Many people view sexism, defined as an ideology and practices that promote women’s inferiority to men, as a significant problem in contemporary music. While some think of the latest offensive lyrics by some popular music artists as symptomatic of this issue, others believe that the sexism in music harms society by its effects on behavior, particularly that of children. However, both conceptions underestimate the scope of the problem.
Sexism exists in various forms of music, not just popular music, suggesting that almost everyone has listened to sexist music at some point, regardless of one’s musical preferences. Moreover, sexism not only affects the content of the songs heard on the radio, but also the gender mix of artists selected for airplay. Sexism shapes popular conception of musical mastery, for instance, by prompting individuals to believe that women cannot master particular instruments or musical styles because of their gender, thereby minimizing women’s contributions to music. Thus, only an examination of how sexism shapes the content, effect, and production of music allows for a full assessment of its impact on society. Another focus should be on how audiences and artists resist the sexism in music.
The sexism in music has its origins in the patriarchy, or male domination, of society, perpetuated by sexist ideology and practice. For example, men may protect their control of the production of music by limiting women’s participation in production. Further, sexism even exists in the music that women perform. The male dominance of music extends to women often performing songs written by men, songs that reflect sexist ideas about what women want and feel, with emphasis on a romantic ideal of love that encourages women’s passivity and dependency on men. The sexist practice of discounting women’s contribution to music also promotes male dominance by ensuring that men are the ones that the audience views as exhibiting exemplary talent.
Given these factors, it is not surprising that researchers find sexism most commonly in music genres that display the most marked male domination, such as heavy metal and gangsta rap. Sexism, however, is perhaps most obvious in music videos, which often have little relationship to the content of the songs they supposedly enhance. Videos of even the most innocuous songs often portray women as the objects of men’s fantasy, not as individuals with agency. As a visual medium, videos can amplify the physical differences between genders that underlie sexist beliefs about women’s inferiority to men as well as powerfully strengthen the image of women as sexual objects.
Effect studies examining whether music influences behavior do not show that listening to sexist music causes people to be more sexist. Instead, research shows that music does not create sexist attitudes in people who do not already have them; rather, sexist music helps reinforce these attitudes.
Another body of research finds sexism in the social organization of how music is produced. Sexist ideas about women’s difference from men have contributed to gender segregation that limits the kinds of music women are perceived as being able to perform with legitimacy. For instance, one study shows that some women tend to specialize in playing the bass in rock bands due to the belief that their bodies and temperament are better suited to that instrument. Historically, women were less likely to perform Beethoven’s works for similar reasons.
While the problem may seem intractable, individuals still find ways to resist the sexism in music. For instance, the Riot Grrls movement of the 1990s saw female rock artists starting their own bands, upsetting gender norms by wearing boots with dresses, and exhibiting an aggressive style of playing and singing that was typically associated with male rockers. These women deliberately challenged the allocated sexist role of the lead rock singer valued more for her beauty than her talent. More recently, women have highlighted affirming messages about black women’s beauty hiding within the sexism of many rap music videos. Other research reports male and female alternative rock fans self-consciously seeking to distance themselves from the sexism in rock, with male fans admiring female artists’ musicianship rather than their appearance. Such examples of resistance and challenges to sexism in music appear to be the vanguard of growing feminist actions to create lasting changes in music.
- Binder, Amy. 1993. “Constructing Racial Rhetoric: Media Depictions of Harm in Heavy Metal and Rap Music.” American Sociological Review 58(6):753-67.
- Clawson, Mary A. 1999. “When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music.” Gender & Society 13(2):193-210.
- Emerson, Rana A. 2002. “‘Where My Girls At?’: Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender & Society 16(1):115-35.
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