So it’s all blown up on Twitter and Facebook today, since Jon Gomm and Laura Kidd noticed that Guitar World Magazine have a ‘girls and guitars’ section [I’m not going to link to it, partly cos they don’t deserve the traffic and partly cos some of it’s probably NSFW depending on where you work] – basically women in their underwear/bikinis posing sexually with guitars. Some of them may be guitar players, some not.
The conversation about it, and the response to it falls into a number of different categories. Some of those commenting negatively against Guitar World have done so for wholly repugnant reasons… “she’s not even that hot”… Others have come back accusing those who find the pictures crass/sexist/il-placed in a guitar magazine of being prudish/asexual/needing to get a fucking life…
So, here’s the deal. This is not, at all, about prudish moralising. If you want to make, or read/look at guitar-based erotica, knock yourself out. I’m sure there’s a rich seam of creative writing to be had, given just how sexy playing music can be.
So what is it about? Well, Guitar World isn’t an erotica magazine. It’s not an amateur photography mag where we get to critique just how bad these pictures of hapless guitar holding women are (and there are some epically bad photos here… the kind that show up on Tumblr blogs of really bad modeling photos…). It’s called ‘Guitar World’. The inference is that it’s about guitars, and the world around guitars and guitar playing. Not ‘boys and guitars’, not ‘shady wank-mag for guys who can’t really play but just want to look at hot chicks holding guitars’ and certainly not ‘guitar-playing men and guitar-holding women’. It’s categorically not the kind of place where anyone wishing to get featured in the magazine should feel they have to take their clothes off, whether or not they can also play the guitar.
Guitar World aren’t alone in peddling this kind of shitty, debased view of the role of women in music-instrument-land. Guitar shops have long been a thing of dread for women, facing all kinds of really screwed up treatment at the hands of neanderthals who say things like ‘out shopping for your boyfriend then?’ & ‘try this, it’s pink’ or ‘this one’s made especially for girls’. To an adult. Woman. Who can play guitar and may well have a very definite idea of just which of the Strat reissues has the pickup combination she’s interested in… It’s depressing enough to see happen, I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience.
Ditto the discussion that happens online around the music that women make. I’ve never heard a guy who plays guitar described as ‘an empowered male guitarist’ or ‘dude rocker’ or whatever… ‘Guitarist’ in so many people’s minds is a masculine word, and only needs qualifying if the player of the guitar in question has the temerity to have a vagina. Jeff Beck plays guitar, Joan Jett is a ‘legendary female rocker’. Marcus Miller is a bass legend, Tal Wilkenfeld is a ‘chick bassist’. And half the discussion threads about women musicians boil down to whether they are hot or not.
Again, before we go down the prurience route, it’s not that finding people who play instruments attractive or sexy is wrong. Playing guitar or bass can be HUGELY sexy. Many a boot-faced hoary old rock dude has been transformed into a rock god by 6 strings and 10,000 watts of stage lighting.
The problem is with defaults. And for vast swathes of the instrument-making world, and guitar magazine writing and reading world, a woman holding a guitar had better be making herself look sexually available or she’s of no use in this world. If she can play as well, hey, bonus! But if she’s not willing to acquiesce to the photographer’s suggestions that she try something a little skimpier for the photo-shoot, then she doesn’t deserve the column inches. Some of the women photographed are in bands. The sense that stripping off is a necessary evil if you want to get magazines to write about you is palpable. The number of situations where that particular grim scenario plays out is beyond depressing.
Again, for clarity, this is not about telling women what they can or can’t wear – the right to dress as ‘sexily’ as you like is there for all, the problem is with the expectation that ALL women should do that, and the music industry endorsing the idea that a woman’s musical contribution is of secondary interest in a guitar magazine/guitar shop to whether or not she’s hot and nearly naked… there may be a conversation to be had about the complicity of women who choose to represent themselves in this way, but it’s way, way down the list of possible problems here, and not really one that I’m in any position to expound on…
There’s already a massive disparity in the amount of space given to the craft of women who make music in musician magazines, vs coverage of men. So to take up precious space with shit like this is doubly bad.
The thing that has always confused me – both with the magazines and the tradeshow fuckwits who trot out the ‘booth-babes’ to try and make their half-arsed chinese-made guitars look appealing – is that by far the biggest potential growth market in music instrument sales is women. The world of dudes and guitars is saturated, and massive effort is spent trying to get more blokes to buy more guitars in order to poorly emulate more of their heroes. The response from ‘the industry’ is to make ‘guitars for girls’ – the Daisy Rock phenomenon. Girls will love it! It’s pink! Little attempt to just market guitars as playing and sounding great via fantastic role models.
There are so many women who inspire me as a musician – Jonatha Brooke, Yolanda Charles, Kristin Hersh, KT Tunstall, Julie Slick, Emily Baker, Vicky Genfan, Joni Mitchell, Jill Sobule, Kaki King, Bonnie Raitt, Tiger Darrow, Zoe Keating, Rosie Thomas, Patti Larkin, Erin McKeown, Gretchen Peters, Rosanne Cash, Tal Wilkenfeld, Amy Humphries, Tina Weymouth, Kim Deal to name but a few – all fantastic musicians that I learn from every time I hear them play. As endorsers of particular music products, I’d take their word over that of most other musicians on the planet, and would be far more inclined to buy music magazines that interviewed them or had them as columnists… As ambassadors for their respective instruments, they’re a huge inspiration.
When I was writing for Bassist and Guitarist magazines back in the late 90s, any company that employed under-dressed models as a ploy to get dudes onto their trade-show stand was ignored in my show write-up. I never mentioned Dean Guitars once (though I think on one occasion someone at one of the magazines subbed in a mention…) Life’s to short to give page space to shitheads who treat women in the music industry as objects to be gawped at rather than as artists to be listened to.
So what do we do? It’s purely a commercial move. Magazines do it because their market research suggests it might sell more copies. Guitar companies do it at trade shows because they think it’ll attract more interest and sales. So, if you object, do the opposite, and let them know. I very much doubt that anyone at Guitar World has some particular ideological need to objectify women. They’re just fucking idiots trying to keep a magazine afloat in a world where magazines are really struggling. If they keep this up, I hope they struggle their way out of existence.
Please do write to magazines and suggest that they give some thought to the gender balance – and the message it brings to their audience – in the range of amazing and interesting musicians they cover. When you’re buying a new instrument, you may want to consider emailing any companies who use this kind of heinous 70s shit in their adverts and telling why you’re taking your money elsewhere. It’s just business, after all…
[UPDATE] – Guitar World’s recent readers poll to find the ‘100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time’ features ZERO women. Just in case you were looking for some kind of causal impact of this particular editorial policy…