Are women and their interests marginalised by the popular music press?

Since its inception, the popular music press has been imbued with an essence of sexism that some argue has permeated its way amongst not only its journalists but also its consumers. The idea exists that it has propagated the sexist image of the hysterical, “teenybopper” fan, showing women as “necessary for the maintenance and coherence of rock masculinity, as sexual objects as well as adoring subjects”;[1] exposed the rampant sexism suffered by female journalists; and showed the undeniable gap between male and female influence within the industry. Some may argue, however, that although this may have been the case in the past, the popular music press has progressed in a way that has closed this gap: female editors have assumed positions at top magazines, for example. On the whole, though, it is apparent that women and their interests are indeed still marginalised by the popular music press despite some apparent progress, and how there are still salient steps to be made to eliminate the established sense of sexism still prevalent today.

Firstly, there is a sexist and mostly false image of a typical female music fan which has perhaps contributed to their interests not being correctly represented. In the 1950s and subsequent few decades, the ‘teenybopper’, a subculture unique to teenage girls, began to portray young girls as only having a superficial and hysterical interest in music, often caring more about the looks and style of their music idols. The term ‘groupie’ was then coined in 1965, referring to (almost always) female fans who obsessively followed around bands in a fanatical way, often seeking sexual contact. Famous groupies, such as Pamela des Barres, have even written proudly about their experiences as a groupie, asserting that “a groupie is to a rock bad as Mary Magdalene was to Jesus.”[2] Norma Coates has explored how these categories resulted in a dangerous, continued stereotype of female music fans – “the use of  ‘teenyboppers’  or ‘groupies’ to identify female fans of popular music belies a disturbing reality of rock culture for women:  for decades, those were essentially the two ways to imagine the relation of women to rock.”[3] Indeed, sexism in the rock music industry is entrenched in popular culture; in the 2003 film School of Rock[4], when assigning roles for a new band, the protagonist comes upon three young girls and decides that the only role left for them to assume is “groupies” whose job is to “worship the band.” In the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You[5], when a character learns that he has to woo a girl who likes “angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion,” he laments about how he has to “sit around listening to chicks who can’t play their instruments.” Women as credible rock music fans is an idea that is mocked; ‘rock chick’ fashion styles and articles like ‘15 Must-Have Items for an Edgy, Rocker-Chic Wardrobe’[6] help propagate the myth that women aren’t serious about their passions for music, diluting their interest to only a superficial fashion or aesthetic interest.

There is, however, the often well-presented argument that in today’s age women are indeed represented in the sphere of music journalism. In 2009, both Kerrang! and NME, two of the most widely-circulated rock music magazines, had appointed female editors: Nichola Browne and Krissi Murrison respectively. Even decades ago, female journalists had a voice, with names such as Ellen Willis and Lillian Roxon being known and respected. The latter in particular has been called the ‘mother of rock’, with her articles about the burgeoning rock scene being credited by many as marking the birth of serious rock writing. Moreover, the fact that she treated popular music as an important social phenomenon helped to discredit the prevalent myths of teenyboppers and groupies. In a controversial article ‘The World Doesn’t Need More Female Music Critics,’ Emilie Friedlander states that “we’ve got plenty of them already—and it’s time we acknowledge they exist.”[7] What Friedlander, however, fails to acknowledge, is that in British national newspapers, 78% of front-page articles are written by men, and the men account for 84% of all people mentioned or quoted in those lead pieces.[8] Despite this being a statistic concerning journalism in a general sense, it is echoed disappointingly in popular music publications; in terms of the popular magazine Mojo, in 2011, of its 15 editors, 12 were male, while 46 of the 55 freelance writers listed in its December 2011 issue were men.[9] With such a damning ratio brought to the foreground, it is increasingly difficult to argue that the voices of female writers are not being suppressed.

Moreover, there are uncomfortably recent examples of how female journalists aren’t respected in the same way as their male counterparts – in just March 2016, Spin’s Rachel Brodsky wrote about her experience as a female journalist when the well-known rock musician Miles Kane asked her if she wanted “to go upstairs”[10] with him halfway through an interview, leading her to say that she’d “like to see a little more foresight and a lot more professionalism toward women in the music industry.”[11] Although in this case it wasn’t the popular music press itself marginalising her, it reflects a real and dangerous attitude towards female writers and the influence and authority that they hold within their jobs. Female writers have to endure comments like “I hope your writing will be as good as your tits,”[12] constantly having to prove their writing capabilities more than a man may have to. Lizzy Goodman documents how once “the editor in chief of a major music magazine introduced to a visiting rock star the one male intern by name, then referred to the other five female interns as “everybody else”.[13]” This is a damning, and sadly not anachronistic, example of how woman are marginalised by the popular music press.

