I have a great tattoo on my right wrist – a bracelet of cartoon cameos of old Hollywood movie stars, all women. I’ve always wanted to add another bracelet tat just above it – the same concept, only with cameos of the great women of rock (or at least the ones I admire enough to put permanently on my skin), except that there just aren’t that many to choose from. This is mostly because rock music, even today, is still all about the guys.
Sure, there have been fantastic female musicians, solo acts like Adele, and bands like the Go-Gos. But the number of women working side by side with men, who are considered equal to their band mates (and not just a sexy tambourine shaker) are actually pretty few.
Kate Mossman, the pop culture writer for the New Statesman thought the same thing, and recently completed a documentary on the subject. Girl in a Band: Tales From the Rock’n’Roll Front Line (inspired by the autobiography of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, released earlier this year) ran on BBC on October 30th (UK residents can view it on the iPlayer, the rest of you need to find yourself some VPN access).
In it, Mossman explores the ongoing struggle that so many female musicians encounter. She starts with session guitarist/bassist Carole Kaye who worked with everyone from Richie Valens to Phil Spector to Sinatra and the Beach Boys. Kaye’s extensive catalogue should have set a bar for both respect and equality for female musicians – she did well for herself because of both her talent and her refusal to take any shit. Unfortunately, Kaye was a rarity and women in bands, even when they were as (or more) talented than their male counterparts, often found themselves not just playing music but, as Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads recounts, playing chauffeur and hairdresser as well.
Mossman works her way through the decades as well as various genres, interviewing all-girl bands such as The Liverbirds, Fanny and Girlschool, as well Lita Ford of the Runaways. Ford’s interview apparently took place shortly after the revelation that the band’s manager had assaulted fellow band mate Jackie Fox, and is quite raw and heartbreaking to watch. A lot of the bad behaviour towards female musicians has always been written off with “oh, it was the 70s, that’s how we rolled…”, but Ford seems to be aware that those excuses don’t really hold water anymore.
There are great stories from other female artists as well; Viv Albertine of The Slits recounts how they’d constantly get beaten up and harassed for how they looked, and Pauline Murray of Penetration says how she felt like one of the guys because punk was open to “doing something, creating something new, while operating outside of the system.”
That wasn’t the case for many women though, who, despite being a strong front-person for their group, often felt placed on a pedestal and sexualized. Miki Berenyi of Lush recounts how the band’s song “Ladykiller” was accused of being sexist – against men. Berenyi also discusses a story for a lad’s mag that ignored her talent and creativity by opting to put her in a sleazy outfit for their photo shoot.
So how does it feel to be a woman in a band? Like you’re a decoration, a housemaid, a chauffeur, a personal assistant to your male colleagues, and often, like you’re less talented. And this not just from your band mates (who might be respectful and kind, but who usually still tend to expect female band mates to take on traditional gender roles), but especially from music journalists and the media, who can’t seem to grab the clue that just because some female musical artists are willing to take their clothes off to sell records that not every woman is willing or interested in doing the same. Especially when the same expectation isn’t directed at their male colleagues.
Hope for the future seems to rest on a new generation of female musicians. Jehnny Beth of Savages answers Mossman’s question of how does it feel to be a girl in a band thusly: “It’s just absurd. We were raised thinking we could do anything.” Beth bristles at a New York Times article that referred to Savages as “an all-female rock band from London”. After protests, the paper changed the wording, removing the phrase “all-female”, but the point remains clear – there is still much work, much fighting, to do, and there shouldn’t be.
Girl in a Band is a poignant reminder of how far women still have to go in order to be thought of as “people”, or equals, in male-dominated fields (not just music). Because even if your band mates treat you as such, the fans, the media and the management may not.
This article originally appeared on Still Weird Zine.