Jane on the Etymology of the “Female Drummer”

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On December 5th 2010, Tom Tom Magazine asked the internet: what comes to mind when you think “female drummer”? This got me thinking about that term, why I have problems with it, and the importance of finding a way to label myself that emphasizes music and drums as much as it identifies gender. -By Jane Boxall

The phrase “female drummer” makes me think of a person who is defining herself as female before identifying herself as a drummer, presenting a specifically and traditionally “female” image to the world. I think visually, perhaps of a frame drummer in the “earth goddess” mold, with clothing and hair of the long and flowing variety. Or I think of a drumkit player projecting the “sexy rock chick” image. Because the word “female” comes first in the phrase, I’m somehow provoked to think in terms of photographic imagery that emphasizes gender, and I’m instantly annoyed with my own mind for conjuring these stereotypical images in response to the term. It seems to me that when musicians are marketed as “female musicians,” this is done so visually first and foremost. My mental image of a “female drummer” is, sadly, both silent and still.

When I think of “drummer”, however, I think synaesthetically. In my mind’s ear, I hear drums being played — usually kit. I see the drummer in motion and hear the sounds she’s playing — whether solo or with other musicians. In my mind, I am not only watching and listening to the drummer — I am also playing the drums. I am a female drummer. So, when I think of a “drummer”, I think of a female drummer. I think of me because I imagine playing. But when I think of a “female drummer,” I think of someone else.

I’m aware this is problem is perhaps individual to me, but for me the term “female drummer” is harder to identify with than “drummer”. My image of a “female drummer” is purely visual, and shaped by the marketing culture I have grown up with. My image of a “drummer” combines all the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of playing music. How to label myself? Obviously I’m more comfortable with the tag of “drummer” than that of “female drummer” — anyone who hears me playing on the radio or a recording would have no idea whether or not I am female. I quite like that. But I want to represent myself as a female, because the world of drumming — kit playing in particular — is still so incredibly male-dominated. I want this to change, so that in the twenty-first century a young girl doesn’t think twice about whether or not she should pick up a pair of drumsticks. Although things are changing for the better, I know we need better representation in the drumming world for ourselves, our students, and of future drummers of any and all genders. I want things to change so that next time I’m setting up drums at a venue, it doesn’t occur to anyone to come and tell me it’s sweet I’m setting up my boyfriend’s gear for his gig.

My problem with the term “female drummer” is the order of its words. But the alternatives are too wordy. “Drummer who incidentally happens to identify as female” doesn’t have a great ring to it. And here I’m only attempting to tackle the gender side of things — many drummers might also want to represent ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation or musical style. All these factors need recognizing and labeling, when and if a musician wishes to do so. But often, the “musician” or “drummer” tag gets pushed to the end of the line. For example, the Sing365.com biography of Brit rockers Skunk Anansie jumps straight in with a description of the “stunning black lesbian singer Skin.” So Skin’s physical attractiveness, race and orientation are given more importance — in terms of word order — than the fact she’s a musician. While I certainly can’t speak for Skin, I would want to change the order of words in that phrase so that “singer” came first. But “singer lesbian stunning black” doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly is less useful in terms of music marketing. And we all have to deal with marketing and branding — to some degree — if we want to share our music with a wider audience.

The advantage of the term “female drummer” is its conciseness. I’m struggling to think of an alternative two-word term that puts the drumming first. “Rock chick” gets the music in before the gender, but in our popular culture, it certainly has connotations of groupie status or fashion rather than active, creative musicianship. “Riot grrrl” is a phrase I love because it’s not passive and the “grrrl” is secondary. Both phrases are limited in terms of musical genre and also age. Would an 80-year-old female drummer want to identify as a “chick” or a “grrrl”? I don’t know. What we need is a phrase, two words maximum, that identifies us as both drummers and female, but does not ghettoize. Suggestions on a postcard please…

Jane Boxall, a native of the UK, has a Doctorate from the University of Illinois in Percussion Performance and currently lives in Vermont, USA. Together with pianist Rose Chancler Feinbloom, Jane founded Ricochet Duo, a New England-based piano-marimba duo.

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