The Soul of Sexism

What The Commitments taught me about playing music

Like most women musicians, I’ve experienced a fair amount of sexism while playing in a band.

It can be insidious. Bands with women in often find they are more likely to put on stage earlier in the night, and paid less than other bands, regardless of skill, experience or size of following.

Other times, it’s entirely explicit. Like when men have shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT while I’m setting up on stage, or RAPE while we’re playing.

Sometimes, I downplay the impact of sexism in music, to focus on the positives. But it always gets to me – that sense that live music is for men and boys, that sense that it’s not for women and girls, that sense that we’re not really welcome – unless we are willing to be objectified and treated less seriously as performers.

I saw The Commitments musical with colleagues during its December 2022 run in Glasgow. After a difficult semester, I looked forward to being at the theatre with new friends from work, and enjoying a night of brilliant soul classics.

The Commitments is about a group of young (white) Irish people who form a soul covers band in the late 1980s. The musical depicts disparate personalities coming together, arguing a lot, playing a handful of gigs, and then going their separate ways. Most of the songs are performed by the cast on stage, although the production also used either off-stage musicians or a backing track.

The Commitments lived up to its billing as a jukebox musical. The band (on stage and off) were great. It was exciting to hear a series of well-known tunes re-arranged for the show, and performed with gusto. The architecture of the stage set was gorgeous, variously depicting a Dublin neighbourhood, small family houses, pubs, and bingo halls. The plot and characters were paper thin at best, but this didn’t detract from the overall experience – or wouldn’t have done, if it weren’t for the treatment of the handful of women on stage.

There were three women in the band. They were portrayed as backing singers, although often they actually performed lead vocals. They were collectively referred to as the “Commit-tits”.

Most of the male characters benefited from some basic level of characterisation: e.g. the drunk “prick” of a lead singer with a great voice, the older guy who claimed to have played in various famous bands, the manager with a grand vision. By contrast, only one woman had a character trait; she was the “hot one”. Literally every male character in the band made various objectifying comments about her. The other two women were implicitly pitted against her, and one another; the randy older guy had sex with all three, eventually resulting in a brief fight where they jealously pulled each another’s hair.

During the first half of the musical, the band members changed into stage wear, which they remained in for most of the rest of the play. The eight male performers wore smart white shirts, black suits and ties. The three women wore sexy black mini dresses.

Their characters were objectified in every sense, existing seemingly only as objects of desire and the butt of every misogynist joke. Meanwhile, I was surrounded in the theatre by the joy and laughter of an audience who enthusiastically clapped and sang along with the (genuinely excellent) music. The cognitive dissonance was wild.

Through the second half of the play, I felt increasingly physically sick.

Once the night was over, I reflect on why I experienced such a visceral reaction to the sexism of The Commitments. None of the musical’s misogyny was extraordinary or spectacular. On the contrary, it was low-key, continual, and passed off as normal: just like the everyday sexism women experience in our everyday lives. This makes it hard to identify as a problem, and hard to address in practice.

When I spoke about my feelings on social media, several people who had seen the 1991 movie told me that I misunderstood The Commitments. They told me this was a story of white working class experience in 1980s Dublin, that the characters’ behaviour was reflective of attitudes at the time, that the characters were represented honestly within a social realist narrative.

My issue is, however, is not with a film I haven’t watched. What I saw in the theatre was not social realism, but a jukebox musical where the story worked to loosely link one song to another. The setting was broad; the characters were one note at best.

The narrative of the play had nothing to say about the constant sexism to which women were subject. It was simply present in the actions and words of every male character. In this way, it was normalised, and legitimised.

The very structure of the play itself perpetuated sexist stereotypes about the roles of men and women within storytelling, within society, and within music. The male characters expressed desires and interests, organised events, played musical instruments, and provided commentary on one another’s decisions. The women sang nicely, looked pretty, and were a device for the characters development among the men who leered at them. That is what women are for. That is what women do.

The everyday sexism of The Commitments also reflected a wider failure of the musical to grapple with the political issues it hinted at. An apparently all-white cast performed music historically written and performed by Black women and men, for an overwhelmingly white audience. The musical’s only nod to this were some vague references to worker’s rights and the assertion by one character that “the Irish are the Blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland”. While I imagine the play was attempting to comment on class solidarity and the historical contingency of whiteness, the clumsy claim of comparative oppression treated the existence of actual Black Irish people as an impossibility (an assumption made all the more bizarre by a later brief reference to the Thin Lizzy version of “Whisky in the Jar”).

