The Never-Ending Debate Over Women in Metal and Hard Rock

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Revolver magazine's annual "hottest chicks" issue shows that females are seen as a novelty in heavy music. That's a problem.

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Heavy metal has been a boys' club since before Tony Iommi famously severed his fingertips and summoned forth the thunderous, primeval black magic that fans hold so dear. The hyper-masculine, sweat-drenched, ear-splitting world created by the unholy trinity of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden seemingly held little room for women's voices, but that doesn't mean there haven't been any. They've just had to scream just a little louder to be heard. Thankfully, much has changed on that front since 1979, when Girlschool first played with Motorhead, and since 1982, when Warlock's Teutonic metal goddess Doro Pesch first wailed her way into the hearts (and onto the bedroom walls) of metal fans the world over.

Today, female metal heads run labels, magazines, booking agencies, venues, recording studios, law firms, merchandising companies, websites, publicity firms, distros, pressing plants, and record stores. They shred. They scream. They pound the drums, they hold down the low end, they throw up the horns. They hail Satan and shout at the Devil. It's with this in mind that heavy metal fans gear up every year to engage in a now-annual debate with Revolver Magazine over their Hottest Chicks in Metal issue, renamed this year to be the Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock.

Women don't get involved in metal to be ogled

The idea is simple enough. Each year, Revolver publishes a collection of features focused on female bands and band members (and often more inexplicable choices, like tattoo artists or actresses) replete with lots of big pictures splashed across its pages. Ostensibly, the goal is to provide exposure to the women of metal, and celebrate them for their talent and brains as well as their beauty—think Miss America's "scholarship" competitions with less world peace and more devil horns. But the ladies' musical backgrounds and achievements often play second fiddle to their luminous cheekbones or dangerous curves.

It usually ends up as Revolver's highest grossing and most popular issue of the year. That doesn't mean everyone likes it. Critics—I'm among them—ask why it is that the magazine sees the need to put together a "special edition" once every 12 months, instead of choosing to allocate equal coverage to start with. Revolver seldom gives in-depth coverage to female musicians or bands during the rest of the year; the women are almost always relegated to the now-regular "Hottest Chicks in Metal" one-page feature that graces each issue. The insistence upon segregation, separation, and sexuality has plenty of feminists baying for blood.

Gazelle Amber Valentine of experimental doom duo Jucifer posted a series of tweets that sum up the gripes: "Singling out females for a special implies we can't equal men. Focusing on 'hotness' implies that it's okay to judge us for that alone ... I want to live in a world where nobody gets more or less because of traits they're born with. ALL women are hot. It's not an accomplishment. Why not value real ability and contributions?"

This year, the controversy has been loud enough that editor Brandon Geist has shot back, diving into Twitter discussions (including a running argument with Valentine, as well as with a number of female metal fans) and posting an open letter of rebuttal to the chorus of haters, outlining a handful of valid arguments as well as baiting his critics once again.

One of his most thought-provoking points: "To my mind, it is extremely condescending to the women involved to act as if YOU know better than they do what is right for THEM. A lot of women consider it to be a compliment to be asked to be part of the issue. A lot of women like to feel sexy, dress sexy, and be photographed looking sexy. A lot of women lobbied vigorously for their inclusion in the issue (and, historically, some girls have been approached and declined to participate, and we've always respected that choice)... Now, you could respond that the women who want to be in the issue have clearly been brainwashed by a paternalistic society into thinking that the only way they will be valued and gain attention is to use their physical appearances. Or you could respond that these girls have sold out, allowing themselves to be exploited and using their physical appearances as promotional tools to get their music/bands out there. But, first off, who are you to divine what their motives are? And secondly, when you make such claims, aren't YOU the one demeaning these women?"

