Category Archives: Essays

PUAs in Japan: when misogyny and Orientalism mix

(Content note: misogyny and violence against women, abuse mentality, racism)

Readers might already be aware of the pick-up artist (or “executive dating coach, as he apparently prefers to be known) Julien Blanc, aka RSD Julien, who has received opprobrium for the manipulative and often violent tactics he advises men to use to attempt to attract women. In particular, a video of him using these tactics against women on the street in Japan has gained attention for the openly violent actions he is shown using- putting women in headlocks and thrusting their heads into his crotch, for example. The backlash has begun, with feminist activist Jennifer Li starting a Change.org campaign urging hotels in Australia to refuse to host Blanc’s seminars, which has already successfully persuaded the Como hotel in Melbourne to cancel one such event. (Li is also behind the #TakeDownJulienBlanc hashtag.)  In Japan too, commenters are raising awareness of Blanc’s planned return to Japan in mid-November, hoping to prevent him assaulting any more women.

I’d like to urge everyone who hasn’t already to sign Li’s petition, and to spread the word that this man’s actions, and those of PUAs more generally, constitute harassment or even assault of women. In this blog I’d like to focus a bit on the Orientalism that underscores Blanc’s behaviour towards Japanese women in his video, and how that Orientalism is reflected in attitudes towards Asian women among not only the pick-up artist community, but also among Western (generally white) men in Asia.

(For the purposes of transparency: I studied Japanese at university and spent a year in Japan as part of my course, where I observed the behaviour and attitudes I discuss. This obviously means my impressions are limited to one country in Asia and are of course subjective in nature;  I cannot pretend to be an expert on Orientalism or the dynamics of how Western men conceive of Asian women or Japanese women in particular. Feel free to let me know whether you think my observations are valid or not.)

Anyone who, like me,  is driven by some masochistic impulse to spend any time reading into the PUA movement- men who seek codified, systematic ways to seduce women- will probably come to the conclusion that manipulation is central to the approach these men adopt towards women. The central idea that PUAs/”dating coaches”/whatever advocate is that there are foolproof shortcuts available to men (for a fee, of course) to essentially trick women into sleeping with them. For a sizeable portion of PUAs, in fact, the central pleasure of sexual conquest seems not to be sexual, but the “conquest”- the sense of having “beaten” or “won” against the woman in question. If like me, you believe in patriarchy as a social system and a mindset that values domination and control above all else, the connection seems obvious. So too does the frequent characterisation of PUAs as seeing women as enemies in a video game- if you consult the strategy guide and use the right techniques against the “enemy”, you will be able to control them and gain a victory, without fail. PUA communities therefore buy into the unstated patriarchal imperative to exert control over women, and the dehumanisation and essentialist attitudes (“women are all the same, they all respond predictably to these actions”) that one must adopt in order to use manipulation against an entire group of people without encountering moral conflict.

There are differences in how these men see separate groups of women, though, which lead to differing approaches against said groups. In particular, PUAs and others in the affiliated internet “manosphere” view Asian women through the lens of Orientalism, buying into crass stereotypes of them as submissive, subservient, demure, and focussed on pleasing the men in their life. This is often held up as an ideal model of womanhood, contrasted against Western (generally American) women who are characterised as too demanding, selfish or even “ruined” by the influence of feminism. (This antipathy never seems to stop PUAs from attempting to seduce Western women, funnily enough.)

While the manipulative or even outright abusive techniques PUAs champion are themselves forms of violence (Blanc and at least one other pick-up guru have characterised the Duluth Power and Control Wheel as a how-to guide on “gaming” women, which is unusual only in its frankness), it is less common that they explicitly recommend an escalation into physical violence of the kind displayed by Blanc, at least when first meeting a woman. So why does Blanc feel so confident in assaulting Japanese women? Certainly, he utilises this outright aggression against women around the world. But he seems particularly brazen about this behaviour in Japan, bragging that “When you go to Tokyo….if you’re a white male, you can do what you want.” He also gives voice to abusers and rapists everywhere with the pronouncement that “Every foreigner who is white does this.”

Here, the racist conception of Asian women as submissive and non-retaliatory intersects with the misogyny inherent in the PUA outlook on women in general. Because Japanese women are believed to be too submissive to object to abuse, and because women are believed to be property men can do what they want with, Blanc feels entitled to assault with even more impunity than he would against white women. And because of the belief abusers hold that all men treat women like they do, he feels confident enough to display this abuse online and promote it to other men- every white man in Japan does this, or they would if they could. Unconsciously, he makes explicit the power that white privilege gives him, even in a majority non-white country like Japan. Because unfortunately, unless someone decided to file a complaint and press charges against him, he likely will get away with this. The influence of white supremacy around the world means that often when white Western men harass or abuse Japanese women, nothing gets done.

