Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Plague of Visible Women

Holly Miranda
I couldn’t help realizing my MP3 player seemed to have more women’s voices coming out of it than other music players at work. Officially, we’re not supposed to have radios, MP3 players, streaming audio, or other music on the jobsite, but unofficially, more people have them than don’t. Like me, many people have loaded music onto their phones, or play audio streamed through their data networks. And almost none seemed to play women at all.

By contrast, my belt-loop speaker keeps belting out female vocalists: soloists like ZZ Ward, Holly Miranda, or Meg Myers, or bands with singing front-women, like Wolf Alice, Lucius, or Florence + the Machine. In a workplace soundscape dominated by growly macho posturing, I seemed to have an inordinate number of women’s voices surrounding me. It sure felt like my sound was unusually woman-dominated. So like any intellectually curious explorer, I sat down and counted my vocalists.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered barely a third of my songs had female vocalists. I tried changing my counting methods: counting groups with both male and female vocalists, like Grouplove or Of Monsters & Men, as women, men, both, or neither, while excluding instrumental tracks with no vocalist whatsoever. But no matter what rubber-numbers trick I played on myself, the conclusion remained inescapable. My playlist seems woman-dominated, where actually, female vocalists still play second fiddle.

Meg Myers
That’s harsh reality for a man who considers himself progressive-minded and egalitarian on women’s issues. I could make facile excuses, noting that most radios in my male-dominated workplace don’t play any women whatsoever, or that my playlist is more fair-minded than others’. But that’s cheap excuse-making, and I know it. Women make up half the human population and, as anybody who’s attended open mic nights knows, way more than half of today’s aspiring young artists.

My area has two “classic rock” radio stations. One occasionally plays artists like Pat Benatar and Heart, but the other doesn’t play women at all. I know they once played Janis Joplin, but she’s vanished. A stroll through classic Billboard charts reveals women have always been influential in rock music. Powerful, popular women, from Peggy March and Petula Clark to Suzi Quattro and Patti Smith, have virtually disappeared. They’ve written women out of rock history.

I recall the discovery that many of historic America’s best-selling books have practically evaporated. Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, one of the 19th Century’s best-selling novels, is vanishingly difficult to find anymore, and others have completely slipped my mind. Though women have always been the greatest producers and consumers of fiction, only male-written books get termed “literature” and deemed worthy of study in schools. Women’s books are termed “chick lit” and generally die with their authors.

One could continue indefinitely. Painter Lee Krasner’s legacy lives almost completely in her husband Jackson Pollock’s shadow. Novelist Jonathan Franzen, famous outside his fiction for egocentric ramblings and curt dismissal of other authors, gets multiple accolades for individual novels, while equally acclaimed female novelists like Sue Monk Kidd and Barbara Kingsolver must work like assembly lines just to break even. Even athletes like Hope Solo and Danica Patrick do cheesecake photos to pay the bills.

ZZ Ward
We’re not talking fringe figures here. These are among the public world’s most accomplished women, yet they vanish behind men who, though undoubtedly good, aren’t better than the women. Even when the women are inarguably better (Abby Wambach, not Landon Donovan, is America’s highest-scoring soccer player), their accomplishments are considered second-string. Even I, apparently, lose track of women. Despite occasional “Well, Actually” mansplaining, nobody’s ever offered a justification for this disparity that I can digest.

I thought my playlist was female-dominated because sometimes, two or three songs with female singers would play consecutively. That’s better than most other workers’ playlists, since unless it’s Top 40 or Kurrent Kountry, they probably play no female singers. But one-third isn’t a preponderance of women; it merely reflects that, at some important level, I still consider female vocalists exceptional. Which means that I still regard male vocalists, and maybe other artists too, as “normal.”

Unfortunately, I have no ready alternative for the situation. If a man who considers himself allied to women’s issues still makes this mistake, there’s no near-term remedy for the men I work with, who use racist, sexist, and nationalist slurs in common conversation. There’s little chance the situation will change in the larger culture any time soon. However, the more aware we become of this imbalance, the more likely we make a healthy future remedy.

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