Often when equality in music culture is discussed – in public debate as well as research contexts – it seems hard to avoid talking about numbers, and cis women. How many women are in the room? How many women DJs, producers, guitar players, singers, and executive record label managers are there? The word balance – which was also in the title of a recent conference in Norway - invokes images of a see-saw where there is weight on both sides, there are only two sides, and the amount of the something that has the weight is the same. Thus, two principles govern balance: equal amounts and two separate things.
But making the amounts of two separate things (here often understood as men and women) the focus of debates about gender and music can be problematic. Counting the number of cis men and cis women is not a solution to all issues surrounding gender and power. Also, counting draws our attention away from other questions, even in qualitative research where the “how” is in focus thinking about amounts may affect our attention. The balance in music discussions seem to, often, focus on the production side of music, implicitly agreeing that the makers of the music are more important than other agents of music (listeners, dancers, DIY). By critiquing balance, I do not intend to say that equality work is not useful, for feminist politics and feminist scholarship. I simply want to look at the underside of a binary understanding of gender combined with an idea of equality as amounts of participation in music production.
The idea that a gender balance will automatically provide us with an equal and fair society may or may not take other power dimensions of importance for social equality into account. Class, ethnicity/race, sexuality, nationality, gender identity and so on can of course be factored in, to create a ‘perfect balance’ in the boardroom or the music school. But, even if the balance was perfect in all aspects, the idea assumes that a person representing femininity is not sexist, a racialized person is not racist, and that injustice is only affecting ideas and behaviors of the privileged. Also, it assumes that subjects are one thing – representing only gender, only race and so on.
Intersectional feminist theory, stemming from African-American feminist scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins as well as post-colonial feminist scholars like Chandra Mohanty and Trinh T. Minh-Ha, is useful in critiquing the idea of gender balance as a solution to gendered power. Power dimensions are, here, seen as always intra-acting in identities as well as societal institutions and ideas - making it impossible to talk about only gender when discussing for example access to music education. Further, class, gender and race (for example) should not be added to each other, they are interwoven. We can therefore not solve one problem first and then move on to the others when gendered hierarchies are built on historical classed and racialized injustices.
My own thesis almost ten years ago explored gender constructions in teenage girls’ music consumption. Although I never spelled it out, I would today admit that I had a craving to weigh up amounts and add numbers. Given that studies of youth and music culture are so often about boys, I wanted to add knowledge about girls. And while Judith Butler’s critique of the gender binary was with me theoretically, and I performed intersectional analysis, I did not base my selection of the field of study and participants on these ideas. So, even though I didn’t do any counting nor believed in a binary gender I supported the principles of balance at the very core of my project. In saying this I want to draw attention to how the idea of balance and a gender binary is buried in my/our fields of study, not existing outside of us in naïve debates on Facebook. And it may be stopping us from approaching the field of gender and music with other questions.
Discussions about “how many women” in gender and music are often concerned with the production side of music. When it comes to consumption the worry about numbers is less outspoken, even if it may occur in discussions about girls as fans (is it bad that many girls listen to genre X or is influenced by artist Y). Often, the discussions also focus on masculine coded fields of production in music; technologically skilled areas like studio production, DJ-ing, conducting an orchestra, playing the electric guitar, areas that are coded masculine and attached to high value. This implies, by directing the attention, that these areas are more interesting than toddlers dancing or other forms of mundane music consumption. I would therefore argue that, without meaning to do so, we here risk strengthening the idea that masculine coded activity is of higher value than feminine. Focusing on femininity (here I do NOT mean cis women) is a strategy within contemporary gender studies meant to both question the gender binary and the emphasis on masculinity as high value. Why is the no subject called critical femininity studies? asks Swedish gender studies scholar Ulrika Dahl, answering her own question: it is because the feminine continues to be under-valued even in feminist research.
I believe we must ask these (and other) difficult questions in scholarship about gender and music in order to develop into a field of study in our own right.