Obviously, few white men in Japan engage in openly abusive behaviour like Blanc’s. But the Orientalist view of Asian women that spurs such behaviour on is not uncommon among those men. During my time in the country I quickly became aware of the other exchange students who spent most of their time trying to seduce Japanese women, who would sometimes openly profess their “appreciation” for said women over those from their own country. The point is not that international relationships are a bad thing- happy, respectful partnerships between white men and Japanese women happen all the time. However, men who travel to Japan (or other countries in East Asia- the stereotypes in question are rarely sensitive to nationality) with a preconceived notion of the country’s women moulded by Orientalism are more likely to fetishise those women than to treat them as individuals worthy of respect. Even if they don’t use physical violence like Julien Blanc, they are likely to feel more entitled to harass women in these countries, to ignore signs of discomfort or shrug them off as “natural submissiveness”. This behaviour is all too common against women in Western countries; buying into Orientalist stereotypes can only make it worse.

It’s a good thing that Blanc’s abusive behaviour, and his promotion of abuse to other men, is being exposed and opposed. With any luck he will soon find it impossible to profit off of his behaviour, though I won’t hold out hope that this will cause him to question whether what he is doing is acceptable. What Blanc does, however, is at the extreme end of a spectrum of behaviours. While it’s easy to focus on the PUAs who, like Blanc, openly harass and assault women, we also need to pay attention to the racist and misogynist ideas behind their behaviour. Few will take them to such extremes, but they underscore the outlooks of far more men than just the relatively small pick-up artist community.

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Bölzer, the swastika and ill-advised reclamation

Like most things in life, I caught on late to Bölzer, the Swiss death/black metal duo whose music has been received rapturously by metal critics over the last year or so. But having listened to a track off their soon-to-be-released Soma EP, I quickly came to the conclusion that the hype was justified. With a teeming, overwhelming sound for a two-piece, aided by refreshingly naturalistic, analogue production, both of the band’s short releases to date show a lot of promise, at times bringing to mind a version of Blut Aus Nord that favours direct bursts of aggression over long-form experimentation. It’s little wonder that these recordings, and a smattering of well-received live shows, have metal sites the world over eagerly awaiting a full album.

But, given recent events involving other underground bands who turned out to hold extremist views, a part of me was cautious about becoming too enthusiastic. What if this group, too, had some skeletons in their closet? In an extreme metal world that more often than not fails to adequately defend against the infiltration of dangerous far right ideology, this caution is not always excessive.

And then, last night, I came across an interview with the band on Stereogum that seemed as though it might confirm some of these fears. Among various other topics, interviewer Kim Kelly questioned guitarist/singer Okoi Jones (aka KzR) about tattoos of his depicting swastikas, as well as other symbols used by ancient religions. I have excerpted the relevant passages below:

STEREOGUM: I have one more question. I wanted to talk about your tattoos, specifically the swastikas and sunwheels. I know you and I know what you’re about, but not everyone who sees you play has that background. I want to just get it all out there before anyone sees a picture of you and makes assumptions. So. What’s up with the swastikas?

KzR: Please, I’m very happy you asked me because only a few people have asked me in interviews and I’m more than happy to tell people because I don’t want to be misunderstood. My sunwheels, my swastikas, my whatever you call them, it’s an ancient symbol used by basically every culture on this planet at some time or another for more or less the same reason, to express their adoration for the sun, the solar power. Most of them were sun-worshipping peoples, or held respect for the balance of the sun. It’s also a lunar symbol in itself for the sun cultures. Its right or left form reversed is a lunar symbol, too, and it’s a female as well as a male symbol; it represents a lot of different energies. It’s a continuum, it can be a destructive force, it takes a lot of natural philosophies into one. If you read about it, it’s really fascinating.

(…)

STEREOGUM: It also recently dawned on me that the title of your much-loved song “Entranced By The Wolfshook” is actually referencing the wolf’s hook symbol, which has got a very heavy history of usage by the Nazis as well as in Hermann Löns’ book Der Wehrwolf and by forestry workers in Germany. You even incorporate the wolf’s hook into the Bölzer logo itself. Can you tell me why you decided to highlight that particular symbol?

