Fandom, Gender and Heavy Metal: An Interview with Rosemary Lucy Hill

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Ten years in the making, Dr Rosemary Lucy Hill’s book Gender, Metal and the Media (Palgrave, 2016) draws on extensive fieldwork with female fans to illuminate their gendered experience of the genre. 


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The book insightfully pinpoints a series of places where sexism shapes and underwrites heavy metal culture. Mechanisms for maintaining sexism in metal include:
·      Pursuing laddish banter in magazines (and thus maintaining heteronormativity and white masculinity as the assumed norm);
·      Visually objectifying female musicians and fans (and judging them accordingly);
·      Accepting or endorsing gendered, sexually harassing behavior (eg. baring breasts at live gigs);
·      Assuming metal does not involve issues of gender because men are primarily interested in the music;
·      Ignoring women as fans and musicians;
·      Encouraging exscription (the idea that male scene participants have written women out of their culture);
·      Questioning the credibility of women as musicians and music experts;
·      Assuming women have chosen to not become musicians (rather than seeking barriers);
·      Requiring female musicians to be especially good players before being accepted;
·      Assuming that womens’ listening pleasure cannot be both musical and sensual or erotic at the same time;
·      Assuming women are sexually attracted to stars rather than interested in music (and, equally, denying the worth of female lust as a legitimate fannish pleasure);
·      Trivializing any subjects or objects coded feminine (pop music, romance, women’s clothing);
·      Tacitly encouraging women to downplay their femininity;·   
·      Allowing women to sidestep gender only if they accede to male norms;
·      Locating gender difference and femininity as a kind of intrusion;
·      Defining away sexism;
·      Using a defense of the genre to deflect questions of sexism;
·      Using downplaying any experiences of harrassment as ‘fun,’ and portraying harrassers as jokers who did not pose a threat;
·      Assuming gender equality as a way to silence criticism;
·      Personalizing issues effecting women and deflecting them into individual victimhood;
However, in listening to women’s experiences, Gender, Metal and the Media goes beyond critiquing the genre for its sexism. After all, society itself is sexist, so it would be illogical to assume any genre would step outside that (without it being its express purpose, as it was with riot grrrl). Instead the book explains how women find pleasure in the music. It assumes that women love heavy metal to start with, and their experiences differ due to gendered upbringings and sexist representations and experiences.

Dr Hill kindly agreed to an interview…
* * *
You spoke to almost twenty white women across a range of age groups who lived in British cities between 2008 and 2011, recruiting them through snowball sampling and conducting in-depth interviews to discuss their experience of metal culture. Can you pass on any advice about fieldwork and methodology that you picked up from that experience, particularly in the context of working on fandom and gender?
That’s a good starter question. I actually found the interviews the most satisfying part of the research. However, this was the first time I’d done interviews and I was very shy about approaching people. I know now (several research projects later) that there is no easy way to find people and to get them to answer your emails or turn up when they say they will! The key is being polite, persistent and accommodating. Keep following up on emails and messages (well, after the third without a reply you should probably leave it). And not to take things personally – people have all sorts of other things going on in their lives and probably think you’ve got tonnes of other people to speak to. I hope that’s helpful advice for novice interviewers.
When it comes to specifically interviewing about things people are really invested in, things they are fans of, you can generally expect people to be really easy to talk to. People love talking about what they love! But if they are part of what I call in the book an ‘imaginary community’ or what some people might call a subculture, then participants might be a bit defensive. Metal is still seen as an inferior form of culture and metal fans do somewhat delight in our outsider status. This is something to be aware of. I made sure my participants knew that I loved metal too, because it is easier to speak more freely with someone who shares the same reference points. But even then, metal is such a vast genre that we weren’t always aware of the same things. The defensiveness thing … that’s not to say that people are lying about their experiences, but that they might use particular discursive techniques to construct their image of the community or the bands they love.
The definition of metal fan also played a part when I was trying to recruit participants. Metal is male dominated and as you’ve outlined there are numerous actions and ideas at play that work to keep it that way. This means that asking to speak to ‘metal fans’ might well have put some women off speaking to me – because they didn’t see themselves as fitting into the definition of a fan. That definition within metal is riven through with a need for a large quantity of subcultural capital (to quote Thornton). So when women are constantly being challenged about their musical knowledge this is to assess whether they are ‘real fans’. To get to speak to more women, I also called for women who loved bands mentioned in Kerrang! magazine (which was my shortcut definition of metal – and not one without questions to be asked of it!). If one therefore sets out to speak to ‘fans’ of band, sports team, film genre or whatever, then, it really pays off to pay attention to the gendered definitions of ‘fan’ that are at play locally within that fannish community.