In terms of women’s interests not being correctly delineated within the realm of the popular music press, the quote “the music press is not only written for men but also, largely, by men”[14] sums up the argument concisely. This statement is bolstered when one looks at who music journalism publications target as their readers. The popular rock magazine Q describes its average reader in this way: “the Q reader is late 20s/early 30s and a passionate music fan. He’s inspired by the rock’n’roll swagger of Liam, Noel, Blur and the whole Britpop scene.”[15] The Word similarly uses male pronouns when referring to their readers: “he is a very high earning ABC male aged between 30 and 55.”[16] This blatant exclusion of female readers and female interests show an enormous sense of marginalisation. In Haweis’ 1872 Music and Morals, it’s stated that “the woman’s temperament is naturally artistic, not in a creative, but in a receptive, sense. A woman seldom writes good music, never great music.”[17] The flippant depiction of women in the music industry, as performers and indeed journalists, as entertainers with pretty voices and faces, rather than with the duly respected portrayal as artists or intellectuals, belies a damning continuation of Haweis’ discourse. Indeed, due to women’s lack of representation, many have had to turn to other writing forms such as the memoir to provide female perspectives in the realm of popular music, which is an “often neglected path blazed by female music critics,”[18] perfectly reflecting how female writers are being marginalised and under-represented, and thus being driven away into other forms of writing.

Furthermore, one can gage that the media’s portrayal of women in music is not just an effect, but also a cause, of their limitations. “Women keep being left out of the histories, so if you’ve grown up on the rock magazines, then you always think that women are a new big deal,”[19] said Lori Twersky, founder of the feminist magazine Bitch. The sexism that still exists in rock criticism has led a number of feminist scholars, critics and musicians to create separate anthologies and compilations devoted entirely to women. This creates a dislocation and fragmentation between the genders, and only exacerbates the issue of women and their interests not being efficiently represented by the popular music press. Some have even suggested that the music press strives to ignore feminism altogether. As an example, during the 1990s, the feminist punk movement ‘riot grrrl’ was emerging; first accounts of their conventions made clear their similarity to the consciousness-raising meetings of 1970s feminists, yet writing on ‘riot grrrl’ in the music press often ignores its specific politics, turning it into, as Kearney puts it, “just another anarchic pose of youth.”[20] It’s a marked example of how women’s interests were and are still marginalised by the popular music press, and how their voices are attempted to be diluted by either exacerbating their sexualised image or extreme, hysterical views.

To conclude, regrettably it is apparent that the popular music press is still in some ways tied up in the homosocial discourse that it engaged with in the past. Although significant improvements have been made, with the appointment of female editors like Browne and Murrison, the (very) slightly more equalised ratio of female to male journalists in rock music publications, and a further-flung acceptance of gender equality in a general sense, there is still a long way to go to expunge the sexism suffered at the hands of female journalists and to eradicate the teenybopper/groupie myth that is still prevalent today, reborn in the forms of ‘the fangirl’ and ‘fangirling’. Ultimately, I believe that media in general must work harder to remove its reputation of homocentricity.


[1] Norma Coates, ‘Teenyboppers, groupies, and other grotesques: Girls and women and rock culture in the 1960s and early 1970s’, in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003, pp. 65-94.

[2] Pamela des Barres, Let’s Spend the Night Together (Chicago Review Press, 2008).

[3] Norma Coates, ‘Teenyboppers, groupies, and other grotesques: Girls and women and rock culture in the 1960s and early 1970s’, in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003, pp. 65-94.

[4] School of Rock, dir. by Richard Linklater (Paramount Pictures, 2003).

[5] 10 Things I Hate About You, dir. by Gil Junger (Buena Vista Pictures, 1999).

[6] 15 Must-Have Items for an Edgy, Rocker-Chic Wardrobe (10th October 2013) [accessed 23/04/2016].

[7] Emilie Friedlander, The World Doesn’t Need More Female Music Critics (3rd June 2015) [accessed 23/04/2016]

[8] Amelia Hill, Sexist stereotypes dominate front pages of British newspapers, research finds (14th October 2012) [accessed 24/03/2016].

[9] Women and the UK music press (12th February 2012) [accessed 23/04/2016].

[10] Rachel Brodsky, The Last Shadow Puppets: Everything That You’ve Come to Expect — and a Little Less (8th March 2016) [accessed 23/04/2016].

[11] (ibid).

[12] Amanda Holpuch, ‘Is your boyfriend in the band?’ Critic airs tales of music industry sexism (26 August 2015) [accessed 23/04/2016].

[13]Lizzy GoodmanNo More Secrets: Squashing Sexism in Music and Why This is Just the Beginning (2016) [accessed 21/04/2016].

[14] Women and the UK music press (12th February 2012) [accessed 23/04/2016].

[15] (ibid).

[16] (ibid).

[17] Sarah Cooper, Girls! Girls! Girls! (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

[18] Anwen Crawford, The World Needs Female Rock Critics (26th May 2015) [accessed 23/04/2016].

[19] Gillian Garr, She’s A Rebel (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992).

[20] Mary Celeste Kearney, Girls Make Media (Routledge, 6 July 2006).

Illustration by Amanda Lanzone


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