What heavy metal music taught me about feminism

Long before I was an academic feminist, I was a banger.

Heavy metal has been a part of my life since conception, as both of my parents are fans of the genre. As I grew up, I listened to various types of music, but heavy metal remained supreme in my heart. That love helped me through many teenage milestones. Listening to Iron Maiden and Slayer helped me get hyped before my high school sporting events. Type O Negative and Metallica were what I listened to when I was a nihilistic teenager locked away in my room. These days, my favorite bands include Lamb of God, Korpiklaani, Ensiferum, Amorphis, and Mastodon. I identify as feminist, and I try to live by feminist values in my daily life. Heavy metal music helps me become a better feminist.

At first glance, this seems like a contradiction in terms. Heavy metal has long been tied with misogyny. Thought some might think of women in metal as a marketing gimmick, or a way to sell more albums (thereby making women objects while simultaneously downplaying their talent), women have been involved with metal since the genres inception. Jinx Dawson, from Coven, (who had a black mass on their album before Black Sabbath did), Liz Buckingham from Electric Wizard (one of doom metal’s landmark bands) and those that follow them prove time and time again that women get involved in heavy metal for the same reasons that men choose the genre; for the art involved. Women in heavy metal are not silver rattles for men to play with, they are there to rock.

Being a female fan at a heavy metal show also comes with its own set of challenges. First and foremost, women are more likely to be attacked than men for not being “true” metal fans. A now infamous post on Metal Sucks, entitled “Public Service Announcement: Girls Do Not Like Metal,” claims that girls that like metal do so solely for male attention. This heteronormative stereotype, highlighting issues of LGBTQ* inclusivity within heavy metal’s fan-base, is propagated by small minded individuals who cannot fathom that themes found within metal (like issues of racism and colonialism, as found in Testament’s “Native Blood,” or the anti-war sentiment in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, or heartbreak in Killswitch Engage’s “End of Heartache“) can attract fans regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

The heavy metal fan-base also has a problematic history with race. While many bands (including those within the Big Four) contain people of color, more often than not, the heavy metal audience in the West is mostly white. Bands that are solely comprised of people of color, like the Bay Area’s Stone Vengeance, have reported that labels would be interested in signing them based on their sound. However, when the labels saw a photo of Stone Vengeance, they would backpedal, saying the band did not have the “right look.” Some great discourse is arising around this subject, with scholars and journalists such as Laina Dawes raising their voices to unpack issues of race, as well as gender, within the heavy metal music scene.

As a burgeoning heavy metal academic, I have attended several academic conferences on heavy metal. Heavy metal academic conferences that I have attended have consistently had a high percentage of women presenting. This stands in stark contrast to conferences I have attended that are dedicated to other fields of study, in which women are less represented. Some conferences, like the latest one I attended, the inaugural  Legion of Steal Metalfest and Conference in Berkeley, California, was organized solely by women.

So, to my heavy metal colleagues and friends, thank you for fostering discussions on gender, race, and sexual orientation in heavy metal music that make me a better feminist. To women who love or play metal and are feeling dragged down by the misogynistic rubbish that can sometimes come along with it: keep your head up, as there are many people who stand with you in solidarity. To all those who are othered in the heavy metal scene and continue to rock? I salute you.

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