Sexism and misogyny. You would think times have evolved, and they’re issues of the past. Sadly, no, as author Lily E. Hirsch found out all too well while researching for her new book Can’t Stop the Grrrls: Confronting Sexist Labels in Music from Ariana Grande to Yoko Ono. Below, Lily guest posts about what she learned while writing on the music industry that doesn’t get enough attention – Sexist labels.
Lily E. Hirsch guest posts: ‘If you feel like something’s not right, trust your gut. And trust women’
I remember the viciousness in the coverage of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. I remember thinking, but didn’t Justin Timberlake pull off too much? Where is he in this conversation? But those thoughts were just a whisper, drowned out by the media coverage and late-night jokes at Jackson’s expense.
I also remember the snake drama that surrounded Taylor Swift in 2016, when Kim Kardashian branded Swift a snake for supposedly lying about her call with Kanye West. I knew the subject of that discussion—West’s Song “Famous.” Didn’t he call Swift a “b*tch” in that song? Didn’t he claim that he made her famous? Why was Swift getting all the heat when West was clearly attacking her? But those questions too were confused by the counternarrative—opinion pieces that described Swift as privileged, the “Gwyneth Paltrow of pop.” No one wanted to think about her as a victim. And, maybe, I didn’t want to either.
In writing the book, Can’t Stop the Grrrls: Confronting Sexist Labels in Music from Ariana Grande to Yoko Ono, my internal hunches and doubts exploded into whole chapters. And, with research, those hunches became facts which became patterns of prejudice, toxic labeling, and biased double standards—all confronting women in music over and over again.
When Beyoncé bans photographers, she’s called manipulative. But when Kendrick Lamar does the same thing, he’s protecting an authentic performance experience. When Britney Spears needs help, she’s condemned as “crazy.” But when a male musician exhibits unusual or erratic behavior, he’s a genius. When a Lilith fair performer discloses personal feelings in song, she’s whining. But when a man does the same thing, he’s admirably sensitive. Adding insult to injury, many women in music are connected by the same labels—diva, liar, crazy, bItch.
Once the pattern emerged, new negative stories about women in music seemed predictable. Journalists and trolls criticized Rihanna’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Of course, they did. But that predictability didn’t mean I was any less angry.
I thought back to moments from my own life, moments I had wanted to explain away but no longer could. When I was a finalist for a job as a professor, the search committee chair greeted me by saying, “But you’re eight-months pregnant. Do you even want this job?” At the time, I wanted to believe that he was joking. When I didn’t get the job, I wanted to believe that I had done something wrong. But, I realize now, the fact that they hired a man instead of me is significant. And that so-called joke mattered too. I was waking up from a collective gaslighting, with a stored-up rage newly surfacing and raw.
With my training as a musicologist, I had learned about past dismissal of women in music. I knew about overt discrimination that affected women in early musicology, in academia, and in composition. I had written the book, Anneliese Landau’s Life in Music: Nazi Germany to Émigré California, about early musicologist Anneliese Landau, and understood the overlapping persecution she faced, as a woman and a Jew. But I had hoped, for my sake and the sake of my children, that much had changed since then. With that hope, perhaps anyone can overlook or doubt a single story of gender bias. Perhaps we doubt that story to protect our image of the world and our desire to believe in a certain goodwill towards women. Perhaps that reflex is a survival instinct when reality seems like too much.
In a way, from this perspective, I understand the crude criticism I sometimes receive—often from men who are invested in cultural narratives with deep roots, like the one connected to Yoko Ono which denies her own artistic agenda, or The Beatles own decision to break up their band. Though the maliciousness in such criticism is inexcusable, I know myself that it can be hard to reject and overcome the myths of our past.
I’m not sure what made me finally confront my hunches in book form. Maybe it was the monstrosity of Trump. Maybe it was concern for my children and their future. But once I began to examine the treatment of high-profile women in music, collecting these stories and putting them together in this book, the truth of misogyny became undeniable at every level. Now that I see the pattern, I will always trust my gut. And I will always trust women. The same story has happened too many times.
Yes, it’s overwhelming. It can be hard to function while seething with rage. On the other hand, any woman who has succeeded in music—pushing through these walls—is an absolute force, persisting and resisting with talent, purpose, and conviction.
Writing this book, I learned about how much these women have overcome, often with little acknowledgment of their remarkable efforts. Any woman who even tries to occupy the spotlight or step onto the world’s stage is a real-life superhero. With them as an example, I don’t feel completely hopeless. I have learned that I can be angry and still have hope. These women give me that hope. They promise a better future. And I remain optimistic that society will someday make good on that hope.
About today’s writer, Lily E. Hirsch
Lily E. Hirsch (Ph.D. in musicology, Duke University) is the author of A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League (2010), Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment (2012), Anneliese Landau’s Life in Music: Nazi Germany to Émigré California (2019), Weird Al: Seriously (2020; expanded in 2022), and, as co-editor, Dislocated Memories: Jews, Music, and Postwar German Culture (2014). Her newest book is Can’t Stop the Grrrls: Confronting Sexist Labels in Music from Ariana Grande to Yoko Ono, with a foreword by Meshell Ndegeocello and an afterword by Amy Ray of the legendary Indigo Girls.
Top photo: Meet author Lily E. Hirsch. Photo by Donna May; used with permission.