Deflem, Mathieu, & Rogers, Anna S.- Doing Gender In Heavy Metal (Book Review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed: February, 2022
Published: Anthem Press, 2021
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JP

I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to read this book.  I knew it had come out but in all honesty I was getting a bit tired of reading about Metal through a feminist lens. I thought I might just quietly let it slide.  However, when one of the authors contacted me directly and asked if I would like to review it, I couldn’t say no!   I renewed my sacred oath to try to read every book about Metal!

DOING GENDER IN HEAVY METAL is the result of study done by two academics; Anna S. Rogers and Mathieu Deflem.  Rogers is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia.    Deflem is Professor of Sociology at the University of  South Carolina.   (Editors note:    An earlier version of this review  contained an error where I stated  that Deflem is a professor of Sociology at the University of GeorgiaSincere apologies are extended).  The concept was that their research was a bit too much for a simple paper but they wanted to do the work justice so the decision was made to publish in a paperback.  It’s short less than 100 pages and as one might expect with an academic publication, no frills, no phots, no celebrity endorsements and no foreword.

The cover is eye-catching but I could not, for the life of me, find a photo-credit. It must be in there somewhere.  The blue hair makes me think it might be Alyssa from Arch Enemy but I’m not sure.  It is a striking image and I’m not convinced it was the best choice.  I thought a book about Gender, with a sub-title of ‘Perceptions of Women In A Hypermasculine Subculture’, might not have a woman in a suggestive (and/or sexual and/or submissive) position, posing with a guitar as a prop not actually playing the instrument.  Maybe the cover choice was to provide a visual stereotypical example of a what may be a common perception of a metal woman in a hypermasculine subculture.  Either way, assuming broadly for a moment that the authors feel that some perceptions of women in metal are ‘bad’ (for lack of a better descriptor) then this choice perplexes me but I’m probably over-thinking it.

The authors did a study where they methodically and formally interviewed 20 people; 10 men, 10 women of various ages, but all self-identified as Metal fans. The actual questions were included in the back.  I felt the questions were well designed so that they would not lead the respondents to some pre-determined conclusion.  I felt the sample size was a bit small but the authors addressed that.  They also said they even had trouble finding the 20 willing participants after asking hundreds!

The core of the book explains and defines the study, about 78 pages worth.  The whole thing is meticulously researched and cited. The bibliography is 14 pages long!  No stone unturned.   Chapter by chapter we methodically are treated to the scope and nature of the study, the constructs and boundaries, broad definitions of Metal and gender, prevailing themes, history and perhaps the core, fan perspectives on gender in Metal.

What I did not expect, but it was explained very early on in the book, that this is a ‘gender study about Metal’, not a ‘Metal study about gender’.  There is a significant difference.  Accordingly, the percentage of Metal content is minimal.  So buyer beware, if you are looking for a deeper Metal content, it is not here. In that sense I was a bit disappointed but somewhat hypocritically I was pleased that it was not just another feminist critique of Metal that descends into rather uninspired bashing of the genre and it’s participants.  I felt the whole discourse and examination was very even handed and professional.

Yes, it was a feminist perspective but not the shrill, annoying kind that seems to deter most men from even wanting to engage in the conversation.  Let’s not even get into my deliberately antagonistic use of the word ‘shrill’ to define a woman who has an opinion and speaks out!  To rephrase, the language in the book was not aggressive or confrontational nor seeking blame, but saying, ‘There is a problem and here is how we see it, and here is how our research that demonstrates others (the participants) feel there is a problem, and here is how our data reinforces that conclusion.  You can’t ask for more in a study.

There are however, some pretty broad assumptions.  For example, on page 59 they say, “While some of our study participants, especially the women, spoke about how the metal subculture is still more challenging for women members, the majority of respondents stated that the situation is changing for the better over the years.”

While that statement is not especially controversial, the terms ‘situation’ and ‘better’ are never quite defined.  What situation?  Better than what? The existing structure?  Better how?   Are we to assume that, until there is empirical, population-based, gender parity with 55% of all performers, fans and genre participants at every level being female, will that make Metal somehow ‘better’?   I’m not sure what the end goal is, even if, for a moment, we assume the Metal genre is broken and needs to be fixed and made better.  I’ve talked to people (of both genders) who think the Metal scene is horrible and toxic and I’ve talked to others (of both genders) who think it is fine. The overall feminist perspective of this book is that is broken and needs to be fixed.

My bias and preferences aside, DOING GENDER IN METAL is a very interesting, thoughtful and useful study.  I’m glad it got published in book form because it might (should!) find a broader audience outside the academic community. Surf into your favourite on-line retailer or better yet visit a real bookstore, and grab a copy for your library!