Gender Ain’t Genre: Why I Disavow the Moniker of “Girl Band”
By Katy Otto
I started playing music when I could technically still be described as a girl. When I first picked up a pair of drumsticks and started learning the instrument seriously, I was 17. I hadn’t yet become a legal adult. Still, at no point in time do I recall ever feeling an affinity to being called a “girl drummer” or playing in a “girl band.”
This could have been for a few reasons. For one, most older teens you meet are looking towards their adulthood, not hanging on to their childhood. I was new to playing music, but I knew the phrase carried with it marginalization, Othering, and a demarcation that was overwhelmingly uncomfortable to me. I had become inspired to play as a teen after watching Patty Schemel of Hole command power, energy, mystery, and beauty like I’d never seen before. When I watched that band, even though there were three women in the group, they were not a “girl band” to me (though I am sure they dealt with that title being slapped onto them, as we all do). They were a band. Fierce and undeniable.
The phrase “girl band” has become increasingly absurd to me over the course of my life. It’s been used to describe almost every band I’ve ever played in over the last twenty years, in some form or another. Sometimes the band didn’t even have a majority of women/female-identified membership. It carried with it novelty, and sometimes did draw extra attention or a raise in eyebrows. “Whoa, chick drummer!” “You never really see girl bands rock out like that!” “I usually hate female vocals (??!?!?!?!) but I really liked them in your girl band.”
I never sat down and thought about how to form a “girl band.” I wanted to make music with people I respected, loved, and was inspired by. I wanted to shred and do interesting things. I didn’t want a free pass. I was never a novelty to myself for doing what I loved and what I viscerally felt drawn to do – play drums. I gravitated musically towards people I developed relationships with – and as happens with many other women I know, those people often were other women.
But now I am 36. I have been playing in bands, touring, and releasing music publicly for just about two decades. And still, bands I play in are described as “girl bands.” It’s often not malicious – in fact, sometimes the phrase is dropped just after a lot of wonderful, complimentary things have been said about our musical voice, ability, and contribution. But it still makes me feel bad. Every. Single. Time.
I realize some adult women who play music call themselves girls. Some may even like to describe their own bands as “girl bands.” They are welcome to do so. But it is frustrating for those of us who do not want anything to do with that title yet constantly face it. It subscribes to a gender binary that I don’t subscribe to or feel comfortable with. It comes across to me as infantilizing adult women, making them smaller, less threatening – it’s a sanitizing term. It’s also lazy and doesn’t really describe music at all.
How can you tell it’s being applied in sexist ways? Try calling bands made up of adult men “boy bands” and see how well that goes over.
A friend of mine also has funny stories about noting that a “male guitarist” has done an acceptable job or played well. It really does stop people in their tracks and confuse them. Language is powerful. This confusion stems from the fact that when we think culturally of a guitar player we think of a cisgender man. But in actuality, shouldn’t we just think of a human being playing a guitar?
I’ve known male musicians who express interest in “finding women” to play with. This doesn’t always sit well with me, as a person who has been on the receiving end of such recruitment. Musical relationships feel good when they develop organically. In some of these scenarios, the vibe overall recalls Svengali. I’ve also seen men look towards the presence of women to make their band more interesting and marketable. I appreciate men who don’t want to just play with other straight, white, cis men – but there are ways to go about looking for those relationships that don’t feel opportunistic, inauthentic, and smarmy.
Ladyfests as institutions, though, are positive to me for a few reasons. When groups of people (in this case anyone who plays music who is not a cisgender man) feel marginalized by various music scenes at large, of course they will hunger for a place where their presence is celebrated and invited. Ladyfest was founded on principles of community building and highlighting artistic achievements of women-identified people. When a Ladyfest is operating thoughtfully, it should be an explicitly transinclusive space. The word “lady” was applied in this context to offer a corollary to dude or guy that wasn’t age specific (as girl is). I love playing in these spaces, and have found them to be immensely valuable for community building. They have strengthened me for all the times when I am playing out in the non-Ladyfest spaces.
I think it’s vital that I play in those less than inviting spaces. I recognize some people are truly excited when they see women play music, they have never thought of women playing before. I try to be patient and understand that people are all on their own journey. I try to respond in appropriate ways when someone says “I’ve never seen a female drummer who could actually play” (in one case, I made the guy a list of 20 to start and told him he’d probably really get a lot out of checking the work of these people out).
There is enough space for women to be good, to be exceptional, to be boring, to suck. I’m not a novelty to myself and other women aren’t to me either. Musical instruments are great equalizers – I promise you my drum kit does not care about my gender. It cares about what I deliver. Who I am as a person and my lived experience in the world will impact some of what I create, but that encompasses far more than just gender. This is why I’d like my bands to just be called bands.