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw myself – the expectations placed on me as a woman, the possibilities available to me as a woman, the everyday impact of everyday sexism on me as a woman – in the experiences of those women on stage.

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw how my non-white friends are so often treated, especially women of colour – their creative endeavours diminished or appropriated, their experiences of racism ignored and erased.

As a bassist and singer, I saw the norms that have led to male musicians shouting stuff at me and my bandmates when we are playing, demanding to examine my fingers for calluses, and assuming that I am at a gig accompanying a man. I saw the hidden structures that made it hard for me and many of my friends to pick up an instrument in the first place. I saw how and why it is constantly so difficult for women and people of colour to simply turn up and play music in so many settings.

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I was witnessing the operation of power.

The stage musical version of The Commitments debuted in 2013: the same year myself and a couple of friends were organising Revolt, a feminist club night in Coventry which prioritised women and trans performers. We did this in reaction to male dominated line-ups, which perhaps had a token woman singing or (at a certain kind of indie rock show) playing bass guitar. We knew that having numerous women from a range of backgrounds on stage does something important. It undermines the assumption that women musicians can or should only play second fiddle to men, and builds a sense of possibility for women in the audience: that music is for us.

We can be more; we will be more; we are more. Creating space for many types of people on stage changes people’s worlds.

In doing so it threatens white male power, which can sometimes feel threatening for white men.

That is why certain promoters and musicians and audience members make life difficult for others in music, through intentional bigotry or unthinking bias. For women, it doesn’t matter how good we are, how we dress, or how we behave on stage. We are so often an alien presence in a space supposedly for men, not obeying the unspoken rules: shut up, don’t speak out, and don’t take up a male musician’s space on stage unless you’re prepared to be compliant and sexually available.

What does matter is context. I reflected on this, wondering why the clothing the women wore in The Commitments bothered me so much. I’ve worn very similar outfits on stage myself. Men have shouted RAPE at me when I’ve done so. But they’ve also shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT at me when I was wearing jeans, trainers, and a loose black band t-shirt. It’s not about what we’re wearing – it’s never about what we’re wearing. It’s about how male desire, male prejudice, and male power is projected onto us.

I realised my problem with The Commitments was that the women characters’ sexuality doesn’t belong to them. Within the context of the plot, they were only ever given the opportunity to be attractive for the men around them, not for themselves. Sex without power.

The Commitments musical wants women in the audience to enjoy the music while sucking up the sexism and ignoring the depth of anti-racist histories. By contrast, at Revolt we sought to build power for women – all women – on and off stage. We sought to bring into being a world in which we can dress how we want, and dance, and sing, and listen, and play, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to diminish us for having and creating a great time. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.

I love a good feminist space, but separatism won’t save us. If we want women musicians to prosper, we need an actual commitment to promoting respect in every context.

The biggest onus is on event organisers, writers, and musicians – especially those in a position of relative power. There is no excuse for endless all-male and all-white line-ups at events, for casual sexism or racism in lyrics, in event promotion, or in the lines of a jukebox musical. How many people involved in putting on The Commitments looked at the script or the choreography and thought, “hang on a moment”, but didn’t speak out? How many white men (or women) who put on gigs or tour in bands even bother to think about whether or not there are women or people of colour on stage?

Simply having women or people of colour in the room is also not enough. We deserve to be present without having to worry about discrimination or abuse. Campaigns such as Good Night Out and the Healthy Music Audiences project have loads of resources available oncreating safer spaces for musicians and audience members alike.

Ultimately, everyone can play a part in changing the world – that’s how cultural change happens. You can support minoritized musicians by taking us seriously and helping us to build power. Attend our shows, listen to our music, share it with other people, and have a great time. That, really, is what it’s all about. 

Let’s respond to the NHS consultation together!

A couple of days ago I joined Katy Montgomerie’s livestream to work through the current NHS England consultation on child and adolescent gender services. We discussed the background to the consultation, what the questions mean, and what some of the major issues are.

You can take part in the consultation here. It is open until 4th December 2022. Filling it in is a bit of an intense experience, but if you fancy some friendly company and catty cameos, I hope our video will help.

NHS England proposals put young people in danger

NHS England logo

Three weeks ago, I wrote to the NHS England Gender Programme Board (of which I am a former “patient public voice” member) to raise urgent concerns about their consultation on a new interim service specification for children and adolescents.

The proposed service specification is deeply transphobic on numerous levels – from the dearth of relevant treatment pathways, to the assertion that being trans is likely a “phase”.

