Women in alternative music: few and fighting

Mumbi Kasumba sings in the Maintenance Shop. 


A community that accepts those who are unaccepted may still have problems with including all of its members.

Alternative music culture has multiple facets that shift over time, but one constant is that it’s a place for people who don’t fit in to find their niche. However, the way in which women fit into this culture isn’t always clear.

There are less women in bands within the alternative genre than there are men. When looking at alternative music festivals, the Huffington Post found that women made up 12 percent of groups while men made up 78 percent.

This difference in numbers can be attributed to negative stereotypes and expectations that can bring women down and cause them to be wrapped up in an image instead of being appreciated for their music.

Women face stereotypes and expectations that come from both men and women in the alternative music scene. They also encounter a variety of responses to their physical image and meet public perception in a variety of ways.

Why So Few?

On both a local and national level, there are fewer women in alternative music than men.

At Iowa State, there is a club called G.E.N.R.E.: Gathering Everyone Nearby to Raucously Entertain. It’s an organization that allows student musicians to meet and make music together. Julia Studer, secretary of G.E.N.R.E., has noticed, but doesn’t understand the reason for, this difference.

“Out of everyone in G.E.N.R.E., there are only four girls,” Studer said. “I wish I knew why. I normally think of women being more creative so it seems like an opposite thing.”

Kelly Beardsley, president of G.E.N.R.E., said the contrast in numbers could be attributed to the genre of the music in some cases. Her band, Line of Departure, is a death metal band.

“Sometimes, with the style, you want a deeper voice and that makes it a little more difficult, being a girl, to get the right sound,” Beardsley said. “It’s just harder to find.”

People’s perception of who should create music might influence who is willing to be a part of it, said Josh Petefish, the guitarist of Studer’s band, Truth Machine. He also said that this is a problem in the representation of society.

“In general, men are more apt to think that they’ll be good at this and go out and do it because of the way public perception is,” Petefish said. “Everything you do, everything you love, everything you want to be a part of should be representative of the entire population. So why, when you take a slice of this, isn’t it 50-50?”

Local singer Mumbi Kasumba also said the the ratio between men and women stems from the attitude of men and society. The widespread conception has an impact on smaller communities as well as larger ones.

“I think it stems from the patriarchy from society and it has bled into the small music community in Ames,” Kasumba said.

The contrast in numbers of men and women may be seen as a problem, but it doesn’t always have to be negative.

Recently, a band called Against the Current played a show in Des Moines during their nationwide tour. Frontwoman Chrissy Costanza said that being a female musician makes her job the coolest job in the world.

“Being in this whole alternative scene as a woman is awesome because it’s something that’s kind of rare,” Costanza said. “There are more and more girls coming in which I’m stoked about.”

Because there are fewer women than men in the alternative music scene, there is opportunity for women coming into the scene to make their own path. This can prove challenging because there are expectations within the scene that women have to fight against.

Stereotypes and Femininity

Women in the alternative scene recognize that there are stereotypes that exist, but they react to them differently on a national and local level.

On a national level, stereotypes are something that women like Costanza have to fight against everyday.

Costanza said that women are often expected to be emotional and just let things happen to them instead of being a driving force. She looks up to women who came before her like Hayley Williams of Paramore.

Williams set an example for Costanza of what being a frontwoman was all about and taught her to break those stereotypes. She said that Williams was someone who wasn’t afraid to be something that people didn’t expect from a woman.

“It’s okay to get angry,” Costanza said. “Women don’t always just have to be heartbroken and sad. You can also get mad about it and you can say something about it.”

The expression of more emotion can give women the opportunity to have an active role in impacting the world around them.

“You can be a more powerful force,” Costanza said. “You don’t have to be just reacting to the world around you and letting all of that hit you. You can fire back at the world.”

Kasumba said that she sometimes catches herself playing into expectations, but that is a habit that women need to unlearn.

“I may have an idea that I think is great but I find myself saying it in a way that allows, or even expects, men to step in,” Kasumba said. “We need to stop walking into the room apologizing.”

In Against the Current’s performances, Costanza is focused on leading by example. She wants to positively impact and inspire those who listen to her music.

“It’s important as a woman to let other women know that I’m here to fight together,” Costanza said. “My goal is to empower women to take matters into their own hands and break the glass ceiling themselves.”

Kasumba also said she wants to empower girls. Her song “African Girl” is written to empower her younger self. She said she used to wonder if her songs that are specific to her struggles as an African are worth singing to an audience who might not relate to them.

“I quickly gave that up,” Kasumba said. “We’re girls and we need to hear it. Even if she’s not an African girl, it’s important.”

The stereotypes and expectations that these women feel so empowered to fight against may not always be obvious. They may not even cause any noticeable conflict.

For some women on a local level, they know that stereotypes and expectations exist, but they don’t see them as being a problem.

Kasumba has found acceptance in the Ames music community not only in being a female musician but also in being African.

“I can’t mention being a woman without mentioning being black,” Kasumba said. “People have been very welcoming in Ames. Even when I voice certain concerns about being an Africn woman, the community has been very accepting of letting me have that platform to speak from.”

Studer believes that breaking the stereotypes is psychological.

“For a lot of female musicians I think they feel like they have a barrier they’re going up against,” Studer said. “They feel like they have to show that there is a difference. I feel like it’s a mental barrier.”

