Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"She conducts just like a man!"

Earlier today I posted a link to a wonderful, thoughtful post by Choralgirl called "Little girly gesture language."

I take issue with one of the commenters, however, whose comment is here. You should read the original comment before going on with my response. I'll reproduce part of it here: "The first time I witnessed the writer conducting I remarked to my wife (in a TOTALLY non-sexist manner) that she conducted like a man!...I mean, by this, that there was not the over-compensation that I have seen in most women conductors...Is it possible that the superior woman conductor hangs up her gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space..." (Go read the whole comment - it's not long.)

Let's unpack that, shall we? I should state outright that I am using the following definition of sexism, and that I believe the sexism in the above comment was wholly unintentional.

First of all, it is not possible to say, "She conducted like a man!" in a non-sexist manner. That is an inherently sexist statement. That statement implies that there is a set of characteristics that all male conductors share; and that there is a set of characteristics that either all women conductors share or all women conductors lack. Since the comment was approving, it also implies that the "male" way of conducting is superior to the "female" way of conducting.

Then let's look at the last part. "Is it possible that the superior woman conductor hangs up her gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space..." That, too, is a sexist statement. Nobody suggests that a man should hang up his gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space, because the male gender is considered "normal" in conductors, and in no way a detriment. To suggest that a female conductor should set aside her gender is to suggest that somehow being a woman is a hindrance to good conducting. Why should I have to leave a substantial and integral part of myself behind when I conduct? Everything in my identity, all my past experiences, everything I am, lends strength to my conducting, and that includes the fact that I am a woman.

Finally, I want to address the core of the comment. I understand the meaning behind saying that the women conductors the commenter has seen tend to overcompensate with the size of their gesture in conducting. This actually could lead to a really interesting discussion. So let's have one. Surprise! - once again I disagree. And I think Choralgirl makes my point for me in her original post; she discusses the fact that the same motion will be read different from a man or a woman, and quotes Marin Alsop in Newsweek saying, "When a woman makes a gesture, the same gesture as a man, it's interpreted entirely differently. The thing I struggled with the most was getting a big sound from the brass because you really have to be strong. But if you're too strong, you're a b-i-t-c-h."* My own theory is that when people see a man making a grand, huge gesture, stretching to the limits of his arms, or giving a downbeat so hard his body shakes, they think of him as passionate or dramatic or active. But when they see a woman making the same gesture, they think, "I don't usually see women make those gestures. How weird. That looks awkward - she must be desperate for a bigger sound or something." I think the commenter sees women gesturing in a way he's not used to (let's face it, women are not expected to carry themselves in the same way as men) and thinks "overcompensation." I suppose one could argue that since women are not expected to carry themselves in the same way as men, this leads to some sort of awkwardness when they try to conduct in a strong manner. (I assume that by "overcompensation" the commenter means that the gesture is awkward in some way.) But I don't agree with this argument, and can't say I've seen that sort of thing from any women conductors I've ever worked with.

Finally, I do not mean to say that this commenter is sexist himself, or is not in any way a supportive and loving person to all the women in his life. I am just pointing out that what he said was sexist. I am using him as a cautionary tale as to why you should not try to compliment anyone in your acquaintance by saying they "conduct just like a man!" I am also aware that he did not intend it to be sexist, but as shrub.com points out, your intent does not absolve you. It's kind of like walking around with your fly unzipped. Nobody intends to go around with an unzipped fly, and yet sometimes it happens to the best of us. And when it does, isn't it helpful when someone gently points it out?

Further helpful reading (dealing with issues of racism, not sexism, but in this case with comparable ideas): Vignette 5 and Vignette 6 from www.learningdiversity.com.
*In my experience, usually you can't get the brass to shut up!


  1. Giggling about "can't get the brass to shut up!" :-)

    Hi there--thanks for the link and the thoughtful post. Context for the commenter: I heard "She conducts like a man!" in sort of a tongue-in-cheek way. He's a committed, knowledgeable member of my bass section, with all of whom I have sort of a bantering relationship. I took it as a compliment because it implied transcendence of gender in general. (Goal achieved, in this arena.)

    He's also a bit older than I, and I'm thinking he's experienced the "breakout decades" for women (in business, this looked like brusque women in men's suits with ruffly shirts in the early '80s...).

