Reinventing the Steel: A three-part discussion of how extreme metal could reinvigorate itself through explicit ideological engagement with feminism
2) (ii) The possibility, and necessity, of change
Trigger warning: victim-blaming, graphic description of abuser/rapist mentality
In discussing the patriarchal underpinnings of metal in the first part of this post, I didn’t mean to decry the genre, or to declare that it can’t create spaces for women. Because of my appreciation for heavy music, and the close-knit communities that spring up around it, I know that it’s capable of offering marginalised groups of people a support structure, and potentially a site of resistance against an oppressive, patriarchal system. But if it continues to perpetuate that same system in its own organisation, metal is not acting as a support structure for women who appreciate and need it just as much as their male comrades. I want metal to be for everybody who wants it.
In her recent e-book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet, Laurie Penny identifies a similar dynamic at play in geek culture (which metal could be defined as a subset of), especially in its manifestations online. For geek women, isolation from mainstream culture is made worse by sexism and ostracism from the very boys and men they might have expected to find solidarity with. She writes from personal experience, as someone who knows how being both a geek and a woman compounds your marginalisation:
“we were there too, the other geeks and weird kids whose lives were hellish at school…We were there too, but you didn’t see us, because we were girls. And the costs of being the geek were the same for us, right down to the sexual frustration, the yearning, the being laughed at, the loneliness. And then we went online… only to find ourselves slut-shamed and screamed at if we gave away that we might be female. For us there was no escape. We had to fight the same battles you did, only harder, because we were women and we also had to fight sexism, some of it from you, and when we went looking for other weird kids to join our gang, we were told we weren’t ‘real geeks’ because we were female.1”
The accusation that women can’t be “real” geeks or “real” metalheads is rampant both online and off. Never mind women’s genuine appreciation for those subcultures, and their lived experience of the same bullshit as socially marginalised men, and more besides. For too many men, all geek girls (or metal girls) are fake2. It is absolutely unfair that women drawn to the culture around heavy music for the same reasons as men have to face this persecution, and the accusation that they don’t truly belong there, in what is supposed to be a space for anyone who can appreciate musical extremity.
If men want to help change this situation, the key is not guilt or despair, but a clear look at how not only patriarchal ideals, but also metal’s very structure, contribute to the idea that treating women this way is acceptable. The takeaway from Allan Johnson’s The Gender Knot (from which I quoted extensively last time) is that no one alive today is personally responsible for creating patriarchy. Its influence is systemic, wider and bigger than any one person. The system only acts through us, so we do have a responsibility to try and ensure our actions don’t prop up male domination and female oppression. Calling your friends out for derogatory or exclusionary comments about women, and explaining why it isn’t cool, is also important. But the system of patriarchy, not the actions of individual misogynists, is the main problem.
Although the same propensity for “geek sexism” that Penny identifies is at play in the metal world, male metal fans are not inherently any more misogynist than men generally- a lot of them are opposed to oppression of women, either explicitly or without realising it. The problem isn’t individual misogynists, but that the genre conventions of metal as a musical form tend towards either excluding, ignoring or actively denigrating women. As blues music often expressed hostility or fear toward women as a staple theme, rock music and later, metal, absorbed this tendency, reproduced and consolidated it. As Post-Zeitgeist documents, there is a direct continuity between violence against women in blues lyrics, and in death metal- the latter’s imagery is more explicit and grotesque, but the theme and underlying intention are the same3.
Metal lyrics and rape culture
At this point you might be asking why it matters that misogynistic themes are prevalent in extreme metal. So death metal bands have all those songs about the murder and rape of women- they don’t actually commit the atrocities they sing about, or endorse people doing so. Isn’t it all essentially tongue-in-cheek, an exploration of fantasy? It’s true that expressing morbid feelings doesn’t automatically translate into a desire to act out those impulses. The problem is that our actions and our art do not necessarily send the message we want them to.
It’s been said by better people than me that feminists don’t think all men are rapists- rapists think all men are rapists4. The extent to which male sexual offenders believe their actions to be normal, acceptable male behaviour is well-documented, and is directly related to the normalisation of violence against women in wider culture. Exposure to sexist jokes, for example, is connected to greater levels of self-reported rape proclivity and victim-blaming5. A connection could easily be made between misogyny in metal lyrics and last year’s debate around rape jokes in stand-up comedy. Quite aside from the need to consider the huge numbers of women who have been raped and will therefore probably not find the joke funny, do we really want to reinforce the justifications built up in the minds of sexual predators? Do we really want to contribute, in some small part, to their actions?
“I wrapped my hands around
Squeezing out her breath
Eyes rolled back in her head
Clawing at my skin
I know now it’s not my fault
She was asking for it”
(Cannibal Corpse- She Was Asking For It)
Let’s take a concrete example of a metal song that plumbs the depths of misogyny. Cannibal Corpse’s song “She Was Asking For It” would likely be taken by most listeners as a sick joke, not an honest statement of belief about female rape victims. You could even argue that by presenting the rapist/killer’s mindset in such bald clarity, it attempts to lay bare and ultimately condemn the mentality behind such crimes6. But as the study quoted above shows, jokes about rape help to legitimise violence against women for those predisposed to misogyny. In the mind of the rapist, conditioned to feel entitled to women’s bodies thanks to numerous subtle cultural messages encouraging that entitlement, it’s easy to take “I know it’s not my fault” at face value. It’s yet another affirmation that he is justified in his behaviour and his viewpoint, that women are indeed “asking for it”.
