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news / stir-story 14.11.2017 Words: Jemimah Tarasov
Artwork: Lukas Benson

Gender performativity in electronic culture or why is every guy I know is a DJ?

I originally tried to write this article on the NYC No Wave scene of the 1970s, but somehow ended up reading increasingly obscure academic articles about women in electronic scenes, and how gender roles can be as obviously performed through DJing as they are in day-to-day life. Which is actually way more interesting and relevant to me, as I don’t know anyone in the No Wave scene (Lizzy Mercier Descloux I love you and wish desperately I did know you), but I do know 349084509438 million boys who DJ.


I started with Tara Rodger’s 2010 ‘ Pink Noises: Women On Electronic Music And Sound’, which follows on from her web project of the same name.

From ‘Pink Noises’ site.

She writes, ‘much like technologies used in electronic music practice, electronic music histories have been imagined and structured according to tropes of noise and silence’ (less eloquently— that electronic music history silences some demographics). Rodgers views this silencing as reflective of socialisation on a larger scale: not only are ‘technology’ and ‘music’ already viewed as typically male domains but within them, it is difficult to view women as their ‘producers’. Rather, women are ‘entwined in a logic of reproduction — age-old notions of passivity, receptivity and maternality’: hence they must look to the male creative/producer for direction.In a case where a woman is able to break this trope, and successfully produce electronic music, they will still be firmly ‘othered’

In her article ‘Pioneer Spirits: New media representations of women in electronic music history’, Frances Morgan summarises contemporary media coverage of women in electronic music as having three key components:

First, the list is presented as numbered entries that the reader can either scroll or click through.

Second, each entry features a short paragraph of text accompanied by a large, embedded YouTube video which is used primarily as an audio stream but, in most cases, also shows an image of the woman in question.

Third, there is an emphasis on the language of exceptionalism and winning: composers are ‘at the forefront’, ‘the first’, ‘pushing the sonic envelope’ and making music that’s ‘ahead of its time”.

That is, for the ‘other’ to enter the masculine electronic music field, they must be made suitably palatable: presenting as highly feminine, and/or highly exception. In both cases, such presentation implies they will not destabilise the dominant masculinised mainstream.

1. DJing

In Judith Butler’s 1990 ‘Gender Trouble’, she puts forward the notion of gender as performance. Rather than being something biological/stable, gender is created through a series of repetitive and stylised acts. I.e. we continuously act in ways we see as typically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ (such as wearing a dress, playing with dolls, being more gentle) until we come to incorporate these actions into our sense of identity. In this way, ‘gender is an impersonation’, ‘only real to the extent that it is performed’.

This notion of performance obviously ties in nicely to music and DJ-ing more specifically. In Sisterdjsin the House: Electronic/Dance Music and Women-Centered Spaces on the Net, Rebekah Farrugia writes that the act of a woman DJ-ing is, in a sense, a ‘double performance’ of gender. The first is their generic gender performance: the specific acts they already perform each day to be considered ‘feminine’. These acts necessarily situate them as subordinate to men: embroiled in, as mentioned by Rodgers above, acts of reproduction and passivity: rather than creation and aggressive.

Men too, are expected to maintain their gender performances on a day to day basis. However, this gender performance actually ties in well with the act of DJing— they are on stage, in control, technically proficient, and creatively innovative. Hence ‘their DJing performance works as an extension of their gender role’. By contrast, women must situate themselves in a ‘double performance’: both maintaining their generic femininity and justifying their new role as creator. Perhaps it is this inherent gender subversion which may, in part, explain why I will rarely see a woman DJ, or if I do they are considered very ‘different’ (read: exceptional).

The act of a woman DJ-ing is, in a sense, a ‘double performance’ of gender

2. Record Collecting

Record collecting is another major part of DJing (or, it is at least in certain prominent sub-cultures). Today, a DJ is ‘expected to go above and beyond simply playing music’— they must have an esoteric knowledge of the records they play (albeit it New Beat, EMB, etc). They are generally expected to also own physical copies of the records that they play— hence record collecting becomes a sort of ‘gatekeeping’ act; both in terms of class (records are expensive) and knowledge (‘more refined and personal understanding of music, especially that which lies outside of the realm of “pop,” is considered the interest of men’). Perhaps it is not surprising then, that ‘record collecting is an overwhelmingly male pastime’.

“Having learned to play guitars and play them loud, women find that the lines of exclusion are now elsewhere. They emerge when the music is over, and the boys in the band go back to discussing their record collections”

— Will Straw, Gender and Connoisseurship.

3. Conclusion

Notwithstanding their potentially subversive/transgressive potential, electronic music scenes are still embedded with the same notions of gender performativity that pervade our everyday lives. The issue is not that women don’t want to DJ, or even that men don’t want women to DJ (by contrast, most if not all of the men I know who DJ really push for it). Rather, it’s likely reflective of a broad socialisation, which goes far deeper than our own niche subculture — however much we may try to escape it.


Jemimah Tarasov writes regularly for Overland and Feminartsy & edits Overpass magazine. You can see her work here: https://www.jtarasov.com

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