Heavy metal has been challenging the status quo for its past five decades (and counting!) of existence on this doomed planet. But in some respects, rock ’n’ roll’s loudest, wildest bastard child has skewed more traditional and—in matters of gender, race, and identity—downright conservative. And yet from Jinx Dawson, Bolt Thrower’s Jo Bench, Nuclear Death’s Lori Bravo, Cretin’s Marissa Martinez, to Sunrot’s Lex, women and nonbinary people have been heavily involved in the evolution of the genre since it was barely a glimmer in Tony Iommi’s eye. Yet, even now, as they are creating some of the most challenging and exciting music in metal’s history, some reactionary elements that still regard metal as a boys’ club continue to persist. Many have been petulantly resistant to making space for anyone else, and at worst, they’ve latched onto misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and fascist rhetoric in a misguided last-ditch effort to “keep metal dangerous.”
This state of affairs hasn’t always fostered the most welcoming environment for people who weren’t born white, cisgender, and male, and it’s made it difficult for some to navigate their own femininity within the community. For women and nonbinary metal fans, metal fandom always requires passing an “authenticity” test—to “prove” that they actually liked the band they were there to see (the implication being, of course, that they’re actually just there to snag a date, or ogle the men onstage). As Svalbard vocalist Serena Cherry says, she hated being a girl during her early teen metalhead years, “because it felt like being a girl betrayed being metal as fuck. I was too soft, too sweet, wore skirts, didn’t have a beard or muscly arms. I couldn’t have the right look if I tried. And, let’s be fair, metalheads. If you don’t have the right look, the community can be awfully quick to dismiss you.”
“Even as a spectator, for women there’s an enormous amount of pressure within metal and hardcore scenes to be ‘one of the boys’ in order for your opinions to be valid,” says Ithaca vocalist Djamila Azzouz. “You have to be pretty enough to be fuckable but have those masculine elements that make you look like you know what you’re talking about. You don’t want to be confused with the wives and girlfriends at the show, do you? They don’t know anything about music, they’re just here to get a man, right? I always hated those attitudes, it made me feel insecure and paranoid all the time. I felt like an impostor.”
Musicians also have to deal with an added layer of sexism, especially when they choose to deviate from the band-shirts-and-boots uniform that defines so much of the standard metal aesthetic. Up until the early ’00s, it was still fairly rare to see a woman musician onstage at a major venue or on TV (and it was a whole lot harder for budding heshers to find out what was happening in the underground pre-internet). Many of the most visible examples played in goth or nu-metal bands like Lacuna Coil, Nightwish, Kittie, and Coal Chamber, and elected for either a hyper-feminine corseted look, or a more cybergoth vibe. (Revolver’s screamingly sexist annual “Hottest Chicks in Metal” issue—which has since been thankfully discontinued—summed up the bulk of the metal media’s attitude towards covering these artists during this period.)
“In metal, as in every context, I’ve learned that I get criticized because I’m too feminine or not feminine enough—that the best praise I should hope to get is being as good as men; that I’m expected to maintain a binary identity and only act within its accepted limits; and that my instinctive disregard for gender boundaries means I’ll always encounter weirdness and sometimes violence,” explains Jucifer‘s Gazelle Amber Valentine, who has been conjuring intimidating walls of sound via the power of doom metal since 1993. “But at every level of life and art, shrinking myself has never felt worth anything I could gain by conforming to other people’s preferences. And problematic as metal can be, it’s also through participating in this community that I’ve realized my fullest enjoyment of my freest self.”
Performative gender-bending has always played a part in metal’s aesthetic, from the heavily made-up pretty boys in Poison and Mötley Crüe, to goth metal and funeral doom’s penchant for velvet and elegant Victoriana, to the carefully coiffed, pouting deathcore kids of the early 2000s, to Tribulation’s flamboyant glam death androgyny. Now, there are so many more bands with women and nonbinary members, as well as members of color and openly queer members, and the audiences at metal shows look a lot different now than the shows in 2003. As Cherry adds, “Not only are there significantly more women in metal bands, but in the press they are now taken more seriously—rather than treated as pin-ups.”
But for a woman or nonbinary person to come out on stage and be unapologetically feminine still seems to carry a whiff of taboo. “When False played our first large public show at [the first] Gilead Fest, I was wearing a blue floral dress,” Rachel, False’s vocalist, says. “One of the only woman journalists at the fest decided to write a paragraph of her review of our set on that, damning me for my decision to wear something that, in her mind, wasn’t metal at all. If anything, she made me just want to keep upping my floral dress game.”
