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Women Rock Guitarists and Media Misrepresentation

By Heather McCown

Women in Media

Professor Doris Caçoilo

12/7/09
“I see that we were a part of the history, but you never know that you’re making history when you’re doing it…”
i
Nona Hendryx

When we think of women in the world of rock and roll, we generally do not picture

female guitarists at the forefront of this genre of music. Although there are only a handful of

women rock guitarists who have been highlighted in the media, there are many more throughout

history who have made great contributions to rock and roll. I will introduce some female

guitarists who have helped to shape rock and roll, discuss some of the reasons for their

misrepresentation, and examine possibilities for change in the future.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Born in 1921, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe soon became one of the

most influential singer/guitarists of her time. Signed to Decca Records in 1938, she was soon

performing with Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. Her guitar style influenced the likes of

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many more.

Bonnie ‘Guitar’ Buckingham

Bonnie was born in 1924, in Auburn, Washington. She came from a musical family, and

played clarinet before settling on guitar. After recording a demo for a friend, she caught the

attention of Fabor Robinson and was hired as a staff guitarists at Fabor Record Studios in

Malibu, California. Her success as a session artist eventually landed her on the Ed Sullivan

Show and she toured with Gene Vincent and the Everly Brothers. She continued writing and

producing music, and performs to this day.

Peggy ‘Lady Bo’ Jones

Peggy Jones was born in New York City and went from being a young dancer at

Carnegie Hall to playing guitar with Bo Diddley in the late 50’s. Thus, she was dubbed “Lady
Bo” due to her ability to play just as well. She toured with Diddley, and eventually joined other

bands in the early 60’s.

Wanda Jackson

Born in 1937 in Oklahoma, Wanda Jackson was taught how to play guitar by her father.

Her talent was recognized during her high school years, and she soon found herself joining the

Brazos Valley Boys as a vocalist in the 50’s. Signing with Capital Records at age eighteen, she

met Elvis Presley and began more of a rockabilly style. She covered music for Presley’s film

Loving You, and ultimately ended up veering away from the rockabilly genre when it started to

lose public interest.

Cordell Jackson

Cordell Jackson was a rockabilly artist born in Mississippi in 1923. She not only wrote

and performed her own material, but she also had her own record label, Moon Records. Jackson

produced local artists as well as becoming a producer of a Christian radio show. She is still

performing today.

Reasons for Misrepresentation

I have highlighted just a few of the women pioneers of rock and roll guitar, but there are

many more. Yet, they are rarely mentioned in historical accounts of rock and roll, and very few

people in contemporary times have heard of them. It appears that there are a number of factors

that contribute to this. We will examine some of these including; issues involving gender

stereotypes, studio preferences, journalistic coverage, media categorization, and perceived

abilities.

Firstly, the music canons which list the most influential artists of the time, are generally

written or influenced by major recording studios. During the 50’s-60’s, the emphasis was on

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‘Girl Groups’, rather than women musicians as “most women in the early days of rock made

their mark as singers.” ii Thus, the large studios invested money in marketing these girl groups

and neglected to produce music by women guitar pioneers. This void was further perpetuated by

the lack of inclusion of women rock guitarists in anthologies or rock guides, “which commonly

privilege male performers.” iii One study of 31 music polls between 1974 and 2000 found, “out

of the total of 3375 entries recorded, 60 percent related to just 50 artists…and just three were

women.” iv This lack of representation by women in rock clearly shows how the public could be

misinformed by this information and believe that the pool of female artists is very small.

Another issue related to this is the way in which journalists have covered women rock

artists. It would seem like a case of the cat chasing its tail, as the more male artists are covered,

the more they are expected to be covered, while women are edged out or excluded, “as female

artists are less likely to have been granted cultural importance by music critics.” v This is

reflected not only in the male-dominated music industry, but also in the male-dominated news

media. The male journalists covering rock have been highlighted, while female journalists have

been under-represented. While, “the majority of writers included tend to be male,” we see that

there have been other authors who have attempted to rectify this discrepancy by publishing later

accounts of music articles written by women. vi However, the new histories which come out end

up being “supplementary to established canons rather than necessary corrections to outdated

lists.” vii Venuszine, an online magazine dedicated to women’s creativity, published a list of 46

of the greatest female rock guitarists in response to the lack of coverage in the Rolling Stones

2003 issue of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” which only covered two women; Joan

Jett and Joni Mitchell. viii By covering the true history, and bringing women rock guitarists to

their rightful place in our media, this is a small step to addressing the lack of representation.

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However, without larger media outlets picking up the gauntlet, the inadequacy is addressed on

the periphery, but not fully dealt with in an inclusive manner.

