By Maren Hancock, PhD Candidate (ABD)
Department of Women’s Studies, York University
This study was initially presented at the PCA/ACA National Conference in San Antonio, Texas, February 2011.
Gimmick: something which is not serious or of real value that is used to attract people’s attention or interest temporarily, especially to make them buy something 
This study examines how professional female DJs in North America are often considered to be either tokens or gimmicks, both within DJ culture specifically, and the public imaginary in general. In demonstrating how female DJs are imagined according to the token/gimmick binary, I also seek to emphasize some resulting strategies that female DJs employ to either use each stereotype to their advantage, or reject them both altogether. This research, which forms part of my dissertation on the experiences of female DJs in Canada, takes an interdisciplinary feminist approach from the insider perspective of a professional DJ in order to demonstrate how female DJs can provide popular culture with more positive and multi-faceted representations of women and technology. More importantly, I am hoping to give a glimpse into the very different ways that women negotiate their identities as DJs.
I will proceed by briefly discussing how my own experiences as a professional DJ have led me to be keenly interested in this topic, and then I will provide a cursory overview of the academic research on gender and DJ culture. I follow by demonstrating how female DJs must almost always contend with being represented and perceived as either tokens or gimmicks. I continue by highlighting some resulting obstacles female DJs face as a result of their gendered and most often negative representations by looking at some specific examples from the experiences of three differently situated female DJs. I intend to show the different ways in which these women are confronted with the token/gimmick binary, and the subsequent strategies that they employ to negotiate the barriers presented to them by their gendered representations.
This study draws from the extensive literature review that I conducted for my dissertation, my own experiences as a professional DJ for the past fifteen years, and the experiences of dozens of my female peers. Some of the findings are also informed partially by an in-depth, qualitative trial study that I conducted in 2010 with two female and two male DJs from Toronto.
The small amount of academic research on gender and DJ culture affirms that males dominate as gatekeepers and industry players (Straw, 2006; Brewster & Broughton, 2010); however, feminist scholars such as Rebekah Farrugia (2012) and Tara Rodgers (2010) have demonstrated that there has been a significant increase in female DJs in North American during the last two decades (1995-2015). This increase in female DJs has occurred in tandem with advances in technology, resulting in unprecedented access to inexpensive and user-friendly DJ equipment, digital music, and the Internet and social media as places for women to network and promote themselves (Marsh, 2002; Katz, 2006). As a result of these shifts over the past decade, it has become considerably easier for women to conceive of becoming professional DJs.
Despite the growing number of women DJs, and the fact that they have always maintained a tenuous presence in DJ culture (Rodgers, 2010; Hancock, forthcoming 2016), women are still marginalized as professional DJs in multiple ways. Not only are we presently marginalized, we are also always being erased from history (Hancock, forthcoming 2016). In fact, the bigger project to which this study belongs is born of a deep dissatisfaction with the existing literature on DJ culture. For example, the New York Times bestselling book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is celebrated as the definitive history of the DJ, yet authors Brewster and Broughton’s discussion of female DJs is limited to two pages, buried within a four-hundred-page book. Indeed, the authors seem to seal the fate of women in DJ culture by issuing definitive statements such as: “[i]n Djing’s 94 years, women have been largely frozen out of the picture, with precious few exceptions” (Brewster & Broughton, 2006, 277).
I have a problem with these kinds of statements from male historians of DJ culture. While they seem to portray a sympathy for the sexism that impedes women from taking their rightful place at the turntables, their insistence on the absence of women from DJ history works to re-inscribe this absence. Alternatively, researchers such as Brewster and Broughton could (and should) be chronicling female DJs who did and do exist, as myself and other feminist historians of DJ culture have been able to do. However, despite my outrage with Brewster and Broughton’s tendency to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution, they are correct in a general sense to envision DJ and electronic music culture as lacking the participation of women that would put them on par with men in terms of numbers and industry success, mimicking the general popular music scene that predominantly lacks female instrumentalists.
Before specifically looking at the construction of female DJs as either tokens or gimmicks, it is useful to undertake a cursory examination of the foundational ways in which DJ culture works to exclude women. Certainly, the small amount of research on the subject of gender in DJ culture affirms that males dominate as gatekeepers and industry players (Straw,1994; Zeleke, 2004; Hutton, 2006), and my own research and professional work as a DJ corresponds with these studies (Hancock, 2010; 2012; forthcoming 2016). It is also useful to recall that the concept of sex segregation refers to the idea that different occupations are seen as more suited to one gender than another (Kimmel, 2011) and this is indeed corroborated by the recent literature on gender and DJing that I have reviewed.
