Not All Women: A Reflection On Being A Musician and Female

Post Author:
Allison Crutchfield

I will preface this article by saying that I am a feminist.

When we were sixteen in Birmingham, Alabama, we had our first brush with misogyny in punk. It was an awakening. My sister and I had just played our first show (one that wasn’t a school function or someone’s birthday party) and we were elated.

Every moment my sister and I spent together in high school was completely dedicated to music. We were never apart. When we got home from school, we immediately retreated to the basement, snacks in tow, to practice our instruments together (drums for me, guitar for her) until our parents demanded we stop. When we passed each other in the hall at school, we would trade CDs to listen to on our Walkmans. We would stay up late in each other’s rooms talking about our favorite bands and dream of shows that were happening in surrounding cities. We didn’t really have a lot of other friends during that period and that was fine with us.

Cave9 was a local all-ages venue that would become one of the most important parts of my punk upbringing. My sister and I had begun going to shows there all the time. We met and became friends with like-minded people, people who also considered music their number one priority. We felt supported as musicians and as music fans and began to understand DIY punk as a concept and lifestyle. We volunteered at Cave9 by working the door or doing cleanups. We were getting asked to play more and more.

We felt connected to something, which is all any teenager really wants.

My sister and I were attending a show made up of a few local and Floridian hardcore bands at Cave9. We had some friends playing and even if we hadn’t, going to shows was all we wanted to do at that time. A band started playing and unfortunately I don’t remember what they were called. From the moment they started, I felt anxious. The words the singer was saying between songs were unlike anything I had experienced within those walls until that point. The hateful speech and blatant disregard for anyone at the show who wasn’t “tough” or “strong” enough to face elbows and fists and sneakers and wailing bodies in order to get into the front was violently apparent. This person screamed things like “this songs goes out to all the bitches who pay their rent with their tits,” used homophobic slurs and referenced a corrupt “brotherhood,” sending me into a tailspin of feeling simultaneously livid and painfully excluded.

On a more profound level, it instantly made everything my sister and I had been working on and living for obsolete. She and I left the show shortly after and, while we felt bruised and rattled, we didn’t feel defeated. A few years later we would start a new band together with a shared prerogative to present a strong front against sexism and all forms of hate that are too common within this tiny punk world that is often bannered by the word “safe.”

While obviously I did not enjoy having experiences like these growing up (and trust me, this wasn’t an isolated incident), what I learned from them is invaluable. From the time I was very young I knew that I believed in equality, and situations like the one I described embedded that truth in me deeply. To this day I won’t accept a compliment about my musicianship that is prefaced with “you’re the best girl ___.” It also taught me the thorough importance of words, and more specifically, the words you use when you are fortunate enough to have listeners. When you are given a public forum and you have an audience of unnamed, random people who are listening to you, why would you assume anything about them? There are ways to speak to a group of people without characterizing them and their thought processes as identical to your own, and really we should all be adhering to these unspoken rules.

Recently, an article ran on Noisey that was titled “How to Survive Being the Only Girl in a Band.” Because I was hearing a lot about this article from friends and I am currently the only woman in a four-piece band, I read it. What I found in this article was similar to what I found nine years ago: my feelings and needs were obsolete or secondary to a man’s. And while this piece was problematic both as an example of blatant missing-the-point feminism that was cemented in a public forum, it sure did get a lot of people talking.

I spoke to a few people that I admire deeply and asked them to write a response. I asked what about this article was problematic to them and really didn’t give any further guidelines. I was interested in a broader perspective and experience than was mentioned in the original article, an article that involved stereotypes and reinforced gender roles. I was interested in how other lives have been affected by the sometimes bitter and chauvinistic world of being a musician. I wanted to open a dialogue.

Jen Twigg of The Ambulars

jenn twigg

The best way to survive being the only woman in a band is to make sure you are in a band with dudes that you respect and trust, and who respect and trust you. You are strong as hell and you can take care of yourself, but sometimes you will still end up in situations (especially on tour) where the power dynamic is imbalanced and you can’t advocate for yourself alone. Your banddudes need to be able to advocate for you if needed, and understand why they are in a unique position to be supportive of you. How many times have I been ignored and talked over at a show in a strange town where everyone there is a man? Women in bands are not all one monolithic type of person; we might be shy or deferential, or we might be loud. We might have been assaulted or abused or treated poorly by men in a way that can be triggered in a situation where a group of ‘punk’ dudes at a house show you’re playing in an unfamiliar town are circled up, laughing raucously at rape jokes. But we all struggle uphill against the current of a thousand microaggressions daily, and we cannot always do it alone. Our male bandmates have to be our allies, and our relationship has to be built on mutual respect and an ability to communicate openly.

