Don't Call Me Baby: Sexism in Electronic Dance Music
Since the beginnings of electronic dance music (EDM), those who identify as women have been marginalised. Discussions of early US EDM are almost exclusively focused on men (such as Frankie Knuckles, Jesse Saunders, Marshall Jefferson and the Belleville Three). Equally, the pronoun “he” remains the default when referring to DJs and producers.
In most history books concerning EDM there is a clear male bias and lack of discussion of women, and many people blindly argue that this is because women have simply not been involved. Generation Ecstasy, for example, claims that “the presence of women on the dance floor is not reflected by the women in the ranks of professional DJs”. Last Night a DJ Saved my Life similarly states that “In DJing’s 94 years, women have been largely frozen out of the picture, with precious few exceptions” .
It perhaps is true that fewer women have been involved and have been less highly publicised, at the level of ‘celebrity’ DJs and producers. However, plenty of women have been involved in the underground scene, and they simply don’t get discussed as much as men do. This lack of documentation in history creates a vicious circle - few women are documented in histories of EDM, leading to a lack of role models, causing fewer women to participate, which in turn leads to fewer women to be documented in the future.
Examples of early female producers such as Liz Torres and Screamin Rachael (who was a founder of one of the original Chicago house music labels, Trax records) receive little to no attention in existing publications. Some women try to avoid these issues by taking on a pseudonym; for example, producer and DJ Kelli Hand became known as ‘K-HAND’ in 1990 to avoid gender stereotyping. Still sometimes referred to as the “First Lady of Detroit techno” , Hand is ignored in most music histories despite her impressively large discography. She was the first woman to release house and techno records, and also founded her own label (Acadia Records) instead of releasing on other labels, following her ‘do it yourself’ ethos.
Feminist theorist Loomba explains that “historical scholarship claimed ‘objectivity’ whilst being riddled with cultural bias”, meaning that if we take written histories at face value, we are ignoring the fact that it is generally dominated by a patriarchal narrative focusing on a “male, white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered” point of view. This is extremely clear when looking at EDM history and documentation.
DJ Mag mentioned no females in its 25th year anniversary feature, and only included two female DJs in its 2016 Top 100 (Nervo at 45 and Miss K8 at 88). Not all music charts completely disregard women, for example Mixmag’s Top 20 DJs of 2016 featured six women, with first place going to female DJ The Black Madonna; however this is still not a completely fair balance and even this improved ratio is not seen particularly often.
Smirnoff announced an Equalising Music initiative on International Women’s Day 2017 (March 8th 2017). One of their main attempts to improve equality in dance music was by working with Vice (their Thump and Broadly sections) to make a “Top 50 Women Making Noise” list as well as a documentary called Smirnoff: Equalizing Music which follows the lives of female DJs Black Madonna and DJ Rachael. Smirnoff also partnered up with Pitchfork to improve their coverage of women, and Mixmag who planned to make 50% of its cover stars female DJs. These sort of highly publicised initiatives by large brand names are a positive sign that representation of women in dance music may soon start to improve.
Female identifying electronic music network ‘Female:Pressure’ did some research into gender ratios at music festivals; their 2015 report looking at forty-four electronic musical festivals across the globe divided the line ups into female acts, male acts, mixed acts and unidentified acts, and found that 10.8% of acts were female, 82.3% were male, 6% were mixed and 0.9% were unidentified. These are shockingly unequal figures, and something many festivals should be ashamed of and strive to improve.
When women in EDM actually ARE discussed their portrayal is often problematic. Well established techno DJ Nina Kraviz was chosen by Resident Advisor to be the first artist in the ‘Between The Beats’ series, which aimed to look at “the highs and lows of life as a touring DJ”, looking at lifestyle rather than purely their music. In the documentary, Kraviz, who often does embrace and highlight her sexuality, can be seen in a bathtub and also at one point in a bikini, and the comments on the documentary largely focussed negatively on this rather than anything else. Kraviz’s case is one of many examples of a woman in a male dominated industry causing debate or discussion for a reason (usually regarding image) that would most likely have been skimmed past if a male was in the same position.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, there are a lot of amazing female collectives providing training, equipment, encouragement and role models to female DJs and producers. Support networks and EDM collectives for women seem to have grown in numbers in the past decade across the globe, with some examples being London based SIREN; French based ‘TGAF’ (‘These Gyals Are On Fire’); South East London collective ‘BORN n BREAD’; New York based ‘Discwoman’ and many more.
Existing female collectives cover a wide range of subgenres as well as focusing on many different areas for beginners to professionals, for example: running radio shows for female DJs; running club nights with a specific female target audience; or in the case of Radar Radio, running free production workshops for girls in London. Hopefully, with the help of female collectives and general education on sexism, the problems seen will reduce and the situation will improve for women in EDM.
Article by Laura Hely Hutchinson
Social Media Marketing Executive and Freelance Writer