For example, Straw (1997) demonstrates that women are often shut out from DJing and DJ culture because men are considered gatekeepers to culture and thus more “suited” to the job of DJ. This concept also demonstrates the ways in which DJing is homosocially constructed:
If the worlds of club disc jockeys…seem characterized by shared knowledges which exclude the would-be entrant, this functions not only to preserve the homosocial character of such worlds, but to block females from the social and economic advancement which they may offer. Straw,10
Moreover, considering how DJing is also positioned as a technical skill which ever-increasingly relies on familiarity and access to technology, the ways in which technology and technological pursuits have been socially constructed as male terrain become apparent, as does the negative impact on the perception of women as DJs: “[m]asculinist discourses of technology continue to prevail and impede women from becoming more involved as creators and users of technology” (Farrugia, 2004, 4). Farrugia’s findings echo those of feminist scholars researching women’s access to technology more generally (Wajcman, 2004), and more specifically, such as with regards to gender and digital gameplay (Jenson & de Castell, 2008).
Where My Ladies At?
The homosocial construction of DJ culture results in the public perception that it is unproblematic for a male to be a DJ, but problematic for a female to be a DJ. This problematic is dealt with by assigning the opposing binary categories of the token and the gimmick to the identity of female DJs, with these binary categories seemingly based on skill level. In fact, I would argue that all female DJs are viewed as gimmicks until they prove their skills – at which point, if their skills are deemed worthy, they can then be viewed as tokens. Yet, as Farrugia states, “the notion of two clearly defined approaches from which to present oneself as a DJ does not apply to men. It is assumed that when men are on stage it is because of their DJ abilities” (2004, 183). The difficulty for women to be seen as, and to see themselves as, DJs, is easily situated within the theoretical framework of symbolic interactionism, which is concerned with “the sorts of meanings individuals give to their environment, [or] how people learn their culture” (Osborne & Van Loon, 78; see also Charon, 2001, 27-28). This framework can help us understand how a lack of female DJs to model oneself after can result in a lack of females pursuing DJing as a hobby and especially as a paid profession.
My own personal experience of growing up as a “club kid” and spending several nights each week in nightclubs from age fifteen onward points toward a significant obstacle to women who want to be DJs: the fact that it might not even occur to them to pursue DJing, given that they may never see a DJ in female form. Female DJs’ lack of visibility is becoming less and less of a problem, and certainly my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, has seen a vast increase in female DJs since my clubbing days there from 1990-96. I can not recall having ever seen a female DJ in Calgary during that time; however, I now know that there were a few key female DJs in Calgary during the 1980s and 1990s, and I discuss their experiences, and the experiences of other Canadian female DJs, in my forthcoming dissertation.
Using my own experience as an example, it would seem unsurprising that I ended up being a DJ, given how my father owned a Radio Shack when I was a little girl, and I was in love with my parents’ and sisters’ record collections, the record player, and it’s attendant grand, fabric covered speakers that occupied our living room. I recall being particularly taken with the opaque, red coloured vinyl that played the Star Wars theme. As I grew up, I became obsessed with collecting music and making mix tapes during my ‘tweens and teens, until the wonderful gift of my older sister’s ID allowed me access to clubbing and dancing at age 15. After Calgary, I moved to Victoria, BC in 1996 and then Vancouver, BC in 1998, and still didn’t encounter any female DJs. Despite hanging by the DJ booth in clubs throughout the entire 1990s and watching the (always male) DJ mix (a practice which is called “trainspotting” in DJ culture) while bugging him incessantly about which tracks he was playing, it never occurred to me that I could or should also be a DJ. I worked as a Go-Go dancer at a Goth bar in Victoria as well, and yet still it didn’t occur to me that I would be a much better DJ than the grumpy dude that DJ’d there who didn’t mix and had weak programming skills.
Mavis Bayton confirms my suspicion that if I had witnessed one or more female DJs in the flesh during my formative club-kid years during the 1990s then I may have considered myself to be suitable for the role of the DJ: “the lack of female role models makes it difficult for girls to identify with performers and picture themselves in such active roles” (Bayton, in Farrugia, 2004, 11). At present, we have seen a vast increase in women and girls taking to the decks, and subsequently, an increase in the visibility of female DJs. Yet, presuming that women wanting to DJ are no longer completely cock-blocked (pun intended) by a lack of role models, they are still subject to many deterrents in their pursuit of a DJ career. For example, the frustration, anger and exhaustion one experiences when constantly battling sexism and misogyny – or, more specifically, the tendency for female DJs to be stereotyped as either tokens or gimmicks in the DJ workplace.
