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Film Reviews

In It With You: Documentary Play Your Gender Reviewed
Lottie Brazier , November 17th, 2017 10:06

Lottie Brazier takes a look at a new documentary highlighting sexism behind the scenes in the music industry

A woman’s struggle and in some cases inability to reach top positions in the workplace due to gender bias is referred to metaphorically as ‘the glass ceiling’. This includes a less discussed skill imbalance present for women in fields which have been historically dominated by men. The Kinnie Starr directed documentary film Play Your Gender rightly points out that little has been done to highlight this in the structure of the music industry, particularly the behind the scenes production of music where visibility isn’t key - only 5% of women are music producers and the majority of lyricists are male. Women are perhaps encouraged to play a visible role in the music industry in the sense that their bodies can be used to sell and advertise their own music, whereas roles in the industry where they are not so visible are not profitable in the same way

With its UK premier being held at the Barbican Centre this November as part of Doc And Roll Film Festival, Play Your Gender brings to attention the fact that ‘behind the scenes’ roles in music promotion, production, engineering, album cover design, photography, management and touring staff are filled overwhelmingly by men. One worry in particular is that these roles involve creative decision making and ultimately creative control over the artist that they are working with. The film’s description therefore is slightly misleading - it doesn’t just examine difficulties facing female producers, but also women struggling to find work in the music industry’s other sectors which do not involve being an artist but rather working with an artist. And so that leads one to think - to what degree and in what way have the musical outputs of female musicians at every echelon in the business been altered by men who are able to make these creative decisions regarding their work?

Utilising a Q&A format with numerous musicians, fans, neuroscientists, producers and artist managers, Play Your Gender allows a diverse range of women to speak informatively about the gender-specific issues that face them collectively but also differently. The film portrays many standpoints from the female experience; with perspectives included from WOC musicians and lesbian musicians in America. Brooklyn-based musician Xenia Rubinos asserts that diversity or its lack can have a real impact on who feels welcomed into the industry, by stating that “Having examples of people that look like you plays a part in whether you feel inspired… Or not.” But Sara Quin of Teagan & Sara thinks - although not contrastively - that women should toughen up and get used to rejection from the industry. Women are not going to agree on everything, it seems - after all, there is no collective feminist hive-mind as some may like to think. Although for the documentary to achieve its aim of giving multiple standpoints, Play Your Gender could have included interviews with transwomen who are struggling for recognition and employment in a transphobic music industry.

Gender stereotyping of ability comes up regularly as a frustration for women across all backgrounds in these interviews, with being perceived ‘as’ a woman - by men and women for that matter - generating issues for them regarding the underestimation of musical ability; performance; intelligence; capacity for creative control and creative collaboration. Play Your Gender also approaches the possibility of there being double standards with regards to the personalities of women in the music industry. Heather Kirby states that instruments are gendered; the guitar is seen as a male instrument. Interviewees again including Sara Quin collectively discuss incidents in their profession where they have repeatedly been expected to be (to quote) “demure” or “nice” or “approachable” and if they do not perform according to these social expectations - especially if they are deemed “weird” - then they are written off as “difficult to work with”, sometimes surprisingly also by women who have internalised misogynistic attitudes about the ways in which women ‘should’ behave. They have found themselves expected to be more cooperative than their male artistic counterparts, and through this pressure it is likely that they are feeling pressure to sacrifice creative control in favour of cooperation rather than risk being seen as difficult or bossy.

Returning to this idea of there being a ‘male artistic personality’, Iggy Pop and Rufus Wainwright producer Roger Greenawalt vaguely suggests that there may be something fundamentally masculine about the obsessive process of music production that means that more men naturally enter the field as a result. Although this masculine identity label may seem negative on surface value, as being called an ‘anorak’ or a ‘geek’ has a derogatory or self-deprecating flavour, it is still asserted as a typically masculine characteristic or domain. And if being an ‘anorak’ and an obsessive is seen as masculine attribute, then it makes certain roles that require a certain pedantry or geekiness seem inappropriate for women regardless of whether they too exhibit these traits themselves - and makes them look deviant of their gender if they do. This then, all seems a likely explanation for why few women are in these roles or are even considered for them in the first place; it is indeed encouraging a skills specific form of gender inequality in music production, based on a misconception of what women are capable of or an archaic belief in some kind of female brain. What’s more, it’s also refreshing to see Play Your Gender allow some opposition to Greenawalt’s comment with neuroscientist Dr. Tara Perrot of Dalhousie University being interviewed on the point that boys are more likely to be given toys - like instruments - that enable them to learn skills during an important time in development that can then aid them in adult working environments.

Play Your Gender is somewhat successful in its acknowledgement that the music industry needs to be reorganised in order to give women a better chance of reaching positions that have been stereotyped as suiting a masculine person or man; for instance it produces the important statistic that 50% more women classical musicians are hired during blind auditions based on solely ability than without them. In terms of progress being made to combat gender imbalance and unconscious bias, Play Your Gender’s sights are set on the American music industry, including an interview with ex-Hole and Smashing Pumpkins member Melissa Auf der Maur on her venue Basilica Hudson in NY, who makes a concerted effort to include a good gender balance on its performance schedule. This unfortunately means that European initiatives to encourage women to produce are left unaddressed - festival Heroines Of Sound in Berlin commits to a women-only lineup, similarly back in 2014 Wysing Arts Centre’s festival Space-Time only showcased women electronic musicians and its annual festival Opaque Poetics still has a lineup dominated by women. On a panel about music production at Berlin’s Loop Festival this year, Ableton interviewed MPG Award winning mastering engineer Mandy Parnell - who previously worked on Max Richter’s 8.5 hour long track ‘Sleep’ - about her experiences in the role. In Play Your Gender’s defence however, American labels overwhelmingly control the most economic capital in the world’s pop music industry, with its industry revenue being at about $40 billion worldwide. But because of its focus on the problem of the music industry in America, the film’s scope does not involve considerations of the more positive projects that are now starting to appear across Europe, failing to note that the situation for women seeking entrance into music production could potentially improve at different rates depending on the social attitudes of their country.

Clearly much hard work is being done by women to support other women in music production and in the promotion of each others’ music. Although the conclusion of Play Your Gender encourages us to think realistically about how much of a structural shift these initiatives will encourage beyond visibility for performers. For example, male promoters still have a bias towards booking other men, as ”Helena Hauff discusses in an interview with Dazed. So it looks like for a diverse range of women to be promoted in music, there needs to be more to combat men’s preconceptions of the artists that they are booking, or better still find ways of getting women into promotion and tour management roles themselves. Even though women artists may be taken more seriously on stage and by fans, the music production and promotion aspect of their career is still plagued by masculine creative and logistical control.

Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a dismal number of men at this UK premier at the Barbican Centre compared to women, meaning that these issues are still being considerably discussed among women in the industry but are still not yet being acknowledged by men who have positions of power in the production side of the music industry. What is still needed in these fields is the cooperative and sacrificial act of men collectively - indeed at risk of ridicule from their male peers - to start accepting women and indeed also non-binary people into roles that may break up their familiar, comfortable and accommodating boys’ club. The real witch hunt here is not the expectation of men to acknowledge the existence of this boys club; rather it is the outright dismissal of someone’s ability to work in the music industry on the basis of their gender with absolutely no sufficient reason to do so.