Your book questions the assumption that “rock is bad for women” (p.120) by suggesting that the genre is more than “an arena for hypermasculine posturing” (p.121). Let’s start with an over-simplification: if heavy metal is often perceived as a repository of sexist attitudes and behaviours, why do so many women enjoy participating in metal culture? Are they trading off their own empowerment, and in effect disempowering themselves?
Let’s start by thinking about the heterogeneity of metal – there are a bazillion subgenres and there are myriad ideas about what metal should be like. This means that there is plenty of room for women to listen to music that does not obviously use misogyny in its aesthetic. I spoke to women who sought out this kind of metal. I also spoke to women who sought out metal that actively resisted sexism, for instance that which was made by feminists and our allies, like My Chemical Romance.
We also need to remember that sexism is the water in which we swim. Misogyny is so prevalent and normalised that we don’t notice it all the time (and believe me it is exhausting when we are paying attention to it). Therefore some women I spoke to just didn’t see it or misrecognised it as something else (like chivalry or natural differences) and were not aware of how it shaped the culture. And then there were others who didn’t listen to lyrics, didn’t go to many gigs and didn’t therefore come face to face with sexism.
But also, when we are surrounded by sexist attitudes and cultural representations, how do we cope with them when we love the cultural artefact? If you love the riffs but hate the lyrics what do you do? Women are expected to take a stand against this – you suggest women are complicit in our own oppression, but are not men who listen to this music also complicit? Should they not also be asking questions of themselves about being complicit in sexist music even if they think of themselves as feminist allies? I would argue that we should all, regardless of gender identity, be asking these questions of ourselves. But then, not all women are feminists so to ask them to engage in feminist thinking around their musical tastes may be going too far.
There are, after all, other things that metal offers women that are nothing to do with sexism: the heavy music, the anger and hatred, the horror imagery, the difference of metal femininity from mainstream femininity etc. If we live in a sexist world then making one choice which has some sexism with it as opposed to another choice which has some sexism with it perhaps shows that sexism is something we live with, rather than being empowered in one sphere and disempowered in another. 
After the 1950s, anxiety around female music fans suggested they were breaking a taboo by sexually desiring male music makers and – more importantly – publically expressing that desire. (A reason, in part, I think, for anxieties about fandom itself.) In metal, there is a second breaking of taboo, because one of the emotions expressed by music in the genre is, arguably, anger… Is there a role for politicalization of anger in relation to the concerns you discuss in the book?
Absolutely.
In the book you cite examples of people who believe metal and feminism were antithetical, yet you identify as a metal fan and a feminist, citing, for example, when you went across Europe to see The Darkness. Can you say a bit more about whether those two things really are so separate and how they come together for you as a fan?
Ellen Willis writes of how timid music made her feel timid, whilst punk felt to her like a challenge to confront her own oppression as a woman and provided her with tools to express her anger.

