Classical music and the sexism of critics

While some people in the U.S. have been focusing on the disparate treatment of women in the workplace — specifically, the newsroom — over the last week, another inequality has broken out in the open in Europe: Women in classical music, NPR reports.

In separate reviews of Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, five different male writers used stocky, chubby, puppy-fat, scullery maid, unsightly, and unappealing to describe her “performance.”

On the NPR blog, Deceptive Cadence, Anastasia Tsioulcas writes

Of course, double standards exist across all kinds of media and entertainment. And it would be seductively easy to dismiss this as an unfortunate but distant U.K. phenomenon, except for the fact that classical music, pretty much above and beyond every other musical genre, depends on transnational crosscurrents between artists, managers, labels, audiences and critics.

That’s one reason these reviews are so dispiriting. I’m sure that certain people will question my own motives, but I find it astounding that across five widely read publications, not a single editor saw fit to go back to the writer and challenge what he had written. Yes, visuals matter — even more now, in the age of live broadcasts — but these critics have seized this as license to forget why anybody shows up at an opera house to begin with.

“The fact that we are having this conversation in 2014,” she says, “honestly makes me wonder if classical music doesn’t deserve its stereotype of being silly, reactionary, outdated and out of step with the contemporary world.”

One NPR commenter blames classic music promoters and artists.

“Classical music does itself a disservice when it tries to sell itself on the perceived hotness of its stars. It bothers me so much to see string players posing nude on their album covers, with their violins in front of their breasts. I want my preferred art form to be above all that.”

  • MrE85

    “I want my preferred art form to be above all that.”
    Tough luck, longhair. Sex sells everything, even classical music.

  • Mark in Ohio

    It is unfortunate, but it is a fact in most areas of our society. Remember that it goes both ways, many use their looks to gain more exposure. I try to be even-handed in the way I deal with people, but will admit to checking out an artist on YouTube because of their looks. Also, Is there anyone here who DOESN’T know someone who has either vamped or sob-storied a cop to get out of a ticket? As an average-looking white male, my chances of getting away with that are somewhere between slim and none.

    • Jen

      So you’re saying sexism is ok because some women use sex/their looks to gain advantages?

      • Mark in Ohio

        No, what I’m saying is that people only complain about an -ism when they can’t make an advantage of it. While it may be valid to criticize the critics mentioned above for spending too much time on less important parts of the performance and not enough time on her singing technique, we wouldn’t have heard anything had they commented on how beautiful she was. A performance artist is by definition in a field where they should expect to be on display, and thus must accept some criticism of their appearance as a part of their performance. Had a male artist been similarly criticized, would there have been the same outcry?

        There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that the viewpoints may have been sexist and calling the authors out on that, but I find the arguments against them equally sexist in a different way. I don’t mind people saying that that, “hey, these commentaries are kind of sexist,” but I also don’t mind that they didn’t come back and issue some sort of retraction or revision. I may or may not chose to read their columns in the future, but that decision is mine, and is affected by a number of factors.

        It bothers me the level to which we expect perfection of thought today. You are also dealing with people, inherently inconsistent and each with their own foibles. I don’t take any critic’s views as some form of perfection, regardless of where they publish their opinions. I think that we need more tolerance of different viewpoints and fewer people jumping on the “thought police” bandwagon. I think that this intolerance of thought is one of the biggest divisive features in our society today, and potentially a very dangerous one.

        • Kassie

          The issues is that the male artist never would have been similarly criticized. Go find reviews of Pavarotti performances and tell me how many talk nastily about his weight.

          This isn’t about tolerance of viewpoints. When something is offensive, like sexism, we don’t have to be tolerant. We have to be vigilant. Sexism is not acceptable.

          • Mark in Ohio

            I agree that there are double standards, but they cut both ways. While I agree with you that this was sexist, your comment that this is offensive and thus absolutely incorrect and not subject to debate makes my point perfectly. Who determines what is offensive and what is not? THAT is the level of “Thought Policing” that I object to. I have been criticized for not being culturally sensitive. Are you even taking into account that these critics came from Europe, and I’m not sure if all from the same country? Which -ism gets priority? While I believe that they may be backward in their views and/or incompetent in their reviewing, I also have to allow them the freedom to do their jobs for their target audiences. This is no different than allowing speed metal or rap artists to perform despite me not liking the genre. It’s what some people want to hear. I don’t rule the world, and have to allow others to have their opinions and viewpoints.

            When you stomp down with this is absolutely intolerable, you raise peoples’ defenses and eliminate the opportunity to educate and persuade. You’d get farther in the anti-sexism cause by arguing “Hey, these critics wrote more appearance reviews than valid criticisms. I have to question their professionalism and the quality of their work.” After all, it’s the same standard you are were asking them to uphold in their reviews of this singer.

          • Kassie

            I never once said that they shouldn’t be allowed to write. They should be able to go on writing their sexist crap on a blog or twitter or wherever else they can find an audience. I’m saying, and I think the NPR blogger was saying, their editors should not allow this if it isn’t also standard to state this for men also.

            And even if it is standard to criticize a singer of either gender on their weight, it STILL shouldn’t be allowed because it has nothing to do with the performance. Again, this woman isn’t fat! She’s average!

            As for raising people’s defenses, I’m too old for that crap. This isn’t the 1960s. We aren’t just educating people now that women are equal to men. If someone gets their feelings hurt because they are being sexist/racist/homophobic, I’ve got no time for that. I’ll give leeway for things like using incorrect terms around disabilities or not using person first language, but people know better when it comes to sexism and racism.

          • Fluxkit

            Being allowed to do something and having it be a worthwhile idea are two separate things. You can freely hit your head off of your desk, and I might say that that is not such a good thing to do. You may retort, Mark in Ohio, “but who are you to decide what is and is not acceptable?” and I would say that I have no absolute authority. So, if you want to hit your head on the desk, go ahead.

  • Jen

    Do male opera singers get called out for not being whatever the currently defined form of attractive is?

    • Fluxkit

      Music from now on will only be performed in the dark. That way nobody can see other human beings, who will inevitably offend us with their looks in one way or another.

  • Kassie

    Wait, she isn’t even very heavy. I’d put her right in the average category if I’d be describing her body shape. This has more to do with unrealistic expectations and cruel sexism than sex sells.

  • Fluxkit

    It’s not a majority, but there is a very vocal minority that likes to complain (that’s most of what takes up the internet comment boards, anyhow) about female classical performers. If they are too young or attractive, they are attacked for being a distraction. People say they should not dress attractively. But it is no better if the critics deem them unattractive. And there is always a mess of derision for their playing, which in some way is bound to be offensive, a sin perhaps against the gods of proper musical playing. It’s disgusting to me.
    If a man dresses up and wears a nice suit, we don’t hate him for it or call him out for selling himself on his looks. Human beings should be able to both enjoy their physical bodies, their sexuality and their talents, all at the same time. Enough of this stupid puritanical moralizing. If you don’t like a performer for whatever reason, then just don’t listen to them. Nobody is making you.