KzR: Indeed, man’s lusting for power is as a wolf’s for meat … often leading to self destruction. For us the wolf’s hook, or Wolfsangel, is one of the many symbols of antiquity to become caustically stigmatized as a result of their usage within a fascist-era Europe, something we are soberingly aware of but do not condone. Enough systematic cultural lobotomization has taken place in the past to make any such further demonization of values and symbolism acceptable within a modern and supposedly tolerant society. We promote the growth and enlightenment of the individual, the last thing on our agenda would be to glorify the implements of power involved in the collective enslavement of a people and their individualism. Fascism and racism in that sense are pretty unattractive for us.

Given my previous writing on another band’s association with Nazism and related imagery, some readers might expect that I would be quick to similarly label Jones a neo-Nazi as well. In this case, however, I am not entirely sure that this is so- at least, not yet. It is true that a white person with tattoos of a symbol that has come to be associated with perhaps the world’s most infamous fascist regime is extremely suspicious. The dig at “modern and supposedly tolerant society” also rings at least a couple of alarm bells- it does not seem to come from a position critiquing the hypocrisy of modern capitalist societies which preach the rhetoric of tolerance while still remaining fundamentally unequal and white supremacist in nature. And despite Jones’ proclamation that his band favours individualism over the collectivism of fascist ideologies, and the implication that they are therefore opposed to Nazism, this could be merely a cover for the truth. As contradictory as it seems, the rhetoric of individualism is not always incompatible with fascism, as can be seen in the phenomenon of libertarian types allying or forging ideological links with far-right movements. Certainly, his explanation comes off better than the infamously incoherent equivocation offered by Inquisition’s Jason Weirbach when asked whether he was a neo-Nazi– it would be hard to come up with something worse. But this could simply indicate that Jones is better at hiding his true beliefs than Weirbach.

Nonetheless, I do not think there is conclusive evidence here to declare with reasonable certainty that Okoi Jones is a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi. While there was at least one eyewitness account of the fascist views of Inquisition’s members to add to the evidence of Nazi and anti-semitic imagery and allusions in that band and its associated side projects, nothing similar has yet appeared in relation to Bölzer, at least as far as I am aware. As such, the possibility remains that the band’s leader may be “merely” extremely ignorant of the swastika’s impact, and genuinely (if misguidedly) attempting to “reclaim” the symbol’s older meaning. While I remain skeptical of Jones’ explanation and half-expect to hear more questionable statements in future, I am not yet prepared to suggest that we shun the band immediately.

This does not mean, however, that the best case scenario- that Jones is extremely misguided, rather than an outright fascist- is a harmless one. The fact remains that, in spite of its thousands of years of use in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as in ancient Europe, the swastika is mostly associated in present-day Europe and North America with Nazism and other fascist and far-right movements. It is extremely unlikely that its appearance in a tattoo on a white person will be taken as anything other than support for those movements and their associated violence against marginalised peoples, given the white supremacist views that lurk in such circles.  The Third Reich’s heinous crimes are not even a century old; it seems impossible to hope that isolated efforts to detoxify or reclaim the symbol they appropriated will have any effect after such a short time. And if such a reclamation were to be attempted, it seems far more appropriate that it would be spearheaded by the religious movements who used it in the past* than by people in a musical subculture which has a frankly shameful record in terms of combating the sort of ideology that corrupted the symbol’s meaning in the first place.

As such, regardless of whatever Jones’ intentions are, his usage of an ancient symbol tainted by fascist ideology and its accompanying brutality cannot hope to achieve what he seems to want them to. His championing of individualism in the Stereogum interview leads me to believe that he would fervently disagree with this view, perhaps claiming that his personal motives and interpretations of the symbols should override what others would assume based on what they see (and I’ve no doubt that commenters on this piece will offer similar defences). Unfortunately, I am not swayed by these arguments, which seem to imply a person’s intentions have the magical ability to erase any harm that might arise from their actions. Like it or not, when used in the form of a tattoo on a person who looks like Jones, the swastika is likely to mean only one thing to a survivor of the Holocaust, or to a member of any group targeted by contemporary fascists. Even if his intentions genuinely are to use this symbol in a way entirely unrelated to fascism, history looms larger than our individual desires.


* The swastika is, of course, still frequently used throughout Asia, where its association with the region’s religions is stronger than the taint of Nazism. It should go without saying that this cultural context is vastly different from the situation in Europe, and that any talk of reclamation applies primarily to areas where the symbol is still a reminder of a horrific regime and the crimes it committed.

