How to Not Infuriate a Woman Musician

Ashley with FuzZzThe Huffington Post blog article “Infuriating Things People Say to Women Musicians” has been making the rounds in my social circles lately. In it, feminist advocate and rocker Steph Guthrie shares the many examples of maddening things people say to musicians of her gender, as crowdsourced from other female musicians on Twitter. A few examples:

“You girls must be singers.” – music store employee to women customers looking at mixers

“They make you carry that?!?!” – onlooker to woman musician lugging gear

“Oh, you’re IN the band!”

“I bet you’re buying the blue tambourine because blue is your favourite colour.” – music store employee

“I can no longer book you because you want to tour with your baby.”

“Are you shopping for your boyfriend?” – male music store employee

For me, as refreshing as it was to see this topic aired on such a public forum, it seemed like old news; the stuff I could add to that list would make you blush. That is, until I saw the responses of non-female musicians and non-musicians in general. The discussions that followed on various Facebook pages made me realize several things: one, people don’t realize how many terrible things people say to female musicians on a regular basis. That much, I knew, and it was brilliantly shattered by this article. But beyond that, I’m not sure people realize that the non-terrible things they say, the things they construe as compliments, can be just as bad.

To banish that misconception, I give you my personal list of “Infuriating Compliments People Pay to Women Musicians”:

It’s so refreshing to see a woman up there.

You’ll definitely add some beauty to this ugly bunch of guys.

Female musicians are just more professional/listen better/play more melodically.

I’m told you’re hot and you can play.

We have a lot of old white guys, so it will be nice to have a young woman in the band.

Every one of these has been said to me, many on multiple occasions. You may have said this to someone before. It’s okay. My own boyfriend said the first one to a few ladies I was playing in a band with (who smiled and thanked him, as you do), and had no idea why it would be objectionable until I gently explained it to him later.

It’s a mentally oppressive thing to be the minority in a group. Being a female musician comes with a number of stereotypes — you can’t play, you’re just there as eye candy, you’re not as serious as the men — and when we’re reminded that we’re the minority, the other, it hurts. I’m reminded of the 1999 study in which groups of Asian-American female college students were reminded of their race and their gender, respectively, and then completed a math test. The group that was reminded of their Asianness performed better, while the group that was reminded of their femaleness did more poorly. I’d bet a lot of money that it works the same way with musicians. I love being a woman during virtually every moment of my life, but when I’m on stage or in a jam session, I’d honestly rather be a man. Male musicians have their own stereotypes and assumptions, but they tend to go the opposite way: you’re assumed to be able to play until proven otherwise.

An interesting side note to all of this is that it rarely comes from the musicians themselves; it’s most often the sound guy, the booker, and the crowd. I think this is because male musicians have also experienced what I’ve experienced. At least in my specialty of jazz, an 100ish-year-old, originally African-American art form that has since been coopted by white young men on university campuses and as a result has ended up generally segregated by race, education, and age, virtually everybody has had their turn being “the other.” A black musician who shows up to play with a bunch of white musicians, and vice versa. A young musician who shows up to play with a bunch of old musicians, and vice versa. A self-taught musician who shows up to play with a bunch of conservatory-educated musicians, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter who you are; nobody likes to be pointed out as an outsider.

So my plea to the well-meaning music appreciators out there is this: don’t say anything to a female musician you wouldn’t say to a male musician. Tell me I sounded good, tell me my band is great, tell me I could use a little more time in the practice room, even. Just don’t tell me it’s because, or in spite, of the fact that I am female.

Featured image of my fabulous funk band FuzZz by the equally fabulous Jamie Bernstein. Hmm? What’s that you say? You’d really like to buy our album? Well, okay.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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