Then there is the issue of the technical prowess of women as rock musicians. There is a

pervasive sense of disbelief that a woman can actually become an accomplished guitarist. First,

we must address the idea the rock and roll is a masculine art form. This categorizing early on by

the music industry and media, has further alienated women from being able to participate fully

and equally. While “the performance of heavy metal has become associated with male

musicians, other roles, such as the solo pop vocalist…[are] prescribed roles for female

performers.” ix By women accepting that they can only fit into the roles of singer/songwriter or

pop singer, anyone who does not conform to this stereotype is seen as “subversive,” x and

challenging the status quo. Thus, female musicians who dare to plug their guitars are seen as an

anomaly, or dangerous.

Lady Bo relates that she had to consistently prove herself as “a lot of people thought I

wasn’t playing, you know, that I had a tap recorder or something…” xi June Millington, of the

group Fanny, also commented on the male-dominated music industry that was perpetuated in the

60’s. Rather than being credited for their talent she explained, “you weren’t really expressing

yourself creatively, past proving to the world that girls could play like guys.” xii This lack of

credibility has passed down through generations. In 1992, Everett True wrote an article where

he addressed how, “rock is a firmly patriarchal form of expression…It’s too far gone now for

any change.” xiii

More recently, Sabina Saragoussi described her experiences as a

singer/songwriter/guitarist in New York City. When playing gigs, she found that most of the

comments about her music are directed towards her voice, and “the ones who do give me credit

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for the skill I have on guitar are usually other musicians.” This points to the socialization of

music, and how audiences still only view women through the lens of singers, even if they are

playing instruments. She further described having to overcome the stereotype that women

guitarists are not as accomplished as male guitarists, and that “people expect him to be good until

proves otherwise,” whereas women are assumed to be less proficient. She shared a story

highlighting this stereotype by a bar manager in the West Village who stated, “Oh, that’s nice,

you wanna play a little ‘Mary had a little lamb for us?’” Although extreme, this type of attitude

is fairly common despite her years of experience. She counters, “people should expect that I’m

good, and that’s why I was given a gig.”

We even find accounts where a woman’s biological makeup is questioned as one blog

writer explains, “in some guitar-related activities, many women are disadvantaged by

physiological factors.” He further states, “in studies of the four muscle groups pertaining to

guitar…women possess 55% to 75% of the strength of men.” xiv This misinformation

discourages women from playing guitar, and encourages the status quo in terms of not covering

or supporting women guitarists. An interview with Mary Anne Barckhoff reveals this stereotype

when people first hear her band Viva la Venus play, “there’s this idea that because we’re women,

we’re going to be substandard.” xv Therefore, the women are reduced to some idea of gender

roles in relation to rock and roll that is not based on reality or fact.

This stereotype also impacts women musicians not only artistically, but also financially.

Saragoussi found that she was getting paid much less than other male musicians, who had less

performing experience, for the same quality and length of performance. She has since become

more assertive in “asking for what I feel I deserve as a seasoned performer,” something her male

counterparts do not have to contend with.

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Ingrid Hu Dahl, founder member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, and musician

with Rad Pony and Boyskout, discussed her early experiences as a musician in a mostly male

band. With her band and the audience being predominantly male, she found herself having to

deal with “the different expectations and the dynamics between us.” She also found that the

audience related to her differently because she was a girl in the band, “which made it seem like I

was simply an extra special ornament that marked the band as ‘unique’.” This categorization

furthers the stereotype of women guitarists being outside the norm.

This exclusion of women on the basis of their perceived natural ability, lays the stage for

women guitarists who do break through as being a novelty, “in order to make an article appear

newsworthy reporters often describe female artists as groundbreaking practitioners in a male

field.” xvi By making the female rock guitarists a spectacle, we are reaffirming the idea that it is

something rare, and that not all women can be rock musicians. Further, if women rock

musicians are considered something rare or a fad, “journalists both marginalize and reduce the

historical importance of these music makers.” xvii

Challenging the Roles in Rock Music

Women rock guitarists have challenged gendered stereotypes while balancing their

credibility and success as a performer within the industry. Joan Baez consciously dealt with the

preconceived ideas of gender in music, and refused to dress or look like the stereotypical female

singers of her time. By wearing plain clothes and long straight hair, she “undermined standard

perceptions about female performers by keeping the focus on her music.” This attitude and

appearance gave her music and songwriting a different level of respect and credibility. xviii Janis

Joplin was another performer who also challenged women’s expected roles during the

“atmosphere of change” of the 60’s. However, this atmosphere was still not particularly

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inclusive of women as “attitudes toward women’s roles in society were not undergoing the same

degree of change.” xix She died without being able to experience artistic freedom as a female

artist and musician without the psychological and social pressures of the time.