Inquisition and black metal’s fascism problem

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It was only at the end of last year that I became aware of US black metal band Inquisition, thanks to the appearance of their latest album Obscure Verses for the Multiverse on numerous critics’ end-of-year lists. Upon first listening, the main things that struck me included the oddly croaky, reptilian voice of singer/guitarist Jason Weirbach (aka Dagon), as well as the fact that all the songs sounded quite samey, given the ubiquity of their monolithic assemblage of thick riffs and relentless blastbeats. Quickly though, I grew to appreciate the band’s unique sound, and delved further into their back catalogue. This did lead me to develop some concerns about their material, the song “Crush the Jewish Prophet” from Magnificent Glorification of Lucifer being the most obvious example. If the song was an anti-Christian critique in the black metal tradition, as it appeared to be based on its lyrics, why was it necessary to centre Jesus’ ethnicity in the title, unless the band felt this too was something to criticise? But, caught up in the music, I didn’t worry too much about this.

Until, that is, I saw a thread concerning the band on a friend’s Facebook page earlier this month. It was here that a man named Daniel Gallant, formerly a white supremacist himself, called Inquisition’s members (Weirbach and drummer Thomas Stevens, aka Incubus) out as Nazis. When asked to elaborate on this, he stated the following:

“I was a white supremacist for many years. I have been out for twelve years. I drove the bus for an Inquisition tour. When I suspected they were white power, because I was driving for my friends band Gyibaaw, a First Nations band, I decided to prove it.

I pulled off my t shirt and there it was…my giant swastika for them all to see…they clapped and cheered…Inquisition (both Tom and Jason) were thrilled.

They boasted about their admiration for Hitler, how they loved the white power movement, and had many friends from South America and Everett, Washington…turns out we had mutual acquaintances. Tom used to hang out with the World Church of the Creator and still boasts his admiration for the church. Jason boldly stated he loves imagining living in the Nazi era and wished that would happen in America. They ranted until I shut them down.

The band Gyibaaw were grossly offended to the point of backing away from the black metal scene because of it.”

I realise that not all readers will be convinced by the personal testimony of one individual. It is a known fact, however, that the band has associated with the white supremacist Antichrist Kramer, commissioning him to create artwork for the 2010 reissue of their first full length album Into the Infernal Regions of the Ancient Cult. Kramer has been deeply involved in the National Socialist black metal movement, putting out music by openly white supremacist and/or anti-Semitic groups on his label Satanic Skinhead Propaganda (as documented in this article). It seems unlikely that Inquisition’s members would be unaware of his leanings, or that they would associate with him unless they were sympathetic to his beliefs*.

Sadly, this kind of ideological association is not unheard of within metal, especially black metal. The subgenre has long been a hotbed for reactionary political viewpoints, perhaps because of the anti-modern standpoint many of its bands employ, its reverence for “paganism” and other traditionally-minded cultural trends that have also been co-opted by fascists, and the reactionary nature of not only its ideological position but also its musical form. The Second Wave of black metal started, after all, as a reaction against death metal, with many bands deliberately hearkening back to earlier forms of metal and forsaking technique and polished production in favour of a “primitive” sound. It’s not surprising that this inclination would also create room for fascist ideology to spread- both spring from a reaction against modernity, as elucidated in point 2 of Umberto Eco’s analysis of the uniting ideology of fascist movements here.

Despite knowing about this trend within black metal, however, it was still an unpleasant shock to discover that a band I enjoyed subscribed to fascism. My immediate reaction was a feeling of shame, and anger at myself for not having investigated the group’s background. In the past I had made it a point to avoid music created by neo-Nazis or white supremacists, even in cases like Burzum where people insisted the music was good even if band leader Varg Vikernes was a virulent bigot. I smugly stuck to the position that I wouldn’t listen to Nazis’ music because it was shit anyway, the product of idiotic skinheads who could barely string two chords together. But this was confounded by Inquisition’s technically adept, well-written and well-recorded output. I had been simplifying reality to fit my own preconceptions.

More than anger at my self, though, I felt angry that the band’s fascist leanings were not more widely known. This is a group that has gained increasing media attention in recent years, their latest album having been reviewed in mainstream publications such as Pitchfork, but as far as I can tell metal journalists have yet to seriously question Inquisition on their views or their links to open white supremacists like Antichrist Kramer. How hard would it have been for the interviewer in this Invisible Oranges article, for example, to seriously interrogate Weirbach about the message of “Crush the Jewish Prophet”, instead of just accepting his equivocation? Do these writers not care about the expression of bigoted views, as long as they like the music? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that they don’t.