    I think I'd like to amend this part to remove the gender-specificity altogether, but then it would be my statement, and not his:

    Is it possible that the superior (woman) conductor hangs up (her) gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space, communes with the music and (her) "instrument", and engages them such that they watch for the physical cues they expect.

    From a conductor's perspective, that helps me a great deal; not sure if all choir members will pick up on that signal, though.

    And, while I agree that there's some component of gesture language that comes pre-installed in conductors, training and refinement IS important for clarity and conciseness; excessively floral gestures seem like an ego display to me--more "look at me" than "here's what I want" because they usually muddy the tactus.

    Thanks, Allegra--nice to know that people are listening!

  2. @ Choralgirl:

    You are more diplomatic than I am! :) I still don't think anybody should have to leave their gender behind. I think that "transcendence of gender" is an idea more often suggested to women, but men shouldn't have to either.

    However, I am totally with you on florid gesture being an ego display, and not necessarily musical. If I'm performing for a particularly expansive conductor, I often have to keep reminding myself not to be annoyed or taken aback. "Ack! What was that! No, wait, calm down, they always do that."

    Funny story: someone who works for one of the major US orchestras told me that they received a postcard from a patron complaining that the newly hired conductor's gestures were too tiny, and she wanted them to fire him and get somebody who would conduct more dramatically so she would get her money's worth. !!!

  3. One more pondering about the "transcendence of gender"--I had a conductor once who said that the choir should be a mostly-transparent vehicle for the music (sort of like WonderWoman's jet? ha ha). I guess that's the framework for me--that any aspect of the conductor that draws attention away from the music is counter-productive.

    I would amend it to say that relationship-building is also a component of leadership, and that community-building is even better, but most of that happens off the podium.

    Still processing...

  4. Food for thought. I will say that I think I disagree with part of the definition of sexism that you cite. I think that prejudice=sexism with or without power. I think it is a copout, and kind of hypocritical, for feminists (or any other minority) to claim they can stereotype men, because they don't hold the power. I think we should enforce the same standards for ourselves that we hold others to.

  5. @ Choralgirl:

    I agree that the focus should be on music-making and not on the individual conductor's ego, and I've certainly sung with conductors who were focused only on their ego, and I didn't have a lot of respect for them.

    But I did a research paper a few years ago on women conductors in the 20th century, and one notable thing was how hard they all worked to be invisible up there, and how they were always talking about the conductor should not be the focus, and dressing to be as unremarkable as possible. I think there are dangers in trying to be too invisible as well as being too egocentric, and there's a balance somewhere in between.

  6. @ Kris:

    Well, I do see what you're saying, and the definition does not mean that it's OK for women to be prejudiced against men.

    But the "prejudice plus power" idea is very central to discussions of racism, sexism, etc. The reason it's important to include it is that historical context lends additional weight to actions.

    So the point is that since there is such a long history of men having power over women, a prejudiced motion on the part of a man against a woman plays into institutionalized sexism, and contributes to continuing this long imbalance of power; whereas a prejudiced motion on the part of a woman against a man doesn't play into a historical context, and doesn't perpetuate a power imbalance.

    I just sweated out trying to put together a clear explanation, and then realized that actually that same site does it for me. Did you read past the first paragraph? The second paragraph answers exactly your objections.

    Check it out - I think they say it very well.

  7. Since we've had many arguments about sexism, I feel like I should point out that I agree with you here-- the comment is amazingly sexist. Phew. I mean, there are instances where it might be appropriate to say that a woman does something like a man (walks, talks, I dunno), but it was so bloody obvious that he thought there was something wrong with the way women conduct.

    I was also impressed by your diplomacy :), and I appreciate your making the distinction between a sexist remark (arising from ignorance or obliviousness) and a sexist person.

