Where are all the men?: Doing feminist research

Trier-Bieniek_blogimageAs I began the process of marketing my first book, “Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos”, which addresses the ways women have used music as a means to heal following trauma as well as challenges the pop culture portrait of women, I found myself on the receiving end of the same question.  In interviews or with bloggers, as well as people who commented on Amazon and people who found my work on Facebook, all asked the same questions: “I don’t understand why you didn’t study men?”  While sometimes amusing, and often times frustrating, (i.e the person who called me a “misanderist” on Facebook), this question seems to follow a researcher whenever she/he works primarily with women.

Feminist researchers have always been quick to point out that exploring women’s lives doesn’t mean that men are unnecessary or expendable.  Rather, it is often the opposite.  As Dorothy Smith pointed out in her seminal book, The Everyday World as Problematic, the place of women in research has been regulated to the proverbial “Other.”  Women’s lives, stories and experiences, historically have come from the point of view of men.  As such, “Why didn’t you study men?” becomes the knee-jerk reaction to studies focused on women.  This logic assumes that, unless the study addresses women-specific issues like reproductive health or women’s anatomy, a study which only looked at women thus must be anti-men.  This logic also extends to any study based in race, sexual orientation, class, nationality etc. and is a particular problem for feminist-based research.

I would venture that, most of the time, feminist research simply wants to honor and respect the stories of the people we are studying.  Standpoint theory asks that we place the experiences of women at the center of our studies.  With the women I interviewed for “Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman” I saw my job as the courier, the transporter.  My position was to honor their stories, to make the interview experience about them and what they needed.

Which is why I see feminist research as having nothing to do with a “men vs. women” situation. Many of the women I spoke with often talked about being attracted to Tori’s music because the songs were from another woman’s perspective, they were poetic and asked the listener to assign their own meaning.  Many women discussed coming to Tori Amos’s music during a time when they were vulnerable.  Overcoming sexual assault, domestic violence, eating disorders, miscarriage, body mutilation as well as working through the process of coming out were all common themes.  Because Tori sings about all of this, and because she is open about her own rape and experiences with miscarriage, female fans flock to her.  While men in music were discussed it was to address emotions, many women spoke about turning to the music of male artists when they felt angry, full or rage or apathetic because, they felt, men are “allowed” to express those emotions in their music.  Experiencing Tori’s music opened up the door to feel these emotions from the point of view of another woman.  Of course this begs the question of what emotions are acceptable to men, masculinity and “feminine” music is certainly an area of future study.  Could men have a similar reaction to her music?  Sure.  And I hope someday someone will write a book about that.  But there is something that feels wrong about first having to defend why women were primarily studied. It’s like training for a 10k only to discover that the race is a fifty-yard dash.

Perhaps this reaction is less surprising when we look at the ways pop culture presents women, generally regulating them to the position of crazed fan a la “Bieber Fever” or as catty and constantly fighting, i.e. the Housewives franchise.  Further, women who are singer/songwriters and performers are hard to come by in Top 40 music.  If they are successful (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga come to mind) one doesn’t need to look far to see that their marketing, management, record label, production etc. are generally dominated by men.  As Marion Leonard addressed in her book Gender in the Music Industry, this top-down misrepresentation of female performers is what leads to the consistent gender stereotypes plaguing women.  All of this has a direct effect on female fans.  Women who are consuming music are doing so through the male gaze, leading to an acceptance of gender inequality.  Further, it is rare for studies of fans to focus exclusively on women.  Why?  I am not sure.  Women are growing in the ranks of sci-fi fans, action movie fans (see Neil King’s fantastic piece on the film “The Heat”) and are a large population of consumers for things like music, art and entertainment.

There needs to be more studies of women’s experiences with pop culture as well as studies which examine stereotypes of men.  Perhaps there also needs to be more practice of public sociology, of getting our work out into the world and training others to get past the simple questions.  Or, maybe I am wrong and I am set to spend my days defending my choice to study women.  I hope this isn’t the case because I think most researchers who prepare for the 10k like the challenge of the race.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, PhD, is the author of Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos (Scarecrow Press 2013).  She is currently co- editing the forthcoming book Gender and Pop Culture (Sense) with Patricia Leavy and is the editor of the forthcoming Feminist Theory and Pop Culture (Sense). Adrienne been published in Qualitative Research and Humanity and Society and is a regular contributor to blogs and websites seeking advice on healing after trauma.  She has been featured on NPR-WGVU and in the Orlando Sentinel and has been a guest columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.  Adrienne is currently an assistant professor of sociology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.

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