Even though I hadn’t paid for any of their music,  I didn’t want to support Inquisition in any way after finding out about their Nazi sympathies. I eventually decided to delete them from my music library and stop listening to them entirely. I do still find myself asking whether this was necessary. Fascist or white supremacist rhetoric is not central to their message or lyrics, which tend instead to focus on the conventional black metal concern of Satanism as expressed through astrological and cosmological imagery. Perhaps the band is canny enough to realise that openly expressing their views would limit their appeal or get them into trouble; perhaps they ascribe to the wider metal world’s liberal conviction that music is no place for politics. In any case, I usually hold to the idea that it’s OK to enjoy art and media with problematic elements, or which has been created by objectionable or even bigoted artists, as long as we acknowledge those problems and don’t shut down criticism of them. But for me, personally, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Art created by Nazis, fascists and/or white supremacists is on the side of the line I do not wish to set foot in.

This is not what I would consider a hypocritical position. Fascist ideology- insofar as it is a coherent ideology- is inherently violent in a way other political alignments are not, rooted in the rhetoric of destroying any element of society deemed undesirable. As Eco notes, diversity is conceptualised in fascism as a symptom of modernist decadence; and since fascism worships action for action’s sake and violent struggle as an inherent part of life, Nazi or white supremacist movements are ideologically driven to commit violence against members of any group outside their own. While the rhetoric of neo-Nazis and/or white supremacists within black metal is often mainly focused against Jewish people, it is naive to think that violence will be used solely against one group if this rhetoric is tolerated, especially when hatred of marginalised groups such as people of colour, LGBT people and disabled people is accepted even within mainstream society. Even a band like Inquisition that doesn’t openly espouse fascist rhetoric can still cause harm to members of persecuted groups. Gallant’s story shows how Weirbach and Stevens’ open expression of admiration for the Nazis led to the First Nations band Gyibaaw turning away from black metal, closing the door on an opportunity for that group to counter the genre’s overwhelmingly white demographic and tendency to champion or tolerate extreme right views. If we give our money to musicians with fascist leanings, we don’t just support them financially, we send a message to them that their extreme views will not cause them to be criticised, that their views are therefore acceptable. The same act also sends the message to minority groups that we care more about music than about making sure that fascist and white supremacist ideologies are not tolerated or allowed to spread. In a sense, we choose our own enjoyment over people’s safety, over their right to live free from fear of ideologies that call for their destruction.

I urge anyone who cares about making metal a space which is open to and safe for marginalised groups of people to, at the very least, abstain from paying for Inquisition’s albums or live shows. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to stop listening to the band’s music entirely as I have done; this is obviously a matter of personal choice. But please do consider whether it is worth it to add to the popularity of a band that holds these views- not just Inquisition, but any band in black metal or the wider genre who subscribes to fascist, white supremacist or Nazi standpoints. There’s enough excellent music out there being made by musicians who do not align themselves with dangerous, hate-fuelled ideologies.

                                       

* It is also worth noting that Inquisition’s Jason Weirbach runs a side project titled 88MM. In the simple alphanumeric cypher that passes for a secret code among neo-Nazi groups, this number represents the letters HH, or “Heil Hitler”.

Lord Mantis, Transmisogyny and Questions of Intent

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)

Prison Rape Jokes and Rape Culture

Trigger warning: explicit discussion of child abuse, rape culture mentality

(This post is not strictly related to a metal artist, but it concerns an article published on a metal site, so I’m going to say it still counts.)

I often find myself wondering why I keep reading the MetalSucks blog. The site has introduced me to great songs and artists in the past, but its focus on controversy-seeking clickbait, gossip and rumour-mongering, not to mention its frequently juvenile writing style, has gotten very old very fast. And while I realise that what goes on below the line isn’t the editors’ responsibility, the comments section is mostly filled with that mix of exclusionary elitism and macho posturing that makes metal fandom, and indeed internet-based fandom in general, such a frustrating space. It’s better than Youtube comments, but not by much.

Last night, though, I came across an article that was even worse than usual, that has made me decide to swear off the site for the foreseeable future.