    And because I'm finding myself disturbingly agreeable, I'll just toss in that I think that, for men, the word "sexist" has an accusatory connotation which naturally inspires defensiveness; it has been used too often as a weapon in the past few decades. I wish there were a term for gender-based obliviousness that didn't have the same sort of baggage, so that we could save "sexist" for the truly heinous stuff. (Similarly, using "racist" to refer to a white person who is awkward around black people, and using the same word to refer to the Klan. Maybe we can call the former "racish"? :)

  8. @ Scott:

    Hey, look at you being all disturbingly agreeable! It's always nice to have backup. :)

    I know what you mean about people getting defensive about "sexist" and "racist" but I think the progressive movement is working hard to bring these issues into the limelight and have people understand the complete and complex definitions of the terms, rather than have knee-jerk reactions. I'd rather keep using them in what I consider a correct manner, and have people slowly come to understand that they're not synonymous w/ "evil," rather than try to come up with a new term that means "unintentionally sexist" vs. "intentionally sexist."

    But, if you want, "That was really oblivious" or (stronger) "That was really offensive" works just as well!

  9. As the one who uttered the sexist statement, "She conducts like a man", I'd like to subcribe to Choralgirl's amendment, and remove the gender from ALL, not just the women, who enter the rehearsal space to conduct. I think Choralgirl does just that when she reaches the podium, although no one, including me, expects her to not be exactly who she is. I reject that, as a man, or you a woman, that THAT has anything to do with communicating music to your choir. I don't think you have to worry about leaving your identity behind by hanging up your gender identity while conducting. CurrentConductor, you had me blushing for awhile, because I truly did not expect to offend anyone; I'm glad you didn't simply attack my whole persona instantly, and you were able to separate your interpretation of my comment from who you thought I might be. However, when I checked out your Short Definition of Sexism, we departed company, alas. It is WAY to convenient to invent a definition of sexism (whoever invented it) that lets the whole female gender off the hook. Sorry, you left me there and erased my blush. You have given yourself license for any sexist thoughts or actions you might, even passingly, commit by claiming a lack of power. I guess I'm a little advanced in age to abide double standards. I'll quote the Short definition: Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege), an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

  10. @ nhmsrory:

    Welcome to the blog!

    We'll have to agree to disagree about how sexism works and what its definition should be. I understand that it's a hard notion to swallow the first time you encounter it, but the "prejudice plus power" concept is a fairly well-established one in discussion of anti-racism, feminism, etc.

    This is not to say that women cannot be extremely prejudiced and insulting and hurtful etc. towards men. But this definition of sexism includes the way it has been institutionalized, enabling women to be hurt without any particular man ever wishing to hurt them, just by the way the system is set up; and because of that system, a prejudiced action by a man towards a woman is not the same as a prejudiced action by a woman towards a man.

    One example: If a woman shouts "Hey, cutie!" at a man on the street, the man is probably not threatened. If a man shouts "Hey, cutie!" at a woman on a street, then because both historically, and possibly personally, the woman's experience has been that men shouting things on the street can lead to further harassment and actual physical harm, it does come across as threatening. Same action...but with the genders swapped, it carries different meaning.

    There's a nice quote on this website:

    "While anyone can have prejudices against anyone else and then discriminate against that person, such behaviour can only be sexist if it comes from the ‘sex‘ which over the years has been placed as superior and uses their power to strengthen and enforce their prejudices…While a female person might be prejudiced against a male person on the basis of sex/gender, perhaps violently and unjustly, this may not strictly be sexism because the female person does not have the assumed support of institutions such as the police or the media behind them. This idea of sexism says that there are many parts of society and the major organisations that run it which in either loud or subtle ways support sexism, and these support what was declared to be the ’superior’ sex/gender."

    I understand these might all be new ideas, and we'll probably just have to agree to disagree.

  11. You're are right, we will have to agree to disagree. I am not new to the concept of ANTI sexism or ANTI racism. As a 60+, I would not like to be placed with the unknowing, uncaring, naive, or (especially) the enemy. And I fear that what you claim as well-established in the discussion of anti-racism/sexism is one established by those of like mind, and not one established in the world of those who believe in your CAUSE, but are not "of you". I would like to post something I posted on ChoralReef; I don't pretend to try to sway you, but I would like to clarify my thoughts to you, as I take this discussion seriously.

    What Are Conductors Made Of?

    • A conductor’s soul must be music.
    • A conductor must have communication skills that embody the orator, or the poet.
    • A conductor must have a personality that embodies the qualities of “charisma”.

