Reinventing the Steel: A three-part discussion of how extreme metal could reinvigorate itself through explicit ideological engagement with feminism
3) A Model For Feminist Extreme Metal
It’s telling that this final article on metal, patriarchy and feminism has taken me much longer to write than the ones before it. Where those were engaged in critiquing the metal scene as I see it, this one involves proposing a way to change things, a far harder task. I’m hesitant to suggest any kind of definitive answer to the problems within metal, but I’m fairly certain the solution isn’t for us to feel personal guilt over problematic lyrics, and shy away from the genre as a result. It’s OK to listen to those lyrics if we admit there’s a problem with them, rather than getting defensive about how metal bands don’t actually kill women. More helpful than avoiding the problem, or trying to justify the status quo, are active attempts to create an alternative narrative- a model of feminist extreme metal.
I hope that my previous posts on heavy metal subculture and its links to patriarchy have demonstrated that there is a serious problem, in this subculture and more widely, of women being denied representation and treated with horrific violence, metaphorical and literal. I’d argue that feminism- which I understand as a movement to improve the lot of marginalised people, including but not limited to women, by demolishing patriarchal power structures- is the most suitable ideological trend to remedy this situation. It’s always easy to find people who balk at even the mention of the name, however. And not just the internet-dwelling Men’s Rights “activists” who will loudly insist that forty-odd years of limited progress toward gender equality have turned the tables and created a “misandric”, matriarchal society: plenty of girls and women, from the playground to the editorial pages, are reluctant to explicitly identify as feminist. (To be fair, there’s a world of difference between those who are hesitant to criticise patriarchy, and the many women of colour who feel excluded by high-profile feminist movements that tend to ignore their specific concerns and focus only on the issues of white, middle-class women. I can hardly blame those women who feel this brand of feminism doesn’t speak for them, and instead prefer titles such as womanist, or no label at all.)
While there has been an increased media focus lately on the myriad ways feminism’s goals have yet to be achieved, there remains a perception that we somehow have moved beyond the need for a women’s movement. Those feminist arguments that do receive serious mainstream attention are very often individually-focused, aiming at getting a few women into leading roles in the capitalist hierarchy. Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” brand of feminism is the most prominent example of the neutered rhetoric that talks of female empowerment without critiquing patriarchy as a system1.
If feminism was truly irrelevant or unnecessary in today’s “post-feminist” world, its opponents would not spend any time attempting to discredit or disparage its ideals and practitioners. If it were as silly or “irrational” as is claimed, they would simply ignore it, instead of expending energy trying to counter it. But feminism continues to invite ridicule, disdain and rebuttals (as well as attempts at co-option) because it poses a very real, existential threat to patriarchal systems of power. Its radical critique of patriarchy as a system propping up massive inequality is threatening to the people who benefit from that structural inequality. What could be more dangerous to patriarchal power than an ideology that repudiates its very structural underpinning?
Make no mistake, feminism is still a dirty word for far too many. Student Jinan Younis, for example, was recently hounded by online abuse from boys, simply for daring to start a feminist society at her school2. This is merely one example of the relentless threats women face for expressing feminist viewpoints, or even for just existing in online space3. The hostility is not limited to internet harassment from those who lack social status and therefore lash out at those with less than them, in an attempt to feel powerful. UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s dismissive attitude toward female MPs is well documented- for example, shutting down Green MP Caroline Lucas’ questioning about the continued presence of the Sun newspaper, with its prominent nude modelling pictures, on Parliament news stands. Whatever your feelings on the No More Page 3 campaign against nude modelling in “family” newspapers, the dismissive response toward the concerns of women by the leader of a modern, supposedly enlightened nation should be extremely concerning. And outside of nations with at least the façade of a commitment to gender equality, official responses to feminist activism are marked with outright hostility, rather than smug indifference. The Pussy Riot case in Russia shows the extent to which dictatorial leaders and massively powerful religious authorities, who logically should feel secure in their absolute dominance of social life, will crack down on any feminist challenge.
For metal bands to explicitly align with feminism, then, would be a radical act in of itself, one that might restore some genuine counter-culture credentials to an increasingly apolitical art form.
What would feminist metal consist of?