Readers might already be aware that Ian Watkins, former singer for the godawful rock band Lost Prophets (who were in no way metal, but received enough coverage in Kerrang and similar rags in the last decade that MetalSucks presumably felt the need to cover the story) was charged last year with conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a female under 13 and possession/distribution of indecent images of children. Watkins has now pleaded guilty to a list of charges related to child pornography and child abuse, both planned and carried out. I am not often squeamish about descriptions of crimes, however horrific. But the details of the abuse carried out by Watkins and two young women, and the callous manner in which Watkins spoke about his intentions in evidence presented to the court, are truly stomach-churning. I don’t wish to list the charges here; anyone interested can read the PRP’s report here. (I don’t want to boost the traffic of an offensive article, so I won’t link to the MetalSucks post on the guilty plea; it can be easily found on the site if you want to read it for yourself).

Ian Watkins has admitted to being a child molester. The quotes attributed to him at the trial make it clear he feels entitled to use children to fulfil his own desires, which is the disgusting end result of a patriarchal culture that sends men the message that women are there for their sexual fulfilment. Obviously not all men who absorb this message of entitlement will go on to abuse children, but I believe that message forms the kernel of the justification child abusers, and rapists and abusers more generally, use to excuse their crimes*. It is near impossible to muster any sympathy for the man, and as poorly suited as our current prison system is for rehabilitating criminals and preventing recidivism, I hope he is kept away from society for a long, long time.

This does not mean it was OK for MetalSucks writer Axl Rosenburg to end his piece on Watkins and his female associates by saying:  “I hope they all get sent to jail for a very long time, during which they are raped. A lot.”

The article in question made its commitment to bad taste clear early on, poking fun at the perpetrator’s mugshot: “his (Watkins’) new look makes him far more readily identifiable as a scum-sucking pedophile”. Because clearly the most important thing here is that our preconceptions about what a child molester is “supposed” to look like aren’t challenged, so we can continue to call these people aberrant monsters instead of examining how patriarchal society encourages them to commit abuse. But joking about anyone being raped in prison, even those who have themselves raped or abused others, is more than just “bad taste”. It helps to reinforce the very rape culture that emboldens people to commit these crimes.

My guess is that the thought process behind the crack, if indeed there was any, was something along these lines: “Watkins and his conspirators have done unspeakably awful things. (True enough.) Rape is an unspeakably awful crime to commit against someone. (Again, true.) Therefore, it’s OK to wish for these awful people to have an awful crime committed against them.” It’s in keeping with the would-be edgy, confrontational tone of much of the site’s content. But prison rape jokes don’t actually confront preconceptions or challenge the status quo at all.

It’s not hard to understand why people feel enough fury against Watkins and the women also being charged to wish this against them. Doubtless some readers might interpret this criticism of a joke at their expense as a defence of people who no one in their right mind would want to defend**. This goes beyond this individual case, though. When you joke about rape in prison being committed against someone you think “deserves” it, you are implicitly stating that you believe there are situations where rape is justified. This is part of what Zoe Stavri talks about in her Independent piece on the case, where she notes that “we see people decrying Watkins yet continuing to perpetuate other myths that make it easier for rapists to get away with it”. Whether intended or not, the message sent by prison rape jokes helps to reinforce a wider cultural conviction that rape can be acceptable. It helps reinforce the justifications used by rapists when that girl needed to be “taught a lesson” for dressing so slutty. When that lesbian woman needed to be “cured” by a “real man”. When that trans woman needed “correcting”, and perhaps even murdering afterwards, for being “misleading” about their gender.

“An eye for an eye” might have been an acceptable basis for a justice system thousands of years ago, but not today. The appropriate punishment for rape or child abuse is not rape. And if we genuinely want to help prevent rape and child abuse in the future, jokes about “corrective” prison rape will not help erode the patriarchal culture of entitlement that emboldens perpetrators in the first place. MetalSucks can either apologise for the Watkins piece, or they can continue to be part of that culture, and help ensure that cases like this will keep on happening.

                           

* This is not to suggest women don’t commit rape and abuse, against adults or children. They do, but as far as I am aware women are not told, to the same degree as men, that other human beings exist purely for their sexual gratification.

** Of course, it’s a depressing inevitability that there are fans continuing to root for Watkins, even after his admission of guilt. I have seen it argued, for example, that he lied to the court to secure a lighter sentence, which is so stupid a statement I cannot even begin to wrap my head around it.

Laina Dawes- What Are You Doing Here?