Women rock musicians face pressure from the music industry to conform to accepted

gender stereotypes. “You hear this a lot- women getting heavily influenced to change their look

or sound to be less threatening…to get back to the safe norm,” said Dahl. This idea that women

are supposed to behave a certain way, translates through the music industry and affects how

producers and the audience view women as artists. Saragoussi relates how the mainstream music

industry is “making women into sexual divas…having them do almost nude magazine covers

and videos.” It is acceptable for women to be sexy and alluring, but, “female musicians who

have departed from conventional feminine gender identities on stage…have often been

understood by journalists and critics as subversive.” xx

This labeling of women rock guitarists or women rock bands as “subversive” leads to

further exclusion and loss of artistic credibility. As Dahl became more conscious of women’s

history, and the ways in which women have challenged these gendered notions, “this became my

foundational base, my sense of self, identity and my history.” She sees the power that

“conscious” female musicians can have. She utilizes this knowledge and her sense of humor to

challenge and transform stereotypes through her music, “to debunk stereotypes, wit, knowledge,

and passion are key.”

The Riot Grrrl movement began as a response and an idea of embracing the feminism of

punk music. Growing out of a movement out of Olympia, Washington on the West coast, and

Washington, D.C. on the East coast, “Riot grrrl developed and spread through social

communication at gigs and through zines.” xxi This movement directly challenged the gender

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roles in music, vocally and unabashedly. The female bands would pass out flyers before their

shows that “requested girls and women to stand near the front of the stage,” thus challenging the

traditional area where men have coveted for slamdancing. xxii They also used subversive

advertising and interviews (or refusing interviews) to change the preconceived stereotypes that

the mainstream media has perpetuated regarding women in music. The radical ways in which

the riot grrrl movement positioned itself outside of the mainstream, only acted to further

“heighten the attention” to the movement. Whatever the long term result, the riot grrrl

movement “reworked conventions of female display and performance, allowing girls and women

new possibilities of discourse,” outside of the mainstream media coverage. xxiii

Female rock guitarists have faced numerous issues over the years. They have fought

against a misrepresentation of their history, pushed to be included with other musicians in the

media and for recognition by the music industry, and have come up against stereotypical gender

arguments regarding their musical abilities, biological makeup, and credibility as artists.

The Future of Women Rock Guitarists

I will now examine how the future for women rock guitarists might be shaped to reflect

an inclusive and powerful voice. First, women can promote and support festivals which

highlight female musicians. Secondly, women can network through the internet and establish

new ways of connecting with other female musicians. Women can also self-produce their music,

thus completely circumventing the music industry and bringing their artistic vision directly to the

audience. Finally, young girls can be encouraged through camps and at schools to play rock

instruments and expand their knowledge of the music industry.

One of the important ways women have been able to challenge gendered notions of rock

musicians, and to reach a larger audience, is through festivals highlighting women musicians and

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performers. Ladyfest, Lilith Fair, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the Willie Mae Rock

Camp for Girls, are just some of the festivals that help to debunk stereotypes in a fun, inspiring,

and productive manner. These festivals offer ways women can network with other musicians,

support each other, and encourage female musicians of all ages.

Lilith Fair was founded by Sarah McLachlan, and inspired by the idea that women artists

had to compete for one or two slots in a gig. She was told, “no one…would pay to see two

women on the same bill,” which only encouraged her to create a “girlapalooza” to prove critics

wrong. xxiv The first festival kicked off in 1996, and featured artists including; McLachlan, Patti

Smith, Suzanne Vega, Lisa Loeb, and Aimee Mann. There is strength in numbers, and “Lilith

Fair did mark the first time such an event toured- and drew such widespread mainstream

attention.” xxv The controversy of whether women’s music would “suggest singers who hate

men,” or “be considered lesbian music,” xxvi did not detract from the primary intentions of the

festival, and further helped to initiate dialogue in the mainstream of the gender politics of music.

Ladyfest is a music festival that was created as a DIY (Do It Yourself) event for others to

reproduce around the world. The Ladyfest website allows for posting of festival information, and

helps musicians and promoters to network and support the festivals. Beginning in early 2000,

these festivals reflect the “philosophy and the forms of participation that…show a strong level of

continuity with the aims of riot grrrl.” xxvii The festival helps to address the gender issues in the

music industry, as the key motivating factors include “a desire to challenge: the continuance of a

masculinist culture within indie rock culture; the lack of representation of women within the

performing and visual arts; the difficulties encountered by female artists in terms of securing

contracts, promotion and distribution.” xxviii The level of networking and communication

surrounding the Ladyfest events show it as “an enabling device, building the confidence of

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participants in their daily lives…not on the event as an end in itself.” xxix Thus, this platform

allows for organizers and supporters to define for themselves what the festival should mean, and

how it may impact others.

