Reinventing the Steel: A three-part discussion of how extreme metal could reinvigorate itself through explicit ideological engagement with feminism
(i) We need to talk about women: metal’s patriarchal structure
In the last post, I promised to talk about the specific form that a politicised, ideologically engaged metal music might take. But first, I want to take a brief detour into a potentially fraught topic- the issue of women’s representation, or lack thereof, within metal, and how this reflects wider societal structures.
The case of Tim Lambesis, the singer of As I Lay Dying who is currently facing trial for attempting to arrange the murder of his estranged wife Meggan, shows that hostility towards women is unfortunately still not hard to find within the metal community. Countless examples can be found of online commenters, men and women, taking the attempted murderer’s side, castigating his wife as a “bitch” and speculating on what she must have done to provoke her husband1. This kind of victim blaming is not exclusive to metal, of course. The outpouring of fan support for Chris Brown after his assault against Rihanna shows that blaming women for violence committed against them is a society-wide problem2.
The Lambesis case does demonstrate, however, that for all their supposed counter-culture credentials, metal fans are not above some old-fashioned victim-blaming and misogyny. As a subculture created within a larger society structured under the system of patriarchy, it’s not exactly surprising that the metal community reflects that underlying patriarchal structure, even as it defines itself in opposition to mainstream culture.
At this point, it would be useful to define what patriarchy actually is. What it absolutely is not is a conspiracy among all men to engage in misogyny and deliberately keep women down for the fun of it. (Making this clear probably won’t stop people accusing me of defining metal fans as misogynists, but at least I can say I tried). The theory of patriarchy does not state that all men actively hate women. It is a model of social organisation based around veneration of dominance and control, that privileges men-as-a-group over women-as-a-group.
Of course, it is necessary to note that the various interrelated metal subcultures are not monolithic- as there are substantial differences between bands and subgenres re: musical topics and approaches, different metallers will react to patriarchy in different ways. It is not accurate to state that all metal fans consciously subscribe to patriarchal norms, and they may in fact actively subvert them. There are numerous examples of metal serving as a site of resistance against oppressive patriarchal control structures, particularly religious ones. The Satanist and atheist stances of countless bands need little explanation. The example of Janaza, a one-woman black metal band from Iraq that espouses an anti-Islam stance, shows that metal has the potential to offer refuge from religious, and therefore patriarchal, authority, in regions where criticising said authority holds real danger of social stigma and persecution. With that said, the reflections of wider patriarchal social norms that do exist within metal culture cannot and should not be ignored.
In his book The Gender Knot: Unravelling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Allan Johnson elucidates a succinct, accurate illustration of the systemic features of patriarchy that I feel can also be applied, at least in part, to metal subcultures. In the rest of this post, I want to briefly list the features Johnson identifies as central to patriarchy, quoting his explanations thereof and demonstrating how they are reflected in the metal world3.
Male domination: “positions of authority… are generally reserved for men… When a woman finds her way into such positions, people tend to be struck by the exception to the rule and wonder how she’ll measure up against a man in the same position… Male dominance also promotes the idea that men are superior to women… if men occupy superior positions, it’s a short leap to the idea that men must be superior.”4
Obviously an anti-authoritarian subculture like metal doesn’t have leaders or central authorities in the same way a country or a religion does. But famous and visible metal musicians do hold positions of relative power and influence compared to their fans. And it’s an inescapable truth that the overwhelming majority of those musicians are men, just as most powerful figures in politics, religion and business are.
It’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that, if there were more women in prominent positions within the metal community, this male domination would eventually be eroded. But while women’s increased representation in metal is undoubtedly part of combating male domination, it’s not enough by itself to destroy the idea of male superiority. Pop music has a large number of prominent, successful female performers, particularly in comparison to metal. But this does not mean the ideology of male superiority has disappeared from that genre, either. Robin Thicke’s smash hit “Blurred Lines”, and its endlessly-dissected video, was only the most prominent example this summer of a pop song depicting men in a sexually dominant position over women, who are shown as valuable only for their ability to service men sexually. This was the product of a deeply-held cultural belief in male superiority, and the individual successes of Beyonce or Lady Gaga did nothing to prevent it.
When female metallers do achieve success and fame, a lot of the attention they receive still revolves around them being “women in a man’s world”, and it’s still considered important to emphasise their ability to “measure up” to the guys. There seems to be a default attitude of suspicion toward women in metal- that they have gotten attention because of their gender rather than their skills (after all, if most famous metallers are men, it must be because men are just better at metal, right?) Thus the need to prove one’s worth as a female metalhead by identifying with a male-dominated subculture. Especially for female singers, this often centres on their ability to sound as harsh or “brutal” as men. This ties into the second key feature of patriarchy, male identification.