    Some might say that a conductor must project “authority”; I contend that any authority ascribed to great conductors comes from the above three qualities only.
    None of the above qualities require a gender (or a racial) identity. The idea that a conductor should “leave their gender” at the door of the rehearsal room does not abrogate the gender of the conductor; it’s merely that the gender is irrelevant, and probably a distraction from the rehearsal.
    This is not to say that those hiring conductors don’t have confused ideas of what qualities are needed for a conductor. These hiring authorities are just people, with the biases and faulty perceptions of people. Mostly, these boards of directors are not musicians. Unfortunately they do make the decisions. The task of prospective conductors, regardless of gender or race, is to project the soul of music, the communication skills of the orator, and the charisma that leaves boards of directors drawn to them.
    Lacking the three qualities, a conductor might have a less than stellar career. Some might acknowledge their lack of the three qualities; and some might ascribe their lot to gender bias, racial bias, or any number of tangential and irrelevant things. It seems counterproductive for a conductor to be focused on anything other than the qualities and skills required to be effective in their job. No one likes unfair bias, but it exists. We choose what we want to be our essence; we can choose an essence of music, or the essence of a freedom-fighter. Our lives aren’t long enough to do both.
    Hopefully you’ll be able to smile at a little poke; a dose of sexism to make the hair of both genders curl.

    What Are Little Boys Made Of?

    What are little boys made of?
    What are little boys made of?
    Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails,
    And that are little boys made of.

    What are little girls made of?
    What are little girls made of?
    Sugar and spice and all things nice,
    And that are little girls made of.

    What are young men made of?
    What are young men made of?
    Sighs and leers, and crocodile tears,
    And that are young men made of.

    What are young women made of?
    What are young women made of?
    Ribbons and laces, and sweet pretty faces,
    And that are young women made of.

    Original poem by Robert Southey

  12. @ nhmsrory:

    When I conduct, in order to emotionally connect to the music, I must draw on all my past experiences and my whole self.
    In order to bring the music alive, I try to connect it to the lives of my musicians, not separate it.

    I do not see music as some sort of weird separate pure thing totally unrelated to the rest of reality. I do not try to become an empty vessel when I approach music. I try to fulfill the whole intent of the composer, but to do that I must bring everything I have learned from all my past experiences, and all the skills I have, everything that makes me. And gender is part of that. I don't mean that in rehearsal I am going to say, "As a woman, I think we should do this!" all the time. I don't think that as a woman, I would necessarily ever make a different musical choice than a man or a trans person. And certainly I need to leave behind the concerns of the day, such as whether the toilet is leaking. But to suggest that anyone should leave their gender behind is to suggest that their identity needs to change in order to conduct well, which I disagree with. Would you suggest a soprano try to leave her gender behind in order to sing? Why then should a conductor? Identity is where passion comes from.

    As for your quote:

    We choose what we want to be our essence; we can choose an essence of music, or the essence of a freedom-fighter. Our lives aren’t long enough to do both.

    Clearly then Verdi did not have "an essence of music." That whole Nabucco thing? And then that seat in parliament after Italy's unification? Sheesh. And we can't include Beethoven as having an "essence of music"; or Shostakovich, Britten, John Adams, Kurt Weill, Michael Tippett, John Cage, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan (almost any folk singer, come to think of it), Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson, any punk artist, Public Enemy, Mos Def, K'naan, Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo, or the Dixie Chicks. Nope, no musicians there, since they all have the souls of freedom-fighters. Surely it couldn't be possible that the strength of their music comes out of the power of their convictions.

    Oh, and Martin Luther, come to think of it.

    Seriously, entire musical genres have come out of freedom-fighting. And the history of the world has been changed by singers - just look at South Africa. Freedom-fighting and music are by no means at odds with one another; they go skipping down the halls of history hand in hand.

    (How ironic that I am in the middle of a very successful concert series with my quartet Anthology titled "Songs of Protest and Social Unrest.")

  13. Hi,
    I discovered your post just after I'd spent some time responding to the same comment on Choral Reef, so I've linked yours into my discussion. Interesting that we picked up on similar points, but took slightly different tacks in response. Anyway, my post is here: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/?q=gendergesture if you're interested.


  14. @ liz:

    Thanks for pointing me to your post - it was great! And you are also now added to my Google Reader. :)