It is also probable that if implemented, this service specification will impact other young people more widely – especially girls and LGBTIQ+ youth – by undermining principles of autonomy and respect.

You can read more about the service specification here.

The proposals have been condemned by UK and international experts including Dr Natacha Kennedy, Cal Horton, and the Australian Professional Association for Transgender Health. Their well-evidenced critiques are well worth a read, especially if you might consider participating in the consultation. Edit 26/11: the proposals have now also been condemned in a strongly-worded and well-evidenced statement from world professional bodies WPATH, ASIAPATH, EPATH, PATHA, and USPATH.

The consultation is open to anyone. If you have the time and energy, there is a guide to participating in the consultation here, prepared jointly by Gendered Intelligence, Stonewall, Mermaids, and the Trans Learning Partnership. If you are a community member, a healthcare practitioner, a researcher, or work with a relevant charity, it would be particularly useful for NHS England to hear from you.

Other things you could do to oppose the proposals include: organising a demonstration, raising awareness of this issue on social media, and/or writing to your MP or trade union and asking them to place pressure on NHS England to reconsider.

To date, I have not received a reply from NHS England. Given the danger the proposed service specification poses to the safety of young people, I have now decided to make my letter to them public.

~

Dear all,

I am emailing to share my great alarm at the proposed service specifications for child and adolescent gender dysphoria services. It is my expert opinion that, if implemented, these proposals will cause great harm to young people. Moreover, in opening such poorly designed and unevidenced specifications to consultation and media commentary, NHS England has already caused harm.

The fact that this consultation is happening at all represents an enormous failure on the part of every professional involved.

I stepped down from the Gender Programme Board earlier this month due to clashes with my teaching schedule. However, given the severity of this situation, I would be remiss in my ethical duties if I did not also email you directly to share my concerns.

My three main areas of concern are:

  1. Social transition should not be subject to medical oversight. This would represent a gross abuse of power on the part of commissioners and practitioners. Choosing to wear different clothes, and possibly use a different name and/or pronouns – is a personal, non-medical decision related to a person exploring their identity and/or coming out. Preventing a young person from choosing a social transition amounts to an attempted conversion practice.

  2. Punishing young people and their families by subjecting them to investigation if they access private services will not help them access healthcare. Young trans people who access private healthcare in the UK or abroad generally due so due to the severity of NHS failures.  It will increase the likelihood of young people hiding the fact they are accessing external treatment from NHS clinicians, and of people turning to black-market hormone providers rather than private doctors. I am not sure that members of the Gender Programme Board are fully aware of how prevalent and dangerous the home-made substances already in circulation can be.

  3. Requiring that young people become research subjects as a condition of accessing treatment is completely unethical. This is a well-established principle in the trans health literature. There is no way in which you can truly obtain informed consent for research participation from individuals who will be denied healthcare if they refuse to participate. I fully support the expansion of NHS-funded research into trans healthcare, but participants must not be recruited through coercion.

I will end by inviting all recipients of this email to reflect on what they do not experience, and what they do not know.

Most members of the Gender Programme Board have not experienced gender incongruence or gender dysphoria.

Most members of the Gender Programme Board are not members of a trans community. It is likely therefore that you – even if you are a clinician – have never found yourself in a position where you are confronted with the true impact of NHS failings on young trans people who rely on community support. You do not know what it is like to be trying to look after many extremely damaged members of your community dealing with complex trauma and self-harm from people who have been repeatedly abused by NHS clinicians and processes. We, in the community, are the ones left picking up the pieces of your failings, finding ourselves on constant suicide watch and scrabbling to keep people alive. Invitations onto bodies such as the Gender Programme Board, where we are expected to be polite while fighting for scraps – only to be ignored – do not right these overwhelming wrongs.

It is now on you to rebuild trust.

Sincerely,

Ruth

New single: “something pretty” by wormboys

Yesterday we released the latest wormboys single, and the first song from our forthcoming EP (coming soon etc). It’s a stomping disco-punk tune which celebrates the healing power of queer hedonism!

You can stream something pretty from all major platforms, or listen for free (and/or buy a digital copy) from the wormboys Bandcamp page.

Plus! We made a lyric video from old cartoon clips – assembling them into a silly story about aliens, dancing, and uh, friendship.

Understanding Trans Health on Philosophy Tube

My book Understanding Trans Health is cited prominently in the new Philosophy Tube video on complaint, systematic inflexibility, and England’s NHS trans health crisis.

It’s a great video, which manages to capture the sheer horror of NHS failings while still delivering silly jokes, ridiculous costumes, and a strong analysis. In addition to drawing on my work, Philosophy Tube’s Abigail Thorne consulted me on the script for this episode, and I appreciated the opportunity to use my research in this way.