This lack of adversity may be derived from the setting. College campuses are often viewed as being more liberal and accepting, Studer said.

“We’re all around the same age facing the same social conflicts,” Studer said. “I think it makes everyone a little more accepting and sensitive to those kind of issues.”

When the identities of a college student and an alternative musician combine, as they do in G.E.N.R.E., this idea is solidified.

“I think there’s definitely implicit bias in the sort of people who are in college and in the music scene,” Petefish said. “You’re on a college campus for one, plus you’re into music. We’re primarily liberal because it just comes with the territory.”

One of the stereotypes women interact with regularly is that alternative musicians are not feminine. Some women feel like their femininity is something they have to push to show.

Costanza said that this stereotype is something that shouldn’t exist. She again looks to Hayley Williams. She said that Williams is able to be “girly” while also being “badass.”

Williams’ ability to balance her feminine side with her ability to take control of her own career, art and image inspired Costanza’s music and encouraged her to be herself.

“It’s not like you have to completely denounce yourself as a woman,” Costanza said. “You don’t have to pretend you’re not a girl.”

It’s not only women who notice these stereotypes. Some men notice them too, including Petefish.

“I see other people having a negative perception or lower expectations,” Petefish said. “It’s never played out specifically. There’s never been a conflict that has come out of it, but it’s in conversations with people.”

Whether someone is a nationally touring musician or a local band, female or male, it seems that breaking stereotypes is important in alternative music.

“We can do it,” Costanza said. “We can totally shatter it, all those expectations. I just think that there shouldn’t be that expectation to begin with.”

The hope of some musicians is that people see past the gender of the members of a band and instead focus on their music.

“The point I hope it reaches is that people don’t have that initial impression of ‘oh it’s a chick band’ or whatever it is,” Petefish said. “You hope that it gets to the point where it’s just about the music.”

Physical Image and Perception

While the alternative scene focuses on music, there is a visual aspect that also plays a role. People sometimes expect a certain kind of band to fit a certain image.

There is also an image some people expect to see from women in music. That image may vary from person to person, but it can create challenges for some women.

Costanza said there is more pressure on women to look good while men can sometimes get a pass on having a bad day.

She had one experience with people reacting to her appearance while on Against the Current’s recent tour that frustrated her.

A photo that was posted on Twitter had some people replying to the post asking her if she was pregnant. She denied it and said that she was just inhaling. As a vocalist, she needs to breathe from her diaphragm instead of her chest.

“For me that picture said that I was breathing right that day but other people can get so caught up in it,” Costanza said. “There are things like this that make me want to slam my head into a table.”

People sometimes focus more on a woman’s physical appearance and don’t see her music, Costanza said. She said that is especially true between women in the scene.

The connections that some women make between physical presentation and artistic expression can lead to assumptions that determine whether someone will listen to a band’s music.

“There is girl on girl crime out there,” Costanza said. “Girls will look at me and decide I’m not the kind of girl they want to f–k with and they won’t listen to our music.”

Women aren’t only held to a different standard when it comes to appearance, they are also held to a different standard when it comes to performance.

“I want to say that equal work is equally recognized but that’s just not the case,” Costanza said. “Guys can get away with having a shitty vocal day and things like that but you…you have to be perfect.”

Because of this difference in standards, women feel they have to put in more effort to prove themselves.

“I feel like I have to do better to prove that I am equal or even more creative than my male counterpart,” Studer said.

This standard is not always a negative thing. It can sometimes contribute to a woman’s drive to create. In order to be viewed as a legitimate musician they have to be more practiced.

“Because they feel like they have to prove themselves, they’re even more dedicated to know their s—t and be on top of everything because otherwise people aren’t going to take them seriously,” Costanza said.

The issue of credibility arises often for people like Costanza. People can sometimes make snap judgments that influence whether that person will listen to a band’s music.

“There are so many people who already don’t like you because you’re a girl,” Costanza said. “I have to be undeniably good for people to not be able to deny that I’m good.”

Costanza’s physical appearance has also affected her credibility during tours. People sometimes doubt her capability because of the way she expresses herself through her clothes, hair and makeup.

“I look like an Against the Current fan,” Costanza said. “There have been so many times when I’m walking into a venue for my own show and security will be like ‘Oh, the line’s over there.’ The guys won’t get that reaction. They won’t assume that I could be in the band, that I could be on the tour.”

On this scale, a musician’s credibility or respect may be affected, but this may not be true on a more local scale.

Studer said that she hasn’t felt the same discrimination as Costanza. She knows that there are problems with discrimination, but she hasn’t faced them.

“I really haven’t faced much adversity being a female artist in the Ames music scene,” Studer said. “I feel like it’s a mental barrier. It is an issue that is happening but I feel like I’m not held to different standards because I’m a woman but sometimes I feel like I have to be.”

The discrimination that women face in the alternative music scene is not always stated outright. Sometimes it is a much quieter discrimination that is felt more so than heard.

“I haven’t had too many situations where someone has outright said something to me about my lack of credibility,” Costanza said. “But it’s kind of this understood thing with some people where you can feel them thinking ‘You don’t have the brains.’”

Women like Costanza don’t want women to be treated differently. They want standards to be equal and art to be accepted for what it is.

“I never wanted to set my standards as a ‘woman’s standards,’” Costanza said. “I just want to be the best. Hopefully one day it’ll be like that.”