The very first time I had unsupervised access to the Internet I looked up a porn website. I was about seven or eight years old at the time and my Dad had just installed a family computer in our home for the first time. I didn’t really know what the Internet was or how a website worked, but my Dad prompted me to use the Google search engine to find something interesting. Then he left me alone.
I remember very clearly hoping to find a website a girly website for someone my age – in my head I pictured a girly screen decorated with flowers, pinks swirls and love hearts. With that in mind I typed one word into the search bar: “Girls”.
In my state of innocence I clicked on the first website in the list, XXX-something or other, and the naked bodies of three bronzed females flashed before me. Three pairs of ‘come-hither’ eyes stared seductively at me and I ran out the room screaming.
I digress! The point of this saucy vignette is not to shock you with my premature introduction to the world of Internet erotica (or who knows, maybe it is), but rather to show that the Internet is, and always has been, a different place for women than it is for men.
In the nether world of the underground scene we like to pretend that we are untouched by the superficial and vapid bullshit that takes place above the surface. It is easy to turn to the pop world to point out Katy Perry’s cupcake bra, or Robyn Thicke’s absurd Blurred Lines video, to see that the female’s bodies are used as props by men and by women themselves. Attractiveness is important for both genders, but to say that appearance can make or break the career of a female artist is an uncontroversial statement.
Breasts decorated in whipped cream and glazed cherries do not a feature in your average boiler room set, but if you look at the comments section, female DJ’s are treated differently than men.
YouTube comments are like a litmus test for progressiveness; there is no doubt that the industry is undergoing a change and that we are inching our way towards equality, but commentary on the internet reveals the opinions that people harbour secretly but know better than to say out loud.
Looking at the comments section of a female DJ sets you will find that most of the comments are positive, and focused solely about the music. This is a Good Thing. But keep scrolling a smidgen longer and it doesn’t take long to find lurking comments honing in on her appearance and turning her from a professional artist into a sexual object.
This is nothing new.
Since the beginning of time the women we see on our screens have been held to elevated standards of beauty than their male counterparts, and appearing sleek, polished and trim is a non-negotiable part of their job description. While men are allowed to mellow into their old age, women are expected to ward off its sign with needles, or risk being replaced by a younger, more firmer version of themselves. Turn on almost any news channel and you’ll see an attractive young female anchor (usually blonde), sitting beside an avuncular male co-presenter twice her age whose face looks like a teabag that’s been left to sit in the sun.
Artificially vamped up sex appeal and watered down music taste are the bread and butter of the commercial industry, which is why “commercial” is a dirty word in techno scene. In our quest for authenticity, we shun anyone and anything tainted by commerciality. We only want what is real; the dirt and the mess and the ordinariness it implies.
We have become very attached to this identity we have created, fancying ourselves as non-conforming misfits that reserve our judgment for musical virtue alone. There is a certain arrogance to the notion that due counter-culture ethos underpinning niche interests we have purged ourselves of the image obsession that infects the “mainstream” (another dirty word in the techno scene).
But to what extent is this self-perception grounded in fact and to what extent is it fallacy?
Perhaps you’ve noticed, as I have, that most successful female DJs and producers, bar a couple (there’s no need to be petty and name names), are of above average attractiveness. Not just conventionally pretty but often startlingly beautiful, their bodies slender and lithe as they spin wax behind the DJ booth. (They are also all mostly white, although this is a diversity issue facing all genders, which MOTZ will address in another article).
The same limiting beauty standards to not hold true for male population of electronic music industry. Male DJs (like all men) come in different shapes and sizes and with the endearing brand of dishevelled grunge that can be expected of someone living the high-intensity lifestyle of a DJ.
After scouring the comments section of male DJ sets, their irreverence towards fashion and image is treated with a similar disinterest by their fans – it is barely mentioned at all.
With the physical appearance of male DJs irrelevant, I noticed instead, particularly in Boiler Room sets, a tendency to fixate on the appearance and movements of women in the audience.
Is it pure coincidence that most of the female DJs receiving high profile bookings, as well as being technically gifted, are also pleasing to the eye? Is the proliferation of fawning YouTube and Facebook comments nothing more than a benign adoration?
