Representation of Women in Heavy Metal as a Subculture

Adriana Janković
Adriana Janković

The typical characteristics of the metal movement are distorted guitars, aggressive vocals concerning music and innovations in a fashion such as denim, leather and spikes. Metal reached the peak of its popularity in the 1980s, and while a lot of especially young people enjoyed it, there were critics and other people who called it sick, repulsive, dangerous and considered its members unsophisticated.

To be stereotyped, condemned and dismissed is nothing new nowadays for metal fans, since it has been happening consistently for over 40 years now. Although often considered a monolithic subculture, it is most definitely not since there are two main surges of subgenres that developed in the 1980s — “lite” metal bands that embrace pop and rock such as Poison and Def Leppard on the one hand, and thrash metal bands such as Slayer and Metallica, from which other extreme subgenres of metal including black, death and doom developed, on the other.

Subcultures are an important part of a formation of young people’s identities, especially if they do not find concord in opinion with the high culture of their conservative mainstream society or out of spite to oppose their parents’ class culture. In such cases, there are various subcultures and their suitable fandoms that one can join in order to be offered solutions to establish the wanted identity, outside of the norms offered by work, home or school.

Metal as a subculture has since its beginnings been marginalized and represented on the edge of culture as such, as is the case with every other subculture — their members are often already somehow marginalized since they cannot meet the norms of the dominant culture or they chose and found their identities not as members of the dominant culture, but subculture. There is a great analogy that can be drawn with the dark, noisy basements where foundations of metal have been set in the 1960s. However, it is, by all means, the most enduring genre, although in constant opposition with the society and engaging with some of its most controversial taboos and topics.

Metal simply tends to be dominated by “transgressive” themes and musicality due to which it often faces criticism, especially concerning obscenity, black magic and anti-Christian nature and is blamed for setting a bad influence on youth and their values.

As Stuart Hall states, popular culture is to be considered an important site of social contestation and formation, but marginal culture, as in this case metal subculture, is not necessarily more important, interesting, complex or more profound than popular, mainstream culture. Weinstein claims metal is not sexist, ageist or racist subculture, but defines it as exclusivist because it does insist upon upholding the codes of its core members. Still, there are members of the metal subculture who, in a very sexist way, presuppose that women are attracted less to “true” heavy metal music and more to power/gothic love ballads.

It has developed from the hard-rock/biker and the psychedelic musical subcultures, with some of its recognizable signs being long hair, leather, studs, denim, tattoos, flashing the devil horn sign, playing the air guitar, etc. Since the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll music there has been a phenomenon called “moral panic” surrounding it and it has been constantly connected with juvenile delinquency, obscenity, even linking the Columbine massacre to Marilyn Manson in 1999.

Popular music has in general historically been constantly censured, condemned and regulated. It is no different with metal music as a subculture. Heavy metal has as a genre since its beginnings been considered as primarily male-oriented, since it is simply in accord with the social constructs. What is more, metal typically includes playing an electric guitar or drums, which is by traditional gender socialisation not considered feminine.

Flute, violin and piano are traditionally “feminine” instruments, whereas an electric guitar and all of the additional equipment (leads, amplifiers, plugboards) is considered “masculine”, especially when connected with the phallic thrust. Thus, since the emergence of rock music, women are typically excluded from this world merely because of social reasons.

“Many people hold that heavy metal music, along with drugs and promiscuous sex, proves that some parts of youth culture have gone beyond acceptable limits. To many of its detractors, heavy metal embodies a shameless attack on the central values of Western civilisation.” That is why Dunn as a conclusion in his ‘A Headbanger’s Journey’ also states: “I have set out on this journey to answer one question: why has heavy metal been consistently stereotyped, dismissed and condemned? And what has become clear to me is that metal confronts what we would rather ignore, it celebrates what we often deny, it indulges in what we fear most, and that is why metal will always be a culture of outsiders.”

In this citation, the core of the general mass’ opinion about the heavy metal subculture is contained.

Viewed from this point, it may explain why this subculture has been on the one hand attracting so many people since its emergence and has not collapsed or faded away and caused so much criticism on the other. Still, further researches are conducted on this particular field and it is more and more looked into as a particular subculture phenomenon.

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