Please, No...

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On the bright side, the debate has at least produced something of practical help to the musicianOn the bright side, the debate has at least produced something of practical help to the musicianLike others who blog, I was very torn about whether to comment on the recently-reported comments of Jorma Panula about female conductors. As one friend put it, 'Oh for God's sake. Why do the press even give these dinosaurs the publicity?' There is this fond hope that eventually we will outlive everyone who hangs onto these views and the world will be a more benign place, and in the meantime the kindest thing to do is just ignore them.

But the comments thread that ensued after the Artsjournal article suggests that this fond hope is but a delusion. I have a hunch that women of the 1930s were saying similar things about ageing Victorian relics even as misogyny was on the rise once again. So, sorry folks, but we're going to have to take a look at this. Not at Panula, who, frankly comes over as a caricature of himself, but at the arguments that emerged in the responses on the artsjournal report.

There are two sets of arguments marshalled in defence of Panula that need a bit of looking at:

Argument by Enumeration

Sexist Person: There are no great female conductors, and therefore it is right that women should be excluded from the profession.

Normal Person: Um, what about Conductor A, Conductor B, Conductor C...?

SP: I Saw Conductor A in Salzburg, and she was terrible.

NP: Well, I've always enjoyed her performances

Quite apart from the circularity of the initial premise, this argument is both unhelpfully generalising and horribly personal. A male conductor is just himself; he is judged as good or bad on his own merits. A female conductor is required to represent the entire class of female conductors - if she is judged lacking, all women are judged lacking. At the same time, the configuring the debate through enumeration of individual instances means that any genuinely top-class example that SP can't explain away can be classified as an exception.

And I have to say I am horrified by the casual rudeness in the comments about well-established musicians. They are quite slanderously insulting to their technique and musicianship - the kind of thing you wouldn't write about a failing student, let alone a successful professional. I'm sure you don't see this kind of musical slut-shaming in comments about male musicians.

Argument by Pseudo-Science

Sexist Person: But such-and-such a study shows that there *are* actual differences between the brains of the two sexes.

And then Normal People get sucked into a debate as to whether these differences are congenital or developmental. Which may be interesting, but is ultimately irrelevant, and worse, gets SP thinking they are on reasonable ground to cite the study in the first place.

The correct answer is actually to ask whereabouts in the study the authors extrapolate their findings to explain institutional sexism in the conducting profession. If someone can cite a study that shows a correlation in sex-based differences in the brain with quality of inherent musicianship of professional conductors, they may have a point. But no such study exists as yet, not least because it would be a bugger to design, given that you'd have to control for differences in training, opportunity and social conditioning during the key formative years when musicianship is built.

That the SP thinks they can extend findings generated in one particular study to any other realm of human endeavour willy-nilly shows they understand neither the scientific method nor the process by which musical expertise is generated.


I think the thing with both sets of arguments that shocked me, though, was that people seem to think it is okay to say this stuff out loud as if it were reasonable. Back in the early 1990s when feminist musicology was in its infancy, you used to get counter-arguments, but rarely anything as blatantly sexist as this. The objections to the nascent discipline were primarily that (a) music is abstract and not concerned with cultural politics, and (b) therefore any perceived gender imbalance in the profession just reflects the time lag of social change and will self-correct in time. So, essentially, 'Move along, nothing to see here'.

Any time we started to critique the sexist nonsense in historical texts, the answer was basically: well, yes things were different in the Bad Old Days, but we're All Equal Now, and none of that has anything to do with the Real Meaning of Music anyway. The myth of absolute music was hooked up to liberal feminism to in order to close us down.

That was crock of course, and some of us had a grand old time exploring the way musical styles and structures implicate themselves in cultural discourses. But, you know, I'm almost nostalgic for that argument now. It did at least open the possibility of taking gender off the table and just being a human being.

Feminism is not a linear process - despite the comforting narratives of dinosaurs dying out, the cause of women's rights goes through phases of progress and backlash. It looks like some people in classical music are taking the laddification of culture at large and the discursive pinkification of girls/hyper-sexualisation of women as permission to revert to earlier attitudes that they would have been ashamed of 20 years ago.

There are ways in which human equality as a project has made progress in recent decades of course, and the comparisons are always useful to give perspective. Consequently, it is an instructive exercise to substitute other social groups into remarks made about women to test them for blatant rudeness. Would anybody consider it acceptable to say, for instance:

He’s right to question why do we need Black conductors when we have so many mediocre whites already?

I sometimes wonder, if not the simple fact that 99% of the music in the classical repertoire was composed by whites (another discussion and can of worms) has something to do with the apparent lesser appeal of the orchestra conducting profession to the Black race.

Most Jews do not have the command and force needed to lead orchestras with any number of Christians in them.

I actually find myself quite shocked to see these written down, even just as a thought experiment. I'm finding it hard to contemplate actually posting this article with them in. And yet people used exactly these forms of words about women as if it were okay - not only okay, as if it constituted some kind of argument that would make them right.

It's not okay.

[I should add: I am under no illusions about the continued prevalence of racism in our culture at both personal and structural levels. But it is at least less acceptable to say racist things in public than it once was. A small mercy, but one I am willing to be thankful for.]

It is so sad that in this day and age a comment so unworthy as that would ever see the light of day. Any person in any position of power who has to discriminate in order to feel worthy of the post, is pathetic and insecure. I agree that it is a dichotomous situation. If you give too much attention to such bilge, it grows out of proportion but in ignoring it, you seem to negate its importance.
All people of every size, colour, ethnicity, gender and background add immeasurably to the collective skills and artistic ideas from which we can all glean new understandings.

Bilge is a good word for it, indeed.

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