A feminist approach to extreme metal would start with the organisation of bands and shows. It’s important to have more groups with female members in central roles – there are already plenty of bands entirely made up of dudes. And not only women, but people of colour and LGBT people as well; all of these groups are massively under-represented because they fall outside the genre’s white, male, straight, cissexual norm. Intersectional feminism ought to mean centralising not only female voices, but also those of women (and men) of colour, as well as trans people and/or gender-non-conformists. In addition, there needs to be an effort to make shows more welcoming to these groups. I’ve heard too many stories from female friends about sensing an unwelcoming atmosphere, or even outright hostility, at metal and punk shows. When race enters the mix, this feeling only increases. Laina Dawes highlights this in What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal: “sexual and racial stereotyping and threats of physical harm can limit the participation of black women fans. (…) Some of the women I talked to… were fearful of being at the receiving end of racial slurs or getting physically attacked”4. It’s on us white, male, straight metal fans to make sure shows are inclusive and welcoming to people who might not fit the stereotypical image of a metalhead.
As well as demographics, the themes and content of metal could be adjusted to accompany feminist consciousness. In the Post-Zeitgeist blog piece “Extremity in Metal”, the author offers a potential model for reconfiguring the “extreme” aspect of metal: “To me, true shock, true extremity should deeply unseat more than an individual’s taste or stomach. In fact, I would argue that it is not necessary for extremity or shock to be negative”5. Simply by presenting alternatives to established discourses, intersectionalist feminism welded to metal extremity could potentially shock listeners into questioning the patriarchal organisation of the genre. Wouldn’t metal with explicitly feminist lyrics and presentation- that reflected reality by including the perspectives of women, LGBT persons and people of colour- rekindle a sense of the danger metal once possessed?
By itself, this inclusion wouldn’t immediately demolish the music’s patriarchal structure. But by channelling the experiences and voices of people outside the genre’s white, straight, male norm, it would at least present something different to what we’ve heard before. Who knows what new and exciting approaches to metal we might be missing out on by not giving equal representation to female, LGBT and PoC perspectives?
Forced Gender Re-imagining
At this point, it might be helpful to take an example of an existing metal song, and imagine how it could be reconfigured to reflect intersectional feminist concerns. The aforementioned Post-Zeitgeist post discusses an apt candidate in Cattle Decapitation’s “Forced Gender Reassignment”, which gained minor notoriety last year for its video, deemed gruesome enough to be banned from Youtube and other video-sharing sites. The song’s lyrics and their accompanying visuals depict violent retribution committed against fundamentalist Christians. The victims in question are forcibly put through gender reassignment surgery by “a stereotyped sadomasochistic, implied homosexual”, presumably as a punishment for religious bigotry. The implication is that this is a horrific fate for religious fundamentalists, because of their misogyny, cissexism and adherence to the strictly defined gender roles their religion helps the patriarchal system to prop up. But the reassignment-as-punishment device leaves the assumption of a rigid gender binary unchallenged- it is taken as read that the victims have been gender-switched simply because their anatomy has been forcibly altered. The song’s lyrics ultimately “suggests that gender is merely biological, which we all know by now it is not”, and thus “merely reinforce rather than transcend or properly critique sexual stereotypes”6. In the same way that Cattle Decapitation rely on well-worn metal hostility to organised religion (however well-justified), they ultimately fail in their attempt to shock the audience because they are still working within conventional notions of gender. “Forced Gender Reassignment” ends up being nowhere near as transgressive as it wants to be, no matter how gory its video. But it would be entirely possible to write a song with the exact same title that explicitly incorporated feminist/queer gender theory, while still remaining true to the established characteristics of death metal.
Imagine a baby assigned one of two binary genders at birth, who grows up wishing to be on the other side of that divide, or even outside it entirely. Imagine an intersex baby with ambiguous genitalia, forcibly assigned a specific gender and operated on by doctors in an attempt to get it to conform to that gender. Imagine the pain and strife that could result if this gender identity does not fit the child’s preference, if they would have wished to exist outside the gender binary, an opportunity denied them before they were even truly conscious. Imagine the dysmorphia that trans, intersex and/or gender non-binary people often feel when forced into an inappropriate gender identity- a visceral body horror that one cannot escape from. Is this not a creatively fertile area for exploration, one that allows for emotional expression in a recognisably metal way, but that hasn’t been overdone?