Male identification: “core cultural ideas about what is considered good, desirable, preferable, or normal are associated with how we think about men and masculinity… These include qualities such as control, strength, competitiveness, toughness, coolness under pressure, logic, forcefulness, decisiveness, rationality, autonomy, self-sufficiency, and control over any emotion that interferes with other core values (such as invulnerability). In contrast, qualities such as cooperation, mutuality, equality, sharing, compassion, caring, vulnerability, a readiness to negotiate and compromise, emotional expressiveness, and intuitive and other nonlinear ways of thinking are all devalued and culturally associated with femininity and femaleness”5.
Metal might not express its core values in the same way as mainstream culture, but the qualities most treasured in metal- “hardness” in sound and toughness in behaviour, uncompromising ethical stances, autonomy and independence, an individualist ethos- are ones culturally identified with manhood. To identify as a metalhead is to accept and promote these male-identified values; failing to do so makes one “false” or “untrue” to metal. This is essentially a reflection of the rhetoric in mainstream culture that not being strong, in control of your emotions or otherwise subscribing to male-identified cultural norms makes one not a man, a “faggot” or worse, a “girl”.
Metal’s veneration of an uncompromising, individualist aesthetic, which tends to be culturally identified with manhood, is by no means alien to other genres. Highly collaborative, cooperative metal bands are also in abundance, but these too are not always necessarily opposed to individualism as an ideal. Particularly in black metal, the subgenre most devoted to an anti-social and highly individualist stance, the one man band (and they are almost always formed by men) is the purest expression of the “lone ranger” archetype idealised in both metal and mainstream culture; the direct, unfiltered product of an uncompromising artist, usually a man, following no path but his own. This trend towards total freedom of self-expression has undoubtedly created some absolute masterpieces. It’s ironic that the two albums I praised so effusively in Part One for their potentially revolutionary model of political engaged metal, Liberteer’s Better To Die On Your Feet Than Live On Your Knees and Panopticon’s Kentucky, were also created by one man projects; they were written and performed entirely by Matthew Widener and Austin Lunn respectively. The adherence to individualism is not inherently a bad thing, obviously. It can form the basis for a stance of resistance against coercive authority. But it is rooted in the same patriarchal veneration of qualities that have been culturally associated primarily with men and manhood.
Of course, qualities identified with one gender are not actually exclusive to that gender alone. They are all human qualities- anyone, male or female, can be tough at times and emotionally vulnerable at others, or self-sufficient in some ways and reliant on those around them at others. The fact that women who sufficiently identify with “male” characteristics in metal gain some acceptance as “one of the guys” shows that musical and social concepts like “brutality”, self-sufficiency etc are not exclusive to one gender or another. The problem comes when one set of characteristics is both designated “feminine” and also devalued, considered “wussy” or “girly”. Attempts by bands to meld metal with “softer”, “feminised” musical forms are increasingly welcomed for increasing the genre’s diversity, but are still met with disdain in certain quarters, even if they succeed in bringing emotional depth and variety to the genre that an exclusive focus on the “hard”, male-identified emotions of anger or hatred cannot achieve by itself. In this way patriarchy is limiting for men as well as women. If even metal subcultures opposed to mainstream society consider “feminine” expression verboten, where can socially alienated metalheads turn to express the full range of human emotion?
Male centredness: “the focus of attention is primarily on men and what they do… With rare exceptions, women are portrayed as along for the ride… providing something for men to fight over, or being foils that reflect or amplify men’s heroic struggle with the human condition”.6
In looking at metal lyrics for representations of women, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they are most notable for their absence. While relationship songs, hymns to a (generally) female lover, have formed pop music’s stock and trade from the 1950s up to the present day, metal love songs are rare, especially at the extreme end of the spectrum. This is not automatically problematic- metal is in part a reaction to bland, commodified mass culture, often deliberately turning to the dark and miserable side of life in contrast to an oppressively sunny pop landscape. Pop songs about love have their own bundle of issues in terms of how they portray women and (mis)represent healthy relationships; by largely avoiding the topic of love, metal at least avoids that particular hornet’s nest.