The Gimmick and the Token
It is important to examine female DJs in relation to the concepts of the gimmick and token because the primary academic sources on gender and DJ culture, while containing much corroborating research, do not necessarily make this relationship explicit. I find this lack of explication surprising, as I argue that women DJs, when considered at all, are almost always regarded as a token or gimmick. Furthermore, the assignation of either category is directed by judgments accorded not just to a female DJs’ abilities, but also to how female DJs present themselves. If a female DJ fits the hegemonic mould of “good-looking” and conveys a conventional “sex appeal” to the public, then she is at great risk of being regarded as a gimmick, regardless of whether or not she is skilled at her craft. It is assumed that she is only being “allowed” to DJ because of her gender being an anomaly in the DJ workplace, thus, the sentiment “she only got the gig because she’s a girl”. This idea is widespread and easily located on the Internet.
DJ Rhiannon is an excellent example of a highly-skilled, vastly experienced DJ who is still continually regarded as a gimmick due to the pervasiveness of sexism in Western society. Because she has appeared in Playboy and is extremely attractive in a conventional and heteronormative way, she has invoked scathing and downright hateful criticism, as seen in the examples provided below. You can click on each one if you’d like to read them more clearly (in all of their misogynistic circle-jerk glory):
Clearly, the nature of the comments are based on Rhiannon’s gender and her media-manufactured status as a sex symbol.
The main issue espoused by the criticism directed at DJ Rhiannon is that she is a gimmick, regardless of her skill, talent and expertise being on full display in the video clips being commented on. DJ Rhiannon was a professional DJ for over five years before posing for Playboy in order to further her career and pay her rent. And, despite where you stand on selling sex as an artist, the derogatory implications behind the definition of the word “gimmick” appear starkly unfair when one is talking about a person at the top of her profession who is widely applauded amongst her contemporaries such as Larry Tee and Tiesto, both of whom she has played with, and both of whom granted her accolades.
Again, the dictionary definition for ‘gimmick’ is as follows: “something which is not serious or of real value that is used to attract people’s attention or interest temporarily, especially to make them buy something”. As I have stated, it seems that if a woman is a skilled DJ and good at her craft, it is assumed that she is being allowed to DJ despite being a girl, and therefore she needs to downplay her femininity if she hopes to be “taken seriously”. Failure to do so means having to constantly confront this attitude, as we see in this example of some of the comments people have posted on DJ Rhiannon’s youtube channel:
In case the comment is hard to read, it states:
“bullshit mixing…she didn’t have any jobs DJing until she showed her tits in playmate…now all of a sudden she’s opening for fedde le grande and stuff…same thing as a goddamn hooker if you ask me. NO skill involved!!! but thats todays world for you…hope you die in a terrible accident!” – “Beatwolf”
This comment was posted on a video of Rhiannon deejaying, and I must mention that in the video she is demonstrating considerable skill and pulling off a very tight mix. Moreover, DJ Rhiannon was booking a great many high profile gigs prior to posing for Playboy Mexico (and doing her interview with them in Spanish, because she is fluent in it). So, the comment is not factually accurate nor warranted in any way.
When it comes to cases such as this, DJ Rhiannon sometimes employs the strategy of approving the comment, letting it stand, and then sitting back and allowing her fans and colleagues to defend her, which they do profusely in a variety of online settings such as Facebook and Youtube. She is also careful to frequently record live mixes and post them online, directing so-called “haters” to listen to her mixes that demonstrate her considerable skill and talent.
What I see happening here is a sort of policing of the representations of female DJs. It seems that what is supposed to happen, what is being expected, is that one focuses on increasing their skill and decreasing their “sex appeal” by carefully monitoring the latter. If this is accomplished, then one can move from away from being a gimmick towards being a token. The concept of “the token” is widely discussed in social science literature; and here I am drawing on not just the dictionary definition provided at the beginning of this post, but also sociologist Michael Kimmel’s definition of “token”:
[T]hose people who are admitted into an organization but who are recognizably different from the large majority of the members of the organization…Tokens are rarely seen as similar to others in the group. Thus, tokens have a double experience of visibility – they are hyper-visible as members of their “category” but they are completely invisible as individuals. (198)
To illustrate the idea of the token I would like to present another example, that of DJ L’Oqenz, whom I interviewed as part of the aforementioned trial study on DJing and gender that I conducted in 2010.
DJ L’oqenz’s perspective was heavily impacted by her experience as a female DJ, and she spoke at length about how she had to struggle to be viewed as a DJ first, one whose identity is not defined primarily by gender as opposed to skill and sound (the latter being the conditions by which male DJs are assessed):
[I]t’s just, an uphill battle but at the same time again as a female I try to look at it from a perspective of I’m a DJ, but I’m a DJ first and I come to the table with what I do and what I got and then you can kind of talk to me about what you think and I guess the worst kind of compliment that someone can give is that you’re good for a girl. (DJ L’Oqenz, personal interview, 2010)
The interview revealed that for DJ L’Oqenz, the realization that she had become a skilled DJ worthy of respect for her craft occurred when she was asked to be a resident DJ alongside two established and respected male DJs: “When I ended up doing that night, with those guys, that’s when I realized, I can hang with the boys. Like I can really hold my own with the boys.” For DJ L’Oqenz, making it as a DJ implicitly meant making it despite her gender.
