Little drummer girl

Male mediocrity is lauded over women's actual talent.

Art by Ellie Wilson

The gendering of instruments wasn’t something I consciously understood until I picked up the drums when I was eight. I didn’t realise how much of a novelty I was, but the little girl skulking behind the behemoth of the drumkit ironically stuck out. I was achingly shy. The drumkit terrified me and I spent the first few years playing very poorly and tentatively in my primary school band. But I fell in love with the rhythm section so I kept practicing. 

The drumkit embodies several stereotypically masculine qualities. It’s a big instrument that has deep tones, and it makes so much noise that it commands attention. Men are actively encouraged to play the drums because it’s viewed as a physical manifestation of masculine traits. As such, the majority of drummers and percussion players are male, whereas female drummers are still a rarity. These misconceptions are prominent amongst all instruments. There is no reasonable argument that one musician is better than the other based on their gender. Yet; young boys are still more likely to pick up drumsticks than a flute, and male instrumentalists dominate the music scene.

Bands, especially in alternative rock folklore, are usually formed between friends in informal settings. However, as most women working in other male dominated industries know, social inclusion is one of the hardest aspects of existing in these spaces. I felt like I had to infiltrate ‘boys’ night’, to try and be like them, and make myself more masculine to be included. But it didn’t work. I was seen as needy, desperate or pushy, and only further excluded. Women aren’t ‘one of the boys’, so they’re not one of the bandmates.  We are so often excluded from the band formation process.

Men’s hesitancy to include female drummers also comes from preconceived notions of what certain instrumentalists should look like. A drummer is supposed to be a man with bulging arm muscles, gregarious, perhaps obnoxious, a bit thick in the skull, musty and the butt of countless jokes. I think this became the phenomenon after the explosion of what would become ‘dad rock’ in the late 60s. Hypermasculine imagery pervaded the music industry through the 70s and lingers in folklore and popular culture today. This perception remains: female drummers aren’t ‘real drummers’. 

I’ve often tried to use the novelty of my gender to my advantage in drumming. But being the only  female drummer hasn’t landed me many gigs. Men really love to gatekeep music. The music industry is a gigantic boy’s club, and I regret spending the better part of my teenage years trying to fit in with the boys who ran it. I cringe when thinking about how many knots I twisted myself into to impress the teenage boys who took up a permanent lunch time residence in the school music rooms. I’m embarrassed by the amount of male manipulator music I absorbed to seem relatable, and am still working on deconstructing the internalised misogyny it fostered. I was always on the outside peering in. I was so apologetic. I felt I had to work twice as hard to make up for taking a position in the band that ‘should have’ gone to a man.

A common excuse for the lack of women instrumentalists in popular music is that there just aren’t enough women musicians. This is not true – they just won’t let us in. Men have a plethora of famous male drummers to look to for inspiration, whereas I struggled to find a female drummer to idolise as I practiced. Male musicians don’t want us in the band, music labels that are run by men don’t think we’re profitable and thus the narrative has been reinforced that people don’t want to see women behind the drum kit. Assertive women are vilified for challenging the quiet and passive qualities expected of them and are therefore discouraged from drumming by marketing departments. This was the case for Karen Carpenter, a highly proficient drummer and vocalist who was forced out from behind the kit to only sing instead.

Given the  substantial lack of female drumming idols to look up to, as a young girl I took great pride in the few I did have. I idolised Meg White from the White Stripes, despite her drumming style being heavily critiqued for its simplicity. Perth band San Cisco has a great drummer in Scarlett Stevens that I revered throughout highschool, and Melbourne born non-binary artist G Flip is another great non-male advocate for the instrument (female drummers are hard to come by, but non-binary drummers even more so). It’s also important to remember the early jazz drummers like Pauline Braddy and Viola Smith, who started diversifying the drumming scene back in the 1940s.

What I’ve strived to prove throughout the years is that gender does not affect your ability to play drums. The misogyny that pervades the music industry does. There are no men having to write about why they deserve to play the drums. Male mediocrity is lauded over women’s actual talent. Women drummers are criminally ignored, further discouraging other women and girls from picking up and pursuing the instrument. The blame does not fall on the drum kit or the drummer herself, it falls on the sexist music industry that fails female instrumentalists. This piece is not meant to deter other women from drumming,in fact the opposite; I’d love for more girls to pick up the sticks. I want to see the conceited male drummers of the world replaced, with prompt.

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