Saying it's trivial to point out problematic attitudes in music effectively translates to “This is the way it is, shut up, know your place.”
In a world where Revolver's much-maligned Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock (formerly Hottest Chicks in Metal) issue still exists, where entire websites are dedicated to “protecting” metal from “SJW lefty PC bullshit,” and where men's rights forum The Return of Kings (AKA Misogyny Central) covers #metalgate (whatever that was,) I feel pretty safe saying you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t encountered some sort of sexist behavior whilst participating in the cock forest that is extreme metal.
It wasn’t long after I started going to shows that the first metal dudebro demanded I prove my love of Death by naming all their albums in order, including year. I realized if I wanted any degree of respect in that scene, I was going to have to work harder, dig deeper, know more; that women are expected to prove they love the music, expected to justify their presence. It’s either that, or you’re there to smoke pole and bask in the much-coveted male gaze. Obviously.
In my determination to find kickass jams, hone my expertise of the underground, and ultimately weaponize said knowledge against the gatekeepers, mainstream death like Suffocation, Carcass and Devourment gave way to Jig-Ai, Amputated and Prostitute Disfigurement, and from there bands like Gut, Cock and Ball Torture, and Cemetery Rapist. There was no such thing as too many blastbeats, slams or pig gargles: the gnarlier, the better.
As my familiarity and love of goregrind and brutal death metal (BDM) grew, so did my cognitive dissonance. As a woman, how could I accept brutal rape and murder fantasies, amongst of myriad of other degrading subjects, language, and art, as part and parcel? Would we tolerate an epic glorification of lynching? Would we tolerate singing Hitler’s praises for his totally brutal extermination program? No. So why is all the objectification, humiliation, and sexual violence—something that is a sick reality for millions of women worldwide—shrugged off? Why are we calling women “sluts,” “whores,” and “bitches” when those words are filled with the same hatred and dehumanizing, derogatory intentions that racial slurs are?
I didn’t really think about the subject matter in any depth at first. I’ve always been more about riffs and structures than lyrics and album art. Sure, there’s plenty of BDM and goregrind that deals with society, politics and non-gendered horror/gore, but time and study revealed there’s also a huge amount devoted to elaborate sexual degradation and brutality, so much so that it evolved into it’s own genre—pornogrind. As far as I was initially concerned, though, it was just eye-rolling teenage perversion. Boys will be boys, especially at the giant sausage party, and since I had already been shown my place, I stayed quiet. Any time I did mention I thought something was offensive, I was met with dismissal or mockery, and told to lighten up. In addition to booking gigs for them, in my music journalism days I interviewed people like Jig-Ai and Cemetery Rapist, and asked what they thought about the lyrical content and any accusations of misogyny. They toed the Cannibal Corpse “it’s just fantasy” line, because they certainly aren’t misogynists. They love their girlfriends and mothers and sisters and aunts! Death metal is supposed to be sick, it’s in the name and the language—"death," ‘gore," "brutal." If it made me uncomfortable, then that was clearly my problem, and I resigned myself to accept it as part of a long line of depravity one-up-manship. Humiliate, torture and fuck with a knife! As is tradition!
But over the past few years, I've been unable ignore or tolerate it. I attempted to excuse and justify the subject matter as somehow divorced from reality. Video games don’t make people go out and shoot up the streets, so degrading “art” and lyrics like, “Then drag the blood soaked victim deep into the woods I strip her / no one hears her screams / I beat her, I smash my fist in her face / Please kill me she says while breathing her last breath / I clutch my blade with all my might, stab her in the fucking guts / Now the fucking fun will begin / I slide my hard cock right in,” doesn't make men rape or abuse women. I don’t think anyone listening to Devourment is necessarily an outright menace, but I’ve realized it’s not that simple, either. Lyrics like this are reflective of a sexist society; they help to preserve a patriarchal power structure, maintain the status quo of women as disposable sex objects, and it's very likely that they're insidiously affecting men’s attitudes towards women, both in the context of metal and outside of it. Why else would the idea that women are just fuckdolls to be humiliated and abused be so broadly appealing as to warrant its own genre, deemed funny to the people listening and actively engaging with it? Why do so many women have so many stories of sexism in metal? Why are women like Myrkur regularly receiving death threats?
“It’s just fantasy” is almost always the first line of defense, but culture does not exist nor is it created in a vacuum. The social context of any work of art matters. In this case, it’s the fact that the WHO says that “over a third of women globally have suffered violence from a partner or sexual violence from another man.” This isn’t even getting into female genital mutilation (FGM), unequal pay, lack of representation in positions of power, or the countless number of social conditions pointing towards the global marginalization of women. With this in mind, why on earth are we nurturing and normalizing this violence and repression, or at the very least trivializing it? The only message here is that women are toys to be degraded and penetrated—that they’re not people you want to get to know, not people who have thoughts, feelings, imaginations, aspirations, and certainly not people who also happen to enjoy death metal and grind.
“There are more important things going on in the world. Why do you always have to make it about gender? Besides, women in *insert developing nation here* have it way worse! Try living there, then complain about it.” My white, Western-born self would never argue that compared to many places, we’ve made significant advances for women. Nobody would. But acknowledging misogyny in one's immediate surroundings doesn’t lessen concern for injustices women everywhere face every day; it is possible to be knowledgeable about and sympathetic to more than one issue at the same time. Saying it is trivial to point out problematic attitudes in music effectively translates to “This is the way it is, shut up, know your place.” I can't help but wonder if all that talk about stabbing bitches in the cunt is related to this kind of contemptuous dismissal.
Don’t see it? Not a problem for you? Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Don’t like politics in your music? Don’t engage in these conversations and then harass and bully the women and men who would like to. No one is going to stop you from listening to or making another Molesting the Decapitated.
“Metal is supposed to push the boundaries of acceptability!” Well, if one in three women is experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives and it’s enshrined in the lyrical cannon of extreme music, wouldn’t it be more controversial to speak up in defense of women then to flog the ol’ rape horse yet again? Where are all the turbo-feminist goregrind bands if metal is about challenging the boundaries of acceptability? Judging by the virtual shitstorm that erupts any time sexism in metal is addressed, I think it's pretty safe to bet BDM about female empowerment would set the message boards ablaze effectively (Castrator anyone?).
Truth is, violent misogyny is no longer shocking or provocative. It’s the status quo, and bands choosing this lyrical approach are simply reinforcing it. When rape culture in some way or another affects every woman's life, this approach is at best callously insensitive, and at worst, gleefully perpetuates attitudes that can and do result in real harm.
So, is it possible to open a civil dialogue? Can we make people more aware of how hurtful, denigrating, and othering this subject matter is, make them aware it is not a joke, that this has a genuinely damaging effect on attitudes towards women not only in metal but in the world at large? Many people (mostly men) involved think that any kind of discussion is hellbent on destroying the sacred tenets of the genre, sticking the “SJW lefty PC bullshit” where it does not belong. It’s always framed as an attack. Well, it’s not. Adults have conversations, and just like you have the right to create and consume offensive art, others have the right to criticize it. Free speech works both ways.
I think people need to ask themselves why they’re writing and consuming this sort of material, why they think it’s funny, why they fantasize about it, and most importantly, why they feel threatened by conversations about it. The fact that this is all still fairly commonplace tells me there's a long ways to go, but the feminists (male and female alike!) aren't staying quiet anymore—and I hope our unfamiliar counterparts will have the guts to join us for a chat.