By Jake Pitre
On April 23, 2013, the music artist Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, wrote a lengthy manifesto on her Tumblr account, lambasting the music industry for its casual sexism. She wrote about how she doesn’t want to be molested at shows because people perceive her to be an object for their satisfaction, and how common and accepted this behaviour is. She goes on to call out men that approach her without being asked, offering to help out with her equipment.
“As if I did this by accident and I’m gonna flounder without them,” she wrote. “Or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers.”
Lindsay Zoladz, associate editor at the music website Pitchfork, celebrates Grimes for speaking out about this issue. The fact is that women across all the arts often have a harder time finding success in their respective industries. Even once they do, they still have to deal with sexist and discriminatory situations like the ones Grimes described in her Tumblr post.
“It’s so common and widespread,” Zoladz said, “so I don’t think you could talk to a single female artist that doesn’t have a story like that.”
Creative and Cultural Skills, a council in the UK devoted to developing a skilled workforce, reports that the gender divide across all music industry related jobs is 67.8% male to 32.2% female. The Performing Rights Society, which represents songwriters and composers, has just a 13% female membership. There are many women in powerful positions, but they are still judged not on their talent alone.
“I think the way that women are viewed is a little bit different,” Zoladz said, “because there’s an emphasis on appearance, and people saying really nasty shit. [Women] have to prove it that they know things, especially stuff related to technology or equipment. I don’t think that most men experience that.”
Zoladz said that when she came to Pitchfork in 2011, she was one of the only women on the staff, and she hoped she would not be pigeonholed as the resident critic of female artists. More recently, she says that the editor-in-chief, Mark Richardson, strives for balance.
“I do think that he makes a conscious effort to balance [the gender divide] out,” she said, before adding, “which historically wasn’t always the case here. I think there’s a diversity among female writers now, so everyone’s able to develop their own voice.”
Despite her hope to avoid being labelled ‘the female critic’, it is true that 30 of her last 40 reviews on Pitchfork were of female or female-led artists, several of them covering themes of feminism, like The Knife, Bikini Kill and St. Vincent. She says this does not come from a pointed effort to request female or feminist artists.
“That’s more of a reflection of my personal bias as a listener,” she said. “Every critic brings their own bias to this job. It annoys me when I hear people say, ‘Oh, Pitchfork always just makes Lindsay Zoladz write about the female artists, to save them from being called sexist.’ I see this frequently. It denies [me] agency.”
She explained that one doesn’t see her male peers denied the same kind of agency for their own biases.
“People assume an agency there,” she said, “he listens to that music, he probably pitched it or wrote about it enough to be seen as his beat, simple as that.”
She went on to say that she appreciates and is grateful for the large audience Pitchfork has, but that to use that specifically to put forward certain politics (ie. feminism) would be irresponsible and missing the point of criticism.
“Good politics doesn’t necessarily make good music,” she said. “I want to use the platform [of Pitchfork] first and foremost to point out good music to people. If it’s something that the message or the values in it are in keeping with what I think is good, too, then that’s a plus. [But] it’s something that I try to not let dictate me. At the end of the day, I’m a critic and I have to give the most honest opinion about the music.”
Jackie Monahan, a comedian in Los Angeles, performed for much of her career as a lesbian comic (she recently split with her wife of 12 years, and describes her current sexuality as being attracted to energy, not gender). This additional aspect did not particularly help in gaining popularity or success, but the root of the issue was still her sex.
“I didn’t advance very far at all because a lot of the shows [she was in] were heavy with women,” she said of her early career. By contrast, the more popular “shows in Los Angeles, there will be nine guys to one girl, and that’s not cool. There’s [certain] shows here and in New York City, and the guys that book them are pretty against booking women.”
She remembers a recent altercation online with a man who was hosting an all-male show at his venue.
“I wrote on [his] Facebook,” she said, “‘Why don’t you have any girls on your show, you don’t want to be outshone?’, and he said, ‘Haha, our next show is going to be all girls’. I’m like, why can’t you have a mixture? You don’t want the juxtaposition of girls being funnier than you?”
“He didn’t say anything back,” she added.
Apart from booking shows or getting ahead, she has also encountered her share of direct sexism and harassment from audiences.
“When I first started,” she said, “guys would yell at me to take my top off, and they probably wouldn’t be doing that to men, so that was annoying.”
“I had an audition once,” she continued, “and some guy was really drunk, heckling me, but I handled it well and he got kicked out. But I don’t know if he would’ve been heckling a man the way he was heckling me, because it was based on my appearance.”