This is really about how our political anger can find expression in music, even if that music isn’t directly about the thing we are angry about. Music that accompanies our rage can give us the strength to express ourselves more freely, by making anger okay. And this is especially important for women since we are taught that anger does not become us. This is why women making metal and feminist metal is so valuable, because it provides a cultural representation of angry women that can help to shift our ideas about what kinds of emotion are acceptable for women. After all, lots of us are angry about lots of things!
One thing I struggled a bit with as I read the book was the question of performance. I agreed with you that metal has frequently been a place where sexism – often the sort that permeates the wider culture – has shaped experience. What I was struggling with was that rather than simply being a place where “the rules are written by straight, white men,” to me, metal culture in the last few decades – vast and varied as it is – actually seems to allow white males to pantomime and parody a very traditional, macho form of masculinity: to take it to absurd lengths. In that sense, I think that metal might mark a certain kind of nostalgia for the end of traditional masculinity: theatrical warriors wielding axes in a context of the decline of secondary industry, the rise of the tertiary economy, the ‘feminization’ of male work roles, and the rise of female liberation, feminism and post-feminism. Through its “perceived hypermasculinity” (118) the genre might then be seen as asserting a kind of rebelliousness, indirectly reflecting anxiety about masculinity, encapsulating both residual and progressive elements.
Evidently, as your book demonstrates, there is still plenty of obvious and less obvious sexism in there, but doesn’t the gendered performativity of metal also open spaces where gender can be expressed and negotiated in less sexist ways?
There is a lot of playing with gender going on in metal – it’s one of the reasons that makes it so much fun. Rammstein spraying an audience with white foam from a massive fake penis is hilarious and certainly says something satirical about the hypermasculinised performance of masculinity. We can definitely think about the performative masculinity of metal – and Amber Clifford-Napoleone does a really excellent job of this. However, to see metal as a nostalgia for a pre-feminist time I don’t find particularly convincing. Walser talks about metal as seeking fantasy worlds without women and I think there is a lot to be said for that argument (although it’s a big genre so, you wouldn’t want to make it universally). I think it’s more useful to think about how gender and age work together. Metal can be read for young male fans as a youthful rebellion about parental authority and a playing at being a man, drawing on particular conceptions of what masculinity is (and those traits will be the most salient in the particular genre that the young male metal fan loves). What is also happening (and this is an area desperately in need of more research, but see Paula Rowe’s most excellent book on growing up metal in Australia ‘Heavy Metal Youth Identities’) is that these boys who fall in love with metal are often those who feel themselves marginalised at school or in the family. Their own masculinity may be challenged by other boys around them: thus metal presents a new version of masculinity alongside collective identity. Metal can be an ‘armour’ in the face of marginalisation.
In the permissive society era, rock developed a mythology that celebrated the sexual encounters between male musicians and their young female fans, in part as a reflection of the seductive aura of the music, and in part as an expression counter-cultural ideal of personal liberation through drugs and sexual excess. Tales of Led Zeppelin’s famous “red snapper” evening offer an archetypal example where the line between coercion and consent was rather ambiguous. To many, the decadent behavior of rock stars appeared seedy at the time, and it was parodied in movies like Performance (Roeg, 1970) and Groupie Girl (Ford, 1970). Looking back, the aura of macho bravura associated with these incidents has given way to an understanding that some of this culture was about sexual predators taking advantage of vulnerable fans. Since you wrote the book, there has been a wave of scandals about the sexual behavior of celebrities, particularly in the 1970s, but very few of those celebrities have come directly from the rock world. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement, is it time to reconsider those earlier years, or would it be a mistake to read contemporary morality into such historic incidents?
In my view we should be lending a critical eye to such incidents, yes. Not that this would be anything new: feminists have been making this criticism since the 1960s, as you suggest (although maybe you are making reference to more moral critiques of the counterculture?). I’m not sure ‘contemporary morality’ is really the point here. Rather it is about listening to survivors of sexual violence and taking those claims seriously. That is not a moral position, but a political position that is prepared to ask hard questions about masculinity and sexuality.
You spend quite a lot of the book discussing “the myth that all women fans are groupies” (p. 134), the way it effects fans’ lives, and the way they negotiate it. In some ways, it is both sad and surprising that the term still lingers roughly half a century since it became prominent. It is also striking that the nuances and ironies that characterized the ‘groupie’ question in the 1970s seem to have disappeared, in part because society and sexual politics have changed so much. Germain Greer deliberately described herself as ‘a groupie’ precisely because men used the term in a derogatory way. Do you think it can ever be reworked or rescued in ways that might counter assumptions of sexism?
I’m very sympathetic to the attempts at claiming ‘groupie’ as a positive. And yet reclamation does nothing to counter the gender inequality which is prevalent throughout the music industry. In rock and metal this means we hear men’s stories and men’s accounts of love, sex and relationships with women – but only rarely women’s. I’m deeply bothered by this disparity in who gets to tell their own story, who gets to make music, who has access to creative expression.
Reworking ‘groupie’ is only going to be successful, I think, in a culture in which those women also get to be on the stage rocking out.


Dr Hill, thanks for a fascinating interview.