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Last weekend, I made the trip up to Leeds University, my alma mater, to see the Damnation Festival, held there annually in the student union. The festival highlights some of the best current metal bands, big and small, across a variety of genres. I had a great time seeing bands I already loved (Carcass, Cult of Luna, Slabdragger), and being wowed by groups I’d not yet listened to (The Ocean, Rosetta). But looking at the musicians and the fans, something uncomfortable stood out to me: the performers were overwhelmingly white and male. A couple of groups I saw featured men of colour, and only one featured a (white) female musician. Not one band I saw included any women of colour in their lineup*. And while there were women (and men) of colour in the audience, they were dwarfed by the number of white women, who in turn were outnumbered by white dudes.

Why is metal so dominated by white men, in terms of fan demographics, band lineups and popular imagination? I had been thinking about these issues for a while, but I doubt they would have been so central in my mind if I hadn’t been reading What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal on the train up to Leeds. Author Laina Dawes, a lifelong metal fan, wrote the book to talk about why this situation exists, but also to explain why she and other black women still love metal in spite of how it very often does not represent them. In doing so, she highlights a lot of important issues with insight and clarity.

The overwhelmingly white, male character of metal means music label bosses are unsure of how to manage and market black women in heavy bands, limiting their ability to potentially act as inspirations to a new generation. For example, Skunk Anansie frontwoman Skin, who also wrote the book’s foreword, relates how music industry players in the States referred her band to “urban music” division managers they had little common ground with, because they assumed based on her race that she was part of a hip-hop or R n B group. There’s also the fact that metal’s white, male domination is a deterrent in of itself to female fans of colour getting actively involved in their local scenes. Dawes interviews some black women metallers who perceive the genre’s fans as not being particularly bothered about race, but she also notes that “(s)ome of the women I talked to… were fearful of being at the receiving end of racial slurs or getting physically attacked, and of what their friends or family might think if they knew what music they listened to” (26). She gives examples from her own life and those of interviewees of receiving patronising treatment, and even racist abuse, from white metal fans. However isolated these incidents might be in the aggregate, they help create a sense that metal gigs are not safe places for black women, even those who enjoy the music itself.     

This is compounded by the general resistance to and wariness of metal that Dawes documents within black communities. She describes a perception of the genre as “music for racists”, which is not helped by occasional outbursts from metal musicians that support this interpretation, and the adoption by some bands of symbols associated with Nazism or the American Confederacy**.  There is also the issue of a concern among some black people with preserving a proscribed cultural ideal of “blackness”, that questions those who enjoy art and culture designated as white. Dawes relates how, as the adopted child of white parents, she faced criticism growing up for loving “white” music, and the assumption that this meant she was ashamed of her black heritage, or unduly influenced by the culture of her white family. As she says, “(a) black metalhead can be perceived not only as an affront to the past and present struggles black people have endured, but as a personal insult to those closest to them” (79).

If that sounds overly critical of black communities, it’s important to remember that this desire for a cohesive, unifying black identity is the result of the massive cultural dislocation and destruction inflicted upon black peoples by whites, first through the slave trade, and then through the lingering presence of racism, both personal and structural, up to the present day. The pressures of this existence led to a conservative trend among some black people, that posited the importance of proving racist stereotypes wrong by showing that people of colour could be more hard-working, God-fearing and respectable than whites were. This trend, commonly identified as respectability politics, strives to present a good image of black people, but only in terms of what a racist society deems good. It can lead, for example, to black metal fans being derided by their parents or peers for “letting their people down” by identifying with wild, primal music and therefore confirming stereotypes about all black people. The irony, which better commentators than myself have observed time and again, is that respectability politics themselves limit the boundaries of blackness as a result, and place the responsibility for ending racism on those affected by it rather than those perpetrating it***.

As Dawes shows, respectability politics have constrained black women in particular from engaging in sexually-charged music: blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and the heavy metal that later arose from these black-originated genres: “Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and jazz albums were banned in many black homes. Many families felt that the music was unsuitable- that it was sacrilegious and conveyed messages that were too personal and too sexual. More importantly, the sexual desire, emotional woes and relationship issues that the female blues singers detailed in their lyrics signified a freedom from male oppression, which threatened the sanctity of the black nuclear household.” (67) Unfortunately, it is all too easy for marginalised men to seek the power denied them by structural racism in society, through complying with that society’s patriarchal norms, and oppressing women as a result.

It’s important to note, though, that black musicians, including women such as Big Mama Thornton, were integral to the development of blues and early rock ‘n’ roll music. Without these (mostly uncredited) influences, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath would not have popularised hard rock and heavy metal. In spite of its current white domination and the resistance to it among some members of black communities, then, metal is black music, and black women have a right to perform and listen to it. Dawes expresses this perfectly when she answers the question in her book’s title with the chapter heading: “I’m Here Because We Started It!”