This defiant attitude sums up so much about what it is like moving through metal as someone who’s been made to feel like they shouldn’t be there, but who has no interest in caving to some misogynistic random person’s bad opinions. How a person expresses their gender is a personal and political choice, and navigating that decision in a scene that’s predisposed to give them grief over it remains a complicated process for so many people.
That’s why it’s important for those who have already answered that question for themselves to help clear the path for the next generation, and to continue to build a community where every metalhead feels like they can show up to a show in a cute dress and lipstick or a band shirt and jeans, and know that their presence is entirely valid—no matter how they look in the mirror that day.
“The foundation of metal is defiance, and as a trans woman, expressing femininity is the most defiant gesture I’ve made in my life,” Melissa Moore, guitarist and vocalist for Sonja and a former guitarist for Absu, adds. “The space doesn’t already exist in the metal world. You have to make it yourself.”
Here are ten bands doing just that.
Gyða Hrund Þorvaldsdóttir, who recently joined the anarchist black metal project Trespasser on guitar, cut her teeth as one of the few women musicians in Iceland’s closely-knit metal scene. She spent her teenage years working as a promoter, and never felt like her gender presentation was an issue. But things changed after she joined a blackened death metal band, Angist in 2009, and started having to deal with press, sound engineers, and other industry types.“It was very confusing to me to read reviews of a show, and it was mostly about how we dressed, or the classic ‘pretty good for girls,’ and not the music,” she says. “I started scrutinizing everything I wore onstage, how I did my make-up or if I should skip it altogether. I never gave those things much thought before. I felt that my pre-show stress was more about my appearance than how I’d play because I took those harsh words pretty badly. Thankfully, me and my bandmate Edda talked a lot about those things and how we should present ourselves. We decided not to let it wear us down, but to fuel our fire instead.”
“My involvement in metal has only strengthened my relationship with my feminine side,” says Kayla Dixon, vocalist for Oregon doom mainstays Witch Mountain. Her strong, soulful pipes breathed new life into the project when she joined the band in 2015, and thanks to her acting background, her live performances are always steeped in theatricality. Her controlled vocal performances, mane of long hair and wild eyes punch up each sustained note—but when it comes to how she chooses to explore her own femininity in a metal context, the first thing that comes to mind is vulnerability.
“It’s very easy to focus in on the aggressive aspect of metal and throw everything else out, which is what many musicians do these days,” she explains. “But I think it is the mark of a true artist to be able to embrace both the feminine and masculine aspects of the music. Personally, I’ve recognized over time that feminine qualities are missing from a lot of music in this genre, so I made the decision to view it as a power that I can use to my advantage.”
Portent, the latest album from Minneapolis black metal visionaries False, is already being hailed as one of 2019’s finest recordings. The band’s grandiose, far-reaching compositions embellish black metal’s icy core with visceral emotion and human complexity, and vocalist Rachel’s tormented howls and ferocious roars provide a chilling focal point. Onstage, she is, in a word, terrifying; offstage, she is a gentle and caring soul who thinks deeply about all she encounters. “My femininity is complex beyond even my knowing and will never be changed or influenced by the metal community,” she says. “Being a member of the minority gender in the DIY metal scene has made me very much appreciative of having the privilege of living with the ease of being a cis woman, while also understanding that I am a Gold Metal Olympian in mental gymnastics to have gotten myself to this point… Patriarchy negatively impacts all genders.”
Black metal outliers Eye of Nix are one of the most interesting bands in metal right now, and vocalist Joy Von Spain is a big part of why; her vocals run the gamut from vicious shrieks and hoarse yelps to unexpectedly operatic, Siouxsie-fied gothic splendor. For her part, Von Spain takes both a pragmatic and a cosmic approach to the question of how femininity interlocks with her work as a metal musician. “My reality is that feminine energy is both powerful and subtle, existing outside social judgement and ‘either/or’ dichotomies created by patriarchal religions; we can become anything on stage,” she says. “To get more into the different veins I see in metal, the stream of Goddess worship present has a place for maidens, mothers, and crones to thrive. The nihilist or depressive stream acknowledges no gender. The mythological streams have places for all kinds of expression.”
Ithaca have rapidly climbed through the ranks of the U.K.’s heavy music scene with their sharp, ambitious strain of metallic hardcore—captured on this year’s excellent debut The Language of Injury—and tempetuous live performances. Vocalist Djamila Azzouz has also made waves offstage by taking exactly zero shit from misogynistic metal dummies, and vocally decrying the sexism she and other have lobbed at them. When she was younger, she went out of her way to look like “one of the guys,” but says she still wasn’t accepted: “Why did I bother? My vagina had me at a disadvantage regardless of my fucking Dickies pants or Carhartt shorts.” In the end, she decided that it wasn’t worth tampering down her own personality in exchange for a few grudging scene points. “[Ithaca] actively present ourselves in a subversive way because we don’t want to look like a metalcore or hardcore band,” she explains. “Glitter? Check. Lipstick? Check. Miniskirts and dresses? Check. Multi-colored confetti? Check. I’m much more comfortable with presenting myself in a hyper-femme way on stage these days because that’s exactly who I am. Anyone who thinks I’m less of an artist or less of a member of the hardcore scene can fuck off.”