You will pull your weight equally with your bandmates, but you do not ever have to put the needs of others ahead of your own in order to be “one of the guys.” Let me just repeat that: You do not ever have to put the needs of other band members ahead of your own. It’s a thing we’re socialized to do for men, to put ourselves last, to take care of everyone else first, and it’s so easy to fall into that pattern on tour. Your needs matter, too, and you don’t have to pretend they don’t exist, nor should you ever have to worry that having needs makes you “one of THOSE girls.” You can stop to pee as many times as you fucking want, especially when you’ve got your period and are sitting for hours in an unairconditioned van in the Southwest in June. You can want to go home and go to bed after a show instead of partying. Chances are, some of your male bandmates will be exhausted and want the same thing, or even want it when you don’t, and it doesn’t make you a square unless you’re a jerk about it, which has to do with general human decency and not gender.

And for the record, it’s totally awesome if you wear something on stage that makes you look fat, so don’t worry about that. Most of my show clothes make me look fat, because I am fat, but somehow I still manage to be in a band and have fun. It’s pretty cool! I’m just saying: ladies, I see you, and you are fly as hell.

Sandra Alayon of Crabapple and Dear Marje

Sandra Alayon of Crabapple and Dear Marje

This article expresses the author’s real lived experiences on tour, which is important to share and document. Unfortunately, it then takes these experiences and makes wide sweeping generalizations that come off as misogynistic, limiting and enabling of oppressive behavior. These generalizations create “the cool girl” and “the other.” This article describes “the cool girl” as someone who “can hang” and should feel lucky to be in a band. Hanging amounts to condoning oppressive or questionable behavior, overlooking uncomfortable sexual, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc. jokes and generally “being down.” This is her payment for the “luck” of being chosen by her male bandmates to be in the band.

We all know “the cool girl,” a stereotype we all grew up with in high school and anyone outside is considered whiny, “bitchy,” too PC and Other. As a female musician I don’t think I owe my “luck” of being in a band to anyone but myself for my talent and hard work. For me, tour has meant creating intentionally safe spaces where people of a variety of identities can feel like they can be exactly who they are, NOT alter themselves to be able to survive in an oppressive industry. Tour has meant caring about my bandmates and the music we write enough to share it with others who also want to create intentionally safe spaces.

Shannon Le Corre of The Two Funerals and Gertrude Atherton

Shannon Le Corre of The Two Funerals and Gertrude Atherton

As a feminist and a musician, I love hearing about other women’s experiences playing in a male-dominated punk world. However, I am wary of trendy lists that make sweeping generalizations. I was immediately conflicted about the tone, advice, and general content of the piece itself. When someone puts a “feminist” disclaimer on something, I want to expect awesome, complex, and inclusive material. While I appreciate other ladies dropping some knowledge on what it’s like, I stopped believing this would be something for me at the first tip: “stop giving a fuck.” If I’ve learned anything over the many years I’ve been in bands and toured, it’s that you never should stop giving a fuck. Being on tour is a very unique situation in that you are in close proximity for extended periods of time with people who you share yourself with creatively. You write music together and that is fucking powerful.

It is unjust to assume every woman has or will have the same struggles as you physically, psychologically, and emotionally. This posits a narrow-minded scope of musicianship for others to read, especially for young girls just beginning to play. I feel as if this article condones giving up a lot of yourself to be totally cool and not “like a girl,” while bashing other women with different needs than the author. Not to mention, the blatant reinforcement of the coat rack girlfriend trope.

Self-care and keeping your identity in tact is crucial on tour, regardless of your bandmates. Perhaps a piece of advice overlooked in this article is to talk to your bandmates about the things you need from them to make sure you don’t feel unsafe. While the author might feel comfortable saying it’s suggested you “act like one of the guys,” I think it’s more important to create a space where gendered notions are addressed, talked about, and ideally left behind. Create a culture of consent with your tourmates—ask if you can show them other people’s nudes.

Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy

Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy
Photo by Roger Kisby

Alarms go off in my head every time the with-us-or-against-us argument of “just lighten up, us ladies are a team” gets brought into a conversation about feminism and oppression. That's an argument that white Western feminists have traditionally used to override the voices of marginalized women in order to continue centering the conversation about feminism on issues that concern them.

“Us ladies” are NOT a team. Look at the historically violent treatment of women of color, trans* and gender-nonconforming women, poor women, elderly women, disabled women, women all over the globe. In terms of the subject at hand, consider women in music who align themselves with charities and causes that don't reflect their lived experience in order to seem like they're doing great things for poor, suffering women—the Other. Look at female artists who use background dancers of other races as props, or appropriate other cultures. Look at women in music who publicly shame other women for exercising bodily autonomy, like Warpaint making offensive comments about Beyoncé and Rihanna's wardrobe choices.

