one that we embrace and support.”
These examples seem tame in comparison to Portland’s Black Pussy—an all-cis-male, all-white group whose band name they claim is inspired by the equally racist and sexist Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar.” In 2015, vocalist/drummer of the band Music Bones, Sara Halle-Mariam, penned an essay for the Huffington Post describing how her discovery of Black Pussy’s existence made her feel as a black woman, particularly one making music: “Put simply, I was objectified. There are no words to account for what that feels like. And so when I try and find the words to explain why the band’s name is offensive, I struggle. I’m at a loss to explain a band enlisting a name so callous, so devoid of historical context, so irresponsible with our lives to represent their art.”
Black Pussy’s response to backlash against their name begs a close read. The band’s Facebook bio states: “Black Pussy DOES NOT condone or endorse any sexism, racism, ageism, violence, or any other douchebaggery that has been spoiling the party since the party started. If you are offended by the band’s name, please refer to the following videos....”
Below this paragraph the band links to three YouTube videos: The first, comedian Doug Stanhope’s routine “Offended by Words,” in which he argues that to be affected by words is a sign of weakness. (Stanhope is a cis white man and an outspoken Gary Johnson supporter, just to paint a picture.) The second is Steve Hughes’ act “I Was Offended,” in which he (another white cis male comedian) rails against “PC culture,” arguing, “nothing happens when you’re offended.” The last is Louis CK’s monologue “Offended by the ‘N-Word’,” a third example of a white cis man defining what he thinks others shouldn’t be offended by.
“We are used to hearing and seeing and experiencing women’s bodies be objectified, but this is deeper: an objectification, an entitled possession of our identities.”
It’s telling that Black Pussy’s statement begins with the denouncement of sexism and racism and ends with three white male comedians mocking those who feel the power and potential violence of language. Hollis Wong-Wear of Seattle R&B trio the Flavr Blue has experienced this firsthand. Wong-Wear often collaborates with Macklemore, which in 2015 led a Seattle Times journalist to refer to her as the famous white rapper’s “sidekick”—an ill-advised choice of words, given popular media’s entrenched racialized portrayal of Asians (especially Asian women) as peripheral companions to white leads.
“It’s an extension of objectification,” Wong-Wear says of the feminization of band names. “We are used to hearing and seeing and experiencing women’s bodies be objectified, but this is deeper: an objectification, an entitled possession of our identities.”
We know what you’re thinking right now: “Bitches have no chill.” You’re probably right! But chill is less important when the fact remains that womxn are disproportionately affected by human rights violations, poverty, violence, and really any other shit thing you can imagine. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), “one out of every six women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime,” and as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) states, “Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner.” These are not overstatements; they are simple facts of daily life.
Regardless of the exhaustive multi-level commentary surrounding band names and our regional music community, it’s a lazy causality of privilege when cis men cry wolf at band name tone-policing without spending a single moment researching the inherent violence of the name they choose to make music under. Seemingly innocuous names like Girl Tears, Single Mothers, or the Barenaked Ladies are relatively harmless, but they’re also symptomatic of the larger illness of systemic sexism. If you don’t respect us in a name, why would you care about our rights in action?
Some non-male groups have attempted to reclaim feminized names, like New York punk band Perfect Pussy. In a 2013 interview with Pitchfork, frontwoman Meredith Graves explained the very different intention behind her group’s name: “It heads off assholes right out of the gate. Nobody can look at me and say shit about my appearance or my body, which is all too common for women in music. It’s like, ‘Are you going to call me a cunt? Are you going to tell me I’m ugly? Well, here’s my band name—do your worst, motherfucker.’”
If you want our words, our styles, or our vibes, but you don’t give two shits about supporting womxn, non-binary, genderqueer, or trans people in music and art, then take our shit out of your band. You don’t get to use our experiences as your novelty project. We would like to get to the point where no cis or trans womxn is figuratively or literally attacked by men asserting their inability to stretch their vocabulary past “tits.”
With regard to free speech rights, it is not forcible censorship when an oppressed demographic seeks to eradicate sources of trauma just because some idiot wants to play music under a moniker they don’t understand. Community informs art, and the backbone of community is support. Without support that leads to visibility and representation, we are voiceless and systematically erased. As womxn we can never relax, because at any given time, some band called Hymen Holocaust or Prostitute Disfigurement will be rolling into our town to headline a venue next to our apartment.
