Thursday, 31 March 2011

loud ladies and the unease they provoke

Last week I jokingly declared that I live metal. But in a sense it's true. I'm so thoroughly immersed in the metal scene that I sometimes take its conventions for granted and forget that not everyone likes it heavy or can make sense of the imagery that goes along with musical aggression. So I was, I admit, a little surprised at the intense unease provoked by Mares of Thrace's "General Sherman" video when I played it for a few hundred undergrads.

The context was my short lecture on women in punk and new wave, and one of my main points was the gendering of musical genres. However far we've come in the world since the first woman picked up an electric guitar (I wonder who that might have been?), amplification, distortion and (musical) aggression are still understood as masculine phenomena. Admit it - when you see an axe-wielding woman on stage demonstrating her mastery of the guitar you still view this as counter to the norm.

It's partly a matter of numbers. Numerically, women guitarists are still under-represented. But there are deeper cultural codings at work that make women who like it heavy and loud seem to be gender misfits with uncharacteristic tastes. (As I'm one of those 'grrrls' the subject has been on my mind for a while, and I was first inspired to write about women in metal for UW's Imprint many many moons ago.)

Nevermind that almost no one in the class had heard of the early 90s women's counterpoint to grunge, Riot Grrrl. I'll give them a break because of their ages, though I know that's not the only reason why. More interesting though is many students' disturbed reaction to Mares of Thrace, their embrace of the heavy, and their willingness to engage in aestheticized representations of violence on screen - all the while displaying and subverting markers of traditional femininity.

Admittedly, the video is maybe a bit much for the squeamish. As Adrian Begrand notes on Pop Matters, the
"clip quickly shifts to a twisted, torture-porn storyline involving the ladies and an unsuspecting suitor. With MacKichan as the demure girl and Lanz as the evil, corpsepainted voice in her head, our heroines have their way with the fella in ultraviolent fashion, including an incident with garden shears that will make anyone wince."
As Begrand recognizes, the video participates in a visual discourse familiar to any fan of current horror film. There is a common, mass market precedent in contemporary entertainment. But, significantly, his comments read a kind of dark humour in this representation. And even more significantly for my point here is that he also situates the video in relation to the metal genre as a "male-dominated" world.

Because of that male domination in the aggressive music scene, regardless of its causes, any time a woman picks up an axe (metaphorically, or literally - both of which happen in the Mares of Thrace video) she is inevitably (whether she intends to or not) commenting on our cultural assumptions about music and gender, gender and violence. The degree to which the "General Sherman" video unsettled many of the students I played it for suggests that these cultural assumptions are still very deeply entrenched.

EDIT: I should add - a few of the students really appreciated the video, the fact that I played it, and that we were discussing this kind of thing in a university classroom. And even some of the uneasy students were interested in talking about the video and trying to make sense of it.

It was a pleasure to visit the class.

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