Line art by InbetweenLinez on Instagram
Let’s talk about women, who are djing, wearing clothes. When phrased like that, it seems like quite a bizarre topic, although one which is certainly a hot topic of conversation at the moment, and one which warrants further exploration. There is a suggestion that, through the way in which some female artists portray themselves through their clothing choices/social media ‘image’, they are contributing to the sexualisation of women in music – which is, clearly, a very longstanding issue. This is a very divisive topic and there are convincing arguments on both side of the debate.
I recently undertook a questionnaire to understand a bit more about other people’s perspective on this, which had a sample of 52 respondents (40 of which identified as female, 12 as male). Using themes generated from this research, I’m going to illustrate the two ‘sides’ to this debate, although it is worth noting that this is a huge oversimplification of the feedback because almost all respondents offered very nuanced answers which were sympathetic to both sides.
On the one hand, many contend that it’s a woman’s right (/anyone’s right) to wear whatever they want. Being a female artist/being in the spotlight doesn’t change that – clothing choices are a form of self expression, and people should be able to wear whatever makes them happy and comfortable.
‘I personally think females should wear what they want if it is something that reflects them as a person and is used as a way for them to express their personality and build their brand’
‘When we are empowering ourselves and other women to wear whatever clothing they like in society, then this shouldn’t be any different behind the decks’
Those sympathetic to this view would argue that, by policing the way women dress, you are blaming women for their own sexualisation. Why should women have to change what they wear because some men can’t see a woman wearing a pair of shorts without getting a hard on?
‘I think women should be able to wear whatever they like, the issue lies with some male fans sexualising women who wear revealing clothes and paying less attention to those who don’t, or making comments on appearances as opposed to talent… I will always fully support all my sisters and their decision to dress how they want, I think the men who sexualise women have a lot to answer for, and I think we could all learn to respect each other a bit more’
‘Women shouldn’t be blamed for what they wear because of the way they are judged. It’s just another version of victim blaming. The attitudes of the people sexualising the women should be addressed, not the women’s clothing choices… A woman can be sexy and be good at something’
Indeed, some go on to suggest that female sexuality has been used as a ‘promotional’ tool in music for decades, so why should that be viewed any differently in the context of dance music? If women are using their sexuality tactically with the intent of gaining more traction, they are merely playing off an existing framework which has proved to be successful for a number of years.
‘My view is that some artists do it to gain more traction, and some do it to express themselves… to me it’s obvious which is which and I take for what it is, at face value. If it’s the first I do not see it as particularly negative. If that’s the way they want to gain traction and followers then that’s their choice… in the social media world we live in I get why you would wear less to attract more eye balls’
‘My issue isn’t with women using their sexuality to promote their profile. It’s with the male dominated industry and audience that decides what’s marketable. I think it’s them (along with sexist and derogatory comments) that could send negative messages to aspiring female producers and djs. I don’t have a personal problem with sexualisation in music. This is nothing new and it’s been done in pop music for decades’
On the other hand, some suggest that wearing what may be considered ‘revealing’ clothing is detracting from a woman’s skills as an artist, and, in some cases, supplanting the need for that skill altogether.
‘If a DJ has gotten naked for more views, fair enough, but in this choice they risk devaluing their performance as a DJ. In other words, if they are using their body to sell their performance, it is their body the viewers will be looking at rather than the performance’
‘Personally, I don’t think women should sexualise themselves that much. It’s unnecessary. We don’t NEED to do that. We should focus on what we do, what we deliver, what we are capable of, on our talents etc. without having to sexualise ourselves’
Those who defend this perspective suggest that it makes it more difficult for other women in the scene who aren’t comfortable presenting themselves in a more ‘sexual’ way, because it sets an expectation that female artists should present themselves in a way which is typically appealing to men, as those who do are perceived to achieve greater success.
‘DJing should be about the music, and sexualising this can make it more difficult for others to be taken seriously… my opinion comes down to the fact that I have experienced a lot of comments sexualising my appearance, or encouraging me to be more sexual in the way I dress/present myself, or even suggesting I would be more successful if I wore more revealing clothing. It could be argued that a female artist dressing “provocatively/sexually” and dancing in what could be considered a sexual manner, whilst being actively aware that many female artists have struggled to be taken seriously due to sexualisation of females in the industry, is somewhat disrespectful’
‘I think the issue is, women who, in my opinion, don’t play the best tunes and can’t mix/select as well as others, are gaining more popularity than more talented female djs, just because of the clothes they are wearing. I also think it gives the wrong impression to younger aspiring females as they might think that wearing revealing clothing, wearing a lot of make up… is the only way they will make it in the industry’
For some that hold this view, the historic lack of sexualisation in dance music when compared to other genres is something which they value about the scene, and they would like to see a continued resistance against. The rise of social media is viewed by some as aiding an increased focus on appearance, which results in some women feeling that they need to sexualise themselves to be noticed.
