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Women And Guitars – Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1

October 12th, 2012 | 13 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music |

hot naked guitarsSo 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…

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13 Comments so far ↓

  • James Stewart

    Well said Steve! I would expect to see this in Nuts or FHM (not that I would read such shite) but seeing it in GW is ridiculous.

    The great thing about music is that you can play beautifully even if society dictates that you physically are not. Music is the great equaliser.

  • steve thack

    a fb friend ‘liked’ one of those shots this morning . have to admit my first reaction was to think ‘ooh the way your leaning on that guitar doesnt look good for the kneck’ :-)

  • Steve

    here’s something brilliant – http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/men-who-rock/Content?oid=14913816 – totally subverting the BS written about women in the rock press. :)

  • Mark Berry

    Well said Steve!

  • Scott Varney

    Very well said Steve! I think this just shows how we are still in such a sad state where we continue to objectify women. THis is the main reason I quit getting these mags. Substance started leaving the articles and they started having more of this along with the additional AD space. Btw, So Glad to see Kaki King in your list.

  • Adam B

    As a drummer, there is not the same objectification in drumming mags (at least not in the ones I read). There are no scantily clad models draped over drumsets in advertising.
    There is still an inequity in regards to featuring female drummers, but mags are improving on that count, both established artists and up and coming. Some are being given inches as columnists which is awesome.
    Maybe we could start a mock GW cover featuring naked blokes instead :)
    Adam B @revhappiness

  • Howlin' Hobbit

    it’s really astounding–or maybe appalling is a better term–how many male chauvinist gigs there are out there.

    me? I just want to make noise with the best musicianers that are willing to play with a duffer like myself. how they are plumbed doesn’t enter into the calculation.

    except, in all honesty, when it comes to busking. in that case, having a lady in the line-up increases the hat. and she doesn’t even have to do the cleavage thing.

    this is not an opinion. this is experience talking.

    so why don’t the rest of the cretins realize what an opportunity they’re passing up? hormonal imbalances? just sheer idiocy? who can tell?

    not me for sure. I’m just the ukulele player.

  • Mark

    I’m a tad surprised that nobody has mentioned XKCD yet: http://xkcd.com/305/

  • Christine Cavalier

    Thanks for speaking up! We women can’t be the only ones sounding the alarm about this. More men like you need to cry foul, because it marginalizes us all.

    This post reminded me so much of my ’80’s upbringing and seeing Lita Ford covers (http://www.coverdude.com/covers/lita-ford-the-best-of-19831995-2011-back-cover-86367.jpg) and hearing how she always had to market herself like that to get even just a bit of credit.

    It’s ridiculous. My daughter wants to learn guitar (like Taylor Swift of course) and has no idea about any of this crap she’s possibly walking into. I hope she doesn’t get discouraged before she even begins.

    Thanks again, Steve. Awesome stuff.

  • Gaia

    Hi there. Thanks for the great article. I also experienced lots of discrimination in music school. The boys assumed I knew nothing not just about guitars, but about music in general. And while, truth be said, I *am* ignorant about guitars, I know lots about music history. And yet I got left out of every conversation, which is even more ironic when you consider that they were listening to crappy nu-metal bands and I was the one listening to, say, Einsturzende Neubauten. Oh well.

    Thanks again!

  • Ben Walker

    Agreed. More desperate 70s marketing bullshit.

    I’m in an equal opportunity band. Two guys, two girls. Juju plays a mean guitar riff, Elise plays keyboards, samplers and all sorts of percussion, and both have incredible voices. Neither feel the need to get all Del Ray, but you have to be strong to push back against the stereotypes.

    Juju did some great interviews a while back with Debbie Harry, Linda Perry, Barb Morrison, Sierra Swan and Carina Round about this very issue:

    http://womeninrock.littlefishmusic.com/post/2349938178/women-in-rock-part-1-debbie-harry-linda-perry

  • Janis

    Not a guitarist, but an embryonic self-starting composer and musician here (pianist), and I hate the fact that I even have to say thank you for writing this. I hate the fact that this world has made me so pathetically grateful for crumbs. Mostly because a woman DARE not even bring this up. DARE not. Instant roundfiling. Instant prude, instant vicious attacks. Instant surrounds by other women who exhort one not to rock the boat in any way, just to put up with it because sticking up for ourselves only makes it worse.

    And let me tell you, it can be galling to have to wait for Mr. Sir to condescend to mention it. As much as I want to bake you a pan of lasagne right now, I’m forced to admit that it’s even galling to be so starved for justice and so forced to absorb insult after insult that I am actually desperately grateful upon seeing just one blog post from a guy whose head isn’t up his ass.

    This is one of the reasons why I like the classical scene so much (with an admixture of composition and improv tossed in). Blind auditions have made it so that we’re in a much better situation in that genre. The Philadelphia Orchestra just played a ton of stuff by Gabriela Lena Frank, not what you’d call a 90lb 20 year old in her underwear. Martha Argerich is considered the best pianist on Earth at 70. Sofia Gubaidulina is called a genius. More women are picking up batons as well; Baltimore Symph’s is called one of the best in the world.

    Anyhow. Just … thank you. I love this post. And I hate the whole world for making me feel that I have to thank a male for sticking up for women because women don’t dare stick up for ourselves.

  • Natalie

    Just stumbled upon this excellently written blog posts and wanted to add to the dialogue by mentioning She Shreds Magazine and Tom Tom magazine– two relatively new print publications dedicated exclusively to women who play guitar and drums, respectively. Check it out! Cheers.