Is it wrong to ask what it’s like to be a woman in music?

By Alicia Montellanos

Sonic Youth’s bassist, Kim Gordon, released her memoir Girl in a Band this year, a few months before the release of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Both memoirs have a question in common, which is one that Gordon and Brownstein have been asked at multiple points in their music careers: “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” Or, in Carrie Brownstein’s case being vocalist and guitarist of Sleater-Kinney, “Why are you in an all-girl band?”

Gordon and Brownstein, each in their own memoir, consciously bring up the fact that they have been asked this type of question, while their male counterparts have not been asked similar questions relating their gender to their work. Gordon was
interviewed by Brownstein during Gordon’s book tour. Brownstein and Gordon discussed the meaning of being asked what it feels to be a girl in a band and concluded that being asked this question is part of the experience of being a female musician. Brownstein also pointed out in her memoir that male musicians in all-male bands do not tend to be asked about their “decision” to be in all-male band, or how it feels to be a guy in a band. Artists in other fields have also been exposing these double-standard questions that relate gender to work and how they tend to only be asked to women, but not to men. Filmmaker, writer, performance artist, and Brownstein’s friend, Miranda July commented only some weeks ago for The New York Times,

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Now, the question I want to ask is this: is asking what it is like to be a girl in a band necessarily a bad question? Perhaps the question July discusses is bad, and obviously so, because it subtly assumes mothers who work too much abandon their children. It may even include a normative statement saying that mothers ought not do either. But, the question Gordon and Brownstein have been asked doesn’t seem obviously or necessarily bad to me. It doesn’t seem to assume that girls shouldn’t be in bands, but rather that girls tend to not be seen in bands (which is not so much the case today). The question, in a sense, acknowledges women’s presence in music, but it isn’t obvious to me that underlying the question is a statement that says, “women don’t belong here, women shouldn’t be here.”

I’m neither trying to validate the question nor to suggest that it welcomes women into music. There are very good reasons for why the fact that this question is being asked should be exposed and called out. Brownstein has expressed specific concerns about being primarily recognized as a woman in music (as opposed to an artist or simply a musician) and how that is tied to limited expectations of women.  What I am suggesting is that the recognition the question implies isn’t necessarily bad, that women are defying expectations, and people are noticing. Arguably, the way people have noticed and continue to notice women’s success in music has been expressed in the form of this question, which isn’t the most intelligible way to acknowledge and recognize such success. But unless a woman musician is being asked by a journalist with a tone what it feels like to be a girl in a band, or if the journalist makes subtle or clear remarks about it, I think we can say the question itself isn’t necessarily bad or ill-intended. (After all, Gordon’s memoir bears the topic of the question in its title.) Although I will admit, it is an annoying question, indeed.

P.S. I am completely open to other points of view, and readers are welcome to join the discussion.


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