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Saturday 13 March 2021

Women & Metal Part 1 (Opinion Pieces By Beth Jones, Dr Claire Hanley and Holly Frances Royale)

Not a subject that I could possibly comment on, thankfully we have had three women from different spheres of the music world share their own opinions/experiences of being a woman in the rock/metal.

Beth Jones - Smash Mouth Records Founder, Musician

My name is Beth, and I’m a girl. My gender is hard to pinpoint, so I stick with girl, because it’s the best fit for me. I’m 28, I’m from Wrexham originally, and I’ve been in bands since I was 15, and playing guitar for a few years longer. I’m currently running a record label, having recently graduated from a Masters in Creative Music Practice, and playing guitar and vocals in a skate punk band called BoxCat.

Academically, I have found myself the odd one out because of my gender. Throughout college, I was the only girl in my class, and after requesting to my tutor that I would like to be treated no different in a private chat, he later tousled my hair in front of the entire class and said ‘what? You wanted to be one of the boys.’ unsurprisingly, he never did this to my classmates, nor did he comment about their weight constantly like he did to me. University was way more diverse, and it was great to have other girls as peers and I found this made me feel less like an imposter, making it a more comfortable learning environment to me. Of course, there were still comments from classmates that they thought I didn't hear, but I have learned from a young age to pretend I didn’t.

From the moment I started playing shows, to the present day, I have had some awful experiences with other bands regarding my gender. The earliest I can remember was from a mansplaining guitarist insisting I was using the wrong gear, using the most ‘I’m talking to you like you’re an idiot way’. Back then, Total Guitar was my bible and I knew what I liked in gear, and I didn’t appreciate the way I was being handled, but I just smiled and told him I was happy with what I had.

Similarly, I had an experience with a sound engineer at a BoxCat show, who was trying to babysit me as a musician. I was lending an amp from another band, and the sound engineer pushed his way on stage as we were setting up for sound check and went to plug my pedals in, and said ‘let’s dial in a tone for you shall we?’ in the most patronising voice. At this point, I had over 11 years experience of playing shows, and I just felt insulted and belittled. I positioned myself in front of the amp and smiled and said ‘don’t you worry, I’ve used an amp before’ in the most sarcastic voice I could muster.

My most notable run-in with sexism as a femme presenting musician, was when I asked another local band politely to stop posting misogyny all over their social media in a private message. The response was an accusation of slander, a threat of being sued, and a threat of giving my band a bad name. The band in question then publicly posted my messages to them, and encouraged their friends to publicly harass me, all for standing up for the young girls that would frequent their shows. However, the amount of people that came to my side and argued my case, banned them from venues, shows and festivals, was an incredible act of solidarity, and I remember each and every person that did something to help me during that event.

I’m a huge fan of my bandmates, three amazing cis men, for the way that they have never ever made me feel any different than one of them. They see my gender, but they never ever let it be a divide between us. The BoxCat boys support me as they do each other, and make me feel like I’m not the imposter my brain tells me I am.

My record label, Smash Mouse Records, was born out of this desire to improve the visibility or marginalised communities at a grassroots level, and create a community safe space for those that need it. We’re quite like a support group as well as a label, and I’m so proud of everyone that participates with it. It feels like a family, and I feel like less of an imposter because of it.

I think that's what representation is important for; making everyone feel like they belong in the scene, and that it shouldn't be a place where privilege gets you further than everyone else. I used to teach guitar at Primary school level, and my favourite thing about it was watching more girls sign up as they realised that a girl would be teaching them. I hope to see those girls playing our local venues and maybe go even further. I hope that I have paved a path for more girls to play music. I will feel like I’ve done my job then.

Dr Claire Hanley - Metal Fan, Dr of Advanced Neuroimaging Methods

Let’s talk feminism. No seriously, keep reading. I promise I’m not talking about the bra-burning,
man-hating connotations the term usually conjures up. Bringing feminism back to basics, we’re
dealing with the overarching goal of equality. Women being viewed as equivalent to men. That
sentiment I can firmly get on-board with, and as far as my perspective goes, so can the metal scene;
despite the cock-waving machismo it personifies on the surface.

As a woman who, since the age of 16, has been an avid fan of all things extreme metal, I’ve always
felt inspired by the powerful, take-no-shit attitude of it’s female frontwomen. While undoubtedly in
the minority, there are still plenty of examples: Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), Tarja Turunen (former
Nightwish), Tatiana Shmailyuk (Jinjer), and somewhat more behind the scenes yet still fundamentally
crucial, bassists Jo Bench (Bolt Thrower) and Samantha Mobley (Frozen Soul; my current new OSDM
obsession). These women are not where they are because the scene needs to fill a quota. There are
no free passes. They’re incredible at what they do and are more than capable of succeeding in a
male-oriented domain.

This time last year, January 2020, a Louder Sound article caught my eye. “Will ‘female-fronted metal’
finally die in 2020?” it boldly asked. Sensing that I was about to read an article on how the presence
of women in metal was a gimmick that needed to stop, I could feel the rage building and that was
just the title. Yet, what greeted me was a somewhat thoughtful piece about how women in metal
are a firm fixture; suggesting the need to drop gender labels altogether. Perhaps not so divisive after
all. What I couldn’t get over though was the undertones of discrimination in the narrative – the
suggestion that because metal and it’s numerous sub-genres remain male-dominated, it is inherently
rife with sexism. 