Geist seems more than a little defensive here. I'd argue he ignores the greater problem—that of the portrayal of female musicians within the metal/rock media—and instead attempts to assign blame to feminists and other concerned detractors of the magazine by accusing them of misogyny and condescension. He ends with, "Really all we're trying to do is put out a fun issue that spotlights some rad female musicians without taking ourselves too seriously and getting all didactic 'Women in Rock' on anyone. But again, if you wanna get your panties all in a bunch about it, that's fun to watch, too." Plenty of panties (and more than a few pairs of boxers) are still bunched up over this issue, and the one-two punch of blaming others and trivializing the problem did little to endear Geist to his critics.

Most of the issue's photo subjects choose to stay mum about the controversy, but not all of them. Last year, Arch Enemy growler Angela Gossow described her experience posing for a past edition of the issue and her subsequent regrets: "Girls growing up now aren't seeing a female fronted band as a novelty, but just as something they are growing up with," and dismissed Revolver's coverage as "just all about highlighting the crap that's going on backstage, highlighting a pair of tits, and all the crazy stories on tour. And then you look for the actual bits on music and you can't even find them anymore. I don't even know what kind of music these bands are playing that they are featuring, because it doesn't come through in the articles, at all."

When a musician steps out onto a stage, the image they present to those people in the front row is one of their own construction. Some choose to use their appearance or sex appeal; some do not. The women who posed for Revolver chose to represent themselves in the manner in which they appear; some got dolled up in corsets, others stuck to t-shirts and jeans. They saw an opportunity to promote themselves and their bands, and they took it. That's fine. But placing them all in one "Hottest Whatever" category unfairly steals some of their heavy-metal thunder by implying that the only reason that they are there is because they are that attractive—that they are there as eye candy and stage dressing, instead of as talented road warriors in their own right. A woman doesn't need a cerulean corset or Rapunzelesque locks to shred on a guitar, and she doesn't need to be a perfect size 6 to wail like Rob Halford or growl like Chris Reifert, and the younger generation needs to hear that.

Every genre of music is guilty of objectifying both sexes, but especially women. Lady Gaga is selling sex as well as catchy songs. Drake's good looks make teenage girls swoon while he charms with his flow. Every vixen in that Lil' Wayne video knows exactly what she's doing. Why do metal heads take such umbrage with the practice? Perhaps because they're not used to it. The sheer volume of "women in metal" articles proves that despite the undeniable importance of their contributions and ever-increasing presence within the scene, female metallers are still seen as something of a novelty, often a gimmick used to market the genre to the mainstream. Women have been laying down riffs and living for metal since the very beginning, but they have never been as visible as they are now.

One of this year's prevailing gripes is that current cover star Amy Lee of pop-rockers Evanescence is representing a subculture with whom she holds no connection, while women from much more legitimate and extreme metal bands are ignored wholesale. Revolver does throw in some solid picks every year, like Grace Perry of Arizona deathgrinders Landmine Marathon, or doom-haulers Dark Castle's Stevie Floyd, but for every sick shredder or demonic vocalist, there are the same seven eye-catching ladies who, though surely talented, are only tangentially connected to more underground and extreme metal. Implying that most women who are involved in metal are those that are drawn to its more accessible sounds is insulting to genre pioneers like Jo Bench (Bolt Thrower), Liz Buckingham (Electric Wizard), Runhild Gammelsæter (Thorr's Hammer) and Jinx Dawson (Coven) as well as to those who are currently out there in the underground fighting the good fight, and sends the wrong message to young fans.

Judging a female musician for choosing to dress up in heels and lace for a Revolver feature is counterproductive; judging a magazine for propagating sexist stereotypes is less so. Women don't get involved in metal to be ogled, objectified, judged, and condescended towards. They are here for exactly the same reason that someone with an XY chromosome is here, and care just as much. Hell, they may even care more, because they have had to fight that much harder for that front-row spot on the rail. They are all beautiful—but more importantly, they are metal. That's what matters most.

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Kim Kelly is a New York-based writer and music journalist. She has written about heavy metal and the culture surrounding it for The Guardian, Pitchfork, and NPR. She blogs at Necrolust.

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