‘It seems like this debate is also a thing with the rise of social media – when I first started listening to dnb I had no idea what any of the DJs looked like and didn’t care to know but now everyone has a presence online that’s all changed?… now the physical body of the DJ is so much more visible… part of me thinks fuck it wear what you want! Go and exploit all your assets! But how do you stop the appreciation of the assets overcoming appreciation of the DJ’s skill? We don’t want to go down a route of how musicians in pop are held on a pedestal because of looks!’
‘We have somehow turned DJ’n into some sort of social media popularity contest, which means sometimes, real talent gets overshadowed. I have been playing for 10+ years and it never used to be about that, it used to be about turning up, playing a wicked set and then people remembering you from that, whereas nowadays it’s based on how many likes you can get on an instagram photo, which then leads onto woman utilising their assets in order to gain more of a following… We have come so far but I don’t know whether we are at a point where we can look at these images and feel like woman aren’t sexualising themselves for personal gain because looking at it realistically thats where we are at in the world’
I understand both of these arguments because, well, I have felt myself on both sides of this divide – and still do at times.
My approach has generally been to ‘do it like the guys do’. I’ve felt that to be taken seriously as a female DJ/artist, you need to model the way that you do things in music on the way men have. I’ve downplayed my femininity in certain instances because I don’t want being a woman to be a ‘thing’. I’ve made last minute outfit changes before a gig because my top is a bit too ‘revealing’ and I legitimately didn’t curl my hair before sets for fear of looking too ‘girly’.
This is from someone who would happily wear/do any of these things on a night out, so why have I felt the need to portray a different image when I DJ? This is also from someone who, if anyone ever told me what to wear in the street, I would categorically tell them to fuck off and get on with their own lives. So why does it feel different in the context of music?
It can be hard being a female in a male dominated music scene, and one of the things that a lot of people struggle with is the perception that it’s ‘easier’ for women because they (supposedly) get given opportunities that they wouldn’t have if they were a man. Clearly, I cannot help looking like a woman, but I can downplay certain aspects of myself which gives me some degree of comfort that it’s not my appearance that makes people interested in what I do. For me, I guess it has made me feel safe knowing that nobody could really accuse me of playing on my sexuality.
That said, I genuinely love wearing merch tees and jeans so I’m never really making a huge sacrifice and wearing things that I don’t like, it’s only been on the odd occasion that I’ve changed my mind about an outfit choice before a show. But what about people who do want to wear skirts and crop tops? It seems quite unfair for people to be expected to either change their style or risk people thinking that they are playing off their sexuality. And, fundamentally, it is. You can be sexy and be a talented DJ/artist, one does not preclude the other.
Different behaviour norms for men & women
One thing to consider is that women are entering the music scene at faster rates than ever and it is bound to shake things up because the norms around female behaviour can be very different to those expected of men. For example, there is a big difference in the way that women and men use social media – it is pretty widespread for women to share selfies and bikini pics, but when these images are put up on an artist page, it can feel a little ‘risqué’. Similarly, the clothing choices available to men and women are very different – I’m yet to see a guy wearing a crop top and short shorts on a livestream, I’m not quite sure where guys would find this attire even if they wanted to wear it, and I don’t know if anyone would find it particularly sexy if they did.
I will be the first to admit that I have questioned people’s choices of the things they’ve shared on their social media because it goes against how I’ve perceived women need to portray themselves in order to be taken seriously. But is it really fair for people to have to forego aspects of the way they express themselves for the sake of being taken seriously in the music scene? Should they have to change the way they use social media? Or should they not be taken seriously as they are?
It is being acknowledged in the workplace, for example, that rather than women adopting typically ‘male’ behaviours (such as competitiveness and authoritativeness) to be taken seriously and promoted to positions of power, we should embrace the typically ‘female’ characteristics that make women great leaders (such as compassion and emotional intelligence). Shouldn’t we be doing the same in music and let women express themselves on their own terms?
The answer, broadly, is yes – we should make room for women and be welcoming of the changes that they can bring to the music scene rather than making them fit the mould of the men that are already present in it.