I am personally more optimistic than Abigail about the opportunities offered by the four NHS England ‘pilot’ clinics. These are beginning to slash waiting times, and several are now effectively run by trans people, for trans people. However, I do think it’s important to still critique the very logic that underpins many trans healthcare systems, especially the highly questionable ways in which the medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ is constructed, and used to try and control us.

You can buy Understanding Trans Health directly from Policy Press here. It’s also available from all major booksellers, plus many independent queer book stores (e.g. Leeds’ brilliant The Bookish Type). I have also written to my publisher for permission to put a chapter of the book online for free – watch this space! In the meantime, free links to much of my other academic writing can be found here.

No talks forthcoming

For the first time in four years (or more!) I don’t have any forthcoming talks booked at the moment.

Honestly, it’s a bit of a relief. I’ve been deeply honoured and humbled by the interest in my work in recent years, but have also frequently found myself exhausted and overwhelmed by it. It takes time to plan a talk, and it takes a great deal of emotional energy to speak about topics such as institutional sexism or transphobia. Especially in the years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I felt like I was almost constantly travelling to speak.

In theory, it was exactly the kind of attention I wanted for my research. In practice, I’ve had to spend a lot of time teaching myself to say “no”. I came to understand why various academics I asked to speak at events often didn’t even answer their emails. I suspect they simply didn’t have the ability to read them all, let alone answer. Meanwhile, there are plenty of researchers – especially “early career” academics – who don’t receive anything like the attention they deserve for their work.

I think academics especially have a strange, unhealthy approach to talks and conference presentations. After I began working in a full-time, salaried role for the first time in 2017 (who needs job security or sick pay in their 20s?!?) speaking about my research became sort of part of my job, but was rarely accounted for in any kind of formal work load. Talks generally don’t “count” like academic publications. At the same time, a lot of us find them an immensely useful way to share and learn about cutting-edge studies, and they can be so important for reaching beyond the academy and sharing findings with general audiences.

As a result, you will definitely see me announcing more talks soon. But I am trying to get better at working within my capacity. Part of this involves recommending other speakers who I know will benefit from the opportunity – that is, when I have time to reply to my external emails.

Video: Reproductive Justice for Trans People

Earlier this year I did a talk for the University of Cambridge Reproductive Justice Research Network alongside my excellent colleague Francis Ray White.

We talked about research findings from the Trans Pregnancy and Improving Trans Experiences of Maternity Services projects, plus reflected on the wider context of reproductive justice for trans people, including media coverage, medical racism, abortion rights, and attacks on young trans people’s bodily autonomy.

You can watch a video of the talk here:

(as a quick aside, I’d like to thank my good friend Harry Tunnicliffe for last use minute of his office so I could do this talk while away from home!)

wormboys wanderings October-November 2022

I’m super excited to say we have a whole bunch of wormboys gigs coming up! We’ll be playing Sheffield and Bristol this weekend, then Dundee, Wakefield, and Leeds in coming weeks.

You can buy tickets for all our gigs from our Linktree.

Since the dreaded rona is back on the rise, please take care of yourself and others if you’re coming to see us – I’d encourage you to wear a mask, and definitely test beforehand.

wormboys gigs in Leeds: Aug and Nov 2022

We have a couple of super awesome upcoming support slots in Leeds!

30 August 2022 – Hyde Park Book Club
Doors 7pm, tickets £10
Supporting the epic Oceanator

18 November 2022 – Wharf Chambers
Doors 7:30pm, tickets £9
Playing with Lande Hekt and Shane

I will, as ever, be bouncing around with a bass. If you live in or near Leeds, you should totally come and see us. If not, watch this space – we have a few other gigs coming up around around the UK, and some new music on the way…

So much to see! wormboys tour Midlands

I’m playing Leamington, Coventry, and Derby with wormboys this week!

I kept back posting about this after contracting a nasty bout of covid, but since I am now (mercifully!) better, our mini-tour is going ahead.

The dates are:

14th July – St Patrick’s Irish Club, Leamington. Doors 8pm.
15th July – Tin Music and Arts, Coventry. Doors 7:30pm. Advance tickets here.
16th July – Dubrek Studios, Derby.

We’d love it if you came to share the joy of noisy pop music with us! However, there is still a global pandemic on (no matter what the assorted mess of Conservative leadership candidates might like us to think) – so if you’re coming, please look after each other by testing before the gig and wearing a mask.