It’s easy to criticise a set of lyrics for propagating rape culture if one personally finds them artistically lacking. But what if a band you personally like does something similar? For me, Pig Destroyer are one of the best bands in metal today, in part because of their lyrical content. Vocalist JR Hayes’ writing is downright poetic, packing a surprising depth considering the brevity required of grindcore. This undeniable skill means the streak of misogyny in his lyrics is harder to get to grips with7.
“I hold your hands in mine
the rest of you is scattered
your rib cage is open
like a great white’s jaws
your legs look so sexy out of context”
(Pig Destroyer- Deathtripper)
“Deathtripper” is another tale of death and dismemberment, albeit rendered less explicitly than the blunt trauma of a Cannibal Corpse song. The “out of context” line, for example, creeps up on you, evoking horror only when you’ve considered its implication. Rather than wallowing in gore, Hayes uses irony and simile to help the listener paint the terrifying picture in their imagination. But the lyrical sophistication masks the fact that it is the exact same narrative of violence against women as in so many other metal songs. Its comparatively refined language is almost more insidious in this respect.
“She’s got a neck
Built for my hands
The way a pine
Grows for the saw
They say I hate women
They couldn’t be more wrong…
The other day
I followed her…
I just wanted to hold her
Like an anaconda”
(Pig Destroyer- Baltimore Strangler)
“Baltimore Strangler” follows a stalker of women, letting us into his head as he describes his feelings toward his target. To be fair, no violence is explicitly committed in the song’s narrative. The intent is presumably to provoke us to consider the stalker’s justifications, not to endorse them. But the line “They say I hate women/They couldn’t be more wrong” has a self-referential air- it could be read as a direct quote from the author, which necessarily ties the rest of the song’s sentiments to Hayes himself. Again, he probably doesn’t intend for us to accept the subject’s reasoning, but any misogynists and abusers that might be listening don’t necessarily know that. Might they not see it as yet another reassurance that how they see women is justified, that their behaviour is OK?
If that were the case- if a Pig Destroyer fan raped or otherwise assaulted someone- it absolutely wouldn’t be on Hayes because a song he had written had been misinterpreted as justifying rape. Pinning the blame for an individual crime onto one specific media influence would be the same flimsy argument made by religious conservatives to blame the videogame Doom for the Columbine high school massacre. But like it or not, the song would have been one small, individual contribution to rape culture; the larger cultural narrative a rapist could point to as justification for their crime.
Metal lyricists need to ask themselves- is it worth it to use violence against women as a topic, if it can be used by rapists in that way? I don’t mean this as an attempt to shame metal artists into avoiding certain themes. But we absolutely have to think deeply about how our art will be understood by an audience. It’s fast becoming a cliché to quote Kurt Vonnegut’s line in Mother Night, but it’s still true- “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”.
By following the genre conventions of metal music as they exist today, one can easily end up reinforcing patriarchal structures and representations of women, without meaning to. It is even possible to unwittingly end up contributing to a narrative that minimises and justifies violence and rape. This is why I feel the status quo of metal as it currently exists is exclusionary towards women.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
This is why it’s so important to create alternatives to how metal currently represents women, to make space for new roles women can play within metal. This is where feminism comes in. Not only does feminist thought hold the potential to undercut patriarchy in metal and create more equal, respectful representations of women, it also acts as a model of political engagement, tempering extremity with reflection in a way that could help restore the genre’s sense of danger and vibrancy.
1 Laurie Penny. Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet, p32.
2 Devin Faraci, “On Fake Geek Girls”. http://badassdigest.com/2012/11/13/on-fake-geek-girls/
3 “Death metal: Grotesquery, fetish and misogyny”, Post-Zeitgeist, 20th March 2012. http://post-zeitgeist.blogspot.jp/2012/03/death-metal-grotesquery-fetish-and.html
4 “Feminists Don’t Think All Men Are Rapists. Rapists Do.” http://dbzer0.com/blog/feminists-dont-think-all-men-are-rapists-rapists-do/
5 Cullen, Fernandez, Thomae, Viki. “The Effect of Sexist Humor and Type of Rape on Men’s Self-Reported Rape Proclivity and Victim Blame” in Current Research in Social Psychology, Vol 13, No 10 December 2007. http://www.uiowa.edu/~grpproc/crisp/crisp13_10.pdf
6 It might be unhelpful to conflate murder and rape here. Some will undoubtedly claim that songs about killing women don’t promote rape culture. But the song’s title is a frequent justification for rape of women more than murder. In any case, without consent, sex is not sex. Rape is violence, and thus is connected to murder.
7 As is the band’s popularity with female metalheads. I am aware many of these women have no problem with songs I might find misogynist, and that they may well consider my pronouncements on metal patriarchy incredibly patronising. Certainly misogyny is far from the only influence in the bands’ lyrics, much of which focus on women and female imagery, but I believe it is definitely there.