Gender stereotypes & ‘sex sells’ narrative
When it comes to women portraying themselves as ‘sexy’, the issue, and where things get divisive, is around how much of this is legitimately free choice and how much is external pressure from societal norms which make women feel like they need to be sexy to be popular.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, women can play into this stereotype and that is where things get contentious – should we consciously make ourselves look less ‘sexy’ as a fuck you to the people who want us to DJ in a bra (yes, friends of mine have legitimately received messages asking them to do this) or should we present ourselves however we want (ie. if you love wearing low cut tops because you have a fantastic pair of boobs, why stop as a DJ)? Is it okay to consciously play into the sexual narrative to purposely gain more traction because, well, sex sells? Or are you in a roundabout way suppressing women who choose not to do this because you are reinforcing/creating an expectation that women should be pleasurable to look at for men.
Clearly, the overriding issue in this is that women shouldn’t be as sexualised as they already are, but that may not be something which is even achieved within our lifetimes, and so what do we do in the meantime?
Almost all respondents to the survey were of the opinion that it is not fair for women to be expected to change the way they look to make themselves appear less sexually appealing – which I am in total agreement with. If some people want to do this then that’s completely understandable, but it should not be expected.
Where opinion diverged significantly, however, is in respect of artists purposely using sex appeal to sell their ‘brand’. A number of respondents to the survey were of the opinion that ‘sex sells’ but were split in terms of whether they felt that it was ‘fair game’ for female artists to play into this narrative by purposely using their sex appeal to gain traction. One the one hand, some suggest that if your body is going to be sexualised, you may as well use that to your own advantage. On the other hand, some suggest that this blurs the line between talent and sex appeal, which can have a broader impact on the expectations which are set for women in the music scene.
This is a tricky one, and I think the answer is very much a personal one and depends on where you sit on the ‘sex sells’ argument. From a completely personal perspective, I would like to see a world where sex isn’t used as a marketing tool to the extent that it currently is. I’m not a big fan of my news feed being filled with influencer’s ass cheeks to sell me a cereal bar, although I don’t object to seeing some ass cheeks in the context of body positivity posts because that’s an integral part of the message. For me, that extends to music as well, although I completely understand and respect that not everyone holds the same viewpoint. The issue, fundamentally, lies with over sexualisation of the female form. I can see why some people might make a conscious decision to capitalise on that, why some people choose to protect themselves from sexualisation and why others present themselves in the way that they want irrespective of whether or not they will be sexualised as a result. All are valid choices, for different reasons.
There are three main conclusions that I would like to draw from this article.
Firstly, it is that different people feel empowered by different things. Some women find dressing ‘conservatively’ empowering and some women find showing off their bodies empowering. Neither is right or wrong and what is empowering to some is not necessarily empowering to others. We should focus on encouraging women to feel free to make their own decisions and ensure that nobody is feeling pressurised to make themselves look a certain way (whether that’s to look more sexy OR dress more ‘modestly’) if it’s something that they don’t want to do.
Secondly, when it comes to gender stereotypes, we all play into them in various ways throughout our lives, but some of those things have become such a part of our identity that when we do them they genuinely make us happy. If you believe that sex work, plastic surgery and shaving your pits are all acceptable choices for women to make then that should probably extend to how female artists present themselves through their clothing choices. The issue is linking expressions of femininity with the assumption that someone is less capable. As I’m sure you are eagerly waiting to find out, I now curl my hair for pretty much every set that I play – it doesn’t impact my ability to press any of the necessary buttons – although it does get tangled in the headphones fairly regularly. In some ways, it was only when I became significantly more confident in my DJing capabilities that I felt able to take on a slightly more feminine appearance – I’m sure this speaks to the significant pressure there is on women to be taken seriously in a world where simple decisions like clothing choices can create certain assumptions about their capability, whilst the most difficult decision a lot of guys face is ‘will I be too hot in a long-sleeve’ (although, can relate, this is a very challenging decision).
Finally, we need to stop over sexualising women. This is the heart of the problem – ‘sexy’ women (supposedly) getting more attention and opportunities is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. If it worked both ways, as many claim, there would be a big market for guys helicoptering their dicks around while mixing, or wearing a sexy little 2 piece for a livestream. I’m yet to see much evidence of this – although please do correct me if I’m wrong, I’m sure there are some interesting things in dark corners of the internet. If anyone has any interesting ideas on how we can stop over sexualising women in music (or generally) then I’d love to hear them – maybe a topic for a future article?
On a closing remark, one thing which was evident from the feedback I received is that, whatever people’s views, they genuinely did seem to have women’s best interests at heart, this just manifests in different ways sometimes. In the same way that nobody expects every man to support all men, it’s not really fair for women to be expected to support all women. Some people’s choices just don’t align with ours and that’s okay – it doesn’t mean you’re a woman hater.
Words: Averil Cooper