And look at the way articles published in the name of feminism and community end up reading like a list of ways to avoid confronting the complicated way that being surrounded by cis dudes has made you feel. We have a responsibility to support and empower each other in our fight against these damaging systems, not teach each other how to avoid punishment by mimicking the behavior of our oppressors, or staying small and quiet.

Lily Richeson of Parasol

Lily Richeson of Parasol

“How to Survive Being the Only Girl in a Band” does women who struggle and fight to uphold their identity as musicians an injustice. The author's intentions were not meant to be harmful or bad, as the overall tone seems well-intentioned. It appears that the author just wanted to give “girls” a fair warning, that being in a band with mostly men isn’t exactly Kansas anymore.

Women (in feminism post-1950s we call girls above 18 or so women) who play music, are indeed subject to a mostly male-dominated atmosphere. This world is littered with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the hyper-sexualization and fetishization of women who play music or participate in a public way in the industry.

Unfortunately, instead of addressing larger issues of the at-times violent ways in which women are treated in the music world, and how awful, alienating, and uncomfortable it can feel to be the only woman in a band, at shows, or in a creative space because of the patriarchal attitudes that can often dominate and go unchecked, paragraph after paragraph drips with essentialist ideas and beliefs about women's lack of capabilities (both physically and mentally) in participating in this man’s world.

I would hope that a list of advice for young women who find themselves in a mostly-dude band might include less things like how to put on makeup in a moving vehicle, or navigate whether you should make out with someone you like on tour, and instead be more well-rounded. More advice on how to navigate greater oppressive situations that can arise when you are the only woman in a band, beyond the anxiety of peeing in a semi-public place. I would like to see a list that calls into question why we think some things are only okay for men to do and others for women, and whose tasks are seemingly less important. A list that acknowledges that, yes, being the only woman in the band is hard, but not because boys are smelly and can lift heavy things, but because we still live in a shitty place that doesn’t respect you or your talent because of your perceived gender. I would like to see a list that instead says “you can do anything.”

Alanna McArdle of Joanna Gruesome

joanna gruesome
Photo by Andrew St. Clair

Reading Mariel Loveland's article, two phrases really stick out to me: “Us ladies are a team” and “You are one of the guys on tour; you are an equal.” I've been 'the only girl in a band' for about two years now and the things that are the most apparent to me are that I am very much not one of the guys on tour, and believing that I am would not make me equal. Existing as a woman in a band is an incredibly difficult and brave thing to do, and not because I have to figure out how to put my makeup on in a moving van. I recently spoke about the sexism women in music face in an interview and it resulted in me receiving rape threats. I've been groped by guys at shows I've played and attended, countless times I've been patronised by men in other bands regarding my musical ability, and one time a sound guy at a venue patted me on the head after (needlessly) explaining to me what feedback is.

I agree with Mariel that ladies are a team, but she prefixes that statement with the instruction to “lighten up” if you're a woman reading the article. But I just don't think reducing the incredibly difficult struggle that women in music face every day to the stereotypes perpetuated in this article demonstrates being on the same team at all; telling us we shouldn't take it so seriously invalidates our very real experiences. Surviving being a woman in a band is a lot bigger than figuring out where to shower on tour: it's an active and very important fight for safety, equality, and respect.

Rachel Browne of Field Mouse

Rachel Browne of Field Mouse
Photo by Nancy Hoang

Everyone is different, and tour experiences can vary quite vastly. Tour is a lot of life crammed into a small amount of time. As with life, so much of what happens on the road has to do with our own personal choices. We choose who to play music with, we choose our attitudes, our diets, our self-care, our boundaries, and our friends. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to play music, and even luckier that the environment we live in allows us to make our own decisions.

There are, however, still many issues going on regarding women in the music industry. I have found these issues come into play across the board with the not-infrequent sexist promoter, sound person, door guy, light tech, ad infinitum. There are men who live under the assumption that music, and specifically touring, is a boys’ club. This issue is part of what needs to continually be addressed, as does playing into any part of it as a woman.

Music is not a boys’ club, and it is harmful to give any merit to that notion. Traveling with men, whether in a van for tour or with some buddies for fun, is ultimately what your choices make of it. It is imperative that rather than teaching women to accept our weaknesses, we teach each other to grow and nurture our strengths. Instead of uncomfortably trying to balance the perceived dichotomy between genders, choose your friends wisely—investigate further into the personalities, intentions, and ideologies of the people you surround yourself with. Feminism is about equality. If you're in a band with men who do not agree that you are equals, and perhaps sometimes you even find yourself agreeing with the sentiment, something major needs to change.

Cynthia Schemmer of Radiator Hospital

Cynthia Schemmer of Radiator Hospital
Photo by Jesse Riggins

Everyone keeps asking me, “Who cares what is written on Vice or Noisey? Why do you even read it? Why bother wasting your time critiquing it?”