What happens, though, when you find yourself in an environment where people who look like you are few and far between? Dawes identifies this as “the ‘only one’ syndrome”: the situation of being one of only a few black (or black and female) fans in an audience. As she notes from personal experience, when more than one black woman attends a metal show, jealousy and suspicion can be the result: “I have felt the disheartening chill of making eye contact with the only other black girl at a metal show, and receiving a death glare in return” (96). Coincidentally, the blogger 113yearslater identified a similar dynamic, observed among female musicians rather than audiences, in a comment on one of my pieces about metal and patriarchy. (In this instance it was described as “a sort of Highlander ethic at work for women: There can only be one.“) If there’s one thing patriarchal systems are incredibly skilled at, it’s getting women to fight amongst each other, eager to prove themselves as the “only one” worth a place as “one of the guys” in a male-dominated setting. The alternative proposition, of finding solidarity with the other women in these settings and helping to increase women’s representation there, is not an easy one to imagine in a patriarchal society that champions competition and domination above all else. In a metal context, I’d argue that the genre’s ideological tendency towards individualistic iconoclasm makes this solidarity even more difficult.

Despite all the problems she identifies with metal’s treatment of women of colour, however, Dawes is ultimately still an enthusiastic fan, and is optimistic about the possibilities it offers as a genre for those women. One of her reasons for being so positive is close to my heart as well- the potential of music, including metal, to highlight political issues and give voice to the desires and concerns of marginalised people. She argues that “(m)usic is not only for enjoyment. We derive too much pleasure, pain and education from the music that we listen to every day to dismiss it as simply entertainment. For black populations in Western civilisation, music has provided a voice in times when their own were silenced” (61). Precisely because of its extreme nature, metal can effectively channel the rage and frustration of oppressed people and transform it into a powerful musical statement.

Dawes also highlights economic factors that mean excluding women of colour as metal fans will ultimately prove financially unsustainable for the music industry. A largely underground genre such as metal, with increasingly little mainstream chart exposure, relies on audiences willing to attend shows and buy merchandise: “(c)ommunities of metal fans are needed in order for the culture to survive and thrive, especially in an era with such an overbearing Top 40 pop music culture” (134). Perhaps more than other genres, fans of heavy music are willing to give this support to their favourite bands, but in an age of decreasing financial security even for bands on major labels, “(d)eterring any fan from participating in metal, hardcore and punk is simply not economically viable.” (135)  Unfortunately, as Dawes notes, “the welcome mat is not always out for black women fans” (ibid), but if labels continue to fail to represent women of colour in the bands they add to their roster, it’ll be their own bottom line that suffers. If music industry bosses realise this, perhaps the ruthless logic of capitalism can provide the incentive to remedy metal’s stultifying lack of diversity.

Ultimately, What Are You Doing Here is hopeful for the future. It might be blindingly white at the moment, but black people created the roots of metal, and black women have always been there as fans and musicians. Despite the barriers of music industry conservatism, the reactionary tendencies of some white metalheads, and disapproval from their own communities, women of colour will break through and gain both representation and acceptance. I can’t express this any better than Dawes herself does: “one of the most satisfying things I realised after interviewing women for this book is that we all share the same attitude. Come hell or high water, none of us will ever back down from a fight.” (156)

                                          

* In fairness, I saw only a fraction of the bands on the bill, mostly on the doom metal and post-metal stages. I have however looked at the lineups of all the groups at the festival, and was unable to find evidence of any women of colour in any of them.

** The number of patches and T-shirts I saw at Damnation that bore the logo of Burzum, the black metal/ambient project of convicted murderer and self-described racist Varg Vikernes, are one personal example I can think of that might lead a person to associate metal music and fans with racism.

*** A few examples of articles discussing respectability politics: “No Disrespect”, Tamara Winfrey Harris (http://bitchmagazine.org/article/no-disrespect); “Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On The Death of Jonathan Ferrell”, Mychal Denzel Smith (http://www.thenation.com/blog/176183/respectability-politics-wont-save-us-death-jonathan-ferrell); “I Hate Myself!”, Maurice Dolberry (http://alineinthesand.com/respectability-politics/); “Acting Right Around White Folks”, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon (http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/solomon-northrup-and-the-code-of-silence-the-respectability-politics-in-american-cinema-12-years-a-slave). I’m far from the most informed person on this subject; if any readers wish to address problems they have found in my explanation of it, please don’t hesitate to contact me.