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is celebrating its 35th Anniversary in 2010.

Created in much the same vein as the previous festivals mentioned, it is a week long festival in

Michigan which highlights female artists. In addition, the festival offers workshops for all ages

in visual art, dance, music, and other subjects which reflect the idea of creating a strong sense of

self and a “space to celebrate all things female.” xxx The festival uses music as a platform to

bring in other art forms in a female-centric manner.

I have only mentioned a few of the music festivals which are actively focused on women

musicians, but these show the way women can challenge traditional gender stereotypes and

create a discourse about how rock and roll is represented. The coordination of these festivals and

events, as well as the networking opportunities they create, allow women to reach beyond the

confines of the mainstream media opportunities to create their own. The festivals and events

utilize the internet as a tool for dissemination of information, and a way for women musicians to

network throughout the world. This allows more women to become exposed to the ideas of

empowerment and action, in a positive and inclusive way.

Another way in which female performers are challenging the traditional stereotypes is to

utilize the internet as a medium to bypass the mainstream music industry. As audiences are

relying more and more on Youtube for videos, and downloading music from a variety of internet

sources, such as iTunes, many artists are capitalizing on this for marketing and distribution of

their music. Without the need to be “signed” to a certain label, artists create their own and are

able to maintain control of their artistic vision. Thus, women musicians are able to resist the

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need to “sell” their music through their image, and are instead able to focus on the music itself.

Kristin Hersh, singer/songwriter/guitarist formerly with Throwing Muses and now leads 50 Foot

Wave, utilizes a blog to post messages to her fans directly and maintain a running dialogue. She

has also created a benefactor program entitled, “Strange Angels,” which is a way for her fans to

donate through her blog to receive free music downloads, tickets, and other special perks in

return. Thus, she is cutting out a third party and is able to respond directly to her fans. She is

able to give them insight into her songwriting process as well as her own inspiration for her

music. This personal touch is something that the music industry has veered away from as the

focus has been more on selling rather than content. By utilizing these new media formats, artists

are able to maintain the integrity of their vision, and challenge who has the ultimate authority

over the distribution of that vision. Artists are able to take control, and close the circle between

the creative process, performance, and production. As the media formats continually evolve,

these innovative ways are limitless for women musicians to reach a wider audience.

Finally, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is a camp particularly geared towards youth

education through summer workshops and performances. Based on the idea “that music belongs

to everyone,” the camp offers intensive opportunities for girls and women to learn with hands-on

musical training, and reaches between 500-700 girls a year. The training covers all aspects of

music, from creation to production, and helps girls to become confident in building their skills

without the traditional gender pressures and categorization associated with the music industry.

The camp was founded in 2004, is offered every summer in Brooklyn, and is modeled off of the

Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon.

Camps which provide youth education are a way to reach young girls at an early age

before they have been socialized by gender stereotypes in music. As one of the founders, Dahl

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sees this as “important for that very reason to consistently work with, inspire and encourage

young women.” She also reflects on how these camps make a difference when she states, “I

know it [Willie Mae Rock Camp] would have changed my life and I would be much farther

along as a musician and feminist!”

Rock camps are a way to bring an intensely focused view of music to girls who may not

have already had exposure early on. Both Dahl and Saragoussi were encouraged by their

parents, but many other girls have not had that same experience. “It starts so young, this

tendency toward encouraging girls to be pretty, quiet, respectful, and find instruments that echo

those qualities,” said Saragoussi. Therefore, the need for more of these camps is crucial in order

for girls to grow up with the same breadth of knowledge in music as boys receive. This will help

to further challenge gender stereotypes, and help to create a more level platform where the artists

can be recognized for their music, not their gender. As Saragoussi muses, “maybe someday

we’ll flood the music scene with talented, professional guitarists and songwriters who are

featured on the radio, in concert, and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame frequently, proudly,

without question, and with their clothes on.”

Conclusion

I have examined how women rock guitarists are overlooked and misrepresented

throughout history. I have highlighted some of the early female pioneers in rock music, and

discussed what factors have contributed to their lack of representation in contemporary music

canons. I have discussed the gender stereotyping of rock guitar as a masculine activity, and

examined what factors continue to contribute to this misinformation. Then, I discussed the

women rock musicians who are challenging this stereotype, and the various ways and platforms

they are utilizing to be effective. I have discussed the alternative ways musicians are able to

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utilize new media to create and disseminate their music directly to an audience, and how

marketing and networking through the internet are essential ways for women to communicate

with a larger audience. Finally, I have highlighted the need for girls to obtain music education at

a young age, in order that they may learn to dismiss negative gender-based stereotypes and

embrace their own artistic abilities in a nurturing and productive atmosphere.

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xxx
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