Sonja may be brand new, but they’re already vying for the title of Philadelphia’s newest heavy metal heroes. The trio feature the talents of guitarist and vocalist Melissa Moore, who was previously involved in a number of other projects, including USBM legends Absu; but is now lazer-focused on bringing Sonja (as well as her queer metal-themed clothing company, Toxic Femme) to life. “Beauty and death are fundamental aesthetic elements in the music I perform,” she says. “King Diamond and Mercyful Fate really opened my eyes to possibilities in metal that center around death and darkness with acknowledgement of feminine energies. I felt the same way about ’90s black metal, especially with its affinity to nature and haunting misanthropic melodies. I mean, that’s how I experienced the music, but there is no shortage of misogyny from the people involved. We live in an anti-feminine world.”
“In being feminine I have often felt, in many ways, the antithesis of the metal world,” Serena Cherry, vocalist for genre-busting firebrands Svalbard, says. The band’s ultra-political lyrics and cocktail of epic crust, dark hardcore, and melodic black metal set them apart from their peers in the U.K. hardcore community, and Cherry’s forceful vocals are perfect tool to deliver their militant message. Cherry credits her experience sharing stages with other women in bands with changing how she felt about presenting herself—and the first time she wore a skirt on stage, it felt like an act of defiance.
“Sometimes that’s what it takes to liberate you: seeing other women doing what they want,” she explains. “Their presence in the metal scene made me grow significantly more comfortable with my own femininity… Now I relish the opportunity to represent myself as a feminine artist, to look as girlish as possible in photoshoots, to wear skirts and make-up, because anyone who feels that being feminine discredits a lady’s presence in the world of metal needs to be challenged by our unashamed presence. I will never let a scene make me feel as though I need to hide my body away to prove my worth again.”
Where many musicians have had to work overtime to find space for their femininity within metal’s confines, others have found freedom. According to Body Void’s Will Ryan, metal gave them the courage to explore their feminine side in a way that they felt they didn’t have access to in their day-to-day life. The crushing doom trio’s lyrics are intensely personal, running the gamut of queerness, depression, and gender to anti-fascist action. Ryan says that the band’s focus on identity makes it easier to create needed space to think about these kinds of questions. “Without metal I don’t think I would have had a space to explore my femininity,” they explain. “As someone who won’t ever ‘pass’ as anything but male I feel this cultural resistance not to present as femme since I will never ever (according the cishet gaze) even get within the ballpark of idealized feminine beauty or whatever. But with metal that doesn’t feel like the standard. I don’t really feel that pressure as much. It’s a space where I feel comfortable defining gender and gender presentation for myself.”
Gazelle Amber Valentine is the kind of metal role model that an older metal generation would have killed for. Jucifer is, infamously, always on tour, and the duo’s elastic definition of doom can turn from thunderous to fragile on a dime, backed by a perpetual wall of amplifiers. Live, Valentine is a diminutive demon in a minidress, her percolating howls battling with the noise.
“I grew up not knowing about nonbinary genders, and just assuming the words ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ included people like me,” she says. “I also grew up believing that metal was a space I had every right to inhabit, and to alter. I saw that it was male-dominated but, maybe in part stemming from ambivalence about my own gender, didn’t pay attention to barriers around this genre and even the culture of electric guitar playing itself warning me away. I was surprised and disappointed when I did start experiencing backlash for my presence.”
Leila Abdul-Rauf is an enigmatic and perpetually evolving artist, a Bay Area fixture who has worked across multiple metal genres—Hammers of Misfortune, Amber Asylum, Bastard Noise, Vastum—and crafted ethereal soundscapes with her eponymous solo project. According to Abdul-Rauf, her femininity is as fluid as her discography; it took years for her to unpack the internalized misogyny from years in a male-dominated scene and find strength in her own feminine voice.
“Everybody embodies aspects of masculinity and femininity: we all have the potential to be strong, assertive, compassionate, nurturing, and also angry, fragile, hysterical, seductive, violent,” she says. “The underground metal scene worldwide is more diverse than ever, and female/nonbinary voices are louder and more numerous than ever. In this age of increasing hate crimes, authoritarian right-wing governments stripping away civil and reproductive rights, finding our voices—literally, figuratively, or both—is a matter of survival.”