But this problem runs deeper than identity theft. What can happen when cis dudes try to commodify struggle for their art is a shift in narrative control. Many people (and some entire demographics) don’t know how to exist without shitting on what they don’t understand, so they take it upon themselves to build their own reality. Think of this as creative colonization: A band can recognize a concept and build their own mythology around it in an effort to erase or rewrite the narrative in order to uphold their own value system. As truth is a collective reality, and individual lives are not the only lived experience, it can be easy for cis male bands to decide they’re on the right side of things simply by tokenizing bite-sized gems of white, non-intersectional feminism in an effort to seem evolved. Some bands, like San Francisco post-punks Male Gaze, have even taken it upon themselves to mansplain sexism.
For those who aren’t familiar, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” in 1975 to describe the positioning of womxn as objects to be admired and craved by male observers. Now, when you see a band name like Male Gaze, you may think, “Huh, it’s probably just a bunch of dudes appropriating a phrase designed to describe oppressive sexual power dynamics so most likely fuck those guys and/or who cares.” But when we asked them about their motivations, band member Matt Jones was kind enough to let us in on a societal secret: “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we live ensconced in the perspective of the male gaze, whether it’s advertising, movies, politics... when I saw that there wasn’t a band called Male Gaze yet, I thought this is just the kind of common malevolence that seems perfect for a band name.” Indeed, a tool of sexual violence seems ripe for novelty. But when someone doesn’t directly experience the theme from which they’re profiting, it becomes a sort of social tourism—commercialization of a real source of violence for the sake of one’s hobbyist music.
“One thing I’d love to see extinguished is this misidentity of the white male musician who perceives himself as marginalized because he chose to pursue his craft,” Wong-Wear says. “Or, the feeling that he could never be racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., by some divine virtue bestowed upon the working artist, or that there’s a level playing field in access just because he doesn’t want to think that something he participates in gives him an insidious advantage. There needs to be way more proactive awareness and non-defensive assessment within the music industry about who holds power, wealth, control, and influence, and a concerted effort to support those without those given privileges.”
“I see this as a product of how gender is divided in society through tools such as sex.”
If you’ve never thought about any of this, that’s okay. But the implicit promise underlying this piece is that now you have to start critically dissecting your privilege. Abuse or ignorance of privilege, especially of the male and white varieties, can be a nuanced and divisive concept for those unfamiliar, and in a fun ironic twist, it’s that same privilege that allows someone to choose whether or not to recognize such abuses. It is never too late to educate yourself on systemic issues like sexism and misogyny and develop ways to support your community without centering your own personal narrative. Music is an essential part of many of our lives, and it is of the utmost importance that everyone has the freedom to feel safe and supported in their own creative process, but within such a scope, one must take responsibility for their artistic license.
“I see this as a product of how gender is divided in society through tools such as sex and roles and acceptance that tell us who has power and who doesn’t,” says Fabi Reyna, founder and editor-in-chief of She Shreds magazine, “the world’s only print publication dedicated to women guitarists and bassists.”
“That’s why this shit isn’t funny,” Reyna continues, “because it uses music and expression to further suppress those who already are.”
So show up for womxn; stand up for us. And we don’t mean defend your girlfriend at a bar. Sometimes womxn are more than just your slam piece, your side fuck, your pocket ham. We mean show up for all womxn, regardless of color, size, genitalia, faith, sexual orientation, ability, appearance, or perceived fuckability. We are whole people entitled to personal autonomy, and who experience real harm at the hand of oppressive systems in place intended to keep us situated beneath the proverbial glass ceiling.
Examine your latent prejudices that may lead you to make or uphold oppressive choices. Acknowledge that language is powerful, and that your position as a cis man (even more so if you’re white) is neither neutral nor objective. Fashion a small ship for your favorite insult—like that one about those who are offended by “non-PC” language are “special snowflakes”—set it aflame, and cast it out to sea. America’s new fascist regime is busy trying to pump propaganda into the media, so there’s truly no better time to reexamine the language you choose to employ and recognize the power that all language possesses.
And if this piece made you roll your eyes deeply back into your thick-ass skull and think, “What a bunch of whiney dykes,” ask yourself what’s wrong with your brain that makes you think that way. We’ll give you a hint: It starts with “p” and ends with “-atriarchy.”Correction: An earlier version of this story included Mothercountry Motherfuckers in our list of bands populated by cis men. We now know this is not the case, and have removed their name from the list. We regret the error.
—Megan Burbanks's column "Ask a Feminist!"
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