[Smt-talk] Gender Terminology in Music Theory

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Wed Apr 30 12:13:44 PDT 2014

Obviously an issue that many feel quite strongly about, and rightly so. I would not presume as a man, and thus someone who has never been the target of this kind of prejudice, to claim to understand how women feel about this. What I would offer, however, is some strategic advice—from one who cannot stand the terms in question and never uses them, even in an apologetic under-the-table way.

Combatting this usage by taking about your offendedness (or therefore about the offensiveness of the terms), though it may be accurate, is poor strategy, because it hands a weapon to the enemy, the one who would continue to use the sexist terminology. It is, in fact, a strategy of weakness, because it admits to that enemy that this language puts you in a highly charged emotional state, which is something that that enemy will probably find gratifying and then can use to control you.

In my opinion, a better strategy for discouraging these terms is to focus on what appallingly bad terminology they are. Michael Morse's observation (though he is, sadly, no longer with us on the list) is useful here. These terms are not direct descriptors like "fast" or "red", but are ascriptors—and not literal ones. So they are metaphors, which means their only justification would be that they capture some properties of the things being characterized (phrases, cadences) that are difficult to capture otherwise. And here's what to my mind pulls the rug out from under these metaphors:

Anyone who thinks there is (or ever was) a useful correlation between "masculine" and "strong", and between "feminine" and "weak" has simply not been paying attention.

In other words, as metaphors, they are a disaster; they do not capture what they purport to capture. If you want to characterize cadences or phrases as strong or weak, do so (although these are also metaphors, and, in some ways, almost as problematic). But to continue to use the M- and F-words for this purpose simply marks you as someone who isn't thinking very clearly about the language you're using.

Then if we can do away with terms that also offend a lot of people, so much the better. But I don't think the people that still need to be persuaded to drop the terms will do so because they are met with an outraged "How dare you!" That response just eggs them on...


PS By the way, if we ARE going to talk about offendedness, why aren't more men piping up about the loathsomeness of the cultural stereotyping as "strong"? What if you as a man have spent your life trying to figure out how to be sensitive, intuitive, open to new perspectives on things, good at reading people, diplomatic, nurturing of loved ones, friends, and students, and so on? To then be confronted with the stereotyped expectation that a man must be a thug/moose/Neanderthal? Women have been the victims of far more societal prejudice and discrimination, obviously, but a big part of society's ills and crimes may well stem from its inability to conceive of man as anything more than gangsters-below-the-skin. But that's another story...

> Like "sexist," the attributions "masculine" and "feminine" are ascriptive, not descriptive. Adjectives have no direct prescriptive power in reality, despite their undeniable if merely occasional affective influence; that matter was sorted out in 1324 by William of Ockham. Today, 1991 is every bit as much ancient history as 1324.
> MW Morse
> z. Zeit freier Kunstler

Prof. Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Director of Graduate Studies
Office: 410 Baird Hall
Director, Slee Institute for Tonal Harmony (420 Baird)

Mail address:
Music Department, 220 Baird Hall, University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260

cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Office Phone: 716-645-0639
Department Fax: 716-645-3824

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