Content Note/Trigger Warning- discussion of explicit, graphic depictions of violence against trans women; transmisogyny
Owing to a persistent internet connection problem I’ve been unable to update the blog for about three weeks. During that period I’ve been doing my best to keep track of an extremely troubling series of events centering around the Chicago metal band Lord Mantis’ choice of artwork for their upcoming third album The Death Mask. I’ve refrained from commenting up to now, partly because I was unable to get internet access for long enough to draft a full response, but also because of a sense I wasn’t the best person to talk about the issues involved. Based on a friend’s advice, I’ve stepped away from my original plan to review the album upon its release, since even if I note my problems with the band’s artwork and associated conduct, the review format does constitute a promotion of their work. Instead, I’ve decided to make a critique of the bands’ choices (and their consequences) the central focus of this post. Most of the points I make here have been made previously (and better) by other commentors, many of whom have more of a personal connection to the issues at hand and are therefore probably more qualified to talk about it than me. Nonetheless, I feel like I need to express my feelings on the matter.
First, a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the overall story. In January of this year it was revealed that Jef Whitehead, sole member of the black metal project Leviathan, was producing the cover art for Lord Mantis’ newest album, and the artwork in question was shared on an Instagram account jointly run by Whitehead and his partner, Dark Castle and Taurus singer-guitarist Stevie Floyd. Controversy swiftly erupted due to the nature of the piece: the painting explicitly, graphically depicts a trans woman who has seemingly been tortured, then brutally murdered. (I’d prefer not to spend time describing the artwork in exacting detail; curious readers can easily find images of it if they so desire.) I personally recall that, in the wake of criticism aimed at the band, Whitehead and Floyd, and heated arguments online, there were indications that an alternate cover would be used. However, if this was ever going to be the case it no longer is: The Death Mask is set to be released in April with the original Whitehead artwork.
Readers accustomed to the graphic depictions of violence against women that unfortunately still grace extreme metal album covers might be wondering what the fuss is about. The context is important here: it might not automatically be the case that an image endorses what it is depicting, but it can sometimes tell you something about the image’s creator. The fact that album artist Jef Whitehead has been accused of sexual assault and domestic abuse (and found guilty of the latter), and incorporated violent misogyny into albums such as True Traitor, True Whore, makes it harder to accept the Lord Mantis piece as an ironic statement. It also forces us to question whether the band members themselves see violence against women, especially trans women, as a suitable subject to use for cheap controversy to garner sales.
The wider context of that everyday violence against trans women is even more important, however. While data on rates of violence against transgender people tends to be sparse, and much of this violence likely goes unreported*, it is clear that trans women, particularly trans women of colour, are subject to disproportionately high levels of police harassment, assault from healthcare professionals, and murder, not to mention astronomically high rates of suicide and transphobic abuse and discrimination in employment, housing etc. Given this reality, the prevalence of depictions of trans women as victims of violence- not just in Lord Mantis’ album artwork, but across all media- and its link to that violence in real life has to be critiqued. It’s obviously unlikely that someone would use Whitehead’s painting as their sole inspiration to murder or otherwise commit violence against a trans woman. But it does form one small piece of the wider cultural narrative surrounding trans women. And it does send yet another subtle message about how little society values trans women. People already predisposed to violent transmisogyny can and do pick up on this message and utilise it to justify their crimes, with such twisted reasoning as the conception of women “deceiving” men with their undisclosed transgender status used as an excuse for “corrective” rape or other violence.
I have heard the band’s defenders bring up the question of intent- whether or not the band members and/or Whitehead intended to offend trans women or anyone else with their choice of artwork. If they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, the argument goes, it’s OK. If they didn’t set out to be offensive or to cause harm to trans women with this cover, then they are absolved of any negative consequences, apparently. To me this is an inadequate response, one that ignores the social and cultural impact of art and reduces things to a narrow individualistic view. Our actions have consequences, often ones that we didn’t intend or want them to have. Like most people, I’ve had moments where I unintentionally caused great hurt to people I care about, and agonised over the fact that I did this without realising it. But to turn round and say to this person that, because I didn’t intend to hurt them, I was not in the wrong, would be unhelpful to say the least. It doesn’t really matter whether or not the members of Lord Mantis, or Jef Whitehead, are personally bigoted against trans women**. What matters is that their chosen artwork has the potential to contribute, however indirectly, to the epidemic levels of violence trans women face in the real world, whether they intended it to or not. The seeming refusal of the band and their label, Profound Lore, to consider this, and to insist instead on releasing the album with this cover, is the real problem.
In another sense though, the question of intent is worth considering; specifically, what artists intend to achieve with their work. I’ve said before that I believe metal has the potential to offer a site of genuine resistance against hegemonic discourses, to become a truly counter-cultural resistance against mainstream society, and rediscover the shock and panic the genre used to inspire in guardians of mainstream morality. Too often, however, bands seem content to recycle aesthetics of perversion or depravity that seem shocking on the surface, but fail to actually offer any real critique of, or alternative to, those hegemonic discourses. So it is with the cover of The Death Mask. It might initially seem shocking to depict violence against trans women in this way, and it may seem as though I’ve just spent over a thousand words on the offense this image caused me. But as noted above, this is a world where violence against trans women goes on all the time, with an awful frequency, mostly unnoticed or commented upon by the people it does not directly affect. That violence is a normalised aspect of our society; in a sense, mainstream society condones that violence. So really, what is shocking about a metal band depicting it on an album cover, seemingly without any intention to critique it? What could be more pedestrian or unchallenging? Shouldn’t we expect more of a band in what is supposed to be a counter-cultural musical movement; that it might, for instance offer a counter to the dominant cultural perception of trans women?
At this point we should probably turn to the question of what can be done. It is abundantly clear at this stage that neither the band nor Profound Lore is interested in changing the artwork or seriously considering the concerns raised. In a neoliberal economic order that increasingly gives us power only as consumers, the only way forward might well be to withdraw our custom. This is not an easy thing for me to recommend- I have grown to greatly enjoy Lord Mantis’ previous album Pervertor, and was initially looking forward to hearing their music develop on this release. But weighed against the possibility of helping a band to profit off of transmisogyny, my personal disappointment is not important. I would urge readers who were considering purchasing The Death Mask not to support Lord Mantis by paying for the album or their live shows. If possible, I would also recommend avoiding any of Profound Lore’s other releases until the band and/or the label issue a full apology and promise to change the artwork. I appreciate that it’s easy for me to ask this of others, and that it might not seem like this will have any impact. But I’d like to believe that if enough of us commit to this, and make our intentions clear to Profound Lore, it will eventually be in the label’s financial interest to do the right thing. Once again, outcomes trump intentions.
* For example, it is often reported that 238 trans people (men and women included) were murdered worldwide in 2013, but the true figure is almost certainly much higher.
** Having said that, this interview with Lord Mantis vocalist/bassist Charlie Fell suggests that his view on transgender issues could charitably be described as “unreconstructed”, and will not win over critics of the cover art choice. (Trigger warning: contains images of the Death Mask album artwork)