My answers to these questions are these: because I am supposedly being represented in this article, and it has garnered a lot of attention. Because I'm the only woman in my band. Because I'm curious to hear other women's experiences and would hope they would hold themselves accountable instead of chalking it all up to a joke when they are critiqued. Because none of this is a joke to me; it pervades our lives. Because other women, perhaps younger women who have never played in a band but want to, are going to read “How to Survive Being the Only Girl in a Band” and that terrifies me.

With that out of the way, I would like to critique only one of the many things I found to be problematic with this article: being a woman in a band should not be about being one of the guys. We do not have to give ourselves up as women and we do not have to think of the things we hate in other women in order to play music. The internalized misogyny in this is very real and very heartbreaking to me. What about the shitty sound guys who think we don't know how to use our own equipment, or the guy at the basement show who says, “they only sell records because they have a chick in the band,” or the club promoter who tells your bandmate he likes your underwear but maybe your skirt is a little too short, or, you know, the plethora of other garbage that we have to put up with every day? Let's talk shit about those things and not other women. Let's be in this together. Let's not say “bros before hos,” but if we do, let's never, ever “kind of” mean it.

I can put on my eyeliner in the van and I can pee outside like a champ, but as far as survival goes, these are way down on the list of the things I need to get by on tour. And I get that the Noisey article is suppose to be lighthearted. I'm not saying we shouldn't laugh, because of course we should sometimes. What I am saying is that I am disappointed with an article that could have really brought a lot of crucial aspects of being a woman in a band to light. Mariel chose to write her article in the sarcastic Vice voice that has gotten so old to me, but you know, I can't fault her for her creative style. However, I can critique the underlying stereotypes that perpetuate the real existing bullshit we deal with on a daily basis. And that is something I will never laugh at.

Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz

Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz

So many thoughts, most of which are “This is fucking stupid,” but some of which were “I wish she hadn't used a gendered lens to make up these rules, because some of these tips are universal truisms.” For example, being able to pee wherever the fuck you want. This is important for someone in a band to know how to do! (although to be fair I learned this from the cross country team in high school and also I can totally pee in those Gatorade bottles while vehicle is moving with minimal spillage).

Lauren Denitzio of Worriers and The Measure [SA]

Lauren Denitzio of Worriers and The Measure [SA]

I thought that Mariel’s piece might be something I could relate to. While I do not use the term woman (and definitely not girl) to describe myself, my impression is that the article is aimed at bands with lineups similar to my first one, The Measure [sa], where I was the only female person in a van full of dudes 99.9% of the time. I was hoping for an empowering list that women or anyone who feels marginalized in their scene would be able to read about how it is, in fact, totally possible to be in a band made up of yourself plus cis-men. I support that sentiment. But I was disappointed to read a guide addressing women and girls as categories with broad generalizations that conflate sex and gender in ways that aren’t inclusive or productive. I think Mariel (and Noisey) confused writing about one’s personal experience with a how-to guide. Mariel has acknowledged that it was based on only her personal experiences, and I don’t want to discourage her from sharing that. But a guide for women that positions them as automatically high-maintenance, more concerned about their appearance than men, ON TOP OF clearly not including transwomen, among other things, is problematic at best, very alienating and damaging at worst. It’s unfortunate yet somehow not surprising that Noisey, a Vice-owned site, would publish this.

The comments I’ve read and conversations I’ve had about the list focus not on Mariel sharing her experience but on the stereotypes and assumptions it perpetuates. What equipment you can carry, where you sit in the van or where you sleep at night should be discussed between bandmates no matter what your gender. Open communication and setting boundaries are the tools of any good relationship. But telling people to “lighten up” or to hate on girls who “can’t hang” is getting no one anywhere. Nor is it especially encouraging for anyone considering starting or joining a band with men.

I understand wanting to write a lighthearted piece about touring with dudes and I’m sure I could share in some laughs about that experience in hindsight as well, but it’s frustrating to see a list promoting not only the gender binary and the assumption that everyone it speaks to is straight, but a questionable relationship to “boys will be boys.” I wish that when I started playing in a band someone had given me a guide on how to not take any sexist shit, but I had to learn through trial and error along the way. I’m not looking to Noisey to teach anyone those things either, but it’s still disappointing that this list was less about fighting the boys club (read: patriarchy) and more about learning to live with it. Mariel’s list doesn’t reflect my experience or the experience of so many people I know in bands with mixed-gender lineups—to the extent that it’s insulting. I hope that responses to the article start more conversations to counteract her picture of women in bands as being a kind of Princess Vespa from Spaceballs (it’s my industrial-strength hair dryer!) and instead as individuals with completely unique sets of needs and abilities, just like anyone else in the band.

As a feminist I will fight for the radical notion that women are PEOPLE and will never tell anyone, ever, to lighten up.