It wouldn’t be necessary to focus on the negative side to be shocking here, either. As the Post-Zeitgeist piece asks of “Forced Gender Reassignment”: “Why was it not possible for the creators of the video to create a beautiful version of forced gender reassignment among consenting peers? What about representing fluidity, transformation and possibility as key shock tactics(?)”7 Showing the positive potential of gender fluidity would certainly be as shocking as revealing the injustices faced by trans and/or non-binary people, maybe even more so.
An entire metal concept album constructed around these issues wouldn’t be at all implausible. A central narrator’s rage and frustration at the rigid gender binary and the position within it they were forced into, their own body dysmorphia, or the discrimination and horrific violence faced by trans and non-binary people, would all make ripe fodder for extreme, aggressive music. If you wanted to uplift and inspire listeners, as well as make them angry, you could also highlight the empowerment this character finds in discovering a gender identity and expression that’s not recognised in the mainstream but is still “right” for them. What part of that isn’t metal?
Of course, if this hypothetical album were to speak from a place of experience and authenticity, it would have to be written by a trans and/or gender non-binary person. Simply finding someone interested in bringing their perspective to a project like this would not be easy: as poor as women’s representation is within metal, it’s an even worse situation for trans people. About the only trans musician with a relatively high profile in underground metal that I’m currently aware of is Cretin and Repulsion guitarist Marissa Martinez, for example.8 Yet a project like this would be ideal for bringing attention to both queer theory and trans and/or non-binary musicians, who might end up as role models for young metal fans questioning their own place within the gender binary. This isn’t to say that trans musicians in metal have to sing only about gender issues or feminism, of course. They would, however, be more qualified to talk about certain issues surrounding the gender binary than the cisgendered. Metal music would be greatly enriched by representing the perspectives of people who have traditionally not had a voice within the genre, especially if these would help challenge those areas where the music has reinforced patriarchal assumptions.
Nobody Knows If Nobody Sees
For a political, social or musical movement to have any effect, people need to know about it. And often, spreading awareness means getting coverage in mainstream media. Even in an age where social media networks make it easier than ever for people to get informed without relying on print and television news, it’s still necessary to get that coverage if you want to reach the widest audience possible. Given that, I’m not all that optimistic that feminist metal would get much play in dead-tree media, whether that be major newspapers or specialist monthly publications. Ideologies that pose a significant challenge to existing social norms will not get taken seriously in corporate-owned titles. Even in metal magazines with an ostensible counter-culture slant, socio-political discussion is scarcely to be seen, especially if it would critique the genre’s patriarchal structure. You could make a hypothetical comparison here with riot grrl, the early 90s wave of female-led punk bands affiliated with third-wave feminism. The limited mainstream attention paid to bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile or Huggy Bear was mostly negative, misinterpreting pro-women stances as anti-men (for further examples of this false dichotomy, see any mainstream report on any feminist movement, ever). The impact of the movement on wider punk circles was limited in scope- and given that punk has historically given at least token support to feminism in a way that metal hasn’t, there’s little reason to suspect a similar movement within metal would be any more influential.
But it’s important not to be too negative here. Riot grrl might have influenced only a relatively small amount of bands worldwide, but for those who did adopt its DIY attitude, explicit political involvement and activism, it offered a model for how to carve out a space for women in an increasingly macho punk scene; how to create a subculture within a subculture. A similar movement within metal, expanded to incorporate the input of people of colour and LGBT persons, could achieve something similar: perhaps not changing the world, but making a small part of it safer and more comfortable for those who’ve been excluded from it up to now.
It’s probably unlikely to expect feminist metal to make much headway in the mainstream, or even to alter the structure of metal subculture all that much. Any change it did effect would be gradual, limited at least initially to small local scenes. But that doesn’t mean introducing intersectional feminist perspectives into extreme music isn’t worth doing. If it makes things more comfortable for fans who don’t happen to be straight white dudes, or inspires even one person to start a band who wouldn’t have if they hadn’t seen people like themselves playing metal, it’ll be worth it.