The month of March has special significance for women. Not only is it Women’s History Month in the U.S., but March 8th is International Women’s Day.
There is no denying that women have “come a long way, baby” in our struggle for equal rights. However, there is still a long way to go before true parity with men is reached. It remains a fact that women are still underpaid, under-represented in corporate leadership, and over-represented among the poor.
Within the music and entertainment industries, men still wield more power, and sexual stereotypes abound. Although reliable statistical data are not available, certainly there is ample anecdotal evidence of discrimination against women in their efforts to get work, and in their treatment by men in the workplace. Furthermore, most recording and musical production companies, as well as major film studios, are headed by men.
In film and television, stories of harassment and discrimination are frequently heard. There is the common theme of the so-called “casting couch,” referring to the practice of “sleeping one’s way” toward attaining desired roles. Very often, women (even quite attractive and talented ones) find diminishing work opportunities as they “age” into their 40’s, while there is not the same lack of roles for older (and less attractive) male actors. A large portion of the industry output consists of action and adventure films, in which men comprise most of the cast, with one (or very few) women, usually in roles as the young, beautiful love/sex objects.
In the music business, there appears to be some variation in sexual discrimination among the musical genres. More progress for women seems to have been made in the classical and symphonic arena. In major orchestras, we now see more chairs occupied by women, although they are still very much out-numbered by men. And while conducting was once seen as “too complex and taxing” for the feminine mind and “fragile” emotional temperament, there has been a noticeable increase in women conductors in recent years.
The same cannot be said for musical theatre. Many report that the Broadway orchestra pits are occupied by members of a mostly white “old boys’ club,” guys who know and fraternize with each other, and who connect each other with gigs. Many women, as well as minority men, complain that they cannot gain access to this insular network. Among women who do get work on Broadway, few are past 40.
In popular and rock music, it is rarely disputed that women enter into a band with several potential strikes against them. Very often, talent and ability is not the first consideration. Appearance tends to be one of the earliest considerations in a woman’s entrance into a mixed or male dominated band. Although all performing artists strive to be known for their work, all too often, a male artist is evaluated in terms of his of ability, as opposed to the female, whose physical appearance is of paramount importance. (Rarely is the first question “How does she play (or sing)?” but more often, “Is she hot?”)
Currently, much heated public discussion and controversy surround the rap and hip-hop genres, viewed by many as violent, profane, sexist and racist in lyrical content. Music video imagery and lyrics often convey the belief that women live only for male attention and depict women as nothing but sexualized body parts. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 1998) found that 50 percent of music videos included violent acts, which are often committed against women.
The sexualization of women in the media, including music videos and lyrics, have been cited by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2007) as major influences with unfortunate consequences among adolescent girls. These include body dissatisfaction, negative self-image, shame and anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression, diminished ability to have a healthy sexual self-concept, and negative effects on cognitive functioning.
This writer does not wish to imply that men are the “culprits” and that women are their “victims.” It is understandable that men, as they strive to succeed and to support themselves and their families, will follow the paths which best enable them to do so. Likewise, women have been conditioned to think and behave in ways that society has sanctioned, and that appear to be the only available means to their desired ends. Thus, women often ascribe to and participate in the discriminatory practices which oppress them.
All of us, men and women alike, unconsciously absorb the prevailing values which permeate our social atmosphere. In so doing, we unwittingly become complicit in their perpetuation. Especially as members of a labor union whose mission is to uphold the values of social justice and equal opportunity, we have a responsibility to take a critical look at our attitudes and behaviors and the ways in which they may contribute to discriminatory employment practices.
In 2007, the National Organization for Women (NOW) resolved to raise awareness of sexism, racism and other biases in the media, urging activists to continue the dialogue in community forums, and providing written materials and other resources to help educate and foster productive discussion.
Social progress begins with each individual. Raising awareness of our unconscious assumptions is an essential first step. In the spirit of solidarity, it seems fitting that all of us, male and female, take responsibility for change.
This article is based on material from: “Blog Against Sexism Day,” (VeganKid.SolidarityDesign.net), “National NOW Conference Resolutions,” (www.now.org), “Hip Hop Journos Speak Out Against Sexism,” (www.WireTapMag.org), and “Sexism in Music,” by Dave Schwartz (www.DaBelly.com).