How Exceptional IS Classical's Woman Problem? Pt. 1

May 24, 2014

At first glance, it seems that compared to other arts, classical music has an unusual degree of male dominance.  But a careful look suggests that its gender balance is not at all exceptional.

NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas just wrote a scathingly brilliant post about the “fat-shaming” of the gifted Irish mezzo Tara Erraught. A plague of British music critics sounded like teenage boys as they dissed not Erraught's singing but the supposed flaws of her body. Last year, Tsioulcas thoughtfully chronicled some notorious outbursts against female conductors." Now she says that all of this “honestly makes me wonder if classical music doesn't deserve its stereotype of being silly, reactionary, outdated and out of step with the contemporary world.” I share her views on both fat-shaming and gender balance: we should try never to judge people by their looks, and it is an embarrassment for the conducting profession that not even one woman is in its top tier. But, I wondered: at least in the arts, just how much more advanced is the rest of the "contemporary world?" 

I expected the answer to be "much more," since issues of gender balance run deep in classical music. This art form, after all, centers on a repertory of classics written in the 18th  and 19th centuries,  when women had absurdly limited chances to develop public professional careers, especially in composing music.  So I was more surprised than I should have been to find just how off-kilter other arts can be. For example:

Call me George: the woman who wrote Middlemarch.

  • Literature and writing: By the mid-1870s. Emily Dickinson had written most of her unique, unsurpassed poetry and Mary Anne Evans had published the greatest novel in the English language (using the male nom-de-plume George Eliot).  Given such precedent, it amazed me that in today's leading literary journals, women make up only 20-35% of the writers published or reviewed. That's according to Vida Count, which keeps statistics. To stray outside the arts, 63% of the bylines this year in America's top 10 newspapers are male, as are all but one of this year's individual winners of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
  • Film Directing: What art claims to be more in touch with modern life than cinema? But behind the camera (directors, writers, and producers), men outnumber women five to one. In the 100 top-grossing films of in each of the years 2007-2012, only 4% of the directors were female. As for top honors, only one Academy Award for Best Director has ever gone to a woman, and only two films directed by women have ever received the Cannes Festival Palme d'Or for directing. And the pace of change seems slow: at this year's Cannes Festival, only 7% of the 1,800 films submitted (and 20% 0f those accepted) were directed by women.
  • Film Acting: I assumed there would be balance in front of the cameras; after all, women slightly outnumber men in real life, so you'd expect movie characters to show the same ratio. But remarkably, the top 100 movies have about two-and-a-half men for every female character. And do I even need to make the case that actresses have it worse than just about any other artists when it comes to being judged primarily for their looks? (If you do want evidence, check the Annenberg study.)
  • Jazz:  DownBeat magazine’s Hall of Fame includes 126 artists, but only seven are women - about 5.5%.
  • Blues: The Blues Hall of Fame includes 193 inductees, but only 21 are women - about 11%.
  • Pop:  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted 304 soloists or acts—but only 37 (about 12%) include any women at all. To be sure, that hall is focused on the past, and women are now better represented in pop: Ludovic Hunter-Tilney reports in the Financial Times that in the UK in 2012, the top-selling records “were evenly split between female and male solo acts, each accounting for about 30 per cent of total sales (groups made up the rest). Women also appeared on more than half the 40 top-selling singles.” On the other hand, he notes, “the gender ratio goes badly awry behind the scenes" - only 13% of UK songwriters are female.      
               And we need to make further qualifications. For one thing, some of the major pop genres are heavily male-dominated, like hip-hop and country - the Country Music Hall of Fame is 83.5% male, and country's big Stagecoach Festival was 75% male this year. More to the point of the Irish mezzo dissed for her shape, judgments based on looks permeate pop music. Martha Gill argues that "pop music is dominated by women cashing in on their sexuality." She and James Reed and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls argue that these women have full agency in said cashing-in, but Sinead O'Connor famously dissented about its being "in ANY way an empowerment" (and said, "Nothing but harm will come in the long run"). And classical-pop crossover singer Charlotte Church disputes the claim of agency - by detailing her own career traumas. In a BBC talk, Church begins by asking us to picture Beyonce’s "husband Jay-Z stripped down to a T-back bikini thong, sex kittin’ his way through a boulevard of suited-and-booted women for their pleasure..." After other imaginary examples, she says, “When I was 19 or 20, I found myself in this position, being pressured into wearing more and more revealing outfits.  And the lines I had spit at me again and again, generally by middle-aged men, were ‘you look great, you’ve got a great body, why not show it off?’” Here is her complete talk:

Happily, we're seeing an explosion of great women singer-songwriters who choose not to "cash in on their sexuality" and have the leverage to resist those who push them to. Today's headline - with a strong-language advisory - involves a series of tweets from Neko Case, one of which uses "Peggy Olson" as a verb for what she will not let the media do to her. Still, my point remains: while classical music needs to do better, its gender issues are neither as unusual nor as anachronistic as we might think.

TWO HYPOTHESES: 1. "Hall of Fame" syndrome

As noted above, Halls of Fame are overwhelmingly boy's clubs. That of  Country is 83% men; Rock is 88% men; Blues is 89%; and Jazz is 94%. What these ratios tell us is that whenever a musical genre has a "canon" (a  repertory of classics - which, in the non-classical fields, are mostly recordings) and a pantheon of greats of the past (in the non-classical cases, often hall-of-famers), they tend to come from eras when men were privileged and women were discouraged. Older classical concert halls sometimes display busts of the immortals, who are always male - but that might also be of statue-themed performance spaces for other genres of music.

When a musical genre has a "canon" (a core repertory of classics  - usually recordings in jazz, rock, and to some degree country, and printed scores in classical) and a pantheon of great artists of the past, they tend to come from eras when men dominated and women were dis-empowered.

But I don't think that is anywhere near as true of our current time and place. American classical's new-music scene is more vital right now than at any time I can remember, and women who compose are as much as part of the reason as men. In a future post, I hope to explore the possibility that future historians will see major advances towards gender parity in composing during our decade.

HYPOTHESIS 2: Hierarchy Syndrome

Also, in the future I hope to discuss conducting, the highest-status classical performance role. For now, a broad point: 

Some arts can be practiced solo, like piano-playing; others require the coordination of a a large number of performers, as in film or in opera or orchestral performance. In the latter arts, we usually find a hierarchy dominated by one or two powerful people. These people have usually been men, not only  in classical music but also in film and other arts.

The film world is starting to open up to women directors and producers, but my sense is that the conducting world is opening up faster.  Some women are poised to reach the pinnacle - e.g.,  Marin AlsopSusanna Malkki, and Simone Young - and many more are on their way: WQXR lists five on the rise, and Jessica Duchen helpfully lists over 100 women conductorsMy point, again, is not that things are just fine, but that it's conceivable that classical conducting will attain gender parity before either the Cannes Festival or the Academy Awards in nominations for Best Director.

It is conceivable that classical conducting will achieve gender parity before the Academy Awards and Cannes Festival will in their best-director nominations.

Here's one more cheer for classical music: if we want to know what gender parity would look like in the real world, we can already see it in one major classical arena   - and thinking about that field tells us interesting things about gender. Stay tuned - I'll go into that in Pt. II. of this post