Or does it reveal something deeper?
It seems hard the escape the conclusion that is more important for women in the industry to conform to stereotypical beauty standards than it is for men.
There is no doubt that the increasing number of female DJs and producers that have gained prominence in recent years have earned their places behind the decks, at least as much as the men have. If anything, they’ve probably worked twice as hard to get there.
Commentators on YouTube and Facebook have no difficulty acknowledging their talent, and the majority of comments pay homage to the technical skills and track selection displayed in their set.
But lurking in the not-so-distant background, peppered in-between messages of musical praise, there is a consistent tendency to zero in on her appearance and nothing else.
With the number of slots available for women already limited (look at virtually any line-up ever) the criteria of beauty standards might be just another barrier that women have to break in order to get bookings.
Such a phenomenon can easily go unnoticed, given that it is the traditional blueprint for the inner and outer workings of society. When it comes to selling products to men, semi-naked female bodies have always been used as an advertisement tool. From burgers to cars, when men are your desired customers, perky breasts and long legs can always be relied upon to boost sales. When people say that sex sells, they are usually talking about the female genitalia.
It would be nice to think that the techno industry, despite being largely organised, distributed and consumed by men, had resisted these external pressures. Such a resistance would require a scaly thick skin and the severing of bodily desires from the musical vocation so complete it would be similar to a priest’s vow of chastity.
Have any of us taken this vow, organisers, booking agents, ravers, listeners, male and female alike, all of us embroiled in the “music industry?”
I myself am guilty of a bias, guilty of a pre-conceived notion pitted unfairly against women.
While streaming the set of a female DJ I will subconsciously find myself assessing the clothes she is wearing, the attractiveness of her features, the thickness of her body.
On the surface I am listening to her set, but underneath my socialization kicks into action and I work my way through a built-in checklist. I don’t even realise I am doing it until my expectations are not met, which is rarely.
That is not to say that as red-blooded female I don’t do the same with male DJs – I do – but the expectations are reversed. I anticipate a “cool” t-shirt, stringy hair and straggly facial hair – a regular guy. Anything exceeding normal is a perk.
Through the repetition of attractive female DJs we have come to see this as normal, and an expectation is laid down.
I became disturbed when I noticed this tendency, a different rule for women and a different rule for men. YouTube commentary supported this even further. It would seem absurd to criticise a male DJ for having greasy hair, but for some reason that became a point of discussion during a Cercle set when Charlotte de Witte played for a predominately male crowd.
Negative attention is unfortunately part and parcel of being a public figure on the Internet, but there is no denying its uneven slant towards female DJs.
The Black Madonna has also received negative, fat-shaming comments about her appearance with one commentator recommending that she take drugs to lose weight.
Male DJs do not escape this wrath entirely but comments about their figure are stated more matter-of-fact and lacking a venomous sting. Their weight is observed, but not seen to detract from their performance.
Beauty has always been a double-edged sword for women. Given the right context appreciation of the female form is not problem, but when it (inevitably) worms its way into professional spheres it becomes a barrier of entry and at the same time a means to discredit us.
Beauty adds value, right up until the point where it takes it away.
Women can never win and our appearance can always be used against us depending on the intentions of the beholder. Rather than just commenting on Nina’s mixing skills, her appearance has to be dragged into it. Modvs1 comments that he would like “a morbidly obese drott with the complexion of a paella dish that smells like a seafood market on a hot day, anytime.” His peculiar preoccupation with seafood aside, even if his wish were granted, more people again would be bemoaning the lack of aesthetics.
No one is disputing that women can’t be hot and mix well – the whole point of third-wave feminism after-all is that women can be beautiful and successful – but as soon as female DJs need be attractive to ‘market themselves’ then we are royally fucked.
The underground music industry is still a boys club, and many successful female DJs have spoken about their initial challenge to be taken as serious professionals. For a woman to ‘make it’, she has to prove herself to a lot of male gatekeepers on the way in of her worthiness.
In recent months we have witnessed women, and some men, within the entertainment industry speaking out against the unequal and abusive treatment they have received. This tells us that although things are changing, sexist and prejudicial attitudes towards women are difficult to uproot, particularly when powerful people don’t want them to.