My last example is that of Dani Deahl, a Chicago DJ who tours regularly, runs a very popular blog, and is involved in different high-profile and corporate and music industry events.
Like DJ Rhiannon and DJ L’Oqenz, Dani Deahl is very articulate, and she also works as a music journalist. So it is not surprising that when she is confronted with the token/gimmick binary, her strategy is to write about it frankly on her blog and invite discussion. I follow her blog, so of course I was all eyes in December 2010 when Deahl posted a blog entry discussing how she was criticized by a fan for being a poor role model by posing in a slightly sexy manner and revealing “side boob”. Here is an excerpt:
Today I got a question that was pretty provocative, one that I swear I thought I was never going to get. It didn’t upset me, but it touched upon a subject that as a female artist, I’ve had to answer to from multiple directions over the years. It was also phrased in an accusatory manner, which I actually found interesting, especially given how I feel I present myself publicly….“Do you think you are doing good by posting pictures of yourself rockin side boob & half neked?I mean, why do people feel the need to sell sex? What image are u portraying to people w.o model figures?” (Deahl, 2010)
As mentioned, Deahl’s response to the fan’s questioning of the photo was to talk about it on her blog, display the photo and the criticism, and then invite discussion. Here is another insightful excerpt from Deahl’s comments, but I recommend you check out the whole blog post:
My perspective is changing. Where I used to say, I am an artist first, female second, I now say – I am a female artist. My images have started to reflect that, and I see no problem with it. It is an extension of who I am as a DJ and producer and me embracing a part of myself I never gave myself permission to in the past. But there are always naysayers. Women are always scrutinized for their sexual image, whether it is present or not. This is not a new topic nor a new discussion. (Deahl, 2010)
Deahl’s posting proved to be an effective strategy, as within a few hours there were seventeen responses to her blog, including mine, and they were all predominantly supportive. Her comment above is interesting, as it could be argued that she is trying to get around the token/gimmick binary by dissolving the line between them and asserting that both her gendered self and her individuality as a DJ are actually inseparable.
I use these three female DJs as examples due to the different ways that they negotiate their gendered identities as DJs. DJ Rhiannon plays upon the concept of the female DJ as gimmick, again by marketing herself as sexy and somewhat outrageous. She plays into the sex symbol stereotype because she can; she fits into society’s hegemonic idea of what is sexy and gorgeous. Therefore, this strategy of using the construct of the gimmick as an advantage is not available to many female DJs, but it is available DJ Rhiannon, and her main motivation in doing so is to earn more notoriety and attention as a DJ in order to compete in a highly competitive industry.
While DJ Rhiannon does play into the gimmick construct, she also is vigilant about pushing back against it by being an excellent DJ. DJ Rhiannon’s strategy for getting around the negativity she incurs reminds me of “Ginger Rogers” syndrome: she works her butt off to make sure that she is better than the guys (as Ginger Rogers had to do everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels) and that there is ample and easily accessed online evidence of her mixing live.
It could be argued that DJ L’Oqenz occupies the other end of the spectrum, by doing her best to modulate her gender in order to blend in and become “one of the guys” so that they will take her seriously and grant her access. In exchange, she has to be careful to downplay her gender and sexuality, which is somewhat difficult to do as a DJ because playing music is almost inherently sexy, and as a DJ, you are somewhat of a performer; or at the very least, you are already being looked at just as a DJ, add the layer of “woman” and you’re being “doubly” looked at, if you will. I chose Dani Deahl as a third example, again, because she seems to articulate an attempt to blend the binaries of the gimmick and the token by refusing both constructs, or at least trying to resist the pressure to assimilate herself to one or the other.
Conclusion: Making Herstory in the Present
I will conclude by briefly discussing why I think it’s so important for female DJs to try and overcome the gimmick/token binary that seems so entrenched in DJ culture. If we can have a hand in defining our own representations, then maybe we can develop stronger and more diverse representations of female DJs until we are no longer an exception to a rule – and, just as importantly, we can then try and reclaim space for ourselves in the history of DJ culture.
In “Grunge, Riot Grrrl and the Forgetting of Women in Popular Culture”, Catherine Strong uses the example of the way music fans remember “grunge” as a predominantly masculine genre, when historically it was not, in order to illustrate how “women are generally written out of historical accounts of music in order to re-inscribe the creative dominance of men in the field” (398). We certainly are currently witnessing the re-inscribing of male creative dominance within DJ history, as the example from Brewster and Brougthon that I gave earlier demonstrates. For these reasons we have to fight to construct our own non-binary identities of ourselves as female DJs in order to claim our rightful places in DJ history, and the current culture.
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