Heavy Metal Women: How Gender Matters in Popular Culture

Anna S. Rogers and Mathieu Deflem

What happens to women when they do something only men have traditionally been expected and accepted to do? What motivates these women to move beyond conventional mores and enter communities and subcultures that are not only dominated by men but shaped by their values as well? How are these women perceived and treated once they have joined such a (hyper)masculine community, and how they do in turn identify themselves? The world of popular culture offers a rich area of study to explore these questions as many of its manifestations over the course of history have indeed largely been driven by men and have either excluded women or placed them in subordinate positions. These conditions have, for better and often for worse, historically shaped popular music, especially hard rock and heavy metal.

No music subculture is arguably as masculine as heavy metal. Marked by loud guitars, screaming vocals and pounding drums, heavy metal exudes the primal screams of manliness and masculinity no louder and more aggressive than any other musical form and culture. Historically associated with the music are primarily men, both as musicians and as fans, with women largely absent or seen as subservient to masculine needs. Yet, as the song goes, the times they are a-changin’, because, as in many spheres of society, women have been on the rise in heavy metal as well. Women metal musicians and women metal fans are still in the minority, but nonetheless more present than ever before. That much is clear. Much less clear is what the implications are of the increasing presence of women in an environment as hypermasculine as heavy metal. What does it all mean, and, specifically, how do the fans of heavy metal themselves experience and react to these changes?

Based on interviews with both men and women fans of heavy metal, we have investigated perceptions of the role and evolving place of women in heavy metal and how these changes are experienced by some of its insiders. As such addressing the role of gender in popular culture sociologically, our study results produced a number of interesting findings. Women in heavy metal are typically still seen as the Other, to use the terminology introduced by Simone de Beauvoir, and are perceived to face a special need to prove themselves as true participants, equal to men, in the heavy metal community. As one of the women interviewed said, “I’m occasionally asked where my boyfriend is, supposedly under the assumption that I wouldn’t be at a heavy metal show out of my own interest. In fact, many of us have to show a masculine side to be more accepted by some… Though having to prove that every time gets very tedious after a while.” We see that women metalheads face a double sense of being “othered”: as women inside in the heavy metal community against the non-metal outsiders in mainstream society, but also as women vis-à-vis those within heavy metal towards whom they must prove themselves as authentic. For that reason, women in heavy metal who participate in moshing, a violent-looking style of dancing at live concerts, receive more respect from fellow metal fans, while women who flash by showing their breasts are “defensively othered” by those women metalheads who view the practice negatively.

Revealing how the social world of popular culture and music is fluid and dynamic, the interview findings also indicate that heavy metal fans note important differences in the reception of women across the various subgenres of heavy metal. In some genres, fans perceive gender advances to have progressed more smoothly, while in others there is still more work to do. Yet, inasmuch as there is a general trend, fans of heavy metal agree that gender conditions in their music community are more favorable today than they ever have been. Unlike other scholars who have studied women in heavy metal, however, we argue that there is a central ambivalence that marks gender conditions in the subculture. Even when many a heavy metal fan will agree, in one respondent’s words, that “everything about women has changed,” many women metalheads will still claim that “gender does affect [women’s] acceptance into the group of heavy metal fans.” Women are today actively present in heavy metal in various roles and are generally accepted as well, but most typically they also have to create their own sub-spaces, reserved for women metalheads, and they still have to navigate their gender between looking like a woman and acting like a man.

In view of these research findings, we conclude that there is a trend towards the development of heavy metal feminism, but that it is as yet ambivalent in its consequences and still is in need of development towards greater gender equality. An in-depth exposition of these issues and concerns, with all due attention to sociological theories of gender, qualitative methodology and empirical data, is offered in our book Doing Gender in Heavy Metal, that is forthcoming from Anthem Press. We hope readers from sociology, gender studies, as well as music and pop culture will find our book both enjoyable and interesting to learn about contemporary issues of gender, popular culture and the heavy metal music subculture.

Anna S. Rogers is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia. Her teaching and research interests include the sociology of gender, popular culture and deviance.

Mathieu Deflem is Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina. An expert on social control, popular culture and social theory, he has published extensively in sociology and elsewhere.

Rogers and Deflem’s co-authored book Doing Gender in Heavy Metal:  Perceptions on Women in a Hypermasculine Subculture is forthcoming from Anthem Press in October 2021.