A friend recently brought to my attention that I have failed to grapple with gender and air guitar, and I now realize that, despite thinking quite often about gender, I have failed to really articulate my thoughts on this blog. So, I might begin with a little exchange from the U.S. National Air Guitar Competition.
Nordic Thunder: You know it’s easy for women—it’s not easy… I gotta be careful how I say this. Hold on a second. It’s easy for women in air guitar to rely solely on the fact that they’re a woman and they have parts of their bodies that other people find arousing. Don’t boo me! Let me finish… It’s easy for women to rely solely on their sex. It’s ok to use that, but you also have to some talent and skill to go with that. But when you combine the two, that’s pretty fuckin’ awesome.
Rocky Rhoads: Nordic, before you talk, are you going to talk shit about other lady air guitarists first? Some of us just happen to be sexy by nature. You got your fuckin’ dick flapping out everywhere. Don’t talk shit about ladies.
Nordic Thunder: First of all, you… I want to clear the air real quick. I’m being completely 100% serious. I wasn’t saying anything bad about women. What I don’t like is when a woman uses only the fact that she’s a fuckin woman and tries to be sexy and that’s it.
Rocky Rhoads: Too bad. If a woman gets up there, we’re a woman. Quit talkin’ shit.
Nordic Thunder: I’m going to use Gairy as an example. There’s an air guitarist in this crowd tonight named Gairy who competed in New York City. And she got shit from the judges. They were like “you’re sexy you’re this you’re that…” Hold on don’t talk yet. You don’t get to fuckin’ speak until I’m done. I have the microphone. No Yes I’m pissed right now. Gairy was insulted by the fact that the judges were commenting noting on the fact that she was just a woman. So, she had to dress up as a man to show her air guitar skills. And it shouldn’t be that way…
Here’s what I take Nordic to be saying: He seems to be illuminating a fundamental difference between the ways that women on stage are judged, as compared to their male counterparts. In addition, he seems to be saying that using sex appeal can both be a way of circumnavigating other judging criteria, in ways unfair to men who cannot rely on sex appeal. Yet he also seems to indicate a double standard, in which women are judged unfairly simply for being women—their bodies are sexualized simply by being on stage (hence: Gairy).
Here’s what I take Rocky Roads to be saying: She seems to be saying that highlighting the fact that a contestant is a woman can be inherently problematic: that people could make a distinction between “air guitarists” and “female air guitarists” (when people rarely refer to “male air guitarists”). I imagine she’s also responding to a longer history of the male gaze upon air guitarists–one that sexualizes, exoticizes, and feminizes the female body in ways that normalize the male body as the standard by which the female body has been judged.
This exchange cuts at the core of a classic feminist debate: Does declaring womanhood help organize and acknowledge the double standard operating on stage? Or does highlighting womanhood serve to reify gendered power imbalances on stage? I think it’s also crucial to note that this took place with three male judges and a male MC exchanging with one woman on stage.
Of course, gendered differences in real life are also (re-)constructed on stage. Just like Doug performs a kind of white masculinity (more on this later) through ripping his shirt and flexing his muscles, so, too, does Gairy perform a kind of white masculinity–yet the stakes and approaches are quite different.
As Judith Butler wrote (in Bodies That Matter, for example), gender is iterative and unstable—it’s something we perform repeatedly to make it appear natural and innate, although it is not. This is evident when we compare normative ideas of transgender individuals to those about cisgender men—one group is presumed to perform identity and the other is presumed to have inherited a “natural” disposition. Yet, Butler would argue, both are equally constructing their own gender identities through repetition and subconscious and conscious construction.
Butler’s writing on drag shows can also speak to air guitar. She wrote in “Gender is Burning” that drag shows can do one of two things: they can challenge existing gender norms through playing with ambiguity and categories on stage, or they can reaffirm and idealize gender categories by showing some people’s inability to “cross over” from their “natural” categories. We have conservative and subversive drag, and we have the same for air guitar. There can be air guitar performances that simply offer a liminal space of exploration and then reaffirm gender in the “real world.” Or there can be performances that reconstitute gender relations that actually carry over into the real world. I think it’s always a mix of the two.
Now, I think gender in air guitar is certainly haunted by some of the same issues the plague “there guitar” practices (good books: Instruments of Desire, Running with the Devil, and Laurin’s article “The Boy is a Girl is a Boy” on air guitar!). Rock has always crowded out women, and many rock and punk groups have actively sought to challenge patriarchal rock traditions (like riot grrrl, for example).
“There guitar” has a complicated history, but one can see the “there guitar” history manifesting with the gestural dimensions of air guitar, which almost make the practice look, at times, masturbatory and symbolically phallic. Also, in “there” practices, women have also historically been relegated to the status of dancers, with men reserving for themselves the title of real instrumentalists. Since air guitar lies at this intersection between dance and instrumentation, it becomes extremely potent symbol of these various ideas. And certainly many air guitarists are actively fighting against these conventions.
So, where do we go from here? Postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak theorized the notion of “strategic essentialism,” which refers to the way in which groups of people might essentialize themselves—or claim that they have unchanging and consistent qualities—in order to make certain gains. This is why we might challenge the notion of “woman” (as Butler is wont to do) and also believe in women’s rights (a way of organizing and understanding power imbalances to achieve specific political gains).
The Nordic Rhodes Exchange of 2014 highlights two fundamental approaches to strategic essentialism (of course, there are more approaches than just two). One approach might seek to carve out agency for women as an identity category within air guitar. These individuals might actively draw upon and subvert hegemonic masculine ideals through playing with them and redefining what women air guitarists can/should be. The other approach might seek to avoid talk of gender altogether—to equalize the playing field by refusing to mark certain performers as “women” or “people with certain body parts.” I see the adoption of both approaches in air guitar practice, and I will be fascinated to see how the normative gender conventions change over time (if, in fact, they do).
Anyway, I would love to hear your perspectives on this—agreements, disagreements, outrage, or indifference. Please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post on here if you want to talk.
(Also, thanks Marquina for helping stoke some of these ideas. Also, I just found this from Camille, which is great.)