Monahan long ago resolved to not let this type of thing get to her, because if she were to focus on it, it would simply drain her creativity.
“I’ll point it out, but I’m not going to get angry about it,” she said. “There’s no point in [doing comedy] if there’s no fun in it anymore.”
She also stressed that despite giving in at first after being told by friends and the industry to avoid publicly coming out, she decided early on to embrace her identity and not worry about any lost career opportunities.
“People told me, do not be out as a lesbian because you’d be hindering how much money you can make,” she said. “But I always have to be true to who I am, and that’s what I wanted to talk about.”
Perhaps more so than any other, the gaming industry is uniquely notorious for the rampant sexism of male gamers and the low representation of women working in the industry. Karla Zimonja, a designer with independent developer The Fullbright Company, is acutely aware of this.
“In my AAA [major developer] life, there has not been a whole lot of super upfront, in your face sexism,” she said, “but the pay difference is real, the amount of authority and amount of times you get consulted versus guys with the same role is significantly different. I have never worked at a AAA company that is more than maybe 7%, 10% female. It’s preposterous.”
In Canada, women comprised just 16% of the video game workforce in 2012, and most of those were in administrative positions, according to Nordicity, a consulting firm.
Jennifer Jenson, a professor at York University and organizer of Feminists in Games, an annual workshop devoted to better understanding the digital gender divide and to finding solutions for it, is puzzled by the gaming industry’s seemingly accepted sexism, and how this can turn women away from engaging with it.
“For some reason,” she said, “games companies tend to have these really hostile work environments for women, not just because of the kinds of jobs people are doing, but because women are subjected to porn on the walls and on computers, because they’re outright stalked or harassed.”
“I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve talked to,” she shared, chillingly, “that said people feel like it’s perfectly their right to follow them around at GDC [Game Developers Conference] for three days. That’s not cool.”
After a lecture, Jenson sat down for a roundtable discussion about games. About 15 were gathered, most of them men. One man spoke up and shared a story about the computer game World of Warcraft. He played in a guild with a single mother of two. One evening, the guild was to go on a raid. The mother didn’t log on – both her children were sick. In the team chat, frustrated, he called her a “c***”. Jenson was shocked. The man, dumbfounded, said, “I don’t see why that was wrong.”
Jenson shares this anecdote to suggest that even though this kind of casual sexism is a wider cultural and societal problem, there seems to be a greater license for it in the arts, and she finds it in gaming especially.
“There’s a level of entitlement to be an asshole,” she said, “that isn’t in the rest of the world. That is the difference. I don’t get asked in any other context how that [the WoW player’s story] is an incorrect speech act.”
Zoladz, too, recognizes both the larger cultural size of the problem, and the pattern of male entitlement that exists in the arts community, in her case the music and music journalism industries.
“It’s more a culture that women aren’t considered to be experts in music,” she said. “That was certainly my experience. I didn’t have a lot of female friends that were as into listening to records and poring over the details. Other people I knew who were like that were men, [because] it’s a socially acceptable way for men to be, whereas it’s seen as more of an anomaly with women.”
“I think that confidence gap is something that happens early on and affects the number of women that grow up and believe in their opinions enough to want to write about music or be a critic.”
Some women in the arts, while aware of how common this kind of discrimination and marginalization is and support the fight against it, have not actually experienced it themselves. Olivia Johnston, a photographer based in Ottawa, is a self-identified feminist but feels disconnected from the struggle many women have to get ahead.
“It’s odd,” she said, “because I fight against all these issues, but I’ve never really had to deal with them myself in the same way. I’m sheltered from a lot of the negative stuff that women experience.”
“I personally haven’t had much problem with [getting her art shown]. It’s not really like a glass ceiling to me.”
Even Monahan, the comedian, feels as if it might be better to ignore it.
“I don’t let it affect me,” she said. “Other women do complain about it a lot. A long time ago, I saw somebody who was my age now, and they were so bitter [about it]. I remember looking at them and I was like, if I’m ever that bitter, I’m quitting comedy.”
With disheartening statistics and horrifying stories of sexism, discrimination, harassment and marginalization, it is easy to get bogged down in how negative these environments are for female artists. Once a woman is able to find success, she continues to face these and other challenges and obstacles in a way unlike what men typically go through. And yet, women like Monahan refuse to lose faith or let it distract them from their goals.
Grimes, back in a 2011 interview with Maisonneuve, echoes the sentiment by suggesting that the best course of action is to just focus on your work.
“The music industry is kind of a boys’ club,” she admitted. “Not that I’m really adamant about changing things. I feel like the best way to change it is to not make a big stink and just do a good job.”