Gender is a divisive subject—one that often generates both heated debate and initiates a sense of fear regarding its very discussion. Acknowledging sexism (or gender discrimination) often means subjecting oneself to additional ridicule, which means issues of gender inequality are usually accepted and ignored rather than brought forward and resolved. A week and a half ago, SCREECHING WEASEL frontman Ben Weasel punched two women after hurling sexually misogynistic insults at them during the band’s show at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. The backlash against Weasel has been severe—bands have been dropping off “Weaselfest” scheduled for Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, and the other four members of the band resigned. So it begs the question: What is the current state of sexism in punk and hardcore?
It’s arguable whether Weasel’s actions in Texas are themselves sexist in nature. It’s entirely likely that Weasel would have swung at anyone standing in his way regardless of gender. However, it’s essential to consider the other facts: Earlier in the night, when a female audience member heckled him, Weasel attempted to pay another audience member $20 to punch her for him. No dice. When the heckling and ice-throwing continued, Weasel jumped off the stage saying "I don't give a fuck if it is a girl.”
All accounts of the incident offer these general facts, however most fail to report is Weasel’s verbally abusive comments prior to the altercation. In the videos shot by fans at the show, Weasel can be heard saying, “I’ll tell you what. I haven’t whipped my dick out [onstage] in about 20 years, but I’m on the verge of doing it just so the fucking skanky wench who threw her beer at me can come up and suck on it. When she’s done, she can lick my taint.”
This changes the dynamic of the situation entirely, even if you argue that Weasel would have said this to a man as well. No matter how you look at it, no matter what your opinion of what’s “punk” and what isn’t, this was a grown man making a sexually abusive comment to a young woman he’d never met. Women have always struggled for equal footing in the male-dominated punk and hardcore genres, but does that undercurrent still remain strong?
Sexism—in the music industry and in other facets of life—is sometimes an issue only women are aware of; after all, often only those directly affected by an issue can recognize its existence. It can be easy for men in bands or elsewhere in the industry to take their positions for granted. Sure, they’ve had to work hard and prove themselves just as much as anyone else, but they're spared the additional hurdles that females face. Most men have probably never had an internship advisor try to sleep with them at work or had a famous male musician interrupt an interview to ask if they’d like to “visit the back of the tour bus” for a few minutes.
There are very few positive female role models in the music industry, particularly on the technical side. In the 53-year history of the Grammy Awards, only two women have been awarded won Best Engineering, and most years no women are even nominated. No woman has ever won Best Producer. There are few female guitar or drum techs, very few female lighting designers or sound engineers on tours, and the rosters of most independent punk labels boast only one or two acts with female musicians. If you’re a woman on a tour bus—whether you’re a manager, publicist or journalist—it isn’t rare to be greeted with, “Whose girlfriend are you?” (And that’s putting it politely.)
ASHLEY ELLYLLON, keyboardist/vocalist for ORBS and CRADLE OF FILTH, says the same applies to female musicians. “A woman in a band or the music industry is going to face hurdles that a guy will never have to deal with,” she says. “It comes in the form of a general attitude, rather than any physical abuse like Ben [Weasel] displayed. I would say the majority of men are just thrown off by a female in music. They will automatically assume that you are incapable, or a rare few may assume that you are just a groupie looking for a way to hook up with the guys. You have to work twice as hard and be twice as sharp to be taken seriously. Once you prove yourself, you will have the opposite issue—too much praise and attention because [men] are surprised a woman could actually be smart and talented. You can never really escape it.”
Ashley Ellyllon with ORBS (photo: Scottie Bottenus)
SANDRA ALVARENGA, formerly of BLACK VEIL BRIDES and currently of MODERN DAY ESCAPE, has faced similar doubt about her skills. “I remember this one guy before a show telling me, ‘Oh, you’re a drummer. No offense, but you hit kind of light. You should be playing a little harder.’ In my head, I was like, ‘Fuck you, just watch. I’m going to let my music just speak for me.’”
Of course, skill and talent vary from person to person and aren’t dictated by gender. Anyone can suck at playing guitar, just as anyone can become a virtuoso. Academic and theorists explain that gender is a social construct, which basically means that “male” and “female” have been given distinct sets of characteristics to perpetuate certain economic and social patterns in our society. This means that very few characters are inherent to men or women; instead, society imposes these rules on men and women as they grow up in American culture. Men aren’t necessarily better at technology; they are just taught to be better. Women aren’t better cooks; they are taught to be better.
The American Association of University Women, with support from the National Science Foundation, conducted a study a few years ago to see whether there is scientific evidence to support the claim that women are worse at math than men. Although the study acknowledged a physical difference between the male and female brains, the results strongly suggested that men and women have an equal aptitude for math. This means women typically do worse at math because they are actually told they are expected to do worse. It’s the stereotype that affects the performance, not the performance that generates the stereotype.
Luckily, there are woman who ignore the preset notions and stereotypes and do it anyway. CATHY MASON, longtime tour manager for BAD RELIGION, says, “I got a lot of eye-rolling and heard, ‘No girls on tour’ a lot. I basically became one of the guys, so I wouldn't have to deal the weirdness. I also got really lucky and had some great mentors who said if I wanted to [tour manage], I’d better learn everything I can, since I would always have to be a little better than the boys.”