But in those songs where women are represented, problems quickly emerge. When they are not being ignored entirely, women are often present as victims of some horror movie sadist, carved up in countless gore-soaked grindcore and death metal songs. If they’re not victims of men they’re emotional tormentors, often presented as the villain via the trope of the “Evil Ex”, identified as a lyrical touchstone for metal by Natalie Zina Walschots in the wake of Tim Lambesis’ arrest. She describes how she fulfilled this role, of a symbolic female evil, for one anonymous musician in the wake of a breakup, and the harassment she endured as a result7. Walschots further locates the internet backlash against Meggan Lambesis as an expression of this same “Evil Ex” narrative. Unable to fathom a well-liked musician being capable of attempting to arrange his wife’s murder, fans shifted their blame to her for provoking him. Ascribing to the well-established cultural narrative of a wicked woman as the cause of a man’s woes was easier than acknowledging a respected public figure’s capacity for violence. For those commenters, Meggan Lambesis lost her humanity and became the “evil ex” trope personified. In this way, the male-centred nature of metal songs and their representations of women were responsible for the castigation and dehumanisation of a woman in real life.
Obsession with control: “[control is] the cultural standard for a truly superior human being, which is then used to justify men’s privileged position. Men are assumed (and expected) to be in control at all times, to be unemotional (except for anger and rage), to present themselves as invulnerable… and in command of every situation, especially those involving women”8.
Johnson is quick to point out that control is not in of itself an evil that inexorably leads to oppression. Civilisation as we know it would not exist without the human ability to control our actions and use our agency to achieve defined goals. Without a certain measure of control, several of metal’s key features would be absent. If no musicians were willing to subject themselves to years of disciplined practice, we wouldn’t have the highly technical guitar solos, drumwork and extreme vocal styles that make metal an exciting and vital genre. Without the discipline and control to make it through a potentially exhausting cycle of recording, promoting and touring, metal bands would not be able to share their music with a wide audience.
But as in patriarchal society overall, control often assumes such importance in metal that it becomes oppressive. Whether it’s rigid adherence to Spartan self-control, or a “loss of control” that results in metaphorical violence, control is at the heart of metal lyrics and imagery. This then has an effect on the wider subculture- it promotes the idea that emotions must be tightly controlled, expressed only in outbursts of anger, which is often the only emotion considered appropriate for men to show. This forces metal fans, men in particular, into the unenviable position of always having to be “hard”, in control, unable to show vulnerability. It might also contribute to a sense among women in metal that they can’t discuss the sexism they’ve encountered simply for being women in metal.
Of course, metal is not entirely subordinated to patriarchy’s control fetish. Depending on the particular subgenre in question, there is more or less room available for expression of emotion, especially on the negative end of the spectrum: depression, suicidal thoughts, misanthropy. It’s important that people have the outlet to express these as well as more positive feelings. But in the often violent imagery of extreme metal, the spectre of control is never far away. What are lyrics about murder and torture of women, if not expressions of ultimate control over a person’s very life?
As in wider society, the focus on control in metal discourse spills out into actions in the physical world. One wonders if Tim Lambesis was driven to plot his wife’s murder because he felt that, in the breakup of his family, he was losing the control, especially over women, that a patriarchal society leads men to feel entitled to.
[This is a two-part post, that will be continued in 2) (ii): The possibility, and necessity, of change.]
2 It may be worth noting the massive amounts of attention that Chris Brown’s assault of Rihanna received compared to the Lambesis case. Of course, Brown has many more fans, and a larger cultural impact, than the singer of a Christian metalcore band, so some of that attention is to be expected. But one wonders if Brown’s race played a part in making the mass media more comfortable passing judgement against him than Tim Lambesis. The intent here is not to excuse Brown’s horrific crime and his unapologetic stance after the fact because of his skin colour, but to note the role that race plays in reporting of crimes committed by celebrities.
3 This basic patriarchal model can be applied to metal’s engagement with people of colour and LGBT people, as well as women. The genre as a whole is dominated, identified and centred on the straight, the white and the male experience. For simplicity I’m only focusing on patriarchy in metal as it relates to women, but I believe parallels can be drawn between this and how it affects non-white and LGBT people.
4 Allan G. Johnson. The Gender Knot: Unravelling Our Patriarchal Legacy, p5-6
5 Johnson, p6-7
6 Johnson, p10
7 Natalie Zina Walschots. “It Is Safer In the Dark: What the Treatment of Meggan Lambesis Tells Us About Violence, Victim-Blaming and Silence”, Toronto Standard, 16th May 2013. http://torontostandard.com/culture/it-is-safer-in-the-dark-what-the-treatment-of-meggan-lambesis-tells-us-about-violence-victim-blaming-and-silence
8 Johnson, p14