This I have to disagree with. I’m going to go out on a limb here but hear me out; I
don’t believe achieving equality means equal representation. 50/50. Striving for there to be as many
women in the scene as men does not automatically align with admiration and respect, which for me
are core values that encapsulate equality. Equality is about attitude, it is not a numbers game.
Speaking as a woman who is incredibly fond of all things extreme; I have no interest in seeing
mediocre bands emerging just because they tick the female demographic box, and I would be
genuinely devastated to see the scene go this way just to make a point.

Like anything worth achieving, becoming an established artist – whatever your gender - likely comes
with a certain element of challenge. The examples above attest to the fact that, although they may
well exist at some level, any perceived barriers to women excelling within the scene are far from
insurmountable. My ultimate inspiration, my death metal ride-or-die, Angela Gossow (former Arch
Enemy vocalist), possesses some of the most ferocious gutturals I’ve ever wrapped my ears around.
She absolutely exuded dominance in a live setting and on the occasions when I saw the band, I was
mesmerised by her stage presence. It was her space and she commanded it. Proof that devoted,
talented women belong in the metal scene. You don’t agree? Go tell Angela that, I dare you.
Finally, the unavoidable issue of being a female at a metal gig. It can be tricky, I’ve heard some
horror stories and I’m not about to trivialise it. 

On occasion, you have to deal with the wandering hands of a muscle-tank wearing Neanderthal, stretched earlobes dragging on the floor alongside their knuckles, but I personally haven’t experienced this to any notable extent. It probably helps that I have a death-stare that could freeze hell, and am nearly 6 ft in boots that you really don’t want making contact with your dangly bits, but I’ve never found traversing gigs to be problematic. I’d say that the incidence of unwanted attention at metal gigs is less prevalent than in the club scene and we’re probably dealing with more of a societal issue with gender here than one pertaining to metal per se. 

Throughout 2019/early 2020, when gigs were actually a thing, I remember remarking on the
rise in the number of females in attendance (that were actually there out of choice, not because
their significant other’s dragged them along). I enjoyed seeing the ratio shift (but in general - the
more people of any gender at gigs the better) even though it meant giving up one of the key perks of
being a female at a death metal show; not having to queue for the toilet. I maintain that it’s not a
numbers game but there are plenty of us, often giving as good as we get in the pit. At smaller shows,
the guys don’t always know how to respond and will initially be hesitant about slamming into you.

Quite the considerate move if you don’t have the intention of being a malicious asshole. Past this
point though, it is business as usual – male or female – you hurl yourself around and if you fall on
your ass, someone will pull you back up. One of the many reasons why I love being a part of the
metal masses. What could be more egalitarian than this? Camaraderie at its best and equality at its

Holly Frances Royle - Journalist, Publicist, Musician 

I grew up with my Dad being a huge rock and metal fan, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that I’ve been influenced by the heavier genres of music. I began piano lessons at an early age and not long after switched to guitar. I was about eight years old at this point, and, to be honest, at the time I think I started learning the guitar because my friend was having lessons! 

I remember guitar lessons at primary school having a roughly even mixture of both sexes learning the instrument. This carried on into high school to a point. I began to notice, around the age of fourteen, that I was in the mix of a predominantly male environment in terms of my guitar playing. Having gotten pulled deeper into the world of metal I soon noticed the lack of female band members, particularly guitarists, in the bands I was discovering. For me, suddenly it wasn’t just about playing because I enjoyed it, I felt a need to get out there as a lead guitarist to show other people that women could take on this role too. 

Something that I also found really strange was that upon introducing myself as a guitarist I was often met with a response along the lines of “so you’re a bassist then?” This was just baffling – I’d said I was a guitarist? I just didn’t understand why people couldn’t imagine me in the role as a guitarist. Looking back now, it seemed that being a woman in a prominent role, taking up space, was not yet widely accepted. Being a bassist, a position that stereotypically (and unfairly) gets slightly less attention was somehow deemed more ‘suitable’. Ultimately this just fuelled my determination even further. Not only did I need to show that women can play metal, I now needed to prove we can and should take up space in the ‘popular’ roles too. This is quite interesting as nowadays I much prefer to be chugging djenty riffs than showing off with lead solos, but at the time that was my focus. 

I began working in a guitar shop whilst studying for my A-levels at college. It was great, I was surrounded by fellow minded musicians and music fans. And, rather progressively, there were roughly an even number of male and female staff – I had noted most other music stores I’d visited tended to be male dominated with just one female (if any) working there. However, being told that older men like being sold guitars by younger women, wasn’t something I expected to hear. It was a little frustrating seeing customers with questions always heading straight to my male colleagues first, even if I was stood closer to them. And the amazement some displayed on discovering that I, a female, enjoyed metal!

It does seem, unfortunately, that these small, ‘accepted’ assumptions and discriminations about women in metal, and the music scene in general for that matter, still need to be overcome. I think the reality is that these habits and ideas are so deeply ingrained most people don’t even realise they’re displaying them in their actions. They are ultimately, demonstrations of everyday sexism. 

Overall, I haven’t had many negative experiences. Most of my experiences in the scene, as a musician, journalist etc, have been very positive. I almost wrote here that I’ve been quite lucky… and that says it all really doesn’t it? I shouldn’t feel ‘lucky’ that I haven’t had many unpleasant experiences, it shouldn’t be normal to have any. I experienced sexual assault at rock and metal festival once. 

An individual decided it was okay to touch me… needless to say it isn’t! On the whole I think the metal community is very welcoming and kind and caring. However, unfortunately, there is still some work to do in combating discriminative behaviours whether towards women, the LGBTQ+ community, or anyone for that matter. No one should be subjected to this. Since joining my metal band, Disconnected Souls, a couple of years ago and watching the vast array of emerging bands on the scene, I have hope that we can make a great metal community even better. There is so much good out there. 

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